Archive for March, 2012


Last week I reviewed The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

These days, when I read a book, I like to look back and think about what I can learn from it. Whether it’s something the author did well and I can try to incorporate into my own writing, or something they didn’t do well, in which case I can try to avoid making the same mistake.

I read The Hunger Games cover to cover in one day. It is exactly the kind of book I have trouble putting down. One which gets into my head and my gut and causes me to add tissues to my shopping list.

There were lots of things that Collins got right but the thing that impressed me most was the way she structured the story to preserve the heroins morality in an amoral world.

This week I want to look at how Collins achieves this.


Character Morality

WARNING
This discussion contains significant spoilers from the book. The results of the prize draw are given at the end of the article.

Collins establishes Katniss’ morality when she volunteers to take her sister’s place. Rather than being an anonymous name pulled from a hat, Katniss enters the Hunger Games as a martyr.

But she doesn’t want to die, and when push comes to shove, Katniss will kill to stay alive. This is part of what makes her compelling and gritty as a character. The inevitability and resignation that she will have to kill innocent teens is there in Katniss’ mind from the beginning. She accepts it to the degree that, as readers, we do not doubt it.

So, Collins is presented with the challenge of engineering the events so that Katniss is never stripped of her morality in such a way that we cannot root for her, but, at the same time, does not undermine her character.

This is how she does it.

First and foremost, hate those in control.

None of the “tributes” have anything to gain by defying the state, and everything to lose. Any individual taking a stand and refusing to fight would be killed anyway, and it’s not just their lives at stake, but those of their loved ones back home.

Morality becomes a flimsy argument in the face of self preservation. Only one person will walk out alive which means 23 will die. What does it matter who kills them?

The authority is the real enemy. By taking away freedom and choice, the state  removes a certain amount of the tributes responsibility for their actions.

Secondly, create an unlevel playing field.

It’s not enough to want Katniss to win, there has to be someone you want to lose. Someone who it’s okay to wish dead.

To meet this need, Collins creates the “careers”, a group of four to six tributes who are there by choice. These teens are volunteers like Katniss, but with a far less worthy cause. In their case, by training in the art of combat, they stack the odds in their favour. For them, winning is about the prestige and the glory, not just living to see another day.

Immediately this creates and us and them scenario. Those who are there by choice (and those who choose to side with them) and those who have been forced into it; the victims.

Not only that, it also creates a situation where the bad guys outmatch their prey. Katniss and the other unlucky tributes become the underdogs.

Thirdly, warm up to it.

Katniss does kill. More than once. But Collins warms us up to it.

The first deaths are not at her hands, but ones she witnesses. It further emphasises the us-them scenario that Collins has set up and demonstrates the stakes.

Katniss’ first kills are not cold blooded murder. Trapped up a tree and heavily outnumbered, she is staring death in the face. The situation is unfair which immediately increases your dislike of those hunting her.

By dropping a nest of genetically modified wasps on the camp below, Katniss indirectly causes one of the group to die.

When she does kill someone deliberately it is the result of grief and rage at the death of her ally, Rue, who is just twelve and reminds her of her sister.

Number four is checks and balances.

When Katniss drops the wasp’s nest on the camp below her tree, she endures a number of stings herself and suffers halucinations and fever. Although a certain amount of justification is already there, the fact that she pays a price for her actions helps wipe the lingering traces of amorality from her slate.

When she kills the nameless tribute who kills her friend, Rue, it is with a sense of justice and retribution. An eye for an eye. As readers we have become attached to Rue as a character and feel the pain of her death and so Katniss’ actions feel justifiable.

And Finally, finish on a positive note.

Although Katniss attempts to kill her ultimate rival, Cato, by shooting at him, she is unsuccessful. This action maintains her character, and the idea that she will kill coldly and without hesitation, without the consequences of acting on that belief.

When she finally does kill Cato, to end the Hunger Games, it is a mercy killing. Mortally and horrifically wounded and having suffered a disproportionate amount of pain, Cato is slain by an arrow from Katniss’ bow.

