Banned Book Week: The Giver

Published in 1993, THE GIVER by Lois Lowry is one of the most frequently challenged books in the last two decades. The book climbed to #11 on the ALA’s list in the 1990’s and slipped to #23 during this past decade. Why is this Newbery Medal (1994) winning book so often challenged?

The unfortunate headline in an USA Today article in 2001 kind of says it all: “Suicide Book Challenged in Schools.”

Most of the challenges regarding THE GIVER cite the subjects of suicide and euthanasia as reasons to pull the book from the curriculum or library. [According to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, a challenge is a formal, written attempt to remove a book from a library or classroom. ] For instance, one parent in the Denver area complained that book was dangerous because of its portrayal of suicide in a neutral to positive light. Parents in Blue Springs, Missouri also attempted to get the book pulled from the eight-grade curriculum in 2003. One parent there said:

“This book is negative. I read it. I don’t see the academic value in it. Everything presented to the kids should be positive or historical, not negative.”

The irony is that THE GIVER is about a society that only presents the positive and keeps everything negative away from its populace.

The world of THE GIVER has eliminated fear, pain, hunger, conflict, and illness. Life flows very efficiently for everyone in the Community. It chooses your parents, job, spouse, and children. Every detail of your life is controlled, down to your choice of words and what you read. And, any child who is too unruly, any elder who is too old, or any rule breaker who's too incorrigible is "released" from the Community.

When Jonas turns 12, he (along with all of his year mates) is assigned his carefully chosen job. Because of his special ability to see "beyond," he’s to be the next Receiver—the one person who carries all of the negative (as well as the positive) collective memories of the Community. (If the Receiver did not hold these memories in his being, they would be released out into the world, and the people of the Community would then have to feel pain and suffering once again.)

The old Receiver becomes the Giver, the one who imparts the memories to his replacement, Jonas. As he starts experiencing both fear and love, Jonas realizes how colorless the Community really is without the full spectrum of emotions and experiences.

He also learns that being "released" actually means being euthanized. He sees his own father "release" an infant because it was a twin. Then Jonas learns that the Receiver candidate before him—the Giver’s own daughter—released herself because she couldn’t handle the world as she saw it through Receiver eyes. Rather than succumb to the same despair, Jonas sets off to free his people—by giving them back their collective memories—good and bad.

The book doesn’t encourage or condone suicide and infanticide. And, I don’t think the parents behind the challenges really think the book does. They--like the people of the Community--want to shelter their children from topics that might disturb them—like kids committing suicide and fathers killing babies. I cannot fault those parents for that, particularly if the child is very young. However, should tweens and teens be protected from negative ideas? The parent from the Denver area thought suicide was a dangerous topic because of his state’s high suicide rate—and because his kid was in the same school district as Columbine High School.

Did this dad (and the other challengers) have a point? Should we protect kids from negative ideas?

Or was Jonas right? Do we owe it to our children and ourselves to let them read (and discuss) both the good and the bad things in life?

BTW, in most cases I found on the ALA site, the schools opted to keep THE GIVER as part of their curriculum or library.

Banned Book Week: The Outsiders

It blows my mind that people want to ban The Outsiders.

Sure, it's set among a bunch of freely smoking, drinking and cussing "greasers." There's fights galore, a casual attitude to petty theft, a murder and and unseen unwed teen pregnancy, but seriously? The Outsiders? All the characters are just so darn nice. They have names like Ponyboy and Soda Pop. They quote Robert Frost at length. They're loyal and heroic. They stand up for their buddies. The whole thing is about innocence and sacrifice and the value of living and being better than you're surroundings. It's downright earnest.

 I swear, the idea of someone wanting to ban The Outsiders is like the idea of someone wanting to kick a puppy.

Ok, to back up, maybe a brief synopsis is in order.

The Outsiders follows the Curtis brothers (Ponyboy, Soda Pop and Darry) and their friends. We're in Oklahoma in 1965. The brothers have lost their parents and are living on their own, doing the best they can. Darry is the oldest, a hardworking roofer. Soda Pop works at a gas station. Ponyboy is the sensitive dreamy one. The smart one. The Curtis brothers and their friends are part of a group (calling them a gang seems like a bit of a stretch to me) of lower class kids called greasers, for their long greasy hair. Some of the greasers are criminals, some are pretty rough, but the book makes it clear that Ponyboy and his brothers aren't like that. They know criminals, but they aren't criminals.

The greasers are eternally at war with the Socs, the madras wearing rich kids from across town.  One day, Pony Boy and his friend Johnny Cade get jumped and nearly killed by a pack of drunk socs. In a effort to save Pony Boy's life Johnny stabs one of the Socs and kills him. The rest of the story follows their time as fugitives and what happens when they return to town to face up to what they did.

Why do people try to ban it? Oh, the usual reasons. Language. "Immoral" behavior. Drinking. Smoking. Surface things, you know? The veneer that rests over the book, not anything the book is saying or advocating. Not it's content.

Funny how often it seems like would be censors are obsessed with surfaces over content.  Like with To Kill a Mockingbird or the Harry Potter books or so many others, The Outsiders carries absolutely unimpeachable moral lessons, but because they contain some bad words or a veneer of bad behavior it becomes suspect. As if to merely depict these things is to endorse them.

Maybe it's a function of how rare it is for censors to actually read the thing they want to censor. If people did actually read this book I think they'd find it has a great and well written cast of characters and has great things to say about friendship and hope and how to live well in rough circumstances. I think the book also has interesting things to say about the struggles between the classes, something we don't get alot of in American books, especially written realistically in a book for teens. (Sidenote: is it possible that the frank discussion of class also makes censors uneasy? My guess is a big yes)

Oh, and I would also be remiss if I didn't note that the movie made from this book is absolutely fantastic. And I say that without a trace of irony.  It keeps very close to the book and features a stellar cast of actors and beautiful golden hued direction by Francis Ford Coppola.

