Thursday, February 28, 2008

Weaving History & Culture into Fiction - Lessons for Writers

For anyone who is new to Writermorphosis, this is not a book review website. It’s a site by and for Children’s/YA writers, where we can learn tips and techniques from each other, and encourage each other in our writing.

So, during the month of February, and for a week or two in March, we are doing what may look like book reviews. We’re critiquing “from a writer’s perspective,” some of the 10 books that were short-listed for this year’s CYBILS Awards in the category of fantasy/science fiction. We’re looking for techniques that we can use in our own fiction writing.

Last week, we looked at two books from the CYBILS list that are good examples of how to weave two different stories or plot lines together into one book.

This week, for those interested in writing about history and culture, we’re looking at two books that would NOT be considered historical fiction. One is Sci-Fi. One is Fantasy. But both of these books clearly incorporate (and sneakily even teach) history to the kids and adult who read them.

This week’s books: The Land of the Silver Apples, and the True Meaning of Smekday.

THE LAND OF THE SILVER APPLES, written by well-known fantasy author Nancy Farmer, and published by Atheneum, is a MG high-fantasy book all the way around. There are elves, magic, humans with special powers, wizard-types, evil kings, and, of course, a long journey. But this book also weaves the early history of the British Isles into almost every page and character.

The author pulls in a true ancient people group, the marauding Picts, making several of the characters pictish pirates and allowing them to openly share their beliefs and world view through the fantasy story. She also brings the reader in on a personal level to the time in the history of Britain, Ireland and Scotland when Christianity came to those islands, and the older, more magic-believing religions began to compete and/or co-exist with them. This book shows each character choosing a religion, and it shows how that religion affects their daily life. So we read about the Christian Monks – the good and the not so good things that they believed and did in their early years in the isles. And we read about the druid types, who wear robes and heal the villagers with magic that they feel comes from the earth. Even the main character finds himself struggling, questioning his beliefs throughout the book while his family converts to Christianity and his mentor, a bard, trains him in magic.

In the back of the book, an appendix teaches readers (kids – who LOVE codes and secret languages,) pictish symbols and what they mean, as well as details about the early religions of the British Isles. That appendix allows readers to understand that this book is not only a fantasy, but also about real historic themes too. So, for those wishing to incorporate old languages and facts into fiction, this book is a good example to follow.

THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, written by Adam Rex and published by Hyperion, was the MG Sci-fi/Fantasy winner for the CYBILS this year. Congrats Adam! And it too, brings real history into its pages.

SMEKDAY is the story, told by an 11 year old girl, about an alien invasion, in which the inhabitants of the United States are all corralled into one state against their will by an invading alien nation. They are forced to adapt to the new race’s rules and eventually, led by the 11 year main character, to fight back with the invading alien nation, against an even more dangerous foe. There are all kinds of cool sci-fi contraptions – UFOs that don’t look like UFO’s, theme parks with secret communities beneath them, flying cars – everything you would expect in a sci-fi. And the plot really does make you want to read to the end to make sure that all of the important characters survive the book.

But, can you already sense the underlying historical themes? This is a book about colonialism, war, immigration -- world and U.S. history – a history in which Native Americans (represented by one main character in the book, and indeed by aspects of the whole story in general) were herded onto reservations, forced to adapt to a new, unfair life …

This is the story of our history. And it is presented in such an off the wall, alien invasion format, that the history aspect doesn’t hit you in the face immediately. Instead, it hits you in the gut. You feel the emotions of the oppressed in the emotions of the main character, 11 year old, bi-racial Gratuity Tucci, as her mom is abducted, her neighbors are forced onto a reservation-like place, people become afraid, and discrimination and hostilities feed on a lack of understanding between the attacking, well-intentioned colonializing alien nation, and the current human citizens of earth…

You won’t see the words Columbus, or Britain, or Cherokee, or Reservation, or Africa, or WWII or Katrina even… But it all feels like it's right there... hidden behind aliens with names like JLo, teleport machines and flying cars.

What’s the true meaning of “Smekday?” Read it and decide. And if you’re looking for a book that helps us understand history without proposing to teach us history, put Smekday in your library for sure!

Both of these books are great examples for writers of ways to bring true facts into fantasy and sci-fi, or any other kind of fiction for that matter. They do it the sneaky way.
Take a look.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Blending Two Stories – Lessons for Writers (Skin Hunger & Incarceron)

SKIN HUNGER and INCARCERON were at the top of my personal “favorites” list among the 10 CYBILS fantasy/sci-fi short-listed books this year. Skin Hunger is a fantasy. Incarceron has a lot of technology in it and is considered by some to be a sci-fi. But it has the depth and breadth of a fantasy when you read it. Excellent! Both are YA’s written with a rather dark bent.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you’ll want to go jump off a bridge after reading them, or be so depressed that you can’t get out of bed for a week. But it does mean that a number of the main characters are rather jaded, and the evil guys are truly, humanly, evil. These characters are dealing with very difficult life (and death) situations. And though I tend to enjoy happy endings, I was enthralled by these two books.

