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.

Helpful Hints for the Aspiring Galactic Dictator


This article originally appeared on the late, lamented Science Fantasy Universe blog in 2010.

Congratulations! Your ships are fueled and armed, your minions are prepared, and your course has been laid in. You’re now ready to complete your conquest of the galaxy and establish yourself as Galactic Dictator. However, before you set out to lay waste to that insignificant blue planet that always seems to be pivotal to building your space empire, there are a few things you should know. That’s why we’ve compiled this pamphlet, to make your journey of pillage, destruction, and conquest as pleasurable as possible.

6a012876c6c7fb970c017eeb1f81c1970dTip #1: Stop shaving.

Galactic regulation #ZX-765-1/P specifically requires the Supreme Ruler of the Galaxy to wear facial hair. Since the destruction of Earth is expected to take no time at all, it is best to start work on your facial grooming now. While recent changes in the law mean that a full “beard-of-evil” is no longer required, at the very least a mustache is de rigueur. If your facial hair is complete before you arrive at Earth, then there is less of a chance that red tape and paperwork will delay your coronation. (See also galactic regulation #ZA-847-5/E, “The Supreme Ruler of the Galaxy must wear a funny hat at all times.”)

Tip #2: Watch your language.

No matter what your native tongue may be, or whether or not your species is capable of verbal communication, the common language of the galaxy (as of this writing) is English. All communications, even between yourself and your home planet, are required to be conducted in English. Failure to comply with this regulation may delay your coronation. True, your native language and the structure of your vocal chords may lead you to have a ridiculous sounding accent, but don’t be self conscious about it. (Please note that there is an exception allowed if you plan to locate your base of operations on one of the islands of Japan, but only under those circumstances.)

flash-gordon-conquers-the-universe-to-the-rescueTip #3: Hire locally

Your henchmen may be the people that you trust the most, and have served you loyally for hundreds of space years, but they’re no replacement for having boots on the ground. Earthlings are greedy by nature, but paradoxically work cheap. Recruit a few in the early, covert, stages of your operation to help lay the groundwork. If you promise an Earthling dominion over his fellow humans, he will prove to be more loyal than your pet hovark, a harder worker than any of the slaves running your Ice Caves on Uranus, and can double as your eyes and ears as you gather intelligence. When your plans are sufficiently advanced, feel free to dispose of them as you see fit since you will have dominion over the entire race shortly, and need not be bothered with piddling little things like the lives of the people you’ve exploited. (See also Chapter 4, “Mwa-ha-ha!”)

Flash_Gordon_Conquers_the_Universe_(1940)_1Tip #4: Surround yourself with the babes.

There are many perks to being a galactic despot, but by far the best has to be the fact that chicks are drawn to you like a space magnet. Take advantage of this fact and make sure you always have plenty of feminine pulchritude at your disposal. Sure, they may prove to be an obstacle if some meddling hero seduces one into betraying you, but there’s always plenty more fish in the sea. (However, be aware of galactic regulation #ZX-555-9/W, the “too dangerous for a girl” clause.)

6a012876c6c7fb970c017c38a18b22970bTip #5: Full disclosure.

Regulations require that planets about to be conquered be fully informed of their fate in advance. This is to give them fair opportunity to prepare themselves for their upcoming enslavement or destruction, whichever your plans require. It may seem like gloating when you tell them that they are all about to die, but don’t look at it that way. Think of it as helping them. Likewise, if one of them should infiltrate your ship, make sure that you tell them all of the details of your plan down to the minutiae. Then make sure that they have plenty of time to come fully to terms with what you are about to do by selecting a slow and convoluted method of execution. An Earthling who dies with full understanding is a happy Earthling. Well, a happy dead Earthling, but happy nonetheless. Do not worry that their knowledge might hinder your plans. Nothing can stop you now.

Tip #6: Have fun!

This is a joyous moment. You are about to become the undisputed Galactic Dictator, and consolidate a rule that spans the cosmos. Smile as you go about your conquest. Laugh. Enjoy yourself, because after the conquest is done, it’s nothing but work.

You will find these six tips invaluable to you as you begin this final stage of your great plan. Take them to heart as you fire your atomic piles and engage your hypersonic engines, and we’re certain that you’ll find a lot to enjoy as you subjugate Earth. Good luck.

