Head on over to Adventures in Writing where I talk about How to Create Back Cover Copy.
Head on over to Adventures in Writing where I talk about How to Create Back Cover Copy.
Today no one tried to kill me with a knife.
Today my wife did not miscarry.
Today my wife did not miscarry again.
Today I did not witness a violent crime, helpless to do anything about it.
Today my heart wasn’t broken, making me feel used, dirty and cheap.
Today I did not have to put my beloved cat to sleep myself because I could not afford to take her to the vet.
Today I did not wake up from surgery and cry tears of blood.
Today I did not see a volcano explode and destroy the family vacation spot.
Today I was not homeless.
All of these bad things happened to me, but not today.
When I read I want to forget. Sometimes all I want to do is remember. I want to go somewhere else. I want to be entertained. I want to know what you think at night when the house is quiet. I want to you to be honest with me. I want you to weave your values and moral fiber throughout your story. I want you to tell me what’s in your heart. I want to laugh, I want to cry and I want to snicker at a bad joke.
Show me with words. Show me the feeling when the man you loved lowered himself on you for the first time. Show me how your heart would beat so fast when you saw that special girl in her pretty dress on Sunday during church. Show me the little face sleeping in her bed when you snuck in late at night to stare at her and take comfort that her chest was going up and down, her breath going in and out.
I need it all. I need nothing. I need a connection.
Today nothing bad happened to me today.
The day is not over yet. If something bad will happen to me today, I might cry. I might hug. I might kiss. I might wake up before dawn and feel sorry for myself. I might grieve. I might freak out. I might never be the same person that I was when I woke up this morning.
All of those are maybes. One thing is certain as the blood running through my veins.
I’ll pick up a book and read, either to escape or drown in it. In that moment, it’s just you and me.
And the Writer.
Here at the R.H.W. Blog, we target book reviews to people who write novels. There are many other book reviews on Across the Universe out there tailored for readers.
Across the Universe by Beth Revis is a contemporary young adult science fiction book of monumental science fiction YA goodness. There is a particular fondness for YA sci-fi on this blog, as the 9.3 blog readers will attest. Before we get into Across the Universe, let’s talk about that topic specifically: YA science fiction. We need to go there to come to grips on why Beth Revis has awesomesauce for blood.
Dystopian Settings in YA Science Fiction
YA science fiction has historical roots in dystopian settings. What industry labels as simply “dystopian” really used to be thought of, by readers, as “science fiction”, if they thought about the genre label at all.
Enter vampires, urban fantasy, contemporary and paranormal (although vamp fic is a paranormal offshoot). You could say these killed off classic science fiction under the guise of character-driven stories marketed (successfully) to girls, and science fiction stories along “classic” lines was not meeting the needs of a new vastly expanded audience.
We could say that… and it’s BS. Science fiction is alive and well, simply nudged into a little dystopian niche that is selling like chocolate in an all-girl high school student store. There are only so many books and book publishers to go around, in the traditional sense. What sells, sells. That “classic” science fiction for young adults fell by the wayside wasn’t elitism, but it wasn’t the fault of science fiction itself. It was capitalism.
This is only brought up because as novelists, we need to practice the art of eye-rolling. Take for example the following conversation:
“Science fiction as a market for youth is dead.”
“What? What about The Hunger Games? Uglies? Unwind? Or…”
“That’s dystopian fiction.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me! It’s true. Simply placing a book into the future doesn’t make it science fiction…”
“Maybe classic science fiction for youth is dead…”
“You mean, maybe classic science fiction for youth is underutilized and underrepresented?“
This was an actual conversation, by the way. No names are given to protect the guilty.
Why digress to talk about the current YA book market in speculative fiction? Because the current market has its roots in the older market. And there were some amazing young adult science fiction books in dystopian settings.
Enter John Christopher
The king of dsytopian settings is John Christopher. His legendary Tripod trilogy was a chilling tale of alien conquest and subversion, where as a teen, your own parents turn against you because they have been “capped”. It’s a mind-control device turning people into hypnotic slaves for unseen alien masters.
