Dear Robin Brande:
I just finished Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature in a single blaze of reading and I simply had to write you to tell you how much I enjoyed the book. I bought the book from my local independent bookstore and I hope all of my cool readers follow suit.
I should be a little cross with you! =) I sat down yesterday to write the last 3000 words or so of the first draft of my own young adult novel. I figured that I would just read a little bit of Evolution and get back to my work…but your book distracted me. I didn’t resume writing until I found out what happened to Mena and how her story would end. (Don’t worry; the first draft is finished.)
Mena Reece is a very charming character; she’s a high schooler who begins the year in a tough place. All of her old friends hate her because of a letter she sent the previous year. (Read the book to find out what it said.) She’s no longer welcome in her old church and sending the letter has put her parents’ insurance agency into jeopardy. Her life is at a low point, all because she did the right thing. Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Ms. Shepherd is a brilliant and stellar science teacher who could make a lot more money doing…other sciency things. Instead, she teaches high school because she wants to shape the minds and hearts of the next generation. Mena is also increasingly psyched about her lab partner, a young man named Casey. The two work on a big project together and, as you might expect, grow to care about each other a great deal. There’s a cool science vs. religion showdown in the classroom and a very sad scene that occurs when Mena returns to her church. In the end, of course, Mena finds a way to improve her life and to be happy by following Polonius’s greatest advice: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
I read the first two short paragraphs of the book the night before I read the rest.
I knew today would be ugly.
When you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies. Fine.
I loved the paragraphs so much that I shared them on Facebook. Why? Because you did a great job of setting up the story and preparing the reader for his or her journey. You are extremely economical in the opening:
- “I” – Okay, now the reader knows that the book is in the first person.
- “today” – You’re letting us know that the book begins on A BIG DAY. A DAY UNLIKE ANY OTHER. This is good! We know we’re not going to be bored! We’re wondering what you mean by that.
- “would be ugly” – Cool. Something nasty is going to happen today. Thankfully, the ugliness will only be in the book and not in reality.
- “you’re singlehandedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars” – There we go. There are HUGE STAKES for the character. People are getting sued and for LOTS of money.
- “you expect to make some enemies.” – And there are HUGE STAKES for Mena as a character. Good! This story MATTERS.
- “Fine.” – Oh, and the protagonist has some personality and is (eventually) a bit of a fighter. Fantastic. This will be fun.
Once I read those two paragraphs, I knew I was in good hands. (And yes, I did look back at the first bit of my own YA novel. It seems to me that the emotional stakes are clear and huge, but I’ll take a closer look once I type everything up.)
One of the reasons that I bought the book in the first place is that you set your story against the backdrop of the perpetual and extremely American conflict between science and religion. I happen to have been tangentially involved in this field; not in a big way, unfortunately. (I did have a piece in Skeptical Inquirer and that was a big thrill.) I was a little worried that the book might not be…compatible with reality. So I skimmed the acknowledgements and saw that you thanked Kenneth Miller. I felt better immediately. Dr. Miller, as you know, is a brilliant scientist who is also extremely devout in his religious belief. (Maybe things have changed in recent years, who knows? I’m sad to say that he’s not an acquaintance of mine.)
Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature succeeds for the same reason that evolution “succeeds.” Life is complicated and messy. There are no easy answers. The only way to determine truth is to scrutinize your own beliefs and subject them to rigorous analysis. Mena is surrounded by people like the big baddie, her former friend Teresa, who see things in black-and-white. Well, the world is not black-and-white and neither is Mena’s psychology. She’s a teenager, so she really has a lot of work to do in the book to figure out a complicated representation of her identity and thoughts. Does Mena lie to herself in the book? Sure. (Especially with regard to how she feels about Casey.) But she’s always striving to reach a deeper understanding of self and of the world around her. ALL of our characters must be as complicated and as messy as possible because that’s what we all are, when you really think about it. There are no absolutes in the way people think and act, only shades of gray.
It’s a bit of a personal tangent, but I also want to thank you for the book because it took me back to 2007, when things were a little…different in the skeptic community. Things are a little…tense at the moment and I miss the way it was.