Whatever she has done before, whatever she is capable of or willing to do, Katniss’ final act against her fellow tributes is to grant her nemesis release from his suffering.

In summary, Collins uses a number of devices to engineer the situation to allow Katniss to reach the end of her ordeal without ever stooping to the depths that she believes herself capable of. Readers never find themselves in a position where the do not feel they can be on her side.


Prize Draw Winner

Congratulations to Emily Knepper! Your new copy of The Hunger Games will soon be on its way.

There are lots of places where you can read reviews of the latest books. I on the other hand like to review things when I have a reason to, like having a spare copy to give away and an immanent movie release.

So, while it’s not a new release, this week I’m reviewing The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins and giving everyone a chance to win a brand new copy.

In part 2 I’ll be following up this review with a look at character morality as this is a great book to illustrate the challenge. I’ll also be announcing the winner of the give away.

Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of the book!


The Hunger Games - book coverThe Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

In a dark vision of the near future, twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live TV show called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.

When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But, Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.

Collins vision of the future is one of totalitarian control, where one powerful city state, The Capitiol, exerts complete control over twelve subjugated districts.

Katniss has grown up in one of the harshest of the districts, District 12, where the principle occupation is coal mining. Deprived of her father by a mining accident, Katniss has had to fend for herself and her family since she was barely out of childhood.

The tough conditions have given Katniss unflinching determination, courage and a serious cynical streak. Not to mention survival and hunting skills from years of illegal poaching in the forest surrounding her home.

She’s not a ruthless killer but she’s not going to go down without a fight. Thrown into the arena of the Hunger Games she has the skills and the will to survive, but, it’s not just about the other competitors. Every move is watched and really, they are all just pawns in one big political game.

Suzanne Collins does an excellent job of making the unthinkable, believable. But the background politics simply forms a very vivid stage for a strongly character driven story. The effect is one where you feel Katniss is swept along by events beyond her control and can simply hang on and fend off the rocks as best she can. It gives the story an air of desperation without stifling hope; a combination which makes it impossible to put down.

A Phenomenon in the Making?

The Hunger Games has already become a massive success but there’s bestseller success and then there’s the “every other tweenage girl is wearing this on a t-shirt” kind of success.

The prime example of the latter is the Twilight series of books by Stephanie Meyer, and the resulting movies. For a while it wasn’t possible to walk into a branch of HMV, WHSmiths or Clinton’s cards without slamming into a two tone wall; one half warm, earthy Jacob and the other cool, mysterious Edward.

My personal feelings about the Twilight saga (*cough* over rated *cough*) aside, the phenomenal success they have enjoyed is undeniable.

But, until the first, relatively small budget move, with it’s heretofore unknown cast snuck onto the big screen, Twilight was just another “bestseller” in the YA fiction category.

The Hunger Games could be positioned perfectly to usurp the Twilight throne in the coming weeks as the movie turns new readers on to the books. Personally, I feel it would be the superior monarch. The book deals with far more worthy themes, and the heroin, Katniss, is far less one dimensional and, (oh I’m just going to say it) wet.

Only time will tell of course, but in my opinion, if you haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, now is your last chance to do so and still be able to say “I was a fan before it got stupidly big.”

The Hunger Games movie is released Friday 23rd March (UK).


White gift box with a red ribbon and bowGive away!

Want to get your hands on a free copy of The Hunger Games? To enter into my prize draw, just leave a comment with either an email address or Twitter ID (so I can notify you if you win).

Closing date Thursday 15th March.

Image credit – “Present box with red bow” by Master isolated images

This week over on The Great Escape, I’m interviewing The Ink Babes. Three authors who’ve decided to try their hand at publishing by putting together an anthology of dark fiction; Bleeding Ink.

Here’s a snippet from the interview:

CH: Bleeding Ink is a collection of dark, twisted tales. What made you choose this style and genre for the anthology?

IB: That’s easy, we’re all dark and twisted!

For starters we each write supernatural fiction, it’s what drew us together in the first place. Well that, and belonging to the same online writing forum, and our undying love for all things Kelley Armstrong. This genre was a natural fit.

