Posts Tagged ‘books’

I want to welcome Brian Braden to the blog today. Now retired from the military, he served as an officer in intelligence and as a combat helicopter pilot. In addition, he’s been a corporate executive and a freelance columnist featured in defense publications including Military Times and Air Power Journal. Brian and I know each other in our work at Author Salon where we support and critique each other’s work. So I speak from experience — the man can write. Brian also writes regularly for Underground Book Reviews. He is the author of CARSON’S LOVE, a novelette about a family’s struggle with childhood cancer. His current project, BLACK SEA GODS is an epic fantasy, the first in a series and a novel I can’t wait to read.

Brian, thanks again for joining me. From the perspective of someone who flies aircraft with actual wings, my discovery of your helicopter experience leaves me a bit humbled. It certainly takes a level of courage to fly what is essentially a controlled crashed landing called a helicopter. But to fly one in combat, well, thank you for your service.

How does your military and flying background influence your writing?

First, thanks for inviting me to your blog. Many years ago, as a young man in high school and college, I had the writing itch. But when I reached deep inside for inspiration my bag was empty. I hadn’t experienced enough of life’s ups and downs. I wanted ups and downs. I craved ups and downs. I wanted to look back and be able to say “I did that.” Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t looking for thrills. I was looking for meaning, an uncompromised life. The military exposed me to undiluted people. It allowed me to experience places as they are, not as they appear from a tour bus.

I’m not sure I lived an uncompromised life, but I sure met a lot of undiluted people, saw interesting places, and had enough ups and downs to keep me writing for another fifty years. I feel more comfortable writing now than I did in my early twenties

Flying, especially military flying, taught me life and actions have consequences. Everything has a cost, and those costs must be factored. Ignoring facts can have instant and devastating consequences.  I think it brings realism, an immediacy and leanness to my writing I don’t think I’d otherwise possess.

I’m always curious about what jazzes creative artists. Where do you find the inspiration for your writing? 

I find my inspiration in unexpected moments, whether it’s a word, a scene, or a phrase that grabs my imagination and won’t let go. They are like grains of sand caught in my mind. I worry them, rub them and start to lay down layers over them. Soon, in my mind I build entire stories around that flash of inspiration until I finally commit them to paper.

Most of these unexpected moments concern people. When I meet a new person or see a stranger with a unique personality trait, I commit them to paper, like a catalog. This isn’t just a catalog of characters, it’s a catalog of story ideas. A story may be built around an idea, but in the end it’s the person, the character, that sells the story to the reader.

On Underground Book Reviews you constantly scour the 99 cent digital shelves. Have you found any gems in the process? 

Three indie authors instantly pop into my mind: Michael Manning, author of the Mageborn fantasy series;  Bryan R. Dennis, author of the sci-fi book The Uncanny Valley; and Michelle Isenhoff and her YA novel, The Quill Pen.   These self-published authors created books that, in my opinion, stand equal to anything generated by the traditional publishing industry. I’m stunned how any agent or editor could read their work and pass it up. There is some seriously good stuff lost in the background noise on Amazon that deserves our attention. If I were an agent I would bypass the query process and just surf the self-published authors to find projects to represent.

I cannot for the life of me understand why the Big Six publishers don’t use the self-published treasure trove the way Major League Baseball uses the farm teams.

What do you find to be the most challenging thing about being a writer? And how do you cope with that challenge? 

That goes back to your last question – the most difficult thing about being a writer is trying to make sense out of this industry, trying to figure out what is fact, what is myth and who you can trust. This particularly applies to the traditional publishing side.

In fact, trust is the key issue that bugs me the most. I’m slowly coming to grips that publishing is really show business. That concept is somewhat daunting, because much of your success is out of your hands. It brings to mind when I once had a beer with legendary ace Chuck Yeager. I asked him why he was so successful in his career. He replied it wasn’t so much having the Right Stuff, it was a lot of luck and being at the right place at the right time. I think getting traditionally published is a lot like that, even if you do have the Write Stuff.

How do I deal with it? Research, prayer, coffee, perseverance and occasionally walking away from the laptop.  I won’t quit and I won’t compromise my values. Eventually, good things will happen, maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will happen.

What do like the most about being a writer? 

Other writers. Writers are like cats. We’re not herd animals, but we do occasionally congregate at midnight and swap stories. And what stories! We military personalities usually run only one standard deviation either side of the Army…Marines on one side and Air Force on the other. To say writers are a bit more diverse is an understatement. At the Algonkian Conference in New York in December I was thrust into the company of dozens of writers for the first time in my life. And we had beer. I was in culture shock and I loved it. The creative energy was phenomenal, overwhelming. It felt like a drug.  I want more.

Specifically, I think my fellow writers at Underground Book Reviews are absolutely the best thing that’s happened to me since I started writing. If my writing never pans out I will still have UBR.

