June 28, 1914

One hundred years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated.

Big deal, you say? And well you might. Today, World War I is almost as forgotten in American as the Spanish-American War. You’d almost think this country had fought just two wars:  the Civil War, and World War II.

In part, I think that’s because World War II and the Civil War are easy to discuss. They’re easy to explain. Rationalize. The Civil War was about slavery. (Well. Sort of.) World War II was good vs. evil. (That’s pretty much true.) But World War I is so difficult to describe. I spent last semester discussing this war, at odd moments, with a fellow instructor who teaches economics. Very smart guy. But he could not wrap his mind around why World War I began.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by the 16-year old Serbian nationalist Gavril Princeps was the proverbial spark. You might remember some of this from veeeeeery long ago. Serbia was on the Balkan Peninsula, along with other new nations like Romania and Bulgaria. They craved their independence, and yet they were being threatened with takeover by Austria-Hungary. Tensions were already running high in this region — indeed, tension were running high across Europe. Everyone had spent the past 10+ years aligning themselves with other nations. choosing allies, creating “mutual defense” pacts. By the time June 28, 1914 rolled around, this the Balkans were the “powder keg of Europe.” The assassination was the spark. The resulting explosion was World War I.

But it’s about much more than that. I think World War I is more about ego than anything, to be honest, and that’s how I explain it to my students. In World War II, we had to stop the Axis Powers from world domination. But World War I was about much more — sorry, I have to say it — ridiculous reasons. Of course, in 1914, they didn’t seem ridiculous at all. Nationalism — that rabid, fervent love for one’s country — was rampant. Everyone was raring to go to war to avenge old wrongs, to prove themselves, to kick ass and take names. No one was thinking about the ramifications of that war. No one was thinking about the millions of casualties that would result from four years of warfare. Or the devastation that would ensue.

World War II also has a satisfying conclusion:  the deaths of Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini; the downfall of the Nazi regime; the liberation of the camps. World War I just . . . well, doesn’t. The story doesn’t end. In fact, the story just continues . . . because the end of World War I is the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. It’s also the basis for the Depression of the 1920s in Europe (and, oddly, a root cause of the 1930s Depression in America, too). It’s like the first book in a series. You have to get to know all the characters and the story lines in that first convoluted book. The problem is, most of the characters of Book 1 don’t survive to Book 2, let alone Book 3.

So why aren’t we focusing more on the death of Franz Ferdinand and the spark that sets off World War I — “The Great War,” as it was known today? I think in part because in America, we had very limited involvement in this war. In Europe, this is a much bigger deal. But remember, the US didn’t declare war on Germany until spring 1917. The war ended November 1918. Not even two years.

But we should focus on it. It did happen. It could happen again — and for largely the same reasons. The fact that we have to delve into so much European history shouldn’t stop us from studying it. Their history = our history. We have to study European history to look at World War II, after all. Why not The Great War? Is is laziness? I hope not. But I can’t fathom why so many of my students can tell me about World War Ii, and nothing about World War I. Why so many can tell me who Churchill was, but not Franz Ferdinand. I feel it’s my duty to set them straight. And if that means I have to discuss a war with murky beginnings and an unclear end, then so be it. I have to do my best to make it clear to them, so they don’t forget.

I hope this works:  this is a link to the New York Times daily edition from June 29, 1914 detailing the assassination, what it might mean for Austria and the world, and — interestingly — how popular Ferdinand’s replacement was.


Notes From a Small Conference, part 4: Character and Conflict (continued)

Last week, I started sharing notes I took at the 2013 Rose State Writers’ Conference. This week, I’ll continue with the rest of William Bernhardt’s great advice about character and conflict:

1.) The plot and the character have to be right for each other. How many times have you come up with a wicked good plot, but no characters ever stepped forward and said, “Me, me! I’ll do that! Pick me!”? It’s happened to me. Lots of times. I have this fantastic YA novel idea in my head about reincarnation, but every time I think about writing it,nothing happens. Why? No characters. Bernhardt made the point this way:  What traits does your character have that will enable them to prevail in this particular story? If none, then they aren’t right for each other.

2.) Did that one blow your mind? It did mine! But this point will emphasize why #1 is so important:  “Plot is the writer’s choice of events to tell the story of the character’s progress toward the goal.” Or, as Mr. Schumann said in the season finale of Glee, “It’s all about the journey.” So. This is why the seamless marriage of character to plot idea is so critical. Does your character belong in that world? If she’s a 14th-century woman with 21st-century ideas of sex equality, then probably not. Now, if she’s a 21st century woman transported back in time to the 14th century, then you might have a good marriage of character and plot!

