Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

“The Catcher in the Rye” – Why It Sucks


NOTE: This is a repost of an essay that appeared on my old “PaBlog” back in May of 2008, and was my most commented upon posting ever. My opinions have not changed in the intervening six years.

After re-reading portions of Rumpled Trenchcoats and Rubber Bullets while preparing this latest round of queries, I felt the need to revisit one of the most famous novels of modern time, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. I didn’t like it when I read it before, but I decided to keep an open mind as I read it for the second time.

catcher-194x300I still don’t like it.

There are those who will say that Catcher is a classic. I will not dispute that. However, Childe Harold is also a classic. Lord Randal is a classic. Everyman is a classic. That does not mean that they are good. What they are, which is what makes them classics, is that they reflect the time in which they were written, took revolutionary (or, in some cases, evolutionary) jumps in style or form, and greatly influenced works that came after them. None of them, however, stand up well against the passage of time.

Sadly, a lot of what makes Catcher unbearable are the things that made it revolutionary and innovative 57 years ago:

Holden, the antihero: Antiheroes as protagonists were not as common prior to Catcher as they have been since. Holden is not heroic. He isn’t even likable. He’s annoying, petty, depressing (appropriately enough, as he’s depressed), and borders on stupid. It was the presence of such a well-crafted character with no redeeming characteristics that swept through the literary (and popular culture) world like a sirocco wind blowing in warm, fresh air. Today, however, this type of character has been done to death. Salinger didn’t invent the antihero (that honor goes to Apollonius of Rhodes), he perfected it. Doing so, however, invited an onslaught of imitators who through their copying diminished the original.

The prose style: Let’s face it, Catcher really is the quintessential first-person narrative in the style of an extended dramatic monologue. Salinger really is unparalleled as a writer when it comes to an ear for dialect and creating a believable voice for a character, except perhaps for Mark Twain. However, the narration of Catcher, like that of his rival for the dialogue crown in Huckleberry Finn, does not age well. It is too grounded in the 1940′s and early 50′s. Popular slang has drifted over the past half century, and those not familiar with a lot of the terms used by Holden will get lost easily. Also, Holden tends to ramble. This is understandable when you consider his other character traits, but Holden is not someone you go to for clear, concise, narration.

That fucking ending: I hate it when stories don’t end, but just stop. Catcher is the worst offender in this case. True, there’s the epilogue, but there’s so much time that’s passed between the carousel scene and the epilogue that one can’t help but feel cheated. There’s a lot of story chopped out of there, which I would like to see. What happened when Holden finally revealed himself to his parents? Why is he in California? Is he institutionalized? Is he insane? If Salinger had left out the last chapter, it would have been a better ending, but it’s still too abrupt, and doesn’t tie up any of the story. The epilogue, to me, reads like something an editor forced the author to write to answer some questions he or she still had.

Books in the 1940′s had happy endings, or they had sad endings. Catcher has no ending, which was innovative back then, but today is just grating.

The plot: Or, should I say, the lack of one. Catcher seems to be following the Campbellian model at first, but its hero never leaves the Underworld, is never transformed, and never returns with a boon for mankind. Holden has no goal, no desires, essentially no character arc. His misadventures in Manhattan do not destroy the boy that was to make room for the man that will be, they just bump him around and kick him when he is down. Holden never learns from his mistakes. He doesn’t even acknowledge that they are mistakes. The Holden we have at the end of the last sentence is the same exact boy we meet at the beginning of the first sentence. I liken this to watching a man continually getting shat upon by a large bird, who keeps wiping the offal from his face, but never thinks to change his seat or chase the bird away. This may be funny to sadists, or Tom Green fans, but it is not enjoyable for me.

And this brings me to my biggest gripe:

Holden does nothing.

Holden spends the entire length of the story walking around, with no needs and no desires. Maybe Salinger was drawing inspiration from the Lost Generation that followed World War I, and anticipating the self-absorbed Baby Boomers that were being born as he was writing the story, but surely that’s no excuse for telling us a story that is no story.

Take a look at some of the characters from more modern works that owe their existence to Holden. Tom Henderson from King Dork has goals: get to know some mystery girl, get to understand his dead father, and make it through high school. Dennis Cooverman from I Love You, Beth Cooper may be carried along by the unyielding stream of circumstance, but at least he stands up and takes matters in his own hands from time to time. DeeDee Truitt from The Opposite Of Sex wants to scam a family member. The refusenik kids of Like We Care actively rebel against popular culture by not buying anything. Holden walks around muttering to himself. The kid can’t even get laid by a prostitute for pete’s sake. Honestly, if Holden had mentioned thinking about calling Jane Gallagher one more time, I would have screamed “JUST PICK UP A PAY PHONE AND CALL HER, YOU DICK! DO SOMETHING!”