So get out there everybody and read a banned book this week. Send a statement to to the censors that these books have value and a vital place in the lives of teens and adults alike.

Do it for Johnny!

Jeff Hirsch
The Eleventh Plague
Coming from Scholastic, Fall 2011

Find me at and @jeff_hirsch

Banned Books' Week - The Handmaid's Tale

Where do I start?

Banned Books Week.

Just the fact that there is such a thing boggles my mind. Life is full of choices and in America we are blessed with freedom of choice. Even in schools (where choice can be limited by rules), if parents don’t want their child to read a certain book, it is my understanding that teachers will accommodate that by providing alternate reading materials.
That said... this week the banned book I’m looking at is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Let’s take a gander at two of the main reasons it has been banned (here is a detailed list ) The funny thing about this list is that you could practically read the entire book based on the excerpts that this person has pulled - all out of context. Anyway, back to the two main reasons...

Sexually explicit - pornographic

Okay. Now - what is the book really about?

It’s speculative fiction about a future where the U.S. Government has been overthrown by a fundamental Christian sect called the ‘Sons of Jacob.’ (Although, in the book, citizens are told that the President and all members of Congress were assassinated by Muslim terrorists. How interesting is that?!)

These ‘Sons of Jacob’ systematically remove any rights that women have, in the name of “protecting” them. Women, including those who were part of the ‘Sons of Jacob,’ soon discover that their freedoms are non-existent and they are relegated to whatever role the new society deems appropriate for them based on their ability to have children. Handmaids are just as in the Bible - slaves who are forced to bear children for men whose wives are barren. (Most people in the new Gilead are barren due to radiation and other chemical warfare.)

The purpose of Atwood’s cautionary tale is to wake people up to what is going on around them. To make people aware of how easy it is to give up rights in the face of fear and the reassurance that they will be “taken care of” and/or “it’s for your own good.”

The sexuality in this book is not meant to be titillating or pornographic (altho' there is pornography mentioned in the book.) It is used for procreation. And, for pleasure in the whorehouses to which the government turns a blind eye. There is no sex as an expression of love - except for the main character's attempt at a caring relationship and her remembrance of the loving relationship she had with her husband.

As far as the anti-Christian part of it... well, honestly, so much horrible stuff has been done in the name of religion (every religion, bar none) that I have no issue with people being reminded that that can, and still does, happen. And, when people try to force everyone to come to their way of thinking about a higher power (or not) “or else” - well, no. Just plain old NO.

Now - I'm not going to do a full-fledged book review. I guess I’m going to rant for a second... or more.

I wonder when so many people (i.e. book banners) in this country are going to quit being afraid? And, what is it that they’re afraid of? Ideas! Discussion! Different Points of View!

I think that fear comes because deep down inside, those who try to ban books are terrified of the ideas in those books. Perhaps their fears are not so much that children’s minds will be tainted by these “filthy” books - but that those same children might have some new thoughts, might not be content to live life exactly as their book-banning parents would wish them to. And, maybe even more so, those book banners are afraid that their own thoughts won’t be able to stand against new ideas. Maybe they really don’t have enough blind faith to withstand a little new light being cast on it.

I have no patience with small-minded people who think that forcing their ideals and morals on others is a good or right thing. It is a scourge that threatens our very freedoms. If we become complacent and allow others to "fight the good fight" - we may find ourselves like Atwood’s main character, Offred. A woman without her own identity - a slave to a totalitarian government that does things “for your own good” - and one who is ritualistically raped in the hopes that there will be children born to carry on the ideals of the system.

While we may not find ourselves in the actual position of physical rape, we can be ritualistically, and repeatedly, frightened, bullied, and inundated with falsehoods, half-truths and outright lies. If we stay quiet against those lies, beware.

Our future, the future of our children and their children may well be a banned book away.

End of rant.

Buy banned books. Read banned books. Don’t let anyone tell you what is right for you or your children - make those (informed, please!) decisions yourself.

Even if you don’t agree with ideas expressed in a book - defend to the death the author’s right to write them!

Banned Book Week: To Kill a Mockingbird

All this week, the Leaguers are going to be celebrating banned books--not celebrating that books are banned, but celebrating reading banned books.

A little background: Banned Book Week is organized by ALA, and according to them:
Banned Books Week (BBW) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.

There's been a lot of controversy recently over banned books--spurring several book bloggers to have challenges to read a banned book, and new author Miriam Forster to create a Read a Banned Book website here, which includes essays by authors on the topic. And here at the League, we're going to celebrate by highlighting some of our favorite banned books this week.

I'm starting off with a classic:

This novel--the first and only one from Harper Lee--describes an unfair trial where a man is accused of a crime that he didn't commit based solely on his race. It's about a lot of other things, too--growing up, accepting others, not judging a book by its cover, learning about death and honor and pain.

It's a masterpiece.

And it's been banned in schools across the country.

Why? Language--there's a fair amount of use of the "n-word" (although this is coming from the racist accusers, not from the more civilized and fair people, drawing a contrast between ignorant hate and judicious citizens). The trial is based on rape, although rape isn't seen (and didn't actually happen).

But you know what? None of that is a reason for the book to be banned. Those are just excuses not reasons. The reason for the book to be banned is quite simply because some people didn't like it, and felt that should mean no one should read it.