Having read your writing, Brian, I don’t think you need to worry about the writing thing not panning out.  So, tell us about your current project, BLACK SEA GODS.

Black Sea Gods is an epic fantasy based on a very ancient mythology from the Caucus region of Asia. This mythology is probably the foundation of the more familiar Greek and Scandinavian myths. The mythology provides the foundation and binding for the story, but what it’s really about is two men. It tells the story of a fisherman and a demi-god, two men trying to save the people they cherish from an enemy, a force, they don’t understand and they can’t fight.

In BSG I wanted to write a different kind of fantasy, a genre I think has grown somewhat stale in the past ten years. First, I didn’t want a dark book. I’m tired of dark. Second, I didn’t want to write a YA novel. I love YA, but I wanted a book that adults, especially parents and spouses, can relate to.

You have two protagonists, one, a human named Aizarg and the other, the demi-god Fu Xi. Tell us a little about Aizarg. In the excerpts I’ve read, I found Aizarg to be a compelling character facing extreme adversity. What drives Aizarg on against all odds?

Aizarg is a father, a husband, and chief of primitive tribe called the Lo. Aizarg is loving and flawed, but no worse than any other family man.  My inspiration for Aizarg came in 2008 during the beginning of the global financial crisis. I wanted to capture that kind of fear and put it in a fantasy/mythological setting. It’s a slow-roll terror. He knows something bad is coming but he doesn’t know how to stop it. He feels powerless, even as everything around him seems okay for the moment. The sky is blue and the world looks like it should, yet everyone knows something wrong, something broken, something very bad is about to happen, but when and how is still a mystery. He looks at his wife, children and people and wonders how he can protect them.

Fu Xi is an actual figure from Chinese mythology. How did you come across this mythology and how do you make the translation to a western audience?

I found Fu Xi accidentally when researching Black Sea myths. He is purely a Chinese myth and plays a role in the founding of ancient China. China has amazing mythology which has directly influenced western thought, mythology and history since the dawn of civilization.  I can’t really say too much on this without giving the series away, but when I read about him I instantly latched on to the Fu Xi myth as a way to glue my story together.

We think of China as an ancient culture, but it was once young. Fu Xi represents that youth, even though he is a god. Fu Xi and Aizarg will eventually develop a bond, a brotherhood. Perhaps it more accurate to say it is more like father and son. In the course of extraordinary events and drama, both will have important lessons to teach one another.

Brian, you have a novelette entitled Carson’s love, which is the first in a series. Tell us about Carson’s Love and the series you have planned.

Carson’s Love started as a writing exercise. I wanted a piece of flash fiction that was first person, present tense. I’d been seeing a lot of that in my writing circles, so I decided to give it a try. I developed into two separate short stories about a family dealing with both marital problems and a child with cancer. One short story is from the husband’s perspective, the other short story is from the wife’s. I fused them into a novelette. I got the idea when my own child was fighting cancer and  I read a pamphlet in the hospital about dealing with a child’s cancer while undergoing a divorce. I said to myself, “How can someone undergo a divorce while their kid is fighting for their life?” What a great idea for a story, I thought.

I never originally intended to publish Carson as a novelette, but I needed to stick my nose into the self-publishing business to understand how it works. I wanted to make my mistakes on a small project, like a novelette, instead of a big project like a novel. Carson was like my Voyager space probe, launched into the abyss that is self-publishing. Through it, I learned how to edit, find an artists to do the cover, submit, etc. The real hard nut to crack is marketing. That’s why I’m writing a sequel, as an attempt to understand the ins and outs of marketing. I plan to release several sequels to the Carson saga over the next few years, not unlike how King originally released his Green Mile series.

A part of the proceeds from sale of this book goes to Cure Search. Can you tell us a little about Curesearch and why you wanted to direct a percentage of the profits to that organization?

What few people know is organizations like the American Cancer Society do very little for children’s cancer. No drugs have been developed specifically to fight children’s cancer. Their justification is the ratio of adult versus children’s cancer doesn’t justify the dedicated resources. Most pediatric cancer treatments are “hand-me-down” drugs, adult chemotherapies and such adapted to children. CureSearch aims to change that.

CureSearch for Children’s Cancer is a national non-profit foundation that supports clinical trials and research in hospitals across the United States, funds research, and conducts fundraising. To findout more, go to

Due to my family’s experience with childhood cancer, this is a cause near and dear to our hearts.

I hope readers will go check Carson’s Love out.  Thanks for sharing with us today. Is there anything you’d like to add? 

I greatly appreciate you inviting me onto your blog. If your readers want to read more of my stuff, they can read my review column, Brian’s 99 Cents, on, stop by my personal blog at, or buy my novelette, CARSON’S LOVE. CARSON’S LOVE is the first installment of a novelette series, with the second installment, CARSON’S LINE, coming out later this year.


