What We Are Reading

As spring is finally here, we at the League are taking any chance we can get to sit in the sun with a good book. Here's what we are reading:

Bethany Hagen: I just started Tabula Rasa by Kristen Lippert-Martin, which will hit bookshelves this fall. As soon as I heard that it was like a sci-fi Bourne Identity, plus a cute hacker, I was hooked!


Elizabeth Richards: I'm about to start Half Bad by Sally Green, which is about a male witch who is half white witch, half black witch. It sounds awesome and has been getting great buzz, so I can't wait to dive in! 

Meagan Spooner: I'm reading Compulsion by Martina Boone, out in October.

Mindy McGinnis: I just finished THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by Jennifer Mathieu. It's a great testament to gossip ruining lives.


Lydia Kang: I just started reading INK by Amanda Sun. Love the cultural change of scenery for a YA novel.  

Susanne Winnacker: I’m currently reading BOUNDLESS by Cynthia Hand.

Amie Kaufman: I'm reading THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, because it's a story about a guy who gets stranded alone on Mars, and I looooove shipwreck stories and I love Mars! And it's blurbed by an astronaut. What's not to love?

Lissa Price: I'm reading Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. He's a friend and I'll be seeing him at a book fest next month so I want to finish it before then.

Eugene Myers: I'm finishing WHEN WE WAKE by Karen Healey. I've been meaning to read it since it came out last year, because her first two books, GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD and THE SHATTERING are terrific. But I finally picked it up because I'm reading my way through the nominees for this year's Andre Norton Award. Fortunately this means I don't have a huge wait for the companion book.

And as for me, I'm reading The Runaway King. I read The False Prince, and was completely hooked  hooked by the cocky main character, the setting, the premise, and the non-stop conflict. It's one of those books where I'm just thrilled that there are more books in the series to love.

What are you reading right now?

A single WORD can affect what we SEE

I watched a youtube video once that showed the power words have in such a different way than I've ever thought, and it's fascinated me ever since. The video really spoke to the writer me.

Basically, it says that the words you learn could have an impact on the colors you see. It included some studies they did with the people in the Himba tribe in Northern Namibia.

The English language has eleven color categories. Reds, blues, greens, browns, yellows, etc. In the Himba tribe, they only have FOUR.

Zoozu= dark colors, including red, some blues, some greens, and purple
Vapa= white and some yellows
Borou= some greens and blues
Dumbu= different greens, reds, and brown

Why is this weird? They did a test, showing participants a ring of squares where all but one of the colors were the same. When the colors were all green, with one very slightly different, English-speakers had a hard time figuring out which green was different. This is an image I recreated, based on what I remember seeing. Can you tell which is different?

Chances are, unless you have been trained in a profession where you have very specific names for colors--- such as an artist, a printer, a designer, etc.--- you'll have a little trouble picking out which one is different from the others without looking at it for quite a while, if ever.

With the Himba tribe, the other green had a different NAME, so they could pick it out instantly.

On the flip-side, though, when the ring of colors were all green with one blue, we can pick it out the second it was put on the screen.

Easy peasy, right? When two colors have different names, we can pick out the difference immediately. However, the two colors had the same name among the Himba, so they couldn't tell the difference. Fascinating, no?

It's not that their eyes work any differently than our eyes work. It's simply because the words we use to categorize things really changes the way we SEE things.

When we have categories to put things in, we can very quickly order the things that we see.

And, of course, it doesn't just work with the colors that we see-- Characters and setting are the same way. When we read about someone or some place, our mind immediately categorizes them (not always in the right category, of course). The brain orders what it sees. And that, my friends, can be used to our advantage or our disadvantage. A reader WILL do it, whether we want them to or not. If we're aware of it when we first introduce a scene, it can be to our advantage. A few carefully chosen words can set a scene by placing it in a well-known category, which is especially helpful when it's a part you don't want bogged down by description. If we're aware of it when we're introducing a character, helping the reader put them into a category with the words we choose can get them thinking exactly what we want them to think about that character (whether it's a correct assumption on their part, or whether we want them to learn it's incorrect later).

As readers and writers, we already know that words are pretty darn powerful. That's what we expect when we read or write a book-- to transport us fully, completely, powerfully somewhere else.

