What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

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Real Crime and Fake Crime

I am a fan of both kinds.

Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)

I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.

Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.

Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.

The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.

In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.

What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.

Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.

I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.

On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.

You and Your Manuscript: Struggle and Success

Suppose you are a freelance writer or want to become one (and I suppose you are or do because you’re reading this).  Here are a few tips and tricks on how to make your manuscript more publishable.

First, as anyone will tell you, read the publication. And that means more than just the How to Submit page and the rates they pay. If you have a touching story about how your darling Muffin passed away, don’t send it to every magazine with the word “cat” in the title. Cat Fancy, for example, is about registered breeds of show cats. You’d be better off sending it someplace like I Love Cats, which pays very little but will give you a byline to wave in the next editor’s face. Likewise, if you have an article on how to select a vet or home remedies for ear mites, don’t send it to a publication that already has a monthly column that is written by a vet.

Write down any ideas. Despite what you think now or how good it is, you will not remember it later. Keep the bad ideas too. Later they may turn into good ideas – for a different market, say, or a different novel. Make a file called “Works in Progress.” Write ideas on sticky notes. Whatever. Then, when you hit a dry spell (which you will), look them over. Maybe they won’t look quite as stupid as they did at first.

Have a schedule. I don’t mean a Stephen King-10,000-words-a-day schedule. Or even 1000 words, necessarily. The idea is to establish a rhythm. I post my blogs on Sundays, for example, so I like to start on Wednesday by choosing a topic; Thursday and Friday to write; Saturday to proof, tag, and illustrate; and Sunday to proof and post. Yes, proof twice, at least.

Don’t be a slave to a schedule. I’m writing this on a Friday, which isn’t ideal according to my wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey schedule. Just leave enough leeway in it that if something important comes up, you can shuffle a bit. For example, I often choose my illustration on Thursday or Friday, instead of Saturday. If you think you’ll have your novel done by Labor Day, figure Christmas, or maybe even Easter. Unless a publisher has given you a deadline.

Illustrations aren’t absolutely necessary – except when they are. Some publishers like The Mighty and Medium want you to submit a photo with your story. Others don’t. And when they say photo, they mean a professional one, not one of your Aunt Sally at a family picnic (unless yours is a true crime book and your Aunt Sally is a serial killer). So cough up a few bucks and get a royalty-free image from Fotolia or Adobe or a free one from Creative Commons. And know the difference between landscape (horizontal) and portrait (vertical).

A title is part of your writing too. Even when the editors change it (and they probably will). A title should make your readers want to read. “A Dreary Day”  is not a good title. “How to Survive a Dreary Day” is better.

Have more than one project. If you just can’t face your blog, start a mystery novel. If you can’t even look at your mystery novel one more day, write a children’s story. Then come back to your old project with a fresh brain.

Pick a point to move on. Even though people will tell you how many times some famous novel was rejected, you don’t have to keep on with something that’s not working. Pick a certain amount of time that feels reasonable to you – the end of the year, two years, whatever – and then move on to something else. Or rewrite the piece entirely – first person instead of third person, or vice versa, for instance.

These bits of advice will stand you in good stead whether you are writing a novel, a magazine article, a poem, an autobiography. Maybe not a play or a movie script. I don’t have any experience with those. But for prose and fiction. most of these rules (well, more like guidelines, really) will apply. Unless you’re Stephen King. But I doubt that he reads my blog.

 

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

What I’ve Learned About Publishing From Lack of Success

I have been an editor. I have rejected lots of manuscripts.

I have been a writer. I have been rejected by lots of editors and agents and magazines and ezines.

Right now I have two books in the works: a memoir based on my other blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com) and a mystery novel hovering around 40,000 pages (60-75,000 would be a reasonable length).

Here’s what I’ve learned.

BOOKS

I’ve learned one queries nonfiction with a proposal and fiction with a completed manuscript. However, I spent so long contacting agents and publishers about the memoir that I actually finished it while I was waiting to hear back.