If you are reading this, Mr. Salinger, please take it in the manner I intend: loving criticism. You are perhaps the greatest living writer, much more talented than I could ever hope to be. You have a unique talent with words. There’s a reason thatFranny And Zooey was on the little bookshelf in the headboard of my bed all through my high school years. But what is commonly believed to be your greatest work just doesn’t push my buttons. It’s not aged well. In the end, what was innovative in the 1950′s is now old hat; it suffers from the curse of “it’s all been done before.” It’s the novel equivalent of reading an e.e. cummings poem: it was groundbreaking when it came out, but today you just want to smack the guy and show him where the SHIFT key is on the typewriter.

On Puppies, Sad and Otherwise.


PuppyAs an author of what could be construed as science or speculative fiction, it’s been difficult to watch what’s been going on with the Hugo Awards and their hijacking by a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies.

The weeks following the Puppies’ attacks on the Hugos have led to a lot of interesting reactions. There have been criticisms, counter-criticisms, backlash, and some ingenious satire brought about by the whole controversy. And while it might have had the beneficial effect of drawing attention to the Hugo Awards nominating and voting process, that’s probably the only real benefit we writers have felt from the whole thing.

Now I have no real personal objections to any of the Sad Puppies or their anointed nominees, (except for John C. Wright, who is a notorious homophobic dick) and think that they should be allowed their opinions. As well as the freedom to express those opinions. (Even when, like famous homophobic dick John C. Wright, they try unsuccessfully to remove their dickery from the internet.) I question their tactic, however, of hijacking the most prominent awards given to writers of SF in order to advance their agenda.

But the real questions that should be raised by this whole mess have gotten lost in the accompanying shitstorm. The Puppies have concerns. Are they wrong?

Not entirely, but their arguments have sadly lost legitimacy.

The Future Has a Liberal Bias.

Yes, most SF leans toward what those on the right would construe as “liberal” beliefs. And it’s that way for a reason.

Without liberalism and progress, there wouldn’t be a “future.”

Consider the very nature of conservatism. By definition, conservatism prefers a lack of change in society. It thinks things are just fine as they are and that change for change’s sake is a risky thing. That’s a valid argument on their part, but it doesn’t make for good SF. Once again, by definition, science fiction requires major advancements in society and technology in the fictional worlds created by its authors. Using the other popular term for this genre, speculative fiction, you still require a world very unlike the present world which conservatives want to conserve. You need futuristic, fantastical, or supernatural elements that just don’t exist in today’s world.

If you fast forward, say, 300 years for a story and society is essentially the same as it is today (which, to grant them their due, is how conservatives would have it), the story is going to be fairly boring. Yeah, they might have rocket ships and laser guns and that sort of thing, but the most interesting things about future worlds are the way their societies differ from ours today.

Never mind that in just about any sci-fi world worth its salt you’re going to have an alien culture of some kind in it. How does society react to the aliens? How do we perceive their cultures, values, and mores? The only half-decent “right wing” sci-fi I’ve seen with an alien culture is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and when you get down to it, that novel is really about how humanity is xenophobic by nature, and we tend to react violently toward the not-we. And xenophobia is one of the driving forces of the extreme right wing.

George R.R. Martin put it best in his blog entry criticizing the puppies linked above: “we love to read about aliens and vampires and elves, are we really going to freak out about Asians and Native Americans?”

So sci-fi and spec-fi really can’t exist in a proper conservative sphere. To have a story, you have to have change. Otherwise you might as well set your stories in the here and now and save yourself the world-building.

While we’re on the subject, let me say a few things about dystopian sci-fi. The rise in popularity of dys over the past decade has rankled some on the right because of the perception that since the granddaddy of the genre (Orwell’s 1984 of course) was an anti-right wing screed that all dys has to be anti-right. Not so. The best dystopian novel of all time actually look place in a liberal utopia which was shown to be crushing the human spirit. Don’t know which one I’m talking about? Go read it for yourself.

But let’s move away from the big picture and zoom in a bit. The Puppies believe that in addition to the genre’s left leaning tendencies there is an active bias against white males in publishing today.

Scratch out the “white” part, and you’re closer to the truth.

No Boys Allowed

In my particular market (again, I don’t consider Young Adult to be a genre; it’s a market) there really is an active bias against males. Not so much male writers, however, but male readers.

Look at the Young Adult bookshelf in any bookstore. What do you see? Plucky heroines. Girls coming of age. Strong women fighting misogynistic dystopias. Plucky heroines coming of age in misogynistic dystopias.

Where are the books for boys?