Now, it may seem like this is an odd choice of a banned book for a dystopian/sci fi/spec fic nerd. But, you're forgetting about:

Pleasantville is an odd little movie. Two teens, brother and sister, get sucked into the fictional TV show Pleasantville, and old black and white classic where everything is--always--pleasant. But then things start to change...some of the people are colored.

Now, the show makes a play on black and white vs. color TV, but the implication is the same--you can see that as the black and white residents of Pleasantville start hanging "No Coloreds" signs up in their shop windows. And there's a trial, much like the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, where the "coloreds" are forced to watch from the balcony while the black and whites get to sit on the ground.

In the movie, the way the black and white people become colored is by experiencing new things. It can be a sexual awakening, or standing up for what you believe in, or reaching for a dream, or discovering art. It comes from longing--longing for something beyond the expected norm, even if it isn't pleasant.

And, in the end, that's what Banned Book Week is about. There are books I don't like that have been banned--but I don't think they should be banned, nevertheless. I'm not Muslim, but I don't think the Qur'ran should be burned. I don't approve of hate, but I'm also not going to burn Thomas Dixon's The Clansman.

My attitude on Banned Books can be summed up best by Voltaire's words:
I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
In Pleasantville, the solution to prevent more "coloreds" is to take away the things that cause them to think outside the box--including books. In To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the ignorant that are the ones most filled with hate.

And that's a lesson for anyone, living in Pleasantville, the American South, Tatooine, Mars, or anywhere else.

I Wish...

Okay, for the record, I'm not the most patient person on the planet when it comes to driving. I want to go faster. I loathe the time I spend in the car, trying to get from one place to another. So I really wish someone would invent the whole transporter thing they use in Star Trek.

I mean, to be able to simply say your destination and be beamed there, purse and all? How awesome would that be? AWESOME.

Not to mention it would make my life so much easier. It would make so many things better. No oil, no gas, no car repairs, nothing along those lines.

I'm not much into hovercars (who needs a car when you can transport??) or anything like that. But some kind of teleporter/transporter? YES. I wish that technology existed today.

What do you wish we had now? How would it make your life easier? How would it change life as we know it?

It's thinking about this kind of stuff, and what kind of life/society it might produce that leads to amazing science fiction and dystopian works--like those super sweet transporters on Star Trek.


Humanity and Technology: An Interview with ODYSSEY's Elizabeth Lindstrom

This month's issue of ODYSSEY, a science and science fiction magazine for tweens and teens, has a decidedly dystopian flavor. The theme is "Am I a Borg, Yet?" The short story for the issue is about "cyborgs with dangerous agendas." (How can you not love that?)

Elizabeth Lindstrom, the editor of ODYSSEY, has graciously allowed me to pick her brains about what she looks for in a story and what her readers like. I've had the pleasure of working with Beth on many occasions. In fact, my novel, MEMENTO NORA, grew out of a short story of the same name published in ODYSSEY several years ago.

So, first a little about Beth.

Elizabeth Lindstrom is a senior editor at Cobblestone Publishing, where she edits the award-winning children’s science magazine ODYSSEY. After graduating from University of New Hampshire with a master’s degree in English, she worked as a newspaper reporter and features writer. She is the recipient of the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting, the New Hampshire Press Association award for social services writing, and numerous Educational Press Association and Parents’ Choice awards. Before coming to Cobblestone, she taught non-fiction writing at Saint Anselm College.

Welcome, Beth. Tell us a little about ODYSSEY. Who are your readers?

ODYSSEY is a science and technology magazine aimed at kids 10 to 16 years old. It has an edgy tone and an artsy look. In reality, some precocious 8-year-olds read it, and I know a lot of adults who enjoy it too. But when planning the issue, I target a bright 12-year-old whose parents want him/her to be exposed to the real world. The magazine includes articles, activities, and interviews for science junkies, but it also includes soft science pieces, beautiful art, and fiction to lure those kids who might not otherwise pick up a science magazine. Our monthly fiction feature is only several years old, but it is very popular with readers.

What's your role?

I pretty much determine what you’re going to see and read in the pages of ODYSSEY each month and what will be on its cover. I select the theme each month, assign and edit the articles, do the photo research, and select the illustrators. I work with Jim Fletcher, a very talented designer.

What do you look for in a story?

I’ll list my criteria:
  • Believable characters who are memorable and approachable even if they aren’t supposed to be likeable.
  • Dialogue that really has a voice, one that is suitable for our readers.
  • Threads of good science that anchor the story.
  • A consistent setting – one that doesn’t leap into the future and then sound retro because of its details.
  • A plot that is neither too light nor too dark.
  • A meaning that lingers with a reader after they read the last line.
What have been some of the most popular themes, articles, and/or stories? In other words, what do your readers really love?

Well, the theme of our most popular issue of all time was “Poop – What a Waste!” I guess that’s not surprising because kids love yucky things. “Is It Science or Art” was also a very popular theme, which seems to counter what I just said. Issues on crime scene science, killer viruses, and extreme science are also winners. Einstein, Feynman, and Goodall were popular biographical-themed issues. I don’t have a sense of a particular story being especially popular. I get letters from readers saying they love to read the story in each issue and see how it is connected to the science in the same issue. I think that is great because it shows readers that there is a link between science and art.

What can we expect in the September (aka, Am I a Borg, Yet?) issue?

The issue is out. You can sample it on our Web site It includes both bionics for restoration and bionics for enhancement, and deals with the many ethical issues of a world filled with hybrid humans — when we are part flesh and part steel. How soon will it happen? Should it happen? The issue includes the story “Afterman” by Zareh MacPherson Artinian, which explores a dystopian world filled with cyborgs with dangerous agendas.

Why this theme?

