Tour Is Done

My twenty-city, three-country, back-breaking tour for Afterworlds is done! Now I can go back to that other job I have. Which is, um . . . writing. Yeah, that’s it.

A few notable things:

My next graphic novel project has been announced on io9! (More on this here soon.)

The New York Times gave me a great review, which contained this marketing-department-happy-making pull-quote:

“‘Afterworlds’ is a wonderful book for any young person with an interest in growing up to be a writer.”

Though I would add the words or who is already a writer. Because it’s November, and real writings are underway.

Of course, we can forgive the paternal tone here. We all know that YA reviews in the NY Times aren’t targeted at actual teenagers. (I mean, the review also compares Darcy Patel to Mary Tyler Moore and Cary Bradshaw, as opposed to any characters created in, say, the current century.) And trust me, I fully comprehend that it’s churlish to take issue with one’s positive coverage in the New York-frickin’-Times. So I’m not so much complaining as thinking aloud about who the imagined audience for this review is—not teenagers, pretty clearly—and what that says about the overall relevance of the Paper of Record to the greater project of YA lit.

But please, all you Times-reading adults with credit cards, go order my book for the writerly young people in your life! They’re the ones with dark circles under their eyes muttering “word count, word count” at the breakfast table this month.

They aren’t just growing up to be writers; they are writers right now.

Other stuff:

My first flight in the second leg of the tour was delayed, which left me in DFW airport at almost exactly midnight. If you’ve read Afterworlds, you know that this is pretty hilarious.

In Dallas, a model-making fan named Jon-Luc showed me his diorama of the death of the Goeben, which was pretty amazing:

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The kind students of Alvin, TX gave me this amazing gift basket:

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And at the Texas Teen Book Festival, I learned that there is a tortoise named Deryn.

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Had a lovely time at Changing Hands, as always. And at Hicklebee’s Books in San Jose, CA, where visiting authors sign the walls, doors, and columns, I did something naughty:

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Had a great time at the NaNoWriMo fund-raiser at Books Inc. in San Francisco. Even though we were up against the Giants in the World Series, we pulled a big crowd. Way to put books before sportsball, SF!

Boston Book Festival was the bomb, as was Toronto last week. And the tour finally wrapped up at the amazing YALLfest in Charleston, SC, where I met the very smart and terribly poised 16-year-old author of Popular, Maya van Wagenen:

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And then, with Varian Johnson, I conspired to photobomb the crap out of noted rappers V-Roth, S-Dess, E-Hop, G-4, and D-Paige.*

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All in all, it was too much fun.

To all who came to my events, thank you! I hope it was as fun for you as it was for me. For those of you who missed me, I’m sorry we didn’t connect. Maybe next year.

Yes, I will be touring again next year, though for an entirely new series. (TOP SECRET!)


*Veronica Roth, Sarah Dessen, Ellen Hopkind, Gayle Forman, and Danielle Page. Duh.

Single Limited Viewpoint

This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my current book, Afterworlds, about a young novelist living in NYC. There’s more info on this page, and you can listen to me talking about Afterworlds here on Wisconsin Public Radio.


Point of View
Point of view is hard. It’s complicated, subtle, and confusing, and POV failure is one of the most common reasons why agents and publishers cast aside submissions half read.

To make things worse, a lot of the writing advice on the subject is unhelpful or downright wrong. Much of the terminology is broken. (“Limited omniscience” makes about as much sense as “casual nuclear attack.”) And, as I spent the previous post pointing out, POV is at the core of the novel’s primary affordance—getting us into someone else’s head.

So I’m going to talk about POV first, and at length. I’m going to invent some of my own terminology and use some old terms in new ways. (If you hate that sort of thing, go away.)

To start with the obvious: point of view isn’t one thing; it’s a toolbox. The tools inside this box can be combined in many ways, and the tools themselves are like adjustable wrenches—each possesses its own continuum of settings.

So let’s break POV into four basic elements:
1) Viewpoint (where the information of the narrative comes from)
2) Person and tense (the grammar of the narration)
3) Distance (the immediacy of the narration to the events of the story)
4) Voice (the personality of the narration, especially its attitude toward the reader).

I’m not saying that this schema is the One True Way to discuss POV. In fact, I intend these categories to be a bit weird and vexatious, as a way to break up your assumptions about how POV works. Because bad assumptions are everywhere.

For example, I frequently see people saying, “First person present tense is a very immediate way to tell a story!” Which is crap. The grammar of a narrative and its distance are two different things.

Take this story opening:

The summer has been long and boiling, my body changing in ways I don’t understand yet, my mind tangling in those changes’ wake. So it’s a mystery how I first get the idea to set fire to the home of the only girl I’ve ever loved.

Yes, it’s in present tense and first person, but there’s an elegiac lilt to the language, a sense that everything has already taken place. The grammar doesn’t change that.

But let’s say you started the story this way:

It was a hot day, and Roger was bored and itchy.
“Let’s set fire to Cindy’s house,” he said.