I’m excited to have Angelica Hart and Zi in the blog house for an interview.  To say these two authors combined, have been prolific, is a bit of an understatement.  Between them they have thirty seven titles published and over five hundred shorts in various magazines and newspapers.  And the awards! EPPIE finalist for three books, Cecil Whig award, Hob-Nob Reader’s Choice Award, Champagne Books Novel of the Year, Champagne Books Author of the Year.  They write mystery, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy and twelve of those books I mentioned mix one of those genres with romance — what fun!  

Thanks again for being with us today.  I want to get to your upcoming book CHRISTMAS EVE…VIL,  but first let’s talk a bit about you both and your work.

A:  We’re tickled to be here.  (Pulls up a cyber chair, sips her chai latte and looks for the chocolate, loving the no cal zone of cyber land)  We adore doing interviews. 

Z: What a wonderful summer day to be crawling around the attic, running wire for a new ceiling fan.  I am so glad that this interview has availed me the opportunity to stop sweating to the point of you-gotta-be-kiddin’-me.  So with grand sincerity, thank you Richard Hacker for allowing me to sit in the air conditioning.

A:  Double thanks Zi for taking a shower first!  (Looking at the nose clip she had ready just in case)

A writing team, while more the norm in the screenwriting world, is a little more unusual among novelists.  How did this partnership begin?  And why do you think it works so well? 

Z:  T’was a gloomy Thursday when a sudden crack of lightning startled me, followed by a maneuver of my black Volvo swerving to avoid an ominous rain puddle. The effort went for naught, and water was forced up the underside of the engine, mist and steam rose and the need to pull the car over was eminent. By some act of divine intervention, I found myself in the parking lot of Borders Books. A big yippee-ki-yay for any book fan. I trudged and dodged through blankets of water — a veritable downpour with hellacious lightning and stomach’s butterflies scared by thunder crackling about me as if the world were about to split apart and I would fall into an abyss. Managing to enter, I paper-toweled myself dry in the men’s room then returned to the sales floor. I noticed a woman manning an area of the cafe, perched on a high stool, touting her art work. She was Angelica Hart. The ensuing conversation went something like this: Hey…hey…nice art…thanks…are you interested in illustrations…yes…give me your card…here…thanks, I’ll call you…Do. There it was. Left the store to a world that was bright and sunny, filled with possibilities. And eight years later, it’s still sunny.

A:  The meaning of kismet happened that day. 

Z: Furthermore, in the eighties sitting just west of Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the grassy foothills at the base of the Grand Tetons, looking across the Snake River at a bull moose I began to read a piece I had just written in my journal, out loud, for the moose to hear. Yup, did it! I learned the moose was not my audience as he meandered deeper into the high grass but I was not discouraged and continued at the top of my speaking voice. About seven feet from me sat a molting coyote engrossed in my presentation. Its eyes held me as if a pup or its suckling mother and I felt one with that energy. Stunned that it did not run, amazed at its calmness in the face of my presence I continued. When I was done, the canine rose, walked next to me, rubbed its matted fur on my arm, passed, and it was lost to the high grass. It left upon me its musk, telling me I was one of its pack. In the capture of that moment in time, I felt validated as a writer. Years later, sitting over coffee, talking about writing, I felt that same validation again, and that person was Angelica Hart. I understood destiny.

A: Everyone has felt that thing that has been called the click, and the ease at which that happens.

Zi and I purported from first instant was astonishing, there was an immediate synergy that told me that one and one equaled three. I read his work, was moved. We lamestormed which is our practice of presenting ideas and deeming them lame or not. Of twenty ideas, ten from each, not one idea had merit. Our potential partnership stalled before it started. Then in an email, Zi sent me a touching fantasy love story, where a Mage stole a young man’s heart so the woman he loved could soar. He gave it willingly. I cried. I understood destiny.

It can’t be all fun and games, can it? What do you find to be the most challenging thing about being a writing partnership?  

A:  Yes, it can.  Be a fly on our wall.  Some readers are when they visit Dawn’s Book Nook on Thursday mornings, our weekly article is titled WRITERS WRITE…WRITING PARTNERS FEUD , and you’ll know we laugh a lot.  We battle a lot.  Not warrior battle, but the sort of battle to always get the best out of each other.  The battles that require water pistols and paper ball hand grenades.  It’s always about the story, what will make it better.  It’s about the reader, what will they enjoy.  And it’s about cookies….  When all else fails, break out the cookies. 

Z:  One of the first tenets that we put in place before we ever shared creativity was that we would agree to agree.  This means we would argue our point of views but the story had to will-out and we would not be so selfish as to pout or sulk.

Having said the afore, Angelica sulks and pouts…far more than any human I have met.