Isn't it amazing that even A SINGLE WORD can do the same thing?

(And in case you wanted to know if you were right, here's the answer to which square is different on the all green one:)

Surviving Space

You guys.

Space is scary. Like, seriously, seriously scary. Basically, every single thing about space is designed specifically to kill you.

Which is why I love it so much.

Recently there've been two things about surviving space that I've absolutely loved. The first is a movie, the second a book, and if you're as fascinated with the terrifying void of the universe that cares nothing about your survival as I am, then definitely check both of these wonderful works out!

The first is the movie Gravity, which our own Lissa Price spoke about before, and which I reviewed on my own blog (both spoiler-free). I won't rehash everything we've already discussed (although can I get a shout out for totally knowing that Gravity would sweep the Oscars?), but I did want to remind everyone of some of my favorite parts of the movie.

Namely: surviving space.

This is the part of the movie that shines. Above the (small) personal story of the main character of the movie, the story is really about the struggle to survive and even if one should try to survive. There's a moment when Sandra Bullock's character contemplates just giving up, and I don't think anyone would argue with her that it would be, by far, the easiest option.

Surviving space requires so much more--more effort, more resources, more determination--more everything just to survive.

And that is something author Andy Weir nailed in his book, The Martian

This book was an amazing find for me because not only did I love it, but so did my husband. It's the very definition of "cross-over"--a book that would appeal to YA and adult readers, to male and female readers.

The story follows Mark Watney, a member of a mission to Mars from NASA. After an unfortunate series of invents that caused him to be wounded (and presumed dead) during a dust storm on the surface of Mars, his crew leaves. But...Watney is very much alive. And now he has to find a way to survive living on Mars until the next mission arrives, several years in the future.

The thing that blew me away with this book is how very, very possible it all was. It's clear that Weir is a mastermind plotter and that he did his research--if the blurb from space-hero Commander Hadfield doesn't convince you of that, you need only read the pages to see that everything is plausible. The science and math is all right there on the page for you--although I want to be clear that if you're not a science/math person (like me!) this book is still wonderful.

The survival aspect of The Martian is where Weir really shines. Everything that could go wrong, does, but at each twist and turn, Watney finds a method to survive. From explosive decompress to starvation, Watney will not give up on life.

For me, the most important factors of the novel were in the development of Watney's psychology on being the only person on the barren surface of a planet and the psychology of a world helplessly watching him try to survive and being utterly unable to. The ultimate conclusion of the novel was nail-bittingly terrifying, and I honestly had no idea what would happen.

If you love space or if you're terrified of space, you should absolutely check out this amazing novel!

Learning from the master, Joss Whedon

I am a huge fan of watching the director commentaries on shows you love as a method of improving your writing skills, especially when it comes from a writer you really love. And one of the writers I love best is Joss Whedon, because, well, he's freaking brilliant. I was on a panel last month titled "Joss Whedon is My Master Now" at Life, the Universe, and Everything with Bree Despain, Robert J Defendi, Chersti Nieveen, and Michael Young. Among geeking out about all things Joss Whedon, we talked about the things we learned from Joss that helped our writing.

Like that moment in season 5 of Buffy when she found her mom dead on the couch. When Buffy first saw her, she said, "Mom?" then "Mom?" a little more intensely, then "Mommy?" (Seen in the first few seconds of this clip.) This episode was so critically acclaimed in part because the reactions were so real. No matter how old you are, when you lose a parent, you become a kid again. It's a great example of how to write death scenes well, when the character who dies is one that the main character was very close to.


When Captain Mal was introduced in the pilot episode of Firefly, he was being... well, the Mal that aims to misbehave. And as a viewer, we weren't quite sure if he was the guy we were supposed to root for. I mean, was he even a good guy? He was just off thieving, after all. Then being ornery toward his crew.

Then Kaylee, the heart of the ship, gives him a kiss and says "I love my captain." And since she is who she is, and if she says that the captain is someone you should love, we immediately believe that we should. That's the beauty of supporting characters-- since they know your main character the best, we believe them when they say awesome things about them. Things you can't get across so effectively any other way.

