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.

Ultimate Dystopian Showdown: Battle Royale vs. The Hunger Games

I loved both The Hunger Games (books and films) and Battle Royale (the great Japanese movie long rumored to have inspired The Hunger Games). This blogger, The Spectatorial, has a great comparison of the two. What I’d add: while The Hunger Games is great, Battle Royale is better in two ways — it’s not as cartoonish as The Hunger Games, which makes it even scarier; and the “contestants” in Battle Royale have known each other all their lives, which makes the deaths that much more impactful.

The Spectatorial

With the popularity of its movie series, the infamous rumour has resurfaced that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is a (*cough cough*) rip-off of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale. Rather than nitpick all the similarities (of which there are many), however, let’s just pit them against each other in an ultimate showdown!

aa          VS.         bb

Harshest Dystopia

Republic of Greater East Asia:

At first glance, Battle Royale’s future Japan and its unforgiving, authoritarian police government seems like a breeding ground for complete terror. However, life actually doesn’t seem too bad for the main characters and, even though many activities are prohibited, people have found ways to enjoy their lives. Shuya Nanahara, the protagonist of Battle Royale, plays the electric guitar and likes Bruce Springsteen, for crying out loud.


Okay, let’s be honest here. Panem sucks. A lot. Unless you come from the Capitol, life is definitely not in…

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Book vs movie: World War Z

It was nearly an impossible book to film, but they filmed it anyway.

There’s only one book that comes to mind as a successful movie adaptation (though I’m sure there are tons of others), and that’s The Hunger Games.

Zombie thriller World War Z by Max Brooks was a mega-successful book.


World War Z the movie, produced by Brad Pitt, was a moderately successful movie.


Both are vastly different beasts, and the adaptation didn’t quite make the Hunger Games standard.

To be fair, the book is nearly unfilmable as written. It’s told in the style of The Good War, an oral history of World War II by Studs Terkel. World War Z (book) is written after a global zombie pandemic/attack/war. It’s narrator is a UN rep who is compiling reports on the war from around the globe. In a neat literary trick, while the narrator appears in every chapter — he actually interviews the survivors — we never even know his name, or much else about him. This allows the focus to be on the individual stories throughout the book.

And the stories are gripping. We hear from normal folks who have to bury their pain to soldiers who relay harrowing tales of near death to higher-ups who reflect on the war from a matter-of-fact perspective. Max Brooks excelled at writing these micro-tales that not only have genuine human drama, but combine facts on worldwide culture and geopolitics. Brooks covers nearly every facet of the global war and its aftermath, including the new world order that results. It’s fascinating to see how Russia has become a theocracy, Cuba is a capitalist powerhouse, Israel and Palestine finally live in peace, and China is a democracy.

The movie version of World War Z. goes in a different direction. The hero (Hollywood loves its heroes) is Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt). He is a former UN investigator who gets caught up in the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia with his wife and daughters. After a close escape from a Newark rooftop, Lane and his family are flown to a ship, where Lane is called back to duty to help a CDC scientist search for a cure. This search takes Lane (and the viewer) to South Korea, Israel, and Wales.

The movie tried to stay true to the book in the sense that it was a global story. It was exciting to travel to those locations, even if the plot felt forced. For instance, I was unsure as to why Wales, in particular.

But while the book was one of my favorite reads, it did lack that central human character, and that’s the role that Gerry Lane served.

The movie also improved the book in its use of zombies. These were not the slow, ambling (though still menacing) zombies that we’re used to ,and which Brooks used. These zombies were lightning fast. The opening scene of Lane’s escape in the Philly streets was outstanding. The swarm happens in real time. It’s intense. There’s nothing like that in the book, though to be fair, it’s much easier to relay menace on film than in a book. And the scene with the zombie swarm scaling the wall in Jerusalem is a classic.


Still, the movie couldn’t quite match the book in its scope. And as with most action movies, it stretched my belief nearly to the breaking point. A zombie outbreak on a plane results in a too-neat escape that could never happen in real life. Also, in the movie, the Israelis survived because they spotted the threat before any other country and walled themselves off. Yet they didn’t realize that noise would attract the zombies? The movie turned one of the most hopeful parts of the book — a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace — into a tragedy.

In short, there were too many harrowing escapes for Pitt, and the last act in Wales nearly put me to sleep.

My recommendation — read the book if nothing else. Then see the movie, at the very least for it’s amazing visual effects. I hear there are sequels to the movie planned. Hopefully they figure out how to add more of the book’s heart.

Catching Fire stays true to the word

Hey Hollywood, this is how you adapt a novel for film.