A:  Take that back or I’m leaving.  (Pouting AND sulking)

Z:  Angelica I am so sorry, I was so boldly honest.  Please forgive me.

A:  That’s better!  Where’s the cookies?

Here’s a question I think writers who struggle to find a genre niche and curious readers will want to know more about.  You have a number of titles that include mystery, suspense and sci-fi fantasy combined with romance. What is it about romance you find so compelling?

A: For me, it is because I was brought up on the princess fairy tales, the ultimate romance of the beautiful damsel and the brave, strong knight.  Only problem was that the bleepin’ princess was ooohhh, ahhhh, I need to be rescued, and even as a child, I decided to get out my crayons and let the princess shine.  She would rescue the prince, slay the dragons, and whip up a mean chocolate Sundae to boot.  In the end, though, I adored the struggle, the emotions, the happily-ever-after, and still do.

Z:  Romance is an omni-present force in everyone’s life.  We all crave it, but from time to time struggle to comprehend it.  The reasons we desire another and pine for lust are important.  I have been ultimately privileged to read every day another’s sojourn; Angelica can touch a place in humanity that defines those powerful feelings without ever being tawdry.  This is amazing.  Of course, there are those tactile hands on (ha-ha) moments that we hope that we have crafted, are entertaining.  The compelling part is that by considering the import of romance we make our understanding of human nature deeper and more complex.  Having said the afore, I adore entertaining women.

It’s always interesting to know what authors read.  What are you reading these days?  Any favorites?

A: Books are a passion of mine and with the Kindle I fully indulge that passion. I usually have two to three books going at once, one in the form of a CD for the car (currently reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsey) another CD in the house while doing this and that (Son of a Witch by Gregory McQuire)and then there is the reading before bed book (After the Mist by Cathy Coburn and Duaine Neill – A Champagne Book), and the family room book (I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.)  Then, of course, there are the mags…Discover, Woman’s World, Writer’s Digest….  Hmmm, think I better stop there.  I mean, you might think I’m compulsive or something.

Z: Reading…ahhhh…most recently a wonderful recipe for sweet and sour meatballs, which I made and subsequently amazed my company.  My neighbor’s palm insisting that she was going to meet an intriguing gentleman.  A series of blogs about the Eagles, 76ers, Flyers, and Phillies.  Did I enter comments?  Does a fly run into a glass window?  A little Stephen King for the humor of it all and emails to and fro to my daughter and son-in-law.  That was the last three days.

If you could go anywhere, do anything, where would you go and what would you do?

A:  Exactly where I am and what I am doing.  We get to laugh and joke and become awed by possibilities, cry at sorrow, experience drama, travel the world and spin magic with words.  What is more adventuresome or glorious then that.  Besides that, being with my family and being amazed that I am so blessed. 

Z:  I would buy into Einstein’s understanding of time relativity, and find myself a portal and return to those twenty-seven missed moments of my youth and discover if doing it differently, made a difference.  I would have never got caught peeking in the girl’s locker room, I would have kissed Amy who wanted to be kissed, and I would have never jumped up into the go-go dancer’s cage and danced with her.  (Note: The last one got me arrested!)  Dag.  

Tell us about your current project.  

A:  We have taken a bit of time and indulged the whimsy that resides in our quirky little souls, creating a twenty-five book series, titled THE SIN-SIN IN CINDERELLA.   If you like feghoots, parody, irreverence and naughty limericks then this cute/sassy series is the way to go.  We had a hoot creating it, and it can be found on our website: http//

Z:  The alter egos of Dona Penza Tattle, Esq. and Associate Wrye Balderdash, who also write a column for the Champagne Books Newsletter, Bubbles-n-Bits,  are the authors of the afore pieces.  Their personalities dance right on the edge of risqué profane.  We like that…they’re fun. 

CHRISTMAS EVE…VIL, comes out soon.  Sounds like a good winter read.  Tell us about it. 


A:  (Clears throat) Anya Petrichona, the guardian of an ancient amulet that permits entry to the supernatural realm, is pursued by an maniacal preacher.   While seeking refuge in the New Mexico Mountains, she becomes snowbound with the enticing and gallant Luke Calico. 

Z: (Hums a few bars of Jingle Bells) As Christmas Eve approaches, Anya’s and Luke’s ardor sizzles even as the preacher’s malevolence henchmen encroach.  Survival depends on Anya outwitting the preacher, bent on abusing her powers, and resistance to a seductive, demonic spirit.

A:  Though she does not resist Luke’s seduction.  

Z:  That’s cause we wrote it that way!

A:  Noooo, it was meant-to-be that way. The characters said so.

Z:  Of course it was. (Wanting to avoid any lower lip protrusion)

Where can we find your books?

A/Z:  At CBG: and/or as well as Amazon.

