Is Planning a Series a Good Idea As a First-Time Novelist?

should-you-plan-a-series Daniel Schwabauer:

I’m often asked whether or not a young author’s first book can or should be part of a longer series. The question still surprises me; I’m amazed at the number of teens who aren’t afraid of long-term writing projects.

Certainly there are some good reasons for wanting to write a series.

The continuing popularity of well-told series stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings makes large story arcs appealing.

And the world is a richer place because of the great series novels about Narnia and the world of Sherlock Holmes and (if I may be so bold) Discworld. It is also a richer place because of some mediocre series like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books or the 19th-century adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard. I think it may even be a richer place because of the abysmal-but-charming historical works of G.A. Henty, which are essentially a series unto themselves.

We write what we love, and first novels are often loving imitations of one’s favorite books, or at least the best parts of those books. So it’s no surprise that as writers we feel compelled to write a series as epic as the ones that have enthralled us.

It also takes work to envision a story world and believable characters. Why start from scratch on a new fictional world when you already have a fully formed one waiting to be explored further? The idea of getting three books out of one story world can be tempting.

It is often said that new writers should leave series to the experienced novelists who know what they are doing. But it simply isn’t true that the best or most enjoyable series have been written by established novelists who paid their dues writing stand-alone novels. J.K. Rowling essentially began with Harry Potter. Burroughs began with John Carter. It is possible to write a first novel as the beginning of a series and watch it grow into a literary and commercial success. Christopher Paolini’s Eregon succeeded, at least commercially, beyond expectations.

The question, then, is whether a new writer is smart to consider making their first novel the beginning of a longer series. Here are three good reasons to do so:

  1. It allows you to indulge an enthusiastic public. Your first fan base may be small, but having any fans is an encouragement to keep writing and improving your craft. If your readers like your world and your characters and they want to read more about them, why not give them what they want? As long as you have a story to tell, everyone wins.
  2. It allows you to explore your world and your characters in more depth. Often the most interesting aspects of a fictional character are those that come under the most intense pressure. However, in my experience as a writing teacher, few first novels succeed at applying enough pressure on the characters to wring from them any truly human responses. It may take two or three novels to discover who your characters are, to learn how to discover who your characters are. Because this process of discovery is vital, writing a series may be helpful in your development as an observer of human nature.
  3. Some story arcs take a long time to develop. Which means you need page space in which to develop it. If your story idea simply demands a lot of words, a series is about the only credible way of fulfilling it.

Yet, in spite of the above, I still advise my students to avoid writing a series as their first novel.

With a few exceptions, most new writers are better off writing a book that will stand completely on its own. No planned sequel. No seven-book story arc. No characters whose lives will span a dozen tomes.

Why?

  1. Readers must be sold on a first book before they will read a second one. And the main thing to selling a reader is fulfilling their expectations. Which means you must resolve the story arc of the first novel in a compelling, unexpected and yet satisfying way. This is very difficult to do if the ending of your first book is meant to thrust the reader into a second book. To put this another way, it is usually important to make sure book one stands completely on its own. Like A Prisoner of Zenda, or A Princess of Mars. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone stands on its own—yes, it hints at things to come, at a larger conflict and looming adventures, but the payoff for the main action of the story exists between the covers of book one.
  2. Passion is fleeting. The best series exist because the writer has a lot to say about the characters and their world. At first, you may feel as if your world will fuel your imagination forever, that you will never run out of passion for your story people or their problems. But eventually the well always runs dry, and it usually happens sooner than expected. And if the improbable happens and your series is successful, it can be hard to give up the temptation of committing to one or two more books for the sake of an advance. Have you ever read a series novel that didn’t live up to the promise of the earlier stories in the series? It happens all the time. Probably because, regardless of intentions or previous passion, the writer stopped loving the story. The writer used up every ounce of passion in previous books and began writing based on technique alone.
  3. Most first books don’t sell. For that matter, most fourth books don’t sell. Most likely, your early novels will be practice. I hate saying that, but it’s true. It takes practice to develop a readable, convincing narrative voice. It takes pages. It takes chapters. It takes books. How wise is it to start a seven-book series when you don’t know how many books you will have to write in order to develop a salable skill?
  4. Holding anything back will ruin a book. One of the invisible problems of series writing is the tendency for the writer to not recognize what they are saving or avoiding. This expresses itself in several ways:
  • The writer gives too much background. Sometimes way too much. (“But…….. the reader needs to know this earlier stuff for when the cool stuff will happen later on!”)
  • The writer saves the best lines in order to use them later. (“But…….. those are the high points!”) Yes, stories have high points. But building a novel around five or six great lines is a huge waste of the reader’s time. Give your best on every page. Saving it for later will only ensure that it doesn’t actually work anywhere. I don’t mean that you can’t have a great line planned for a specific point in your story. I do mean that every page should either be your best or it should be removed.
  • The writer resorts to “filler” to expand a weak section of a long story arc rather than changing the story arc to focus on its high points. It’s possible to fall in love with the concept of an epic so much that you lose sight of the simple story. Epics can grow organically out of stories, expanding as the writer gains insight into the story world and its predicaments. But when a writer misconceives a story as a series and begins with an inflated vision—when he or she turns what should be a relatively short, simple novel into a complex, multi-layered epic series—it can be extremely difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Shrinking a bloated epic into a novel-sized container is much harder than doing the reverse.