At some point, you will reach the “This book is crap” stage. Do not give up. This is natural and to be expected at least once or twice. The thing to do is pause. Go read a book about how to plot or write description or whatever it is that made you say “This is crap.” Or work on another project for a while. You do have at least two going, don’t you? Or at least a great idea for another one? Or you could join a writers’ group and see if any of them can figure out the reason for the crapitude.

Note: The first draft is not a manuscript and should not be submitted. That’s why it’s called a first draft. You will need at least another draft or three before it’s ready to release into the wild.

Yes, you need an agent. Probably. Only a few publishing companies look at proposals and manuscripts that don’t come from an agent. There used to be editorial assistants who had to read those submissions, but budgets are tighter than tight in the publishing industry. You don’t need an agent to submit smaller pieces of work like short stories and articles.

Which brings us to:

EZINES and MAGAZINES.

I write blog posts of 600-1000 words and, if appropriate, submit them to online magazines. (Most of this applies to print magazines too, if you can still find one.) A large part of the time, it’s like dropping my writing down a proverbial well. But again, I’ve learned a few things.

First, a heresy: You will have to write for no money. At first, anyway. People who say not to write for free are coming from a position of privilege. They are at a stage in their careers when they can get actual money (at least a little). If you’re just starting out, you’re not. There are reasons for this.

Some editors will want to see work that you’ve had published, just so they can tell you can write, meet deadlines, and be professional. The other reason is exposure. Yes, I know starving artists die of exposure. Yes, I know that exposure doesn’t pay the rent. But it does help in other ways.

An agent or an editor will look at a query more seriously if it says, “I am a regular contributor to X website and have been published on Y and Z.” Or “I have had short stories printed in Publication A and B.” Even if you only got six copies of the magazine as pay, or a byline and a bio, these are credits. They indicate that you’re more than just a wannabe. After you’ve got a few credits to your name, you can start pitching to sites that pay.

Do you really need to pitch? Or can you just send a story or article? Publications differ. The website will have a page helpfully called “How to Submit” or “Submission Guidelines.” Follow these instructions exactly. If they say query first, do that. If they say send completed story, do that. If they say paste it in the body of an email, do that. If they say attach your file as a Word doc, do that. Whatever they want, give it to them. It takes longer than blasting out a flurry of identical query letters or submissions, but it increases your chances of getting favorable attention.

I have either made all of the above mistakes or seen them made by people who submitted work to my publications. I can’t guarantee that any of this advice will get you published. This business doesn’t come with guarantees. But you can piggyback on my failures and those of others on your way to becoming a success. Good luck. Even if you’re a terrific writer, you’ll still need it!

 

 

 

Romancing the Body

Romance novels have changed since I used to read them. (Yes, I am here publically admitting that I did once read what I called “tempestuous” novels because the cover blurbs always started, “The tempestuous saga of an innocent young woman and the pirate she couldn’t live without.” Hey, I was 16. But I digress.)

The covers of the novels, which were also called “bodice-rippers” back then, usually featured a picture of a man and a woman, with him ripping open her bodice (duh). The man always looked like Fabio (or a fair imitation), with lovely flowing locks, a square chin, an intent gaze, and an irresistible (apparently) sneer. The woman was slim, beautiful, and wearing a dress with a bodice (again, duh). She could be soft and yielding or, more often, fiery and tempestuous. If you knew about such things, you could sometimes guess the era in which the tempest played out by the details of the clothing, but usually not. An open, puffy-sleeved shirt and a ripped bodice don’t really convey that much information.

The point is, the cover art generally featured two figures, a man and a woman, with some indication of conflict and/or passion between them.

Not anymore.

I’ve noticed that these days, romance novels tend to have cover art that features a man only.

And not just any sort of man. He will have the physique of a bodybuilder, a hairless chest (I wrote about that once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-9P), no shirt (or one that exposes the entire torso), tight jeans, and not much else. He could be a bodybuilder or a cowboy or a firefighter or a musician or (I suppose) a beach bum, or even – remotely possibly – a business tycoon on his day off.