One of the best (and most painful!) pieces of advice I've ever heard came from the commentary of Angel, the episode in season 3 called Waiting in the Wings. The episode's conception came when Joss learned that Amy Acker (Fred) was classically trained in ballet. He wrote an entire episode about the ballet with this in mind, knowing that he wanted Wesley (Alexis Denisof), who was in love with Fred, to fall asleep during the ballet, and to dream about the two of them on the stage, doing their own ballet. They filmed the scene, and it was HILARIOUS. They were both in leotards and Fred was dancing beautifully, and Wesley was, well.... not. It was a fantastic scene.

Joss (left), Alexis (middle), Amy (right). photo credit: the2scoops via photopin cc
Then, in editing, Joss realized that the episode just wasn't working. Something was wrong, and he just couldn't seem to fix it. Then he remembered some advice he got once-- If something isn't working, remove your favorite part.


Remove your favorite part. Ouch, ouch, ouch. 

Of course, the scene with Fred and Wesley doing ballet together was his favorite part. It was, after all, what inspired the entire episode. But he took it out, and then was able to make the changes needed for the episode to work. He said that too often, we try to bend the plot to the scene we're in love with, when that's not what the story needs. And when we are so in love with a certain part, it makes it more difficult to see what needs to change.

Excellent advice, Mr. Whedon. Painful, but excellent.

If you're a Joss Whedon fan, what episode / scene did you learn the most from? Or if you've watched any other great commentaries, who do you think you've learned the most from?

Change is Good: Addition Over Subtraction

Earlier this week, I talked about how, over the decades, science fiction has grown by leaps and bounds, rising up in the face of an ever-changing world to combat xenophobia. And I thought I'd said all that I wanted to say on the topic.

But then the brilliant Gwenda Bond posted an article called "Call the Reading Police," and I realized I had one more thing to say.

I remember early on in my writing career (which, honestly, isn't that long anyway), joining a conversation online with professional writers. It was a thrill for me just to be able to talk to these idols of mine--it was like getting invited to the ultimate cool kids table.

But you know, the only thing I really remember happened near the beginning of the conversation.

Moderator: We have a lot of new people this time. New writers, please introduce yourself and your debut work.
Me: I'm Beth Revis, and I wrote Across the Universe, a YA science fiction.
Veteran Colleague: Oh, like a dystopia? Another Hunger Games?
Me: No, not really--it takes place on a space ship.
Veteran Colleague: I have no idea why you'd bother to write that; we already have the Heinlein juveniles. 

I was...gobsmacked. At the time, I was so shocked and cowled that I just ultimately silently left the conversation. How does one recover from that? I was essentially told by someone who I'd hoped to be encouraged by that my work was useless, and there was no place for it.

I have since learned to not be silent about this topic. Which is good, because at a signing I did in November, an audience member (who also happened to be an aspiring SF writer) accused me of plagiarizing Heinlein. His reasoning? Heinlein also has a story with a generational space ship. And this is not the first time such an accusation has been laid at my feet--at least a half dozen other people have said the same, often to my face, in person.

Because of my space ship. Because I have a space ship in my novel and write for teens, I have been accused of plagiarizing an author whose works I have never read.

It's not that I've not tried to read Heinlein before. I almost made it to the end of Starship Troopers when the movie came out. And I've started a couple more of his works. While I respect and appreciate all Heinlein has done for the genre, I couldn't help but feel his works were not written for me. I was born a few years before his death; we are of very different generations. And I'm a female, and, frankly, his works are not very kind to females.

And yet, the pervading argument among some is that there is very little need for more YA SF; after all, we already have the Heinlein juveniles.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating about how prevalent this attitude is among the community, let me point you to this Locus Roundtable discussion, held because so many people were posing the very same question during a series of posts about SF for kids and teens. Or how about this article by John Scalzi, commenting on this article by a publishing professional which argues that Heinlein is the ruler against which all other SF is measured. Or, just ask your friendly local YA SF author--nearly every YA SF author I've met has mentioned a similar attitude to their work by some.

Now, one of the most important things I want to make clear now before saying anything else is simply this: I do not want to take away from Heinlein's legacy. Although his work is not for me, I don't want it gone.