All of this is not to say that you couldn’t write a sequel to a successful novel, or even plant the seeds of a sequel in a first book. (Anthony Hope did it with A Prisoner of Zenda. The sequel is called Rupert of Hentzau. But he didn’t write the first book with the second one in mind.)

If you’re a new author asking me if you should write a series, my answer is No. When you aren’t sure, when you have to ask, your story idea probably isn’t large enough to sustain multiple novels.

But if you aren’t asking—if you already know you want to write a series because a series is the only way in which you can possibly tell your story—then I’d say to dive in and see what happens.

A story that must be written as a series should be. A story that might be written as a series shouldn’t.

What do you think? If you have tried planning a series with your first novel, what has your experience been?

Daniel_Schwabauer_2012_bw_small

Daniel Schwabauer, MA, is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing creative writing courses. His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Children’s Literature and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. His third book, The Curse of the Seer, is coming out in spring 2015.

Conveying Hope in Your Novel without Sounding Trite

This guest post by Kyle de Waal is part 2 of “The Cross and the Typewriter.” For part 1, Facing the Christian Fiction Stigma, read here »

Conveying-Hope-in-Your-Novel-Without-Sounding-Trite-500px Two Sided-Coin
In my last post, I argued that Christian fiction is not fiction confined by generic constructs, but fiction written from the soul of the Christian. In particular, I focused on ideals like hope, which the Christian intrinsically connects to the hope we have because of the sacrifice of Christ.

However, these ideals do not exist within a vacuum, and taken as a part of the greater kaleidoscope of life, their very existence implies more about the rest of the worldWhy hope? What is the world like if we must hope for things rather than simply have them? Why freedom? What is this freedom from?

In the Christian worldview, it is clear that evil will not win in the end, and good is not somehow dependent on evil. Evil will be vanquished and good will live on. However, we also know that if we look around at the world around us, evil is still present. Jesus’ victory has been won, but we still see the fallout that sin has in the world.

The Reality of Pain
We still live in a world where pain and suffering seem to be all but omnipresent. Scrolling through any news website provides more than enough fodder for the argument that humans are capable of committing any evil to each other.

Where do we find hope in that? Wouldn’t any message of hope seem trite against the backdrop of actual human experience?

This is a question that I’ve grappled with a great deal since first starting to seriously think about my writing, and I am not in a position to argue that I have it all figured out and I can come down from the mountain and share the good news with all of you.

To face reality we have to face the evil that occupies real life. And when you sink deep enough into the mire, revealing the reality of what happens every day, how do you express that hopefully?

The Modern Disease
I think this is where a lot of serious modern literature ends on a note of nihilism or absurdism. The nihilistic writers do an excellent job diagnosing the diseases of the modern age, but they cannot take it a step farther. And, if a story is unwilling to face reality, as in absurdist literature, it becomes fluff, refusing to treat the tangled knot of life as anything but a joke, because jokes are safe.

Both of these paths are profoundly unsatisfying for me. Can I really only gloat over leaving my audience sad and hopeless or refuse to open my eyes and just make things blow up in flashy, entertaining ways?