As I said in my editor’s note for the issue, humanity and technology are right now, and will continue in readers’ lifetimes, forging a powerful new relationship. It is important that we consider this exciting leap very carefully. We can’t let being a cyborg seem too romantic. An article in the issue called “The Human Enhancement Revolution!” looks at what has been called “the most important controversy in science and society this new century.” "Am I Borg, Yet?" is definitely a good theme for ODYSSEY.

Thanks, Beth!

You can order an issue or a subscription of ODYSSEY here. If you're interested in writing for Odyssey, check out the submission guidelines.

Do You Concentrate on Your Strengths or Weaknesses?

I'm a fan of the Lee Child series of Jack Reacher books. For anyone who doesn't know them, they follow Jack Reacher, ex-military police officer and now a rootless drifter. In each book Jack comes to a town and gets embroiled in some intrigue. Jack is the smartest and toughest guy in the room. Stuff blows up. Women swoon. Jack moves on in the end. They are well written and reliably entertaining books.

Repetitive? Not as much as you'd think. Child makes it work. His prose is strong, the characters are involving, he clearly knows his main character and his world very well, and he is a master of creating constantly unfolding suspense. Reading Child's books, I think "here's someone who really knows himself as a writer." He knows his strengths and he plays to them extraordinarily well.

This got me thinking about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. What are they? Well, I'm still figuring that out but if I had to say right now I'd say... I think I'm good at dealing with characters in depth and I'm pretty good at writing action scenes and have a bit of a descriptive flair. I think I'm good with tone. On the minus side? Well, despite my theatre background, long dialog scenes frustrate me. I feel like I write action better. I find that dealing with too many characters at once confuses me so I keep casts small. Also, whenever I've tried to be overly smart or clever in my writing I fail. I'm better at simplicity.

So let's say that's a fair assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. What do I do with this info? How should it affect what I do on a daily basis? Do I be like Lee Child and stick with what I know I do well? Or should I at some point write a dialog heavy, complex novel of ideas with a sprawling cast  because I should be challenging myself and trying to expand my horizons? Some mix of these things?

It seems to me that there is honor in either choice. Being resolutely who you are or pushing yourself into uncomfortable territory to try and grow.

What do you guys think? First, I'd love to know what you all feel are your strengths and weaknesses and then where you fall on the continuum of A) know yourself and do what you do consistently well or B) purposefully throw yourself into your weaknesses in an attempt to grow, even if you fail?

Cockroach brains...

Cockroaches may be in your future in more ways than their usual icky-yucky-crawly ways. Science News reports that ground-up "brain and other nerve tissues" from cockroaches was found to kill more than a few types of bad bacteria (like a type of E. coli, a meningitis strain and a staph strain.) Of course, this means they are looking at what the substances are, how much will be needed, etc. so they can figure out how to help people with infections.

Figuring that roaches live and thrive in some of the grossest conditions known to man or beast - is it any wonder that science would eventually get around to finding out how they do this?

And... of course, no discussion of brains, especially in this context, could stop me from thinking about this...
which - be warned - may be a PG13 youtube clip

I Wish I Had a Sonic Screwdriver

Tell me--tell meeeee-- that you know who Doctor Who is?


Doctor Who.



OK, lame joke, but still--if you've not checked out this amazing show from BBCA, you need to.

Doctor Who has been around a long time--if you count all the reboots and re-imaging of the show, it's the longest running television series ever. The premise is brilliant--a man (who looks human but is really from another planet) is the Doctor, and his mission in life is to protect the weak and help those in need (hence the name, Doctor)....kind of like an intergalactic Superman, but without the super powers or Spandex suit.

The Doctor has some powerful weapons with him--including a Tardis (the police box in the background) that is much bigger on the inside and is a space ship; psychic paper that allows the Doctor to present papers to people who then see whatever they expected to see (a passport, an invitation to the party, clearance to go to the secret base)....and a sonic screwdriver.

The sonic screwdriver is as close to a magic wand as the Doctor has. It cuts through locks, destroys robots, and has even been known to blast through walls.

And it's also the thing that drives hardcore sci-fi nerds CRAZY.

See, Doctor Who is--technically--science fiction. But he's got a device that's almost a dues ex machina. Whenever he's in trouble, he always has the screwdriver that can, miraculously, get him out of whatever scrape he's gotten himself into.

Yes, it's kind of sciencey. It's sonic, after all. But there's no real scientific explanation to the screwdriver, just as there's no real scientific explanation for psychic paper or a police box that's bigger on the inside and can time travel.

This, to me, is the difference between hard sci fi and soft sci fi. Hard sci fi needs a true, 100% realistically possible explanation for anything. But soft sci fi can use a sonic screwdriver like a magic wand.

I prefer soft sci fi--I'd rather focus on the story than on the science (and I'd rather focus on David Tennant than either of those, mmmm....).

What about you? Hard sci fi, or soft sci fi?

Building Your World

So everyone has been giving writing tips this week. They've all said some really great things, and I color myself lucky to be blogging with them. I'm going to talk a little bit about world-building. Not like, full-blown into it or anything, but just a few tips I've learned as I've penned my novels that occur in different worlds.

1. Start slow and small. I know, I know, This goes against everything you've ever heard. But when you're building a world, it's a delicate balance. You don't want to A) drop your reader into a world they can't figure out or B) take the crucial first pages to explain everything.

You just need to give me enough to know that the world I'm reading operates by different rules. I need time to figure out how things work, so give me something but not too much.

Let's compare to the movie Monsters, Inc. (Yeah, okay, I've seen it about 40 times this week. Thank you, OnDemand.) It starts out with a child sleeping in bed. Then a monster comes in--this is a hint that we're in a different world. Then we get a glimpse of what the monsters do.