This is in the past tense and third person, but it’s way more immediate, with the story happening in real time before our eyes. In other words, the grammar doesn’t determine distance. Far more important is the way the story is told.

Some of you might be saying, “But wouldn’t it be more immediate in present tense?” To which I say, Maybe a little, but please note that every single other difference between the two passages is more important.

My division of POV into four elements is a way to remind you of this fact, that there are no shortcuts to getting the right voice or distance or viewpoint. You never get to say, “I picked present tense, so my novel is awesome and intense!”

Over the next few weeks, I’ll go through each of the four elements in detail: viewpoint, grammar (person and tense), distance, and finally voice. For now, let’s start with viewpoint in its most basic form.

Single Limited Viewpoint
As I said above, viewpoint simply means where the information in a novel comes from.

Does it come from one character? From many? From an invisible camera that sees all (but doesn’t know what anyone’s thinking)? Is the narrator a bodiless entity of great wisdom who knows the future and the past? Or is the novel simply a compilation of documents found in an abandoned vault? (If so, who wrote them? Who compiled them?) Is the narrator a trickster, a liar, a mad person? Or a writer at a desk talking directly to you, the reader?

Or is the universe itself talking to you?

Over centuries of writing, writers have experimented with a dizzying range of viewpoints, allowing the novel to reinvent itself time and again. If you never experiment with viewpoint in your writing life, you will be a very boring writer indeed.

But let’s start simply, with single limited viewpoint.

In this mode, all the reader can ever learn is what one character experiences. You’ve read tons of books like this. My own Uglies series is one example. From the early twentieth century, SLV has become perhaps the dominant mode of the novel. Indeed, there are people out there who will tell you that this is the Only Correct Viewpoint. (They are benighted, tiny people. But they exist.)

Why is it so popular? Here’s my guess:

In the single limited viewpoint, readers bond very closely with one narrator. All we ever find out is what that person sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, thinks, believes, and knows. We’re living inside their head, so we can’t help but start to identify with their desires, needs, and opinions. This bonding process is what makes reading so immersive and transformative. It turns us into another person.

This is what keeps us up at night with a flashlight.

So how does it work?

I’m about to show you lots of examples. Unless otherwise noted, I’m just making these up on the fly. They aren’t great literature, but they’re not meant to be. They’re more like those plastic models of flowers at the science museum—they aren’t as lovely as real flowers, but they’re useful for showing you how stuff works.

Here we go:

Arnold frowned. “I’m not quite sure what you’re asking me.”

Behind him, a group of sailboats were gliding past on the bay. Maria watched their sails flutter and fill, trying to ignore the way his eyes flashed when he teased her.

“I was asking, um, if you wanted to get coffee?” A cool droplet of sweat crept down the inside of her arm.

After a long moment, the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face. It felt like daybreak.

“I like coffee,” he said.

Clearly, we are in Maria’s viewpoint here, not Arnold’s. We can see Arnold’s facial expressions and the boats behind him (which he presumably can’t see). We feel Maria’s sweat on her skin, and her emotions as well. When Arnold’s smile is “like daybreak,” that’s what it feels like to Maria, not to Arnold.

Importantly, we can’t see Maria. Unless she looks in a mirror (argh!) she’s mostly invisible to us.

But even invisible, she does know things about herself. Let’s continue a bit:

“I like coffee,” he said.

Maria smiled, straightening the cambric shirt she’d worn especially for Arnold. He’d said he liked the shirt—a month ago?—and she’d worn it often since. “Glad to hear that. I like coffee too.”

Maria doesn’t need a mirror to know she’s smiling, or what clothes she put on this morning. That information is in her head, so it’s available to us in single limited viewpoint. More important, we also know why she put on that shirt, because Maria knows why, and she’s just had a moment of self-consciousness about it.

Facial expressions can be tricky, because they can be sensed from the inside or seen from the outside. In first passage, I wrote, “the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face.” That wouldn’t work for Maria, because a “hint of a smile” is something perceived at from the outside. For a hinted smile in her own viewpoint, I might try something like: “Maria felt a smile playing at her lips, and swallowed it.”

See the difference?

When you’re writing in limited single viewpoint, every piece of information you put into the text—physical details, actions, mood, even the simplest background knowledge about the world—has to pass these tests: Does your viewpoint character know about this? Would your viewpoint character notice this? Does you viewpoint character have the capacity to understand this?

If you can’t answer yes to all those questions, then you have to leave that detail out.

In a way, the text of your novel becomes the viewpoint character. When they think or feel something, the reader doesn’t have to be told it’s the character thinking or feeling it; the character’s mind simply imbues the text. This is why we talk about limited viewpoint as “being in a character’s head.”

Let’s look at another example:

Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.

If this were the first paragraph of a novel, we’d know right away that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint. This fact affects everything about the text. For example:

Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green . . .

The nasty color of the wall is Billy’s opinion, not objective reality. Also, the foulness of the green probably reflects his current mood more than any permanent opinion about the wall. (Some of you may recall how the protagonist’s bad mood informs the color of sky at the start of Uglies.)

And check this out:

[The wall] had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings.