For some reason, the movie industry has a hard time translating sci-fi/supernatural/speculative stories from the page to the screen. Exhibit A: Anne Rice‘s Interview With the Vampire and Queen of the Damned. Exhibit B: Anything by Stephen King (except maybe for Carrie).

They got it right with Catching Fire, the second novel in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. (The official movie title is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Too long.)

The books aren’t perfect, but they’re great. And the movie effectively conveys all that happens in the book at a quick pace.

First, a primer: The Hunger Games series is about 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen in a futuristic dystopic North America who is selected to compete in the annual Hunger Games, which pits 24 teens in a fight to the death (see the Japanese film Battle Royale). The 3 novels follow her battles against the oppressive government.

Katniss is my favorite type of hero: an every man/woman who is thrust into danger and is forced to rise to the occasion. She remains reluctant throughout the series, a central fact that Jennifer Lawrence has captured. In the books, Katniss develops PTSD (Collins stated in interviews that she wanted to write about the traumatic effects of war on children), and luckily the movie did not shy away from this topic.

As with the novel, the movie picks up right where the first novel/movie left off, and it churns through with a cliffhanger. Catching Fire has been compared to The Empire Strikes Back, and with good reason: it’s tough and sharp and has a tight narrative core. And it is often a downer.

But it works. It is a solid addition to the speculative film canon. The third book will be broken into two movies, which is good because there’s a whole lot of story to tell.

How much you want to bet we’ll be seeing spin-offs for years to come? After all, there have been 75 Hunger Games, and we’ve only seen two.

Music and mood: Lorde cover conquers Catching Fire

Music, writing, movies/TV can have a synergistic effect, and when it works, it’s powerful stuff.

A couple of years ago, a friend recommended I read The Hunger Games. I resisted — after all, how would a YA novel about a 16-year-old girl hold my interest. I relented, and I’m glad I did, because the author, Suzanne Collins, crafted a character and story that transcended age, gender, and genre. I went on to read the other two books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both excellent, though not perfect.

The Hunger Games translated well to the big screen, and Jennifer Lawrence on the screen was everything that Katniss Everdeen was in the book. Catching Fire is getting positive early reviews, and I was looking forward to seeing it.

Then I heard a song from the Catching Fire soundtrack. It’s by Lorde, a cover of a Tears for Fears song from the 1980s called Everybody Wants to Rule the World (click to hear the original).

The lyrics, written over 20 years ago, could have been penned for the movie. Lorde’s voice is creepy and compelling. Just listening to the 2.31 minute song brought the story to life for me. Now I cannot wait to see the movie. Listen below:


I’ve written before about how music has influenced my writing of The Last Conquistador — how unexpected lyrics or melodies left a haunting impression that I wove into the story. The version of this song by Lorde does something similar, even if it wasn’t written for Catching Fire. It captures the desperation of Katniss Everdeen and the whole of Panem society.

Music, images, and words, when woven together, can be a potent combination.



Read this book: Unwind


If you survey the landscape of young adult publishing, it would be easy to assume that the future will be bleak. Take a look at Suzanne Collins’ phenomenal Hunger Games series, or Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Well, add another one to the list.

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman, is set in a future America where the abortion battles led to a war, and the negotiated peace is as follows: abortion is illegal, but children can be unwound between the ages of 13 and 18, if their parents or guardians decide. What is unwinding? The body is taken apart, with each part being donated to someone in need (except for a few unusable bits). So, basically, they’re killed but in the name of charity.

With sci-fi/paranormal/supernatural stories, you often cannot look too closely at the logic behind the premise, lest is falls apart. And with Unwind, you have to ignore the fact that a law where abortion is illegal but adolescent children can be “aborted” would only piss off both sides.

So put that aside.

Once you do, what you get is a compelling and emotionally devastating book. It follows Connor, a bit of a wild kid, who discovers that his parents are going to have him unwound. He runs, and in the course of his travels hooks up with an unlikely pair: Risa, an orphan scheduled for unwinding, and Lev, the tenth child of a religious family who has been designated as a tithe (in other words, he will be unwound as well).

Grisly stuff.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot, which is a cracking story that keeps the pages turning. But this book is more than that. Shusterman hits an emotional core with two key scenes that resonated with me long after I put the book down (yes, it was paperback). Connor and company meet CyFy, a teen who’s had part of his brain replaced. The brain matter came from an unwound child, and now CyFy is accessing the “donor’s” memories and emotions. Only the donor has no idea he’s been unwound. Cyfy heads back to the donor’s home, and the scene between CyFy and the parents is gripping and grueling.

Later in the book, Shusterman describes an unwinding through the eyes of a character undergoing the process. Yep, this character is awake during the procedure. All I can say is that I wish I could write like that.

As with much of YA these days, Unwind may be about teens and labeled for teens, but it’s one for all ages.