Cut to Sully. He's the top scarer. And the next few minutes are SLOW, as Mike and Sully walk to work. We learn there's a scream shortage. They "stalk" instead of "walk" across the street. And we get to see all the different monsters.

The movie starts slow and small, acclimating you to the new world. You should do that in your book too.

2. Lead me along. This is an aspect of any good storytelling, but especially when building a new world/culture. Place clues and new-world items in key spots to draw attention to them. Take my hand and lead me through the story.

Not push. Not pull. Lead.

In Monsters, Inc. I'm led from beginning to end. I don't like Randall, because he bullies Mike. I find myself drawn to Boo, because Sully is. Just as Beth said in her post, make me care about the characters. Give me world-building stuff when I need it. Lead me.

3. Assume the reader will need to be told. Again, you've probably heard the opposite of this. But when world-building, make sure that if things are important to your character, your laws, your world, that you let the reader know explicitly. We don't exist in your world. You, as the author, know much more than we do. So tell us what we need to know. Just don't tell us twice.

In Monsters, Inc. Mr. Waternoose comes right out and says that his monsters will go into children's rooms, because they need the screams to power their city. We have to be told that in no uncertain terms. Then, later, after his technician says, "We've lost 58 doors this week," Mr. Waternoose comes right out and says, "Kids these days. They just don't get scared the way they used to."

This is vital information we need to know that drives the plot forward.

Okay, enough Monsters. Have you had to write a new world before? What tips do you have to add to these?

Writing Week: Vonnegut's Rules

I suck at coming up with writing tips. So, I’m going to steal shamelessly from the best. Kurt Vonnegut. These are from his book of uncollected stuff, BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I actually have these taped to my wall.

Number 3 is my favorite. Whenever I’m stuck with how to resolve a scene, I think about what each character involved really wants in that situation--even if it is just a glass of water. But, remember, your character may not know what he or she wants--but you have to.

Number 4 is also a great one. This you learn the hard way during the editing process. If a sentence serves no purpose, your editor is going to suggest you take it out. And keep suggesting it until you do.

What about you? Any favorite tips from the masters?

Writing Week: The Coral Reef Theory

I studied acting way back when in my college days. Early on in our  training all of us students came into rehearsals for a new role burning up with a thousand different ideas that we wanted to try all at once. We would identify all the key moments in each scene and then bring all our new skills to bear to make sure we hit each and every beat just so.

This went on until Don, our revered acting teacher,  told us to cut it the hell out already.

What Don told us was that it was not our responsibility to get everything right every night of rehearsal. Our only responsibility, he said, was to find one new moment each night. Just one. That's all. 

Maybe on Monday we find an unexpectedly tender moment in scene 3, then on Tuesday we realize how much better it is if we sit instead of stand throughout the big confrontation in scene 10. On Wednesday we finally manage to get through the entirety of scene 8 without forgetting all of our lines. 

Don told us that a performance is built from the accumulation of all these small discoveries, like how a coral reef is built from the bones of millions of tiny creatures laid down in layer after layer over a very long time.

Kind of a relief, right? You don't have to get everything right all the time. You don't have to worry about making the entirety of a chapter work each time you sit down with it. 

Sure, you try to do as much as you can, but if you get to the end of your writing day on Monday and find that for 2 hours work you've only managed to craft one revealing character moment in chapter 2, that's a win. It's a win because on Tuesday you're going to write a particularly nice bit of dialog in chapter 3. Then maybe a few weeks later you'll come back to chapter 2 and have another little moment of insight, and then another and  another and until one day all these small daily moments of insight turn into a book.

What do you all think? How do you decide if you've had a productive day of writing?

Getting the First Draft Done!

More writing advice - this time via vlog... I am sharing this, too, with the writer folks who are doing "Complete Your Draft - 2010" here and here. Hopefully, I can get my own 1st draft of book 2 completed and help some other writers at the same time!

Writing Week: How to Hook Readers with the First Chapter

All this week, here at the League we're talking about writing--each of us are tackling a different subject, so be sure to check back every day to learn something new!

Today, I'm going to talk about writing first chapters and hooking your readers from page one. Recently, Penguin released the first chapter of my book (if you'd like, you can download it here).

Several people have asked me how I came up with that chapter, so I thought I'd go through that here.

But the first thing you should know is: that was not my original first chapter. Originally, that was Chapter 4. The original first chapter is now chapter 4 (ironic), and the original second and third chapters were deleted.

When I had my work read by beta readers, they all felt the first chapters were okay, but not great. They were, to put it simply, "good enough." But chapter 4, on the other hand, was a chapter that everyone universally liked--it made them sit up, and they really liked that one.

I resisted--all the way until the final draft--to rewrite my beginning and move Chapter 4 to Chapter 1. I thought readers would need that first three chapters of back story, that if I dropped them into the story too soon, they wouldn't understand what was going on. Besides, there was nothing wrong with the original three first chapters. They were good enough. But I tried it anyway, and the response was much more positive.

And I learned three things:

  • Good enough is never good enough.
  • Trust your beta readers.
    •  If they all think something doesn't work, you should seriously consider changing it.
  • Trust your readers. 
    • Usually, they don't need three chapters of backstory--they're smart enough to figure it out on their own.

So--I moved Chapter 4 to Chapter 1, and it was a much much stronger that way. But why?

First, I'd been reading lots of blogs and forums on the importance of first chapters and first lines. A first line that many people felt was very strong was the one in Charlotte's Web:
"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
 This line grabs attention--it starts with dialog, so there's immediacy, and what's more important is that the question Fern asks becomes the question we, the readers, ask. Where is Papa going with that axe, anyway?