Thanks for sharing yourselves with us today. Be on the lookout for CHRISTMAS EVE…VIL.  Angelica and Zi, may your successful work together continue to grow.  Before we finish, is there anything you’d like to add?

A: There is something so splendid in knowing that a reader has been transported to another place, has dipped into the sensual, explored things that do not exist, has found a place to escape.  This world has its challenges and sometimes the need to stop the spin and find a haven can be great.  If we can create just one special moment, one bit of comfort, balanced with smiles and tears and the belief that they too have been well-loved, then we have done our job.  

Z:  Also, thank you so much for having us, and we look forward to adding your book, TOXIC RELATIONSHIP to our TBR pile when it comes out in August.  Sounds awesome!

A friend who is in the process of writing a non-fiction book asked me what it takes to get published.  I thought I’d share what I told her.  Call it another data point for anyone in the hunt for working with a publisher.  I also think most of this applies to self-publishing as well.

1. Join and attend your local writers’ association.  This is a great place for networking with other writers, attending workshops and gathering the shared wisdom of your colleagues.

2. If you’re pondering how to get published, you hopefully have a good first draft of a finished manuscript, be it a novel, memoir or self-help.  If you’re a fiction writer, hone your synopsis. I’d suggest running it by other accomplished writers (ah, that’s where the networking you’re doing at a writer association comes in!).  Get crystal clear about your conflict and stakes, antagonist, protagonist, climax and denouement.  Develop a pitch that sells your book.  You can find resources on how to write a synopsis and a pitch at your writers’ association (ah, there it is again) and online.  If you’re writing non-fiction…

3. Write a book proposal. There’s lots of advice out there on writing one and it looks like there are similarities in the structure and then everyone has their own little twists. A couple of websites to check out as a start are:

Nathan Bransford’s blog on the topic.

Ted Weinstein’s concise description at

4. Look for comparables. You want to know your market. You also want to be sure you’re offering a concept with a new twist.  If you’ve just finished your manuscript about a teenage girl who takes the place of her sister in a state run game where reps from twelve districts fight to the death in a televised arena — think again.  Been there, done that.  To find comparables, I’d start by going to Amazon and searching  key words associated with your book. Once you find a title that is comparable, scroll down “customers who bought this item also bought” for some other possible titles to check out. You’re looking for anything close to what you are doing, the more recent the better. You can also find lists of “best of” in various genres for com parables.  Remember, you want to know the market for your book as well as a potential agent or publisher knows it.

5. Continue to build your platform. You might look for someone out there who is very successfully promoting their  book, whether its a fiction or non-fiction. Find out all the paths that writer uses to market and promote. Start a blog.  To be honest, I’m still learning about how to be an effective blogger, but my sense is you want to be blogging, inviting guest bloggers to your site and guest blog for others.  In other words, network, network, network. When you have a blog, be sure to link to your Facebook and Twitter. A potential agent will like that you do have a social media platform, but if you can demonstrate a large following, now you’ve got their attention. You may be well versed in social media, but if not, a helpful book on the topic is “We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media” by Kristen Lamb.  Check out her blog

6. Attend a writer conference.  If you’ve joined your local writers’ association, in all likelihood they have an annual conference.  Do attend.  In Seattle, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association has about 500 attendees and 20-30 agents/publishers, workshops on the craft and business of writing, as well as a good path to start networking in the business.  I also attend the Texas Writers League conference (although not making it this year).  In addition to all the networking and knowledge you will gain at a conference, this is also an opportunity to…

7. Pitch at a conference. Nothing will sharpen your synopsis and pitch than sitting in front of an agent, pitching to him or her in a two-three minute session.  What if your novel book isn’t complete yet?  No worries — pitch.  Just let the agent know you’re pitching an unfinished manuscript and you’d like feedback on the pitch and especially the book concept.  You want to know if they’ve heard this idea a hundred times or if this is a new twist they haven’t heard before.

8. Most importantly, if you want to get published, keep on writing.  We all get rejected, but with each rejection gather the information to help you hone your craft, sharpen your story, build your platform, and understand the business side of writing.  Anxious about pitching. Write. Bummed about a rejection from an agent?Write.  Worried you’re not any good (everyone else on the planet is afraid of speaking in public, but we writers share a fear of not being good enough)? Write. Sensing a common theme?  Write.

As an author writing a YA novel I face the conundrum of determining how much graphic sex, violence and profanity my characters will experience in the course of the story.  YA presents a challenge because you’re dealing with a broad spectrum of intellectual and emotional capacity to understand what is being presented.  The distance between a 9 year old and a 14 year old and  an 18 year old is huge in terms of an awareness of self, sexuality and the world.  As a nine year old, I’m ready to see the princess fall in love with a king, but I’m not ready to see them fondle each other in the back room and definitely not see them make torrid love in the royal bedroom.  And I might not be able to make a clear distinction between the violence in the story and how I play that out in the real world.  However, if I’m 18, with a few exceptions, I am able to take in the full spectrum of possibilities — sex, violence and language — and not let that have a negative impact on my life.