There are plenty of writers (like myself) who are churning out books aimed at teen boys. There are brave publishers out there who are taking a chance on books aimed at teen boys. But you just can’t find them. It comes from a misguided belief that boys don’t read. Perhaps because boys buy fewer books than girls do. But a large part of that is because there are fewer books for boys to buy than there are aimed at girls. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So when it comes time for buyers for bookstores to order books, they have a subconscious bias against stocking books for boys. Books written for boys are either passed over, buried, or mis-stocked. Publicity people who are used to marketing books towards teen girls have no clue how to target boys and launch less-than-successful campaigns to sell books for boys.

The bias exists. It isn’t a deliberate one, but it’s there nonetheless. And it will be hard to overcome.

But the way writers like I are going to overcome it isn’t to stuff the ballot boxes for YA book awards, or demand that books aimed at girls be removed from preferential spaces and books for boys inserted. The way we are going to overcome it is by writing fiction for boys that is so compelling that it demands to be bought, shelved, and read.

That’s what the Puppies have to do. If you want to sell Boys’ Own, Action-packed, Right-Wing Oriented Sci-Fi, then you have to write BOAPRWOSF that is so good and so compelling that it demands to be read and can stand on its own in a crowded field.

It All Comes Back to Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was a racist, sexist, homophobic, fascist dick. His writing reflects that point of view.

And he won the “Best Novel” Hugo four times.

Four. Times. He holds the record. No one has yet surpassed him.

I hate everything Heinlein stood for, and yet Stranger In a Strange Land* is one of my all-time favorite novels. As is Job: A Comedy of Justice. He’s written some other stuff I like, too. He was a terrible human being but he was a great writer. And he still gets props for it.

The people who are doing most of the whining that “Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today” (never mind that the main reason that he couldn’t is because he is dead) because they can’t get their stuff nominated for awards overlook the fact that their writing is nowhere near as good as Heinlein’s. Nor is mine, but I admit it. I aspire to be that good but I am not there yet. But that’s not the fault of people who don’t nominate me for awards; it’s my own fault for not being good enough to compete with much better work.

And if you look at your own work objectively, maybe you’ll come to the same realization.

In Conclusion

Probably the worst thing about the whole Sad Puppies debacle is that in order to fight against the Social Justice Warriors (“SJW’s”) they so rightly despise is that they have adopted the exact same tactics as these SJW’s! They have resorted to blacklisting, ballot box stuffing, bullying, and threats. Rather than embracing the conservative belief in the free market, they have created a Stalinist situation where voters are allowed to vote for anyone they want, as long as it’s candidates approved by the oligarchy. Instead of producing work that is capable of winning awards on its own merits they have perverted the process to bestow now meaningless awards on substandard product.

Worse, they are pushing good writers who deserve the recognition to pull themselves out of contention because the tactics of the Puppies has forever tainted their nominations. And they may have just robbed the most prestigious awards for SF of all legitimacy in the future.

That, Puppies, is sad.

* By the way, if you ever want to see how Progressive Capitalism can work in sci-fi, and how rightist theories can lead to technological advancement, the world of Stranger is one to look at for a model.

Lit Shaming


There’s an article on today by Ruth Graham entitled “Against YA.” The subhead reads

Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

I had considered just posting a link to the article on my Facebook page with the comment “screw you,” but decided that a more thoughtful response was required. Especially since Ms. Graham didn’t put much critical thought into her article, which meant that I would have to pull double duty logic-wise.

What seems to have rubbed Ms. Graham the wrong way is the fact that The Fault in our Stars is an amazingly successful book about to become a movie that makes a lot of money for just about everybody except the author whose book it is based upon if Hollywood operates the way it usually does. Ms. Graham did not like The Fault in our Stars, so Young Adult books are bad.

You Mad Bro?

Usually when I come across a hatchet job like this one, I tend to suspect an ulterior motive. Especially when the biography at the end of the article informs us that “Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.”

This should set alarm bells ringing. After all, which writer out there doesn’t feel jealous of other successful writers? I’ve said before that John Green haunts my dreams because he’s so successful and I’m not. I don’t begrudge him his success, though, because he’s earned it, but a week doesn’t go by that I wouldn’t love to have his reviews, let alone his sales figures. So is this article just an example of sour grapes from someone who hates an author who’s better than her?

On Amazon, the only living author listed named Ruth Graham is the daughter of evangelist Billy Graham and sister of hate preacher Franklin Graham. Since her works don’t really seem to be in the same category (they aren’t fiction, for one thing) I think we can decide that either the Ruth Graham who wrote the article is not the famous Ruth Graham, or that it’s not jealousy that drives her opinions. So I will give her the benefit of the doubt and take the piece as seriously as it deserves, which honestly is still not much.

De Re YA

Let’s first deal with one misconception about young adult literature (a term I hate) that seems to permeate Ms. Graham’s thinking. She treats YA as a genre.

I will admit that I introduce myself at panels and speaking engagements by saying “I’m Pab Sungenis, and I write books for boys.” But that doesn’t tell you what genre I write in. I’ve written urban fantasy (including two novels in the superhero subcategory), thrillers, and am currently in the middle of what I call a “bromantic comedy.” I’ve also written “cozy horror” but haven’t yet found a publisher for that one.