Billy probably wasn’t there when the wall was painted. If he had been, the lazy painter would be a specific person, not “someone.” This laziness is Billy’s assumption, based on his observations in the present. But here’s the important part: even though Billy lives in this house, he’s noticing the sloppy paint job at this exact moment. His sulky mood has infected every detail of the room (and every detail of the text).

At this point, the reader might already be wondering why this guy is in such a crappy mood. And the text answers:

Behind [the wall], Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something.

Let’s assume Billy can’t see through walls, but he can recognize his parents’ voices. Note that the argument is “about something,” without specifics, which probably means the words are muffled. (It’s also possible that Billy doesn’t care about his parents’ arguments anymore, and so isn’t listening particularly hard.)

Also, notice that it’s just “Mom and Dad,” not “Billy’s mom and dad.” Even though this is third-person, it’s as if Billy is talking to us. We’re inside his brain, where Mom and Dad are pretty much their names.

Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.

This prediction about the coming car trip is Billy’s best guess, based on his past experiences and his current crappy mood.

The cool thing is, the writer doesn’t have to explain that these are Billy’s observations and guesses and assumptions. Readers already know the conventions of limited viewpoint and understand that character and text are extensions of each other.

Look at what happens if we get rid of these assumptions:

Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a color of green that he found foul, apparently by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. From behind it came the muffled sounds of Billy’s mother and father screaming at each other. He sighed, guessing that it was going to be another dismal drive to his grandmother’s place.

This passage spells out the machinery of limited viewpoint, rather than just letting it happen. It makes for clumsy prose. Ironically, by constantly reminding us that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint, this language forces us out of Billy’s viewpoint.

Of course, the writer might not want to be so closely in Billy’s head, because he’s a minor character who’s about to die, or because it makes this scene too depressing. But you have to admit that second version is clunkier.

Let’s see what happens to the passage if Billy is a different sort of person. What he sees and hears may be exactly the same, and yet everything changes:

Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a mismatched forest green (Pantone 363?) by someone too barbaric to tape the moldings. Through the thin drywall came muffled screaming—the lord and lady of the house had been at it all morning. “Customers,” Billy sighed. It was going to be another tense morning of arguments over carpet samples and color swatches.

Meet Billy 2, an interior decorator. He’s more aware of color than Billy 1. For him, people who paint sloppily are demoted from “lazy” down to “barbaric.” Billy 2 casually identifies details of the wall’s construction. (Billy 1 might know what drywall is, but he probably wouldn’t think it.) Also note that Billy 2 isn’t as depressed as Billy 1. Your own parents fighting may be “dismal,” but your customers arguing is merely “tense.”

This is what makes limited viewpoints so powerful: everything changes when the observer changes. This means that we learn as much about a character by how they see reality as by their actions and choices. You don’t have to make your narrator look in an actual mirror, because the whole world becomes their mirror.

(Protip: never make your character look in an actual mirror.)

And now for an important aside. As I was so strenuously pointing out above, viewpoint is separate from person. In other words, all this stuff works exactly the same way in first-person as it does in third-person. Check this out:

I stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.

That’s right. I change one word and this passage goes from third-person to first, from Billy’s viewpoint to “mine.” That’s what I meant about POV tools being interchangeable. (I’ll get back to first- and third-person in a later chapter. Just wanted to point out again that person is separate from viewpoint. I like repeating things. Repeating things is good. We learn through repetition!)

Let’s look at some more examples of how viewpoint informs text. Here’s the first of three characters witnessing a fighter jet fly past:

An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single engine, which threw those tons of metal up into the sky like so much thistledown.

Okay. What do we know about this character? They know a lot about fighter jets, clearly. In fact, one might say they love military aircraft, because the language of the passage reflects that affection.

Now let’s see the same event through the eyes of a non-enthusiast:

The fighter plane shot past, furiously loud and low to the ground, its metal skin mottled with gray and green. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, and a moment later it was gone.

See how all that technical info about engines and afterburners disappeared? Those facts are outside the knowledge base of the narrator. They can’t show up in this story without another character filling them in.

More important, the love is gone. This character has no great affection for fighter jets, so the poetry of the passage fades into more mere observation. So does that mean the first narrator is better, because they allow access to all the writer’s lovingly researched details?

Maybe not. As a reader opening a novel to that first passage, I’d be pretty certain that many cool airplane facts were in my future. This will thrill some readers; others will put the book down. In some ways that enthusiastic first character is also limited by their knowledge, because they can’t look at a jet plane without thinking of its technical specifications. Which might get old after a few hundred pages.

Also, sometimes a character who doesn’t know things is more interesting than one who does. Check out this version:

The sky was splitting, tearing open along the red horizon. The hills around Hera roared and shrieked, the earth itself shuddering in terror. A shape caught her nervous eyes for a moment—a knife hurtling through the air. But then with a furious bellow, it disappeared into the sky, leaving only a sharp scent behind, like the tar pits when lightning had set them burning.

This passage is clearly describing the same event, but there’s nothing about airplanes. That’s weird.