But even at the older end of the YA spectrum, I find the waters a bit clouded in the marketplace. If you Google the “best of YA Fiction,” you’ll find a number of references.  One of those suggested The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a “best of YA.”  If you’ve read the book, you know there are explicit scenes of sexual abuse, sodomy and rape.  An older, emotionally mature teen could read that story, but I would hesitate to pass that along to a 14 year old, not because the scene is gratuitous, which it is not.  But because a 14 year old doesn’t have the life experience or emotional maturity to understand what that scene is about.

So I’ve gone to the bookshelf to pull out a few examples of older YA novels.  Let’s see how they handle language, sex and violence.


Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Violence: e.g., teens killing teens in various ways

Sex & Nudity: some snuggling

Expletives: 3

Summary (Amazon):
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before-and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

Jumper by Steven Gould

Violence, e.g., attempted homosexual rape, mother ripped to pieces in an explosion

Sex & Nudity: implied sexual intercourse on several occasions

Expletives: 151

Summary (Library Journal)

The sudden discovery of his teleportation ability rescues teenager David Rice from his abusive father. It also signals the beginning of a new life for the troubled young man. Gould’s first novel features a hero who is not particularly wise and whose ethics are sometimes questionable, but whose yearnings and psychological turmoil ring true.

The Named by Marianne Curley

Violence: e.g., sister murdered by demon

Sex & Nudity: none

Expletives: 33

Summary (Amazon):
Ethan is a member of the Named, sworn to fight the Order of Chaos, an evil group determined to permanently change the course of history. But he is also a normal high school student trying desperately to keep up with his homework and fit in. When he is assigned to mentor Isabel, a cute classmate and future member of the Named, the line between his two lives begins to blur. So begins an epic quest as Ethan, Isabel, and others travel through time to battle dark forces and protect the future.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Violence: piles of dead bodies with bloody mouths from teeth being removed, fights

Sex & Nudity: description of a male character modeling nude for an art class, implied sexual intercourse

Expletives: 45

Summary (Amazon):
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.  In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?


We’ve been struggling with these issues in the arts for many years.  Think George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words.  In 2000 the Advertising Standards Authority, British Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission researched the use of expletives in a report entitled, Delete Expletives.  While British and American standards may not always match up, I did find the ranking of words by perceived severity to be interesting.  Research asked adults about their perception of the severity of various expletives.  At the low end of the scale were double entendres, puns and rhymes.  One level up were blasphemy (I can’t help but imagine that would score as more severe in the U.S) and abbreviations (e.g., f**k). The next level up in severity were descriptive words (think f**k, sh*t, but replace the asterisks with actual letters).  And finally, the most severe expletives were abusive words (sexual, physical and racial).  In the spectrum of expletives, the lowest level of words, essentially implied expletives within double entendres, puns and rhymes could pass in the 14+ level of YA.  However, below age 14, I imagine that puns and rhymes on anything but hell, damn and crap would be at the limit.  I personally have not read any authors using abbreviations, but some of the authors above do use a blasphemy or two.  In older YA (16+?), descriptive words may come into play and occasionally an abusive word, if the word comes naturally from the story.

Another source that may give some insight in the appropriate use of expletives, violence and sex are the standards used by the Motion Picture Association of America, accepted nationwide in the United States.

Parental Guidance Suggested

This rating signifies that the program may be unsuitable for children under the age of 9 or 10 without the guidance of a parent. The TV-PG rating may be accompanied by one or more of the following sub-ratings:



• D for some suggestive dialogue
• L for infrequent coarse language
• S for some sexual situations
• V for moderate violence

Parents strongly cautioned/May be unsuitable for children under 14 years of age

Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under 14 watch unattended. This rating may be accompanied by any of the following sub-ratings:



• D for intensely suggestive dialogue
• L for strong coarse language
• S for intense sexual situations
• V for intense violence

Mature audience — unsuitable for audiences under 17

An MA  rating means the program may be unsuitable for those below 17. Programs may contain extreme graphic violence, strong profanity, overtly sexual dialogue, nudity, and/or strong sexual content. This rating may be accompanied by any of the following sub-ratings:


• D for dialogue is not used in this rating.
• L for crude indecent language
• S for explicit sexual activity
• V for graphic violence

Note the gradient as the rating moves from PG to R.
Dialogue: suggestive to intensely suggestive
Language: infrequent coarse, strong coarse, crude indecent
Sex: some sexual situations, intense sexual situations, explicit sexual activity
Violence: moderate, intense, graphic

I don’t have any empirical evidence, but I have a feeling that if I took a hundred people across a broad spectrum of this country, I would not get a consistent definition for any of these ratings.  When does a dialogue shift to an intensity that would force a PG14 rating? Where is the line between an intense and an explicit sexual activity?  What makes violence graphic, rather than intense?  And I would add, is pretending that violence, which in the real world has very graphic consequences, is somehow not as significant doing our teens a favor or giving them a false sense of reality?