So thanks again for such a wonderful couple hours of reading. If my YA book ever gets published–don’t hold your breath–it will be fun to look back to see if any of the emotion of your book rubbed off on the ending of mine. I wish you the best of luck in the future and I admire that you’ve become such a prominent YA writer…and it all started with Mena.
Writing Craft Recap for My Kind Readers:
- Ensure that you have HIGH STAKES in your story and that you establish those stakes quickly. The events of your narrative need to mean something BIG for your characters. That’s the only way that the reader will care about your make-believe world.
- Allow your characters to be as complicated as real people are. Remember those shades of gray. There are no absolutes in the world when it comes to people and why they act the way they do.
Find Ms. Brande on Twitter @RobinBrande. Here is Ms. Brande’s page at Random House Teen. Here is an interview she gave to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a cool book blog.
And you just know you have to check out this cool video interview:
Are you curious about skepticism and how important it is that people understand how to think critically? (This is a big theme in the book.)
Check out the James Randi Educational Foundation. Those hardworking people have been fighting irreality for a very long time. Just look at how fun and interesting Randi was on The Tonight Show. He’s demonstrating how “psychic surgeons” ply their trade. (And Randi should know; he is a world-class magician…he’s also honest about the fact that he’s doing a trick.)
What’s the Harm? is also a great resource. The next time your friend tells you that he or she is going to pay a bunch of money for “cupping,” you can find out what that is and why having it done doesn’t make any sense.
Dr. Harriet Hall is an MD who writes about alternative medicine and the like.
And no critical thinker should be without the works of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We may not always agree with everything a great thinker says, but we ignore them at our own peril.
2007, Christopher Hitchens, Robin Brande, WriteAWriterDay
Title of Work and its Form: The Ancestor’s Tale, nonfiction
Author: Richard Dawkins (on Twitter @RichardDawkins)
Date of Work: 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The tome can be found in all fine bookstores. You can also order it online.
Bonuses: Dr. Dawkins has presented many television programs about science and skepticism. They’re definitely worth a long look. Dr. Dawkins formalized the concept of the “meme,” although the use of the term has changed somewhat. Take a look at the powerful concept he described. Dr. Dawkins joined Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in a discussion that came to be called “The Four Horsemen.” These four powerful thinkers offer insight into religion (and the lack thereof) and into the development of human culture. If you are into skepticism, you may also enjoy my essay about Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, which also links to my essay about Hitchens.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
The Ancestor’s Tale is a book with a modest conceit. All Dr. Dawkins did (with some help from research assistant Yan Wong) is to work backwards step by step to tell the complete story of the evolution of all of the organisms in the history of the Earth. He begins by describing humans (and protohumans) and slips in graceful descriptions of the minor genetic variances between us and how they came to be. Then he tells the “tales” of bonobos and eventually hippos and salamanders and flounders, all the way back to plants and bacteria. Dr. Dawkins crams the history of life on Earth into 600 pages and does so in a manner that just about anyone can understand.
Beginning a massive project can be daunting. Turning a two-inch stack of blank pages into a novel? What a frightening prospect! Condensing your whole life story into a coherent 300 pages? Seemingly impossible! How did Dr. Dawkins confront such a massive undertaking and end up with such a satisfying product?
First of all, he divided his grand conceit into digestible pieces. No book could literally detail the evolution and contain anecdotes about every single species that has ever evolved. Instead, Dr. Dawkins chose to write about a few dozen of the most important and representative branches of the tree of life. The book seems easier to write if you think of it in this manner:
Okay, I’ll write a ten-page essay about the fruit fly because of its fascinating genetics. I have about eight pages worth of interesting information about the cichlid. I should also write about 2500 words about the hippopotamus. Oh, and I can’t forget that beautiful chimera, the duckbill platypus.
Dr. Dawkins also clearly acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of giants. Not only is he working in concert with the countless scientists who have contributed to the field of biology over the past few thousand years, but he is also very clear about the sources he consulted during composition of The Ancestor’s Tale. Yes, citing things is important in order to avoid plagiarism. More importantly, Dr. Dawkins affirms himself as one of the storytellers documenting the development of life on Earth. And the book does indeed tell a story. Instead of being a dry, purely scientific tome, Dr. Dawkins uses details of the life of Queen Victoria to reinforce his point about the manner in which geneticists can use family trees to trace faulty genes, such as the one that causes hemophilia. Dr. Dawkins drops a quote from Rudyard Kipling to help demonstrate how we know that Vikings conquered local populations in more ways than one. Dr. Dawkins even makes use of the Judeo-Christian Bible, not as a scientific reference, but as a culturally ingrained metaphor that aids the reader in understanding. No matter what you’re writing, bear in mind that you are in someway telling your reader a story and are bound by a storyteller’s obligations.