Christopher nailed all the dystopian YA elements, and one could say, defined them. There is one complete and utterly horrific subplot, where the unseen aliens (in the first book) take the prettiest young girls to “the masters” city once winning a beauty contest, and these girls are never seen again.
Once the truth is known what happens to these girls, oh my. There’s nothing explicit about it. It’s just evil. Pure, understated, evil, and from a literary standpoint, so very delicious.
We’ll come back to John in a moment.
What Makes Dystopian YA So Delicious
There no mystery why dystopian fiction provides a fertile ground for young adult novels. It’s delicious because the setting is great for the come-of-age story. As teens and adults, we yearn for places to put context to growing up, and nothing says “grow up!” like oppression and tyranny, especially in the future. In dystopia, everything is about the removal of choice. And nothing makes a greater young adult story than a teen trying to make choices where it seems like there is none. It often is a choice of defining oneself correctly, or dying.
So much goodness.
Enter Across the Universe. Across the Universe nails the dsytopian feelings of oppression and tyranny, and as a dystopian novel it just doesn’t work, it sparkles brightly (sparkles like stars, heeee). The setting, particularity for Amy, the main character, goes from a disturbing familiarity to an assault on everything it means to be a teen girl growing up. Like Christopher, Revis serves up the terrible with glee, and like Christopher, it is both hauntingly subtle yet at times overpowering and overt.
The Value of Choice in Across the Universe
Unlike Christopher, Revis parties in the gray areas of choice and consequences. She parties hard. Right at the beginning of the book, Amy must make a choice and ho-boy (ho-boy being a technical term), is it a doozy. When she “wakes up”, the novel is a quest for the truth. A mystery presents itself and it spirals out of control as she and Elder (a teen boy training to become a leader) come to grips with the awesome evilness of a society built on lies.
And here is where we depart our dystopian study, and how Across the Universe plays in the genre, because the book is so much more.
Ho-boy is it ever.
What is Classic Science Fiction, Anyway?
Let’s not be coy. There are certain elements of science fiction that can be called “classic” and applied to books aimed at young adults, such as Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin and to a larger extent, Cities in Flight by James Blish. I could go on and on but those are “classics” and not “dystopian” (although in Rite of Passage the main setting is not perfect by any means).
Science fiction, in essence, is more than a look in the future and the use of some thing that, if it didn’t exist, the story would come apart.
Classic science fiction holds elements of what I call The Want. The want to know. The need to know. The yearn to understand. Star Trek was up front about this: this is a story of people who want to know more.
There’s a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where the Enterprise is on a mission. On the way, they find a curious hole in space and wonder what it is. The plot is summed up like this:
“Hey, there’s this funny hole in space.”
“Not really relevent to the current mission.”
“Let’s look at it anyway. It’s kinda cool.”
That right there is classic science fiction.
Across the Universe is Classic Science Fiction
Beth Revis nails this. She sticks the yearn to know, the itch to understand, in a 10-point landing. The story takes place on a colony ship, the Godspeed, and what a brilliant story it is. There are problems with the Godspeed. Deep problems. People problems. Technology problems. Problems with simply being in space.
The colony ship is a familiar troupe, and as a science fiction setting it works: a big ship in space going from point A to point B.
Setting, though, is only a small part of it. Science fiction authors should pay close attention to the underlying thematic in this book. Revis goes so far as to place Amy, a runner, in a place where she can run, but soon she realizes there is nowhere to run to. She just isn’t metaphorically trapped by her youth and inexperience, she’s trapped by the cold, hard, reality of space. There is nothing for Amy. Labeled as “nonessential” and alone from anything familiar (including safety), she turns to the search for truth, not simply as a means for survival, but because that’s all she has left.
And oh, Ender, the boy born on the ship. How he yearns. He yearns both for knowledge and the right to know knowledge. He yearns for the stars. He also yearns for the truth.
Indeed, at one point, someone in the novel dies for the yearning. It drives him crazy because he literally is designed to know and question, but because of the dystopian society he lives in commits the cultural equivalent of the Russian Winter Mistake, his creative intellect never goes anywhere. It drives him to the edge of disrepair and beyond.
So Brutal. So full of storytelling goodness.