You see, what Ms. Graham doesn’t understand (which is also the case with a disturbing number of agents, publishers, and writers) is that YA is not a genre. YA is an audience. It’s a marketing construct. It’s a demographic shortcut.

I don’t write “young adult” books. I write books where young adults are the protagonists and people (mainly boys) from 13-21 are a targeted demographic.

YA authors, or at least those who are worth their salt, don’t write books for teenagers. They write books. Hopefully books that teenagers will like. One of the reasons that John Green is so ridiculously successful is that he doesn’t talk down to his readers. He doesn’t treat them as stupid. He gives them complex characters with real dilemmas who drive powerful plots. And he doesn’t soften up their rough edges (consider Takumi’s battle cry in Looking for Alaska for an example). This is also why adults often find his works so compelling; his characters are fascinating.

One agent actually told me five years ago that “no adult will read a book about teenagers.” I nearly choked on my glass of Coke as I reached for my copy of King Dork after hanging up on her. Too many people don’t understand that YA simply refers to the target demographic of a book, not its content.

The Fault in our Logic

Let’s move on to another problem with Ms. Graham’s cri de coeur (or is it more of a cri de rate since it seems to come from her spleen and not her heart?) and take a look at one reason she claims to look down on YA books.

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.

I think this was the point when I considered that Ms. Graham either didn’t read the book, or skimmed through it quickly. “Satisfying?” “Looking to the future?” What future? Excuse me, but




Augustus is dead. Isaac is blind. Hazel Grace is dying. The author she idolized and whose book she employed as an emotional crutch (a) is an asshole, (b) has disowned that book, (c) was a prick to her and Augustus, and (d) is having an emotional breakdown in front of her. That is not “satisfying” on any level. No character gets any kind of satisfaction or anything near what they want. There is no future to be looked to, and the only hand grasped is Isaac’s as he is haltingly led around.




But this kind of thing is part of what makes The Fault in our Stars so good. It doesn’t cop out. It doesn’t treat the reader as someone who needs a big fluffy pillow to land on when the story comes to a screeching halt. It is a gut punch right where readers need it the most. It’s a book targeting teenagers about death and dying that doesn’t sugar coat anything. If I knew any teenager who had a terminal illness I would immediately give them a copy of this book and Somebody Up There Hates You just because it will make them laugh where they need to without treating them like… well… children!

Yes, there is escapist YA (Graham cites Twilight and Divergent as examples) and there is a place for it. There’s escapist fare for adults, too. But there is so much more. I’ve seen The Hunger Games and Catching Fire compared to The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front, both deservedly so. The Harry Potter series is designed to give children a love of reading and grow with them, and the last three books can especially be considered adult fare.

And I will admit that, at heart, Sidekick is probably best described as escapist, but in the two books I also touch on growing up, drifting apart from your friends, child abuse including sexual abuse, teenage fatherhood, homelessness, and other “heavy” stuff. And the 12 year olds I’ve talked to as I’ve moved along promoting the books seem to be able to grasp this “adult” material. And the 30 and 40 year olds I’ve talked to don’t feel ashamed that they’ve found characters that they’ve grown to love just because the characters are much younger than they are.

What the Dickens?

Another thing that really disturbs me is that Graham offers up Charles Dickens as an example of complex adult literature, compared to the “shameful” YA.

Has she ever read any Dickens?

Dickens is about as formulaic as the worst YA out there. You can tell who the bad guys are because they are all either ugly or have disgusting names like “Uriah Heep.” The Good Guys always win and the Bad Guys always lose (or are reformed in the case of Scrooge). Even Sydney Carton who….

…nah. It’s a Victorian novel. I’m not posting a spoiler warning. Sydney Carton who dies on the guillotine says in his final words “it is a far far better rest [he goes] to than [he] has ever known.” It’s a happy ending for him.

Dickens’ work is so formulaic that there is a 30 episode radio comedy just making fun of his tropes.

There is no thought required in a Dickens novel. There are few complexities. There are no deep motivations or convoluted schemes. It’s escapist fare cut and dried. Just like Shakespeare (who wrote for the groundlings more than he did the crowned heads) the only reason we tout Dickens as great is because the dirt of intervening centuries has covered over the flaws in his work like so much snow in a graveyard. Because it is old, we assume it’s art. Spoiler: it isn’t.


I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m being a little defensive because I write YA, and that perhaps I’m taking her comments as insulting my work by association. But I really think it goes deeper than that.

The illiteracy rate in the county where I live is over 20%. One out of every five people around me cannot read. The rest of the country is not much better. I find it hard to criticize anyone who reads anything nowadays. And one should never be ashamed to read what they like.