But he has no face.

Where a face should be, there is a shadow, or a hat. Or the picture is simply cropped so that the cover doesn’t involve even a hint of a face.

What does this say about women and the men they are attracted to?

In sexual politics, there is a thing called “the male gaze.” It refers to how television and movies and advertising and just about everything else present females that will be pleasing to a man who is looking at them. How women react to the images doesn’t matter. (This can also be called “heteronormative,” but you didn’t come here for a sociology lesson.) The “male gaze” reinforces the idea that stereotypical males value women only for what’s between their neck and their navel, as the saying goes. (Or their neck and their knees, to be more accurate.)

Now, on the covers of romance novels, we have images that are meant to appeal to the female gaze. And what do they show? Besides torsos, I mean?

They show that publishers – or at least their marketing departments – are trying to appeal to the “female gaze.” And they think that gaze rests on the same areas as men’s gazes. To appeal to the romance reader, they think, men should be manscaped and body-sculpted, physical as all get-out. And anonymous.

It may be true that some women do long for anonymous sex these days and that romance novels increasingly sell sex. And it may be that the female gaze is as superficial and body-conscious as the male gaze. Maybe that’s the way it is for women who read romance novels. Maybe the publishers know their audience.

As for me, the things I look for in a man are all above the neck – bright, witty, creative men with facial hair. (In fact, three of those qualities are not just above the neck, but above the eyebrows. And I’ll disregard a guy’s lack of facial hair if the other three qualities are strong.)

That’s what’s romantic as far as I’m concerned. And sexy. But I suppose it doesn’t sell books.

 

 

Should You Self-Edit?

In a word, “Yes!”
That’s not to say that you won’t need a professional (or at least semi-pro) editor at some point in the writing process. But in order to get your manuscript – anything from a blog post to a novel – ready for a wider audience, you need to give it a good edit.

Proofreading. Of course you’re giving your manuscript a good proofreading. Aren’t you? Proofing is the stage when you catch errors of spelling, punctuation, typos, and some simple grammar flaws (such as subject-verb agreement). Anything more complicated than that is copy editing.

You may or may not be able to do copy editing yourself, although it’s always worthwhile to give it a try. Flaws to look for in copy editing are sentences that are too long or all the same length, too much passive voice, parallel constructions, and misplaced modifiers. If you don’t know what those are, you definitely need to have your manuscript vetted by someone who does. And don’t trust the “grammar checker” built into your word processor. There will be times when you want to use the passive voice, for example, and your grammar checker may tell you to change all of them.

Nonfiction. Whether you’re writing an article, a memoir, or an essay, take a close look at your first and last paragraphs. One good technique is to ask yourself whether you really need that first paragraph. Try reading the piece without it. Sometimes the second paragraph is more vivid or personal or relevant.

The last paragraph should do something, not just dribble off. It can reinforce (not restate) the first paragraph, ask a question, suggest an answer, sum up, or leave your readers with a final thought. Whatever you do, don’t end your piece with “Time will tell.”

Fiction. Fiction can be trickier than nonfiction in some ways. You have to take all the regular steps of self-editing and more besides. One of the best ways to discover where a story may be dragging or missing essential information is to read it aloud. (Actually, reading nonfiction aloud is not a bad idea either. If a sentence is difficult to say, it will likely be difficult for your audience to read.)

It may be best for you to have another person read your work aloud while you take notes on a separate copy. Then you can go back and fix them later. Trying to do this solo can divert your attention from the overall flow of the piece as you start and stop to make notes or corrections.

Longer works. Say you’re writing a book. You’ve self-edited every chapter using the above suggestions. Now you’re faced with the challenge of editing the whole darn thing. Pay particular attention to the breaks between chapters. Especially in fiction, the reader needs a reason to continue reading. That doesn’t mean you need a cliffhanger in every chapter, but it does mean that some question, action, motivation, plot point, or dilemma should remain unresolved, or at least suggested. If the action has reached a point for a logical pause, hint at what is going to happen next.