3.) If that sounds a little mean, then you really won’t like this rule:  It’s not the writer’s job to be nice to their characters. In fact, it’s the writer’s job to let their characters get into as much trouble as possible. Things are going too easy? Throw something in their path. Remember, there’s a lot of conflict out there — natural, personal, person-to-person, between the protagonist and secondary characters, between the protagonist and the villain, between the protagonist and his desire for Starbucks. Whatever it is, add it.

4.) Therefore, your protagonist should fail before they succeed. Not only should there be setbacks, these setbacks should illustrate or illuminate your protagonist’s shortcomings. This is their journey, remember. Not only should they have external obstacles to overcome, but internal obstacles as well.

5.) Now, if you have to make your protagonist fail, then how do you make him likeable? No one likes a failure, right? Bernhardt gave us five surefire ways to make your protagonist likeable:

  • Make them good at what they do. If they are a trash collector, make them the very best one in the world. Or at least, the city.
  • Give them a sense of humor, especially a self-deprecating sense of humor. If they can make fun of themselves, readers will sympathize with them more — and pull for them. I just finished The Fault in Our Stars, and Hazel’s humor captured me on page 1 and kept me reading, even past the point I should have stopped. She has cancer; she can make fun of it.
  • Show them treating others well. Putting baby birds back into nests, or stopping traffic to get a turtle out of the road, or helping an elderly woman across the street. Whatever it takes. Think about Harry Potter, and the way he treats the house elves. We root for Harry because not only is he the underdog, he still takes time to treat others well.
  • Which is the fourth thing:  make them the underdog. Give them “undeserved misfortune or handicaps.” Again, Hazel’s cancer is undeserved, and yet she doesn’t let it stop her from having a life, traveling, and falling in love.
  • Have another character say, early on, that they like your protagonist. I think this is how Jay Asher gets around a total hatred of Hannah in his novel Thirteen Reasons Why. We know Clay was in love with her, and we like Clay; therefore, there must have been something good about her.

5.) I think this could be the single most important thing Bernhardt said, of many, many important things:  The protagonist’s story is only as interesting as the antagonist makes it. You MUST have an antagonist that is worthy of your protagonist. They must be of equal strength; it may be that your antagonist should be a little bit stronger, in fact. Should Harry have won the duel against Voldemort? Maybe not, because Voldemort was so much stronger. Voldemort drove everything in Harry’s life, from his parents’ death to that final conflict. Yet Harry prevailed.

6.) Readers hate coincidence. Never, ever do it. I know, it happens in real life, but remember, readers don’t want reality. And in fiction, coincidence doesn’t happen.

7.) Plot twists need to be “Holy crap, I should have seen that coming!” not “Holy crap, what the fruitbat was that? That makes no sense!” As anyone who’s ever tried to write a plot twist knows, they are devilish to write. You never want the reader to figure it out ahead of time (astute ones always will, anyway), and you don’t want it to be so obtuse that it makes no sense at all. One of the best examples I can think of is the play The Lady in Black. We know in the first ten minutes of the play that one of the characters had a daughter; it’s mentioned almost in passing. By the end of the play, we have become so immersed in the story that we’ve forgotten that tidbit — until suddenly, the play comes full circle and we are as horrified as the characters themselves.

Hopefully these have been helpful! The next Rose State Writers’ Conference is coming up September 19-21 at Rose State College in Oklahoma City. Here’s the link to the website:  http://www.rose.edu/shortcourse This year, Jacqueline Mitchard will be the keynote speaker and will be on the faculty!

Notes From a Small Conference, Part 3: Character and Conflict

In my continuing series from the Rose State Writer’s Conference . . .

These are notes from William Bernhardt, who spoke on characters and plot at the 2012 conference. I re-read them a while ago and realized how much good information is here!

1.) Fiction (and characters) should be lifelike — but not real.That’s because readers want escape. They don’t want their own boring lives. They want characters who are doing something different, somewhere different.

2.) Once you tell your readers what your character is, they start forming a mental image. Tell them he’s an investment banker, and they will form a mental image based on their own previous experiences. So if you want to counter that and replace it with something else, do it fast and do it well! (Here, I think of St. Julien Perlmutter, oceanic historian and researcher extraordinaire in Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series. You say “researcher” and “historian,” and an image comes to mind probably of some nerdy guy in a tweed jacket and glasses in the stacks somewhere. Perlmutter fits none of those descriptors.)

3.) Action = character. Let me say that again:  action = character. Character is revealed by action. Character is revealed when people make choices under pressure. You’re confronted with a gunman. Do you run? Hide? Beg? Or attack? The greater the pressure, the greater the reaction. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Sign up for paintball. Really get into it. Not a video game; the real deal where you get splattered if you get shot. You’ll learn really fast what you’re capable of doing under pressure — and that will give you an idea of what your characters might be like under pressure, too.)