There are different types of books for different people. There are tons of genres. And some of those books target teenagers. But I can honestly say that most of the YA books I’ve read in recent years have better and more complex characters than any of the “adult” fare I’ve read.

If Ms. Graham wants to see adults reading more books aimed at them… well… maybe she and the other “adult” authors ought to write better stuff for them to read.

Senseless Sensibility


There was a great hashtag going on Twitter yesterday.

what if YA protagonists made ENTIRELY SENSIBLE decisions? #sensibleYA

Granted, my reply was brief and a little snarky (“Then we would have no plots”) as were most of the direct replies to the tweet, but a lot of other users ran with it and made it hilarious.


Of course, as tends to happen with me, the jokes got me thinking. The truth is that most YA fiction is, in fact, driven by kids who make stupid decisions. In adult fiction, a book that was driven by a protagonist who made one stupid decision after another would send readers screaming and demanding their money back (although there are some notable exceptions) but in YA it’s not only acceptable, it’s almost expected.

Why is this so?


I think the main reason is that kids like protagonists that they can identify with. The heroes and heroines of YA need to “feel real” for kids to connect with them. Young protagonists have to sound, think, and act like actual teenagers if they’re going to click with a teen reader.

Occasionally you can get away with having a protagonist who is forced by circumstance to grow up early (due to a hard life, out on the streets or in a dystopian world) but for the most part YA protagonists have to act like the teenagers we claim they are, and that means they do stupid things.


Some basic facts to consider when plotting a YA book:

Kids are impetuous and reckless

Kids think with their hearts and jump into action. Where an adult might take a second to reason out all (or at least a few) of the consequences of an action, kids jump in head first.

Consider The Hunger Games. The initiating action that starts the whole story is Katniss’ volunteering to be tribute instead of her little sister Prim. If you sit back and think about it, this is a very stupid decision.

Katniss is the provider for her family. She knows how to hunt, she knows how to bargain, and she has essentially been the mother of the family since her father has died and her own mother went into shock. With her gone (which would send her mother into another downward spiral and make her useless again), Prim would have no one to care for her. Plus, Prim would be totally incapable of taking care of her mother and as a result both of them would be doomed. Prim would be doomed anyway. The logical, adult thing to do would be for Katniss to try to pull the pieces together and take care of her mother with her sister gone.

Katniss does not think logically; she thinks with her heart. She can’t stand the thought of Prim dying in the Games (although her demise and suffering without the Games would still be all but certain and much more prolonged) so she steps up.

This is not the logical move. But it is the right one. That is why Katniss is a hero. And why The Hunger Games is a classic.


Kids are inexperienced

The main reason that kids are so impetuous and reckless is simply because they haven’t learned as much as adults. They haven’t experienced enough to make reasoned, logical decisions in all cases.

Consider Paper Towns by John Green. Q is so taken by Margo’s impetuous actions that when she disappears he becomes convinced that she wants him to find her. He assumes that everything he sees is a clue meant to lead him on to find her.

Experience would tell Q that most people who run away don’t want to be found. They mean to leave their previous life behind in its entirety. He might also come to realize that what he loves about Margo is her mystery, not the girl herself.

So much frustration, exhaustion, and really stupid decisions could have been avoided if Q had just been a little more familiar with life. But he isn’t, so he chases after the mystery girl. And as a result, Paper Towns is a compelling story.


Kids learn by doing

Not to demean our educational system, but the way kids’ brains are wired means that they learn much more easily from doing things than from being shown or told things. This is why we give blocks and similar toys to kids: so they can figure out some of the basics of how things work. Things fall down. Check. Wide bases are best for building tall structures. Check. You can’t fit a big thing into a small hole. Check. Different objects have different shapes, check.

As kids get older, the lessons they learn are much more complex than the basic lessons of babies and toddlers, but their brains are still wired to learn through experimentation and action. They don’t know whether something will work until they try it.

Thus it’s easy for a kid to get a harebrained idea into his head and try to see if it will work or not. Of course, if the kid were to do some research into the idea the feasibility could easily be established, but that takes too long and gets too boring. Faster and easier to just try it and see what happens. That also makes for better reading.


The trick to creating realistic YA is to have your protagonists think and act like actual teenagers. Teens are rash, reckless, inexperienced, and often do the wrong thing. But they learn from doing it. You cannot have your protagonists be sensible (although a Voice of Reason supporting character can be handy to have from time to time); not only is it bad drama, it’s not how the world is.

Why Build a World Only to Blow it Up? (The Problem With YA Trilogies)


In the past several years, I’ve gone through what, to me, had to be three of the most disappointing Young Adult trilogies ever.

Those three are the Divergent series, the Maze Runner series and the Hunger Games series.