So, I decided to try it out on my work, and came up with:
Daddy said, "Let Mom go first."
My goal was to make the reader ask questions--where is Mom going? Why does Daddy want her to go first? Which lead me to my next lesson in writing first chapters:

  •  If your reader asks questions, they can become emotionally invested in the story.
But there's a corollary to this lesson: don't let the questions go on too long. In Charlotte's Web, the answer to the question comes quickly--and I answered my own question in the very next paragraph of my first chapter. If you leave your reader with unanswered questions, he'll just become frustrated.

And also: you don't need to open with dialog (or with a question) to make your reader question what's going on. A key description, or an interesting emotion, or an unusual action is enough to make a reader question what's going on. 

So, I had my initial hook. But a hook does not a chapter make.

From the hook, I needed to maintain the reader's interest. In the first chapter, Amy watches first her mother, then her father, get frozen alive to prepare for a centuries long journey into space. One thing I did--without realizing it at the time (my crit partner Rebecca pointed it out to me later) was repetition. Amy sees the freezing happen to her parents twice before she actually goes through it herself. So there's dread and anticipation from watching it happen.

But the thing I consciously did--and this is a bit gross to describe, but how I thought of it at the time and since--was dig my fingers in their wounds. 

I could have written that chapter in a paragraph: The all get frozen. Done. 

Instead, I described every hurt and pain as graphically as I could. They get cut, I dig my fingers in their wounds, making it worse and worse. And if it wasn't bad enough? I poured salt on top of the wounds, too.

The main idea of my first chapter is pain--but any intense emotion or feeling would do. If it was a kissing scene, I could have described the kiss in great depth, the emotion of love and longing. If it was a sad scene, I could do more than have a tear fall down the main character's cheek. The point is:
  • Dig as deep as you can go into some sort of emotional or physical intensity.
The reason? We all have feelings. In the first chapter, you're trying to make us care about your characters--do that by making us feel. I made my characters feel pain--who hasn't felt pain? But you can have them feel anything--really dig into the emotion, and you'll keep your readers hanging on.

The End

Okay, so I've been thinking about endings a lot recently. Maybe because Mockingjay signaled the end of that story. Or maybe because I've been struggling with how to end my latest novel. Or something.

But endings have been on my mind. So, since I write and read a lot of dystopian, I've also been contemplating the end of the world. So many dystopian novels have that apocalyptic event, you know? There's everything from plague-ish diseases to war, and micro-organisms in oil to a technology revolution.

Then my mind drifted to the dystopian novels I've read. It seems like most of them don't end with shiny rainbows and golden sunshine. They resolve. They end. Just not happily. Which made me wonder why, if they're not ending all fairy tale-esque, why are they so popular? Do people really want to read this depressing stuff about war and oppression and then discuss it with each other?

Don't get me wrong, I love (like, LOVE) books that don't end happily. I think they reflect real life. Think about it. Not every situation in your life ties itself up with a neat little bow and sails into the sunset. It simply resolves. Then you get up and go to work the next day.

Are dystopian endings mirroring real life? What do you think? Have you read a dystopian novel that did end in glorious harmony?

Censorship and the Twilight Zone

During Banned Book Week (September 25 – October 2), we’re each going to talk about a particular banned young adult or middle grade novel. These are books someone somewhere has challenged as unfit for kid consumption—either in public schools or libraries. However, sometimes what we write gets censored even before it sees the light of day. Rod Serling talks about just that in this interview with Mike Wallace that recently surfaced:

Serling discusses how sponsors and networks emasculated the content of shows he’d worked on prior to the Twilight Zone. When pressed about his new show, Serling explains that he’s tired of fighting the censors and he just wants to put on an entertaining show. (I’m paraphrasing.)

“So, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television,” Wallace tells him.

Serling answers, “…if you mean I’m not going to delve into important social issues, then I’m not.”


Serling was no fool. This interview aired the night before the Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959. In later years, Serling admitted he chose a science fiction / fantasy anthology format precisely for the opposite reason that he told Mike Wallace (and all the sponsors and network suits watching). Serling knew he could wrap what he wanted to say about important social issues up in the shiny, palatable wrapper of speculative fiction—and put one over on the suits. They equated science fiction with escapist fare like Buck Rogers. But Serling used science fiction and fantasy to make shows about racism, Nazis, the Cold War, religion, and the loneliness of modern life. And he won three Emmys in the process.

Ironically, if Rod Serling hadn’t fought censorship throughout his TV writing career, we might not be watching the Twilight Zone over 50 years later.

Can you guys think of any other instances where science fiction and/or fantasy were used to ingeniously “skirt” censorship issues? Or where the possibility of censorship actually spurred on the writer’s creativity?

The Greatest and Most Horrible Website Ever

Know that if you click on the link below it will take you to the most wonderful and most terrible website in the entire universe. Do you dare?  Oh, what? You want a little background first? Ok. (chicken)

Basically what the dastardly users of this site have done is catalog every single commonly used literary and dramatic trope they could find and illustrated them with copious examples. Stock characters. Standard plotlines. Common themes. It's all here and it's absolutely exhaustive. Seriously, you could spend days on this site.

Ready now? Ok, go here.  Keep in mind this link takes you only to the tropes for Post-Apocalyptic stuff, but you should definitely explore it all. Sci-Fi. Fantasy. Action/Adventure. Dive in!

Now, why is it wonderful and horrible?

Well, it is living proof that the struggle for a real honest to goodness original idea is more uphill than ever, heck it may not even be possible anymore. I know I found plenty of characters and situations in here that are in my book and I bet you will too. It's definitely a little disconcerting to see the product of your long hours of sweat and toil laid out with proof that all of it has been done before.