If you read any of Dr. Dawkins’s books, you can’t help but notice his enthusiasm. In other hands, the tale of how the star-nosed mole perceives the world could be a boring one. Not when Dr. Dawkins is at the helm. Whether or not you agree with his (lack of) religious belief, you must at least acknowledge that Dr. Dawkins is passionate about his cause. Take a look at the TED talk in which he tries his mightiest to rouse nonbelievers from their slumber and urges them to make themselves heard:
Dr. Dawkins certainly has little patience for creationism being taught in schools as science, but his innate curiosity inspires him to engage with those who feel otherwise.
At times, some folks may accuse Dr. Dawkins of being “offensive” or “confrontational.” In some way, they are correct. Dr. Dawkins, like the rest of us, enters the free marketplace of ideas and does his best to demonstrate why his are more powerful than those of others. He has spent decades contributing to his fields of interest, not merely acting as an interested onlooker who attempts to shape what he didn’t help to build. Where do Dr. Dawkins’s critics go wrong? The man without trying to tear others down undeservedly. When a creationist insists the Earth is 6,000 years old, Dr. Dawkins does his best to refute the argument with professional calm. The ideas in his books and those he expresses in his other outreach efforts are sometimes complicated. Critics may be paralyzed by confirmation bias. Others may construct a straw man, knowingly or unknowingly distorting Dr. Dawkins’s work through simplification.
What happens when someone disagrees with Dr. Dawkins? They get an impassioned reply that may result in some discomfort or a moment of awkwardness. Why, here’s an example:
If you disagree with Dr. Dawkins, he is not going to let the air out of your tires. He is not going to tell the world that you’re cheating on your husband or wife. (Especially if it’s not true.) He certainly won’t do his best to convince your employer that you need to be fired for some transgression, real or imagined.
No, Dr. Dawkins conducts himself in the manner to which we should aspire: he surrounds himself with ideas and uses reason as his primary intellectual weapon.
What Should We Steal?
- Imagine your massive or complicated work broken down into manageable pieces. Writing a fifteen-hour opera seems like a terribly difficult task…consider writing one aria at a time until you see the larger work take shape.
- Remember that you are telling a story, no matter what you’re writing. The narrative may be somewhat buried in that instruction manual you’re writing for Black & Decker’s new blender, but you’re still TELLING THE STORY as to how the user can make margaritas or wine slushies to keep his or her guests happy.
- Conduct yourself with passion in all of your endeavors. There is more to you than the stack of work that you produce. If, for example, you are lucky enough to a writer who receives interview requests, consider them an opportunity, not an unpleasant obligation.
2004, Christopher Hitchens, Narrative Structure, Richard Dawkins, Skepticism
Title of Work and its Form: Why People Believe Weird Things, nonfiction
Author: Michael Shermer (on Twitter @michaelshermer)
Date of Work: Originally published in 1997. A revised and expanded edition was published in 2002.
Where the Work Can Be Found: You can purchase the book at fine bookstores everywhere! I’m guessing that Dr. Shermer would appreciate it if you bought the book through the Skeptic shop.
Bonuses: Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic Magazine, easily one of my favorite publications. If you have children, Junior Skeptic is a MUST. Here are some essays Dr. Shermer wrote for Scientific American.
Dr. Shermer (an awesome public speaker) gave this TED talk that relates to the book:
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Establishing Ethos
Michael Shermer is one of the most important and accessible voices in the skeptic movement. If there were some sort of skeptic Mount Rushmore, he would be blasted into the mountain along with men and women such as Susan Jacoby, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov, Harriet Hall, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan and Thunderf00t. (We’ll have to find a really big mountain.) These great writers and thinkers stand on the shoulders of giants, of course, and have stolen ideas and techniques from writers who came before. There is a thriving community of bloggers who concentrate on issues of skepticism; they champion free thought and scientific inquiry and resist the intellectual oppression of dogma at every turn. (If you’re interested, why not start with Skeptic Magazine’s blog?) (And Thunderf00t does some very interesting video essays on his YouTube channel. And every so often, he does some rockin’ science experiments.) (And the blog maintained by James Randi and his Educational Foundation is always a good time.) (And the folks at the Skeptic Ink blog network are well worth a visit!)