Surprised? Yeah, they’re three of the most popular dystopian YA series of recent years. They sell more books in a week than I’ll sell in two lifetimes. They’ve launched or are launching movie franchises that will gross into the bazillion dollar range.

And they’re all very well written and enjoyable.

I did not say they weren’t good – hell, I think The Hunger Games is a 21st Century Red Badge of Courage and Catching Fire a 21st Century All Quiet on the Western Front and deserve to be studied alongside them – I said I found them disappointing.

And here’s why.


Why Do You Build Me Up….

Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and James Dashner are expert world builders. Panem is a well-envisioned society whose development is deliberately stunted by the tyrannical Capitol. The world of the Factions is believable and fascinating. The Glade is a peek at what The Lord of the Flies might have been like if the asshole to cool guy ratio had been a little better. They’re all functional, but imperfect societies and leave the reader wanting to discover more.

Let’s start with The Hunger Games. I don’t think there is a single character we meet in District 12 who couldn’t have a good story told about them. You want to know more about Gale’s brothers. Each of the characters in the Hob has a backstory that’s hinted at. Hell, I’d sit down and read a book about Greasy Sae’s childhood. These are good characters and have so much to discover.

Then as we move on beyond the fence, we have eleven other Districts out there. Each of them have their own culture, their own values, and their own stories to tell. We get some little hints about these cultures during Katniss and Peeta’s tour, and from other tributes, but there are huge gaps that could be filled, and stories that could be told.

Moving on to Roth’s dystopian Chicago, each of the factions has a very defined role in society and they all depend on each other for survival. We are told early on how this arrangement came to be, and it’s one of those rare creatures in Sci-Fi: a dystopian origin that is vague without being annoyingly so; we don’t know how the world blew up, but we how society pulled itself back up afterward, which is the important thing.

I’d even go so far as to dispute the “dystopian” label for the world of the Factions. I’d argue it’s almost a Utopia as it’s actually set up. Everything works, and everyone has their place. And it’s not oppressively caste-oriented either. You choose your own future. You decide what faction you want to belong to and if you pass the test you are in.

There’s a lot to be explored here. Why would anyone want to choose Abnegation? What really sets Dauntless apart? Does being in Candor really give you the right to be as much of a douchebag as you want? Again, there’s room for lots of stories to be told.

Next let’s check out the Gladers. These amnesiac boys have built their own little society in the center of a labyrinth. We are told about nearly a dozen different jobs that the boys are divided up into and we get hints of how boys end up in those jobs. Society thrives. If it weren’t for the Runners who go out into the maze trying to find a way out there would be no contact with the Grievers at all and everyone could live reasonably happy ever after.

Three well imagined, well planned, well structured worlds with lots of stuff to explore.

And they’re all completely and irrevocably destroyed by the end of the second book (or in the case of Divergent and The Maze Runner, two thirds of the way through the first).

…Just to Let Me Down?

Mockingjay is a complete departure from the formula of the other Hunger Games books. It’s the story of the new rebellion and the fall of the Capitol. The Districts cease to exist as they are, and we hardly even visit District 12 at all until the very end. Plus, the characters that everyone loves are all killed or mentally raped before the end. Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.

The world of the Factions is falling apart before the end of Divergent. Abnegation is almost completely destroyed. A proper civil war is brewing. Four and Tris have to try and put things back together. By the time we get to Allegiant, the Factions and their story are proven to be essentially a lie, and a Midichlorian-sized macguffin is given for how they got that way.Things have changed so much that we now have two POV characters and two different stories to follow: Four’s and Tris’. (This is not a bad thing, by the way.) Everything you wondered about, and wanted to know more about, no longer exists. Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.

Dashner proves pretty early on that he is not fooling around. He quite openly and happily destroys life in the Glade starting at the halfway point of the first book. By the end, it’s completely fallen apart and even the Maze itself is out of the picture. A whole new challenge awaits. Nothing Will Ever Be the Same.

Which leads me to ask: why spend so much time world building if you’re only going to blow it all up?

Why tempt us with histories of the people of District 12? Why give us such tantalizing glimpses of Candor, Erudite, Amity, and the other Factions if you’re just going to not only destroy them but the reason for them existing? Why discuss the roles each boy plays in the Glade if those roles become irrelevant before the third Act of the story begins?

And Then Worst of All….

It really doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s look at another hot fantasy YA series, the Caster Chronicles. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl also built an expansive and fascinating universe with well-rounded characters and intricately designed supernatural species. The first book ends with the Nothing Will Ever Be the Same moment, when it looks like everything we knew was wrong, but the rest of the series is all about restoring the order of things. When the story reached its logical end in Beautiful Redemption, not only had all the characters grown and matured, but everything had been put back the way it was before it was broken. None of the characters will be the same again, but the world will!