The BBC and the Motion Picture Association of America provide some clues, but I’m still mostly in a grey area, wondering what would be appropriate for older teens.  Let’s look at this from another perspective.  Why, as an author would I use explicit language, violence or sex in a novel?

Why use coarse language?  I use expletives to make the character ring true to their culture and time.  To give a character a unique voice and rhythm to the speech pattern.  To communicate a heightened level of anxiety, angst or anger.  I found Steven Gould’s use of expletives for his protagonist to be genuine to the character to the point that I didn’t find the swear words pulling me out of the story.  And in the Hunger Games and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the lack of expletives also fit those characters within the fantasy worlds the authors had created.

Why use strong or graphic violence? I use strong or graphic violence to drive home the reality of the act, not as a romantic gesture, like a cowboy falling to the ground after being shot without any physical trauma or a war scene that feels sterile and false.  The violence however, needs to be an integral part of the plot, not just a random violent act which does not move the story forward.  And I’d reserve the more graphic violence for older teens 16+.

Why use intense or even graphic sexual situations? When the sex emerges naturally from the storyline and the characters.  It needs to be integral to the plot, not just random sex.  And while an author might want to fly the flag of freedom, the reality in American culture is that explicit sex is not appropriate for anyone under the age of eighteen.  For older YA that means sex can be suggestive, just not explicit.

The final pass to make is in terms of marketability.  Authors want to write their story, but we also want to have a market so the story is read.  Jumper, published in 1992 and re-released in 2008 has many expletives, moderate to graphic violence and moderate sexual situations. The book won awards for YA fiction from the American Library Association and International Teacher’s Association.  Books like the Hunger Games, a best seller and now a movie, and Daughter of Smoke and Bone both have some commonalities with each other: minimal expletives, moderate violence and mild to moderate sexual situations.

So what is the bottom line?  I think for every older YA book (16+) without explicit language, moderate sexual activity and moderate to graph violence there’s a counterpoint.  The guiding principle for language, sex and violence in a novel is whether or not it comes naturally out of the story and the characters and is necessary to move the plot forward.  In other words, is an expletive, a sex act or an act of violence genuine to the character or gratuitous?

In my current thinking, I use moderate expletives, intense sexual situations and moderate to graphic violence in a novel directed to the older YA market with a crossover to the Adult market. In the end, how we use language and these tools is an ongoing conversation.  The culture, the market, and the art of writing constantly shift and change.  As authors, keeping up with the craft of writing means staying in the conversation.  So what do you think?  Where should the lines be drawn for language, sex and violence in YA novels?

I recently caught the movie Jumper on cable (2008) — a bit of Hollywood fluff. One of those movies you tell people to wait for it to come out on DVD. Then out of curiosity, I picked up the novel used as the basis for the movie screenplay, Jumper by Steven Gould. Actually, the word “basis” might be a bit extreme. The screenplay uses the concept of a teenager who discovers he has the ability to teleport. After that, the novel and the screenplay part ways.

Now I bring Jumper up because of something Steven Gould says in the Acknowledgements. He says, “Teleportation is, I hope, a classic trope of science fiction and not a cliche.” He goes on to acknowledge previous works, from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination to Star Trek. He hopes he has created a new twist on the trope and not gone down a familiar, worn out path.

I’ll tell you up front that the novel Jumper does indeed take a classic trope and did something new with it. Gould’s protagonist, discovers his ability, then uses that ability to escape an abusive home, survive on the street and find a mother who left him as a child. He’s a teen with a tangle of motivations, his moral grounding not solidified, leading him to take questionable actions. When the government learns of his existence, the NSA pursues him as a potential enemy or a potential weapon — possibly both. The story centers around how this teen confronts the brokenness of his family life. A reader will be asking throughout the story, “Will he strike out or find a way to heal the wounds?” Gould succeeds in using teleportation as a device to move a more complex and interesting story forward.

The movie, while building on the idea of a teenager, David, who teleports, skips quickly to a storyline involving an antagonist, Roland, with quasi-religious leanings about eradicating jumpers from the face of the planet because “only God should have the power to be everywhere.” Clearly the screenplay was written before Lady Gaga, who I believe does have the power to be everywhere, rose from obscurity. In the screenplay, the protagonists uses his teleportation powers to flee from and attack Roland and his minions. A familiar battle of good versus evil ensues. Definitely cliche with an ending that could be seen from the beginning.