If this were the first paragraph of a novel, the reader might not even realize what was going on. But Hera isn’t stupid or unobservant. In fact, she noticed something the other narrators missed: the lingering scent of expended jet fuel, which smells like . . . a tar pit?

Of course! This is one of those books where a stone-age woman travels through time and sees a jet fighter. (Or maybe the jets have gone back to hunt mastodons. Yeah, I’m going with that.) As such, Hera lacks any frame of reference for what a jet is. She barely understands that all this sound and fury is caused by a flying object. To her, it’s more like the sky is shaking itself apart. It might take a few scenes for the reader to grasp what these noisy sky-things are. (Of course, the cover would probably show jets shooting at mastodons. But let’s just ignore that.)

Having a viewpoint character who’s thrown out of their usual frame of reference can be a glorious thing. In speculative fiction, characters often find themselves in other eras, on other planets, or facing revelations of magic hidden beneath the surface of the everyday world. The narrator who steps through a portal and doesn’t know what’s going on is a great stand-in for the reader, because everything is new and shiny to them. They’re being introduced to the novel’s alternate world at the same time the reader is.

So which do you choose? A narrator who knows a little? A lot? Nothing at all?

Partly it depends on how much of your story depends on technical details. If you’re telling a story about someone stealing a stealth fighter, an expert narrator is probably the way to go. If you’re making the point that modern technology has godlike potential to do damage to the world, maybe it’s better to show it from a stone-age hunter’s perspective than a jet pilot’s.

Repeat this before bed each night in November: The meaning of a story is molded by the eyes we show it through.

Another key is consistency. In other words, don’t cheat. You have to stick with what your character knows, or have them learn new things in a reasonable time frame. If you have a narrator suddenly remember the dragon-slaying class they took in high school or that time they learned ancient Greek, you bounce your reader out of the protagonist’s head.

And a broken viewpoint is a broken novel. (< -Also repeat this daily.)

Of course, knowledge isn't the only thing that makes people who they are. Characters are also their beliefs, assumptions, and politics. In other words, their worldview.

Let's go back to the non-expert character watching the jet, with some edits:

The fighter plane shot past, its metal skin mottled gray and green, so furiously loud and low to the ground that I feared it would crash. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.

The big change here isn’t knowledge, it’s attitude. For this character, contour-hugging maneuvers are unfamiliar and scary, which makes them nervous for the safety of the pilot. And they can’t watch a display of military hardware without thinking of the social costs. The poetry of the aircraft enthusiast has been replaced by an acid tone.

Our beliefs—political, religious, and ethical—are the lenses through which we see the world. These parts of a character’s personality inform the text just as much as their knowledge, mood, and senses.

On top of which, people are complicated. One last jet flyover:

An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single J79 engine. Those tons of metal were thrown up into the sky like so much thistledown, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.

Plot twist! This character both loves the charismatic fury of military aircraft and hates their social and economic costs. (Urban legend: The conflict is coming from inside the house!) This is why single limited can be so powerful, because a character’s inner struggle can imbue the language of the novel itself.

It’s up to the writer to put all this together. With every sentence, you have to remember the constraints of your character’s senses, the colors of their mood, the extent and zeal of their knowledge base, and the repercussions of their beliefs and principles.

It’s not easy. But if you do your job well, readers don’t just bond with your narrator, they become them. They start noticing the same details, feeling the same anxieties, and even dreaming the same dreams.

That’s how novels change the way that people see the world.

So why don’t we write every novel in single limited viewpoint? Given that YA lit is so concerned with the teenage experience, surely this kind of immersive storytelling is what we should be aiming for.

Here’s the problem: The greatest strength of single limited viewpoint is also its greatest drawback. Because we’re so closely aligned with one character, our experiences are limited to theirs. As a writer, you’re trapped with one pair of eyes. This limits how many events the reader can witness first-hand, and how much you can reveal of the world you’ve created.

If you want to show how the awesome plumbing system of Dwarf Castle works, you’ll have to make your narrator a dwarven plumbing expert. (Um, yay.) If there are exciting things happening in two places at the same time, your reader only gets to witness one of them. If a serial killer is secretly stalking the narrator, the reader won’t know this—and will feel zero suspense—until the narrator finds out about it. (And then it’s not secret stalking anymore, is it?)

But the biggest constraint of the single limited viewpoint is not of senses or knowledge, but of belief. Your text is trapped within a single set of assumptions, a single ethical framework. A character’s beliefs may change over time, but you can’t show both sides of an issue at once.

Those of you who’ve read my Leviathan books, try to imagine them with only a Clanker perspective, and no Darwinist characters, or vice versa. The whole point of the series would vanish. With single limited viewpoint, you never get a first-hand look at what it’s like to be the bad guy. You may never discover that from a different perspective, all that badness was completely justified. And don’t forget that about half the YA audience is teenagers, who have been known to question authority. They are open to the idea that truth doesn’t flow from single well.

So sometimes you have to bust out of this single-character thing.

In the next post, I’ll talk about multiple-character viewpoints.

Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”
Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”
Click here to read Part 3, “What Are Novels?”

Still on Tour

The Afterworlds tour is pretty much over, except for my visit to Toronto, Canada and YallFest in Charleston, SC. (See my Appearances page for details on those.)

For the rest of you, here are some amusing photos from tour.

This is evidence of studious reading:

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Here’s what an audience looks like when you’re giving a presentation. In no way intimidating!
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This is one I took for my upcoming Tumblr, IndieBookstoreBathrooms:
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It’s always great to see Midnighters tattoos:
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Holly Black and Cassandra Clare were also on tour at the same time, so they left me and Justine friendly notes in various bookstores:
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It’s always cool seeing one’s name in lights.
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Unlike the cake, the shortbread is not a lie.
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And in St. Louis, I got to be in my own covers. AT LAST.
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Anyway, that’s a mere fraction of all the cool stuff that happened. Thanks to everyone who came out to buy books and laugh at my jokes. You are all wonderful.

Afterworlds Spoiler Thread

It’s that time again: A TIME OF SPOILAGE.

Use the comment thread of this post to discuss all that happens in Afterworlds. If you haven’t read the book, however, it might be wise to NOT LOOK AT THE COMMENTS.

Don’t forget what happened to this person back in May of 2006. I quote from the famous Specials spoiler thread:

oh god, i read the spoiler section before i read the book. i would have read the book by now but the bookstore doesn’t have it in yet! i got the first two before the sale date. why can’t i do that now!? crap i can’t believe i read the spoiler section . . . crap

The lamentations of one who has been spoiled!

If you haven’t got the book yet, go watch the Afterworlds videos instead.

Or go check out my tour schedule and come get a book signed by me! Note that Justine will be with me for all U.S. events. Bring her books along, and she’ll sign them!

Or check out this sample of the audiobook:

Or check out this interview with me about the audiobook!

JUST DON’T READ THE SPOILERS.

What Are Novels? (HTWYA 3)

This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my next book, Afterworlds about a young novelist living in NYC. Afterworlds launches Sep 23 in NYC, and you can pre-order it at the bottom of this page.

Also, I’m on tour now! Click here for dates.


What Are Novels?
I’m not going to talk much about the history of the novel. Your local high school, university, bookstore, and library all have departments devoted to that subject. If you want to be a novelist, you should be reading lots of novels, new and old.

Go do that. Keep doing it your whole life.

For now, though, suffice it to say that the novel was invented somewhere between four hundred and a thousand years ago, and in the last century has superseded poetry, short stories, essays, and the rest to become the dominant form of literature.

Novels are powerful. They can help reform corrupt industries (The Jungle), start civil wars (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and provide touchstones for decades-long political movements (Native Son). Novels are so successful that their DNA has invaded other forms, such as narrative history, true crime, and memoir.

So what are novels?

My favorite definition is “a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.” I don’t know who came up with this, but its point is clear: novels are lengthy and lack the shiny perfection of shorter works. They are usually written in the rhythms of natural speech, also known as prose.

But not always! There are many novels in verse (in YA, most notably Ellen Hopkins’ bestsellers about troubled teenagers). And novels that are mostly prose often include other stuff: poetry, song lyrics, mathematical equations, computer code, “realia” like score cards and bus schedules, and even words twisted and transformed into visual art (Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, 1953). Before the twentieth century most fiction was illustrated. So, yes, novels can have pictures too.

In other words, novels are big and imperfect and supremely rugged, like a battered old trunk that can hold pretty much anything.

Young writers ask me all the time, “How long should my novel be?”

The lower bound of the novel is fuzzy. Science fiction folks (like me) tend to use the Hugo Awards’ definition: forty thousand words or more. In lay terms, a novel should be more than a hundred pages. Of course, the Hugo categories below that length are “novella” and “novelette,” terms that simply mean “little novel.”

Far more important: there is no upper bound to the novel. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is four thousand pages long. It was published in seven volumes from 1909 to 1927, but it’s all one novel.

I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s answer to the question, “How long should a man’s legs be?” He quipped, “Long enough to reach the ground.” In other words, your novel should be long enough to get to the end of your story.

The artist in me doesn’t care how long your novel is. (But the commercial hack in me suggests that you stay between fifty thousand and a hundred-fifty thousand words. Okay? Are you happy now? You made me be a commercial hack.)

Here’s a much more interesting question: What are novels good at?

Every art form has its specific “affordances,” a fancy design term that asks of an object, “What can you do with it?”

Ropes are good for pulling things, but not for pushing them. Coffee mugs are good for hot liquids (the handle keeps your fingers from getting burned) but desultory for champagne (you can’t see the bubbles!). FaceBook is good for finding old friends, but terrible for keeping old friends (and advertisers) from finding you. Twitter is good for snarking at the Music Video Awards, less so for nuanced discussions.

So let’s compare the affordances of the novel to other narrative art forms, to find out what novels are good for.

Imagine the opening shot of a film: a dirty and decrepit room, years’ worth of old newspapers stacked against the walls, opened and half-eaten cans of beans everywhere, and one wall covered with newspaper clippings about the president of the United States, the eyes scratched out of every photo.