Garcia and Stohl have decided to do a spin-off series following two fan-favorite supporting characters (Link and Ridley) as they set off on new misadventures. But if they hadn’t, there was still a Caster World intact enough that readers would know that there could be hundreds of more stories out there if someone wanted, and all they had to do was dream it all up. (Provided a Linkubus didn’t snatch it away from you while you slept.)

Don’t Break My Heart

The dystopian trend in YA is not a bad thing at all. It has brought millions of young readers into the world of Science Fiction, touching upon the “hard sci-fi” aspects of mid 20th Century writers.

But for those of us who have been around the Sci-Fi block a few times and remember the elaborate worlds created by some of the “old school” writers like Niven, Pournelle, Asimov, Heinlein, and Dick, it’s a letdown. There are hundreds of stories set in Niven’s Known Space universe. So many stories grew out of Asimov’s robot stories. Yet each of these new universes exist solely to tell one story, and that story ends up destroying everything.

Panem was created solely so Katniss Everdeen could destroy it. The Factions were created solely so Beatrrice Prior and Tobias Eaton can shut it all down. The Glade exists solely as a place for Thomas to spend some time in before it disappears. Powerful stories, yes, but they needlessly destroy their worlds just to develop one character fully.

There are stories out there that could be told. I want to know those stories. I want to explore those worlds. And they are destroyed. That is why I am disappointed.

Writers remember: you may create the characters, but if they’re well crafted they have lives beyond what you put on paper or the screen. You may build the worlds, but they grow and evolve. Please don’t treat them like window dressing. They deserve better. At least leave room for their stories to grow in people’s minds, even if not on the page.

On Grammar and the Birth of Words


‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6.

I read two great essays recently at Huffington Post, both by Jonathon Owen. The first is 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes and the other is a rather defensive response to criticism he got as a result of the first, Yes, ‘Irregardless’ Is a Word.

Both are great reading, and as an admitted unreconstructed Grammar Nazi I recommend you go read them now (if you haven’t already) if you are serious about being a writer. And this is despite the fact that Owen is essentially hauling my Grammar Nazi ass to Grammar Nuremberg in both articles. I suggest you go read them because he is right and I am wrong.

Grammar has been very much on my mind as I’ve been slogging through the first draft of Crush Story. With two teenage boys as protagonists, swapping narration and POV back and forth between them, it’s vital that I maintain separate voices for the two of them. The best ways to do that on the printed page are through word choice and grammar. So I decided that one of them, Jason, would have a fairly well developed vocabulary and would use somewhat proper grammar. The other, Sam, would have what I call “lazy” grammar and use fewer words. It got so bad that I had to turn off grammar check in Microsoft Word because when I would write a chapter by Sam, half the page would get green underlines about sentences ending with prepositions or “me and him did that” phrases.

But if the book ever gets published, I will lay better than even odds that Sam’s chapters “sound” more real to the teens who read it, because the way I have him talking is closer to how English is actually spoken today by kids born in this Century.

Grammar is an evolving beast. Most of the rules of grammar as learned by students in the Twentieth Century were not the rules of English as it had actually grown, they were imposed upon it by academics who decided that nothing had changed since the days when Latin ruled the known world. Those academics trying to impose the rules of Latin spelling and grammar on English (which has more in common with Germanic tongues than with Romance languages anyhow) are the reason we spell “vittles” as “victuals” although no one who has ever spoken the word has ever pronounced the c or u. And please don’t start me on the insanity of trying to impose the rules of a language that declines its nouns upon a language that determines sense by word order.

But as right as Owen is in the two essays, I do have to take exception with him on one matter. In both of them he defends “irregardless” by offering a supposed counterexample:

Flirgle, on the other hand, is not a word — it’s just a bunch of sounds that I strung together in word-like fashion.

This is where Owen is wrong. “Flirgle” is a word. Why? Because he used it as a word.

Words are invented every day. I’ve created a couple. “Metroburb” wasn’t a word before someone first used it, and now it refers to a metropolitan area that is subservient to a larger metropolitan area, like Jersey City is to New York. “Smog” wasn’t a word until someone felt the need to use one word to describe the combination of smoke and fog created by auto exhausts. Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll created hundreds of words between them. We’ve lost count of how many words Shakespeare coined. (Or at least I have; smarter people could probably tell you an exact number.) None of those words existed until they were used. And now they do.

And now, despite Owen’s protests to the contrary, “flirgle” does.

What does it mean? It must mean something, even if it is assumed it means nothing. Even gibberish has some meaning behind it when you get down to it, even if the meaning is nothing more than a desire to amuse. So it must have a meaning. If it must have a definition, I proposed that a “flirgle” be defined as a nonsensical counterexample to a logical thing. After all, that’s how Owen used it.

So never say that a word isn’t a word. “Flirgle” is now as much of a word as “irregardless” ever was, because Jonathon Owen willed it into existence. It may die out from lack of use (and probably will, as most new words do), but for one fleeting moment, it achieved worddom, and a word it is.