To my mind, Why People Believe Weird Things is a classic in the field. Dr. Shermer fulfills the promise he makes in the title; through the course of five sections and 300 pages, he explains from a psychological, evolutionary and societal perspective why people are willing to believe all manner of “strange” ideas. He devotes chapters to some popular pseudoscientific concepts (alien abductions, the paranormal) and spends a great deal of time explaining why creationism holds so much sway (and why it shouldn’t). One of my favorite sections in the book details Dr. Shermer’s experience during a spot he did on Donahue. Some Holocaust deniers came on to do their thing, and Dr. Shermer joined some folks trying to refute such nonsense. The book concludes with a discussion to explain why smart people believe weird things. We are all at risk of irrational thinking and all must remain vigilant to ensure we are considering reality on its own terms, not creating our own reality as viewed through our own perspectives or personal biases.
What does Dr. Shermer have in common with Stephen Jay Gould, Isaac Asimov and Christopher Hitchens? When you read their work, you feel as though you are in a conversation with the author. Dr. Shermer never talks down to his reader, but blends first person storytelling with the scholarly work he must do. For example, Dr. Shermer describes an experiment to test ESP claims. You’ve heard of these kinds of experiments, no doubt; folks must divine which simple shape is on the concealed side of a card that is placed in front of them. Having already laid the factual foundation for his point, Dr. Shermer relates a fun personal anecdote. A woman approaches him and challenges him to explain “coincidences like when I go to the phone to call my friend and she calls me.” This brief scene makes a point and is entertaining. Dr. Shermer and the other writers I mentioned maintain a balance: they are part of the story, but the story is not about them. Some scholarly writing, by definition, must be drained of personality. (People probably don’t want to read the author’s fun personal anecdotes in a paper that describes the results of a drug trial or something.) In a work such as Why People Believe Weird Things, however, Dr. Shermer benefits by relating how his mind works; all the better to reveal the flaws in the reasoning of others. Dr. Shermer brings the reader along for the ride, but doesn’t make the ride all about himself.
Check your ethos. Dr. Shermer has a bachelor’s degree in psychology/biology, a master’s in experimental psychology and a doctorate in the history of science. He has an extensive list of publications and has clearly engaged with a number of scientific fields. So, yeah. I’m going to believe what he’s talking about. He has authority when he speaks on these and other related topics. Does this mean that you can’t write about science or other complicated topics if you don’t have the appropriate degree? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with having, say, a degree in communications, but you must in this case borrow some ethos to make a compelling argument about rocket science, evolutionary psychology or string theory. Dr. Shermer, for example, is allowed to justify and cite fewer of his factual statements because he has authority. He does, of course, offer tons of citations and always explains his lines of reasoning. Were I to write a book like this, I would not be inclined to write it from the same personal perspective that Dr. Shermer employed because I do not have any advanced degrees in science. (Alas.)
Dr. Shermer delineates his overall theses very quickly and very early in the book. (Pro tip for beginning scholars: ALWAYS READ THE INTRODUCTION OF SCHOLARLY BOOKS. Why? Scholars will typically distill their argument in that introduction. Sometimes they even begin sentences with the very helpful phrase, “In this book, I will…”) The book is not primarily about demonstrating that alien abductions are poppycock or that Holocaust deniers are delusional. Dr. Shermer’s primary objective is to explain…why people believe weird things. He doesn’t devote 200 pages to undoing the “witch crazes” that pop up from time to time. That would be a completely different book. Instead, there’s but one chapter that serves his claim instead of the other way around. Further, Dr. Shermer’s audience would be confused if he spent all of his time talking about the irrationality of a belief in witches alone. No, Dr. Shermer makes it clear in this book and others that he is devoted to critical thinking and a rational examination of human psychology that is guided by evidence instead of ideology.
What Should We Steal?
- Engage in a conversation with your reader, but avoid making the story “about you.” You know, unless you’re writing an autobiography or something.