And Finally, Character Driven vs. Plot Driven Elements in Across the Universe
Is Across the Universe a character driven novel mercilessly targeted to teen girls, because, you know, boys don’t read and that’s what sells to girls?
Do it with me folks:
No. It is not, and a novelist wanting to write a page-turner targeted to teens should pay close attention. Revis drives the central elements of the novel by events that are both based on character motivations and actions, but also plot elements that interject themselves into the story in which Amy and Elder have to react.
That is, of course, life, and especially a poignant way of looking at the process of growing up. If a writer takes anything from Across the Universe, study how Revis does this, because she pulled it off like this was her tenth published novel, not her first.
So here we are. We have a brilliant come-of-age story in a dystopian setting with classical science fiction themes delivered by the yin-yang dance of characterization and plotting. How wonderful Across the Universe is!
While I am loath to even type the word “I” in a book review (witness the thousands of book reviews where the “reviewer” simply talks about themselves), I need to confess I had a dream about Across the Universe the night I finished reading it. I can’t even remember the last time I did that. To say the book sticks with you after you finish it would be an understatement.
Now that I have read the book, I don’t particularly like either the cover or the title. While the starry background makes sense given the way some of the characters feel about stars, both the title and cover art do not convey the wonderful, yummy mystery hidden inside. That’s just me. It’s also me that I didn’t like one of the intense scenes where I felt a different outcome would have made Amy more of a young woman many girls yearn to be.
Of course, the book was expertly written with a distinctive voice even when the viewpoints flipped back and forth between Amy and Elder. Readers will appreciate the subtle foreshadowing and the mystery-in-a-mystery plotting. Readers will also appreciate masterful world-building that never bores you, only teases you and makes you thirsty for more. All these things are the hallmarks of an excellent novel, and as a debut it was a stunning and thrilling page turner. On the Rehabilitated Hack Writer Scale of Book Goodness, I give it four slices of bacon out of five, and it is literally a genre defining book in the Young Adult market segment.
I have been accused of having mad love scene writing skills.
Of this, I am truly guilty and now impart the Rehabilitated Hack Writer Secret to Writing Hot Love Scenes.
It’s that simple, folks.
No need to thank me, that’s just the kind of guy that I am.
Dinner in the Toulouse poly marriage can be exciting.
Everyone at dinner thinks Papa moving in is a great idea.
Mainly because, sometimes, I am a medical mess.
Except Katie. To her, this is beyond a good idea. She looks so happy she is about to burst.
“What?” It is easy to think that Katie is a dumb blonde, rather than one of the smartest scientists ever to walk the Earth, the bio-equivalent of Albert Einstein.
Minus the crazy part. Right now, she looks like a bubblehead with a goofy grin.
“My twenty-five-ish year old evil plan is coming to a close!” She actually claps her hands.
“What?” asks Cazandra, looking confused.
“Babies! Milo would make a great grandfather. It’s what he wants, really, really bad,” says Kate, although it is blazingly obvious who wants the babies.
“I need to relearn how to just be a normal woman first,” I say.
“Oh! Oh! She didn’t say no!”
I roll my eyes, but then I look at everyone. “Yes. I would like to have a baby someday. Not anytime soon.” I give Kate a big grin. “Just warn me before you stick an egg up there.”
She startles as if I poked her with a shock baton. Oh my God!
“Sharon Kaitlin Toulouse! You were not planning on putting an egg in me for fertilization without me knowing about it, were you?”
“Yeeeeee…no. No, of course not.”
I reach across the table, grab her wrist and twist.
“Ow! Ow! Let go!”
“If I suddenly find myself pregnant without planning, I swear to God I will chop your hand off at this wrist and feed it to the beagle!”
“Okay! I’ll be good!”
“I swear,” she says with hesitation in her voice.
I twist and pull. Her place setting crashes to the ground as she comes partially out of her seat. Everyone is looking at me with wide eyes.
“Ow! I swear I won’t impregnate you without you knowing about it first. I promise!”
I yank her all the way onto the table. Dishes and food go everywhere. I pin her hand to the table with one hand and with the other, I grab my steak knife and make a cut on her palm.
I stand on my chair and put a knee on her arm, and I let go. I then cut my own palm, and hiss in pain.