I experienced a similar attitude when I was in college, working on my Masters degree in literature. I'm in the South, so of course, everyone likes Faulkner. Everyone, that is, except me. I actually rather dislike Faulker, and find his works pretentious, and aside from a handful of his short stories (which I think have as much substance as his novels, just, thankfully, more succinct), I don't like anything he's written.

This did not go over well in most of my classes.

The thing is: despite the fact that some of my professors loved Faulkner with an all-burning passion, he is not the be-all and end-all in literature. There is NO standard against which all literature can be measured, because literature is personal. Literature is more than just the words on the page; those words morph and become something more in the mind of the reader. And that cannot be measured.

That said, I cannot deny that Faulkner means a lot to some people, and that some people find something within his words that I simply do not see.

So I don't want to take away from what Faulkner is and has done. I don't want to take away from what Heinlein is and has done.

But what I am saying is this: we should not stop writing.

The suggestion behind the Heinlein debate is that Heinlein's juveniles were the epitome. YA SF peaked there, and everything else is downhill. That nothing more needs to be said.

And that, frankly, is bullshit.

Here's the thing: we will never have the epitome of story. Never, ever. The world is constantly changing, and while there are threads within our stories that always stay the same, the shape of those stories is just as amorphous as the world we live in.

As literature evolves, it is not at all about denying the history of the genre. Heinlein has a great place in history, and even if I've not been influenced by his work directly, I know that he's influenced the world of SF enough that his mark is on most of the genre today. I don't want to take away from what he's done--no more than any author--and his work still has power in the hands of the right reader.

But I also present a plea to the YA SF community. Change is good. Moving on from Heinlein isn't about forgetting him. We're not taking away from his legacy by adding to it.

Illustration by Zen Pencils; available for purchase here

Fighting Fear: Why Sci Fi is so Important

They say money is the root of all evil, but I'm willing to bet it's actually xenophobia.

Xenophobia is something ingrained in our society, something so deep in our communal psyche that Joseph Campbell touched on it in his monomyth studies. It is the source of wars, the source of conflict, the source of hatred.

It is, ultimately, the fear of the unknown.

I think it's no accident that the word xenophobia was developed in 1903 and that it's use since then has been steadily on the rise:

Source: Google definition
Think of what's happened in the last century or so. Airplanes. Global communication. Space travel. The Internet. Which each advancement, the world has shrunk a little. In the 1890s, it was highly unlikely that the average person would travel across the world. Now, anyone can do it with a passport and a couple thousand dollars. In the 19th Century, it was unheard of to have daily, casual conversations with someone in another country. Now, all it takes is an internet connection.

But as our world shrinks, our fear grows exponentially. In some ways, fear is taught. My grandparents were taught to fear the Japanese; my parents were taught to fear the Russian Communists; my generation was taught to fear people from the Middle East. In some ways, fear is ingrained. As children, we have a fear of the dark because we do not know what is in the dark. As we grow older, we realize that the fear of the dark is irrational, so we seek a face to represent it.

On some deep level, social researchers and psychologists say, people as a society and as individuals choose, from an endless menu of things that go bump in the night, what to fret over and what to shrug off.  --Kirk Johnson, NY Times Article, "The Things People Choose to Fear"
I challenge you to take a close look at the things you fear, whether it be terrorism or spiders, and analyze why you are afraid. In nearly every case, there is a factor of the unknown that plays up your fears, turning them from a mild worry to a deeper phobia. Xenophobia is a massive tapestry of fear, with threads wrapped around every aspect of our terror.

There are, of course, ways to fight xenophobia.

Via This Is Indexed

The more aware we are of something, the more we understand it and are familiar with it, the more we can accept it. We may never love the things we fear, but we can learn to not be afraid of them. 

This is one reason why, as a teacher, I was so passionate about encouraging students to travel, eventually leading three trips abroad before I became a full time writer. When we travel, we see more of the world, we understand it, and we grow less afraid. 

This is one reason why, as a writer, I have been so passionate about the idea that "representation matters." The more diversity we see in our literature, the less afraid of others we become. And make no mistake: sexism, racism, homophobia, and other prejudices all that a root in fear. 

And this is also why, as a reader, I am so very, very joyous over the increase of science fiction. Just as xenophobia has risen in the world, so have stories written to fight it. 