Put that in your pipe and euphemism it.

Keep Your Eyes Open


I met a character in one of my upcoming books last weekend. I don’t know who the character is just yet, or where I’ll use him, but I do know I met him.

It was on the platform at a light rail station in Baltimore, where I had just come from an appearance at Comic-con. One of the other people there made such an impression on me that I decided to base the appearance of a character on him. He’ll probably end up being someone’s best friend or big brother since he didn’t strike me as the protagonist type, but who knows who he will end up being in the end.

One of the tricks to making your writing realistic is to use as much of the “real world” as you can in it, and the best way to make sure you do that is to always be on the lookout for inspiration.

As another example, while walking to that light rail stop, I passed by an old boarded up restaurant whose sign was falling apart. Where once it said “China Doll” restaurant, it now reads “Chia Doll.” My immediate thought was “don’t eat the salad.” I will probably use that setting and that joke somewhere down the line, too.

It’s not just characters and settings that present themselves to you at random moments, either. Whole story concepts can smack you upside the head at times like these. While “backstage” at our local Fantasy Fair (where I was performing some scenes from Shakespeare with a friend) I saw someone’s sword and helmet laying on a blanket, next to a pair of high top sneakers. It took the better part of a year for that image to yield fruit, but it stuck with me, and when I was trying to come up with a story for a new novel I remembered that image and Sidekick was the result.

If you’re serious about writing, spend some time just wandering around looking and listening. Walk through neighborhoods, especially if you’re in or near an old historic town with lots of character. Make notes in your handy pocket notebook (which you do keep with you at all times, right?) whenever something strikes your fancy. If you have your phone handy snap pictures of images or locations that strike you as interesting. I won’t advise you to take pictures of people you find interesting because that can get a little stalkerish, but to each his or her own.

Sit in the Mall or a park for a couple of hours and look at the people going by. Try to imagine stories about them: who they are, what they do, what their hobbies are, etc. If you find an interesting idea, write it down. You might find use for it somewhere down the road.

As a writer, your eyes are as important to your craft as your fingers are. Keep them open at all times. You never know when your next story is going to stare you in the face, or vice versa.

How to Plot a Novel, part 1


As I start the heavy lifting on Crush Story, I thought it might be a good time to discuss one of the ways I like to develop the plot of a novel.

There is no “right way” to plot a novel. There are a couple of wrong ways, but even they can yield positive results sometimes. It isn’t even necessary to actually plot a novel, as was the case when I wrote Sidekick. I knew where the story began, I knew where and how it would end, but I left almost everything in the middle up to chance. Yeah, I had a couple of scenes I knew I wanted to include, but how I got to them, and from them to the end, I didn’t know until I actually started writing.

Some stories, however, can’t be done by the seat of your pants. They get intricate and complicated, and you might either leave something out or get your story so tied up in knots that you’d do better to just start over. I expect Crush Story to be that kind of story, so I am going to actually plot it.


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There are a couple of things you will need while you are plotting.

The first thing is a good thing to have handy even if you’re going to try and wing it. You will need notebooks. I used the plural there for a reason. Keep a stock on hand just in case you mislay one of your notebooks, as I have been known to do on too many occasions. Also, carrying them around in your pocket will all but destroy the notebooks pretty quickly, and you’ll have to move on to the next before too long. My local Walgreens recently had a sale on pocket-size “memo books” selling them three for a dollar so I snatched up several. Keep an eye out for bargains like that and never let yourself run out.

Once you have notebooks, make sure you carry one around with you at all times. And a pen or pencil, too. You literally never know when you will have inspiration strike. I was actually riding on a train a while back when an idea hit me that would wind up changing the entire “third act” of the book. (More on that later.) If I hadn’t had my notebook I probably would have forgotten it a couple hours later when I got home. Never be without your notebook!

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Second, you will want index cards. Index cards are wonderfully useful items that let you rearrange major plot developments in no time at all. As you can see in this picture, I’m using two different colors of index card because Crush Story is going to be narrated by two separate POV characters who pretty much alternate chapters. This way I can see which plot points belong in which character’s chapters, and I won’t need to jump back and forth between POV’s more often than I want.

Once you have your index cards, use them. Copy important scenes you scribbled in your notebooks onto them. If you already have more than just an idea or description for a scene you want, add “bullet point” notes on the rest of the card for lines, gags, important things to remember, and so on. Feel free to use both sides of the card.

The other thing you will need, or at least I need, is caffeine. When I do writing marathons (as I tend to do once inspiration has hit me) I need my Pepsi Throwback to keep me awake until the muse stops hitting me over the head.

With notebooks and index cards on hand, you’re ready to start on the plot. You’re going to want some structure, which I will discuss in an upcoming entry.