I grab her bloody hand and with my bloody hand, then remove my knee. I squeeze her hand tight until she cries out again.
I let go.
“There. Your promise is a blood oath. We are now blood sisters by honor and deed. The vow is set.”
Kaitlin is lying on the table, smeared with food, drink and blood soaking her clothing, and crying.
I turn to Caz.
“So, what’s for dessert?” I ask, dripping blood on the floor.
“Aaaaand that’s why you don’t fuck with the LT,” says Vash.
Someone asks in a recent blog post:
If you write, where do your ideas come from? Do you start with a scene? A character? A premise? Or do you have some ridiculous trigger that demands you spin a story out of it?
That is a good question. A novel thrusts itself into my poor overloaded mind based on two things: a character, and a theme.
This is the heart of my creative process. I need both a main character with a distinctive voice, and I need a unifying idea. When the two meet, it’s magic. My brain will refuse to let go of the two, and, at some point, they merge and I will have the resulting plot and setting. I am now compelled to write the story.
But where do these characters and themes come from?
Mainly, I observe. I am not a shy man, but I am a quiet fixture. Why does that smartly dressed woman at the airport waiting for the same flight as me have a perpetual frown? Why are the neighbors across the street so reclusive? Is the wife sick? If so, will she ever get better? The Sheriff Deputy in the coffee shop–if she were in trouble, big trouble, would she have the will and fortitude, beyond her training, to survive? If she did have this internal strength, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time, would anybody come to help?
Observation can give me characters, and it can give me themes.
For example, why does our society have a culture of blame-the-victim, bordering on the tolerance for the criminal? Where did this corruption come from, and where will it lead? Why do some cultures today feed off each other, becoming stronger, while others clash, causing conflict? Is a society that devalues the lives of children for the sake of control and equality doomed to failure? If so, how will it fail?
Sometimes, I will be thinking these questions and suddenly they will merge into a story. Like this proto-outline:
The Sheriff Deputy in the coffee shop is in trouble. She is a strong person but in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is a righteous woman, but righteousness is not going to save her now (this is the character, maybe the main character, or an important minor one).
Career criminals, released by our society to prey upon the weak once more without mercy, decided they were going to kill a copy one day. Our society tolerates evil men such as this. It has happened before (in the real world), and it will happen again (sadly, this is also a reality). Where did this corruption come from, and where will it lead? (this is a theme).
The righteous and the evil go at it in the coffee shop parking lot. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the death of the female deputy is a forgone conclusion. How would she get out of this?
She gets help. A woman caught in the crossfire draws her sidearm and joins the gun battle (this is the glimmering of a plot and also a very strong character).
Why did this woman have gun? Well, she has the typical ex-husband who has threatened to kill her. She decided she wasn’t going to use a paper shield and actually defend herself (this is related to the theme, but also further characterization).
Only, she isn’t defending herself. She is defending someone sworn to defend her! She is shot. Several times. Nevertheless, everyone lives, except the evil men.
And this heroic action caused the next American Civil War (this is now the plot).
That’s my writing process. For me, only when I have a firm character, or characters, and a unified idea to generate conflict as a theme, can I get a plot that works for me. At this point, I have a novel. All that is left is my outlining process (which I do in my head) and typing.
You may think a gun battle in a coffee shop parking lot and the next American Civil War is a gigantic, random leap–but it’s not. The theme, as you recall, is “Where did this corruption (tolerance for evil) come from, and where will it lead?” With these characters and this theme, the plot burst out of me like the alien from the chest of poor Kane on the Nostromo.
This is my creative process, how I obtain ideas and turn them into novels. And it works very well for me.
Every Wednesday you can find me over in Adventures in Writing.
Today I write about recharging your writer batteries on the Oregon Coast.
Here is a self-involved writing update!
But hey, if you can’t be self-involved on your own blog, where can you be? Isn’t that three-fourths of the interwebs or something?
I’m actually in a self-imposed writing restriction. Editing work on my own novels has piled up and so I pledged, to the Writing Powers That Be (which, conveniently enough, is me), not to write until I am finished with my editing tasks.
And that is killing me.
With no words, killing me softly…
Ahem. I digress.