But the thing is, and this is what I think is wonderful about it, presented with such overwhelming proof that pretty much everything has been done is, well, it's sort of freeing right? You don't have to reinvent the wheel. If your favorite writers have used these tropes, and used them to great effect, then maybe it's all just about what you bring to it--how you mix and match ideas, play around with them, tweek them. Maybe a fun challenge is taking a tried and true idea, something that's been done a million times, and doing it in a way only you would do it. Maybe that's what originality is now.

What tropes have I got in my book? Well, I've got me a Depopulation Bomb and some Disaster Democracy . Oh, if you're looking for a couple good Armor Piercing Questions you'll find them in my book. I definitely have the Action Girlfriend.  Hmm, wait, maybe she's actually the Cute Bruiser...

Ok people. Take a look and cop to it in the comments. What tropes are in your book?  An Amulet of Concentrated Awesome perhaps?  Maybe the Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults?  Do your characters at any time have Tea with Cthulhu?

Cyrano de Bergerac

While doing some on-line research I came across a fact (little-known to me) about Cyrano de Bergerac (of whom countless tales have been told & re-told, not the least retelling of which was "Roxanne" with Steve Martin - gotta love the little alien suction cup action (since I couldn't find that clip - I put in this one, which has nothing to do with spec fiction - but it's fun!

Anyway - Cyrano wrote a book commonly called "A Voyage to the Moon." (full text and notes here: And, in this book, he takes a trip to the moon - via Canada... in a suit of bottles filled with dew... it's fascinating so far! (I've just started reading it.) It's not just science fiction though, there are all kinds of politics of the times involved. It is interesting to note that it was written before the apple fell on Newton & while the belief of the earth and other planets revolving around the sun was still a question.

Here are a few quotes from the notes at the end of some of the chapters. These were written by Donald Webb - who did the translation of the text, too.

"Like any other author, Cyrano uses travel as a literary device: the things he has to do necessarily take him to distant places. And yet, like modern-day science-fiction authors he is not content with dreams, magic or miracles but is genuinely interested in how such voyages might be accomplished."

"Cyrano was no mathematical genius like Cardano or Descartes, nor was he a physicist like Torricelli and Pascal (all but Cardano were his contemporaries), but he understood what science was doing. Cyrano’s arguments and examples are sometimes comical and sometimes quaint, taken as they often are from kitchen and garden. However, the images of a fireplace turning about a roast and a coastline moving past a ship seem particularly striking: they parody and caution against an egocentric point of view. As a teacher, Cyrano would have been very fond of modern visual aids and multimedia. Cyrano’s examples may seem a little far-fetched, but they effectively underscore his organic concept of nature."

"The space aliens have been hard at work with Earthlings in the fields of alchemy and herbalism. We may smile at that, but we must also excuse Cyrano if he points out with a trace of impatience that, once stripped of charlatanry, those efforts led directly to modern chemistry, pharmacy and medicine."

"Cyrano introduces a concept often found in modern science fiction: organisms that seem to consist of energy patterns."

"Cyrano lived 259 years before the time that historian Raymond Aron would aptly call “the century of total war” and that Albert Camus would call “the century of fear.” And yet Cyrano — himself a combat veteran of the Thirty Years War — knew as well as anyone that war proves its own futility except to those who have grown too fond of it."

"Needless to say, science fiction has found a gold mine in the topic of space aliens’ covertly or overtly influencing Earth’s history. As in the case of Cyrano’s latest friend, the results are always somewhat mixed. To take only one example: in the classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) — a Biblical allegory, as it happens — the visitor from space first appears officially but then works in secret after his initial attempt at first contact proves unsuccessful."

It's fascinating to me that book this was written in the 1600's! I intend to read it! 

Samurai Mind Tricks

So, over the Labor Day weekend, Spike ran all the Star Wars movies in a marathon. And since I'd just posted about it last Monday, I thought I'd rewatch these classics...and had a revelation. So forgive me for busting out my Star Wars nerd two Mondays in a row, but I thought my revelation was pretty spiffy, even if I'm clearly not the first one to have noticed this.

But see, there's a lot of similarities between samurai and Jedi. Now, I'd already known that George Lucas's inspiration for Darth Vader's iconic was samurai armor:
Darth Vader in a manly stance.

A samurai mannequin in a manly stance.

But, other costumes have samurai influence. The daily wear robes of the Jedi is rather similar to the daily wear kimono of samurai.
Mace Windu: you know he's a beast.

I'm sure these random men are beasts, too...
Beyond costuming, you have the attitude: a samurai's sword was his greatest, most revered weapon--so was a jedi's light saber. Samurai were the elite of the elite, trained from a very young age to fight--as were Jedi. The samurai philosophy, also known as bushido, warned against fear and attachment--and how can we forget Yoda's advice to Anakin: "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose," and "Fear leads to the Dark Side." This is similar to Uesugi's bushido text:
Those who are reluctant to give up their lives and embrace death are not true warriors.... Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory, and you will come home with no wounds whatever. Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return. You may not be in the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is always determined.

Compare also the "end" of the Jedi in the Clone Wars to the end of the samurai age (visually, I have to say The Last Samurai gives a good--if not historically accurate--comparison of what I'm trying to say). In the Clone Wars, a handful of Jedi fought against their own Chancellor (later, Emperor) in a battle against robots that looked identical--and later, clones that looked identical.

Individual Jedi fought with their lightsabers against vastly more numbered robots with blasters.

At the beginning of the Edo period in Japan, Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai--although some did fight back. Emperor Meiji instituted a Western style of army--soldiers all dressed exactly alike, in uniform, with guns. Some samurai did rebel--including Satsuma, in 1877, the last true stand of the samurai. A handful of samurai faced off in their individual samurai armor with their katanas against an army of clone-like dressed soldiers fighting with guns.