4.) One of the most valuable tidbits:  contradiction makes characters more interesting and more lifelike. Make them as complex as possible — especially your antagonists! He even suggested this:  give your villains 2 bad traits and 1 good one; give your protagonists 2 good traits, and 1 bad one. It’s easy to give your protagonist a bad trait. But can you give your villain a good one?

5.) Speaking of villains . . . in real life, no one thinks they’re the villain. They just want something that happens to be at odds with what your protagonist wants. Your villain may need to be malicious, but see #4 — the more complex your characters, the better. Give them good reasons to be the way they are, and act they way they do. More importantly, give them a goal your reader can sympathize with. (To me, one of the best examples of a sympathetic “villain” is the creature in Dean Koontz’s Watchers. “The Outsider” was created in a lab; he knows nothing more than what he was created to know, and yet, he wants Something More. He is insanely jealous of his fellow creature, a brilliant Golden Retriever named Einstein, who is taken in and loved. Although his goal is basically to kill Einstein, his reasons are entirely sympathetic by the end of the book. Koontz does a brilliant job with making this particular “villain” so three-dimensional that I cried for it!)

6.) But. Creating three-dimensional characters creates a bond with your reader, a promise. It says “You’ll see this person again, and they’re vital to the story.” So if the only time that waiter is going to be seen is when he brings your protagonist a coffee, we don’t need to know anything else about him. If the waiter suddenly begins to bug you and pop in and out of your life and tell you his life story, then he needs his own novel. But in this novel, where he has one cameo, we don’t need to know anything else other than that he’s good at bringing coffee.

More next week!

Pushing the Edge: YA Fiction and My Sanity!

You know how last week I wrote that I can’t slow down? Yeah. Screw that.

Mostly because I spent this weekend in a marathon of course-building.

Don’t get me wrong. I like building, designing, and creating courses. I wish I could do more of it. But when you have it all built, and then you lose the entire thing, and it has to go live in 48 hours . . .

This particular course is a continuing education class on young adult fiction, geared specifically for high school and middle school instructors. They’re looking at current YA fiction and how to implement it in their classes. It has been a great deal of fun to design and create it.

I like young adult fiction. There’s something about it — maybe it’s the fact that it moves fast, it starts fast, and it’s often funny and insightful and irreverent. I’ve discovered in the past year, of taking the wonderful Writing Young Adult Fiction online course through the University of Oxford, and writing my own YA book, and helping my friend with hers’, that there’s an entire “cult” out there of adults who are YA devotees. And I think that’s fairly new. I remember when my niece and nephew gave me the first two Harry Potter paperbacks several years ago, I’d barely even heard of those books. But there I was, five days later, at the library, queued up to borrow Prisoner of Azkaban and enduring some really weird looks from the librarian, who I suppose was wondering what a twenty-something wanted with a young adult novel, and why didn’t I just go buy it for myself? Actually, there was some validity to that last question. But the first one was clear:  I needed to know what happened next! I suppose there was supposed to be some sort of shame to wanting to read a young adult novel, the same way there’s a secret little shame in wanting to read romance novels.

Today, though I walk into Barnes and Noble and buy them outright. (The young adult novels, I mean, not the romance novels. I download those to my Nook.) And I’m not the only adult who does that. (Buys YA fiction, I mean, not downloading romance novels.) Today’s YA is edgy, well-written, fast-moving, and explores topics teenagers want to read about. Just because we don’t currently live in a dystopian society doesn’t mean teens can’t relate to Katniss or Tris. And just because (as far as we know, anyway!) there is no Downworld, that doesn’t mean the lives of Will, Jem, and Tessa, or Clary and Jace, are any less important, and that their struggles and problems are any less relate-able.

There’s a fantastic book, How to Write Great Books for Young Adults, that we used as our “textbook” at Oxford. The author is YA literary agent Regina Brooks. She is passionate about young adult fiction, and this is one of the best books out there, IMO, for learning the basics of YA fiction and how to write it. Because it is different from adult fiction! There are different rules. It has to move fast. It has to have a YA protagonist. The parents should be unobtrusive. Etcetera.If you’re at all interested in writing young adult fiction, you have to get that book. Likewise, there’s a plethora of information out there online. Blogs written by YA authors. Articles from the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times about the “darkness” and “edginess” of YA fiction and is it good or bad? It really is its own world — slowly expanding into its own universe.

So I’m excited to see where this course takes my students, and I think they’re excited about it, too. I already know that next year, if I get to teach it again, I’ll choose two different books — The Fault in Our Stars and Code Name:  Verity rather than Thirteen Reasons Why and The Book Thief. Just to keep it fresh and new. But for now, after a 48-hour marathon of revision and rebuilding, I’m happy that it’s up and running, and that I’ve got ten instructors who want to give YA fiction a whirl in the classroom.