“Grumpy Cat” for the Atari 2600


I’m in one of those lacunae that pop up in the middle of an author’s life from time to time. My editor gave me a heads up that the first round of edits for Brothers in Arms will be arriving in my mailbox imminently. Once it does, I will need to drop everything to review the changes and notes, and start out on the rewrites stage.

Of course, being hip-deep in Crush Story could have been an obstruction. To prepare myself to go back into the universe of Bobby, Sarah, and Gabriel, I needed to get Jason and Sam (from Crush Story) out of my head. So I put the novel aside to clear my mental palate and be ready to work.

Of course, my brain doesn’t like being inactive. It wants challenges. It wants to create. So I wrote a video game. To be specific, I wrote a game for the Atari 2600.

SONY DSCFor those of you under 30 (which honestly is most of my fanbase) the Atari 2600 was the first widely available reprogrammable video game system. It pioneered the ability to change games by plugging in a different cartridge. It popularized the joystick as a control medium. And it led the way for every system that has come since. The games were simple, but addictive and compelling. And while today people might sneer at the bad graphics and simple sounds, from 1978 through 1982 it was state of the art.

The main challenge in writing a game for the 2600 is to make it as small as possible. The average game for the 2600 is 4K. That is one ten-thousandth the size of “Angry Birds” on your phone. And you only had 128 bytes of memory for your variables. We don’t even talk in bytes any more, only in millions (Gb) and trillions (Tb) of bytes.

So I sat down to write a game. All of the best 2600 games made up for their simplicity with great theming, backstories, and creativity in imagery. So I decided to make my game about Grumpy Cat.


For the action, I recycled a concept I’d used three decades before when I taught myself game programming for the Atari 800 by writing a game called “Herple” which I never released. Your character moved around the screen while being chased by a number of different enemies, trying to collect items that popped up in random places. Easy mechanic, but one that can become challenging when your opponents start to move really quickly.

The theming for the game fell into place naturally. Tardar Sauce wants to eat in peace. But the universe is out to annoy her, which it always seems to do. The player needs to move Tardar Sauce around the screen eating the “noms” (the yellow dot in the screen above). Simple goal, easy to grasp.

Of course, a game needs obstacles, so I created a bunch of “monsters” that would chase through the screen in different ways that the player would have to maneuver Tardar Sauce around.

GrumpyCat.bas.bin_2I came up with five obstacles based on things that Grumpy Cat hates. I drew a smiley face, which would represent happy people. I drew a rough representation of a camera to represent a photographer out to get the meme picture of the year. I drew a Valentine’s heart to represent the concept of love. I drew a “Bluebird of Happiness,” which would flitter up from the bottom of the screen, and I drew a Shiba Inu Doge.

One of the tricks in creating the game was for each of the five “monsters” to move differently, essentially having different artificial intelligence code for each. I made the Happy Person the simplest, moving from the top of the screen to the bottom while chasing after the player as it does so. It moves the slowest of all the monsters.

The photographer moves down the screen twice as quickly as the happy person, but is the same speed as the happy person in going from left to right.

GrumpyCat.bas.bin_8The Doge is the toughest enemy. Like the photographer and happy person it will chase you down, but while it moves from top to bottom at the same speed as the happy person, it’s twice as fast in moving from left to right. At higher speeds, you have to try and get above the Doge as quickly as possible, or it will chase you down.

For the hearts I needed something different. They also move from the top of the screen to the bottom, but I didn’t want them to chase Tardar Sauce down. Instead, they will pick a direction (left or right) and move in a diagonal as they move down until they hit the side of the screen, at which point they just move straight down.

The Bluebird of Happiness was tricky. I decided that it was way too easy to just hang out at the bottom of the screen to dodge enemies before moving up above them, so I had the bird move up the screen, flittering back and forth randomly as it did so. You can’t hang out near the bottom all the time without running the risk of running into the bird.

216562503-mainI have some folks out there play-testing the game (as I call it, poking it with a sharp stick) right now, and will be fixing bugs and making improvements with an eye toward releasing it. Of course, since Grumpy Cat is trademarked and licensed all to heck, I won’t be able to sell the game. However, I will make the binaries available for anyone who wants to play it. And I’ll probably have two cartridges manufactured of the game: one for myself and one for Tardar Sauce’s owners as a thank you for not suing me.