The takeaway? If you’re going to use a classic trope, whatever the genre, find a way to place the trope in a unique perspective embedded in rich storytelling using complex characters. Simple stories and stereotypes often condemn a classic trope to the realm of cliche.

Total ChaosTotal Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the first in a trilogy set in Marseilles. Izzo’s Marseilles takes the city off my list of places to visit. The town, dark, gritty, with a raging undercurrent of bigotry, however, provides fertile soil for a crime thriller. A flawed protagonist moves through the plot struggling with his past and his present with a detail for the internal life of his character that seems more the norm with European writers.

Hits: Marseilles provides a gritty setting and becomes a character int he story; the well-developed interior life of the protagonist; a twisting plot that will keep you guessing

Misses: The plot involves a large number of characters who, after a time, I started to feel like I was watching a football match (pick the shape of your ball) with endless substitutions until I didn’t have any room left on my scorecard. If you want to completely get this plot — who did exactly what, when, where and why — you’ll need a whiteboard handy for keeping track of the players.


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Sol LeWitt American, born 1928 Four-Sided Pyramid, 1999

Sol LeWitt

American, born 1928

Four-Sided Pyramid, 1999

I visited Washington DC last week and, as usual, took the opportunity to visit the Mall and some of my favorite museums: The American History Museum, Air and Space Museum, Museum of Art and a stroll through the Museum of Art Sculpture Garden. A mom with her six year old walked a few paces behind me.
“Mom, I want to climb that mountain.” I assumed he referred to the pyramid sculpture in front of us.
“No, you can’t climb that.”
“Why not?”
“Its sculpture. Its a piece of art called sculpture. You don’t climb on sculpture.”
The boy walked alongside his mother silently for a few steps, then said, “It doesn’t look like skupper to me.”

As a writer and a reader I’ve come across novels that I know raise the art form, true sculpture. And like you, I’ve also read twenty or thirty pages into a book and had the same feeling that little boy had, “It doesn’t look like skupper to me.” So who gets to decide what is art and what is not?

Reviewers come to mind as guardians of sculpture vs. skupper. They give us a detailed and hopefully thoughtful perspective on a work. I often find future reads by checking out reviews in the NY Times and other publications. However, I can’t say the reviewers always hit their mark for me. Sometimes the recommended read just doesn’t resonate for me. Nothing against the author, more a statement of who I am and my interests and passions.

Contests — Many writers put their work in contests, not so much for the thrill of competition, but more to get some objective feedback. I haven’t won one of these contest yet, though I’ve been a finalist. And I have to admit that the external recognition “oh, maybe my writing isn’t crap after all” provides some energy for the continuing journey.

Market Share — In cold, hard business terms, market share should be a good sign of a successful writer — right? I’d say significant market share is the sign of a writer successful in the business. Quality does not always sell, whether we’re talking about novels, music, power tools, cars or beer. Sometimes folks just want a cold one and don’t care about the craft of beer making. And sometimes folks just want a simple, predictable story.

Agents & Publishers — The Holy Grail for many of us. I’ve heard many times, “If only I had an agent.” We line up, anxiously awaiting a five minute conversation with these professionals hoping to sell them on our book. If an agent wants to represent me, then my writing must be pretty decent, right?  But what do the thousands of writers, many of them creating good work, tell themselves if they don’t have a publishing deal?

Critique Groups — I have a love/hate relationship with my critique group. We have committed to speaking the truth to each other, but sometimes, after I’ve poured my life into a few pages of text, I really don’t want to hear the truth, unless its something like, “This is the finest piece of writing I’ve ever had the good fortune to read.” How often do you think that happens? Right — never. A scene can always be improved, tightened, the conflict made more intense, the characters more developed. Which is why writers join together to critique each other’s work. If you’re a writer and you’re not in a critique group, I’d urge you to find one. You will, like me, love them some days and hate them on others, but you will always be challenged to raise your craft from skupper to sculpture.

You, the writer — Looking over the list above, the one key data point of feedback missing that determines whether my writing lives up to my standard of art is me. While all the other data points out there combined give us a sense for the validity of our work and the quality of our craft, the artist is the only one who decides if its sculpture or skupper. We’re all probably familiar with artists who created a body of work during their lifetimes only to be recognized for their art after death. Phillip Dick comes immediately to mind. A writer who produced many stories in his day, but only recognized for his unique creativity after death as his stories became published and turned into screenplays for movies like Blade Runner.

I believe that if I start to think the purpose of my writing is to be famous, wealthy, read my millions and a guest on Opra, then I will have lost focus on my art. All I can do as a writer is to create the best work I can from my unique voice and perspective. Yes, I want to take in all the feedback from all of those external sources listed above because I want to continually improve my craft. But the source of recognition, of affirmation that I am an artist and that my work has value and meaning, comes from within.

I’d love to hear from you. What’s your perspective on determining the art of your work?