If your book is nonfiction, it helps to give readers “way-finders” that suggest how the next chapter is related to the one or ones that have gone before. If you have given some thought to the order in which you present information, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Re-ordering the chapters may be necessary, though.

Congratulations! You have now finished your first draft and produced a second. If you are writing a blog post, article, essay, or other short piece, you may be done. In fact, you may have produced a third or even fourth draft, depending on the length and needs of your manuscript. It’s very difficult to perform all the self-editing techniques in a single pass. The general rule is content edit first, then copy edit, and finally proofread.

Professional editing. Self-editing may be sufficient if what you are writing is a blog post, essay, or other short, less formal piece. But what if you have written a book? In that case, a professional edit is advisable.

Make no mistake: If it is going to be published, your manuscript will be reviewed, judged, and perhaps altered by at least one editor. (For books, the editor may suggest edits and you can then play a game of chess by email as you work out the details.)

But should you hire a professional editor to examine your manuscript before you submit it to an agent or publisher? It’s a really good idea.

For a blog post or short article, you may be able to find among your friends an English major or experienced blogger who will give your manuscript at least a quick once-over. For longer works, you will likely need a professional. And you will have to pay this person (by the page or by the project) to give your work a thorough, comprehensive edit. Since you’re going to be dealing with a professional and spending money, you may want to check the editor’s references first.

If you self-edit, you can argue with yourself all you want over details and potential fixes. If you’ve hired a professional, don’t argue. Just say, “Thank you” and pay the fee. Then decide which of the suggested edits you want to implement. Think carefully. You hired this editor for a reason. If you are too attached to your original manuscript and your immortal, golden prose, you might as well have not bothered and saved yourself the fee.

Ideally, a combination of self-editing and professional editing will produce the best, most marketable manuscript possible. But if you decide to go it alone, don’t skimp on the self-editing. Build time in your writing schedule for a thorough, objective look at what you’ve written. You will produce a better manuscript and be more likely to meet your publishing goals, whether you are looking for increased readership for your blog or an actual published book in your hands.

Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies

Just in time for Halloween, Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) has published Feedback, the latest in her series of zombie novels. The original books were Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, collectively known as the Newsflesh trilogy.

Sign of infected areaThe thing is, they’re zombie novels, but they’re not really about zombies. Oh, there are plenty of undead, infected creatures roaming through the novels, trying to bite the living, converting them to more zombies, or simply feeding on human flesh. There are brave zombie hunters who defend civilization against the shambling menace with intelligence, courage, and a vast amount of firepower. There are excitement, chase scenes, well-drawn characters, stunning surprises, and all the things that make a good horror-scifi-action-thriller.

So what are these books really about? Not Jane Austen, that’s for sure.

Fear. Okay, you probably expected this one. A zombie novel about fear. But in the Newsflesh books, fear of zombies is the least of it. There are alarming secrets that turn out to be symptoms of big, appalling conspiracies. One of the novels’ underlying messages is that fear can be – is – used to manipulate people and control them. If the threat is big enough, and scary enough, and relentless enough, people will do anything, give up anything, completely change their way of life to avoid the danger.

And people who know that can pull their strings.

Safety. Again, a fairly standard topic for a zombie book. But in this world (and ours), there is no guarantee of safety. All you can rely on are yourself and the few people around whom you can trust – and sometimes not even them. Mechanical defenses have holes; strategies have deficiencies; friends have their own agendas. In the end, you have only yourself and your principles, and maybe a few other people if you are very, very lucky.

Journalism. The main characters are bloggers, who form teams that gather the news, poke zombies with sticks, or write fiction. This gives the author plenty of room to explore how modern technologies have affected news-gathering, as well as the consumer’s desire for real-life action-adventure, poetry, and stories too. Large questions are explored: How far does the public’s right to know extend? Are there secrets that journalists shouldn’t reveal? What happens when the journalists become part of the news themselves? Have no fear (except of the zombies and conspiracies); these subjects operate in the background while the plot continues to rocket ahead.