I would argue that science fiction really got going as a genre around the 1950s. Of course, there was science fiction before that--you could argue that the oldest recorded tale of history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, has science fiction (and xenophobic) roots, but as a genre, the 1950s really saw a boom in sci fi. To prove this, I made a chart, because charts are cool. 

You can read more about how I developed this chart and the data I used on my blog.
While science fiction had been on the rise in the early 1900s, it took a hit in the 1940s (during World War II), and then sky-rocketed over the next few decades. On a cultural level, it's not hard to theorize why science fiction has been growing in popularity over the decades. At first, it was a matter of being a hero on a grander scale--much like in comic books, which were also gaining in popularity at the same time.

These were stories where men could be men and shoot things and save bikini-clad women (insert manly grunting here). On a societal level, for a country coming out of a major war where no side really won, it's understandable why we'd want to have stories where there was clearly a right side and a wrong side, and the right side won. These were the days of black-and-white science fiction. 

But you'll notice that, for a bit, science fiction sort of plateaus. It gets a surge again in the 1980s. And, looking back at our history, you can see why, all over again. Around that time in history, our country was changing again. Walls were, literally, coming down. Our society was on the cusp of great change, and the world was shrinking in very real ways: telephones were rampant, the Internet was being developed, computers were changing everything. 

And sci fi changed, too. 

As much as I disagree on a personal level with Orson Scott Card, you cannot deny the impact this novel made on the literary world, and its reflection of the world as a whole. What made Ender's Game so remarkable--and what changed the face of science fiction--was the shift from thrilling heroics in a black-and-white world to a conscious awareness other cultures and their viability. Ender's Game tapped into the very deep fears we have on a societal level on the unknown, the ultimate novel portraying xenophobia, and--remarkably--the development of empathy, understanding, and compassion for the feared unknown.

Take a look back at the chart on the use of "xenophobia" and the rise in sci fi novels. Just as more and more people developed xenophobia, more and more novels were written to combat it.

Ender's Game and other novels of its ilk marked a shift in science fiction, one that much more actively fought against the xenophobia of the world. At the foundation of sci fi in the early twentieth century was the idea that there is unknown in the world, and we should kill it with a laser gun. Of course, this still exists in our sci fi today. Movies such as Alien and its accompanying sequels, Pacific Rim, the Godzilla franchise, and more remind us that, in some cases, we were right to fear the unknown. 

But in many more cases--and, notably, in nearly all YA science fiction cases--the stories teach us the exact opposite. We did not know what was out there, but when we discovered it, learned about it, and tried to empathize with it, we found something amazing. These stories lead us away from thinking in terms of black-and-white, and encourage discovery more than fear. They remind us that ignorance is linked with fear; knowledge with acceptance. They teach us that we should try to understand others, that sometimes our very survival depends on working with each other. They whisper to us that fear can be overcome.

And if all that doesn't work, we do still have our laser guns. 

How do you know when your manuscript is ready?

I am a huge fan of making your manuscript shine, regardless of which publishing path you are choosing to take. And there is a lot you can do to make it shine like the midday sun on a polar-vortexed field of snow.

Things to do when revising
(Revising to me means changing content.)
  • Think about every single piece of advice that you hear in the context of the book you're working on. You read a lot of blogs, right? Maybe even read a lot of books on craft? Go to conferences? Think how you can use what they suggest to make your book stronger. Then add in those layers into your manuscript. Add that depth to that one character. Spend some time thinking about how to change your book based on those suggestions. Do this enough times, and your setting/characters/plot will feel like they're a real place / real people / could really happen. The more layers you get, the more people will be invested in this world you created.
  • When you read through your ms, if you ever think, “I don’t know how they [agent/publisher/readers] are going to take this part,” then change it. That's the little warning light in your brain, blinking, letting you know that there's a problem with that scene/chapter/section. Keep going through your ms until you don't have any more parts you wonder about.
  • Read it through and see if it reads like a published book. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that it's supposed to be rough until an agent and an editor works their magic on it. Think about the last "just okay" book you read. There were things that you didn't love, or that weren't done well, right? Each time you ran into them, you pushed them into a little container in the side of your brain and kept going because of the parts you liked, right? But if there were too many things that bugged you, your little container got full, and suddenly you cared a whole lot less about finishing the book. Agents / editors are the same way. Try your best not to give them things that are going to go into their container.

