A quick and dirty guide to the YA novel

My friend Angela sent me this link some time back and it cracked me up. A young, enterprising writer named Randall Knox broke down the YA novel. His post, How to Write a Shitty YA Novel, is a classic.

Katniss_EverdeenNow don’t get me wrong. I love YA. The Hunger Games was great (even though book 3 faltered, with Katniss continually running to the closet to hide) and Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is one of my favorites. Ness created a vivid, unique world.

But Knox’s list takes sharp aim at the tropes that plague YA novels. For example, of the protagonist, he says:

“Your main character needs to be flat and uninteresting. Save your really good and compelling quirks and nuances for your side characters, because you’ll need those in order to justify their existence in the story.”

As for plot, he writes:

“Along the way, show your protagonist going from childish to slightly less childish. That’s what we call character growth. It’s not actually, because the protagonist isn’t taking stock of his or her life, looking at the world through any lens but his or her own, or really showing any semblance of self-awareness, but the act of becoming slightly less annoying will stand in for that reasonably well.”

And he touches on the beauty of emotional manipulation:

“The world must be on the brink of destruction, every love must be the greatest love of all, and every character must be willing to pay the greatest sacrifice–except for the protagonist, because he or she is a boring, selfish asshole, remember?”

Check it out. It’s a fun read. Now I have to get back to rewriting my YA book.

The Walking Dead: Ecstasy and agony

Walking dead_cast_wallpaper

I’m late to The Walking Dead. It’s not that I don’t like zombies — I do, ever since I watched Night of the Living Dead as a five year old. But there are so many shows out there, as well as an endless supply of zombie-themed shows and books. When it came to The Walking Dead, I just couldn’t be bothered.

But I decided to binge watch the show last Thanksgiving, and just before Christmas I caught up. (Part Walking Dead Castof that time was spent in bed with a fever — zombie shows make for surreal fever dreams). My verdict? The Walking Dead does several things great:

–This show manages to put a fresh spin on the beaten-to-death zombie trope. How? By focusing on the nuts and bolts of survival in a slow-moving apocalypse. Zombies are only one danger. Other humans are nearly as bad (hell, they’re sometimes worse).

–Rick Grimes (as played by Andrew Lincoln) is a hero who is both resolute and plagued by doubt. He is human and relatable. This is a tricky mix that the writers, and Lincoln, pull off.

–With its ensemble, revolving cast, its characterizations can be uneven. Some have remained cardboard over several seasons (I’m looking at you, Glenn and Maggie). but then we get amazing characters like Michonne. Michonne petsShe will be remembered as one of the iconic horror characters decades from now. And then there’s Daryl, who has been consistently bad-ass, and consistently compelling. Finally, there’s Carol, who has morphed from a mousy abused woman to a woman with a backbone of steel. Carol has seen the worst of life and she has learned what it takes to survive in this horrific world.

But… The Walking Dead, like Lost, is one of those maddening TV shows that is blessed with brilliance and plagued by arrogance. This show is great, and the writers know it, which trips them up.

Take the episode “The Grove” from season 4. Carol and Tyreese are holed up in an idyllic country cottage with two young sisters. As often happens on this show, things go south. Way south. This episode was sharp and smart and beautiful. It was gut-wrenching and caught me off-guard. It was not a fast-paced episode — The Walking Dead often walks very slowly. But it was one of the most jarring hours of television I’ve seen.

And then The Walking Dead serves up an episode like “Them,” the latest in current season 5. In “Them,” the gang is reeling from the deaths of two beloved members. They’re wandering, starving, thirsty, and trailed by ambling zombies. And they have angst. And doubt. Basically nothing much of note happens for most of this episode, except for our heroes acting out in small, supposedly symbolic ways. Plus, we get a perverse motivational speech from Rick that is about three seasons too late in coming.The writers were aiming for deep symbolism and small epiphanies. They missed. Instead we got an hour of pouting and navel gazing.

Still, the worst episode of The Walking Dead is better than 99% of other TV shows. Here’s hoping the writers don’t repeat mistakes like this. Please — give us more ecstasy and spare us the agony.


Taking on time travel

Time travel is the thorniest of plot elements. By nature, it’s full of flaws. Take the Grandfather Paradox — watch Futurama for the best example of that. Time travel is difficult because it doesn’t fare well under the light gaze of logic.

But lets push logic aside — whether time travel is or is not possible. When I read fiction (or watch movies or TV), I often want to escape. And what better way to escape than to leave the time period entirely?

Time travel as a plot device offers infinite possibilities. When you’re no longer constrained by time itself, the plot permutations are endless. The imagination can run wild. And for that reason most of all, I love nothing better than a great time travel story.

One of my favorite websites, io9.com, recently ranked all the time-travel-related movies, from best to worst. The article, and their reasons behind each ranking, is worth a look.

For a quick rundown, here is their top five:

5. Time Bandits


4. Back to the Future 2


3. Groundhog Day


2. Primer


And their top time travel movie of all time is….. Back to the Future (the first one)

back to the future

It’s an impressive list. I applaud the effort that went in to compiling it. My take? For the most part I agree, with some reservations. I’m not a Groundhog Day fan, and that barely qualifies as a time travel movie in my mind. And I disagree with the low rating for Ashton Kutshcer’s Butterfly Effect. Sure it was hokey, but what was great about it was how it showed the accumulated futility of trying to alter time.

As far as my own personal list, my favorite time travel movie ever, which made the top ten, has to be The Terminator. It was a brilliant sci-fi/thriller that established a mind-bending franchise. Arnold is great, and both Sarah and John Connor are now pop culture icons.


Eternal life, here on Earth

Those wacky scientists are at it again. And if they have their way, we’ll live a very, very long time.

The latest? Scientists have perfected a technique where they lengthen the telomeres of cells’ chromosomes. The length of telomeres, which protect cells from damage, corresponds with the health of cells. The longer the telomeres, the healthier the cell. By artificially lengthening the telomeres, they’ve turned back the clock on these cells. OR, to put it another way, they replenished the cells’ bank accounts.

Before anyone books that vacation a hundred years out, this has only been done in the lab, on cells. The scientists believe that this technique may someday help treat diseases of aging such as heart disease. So, it seems that everlasting life would be a piecemeal thing — treat each condition as it comes up.

But there’s always the dark side. If we lived forever, or close to it, where would we all fit? We’d definitely have to colonize Mars, and Venus too. And what if it goes wrong? What if the procedure turns us into a race of zombies, as in Resident Evil? Now that would make life interesting.