If you know a thing or two about 2600 emulation and homebrew games, or want to learn, you can check out the thread about the game at AtariAge.

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.

A Centsible Proposal


As happens regularly, people are talking about getting rid of the one cent coin (“penny”), saying that it costs too much to produce and has too little value.

Some say that without the one cent coin we would just round every transaction to the nearest five cent mark, but that’s wishful thinking. Every example of where the lowest denomination coin has been eliminated has shown immediate price inflation. Plus, since Americans have been trained to think of their coins not as multiples of cents but fractions of a dollar, the dime will immediately become the lowest effective denomination to many people with the five-cent nickel relegated to the status of half a dime (which was actually what the five cent coin was called from 1792 until 1873).

And when you consider the fact that the US loses more per coin minting the nickel than it ever did on the cent, very soon there will be a push to eliminate the nickel. This will make the dime the de jure, not just de facto lowest denomination.

The answer is not to just stop minting cents and nickels, but to make them cost effective. And the best way to do that is to do what the US did in 1857, 1864, 1873, and 1965: revamp our coinage system almost completely.

The Half Dime

First, to save the five cent coin, we need to actually step backward for the answer. As mentioned above, the five cent coin from 1792 until 1873 (with a seven year overlap at the end with the nickel five cent coin) was a silver piece called the Half Dime. We need to go back to the original concept, and revive the Half Dime as our five cent piece.

The last Half Dime minted in 1873 was 15.9 millimeters in diameter, significantly smaller than the dime. I propose that we make the new half dime the same dimensions as the 1873 model, and make it of the same clad composition as the dime, quarter, and half dollar. To make it easy to tell from other coins in your pocket, I suggest we use what is called an “interrupted edge,” where the edge alternates segments of reeding (the vertical “bumps” on the side of the dime, quarter, and half) and smooth edges.

Since the weight of the new coin would once again be about half of that of the dime, it will remain economical to mint this coin as long as it is economical to keep the same composition for the dime and quarter.

The Smaller Cent

Next, we need to take a lesson from the Eurozone, and make our one cent coin smaller. The Eurocent is currently 16.5 mm in diameter, compared to the current U.S. Cent at 19.05 mm. I suggest actually going slightly smaller to avoid a clash with the Half Dime and the third leg of my reform stool, which I will mention below. I propose a Cent of 15 mm exactly.

The new Cent will look similar to the current cent, since it will keep its copper coating. However, the inner core will no longer be zinc, but steel as is used by the Eurozone, Britain, and Canada. Between the smaller size and the cheaper (and sturdier) material, the coin will be less expensive to produce and last longer.

To ease the transition, I recommend using the current designs (Lincoln/Shield for the Cent and Jefferson/Monticello for the Half Dime). This way, people will have some continuity between the old coins and the new, to help them get used to them.

As old coins arrive back at the Federal Reserve, they can be retired and melted for their constituent metals, to be made into new coins. Since the current Cent and Nickel have more intrinsic value than their face value, this will actually mean a net profit to the government. Both old coins, however, will still remain legal tender and can be spent for years to come.

These two changes are not the end-all, be-all of the change, however. There is still one way to cut down on the number of Cents that are needed each year without suffering the economic consequences of eliminating the denomination altogether. We simply lessen the demand the same way we did during the Civil War.

The Tuppence!

The U.S. had a Two Cent coin from 1864-1873, which was designed to take up some of the demand for Cents, which had been driven out of circulation by hoarders during the Civil War (back when they were made of nickel, which was a semi-precious metal at the time). I say we not only keep the “penny,” but give it its proper sibling again, as have the British and the Eurozone: the “tuppence.”

US 2 Cent Coin 2016

Since the main use of the Cent nowadays is in making change, adding a Two Cent coin into the mix makes this process easier and cuts down on the number of Cents needed. The Two Cent coin can be minted for only slightly more than the new Cent will be, and would have twice the value, so only half as many would be needed. Where three or four coins are needed today, only two would be needed with this new addition. Instead of three pennies, hand back a tuppence and a penny. Instead of four pennies, hand back two tuppences. And, of course, hand back one tuppence instead of two pennies.