Things to look for when editing
(Editing to me means grammar stuff.)
  • Don't use was ___ing (or were ___ing. Or am ___ing) unless you have to. As in, don't use something like "We were running down the street." (Or "I was running down the street," or "I am running down the street.") Just use "We ran down the street." (I ran... I run...) Why? Because was ___ing is less concrete. Notice how "We were running down the street" feels more like you're watching from a distance and they're kind of floating down the street. With "We ran down the street," you can feel the pound of each foot on the pavement. Using -ing words does NOT make the action feel more "in the moment." I just doesn't. Is there ever a time you should use it? Yes. When something is actually in the middle of happening. For example: "When we walked outside, the sun was shining." You can't really change it to say "When we walked outside, the sun shone," because then it sounds like it JUST started happening when they walked outside. Basically, if you change it, and it changes when something happened, leave it. Otherwise, get it out.
  • Inanimate objects can DO things. This is a HUGE one! Using "was" or "is" isn't so desirable, is it? As a reader, it makes it feel like you're being told everything, instead of seeing it. So, instead of saying "The building was at the end of the road..." Use "The building sat at the end of the road..." Instead of "The clock was in the middle of the wall..." use "The clock hung in the middle of the wall..." Easy peasy. Yet makes a huge difference.
  • Watch out for phrases like Walking to the door, she opened it. Okay, um... You can't open the door at the same time that you're walking to it. Be careful with these! It's a rare case when it's a good idea to start a sentence with a word that ends with "ing."
  • Don't use filters unless they're absolutely neccessary. I think (or he/she thought), I knew (or he/she knew), I saw (or he/she saw). Or smelled. Or felt. Or any other filter words. Use these, and the reader stops feeling like everything is happening to them, and starts feeling like they are watching the things happen to your character. It’s no longer personal to the reader. Why? Instead of imagining how something feels, the reader has to imagine how it feels to that character, then think about how they feel about the character feeling that way. There's a filter there. THINGS GET TRAPPED IN FILTERS. That's kind of their job. There are very few cases when you need to point out that the character hears/sees/thinks/feels/knows/smells something. Most of the time, that's understood. If you come across any of these, take it out and see if it still makes sense. Chances are, it will.
  • Use economy of phrasing. It's amazing how complicated we make sentences the first time around. Take a look at each and every sentence and see if there is a simpler, more concise way to say it. Your job is to never confuse the reader. (Withhold things from them, sure. Use red herrings, absolutely. But never confuse. Especially in the wording of a sentence.)
  • Look for pet words you overuse. For me, it's "just" and "that." And I am TOTALLY FINE with them going in the first draft. Everything flows better when I do. But when it comes time to edit, it's time to take them out! Actions can be overused, too. Glancing, shrugging, eye rolling... Just keep an eye out of anything you overuse. One of my favorite ways to find overused words is with wordle.net. Paste in your entire manuscript, and it will make a word cloud with your most used words. Some (especially character names and other things specific to your book) are fine. But you'll get a good idea of some words you should do a search for.
  • Change your font. Sounds weird, I know. But somewhere toward the end of revising, change the font. If you've been using Times New Roman, change it to something like Arial, or vice versa. You'll be amazed at the things you'll catch when you aren't staring at the same font that you've stared at for the past gazillion revisions! Or send it to your Kindle, and read it there. Or have your Kindle or iTunes read it to you. Hearing it out loud helps you catch many things you'd miss otherwise.

So.... What if you've been changing your manuscript forever? How do you know when you're done? Couldn't you keep revising forever?
    Yes, yes you could. If you get down to the point where you are fiddling with wording over and over, and you're only making minor tweaks, it's probably time to call it DONE.

Are you sure? Are you sure I'm ready?
Two things: 
  • Don’t confuse hope and desire with being ready.
  • But don’t confuse fear of rejection with not being ready.

Your gut will tell you when you are there! Listen to it. Then summon all the bravery and confidence you can muster and move forward with it in whatever direction your headed.