Now, why am I going on and on about the similarities of the Jedi and samurai? Because it's awesome! It's awesome to pull a legend from history, add a laser to a katana, and throw it up into space. AWESOME.

There are no new stories under the sun. But what we can do is pull from history the epic heroes and battles, and create new trappings for them. The common writerly saying is to "write what you know." Did George Lucas know the Force or Jedi or lightsabers? No--he knew Japanese history, and transplanted that to...

Have You Ever...?

Okay, I'm just going to propose this, and then I'll probably run and hide. No, just kidding, I'll stick around to read what you have to say.

So I read a lot of dystopian novels. Not as many as some of you, obviously. I've written a dystopian novel. And as I was reading a few months ago (I won't say what book), I wondered something: Is this really that bad? Is this government really wrong? Maybe some of what they enforce is actually good...

So today, I'm playing Devil's Advocate. Think of the last dystopian novel you read. Tell us what it was (Mockingjay, anyone?) and try to see life from the point of view of the other side. Can you see why they rose to power in the first place? Do you see any good they're doing/did? Are there aspects that actually protect the people, provide for their basic needs?

I know that the governments in dystopian lit are usually portrayed as evil. But I'm wondering if you've ever stopped to think that maybe the evil sprouted from something good. Or that the entire government isn't all bad.

So have you ever thought of the other side?

Frakking Good Storytelling

Jeff has waxed lyrical about Firefly and Buffy in the past. I’m definitely a Joss Whedon fan, but I think one of the finest TV shows—science fiction or not—is Battlestar Galactica. No, not the late 70’s Glen Larsen space opera starring Lorne Green and Richard Hatch but Ron Moore’s gritty dystopian remake.

I have to admit I was reluctant to watch it when it first came out as a miniseries on SciFi Channel. I had a soft spot for the glitzy, somewhat camp 70’s show. (It was TV’s answer to Star Wars—minus the really good writing.) However, Ron Moore stood that shiny, cheesedog of a cold war allegory on its frakking head by making some really bold and fearless choices.

Realism. The original was very clean and shiny, and evidently the best and brightest survived the massacre of the human race. On BSG, the Battlestar Galactica survived because the ship was an old rust bucket about to be decommissioned. The Cylon attack didn’t disable its systems because it hadn’t been upgraded. Commander William Adama was in charge of the Galactica because of some questionable decisions. And Colonel Ty was a drunk, whose wife was a notorious flirt. Apollo (real name Lee Adama) hated his father, and Starbuck (Kara Thrace) was in the brig for punching Ty during a poker game. Oh, and the day the Cylons attacked, the President found out she had terminal cancer. And, the Cylons can look human and have sleeper agents on board the Galatica. Good times.

Strong Female Characters. On the original, the only major female character was a reformed hooker. (Yes, Cassiopeia was what was euphemistically called a sociolator.) And then she became a nurse. Paging Nurse Chapel! (That's a Star Trek reference, btw.)

On BSG, Starbuck, the President, the commander of Pegasus, Boomer / Athena, Six, Diana, and about half of the characters, Cylon and human alike, are women. Strong, complex women. And no one questions or even remarks on it. (Ok, the diehard fans of the original show had a hard time with Starbuck being a woman, but they got over it. For the most part.)

Tough subjects. The original, as I mentioned, is kind of a cold war allegory. The Cylons were the Soviets, and they wiped out the humans because we let our defensive guard down. BSG is far more complicated. Moore didn’t shy away from terrorism, religion, free will, destiny, and what it means to be human.

Plot Decisions. The original had its moments, but the plots were mostly predictable. And everything was wrapped up in 42 minutes. (Or whatever the length of a standard hour long drama was in 1978.) And they found Earth. (At least on the short-lived Galactica 1980.)

Moore envisioned BSG as more of a long form. He had the overarching story in mind when he started. And he never took the easy road to get there. For instance, after establishing the Cylons as monotheistic terrorists chasing and infiltrating the humans, Moore turned the tables. Thinking they’ve lost the Cylons, the humans find a habitable planet to settle, which they call New Caprica. A year later the Cylons arrive and decide to occupy New Caprica—and reform the humans. Here, have a look:

After this, the humans have to become terrorists themselves to combat Cylon occupation. (I won’t mention the utterly heartbreaking—and damned ironic—choices characters like Ty make.)

I could go on. And on. And on. The long and short of it is that Ron Moore made his characters—human and Cylon—deeply flawed and tested them in the worst possible situations.

That’s frakking good storytelling.

Any BSG fans out there? How did Ron Moore make BSG work for you? What were some of your favorite moments or characters?

BTW, I found Ron Moore’s podcasts / episode commentary—which are available on the SyFy site and iTunes—great lessons in storytelling. He talked about the writing and editing process for the each episode and the series in general—usually while sitting in his living room, smoking a cigar, and drinking scotch.


Hi Everybody!

Crazy times here.  Just got back from a great trip to Nashville that we and wifey planned a few month ago and now I've got just 6 days before my edits for Long Walk Home have to be in to my editor. Yikes!

I'll be back with a real post next week, but for now here's a bunch of articles I've been enjoying lately!

  • They also did a big Mockingjay review where they basically argue that it needs to be made a part of the canon of great sci fi lit. Big words. Do you agree?
  • Really enjoyed these thoughts on bringing, or not bringing, your personal politics into your writing.
  • Just because I'm obsessed with mine, here's a rave review on the the new Kindle. 
  • Excellent article on an issue I've been thinking about alot lately, how our plethora of digital devices are depriving our brains of needed down time. Are we amusing ourselves to death?

You guys  read anything good lately?