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.

Read this book: The Maze Runner

Short take: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner, is a thrill ride that succeeds despite its lack of heart.

Maze RunnerWhen I was young I devoured the Choose Your Own Adventure books. These books were a plot maze where the reader would make a decision at a crucial plot point, and then be directed to a certain page to continue the story. Some decisions would lead to a dead end — end of story — while others would keep you going. All the books were exciting, plot-driven page turners where character (and character development) was largely irrelevant.

In many ways, The Maze Runner, another entry in the YA dystopian canon, reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. It’s an action-packed story with characters who might as well be blank.

The story: Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no firm memories, that takes him to a place populated with tough-talking teenage boys. Thomas soon discovers that he’s trapped, as are all the boys. Every day the walls of their compound open, revealing mazes that the boys attempt to navigate. They’ve failed to find an escape, and are threatened by biomechanical monsters called Grievers that lurk in the maze. Thomas is determined to become a maze runner, convinced he can not only solve the maze, but also recover his lost memories.

First, the good:

–Reading The Maze Runner, the first in a series, is like being at a great amusement park. The book is a constant thrill ride that had me turning pages (flipping through my Kindle) at a lightning pace. Dashner excels at turning up the heat and keeping it going.

–Not only that, but Dashner expertly parcels out hints of what’s really going on. He gives us just enough to pique our interest the whole way through.

And the not-so-good:

–Thomas as a character is not relatable. He doesn’t have much of an inner life, largely because he can’t recall his past. Thomas has guts, but he has no heart. I felt the same about most of the other characters — group leaders Newt and Alby, maze-running expert Minho, and the mysterious lone girl Teresa. The only character who seemed three-dimensional was eager, bumbling Chuck. Dashner subtly showed us how desperate Chuck was for friendship. He did this through Chuck’s dialogue and actions. If only Dashner had done that with Thomas and the rest.

–I didn’t buy Thomas’s fledgling relationship with Teresa. Again, maybe it was the fact that both characters were amnesiacs; there wasn’t much to build on. Was Teresa included only to throw in a romantic subplot? If so, then it felt forced.

–While the story was thrilling, there were times when I wanted Dashner to slow down. There was little reflection. The Maze Runner would have benefited from a break in the action now and then.

But these complaints don’t doom the book — far from it.

The Maze Runner is just one among many YA dystopian novels, a trend which seems to never end. The ones I enjoyed the most — The Hunger Games series and Neal Shusterman’s Unwind — excelled because they focused on character. The Maze Runner shows that sometimes you can get away with relying solely on plot.

Don’t see this movie: The Host

The Host is proof that a great concept won’t work when saddled with a bad plot and annoying characters.

The_Host_PosterGranted, I’m not the target audience for a YA movie with a romantic subplot based on a book by Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer. But the premise sounded intriguing: the human race is taken over by alien body snatchers that obliterate the host human consciousness. Think of this as a more literal Invasion of the Body Snatchers than the original movie(s), which were all great, but should have been called Invasion of the Body Copiers.

I watched The Host solely for that premise, and that was the only good thing I can say about it.

The plot: Human holdout Melanie Stryder (played by Saoirse Ronan) is captured and taken over by an alien called “Wanderer” (that name was the first warning sign of trouble ahead). But Melanie manages to hold on. Melanie/Wanderer seek out her fellow human holdouts, trailed by a Seeker (the unbelievably beautiful Diane Kruger) who is determined to wipe them out.

The Host ends up turning into a weird love quadrangle. Melanie/Wanderer reunite with KrugerMelanie’s boyfriend Jared, and Wanderer falls in love with some guy named Ian.

How can true love work out if Melanie/Wanderer share the same body? I didn’t really care, because I never bought it. The love story was not developed, it was unrealistic, and the tension felt manufactured.

The rest of The Host was clunky as well. Great actors like William Hurt had little to do, because nothing really exciting or unpredictable happened. Saoirse Ronan is usually a phenomenal actor, but she couldn’t do much in this part. If you want to see her shine in an action flick, watch the surreal Hanna.

The worst part of the movie? Melanie’s voiceover. Since Wanderer had active control, she spoke through the body. Melanie spoke through thoughts, which we heard as a voiceover. Very early on I was wishing that Wanderer had indeed obliterated Melanie. That’s not a good sign.

All of this is a shame, because, like I said, the premise is great. But The Host is bad, and not even in the “so bad it’s good” sense. You’ve been warned: watch The Host at your own risk.

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.

Panem:

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

View original post 816 more words

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVA6sgOpws

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

Image

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.