Poor Bunny. I created this awesome three-dimensional character, and now it feels like I am neglecting her. It’s not her fault I can’t use the book to breakout as a published author.
But, she is becoming better with age. I’m contemplating a change that will cut the text all the way to 100,000 words.
We’ll see. It’s a good novel. And I don’t want to mess it up.
By the way, in about a month I can have the latest draft ready to go to any blog reader that wants to read Libertarian Gun Nut Science Fiction.
Actually, I take it back. I am looking at one indy publisher who actually does do Libertarian Gun Nut Science Fiction. I’m not holding my breath, though. I am going to polish the manuscript per above just in case they want to see it.
I am looking for an agent for this book project. I’ve had partial requests, and partial rejections. Ha.
This novel really struck a chord with my beta readers, but I am left wondering if my first chapter is as good as I think it is. I’m going to have someone look at it in that regard and give me some feedback next week-ish.
The Baby Dancers
This is actually my next book project to finish. It’s a fun YA fantasy story. I have a need to finish it, not only because I want to see how the story ends, but also because I also plan to shop this around and see if I can land an agent. I am convinced my novelist career has firm roots in Science Fiction. This story, however, is demanding to be written, and I can’t deny the sheer amount of fun I have writing it.
It goes like this: any book with goblin ninjas on fire, you just gotta finish!
This is the next book in the Bunny Trouble series. I outlined it, but I am not going to start writing it until I finish The Baby Dancers.
Armageddon’s Princess Sequel
Another murder mystery, of course. I am enamored with the plot and I give all the beta readers who liked the first book, more of what they liked. Because, I am a giver.
This sequel is full of NOM. NOM I say!
I have already fully outlined this novel, but I am not going to write on it until The Baby Dancers is in the hands of my beta readers.
YA Urban Paranormal Fantasy About A Girl Named Lisa Who Turns into a Bad-Ass Wizard via a Tattoo and Gets Her Divorced Parents Back Together Again
When I was doing a blog redesign, I noticed this excerpt, which I pulled out of my literary butt, was popular with my female blog readers. And other random people who came by but never left a comment.
Out of all these book projects, this one just nags on me. It is an itch I can’t scratch, and I have no idea how long I can ignore it.
Now I know what you are thinking, you are thinking, “don’t!” And I might not be able to, we’ll see.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s actually set in the Baby Dancer universe. In a grand-conjunction kind of way, I could go like this:
I will never speak on this again. It will be our secret, buried in the electrons of the interwebs, forever.
But it is a cool idea.
Anyway, I don’t know when I will get to Lisa’s story, but I will. I originally thought 2010 might be a good time. That’s a good guess on my part.
Geeze. I wrote a chapter of “space opera” just so I could see things blow up in space, and this post gets random hits all over the place by people searching for “space opera” and other people who mysteriously click on a link from email readers.
Yet these people do not leave comments.
So here I am thinking it’s crap.
But if it is crap, why do people keep finding it?
Here’s my initial take: people are hard up for Space Opera Science Fiction. Publishers are not meeting this need.
But what do I know? I do know I have resisted the urge to edit the thing like three hundred times, only because it is an example of a first rough draft, preserved forever on the internets.
It was fun to write, but literally, that excerpt is less of an excerpt and more of my only idea for this story. Before and after, I have no idea what happens!
Perhaps if I figure that out, I will treat Space Opera more seriously.
Any of you space opera fans, just click on comment on either post (this one or the actual post), and leave a comment with your thoughts. I don’t bite. Really. You can also send me mail, my contact information is on the right-hand side of this blog near the top under “Contact Me”.
I have a book backlog. And I vow to make a big dent on it this summer.
As you can see, I have a large amount of stories to write on, an embarrassment of riches. I do know which book I will start to write on after I finish The Baby Dancers. And I will never complain about this type of problem. Never! I can think of no other writing “problem” I would rather have.
I love writing. I love storytelling. It’s fun!
A shout-out to anyone reading this far… I am curious, out of this list, what would you like to read? Besides the story in the art below by Daniel Conway, of course. Which I will not do, but damn howdy (and damn howdy is a technical term), that painting rocks.