Politics. The blogger-journalists are embedded with the campaign of a possible candidate for President, which makes the books all the more timely. Politics and zombies may not sound like a fascinating combination, but when the dead are rising everywhere in the world, people look to governments to address the problem. Whether those governments and the people in them make sound decisions, put responsible policies in place, and fund research can affect the outcome for individuals. Anyone who can’t make connections with the current political climate just isn’t paying attention.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from the novels. There are plenty of gore, ambushes, narrow escapes, heartbreaking deaths, and all the other accoutrements of your standard zombie novel, if that’s what you want. There’s even a zombie bear. You don’t have to pay attention to the various subtexts, though your reading experience will be richer if you do.

Not content to stop after writing the trilogy, Grant has revisited the near future, post-zombie-apocalypse world with short stories, novellas, and now the new stand-alone novel. (I say stand-alone, though its plot runs roughly parallel to Feed.) She explores interesting questions: What is this character’s backstory? What would happen in zombies got loose in a science fiction convention or a school? Who was responsible for starting the zombie plague? Is the zombie situation the same in Australia? Clearly, this is a fictional world with lots of room for expansion, despite the definitive ending of Blackout. It’s an impressive piece of world-building.

Grant is a gutsy writer (pun intended). Writing under the name Seanan McGuire, she has even written a novel in which one of the major plot points is Evil Pie. And for some reason, it works. (It’s in Chimes at Midnight, one of the October Daye series of urban fantasies.)

For more about Feedback, the other Newsflesh novels, short fiction, and Mira Grant, see miragrant.com.

Why Are YA Dystopias So Popular?

Dystopias – the opposite of utopias – come in a variety of styles and genres to meet the trends. For a while, science fiction post-apocalyptic dystopias such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller) and Mad Max movies were popular. Feminist dystopias, the most famous of which is The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), have had continuing appeal.

Now, however, we find that the dystopia is one of the most prominent trends in Young Adult (YA) literature, meant for ages 15-20. (Let it be noted that I and some of my friends are *cough*ahem* somewhat above 20 and still enjoy YA lit.)Concept of reading. MaConcept of reading. Magic book with door a

Two of the YA dystopias that have created the largest buzz in the literary or at least genre fiction world are The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins) and the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth). Both create an oppressive, if implausible, society and feature protagonists the same age as the intended readers, who rebel against it.

This current in fiction, of course, taps into the phenomenon of teenage rebellion, but also channels it in a positive direction – these are societies that need to be rebelled against. The young adults are empowered, whether with weapons or mental or magical powers, to defy the status quo and try to bring about a new, better world.

There are certainly aspects of these books that older readers might object to, from teens wielding weapons to teens defying the powers that be, to teen sex. (Though the sex is nonexistent in some cases, minimal in others, and so non-graphic and off-stage as to be barely recognizable in other books. Apparently shooting heads of state with arrows or guns is still less alarming than 16-year-old characters having sex.)

But teens (and others) love them. Here are my opinions as to why.

Dystopias acknowledge that today’s society is dystopic. Maybe not rotten enough to choose teens to participate in televised killing sprees. But dysfunctional in a lot of ways, which teens can see and feel even if they don’t follow the news. They can hardly escape the sense that the world (or whatever part of it they live in) is unfair, unhealthy, and unjust, and many of the people in it are dangerous, vitriolic, scheming, and power-mad. Teens are smart enough to recognize that, no matter how many feel-good histories you feed them.

Dystopias say that teens can be active agents of change. The protagonists of these novels are certainly acted upon by society, but they also have the power to effect change at many levels, from personal defiance to regime change. However unlikely the plots, the idea that teens have power is, well, powerful.

Protagonists include strong female and male characters. And they acknowledge the possibility that males and females can work together. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is the clear lead, but Peeta is clearly no stick figure. The two have interactions that are complex and focus on the survival themes as much or more than the boy-girl angle. In Divergent, the relationship between Tris and Four (Tobias) is even more nuanced, with their personal and strategic goals often at odds. By the third novel, the narrative point of view even switches back and forth between them.