I am linking them together here because they both use two of the same techniques.

1.) Neither author was afraid to make the reader nervous, or to kill off or terrify truly important characters in the book. That is something that a lot of authors hate to do (because we love our characters, darn it! And we just don’t want to hurt them!) These books aren't scary thrillers, mind you, but they are good examples of taking that risk and having it work.

2.) Secondly, and most notably, both authors have written two stories that blend together into one story within one book.


In Incarceron (published by Hodder Children’s Books of the UK), author Catherine Fisher weaves together the life and death tales of two people seeking an escape.
Finn is a teen with no memory, stuck in an enormous prison called Incarceron that is run by a giant computer which is alive, thinking, and malicious toward those, like Finn, within its grasp. And Claudia is a rich teenaged girl; the daughter of the only man who can control Incarceron – but won’t. She is living in a fake 18th century world when it’s really the future, and is being forced to marry a prince who she has no respect for, following the murder of the prince who would have been heir to the throne ahead of him, who she did like. And in this book, both characters risk their lives and their reputations to get out of their respective prisons and to try to put the world back right again.

INCARCERON is an excellent example of a very complex plot that falls together well and makes logical sense. The characters are complicated and sneaky. And the author, Catherine Fisher, weaves the two stories together – moving Claudia forward in one chapter, and Finn and his side of the story forward in the next. An excellent read. And an excellent example of a book that melds two stories into one.


In Skin Hunger, (published by Atheneum under Simon and Schuster) – a book that is going straight onto my bookshelf and onto my “top 20 list of Great YA books” – Author Kathleen Duey brings “dark” fantasy to a whole new level. This is not your grandmother’s fairy tale.

The author weaves together two stories that are 400 years apart. But they’re so inter-related that the one story – told in every other chapter – clearly gives the background for the other tale. And as the chapters build, the old story mixing with the new helps the reader realize what an awful situation the characters 400 years later are really in.

This is a life and death story in which the teen characters make wise and unwise decisions while learning about magic and hunger and how to truly “cheat” death simply to stay alive. The characters are real and believable. Each is motivated by their own personality to such an extent that some put their lives on the line for others daily while others seek to take over the world, and the weaker ones, just try to survive. Skin Hunger (though being a first book in a series that doesn’t yet have an ending) is an excellent example of great characterization, great interweaving of two stories, painfully clear and palpable descriptive sentences, and a complex, heart-wrenching plot. If you're looking for a sample of great writing. Don't be afraid. Just read it.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

And the CYBILS Fantasy/SciFi winners are...

After reading ten great books, the Fantasy/SciFi judging panel for this year's CYBILS awards, (including yours truly,) has come up with two winners -- one for Middle Grade and one for YA.

We read 10 amazing books:

Book of a Thousand Days (by Shannon Hale)
Incarceron (By Catherine Fisher)
Northlander - Tales of the Borderlands (by Meg Burden)
Skin Hunger (by Kathleen Duey)
Repossessed (by A.M. Jenkins)

The Choas King (by Laura Ruby)
Into the Wild (by Sarah Beth Durst)
The Land of the Silver Apples (by Nancy Farmer)
Skulduggery Pleasant (by Derek Landy)
The True Meaning of Smekday (by Adam Rex)

And WOW - each book had it's own strengths and it's own bits of brilliance. It was a TOUGH choice for the judges, and we went round and round on a couple of books before coming to the conclusion that the best of the best for Fantasy/Science Fiction for 2007 are...(drumroll please)...

YA: Book of a Thousand days (by Shannon Hale)
Elem/MG: The True Meaning of Smekday (by Adam Rex)


Here's what the judges had to say about Book of a Thousand Days:

On her first day as a Lady’s Maid, Dashti finds herself locked in a tower for seven years with her Lady, who is being punished for refusing to marry the Lord of a neighboring land. Thus begins a life-and-death battle against evil and time. Lyrically written and set in ancient central Asia, this novel retells a little-known Brother’s Grimm fairy tale with desperate, heart-wrenching emotion. Readers will be drawn in by the beautiful language and fighting spirit of Dashti, whose faith, spunk and ingenuity affect not only the darkness of her tower, but also the hearts and futures of kings.

What the Judges said about Smekday:

"Nothing has been the same since the Boov invaded Earth and re- named it Smekland. But things get even weirder when twelve-year- old Gratuity Tucci embarks on a journey to find her missing mother--accompanied by her cat (named Pig), a fugitive Boov (named J.Lo) and a slightly illegal hovercar--and realizes that there's more at stake than just her mother's whereabouts. A terrific satire with a touching ending and spot-on illustrations by the author, the novel is heartwarming and hilarious at the same time. Gratuity's narrative voice as she struggles to define "the true meaning of Smekday" will draw readers in."