CH: You accept submissions of short stories, flash fiction, micro-fiction and poetry. What made you choose to put such diverse formats together into one volume?

IB: The goal was to create something that would break up the pace of the anthology. In other words, we didn’t want all long stories, or short stories, but wanted to give readers a variety. We also wanted to give writers a venue to display their talent; some tell a story over tea, some tell a story in a blink. This anthology gives all their skills equal time to shine.

To read the full interview, including more details on how to submit work to the anthology, check out An Interview with the Ink Babes.

Art Contest

You may or may not be aware that I help run a media showcasing site called The Great Escape. There you can find films, fiction (including some by me) and comics.

Right now we’re running a story illustration contest.

It is common to see photos or images used as prompts in writing contests, but we decided to do things a bit differently and let the fiction inspire the art. Therefore we’re asking artists to choose one of the stories on the site and create a piece of artwork for it.

For full details, check out our competitions page.

The Great Escape - Story Illustration Art Contest - click for more information

 

 

Mind the Middlemen

Are publishers inadvertently promoting self-publication?

Back in December I posted a pessimists look at the option of self-publishing. My intention was for this to be the first of a three part series but things got a bit derailed. So, my apologies for the delay, let’s get on with the discussion.

The previous article looked at some of the benefits of publishing with a publisher, rather than self-publishing. These include a measure of credibility, financial investment, protection from financial loss and promotion.

But, are these incentives really there, especially in the context of electronic publishing?

Without the visible cost of paper and ink, a lot of authors ask, “what exactly is this publisher doing to justify paying me a pittance and taking all the profit for themselves?” This is particularly true in the case of anthology and journal publication of short stories and poetry where payment often ranges from token to nothing.

There is less at stake when no capital has been invested into a print run and distribution. If an e-book sells, the publisher makes money, if it doesn’t, they’ve made no loss. They may not even invest time and effort in promoting your book. Many authors will tell you from experience that if you publish electronically with a publisher then the success or failure of your book depends on your own efforts at promotion and marketing.

Authors are not generally offered more for an electronic publishing deal than a paper one, indeed, it may be less. The books often still sell for the same amount as their paper counterparts, so it would seem the extra money is further lining the pockets of the publishers.

In the UK the pricing of e-books versus print books is influenced by the fact that VAT (value added tax), is charged at 20% on electronic media, but not on traditional print media. This is likely to change in the long run as EU regulations governing VAT rates is reviewed. The effect on e-book prices may change market patterns.

For some more information on the VAT debate, check out Futurebook.com

Many would agree that publishing with a publisher offers your work credibility in a sea of hit and miss self-published works. But does it really? Publishers do seem to be picking up works that might have previously been sent back for further editing now that electronic publishing is an option; with less at stake financially, they can afford to take more risks. Publishers which deal exclusively in electronic content are springing up everywhere. Can these newcomers carry the same degree of authority of an established print publisher?

There are hidden costs to producing an e-book; professional, eye catching cover design, including sourcing stock images, registering ISBN numbers and so on. Many do not consider these issues until they begin to look into the matter. A publisher will take these costs out of the authors’ hands and absorb losses, but they are not the prohibitive numbers entailed in a large print run, and are within the scope of self-financing.

It seems that, far from fighting against self-publishing as competition, publishers are gently nudging new writers towards it. And, maybe this is something of an indication that the two sectors can happily co-exist.

The market needs variety, but publishers are businesses driven by the pursuit of profit; they are not concerned about who reads a book or with finding new talent and giving it a chance. As the self-publishing market grows in size and credibility,  it is possible that publishers will deal more and more exclusively with sure fire successes.

It is in the interests of publishers to encourage the world of self-publishing to develop into a proving ground for new authors. It keeps the market healthy while allowing them to cream their share from a narrow sector of lower risk volumes.

One thing is clear; the success or failure of self-publishing as a whole will rely on authors upholding their own high standards.

Part 3 will be taking a look at a much bigger and more important question; what device to read your electronic content on.

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