Within seconds, we know that we’re in the house of a crazed assassin. Tension!

This is something films are good at: establishing settings more or less instantly. A film can open in an alternative steampunk Bangkok in the 1930s and, even if you don’t know anything about Thailand or steampunk or the 1930s, you are there.

A novel would require a lot of text to create a setting of that complexity. The writer can’t upload a whole image straight into your retina, but has to introduce the elements one by one. Novels have no audio track; they can’t give the viewer direct experience of the music playing next door, or the tone of a person’s voice.

On the other hand, a written word can do things a movie can’t. Many details escape the camera’s view: the etymology of a phrase in Thai, the construction history of a Bangkok Airways zeppelin passing overhead, or the text of a newspaper clipping that the assassin tore from the wall yesterday and burned. And novels can engage smells, tastes, and textures in a way that films, being audio-visual, can only suggest.

Another cool thing about novels: they have infinite budgets. You can build a whole city for a one-page scene, then burn it down. Your only limit on extras and special effects is your imagination and ability. (Comics also have infinite budgets, with a combination of novelistic and filmic affordances. But that’s another book.)

Here’s a similar, but more subtle, affordance: novels can compel aesthetic reactions across boundaries of taste. What I mean is, a skillful writer can convince readers that a group of musician characters is the most awesome band ever. But in a movie a real band has to appear and play actual music, which will not please everyone.

We novelists reach into our readers’ head and make them create their own perfect music.

The same thing happens with descriptions of beauty and charm, which is why when books are made into films, the casting decisions invariably cause dissent. Novels co-opt the reader’s imagination to create whatever the story requires. Every reader constructs their own version of that graceful waltz, that gorgeous sunset, that irresistible face.

On top of what novels can show the reader, they’re also very good at hiding things. If we need to, we writers can mention “a car” without any brand, vintage, or state of repair. If a detail isn’t important, we can make it disappear. We can walk around in a character’s head for a whole novel and not find out how old they are, what they’re wearing, or what they look like. (In first person, we can even decide not to disclose their gender.)

Sure, filmmakers sometimes avoid showing the main character, but it’s clunky and obvious what they’re doing. In a skillful writer’s hands, the reader might not even notice.

Let’s be clear about something: you can attempt any narrative trick in any medium, and as a young writer you should be stretching the form. But the fact is, some things will work better in film, some in writing, some in comics, and some on the stage.

If you find yourself using a coffee mug as a champagne glass, or as a hammer, you might want to rethink.

Okay, we’ve talked about what novels are good at, but what are novels best at? What’s the thing they do better than any other medium?

Here’s one answer: When you read a novel, you can know the agony of a character’s stomach ache, the limitations of their colorblindness, what bacon means to them, or the way they feel when a loved one comes through the door. Their fears, hatreds, beliefs, prejudices, and the exact words they’re thinking can be laid out on the page. All the fragments of a character’s memories and knowledge can be accessed as easily as the facts in the reader’s own brain.

I would argue being inside people’s heads is the grade-A, number-one affordance of the novel. To never access anyone’s thoughts or feelings in a novel is like using a champagne glass as a hammer. (Artists like to do that sort of thing, of course. But if you try it, you should be ready for the broken glass and severed fingers.)

Here’s a crazy theory for you:

We humans have a superpower. We can look at another person, observe their facial expressions, words, and body language, then add this data together with everything we know about them and all the other humans we’ve ever observed, and make guesses about what’s going on inside that person right now.

Are they sad? Angry? Hungry? About to stab us?

This trick, called empathy, is a very useful day-to-day skill. It helps us know when to comfort someone, when to make a joke, and when to run away. But its long term consequences are far bigger, because empathy turns us into social creatures, who can cooperate to build tribes and cities and the internet. It’s the basis of art, ethics, and civilized society, not to mention a crazy little thing called love.

The novel is the outgrowth of this ability, because to read is to imagine what it’s like to be someone else. Just as movie cameras are modeled on the human eye, the novel is modeled on our empathy. It’s not about watching someone, it’s about being in their head. In other words:

Novels are machines for becoming other people.

As we read, we become someone else. Often this person has a more exciting and glamorous life than we do. They may wield magic or posses awesome technology, live in another era or on another planet. More important, they may think differently than we do, and see the world in radically strange ways, and yet we are still drawn into those ways of thinking and seeing. To read is to travel, not just geographically, but into other minds, other lives.

This is what the novel is best at. And that’s because—more than any other medium—novels are an art form grounded in point of view.


Click here to read the next post, Part 4, “Single Limited Viewpoint.”

Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”
Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”

What Are Stories? (HTWYA 2)

Between now and November, I’m posting excerpts from a work in progress called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, but you can preorder Afterworlds, my book about a young novelist living in NYC, on the bottom of this page.


What Are Stories?
Okay, it’s time to get to the writing advice part of this book. Almost.

First we must talk about stories. Like, what are they?

Stories are a technology.