So, both of these books should certainly go on everyone's reading list, and we'll be discussing them and the other 8 SciFi/Fantasy finalists here in coming weeks.

We'll be looking at the writing techniques and styles that their authors used which brought them to the top of this year's CYBILS stack. Great books are made to be loved -- and for those writers among us, they're made to be learned from. Even those of us who aren't writing Fantasy/SciFi can learn from these books.

So, pick up these two, and also the other eight finalists, at your local bookstore or library and peruse them. Then come on by and add your insight to the February and March writer's technique discussions and reviews of these books here on writermorphosis.

Also, to find out who won CYBILS awards in the categories of fiction and nonfiction picture books, graphic, middle grade (mainstream) and YA (mainstream) novels, and poetry, click to the CYBILS website winners' page( And check out the blogs of the other CYBILS Fantasy/SciFi judges (noted on the left of this page) to see what they are saying about the winners, the contest, and this year's judging process.

BIG Congratulations to all of the 2007 CYBILS winners!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

God Bless the Editors

Judging for the CYBILS awards this year has taught me many things.

One thing I've learned is how HARD it truly must be for editors to read manuscripts day after day, evening after evening, subway ride after subway ride -- God bless them!

Over the last few weeks as I've been staying up late and getting up early, reading the 10 wonderful novels that are finalists for the CYBILS (in Fantasy/SciFi,) and preparing for the judging meeting where we'll choose the best YA and MG fantasy books of 2007 -- I learned the following:

Great books, when you read them in quick succession, are still great books. But they can lose some of the luster that they might have had if you had had time to read them in leisurely fashion while lying in a hammock in the sunshine. Beautiful prose, strong characters and great plots need to stand out in a writing competition or they will begin to blur a bit together. And the same is, of course, true for the piles of paper on an editor's desk. This is why they tell us to submit a manuscript whose first pages will grab their attention, their heart, and their soul.

I've loved reading the CYBILS books and I'm sure that editors, in general, love reading manuscripts as well. But I want to send out a note of thanks here, nonetheless:

To the Editors,

Thank you
For reading, reading, reading our manuscripts
For looking for the gems among the stacks of paper on your desks
For reading on the subway, on your lunch hour, and during the commercial breaks in your favorite sitcom
For falling in love with some of our manuscripts instead of just throwing them all in the trash
For reading until the words blur together, and you have to struggle to separate the characters in my story from the ones in the manuscript that you read two hours ago
For all of this
Thank you.

I have read only 3,500 pages of other people's (great) writing over the past 3 weeks, but my respect for you has increased with every page.

So, God bless the editors. May you have three extra hours added to each day. And may you be able to eat lunch without a manuscript sitting next to your sandwich.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Shuffle the Deck

If you, like me, sometimes have trouble with the plot of your novel getting flat and mudane in the middle -- consider shuffling the deck.
That's what I did recently, and it made my novel stronger.

You see, I was writing the second half of my current novel (POP), when I realized that I hadn't really mentioned several of the secondary characters in awhile and was forgetting to weave the secondary plots in with the primary plot action.

So, I began throwing in a paragraph here and there, bringing back the secondary plots and characters. But I soon found that my story was lolling itself into a boring dead end.

Obviously drastic measures were in order.

So, I skimmed through the entire manuscript on the computer and realized that the plot, which had seemed so fabulous when I first outlined it, was really just an uneven batch of little stories that weren't combining to make a very convincing whole. (This is sometimes hard to see when one is zipping along through the middle.) My plot was heavy on action in some spots, heavy on interpersonal interaction in others. Certain characters that were quite important in the beginning disappeared completely for three or more chapters in the middle, then showed back up at the end as if they still belonged there. It was an unorganized circus.

A major change was needed. (And, I must tell you, I HATE changes.)

But, overcoming my fear, I yanked on my overalls, grabbed my printer and a "correction pen" and chose to take control of the circus.

I printed out the entire manuscript, separated each chapter into it's own little paper clipped stack on the floor, and SHUFFLED THE DECK.

Chapters 1, 2 and 3 stayed where they were, but after that everything got shuffled. Chapter 7 became chapter 4, the old 4 became 5, 5 became 6, 8 became 7, 6 became 8, 11 became 9, 9 became 10, and my last 2 chapters got separated into four. The first moment of the change was scary, but after that I felt liberated. It wasn't my words and paragraphs that were bad; not even my plot or characters. It was the order, the clumping, the unevenness that needed to go.

And after the shuffle, my manuscript is stonger. The main and secondary plots flow together like two little streams throughout the book. (Or, so I hope). Characters don't disapper for chapters at a time. And most of the brilliant scenes that I wrote before are still intact. They're just in differente places.

This experience has liberated me. The manuscript was not a lost cause. It was just a deck of characters and scenes in need of shuffling.

So, if you notice plot clumping, disappearing characters, or other uneven fiascos in your current manuscript, don't panic! Don't cut it up and toss it in the trash. It may be that all you need to do is cut the deck -- and shuffle it.