- Ensure that you have or are borrowing the necessary ethos to justify your argument. If you don’t have the level of education or experience necessary to justify calling yourself an expert, you may want to be very vigilant in working your research into your piece.
- Privilege your thesis and overall purpose over other concerns that may arise. If you set out to write a book about, I don’t know, beneficial parenting techniques and end up with 200 pages about preventing child abuse, that’s great. But you may wish to realize that you’re writing a different book than you intended and adjust accordingly.
1997, Christopher Hitchens, Establishing Ethos, Michael Shermer, Skeptic, Why People Believe Weird Things
Title of Work and its Form: “Mommie Dearest,” nonfiction…we’re also considering the rest of the Hitchens oeuvre.
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found: The article was originally published on Slate. Hitchens also published a book about Mother Teresa called (somewhat cheekily) The Missionary Position. In addition to publishing several books and countless articles, Hitchens was a legendary public speaker; many of his speeches and debates can be viewed on YouTube.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Use of Rhetoric
December 12, 2012 is the one-year anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens. You’ll notice I didn’t say that Hitchens “went on to his reward” or that he “passed away” or that he is “in a better place.” As Hitchens would agree (if he could), his body is currently in some state of decomposition as it slowly returns to the elements from which it came. Fortunately, Hitchens has achieved the only kind of immortality for which a writer can hope: his ideas live on in his works and in the hearts and minds of those who read them.
I use “Mommie Dearest” in most of my composition classes because it’s a representative example of powerful rhetoric. Unlike so many “careful” public thinkers, Hitchens was not afraid to honestly say what he believed. More importantly, he was perfectly prepared to back up his assertions. One of Hitchens’ most powerful dictums? “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Hitchens was well aware that he turned readers off when he would call the woman known as Mother Teresa a “fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” (And that’s not even the worst of it. He also employed the phrase “thieving Albanian dwarf.”) If those readers did not go through the rest of his piece, well, he counted it their loss. As Hitchens pointed out in “Mommie Dearest” and in The Missionary Position, his antipathy was deserved. Mother Teresa facilitated human suffering, lent her halo to evil men and did what she could to ensure the pro-poverty, anti-woman policies of the Catholic Church continued in India and beyond.
Hitchens was fueled by pathos (emotion) but delighted in logos (reason). He was opposed to the compulsory genital mutilation of children. Other folks, such as Rabbi Harold Kushner, see no problem with the circumcision of young boys. (The circumcision of young women is a different matter for Rabbi Kushner, of course.) If you wish, watch this exchange. (It gets really good around 4:40.) Hitchens is clearly quite disturbed that the man beside him is discussing the genital mutilation of young boys in such flippant terms. Yes, you could say that Hitch was angry. Does he heave a chair at the rabbi? No. Does he direct thoughtless invective at the man? No. Instead, Hitchens reasoned with Rabbi Kushner, using the man’s flippancy to prove his ultimate assertion: “Religion makes morally normal people say and do disgusting and wicked things. You’ve just proved my point for me.” The exchange clearly made the moderator and other guests uncomfortable, but that’s their problem, isn’t it? Well-behaved thinkers seldom make history, do they?
Christopher Hitchens was known for the rejoinders he used to attack his ideological opponents. These “Hitchslaps,” as they came to be called, are intellectual roundhouses. Vanity Fair, the home of a great deal of Hitchens’s work, created a video collection of some of the best Hitchslaps.
Christopher Hitchens has been dead for a year, but his ideas will long outlast most of us. No matter what you may feel about his convictions, you must admit that he was never boring. In dying, he merely joined the pantheon of thinkers he so respected, including Spinoza, Jefferson, Paine and Orwell.
What Should We Steal?
- Employ ideas like the weapons they are. Flesh and blood are temporary, but ideas last forever. Remember that your thoughts are entering a vast marketplace. Your work must attract an audience in order for you to engage an audience.
- Consume as many ideas as you can. Hitchens was a voracious reader; though he wrote no fiction, he had a solid critical grasp of a vast range of work. He could discuss Euripides as easily as P.G. Wodehouse or David Chase. His level of erudition is almost unfair; he was able to understand and communicate the thoughts of history’s greatest philosophers, too.
2003, Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell, Slate