They’re a tool, one invented to inform, persuade, and entertain other humans. This technology is very old, probably created not long after humans came up with language itself.

Stories are also very powerful. Someone who remains unconvinced after a thousand pages of scientific data can often be swayed by just the right anecdote. Otherwise sensible people will believe absurdities as long as they appear in the context of a compelling tale, like an urban legend. We often recall the stemwinder version of an experience long after we’ve forgotten what really happened that day.

This is why some of the oldest things we posses as a culture are stories.

Here’s a little story with a very long pedigree:

There was once a donkey who found itself exactly halfway between a bale of hay and a bucket of water. The donkey was equally thirsty and hungry, so it couldn’t decide which to consume first, the water or the hay. As the day went on, the beast grew hungrier and thirstier in equal measure, so it stayed paralyzed, unable to choose. In the end, the donkey died of thirst and hunger, its decision still unmade.

News flash: this isn’t the world’s best story. It’s kind of silly (or sad, if you’re Team Donkey) and there’s not much rising action or character development. And yet this story has been told for over two millennia.

Back in 350 BCE, Aristotle used the donkey story to talk about physics. In his telling, the donkey’s desires represented the balance of forces in the world. If the donkey chose one way instead of another, nature itself would fly out of equilibrium.

In the twelfth century, the Islamic scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali used the story to talk about free will. He argued that people can break stalemates like the donkey’s even if they have no reason to make one choice over the other. That’s what makes us humans special.

In 1340, the French philosopher Jean Buridan used the story to make the opposite point, suggesting that when facing two equally good choices, the only rational thing to do is wait until circumstances change.

Three centuries later, Baruch Spinoza disagreed with Buridan, but took a different tack than Al-Ghazali, saying that a rational person can always see a distinction between two choices. In other words, the world is complex and nuanced and full of differences, and if you don’t see that, you’re an ass.

Many other thinkers have weighed in since. I first heard a version of the donkey story in 1980, in a Devo song called “Freedom of Choice.” Devo’s retelling (featuring a dog with two bones) suggests that these days people have too many choices, and might prefer fewer. My teenage self could relate to Devo’s version, that the choices offered by present-day consumerism aren’t really the same as freedom.

Such is the power of this one very short story. It has been used to make countless distinct and contradictory arguments across two dozen centuries. And given that no actual donkey in that situation would hesitate for a second, this tale has managed all this despite being patently unbelievable! (This is an important thing for us novelists to remember: stories don’t have to be credible, true, or even to make logical sense, to have lasting importance.)

So why is this tale is so persistent?

Perhaps we all recognize ourselves in the donkey. We’ve all had the experience of being unable to make a choice, and of paying a price for our indecision.

And check this out: we never find out what kind of music the donkey likes, or what its politics are, or if its parents loved it enough, or what it had for breakfast. And even though the donkey isn’t involved in a hot paranormal love triangle or a million-dollar jewel heist or a revolution against a dystopian government—even though it isn’t a character at all in the modern psychological literary sense—we somehow still identify with this beast.

Crazy, right? Why should we care?

Here’s my theory:

We are all creatures who make decisions (or fail to make them) and then suffer the consequences. When you tell us stories about other creatures who make (or fail to make) decisions and then suffer the consequences, we listen.

We listen hard.

It’s like we’re scared not to.

And that’s why novels are really important.


Click here to read the next post, Part 3, “What Are Novels?”

Click here to read Part 1, “What Is YA?”
Click here to read Part 4, “Single Limited Viewpoint.”

What Is YA? (HTWYA 1)

My next novel, Afterworlds, is about a young writer reworking her first novel after NaNoWriMo. I thought a fun and useful promotion for it would be a series of writing advice posts. I got carried away.

So between now and November, this blog will host excerpts from a non-fiction book I’m releasing next year, called How to Write YA. You can’t buy it yet, because it’s not done, but you can preorder Afterworlds on the bottom of this page. It’s out now.


What Is YA?
Young adult fiction has exploded over the last two decades. Once a small and sleepy corner of publishing, YA has become a major part of the industry, the only category to have grown by double digits every year since the mid-1990s. YA is now a profit center that helps keep the rest of the industry afloat, and the primary engine for creating new readers. The massive sales of YA mega-hits like Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars have also help kept a lot of bookstores from going out of business.

I have some theories about why this sudden explosion of young adult literature came about, but I’ll come back to those later. First, let me clear up a really important misconception: The genre of YA is not “fiction for teenagers.”

Partly, this is a matter of fact. Studies suggest that about half the YA audience is adult. But more important, the idea that YA is for teenagers is a conceptual error about the definition of genre itself. Genres are sets of practices, techniques, and stylistic conventions. Genres consist of shared assumptions and shared canon. In other words, a genre is not an audience. When someone tells you that they write “novels for men,” or “novels for old people,” or “novels for urban youth,” they aren’t talking about genre.

So what are YA novels, then, if not books for teenagers?

They are novels about teenagers, from a teenage perspective.