I propose that the Two Cent coin be revived at a diameter of 18.8 mm, slightly larger than the current dime. To distinguish it from the new Cent, Half Dime, Dime, and current Cent and Nickel, it will have a scalloped edge as can be seen above. This edge will make the coin easily distinguishable both visually and by feel. You will know you have a tuppence in your pocket, and can easily distinguish between the four small coins either by looking at them or touching them. And even with this distinctive edge, the new coins will still be able to stack and roll in vending machines, coin counters, or automatic change dispensers.

The tuppence will be the same composition as the new penny, and will change along with it should a cheaper material ever be required.

For a distinctive design, I chose someone woefully neglected on American money: Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt singlehandedly started the design revolution in American coinage that gave us the St. Gaudens gold coins, the Lincoln Cent, and eventually the Buffalo Nickel. Since the Mint recently released a Theodore Roosevelt coin in the Presidential Dollars series, there is an engraving handy that can be adapted easily to become the obverse of the new Two Cent coin.

For the reverse, I chose an animal linked forever with Teddy Roosevelt: the Bull Moose with whom he compared himself when launching his 1912 campaign for the Presidency. It will also be reminiscent of the much beloved Buffalo Nickel, and a chance to pay homage once again to conservation and American wildlife on our coins.

The graphic below shows the relative sizes of the three new coins, alongside the current Dime and Quarter Dollar, so you can see the system I propose at work.

New US coin comparison

With these changes, the American coinage will not only be cheaper to produce, but will once again be logical. The smallest denomination will be the smallest coin. The Five Cent piece will be smaller than the Ten Cent piece again. And the new Two Cent piece will fill a need better than an ever increasing number of One Cent pieces ever could. And all without the inflationary affects of doing away with our smallest coin.

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.

Something for the Fans


I’ve gotten a couple of tweets sent my way from parents whose kids enjoyed Sidekick. It still boggles my mind that there are people out there who are not only reading the words I wrote, but are apparently hooked on it.

Right before Sidekick came out, I posted a Prologue here on the blog to set the scene for readers, offering some action that took place in the days leading up to the start of the book.

As we wait for Brothers in Arms to come out some time in the new year (sorry, it took me longer to finish than I would have liked), there are going to be some readers who will get antsy waiting. There are probably a few who are already antsy because the first chapter of Brothers in Arms was included in Sidekick.

I had considered writing a new prologue for Brothers in Arms and posting it here, but there are some problems with that idea. First off, the prologue for Sidekick already existed; it was a scene that was drastically cut down from the first draft that I did a quick polish on to post here. I don’t have anything like that for Brothers in Arms, so I’d have to write something from scratch.

And if I’m going to write something from scratch, I want to make sure it gets into the hands of those who appreciate it, and are willing to work for it. In short, I want to make sure it gets into the hands of the book’s fans.

So here’s what I’m proposing. If you want a sneak peek into what’s happened to Harbor City in the 18 months Bobby’s been away, write me a letter. No, not an E-mail, not a Facebook message, an actual letter. Send it to me care of my publisher:

Pab Sungenis
c/o Month9Books
4208 Six Forks Road Suite 1000 10th Floor
Raleigh, NC 27609

Everyone who writes will, I promise, get a personal letter back from me with something special: a drabble I plan to write in the next couple of days featuring a scene from the point of view of the kid who will become the Squire. That’s right. Bobby’s getting a sidekick of his own, and you can be one of the first people outside of my publisher and critique partners to get to know this character, and do so in a unique way.

And while I love and appreciate my adult readers (since I’m also an adult reader of YA fiction), I especially want to hear from actual kids who have read the book. So if you’re under 21 and you write me a letter, I’ll include a signed autograph sticker you can put in your copy of Sidekick, and maybe something else cool, too.

Some fine print for those who are as paranoid about their privacy as I am (or more): I may share some of what you say along the line, but I will never, ever, ever reveal your full name or address to anyone. Ever. I swear. All I will ever use your address for is to send you swag. It will not be sold, given, or even whispered to anyone else.

So I hope to hear from you readers out there. Happy New Year.

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.

“Sidekick” Audio Commentary: Chapter 7, “Retrenchment”


In which Bobby has a fight with a supervillain, then with his guidance counselor. He also finds a new weapon and a new/old nemesis.

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“Sidekick” Audio Commentary – Chapter 6, “A Never Ending Battle”


Bobby has a heart to heart with Mister Mystery about his responsibilities (especially to himself) and has an interesting interlude with Sarah in the gym.

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