There are no pat endings. Appropriately, since the dystopian societies are in such abysmal shape to begin with, not everything is peaceful and peachy by the end of the story. Nor are dystopian novels simply about tearing down a bad society, but raising up a new, better one – and acknowledging the strength, courage, and intelligence that will take.

Few would deny that – at least in the U.S. – society is becoming more fractured, chaotic, and hate-filled – more dystopic. Truthers, birthers, factions that can imagine death panels and reeducation camps, blaming whole groups – the NRA, Wall Street,  liberals, conservatives, or whomever – for society’s ills cannot have escaped the notice of young adults. They’re still young enough to believe that solutions are possible, and old enough to see that the solutions will require commitment, struggle, and hard work.

Dystopic YA novels say, “More power to them!”

 

 

 

Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess

Red heart, studded with apins isolated on a white background. 3d render

First, let me say that I read the Bloggess all the time. I have her books and I read them all the time too. But secretly I hate her, and here’s why.

1. She had a weirder childhood than I did. She lived in a small Texas town full of farm critters and wild animals, and weird characters, including her father the taxidermist, and has interesting poverty stories, like the one about the bread-sack shoes. I lived in a nondescript middle-class suburb with a stay-at-home mom and a dad that went to work every day smelling of Vitalis and Aqua Velva, rather than deer blood.

(This was also the problem I had trying to write country songs. You can’t get very far with “I was born an industrial engineering technician’s daughter/in the Central Baptist Hospital of Lexington, KY.”)

2. She had more interesting pets, with more interesting names than I did. She had a raccoon named Rambo that wore Jams and a delinquent turkey named Jenkins. Later she had a dog named Barnaby Jones Pickles and has cats named Ferris Mewler and Hunter S. Thomcat. We had dogs named Blackie and Bootsie and rabbits named Christina and Mittens. Our recent dogs have been Karma and Bridget, and the only eccentric cat names we’ve bestowed have been Django and Dushenka.

(Ordinarily, I don’t like cat names like Baryshnikat and F. Cat Fitzgerald. I think cat names should be something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to yell out the door if one of them wanders off, like Louise or Garcia. But I suppose the Bloggess’s neighbors are by now used to anything.)

3. She has more interesting disorders than I do. I have a bad back and bipolar disorder type 2 (and a blog about it, bipolarjan.wordpress.com). The Bloggess has generalized anxiety disorder, anti-phospholipid syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and, apparently, an obsession with chupacabras and vaginas. This gives her much more to write about. Although I do have two blogs. Two! In your face, Bloggess!

4. She’s less inhibited than I am. The Bloggess would have ended that last paragraph, “In your face, motherfucker!” I didn’t learn to cuss till I was in my 20s and no one I meet ever believes I swear until I do. Then they’re shocked. Also, I swear all the time, except in my blogs, where I’m afraid I’ll offend readers, all of whom I assume have tender sensibilities. The Bloggess knows her readers better than that.

5. She has way more readers than I do. And she’s published books and has another coming out. I have 495 followers and I think most of them want to sell me books on how to publicize my blog. I should probably study a book like that, but I’d rather read ones about emerging viruses, cloud cities on Venus, and mostly true memoirs. On the other hand, I have the distinction of being the only writer ever to have articles in both Catechist and Black Belt magazines. So take that, moth . . . Bloggess!

6. She and her husband have more interesting arguments than my husband and I do. We never even talk quietly about whether Jesus was a zombie.

7. She has a stronger voice than I do. I mean her writing voice. I had no idea what her speaking voice was like until I saw a video clip of her on the web, talking about vaginas. But when I’m going to write in my blogs, I have to lay off reading her for a day or two, because her voice takes over my weak, tiny mind and it wants to sound like her. I wish I could write like that. Or at least as well as that.jennyme

But, like the Bloggess, I am a strangeling. And that’s a start.