It’s pretty simple, really. YA is the set of all stories about what it’s like to be a teenager. Not from an adult looking on (or looking back) but from inside the teenage years while they are happening. YA is literature (or movies, TV, comics, video games, ballet, or whatever) that takes us into the hearts, minds, and lives of teenagers.

So how did this particular genre get so huge? Why would so many readers want to inhabit the lives of people who aren’t quite children, nor really adults?

To understand that, you have to know what a teenager is.


What Are Teenagers?
A couple of hundred years ago, there was no such thing as teenagers. The word did not exist, nor did the concept. There were only children and adults.

When people turned thirteen or so, many joined the navy, or got married, or went into the mines and factories. Many young people worked sixty-hour weeks, and child soldiers were common. (Some were rather good at their jobs. In the US Civil War, an eleven-year-old named Willie Johnston won the Medal of Honor, the highest his country bestowed.) I spew these facts not to outrage you, but to make a simple point: teenagers didn’t always exist. We had to invent them.

It happened slowly. Britain, in the throes of industrial revolution, often led the way. There, the workday for eleven through eighteen year-olds was shortened to a mere twelve hours in 1833. (Progress!) In 1844, the age for joining the navy as a midshipman was raised to 14. The minimum age of marriage was raised to sixteen in 1929. Over two centuries, a space opened up between the complete dependence of infancy and the rigors and responsibilities of adulthood. We had to give this space a name.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first appearance of the word “teenage” as 1928. The word “teenager” did not appear till 1949. By then, things were changing quickly. In the decades after the Second World War the industrialized world created nothing less than a new stage of life. We invented teenagers.

So what the hell are they?

The legal definitions are too long to list here. In most countries, at some point in the teenage years citizens reach the age where they are allowed vote, consent to sex, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, sign contracts, leave school, drive cars, marry, gamble, join the military, or work at other dangerous jobs. Exactly at what age these all happen depends on geography, and is the subject thousands of pages of law. These laws change all the time, buffeted by social mores, by new technologies, and by moral panics whipped into existence by some of the silliest people on the planet.

In other words, it’s all a bit of a muddle.

The cultural aspects of being a teenager are just as tangled. Whatever teens flock to—skateboards, file sharing, hoodies, rock music, rap music, MySpace—will soon become the subject of a moral panic. This is because teenagers frighten adults.

Five little kids in a store is cute. Five adults, good business. But when five teenagers gather, it’s loitering. It’s time for a curfew, or closed-circuit cameras, or a device that emits annoying high-pitched sounds that only teens can hear. (Seriously. Just google “mosquito teens.”) To put it simply, adults see teenagers as big enough to be dangerous, but not old enough to have been civilized yet.

They are uglies, if you will.

Here’s the weird thing: Despite this underlying terror, popular culture celebrates the teen years as carefree and happy, a time of consequence-free exploration. And in our youth-worshipping commercial world, teenagers (those with perfect skin and symmetrical faces, at least) are put on a pedestal. Images of teens are used to sell everything from clothes to food to music.

And let’s not forget the drama of those years—the time of firsts. Somewhere in all this muddle is when most people experience their first sexy kiss, tell their first meaningful lie, and suffer or commit their first real betrayal. Often for the first time, someone close to them dies. Most people drink their first beer, break their first law, and have their first political awakening as teenagers. These years see our first jobs, our first glimpses of independence, and our first life choices so serious that we can never completely undo them. And, of course, our first loves.

So let us recap. We have a global culture inventing an entirely new phase of life, engaged in a messy, noisy conversation about what it means to be an adolescent. We have an oppressed class, whose passions are harassed and banned, whose rights are curtailed, even while their customs are celebrated and their images ever more glorified and sexualized. We have an age of drama and emotion and reversal, where good days are transcendent, and bad days can feel like the end of the world.

Seems like there might be some pretty interesting stories in there.


Click here to read Part 2, “What Are Stories?”
Click here to read Part 3, “What Are Novels?”

Click here to read Part 4, “Single Limited Viewpoint.”

Afterworlds NaNoWriMo Event

The schedule for my Afterworlds tour is slowly coming together, and I’ll be posting a draft of it here soon. But there’s one special event I want to mention now:

On October 22, I’ll be doing an event in San Francisco to benefit NaNoWriMo. In this special presentation, I’ll talking about the craft of writing, the importance of NaNo, and other stuff of interest to young and not-so-young writers.

This is a ticketed event, and you can buy tickets now! (See below.) The ticket price of $22 INCLUDES a copy of Afterworlds and a guaranteed place in the signing line. On top of which, 15% of the purchase price goes to support NaNoWriMo.

All the folks at Books Inc. are early supporters of my career, so I’ll make sure that this is the best event I can make it. Hope to see a ton of you there.

Wed, October 22, 2014
7:00PM

Books Inc. Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness St
San Francisco, CA 94102

Buy tickets for NaNoWriMo and Books Inc. Present SCOTT WESTERFELD

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Click Here to visit the Brown Paper Tickets event page.

If you can’t make the even but would like to pre-order Afterworlds from Books Inc, click here.