The books that stick with me are the books that do look at the world seriously, even if they do so against the backdrop of orcs or spaceships. But tragically often, looking at the world seriously means seeing the problems it has and presenting them for everyone else to see. Nothing more.

I think as Christians we are asked to do that and take it a step further too. We can’t just prop up good and tell the world that it will defeat evil. That won’t ring true. But I don’t think we should just settle for establishing that evil is real either, or stop after saying that the world is broken. Because we know the whole story. We know about that inciting incident with a tree, a garden, and two humans. We know that black moment when a spotless lamb was sacrificed.

If we stop telling the story with an innocent man nailed to a cross, our words might be believed, because it is not hard to believe that we live in a world where evil would destroy someone who did no wrong. It’s easy to believe that justice could be perverted.

Tell the Whole Story
As Christians, we’re aware of what we were saved from, but what good do we accomplish if we cut the story short before we get to the saving?

Looking evil in the face and acknowledging it is scary and hard, and sometimes it does feel like evil will strangle out any good there is. But we know there’s more to the story than that.

We can see all of the chaos and all of the tragedy escape from Pandora’s box to assault the world. But we also know that after all that’s been done, hope remains.

How does this translate to our writing? As with anything else, it will vary from story to story. You don’t need to end every novel with Aslan on the stone table to send the message that Christ has beaten death. Approaching this topic will require thought and will probably require a lot of effort. However, I can offer two broad generalities.

The first thing that I find helpful to remember is that we are not the first writers ever to try this, and there is a whole bank of stories to help us hone our own. JRR Tolkien, for instance, reminds us of the beauty of the natural world and the pleasure of tranquillity. Lewis’ chilling The Screwtape Letters offers a look at demons, but also shows the hope Christians have to overcome.

If you really think about the stories that have touched you, you may find examples to help you deal with this complicated tangle.

Secondly, remember that suffering is no more real than pleasure and evil is not more realistic than good. It is not unrealistic to end your story on a happy note, because plenty of stories in real life do end that way. Sometimes this is on a grand scale, like the wonderful ending to the Cold War, when humanity wasn’t eradicated even though it totally could have been. Sometimes this will just be a small thing, like the fact that there are people who get married and actually live happily together.

Hope and beauty are everywhere, mingled with the discouragement and foulness. Because we know hope we don’t need to settle for discouragement. If we really believe the whole story of the cross and accept that it didn’t end with a victory for evil, why should we hold back from telling it that way in our art?

What books are an example to YOU of conveying hope without sounding trite?

Kyle de Waal, writer

About Kyle

Kyle de Waal is a long-time OYANer and veteran contest submitter. When his college and work schedules allow, he contrives mysteries and tries to pin them down and transform them into novels. If new ideas aren’t vying for his attention, his lengthy superhero novel is always waiting to soak up his time like a sponge. Kyle is working towards a major in English, but he dreams of adding a minor in Greek and Roman Studies, his second academic passion.

Those of you who are on the OYAN student forum, can find his contest-winning novel, Project Theta, in the 2011 contest showcase.

Facing the Christian Fiction Stigma

This guest post by Kyle de Waal is part one in a two-part series, “The Cross and the Typewriter.” Read part two »

Facing_the_Christian_Fiction_Stigma_500px Definitions are Hard

Every word has a definition, but when you get into ethereal concepts they get fuzzier. “Square” is simple enough to define, but other words seem to only cause debate. Take the term “sci-fi” for instance. We all have an idea of what science fiction is, but when we try to pin that down things get messy.

In fact, it gets so messy that one widely-referenced definition, an abbreviated version of Damon Knight’s thoughts on sci-fi, is simply, “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”*

And yet we know that some stories are science fiction and some are not. It’s the frustrating middle things that cause all sorts of bickering, like when people argue if Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes back is really a sci-fi since so much of the conflict centers around magic.

“Sci-Fi” Isn’t Alone

This basically happens with any genre, and the longer the genre exists the more we tend to simply accept our idea of the genre and assume we know what the contents of the genre are without finding solid labels.

So when we get to a genre like Christian fiction, a lot of us might find ourselves sneering, because we have an idea of what Christian fiction is, and that image is not positive. We picture flat characters, predictable plots, and ham-fisted themes that leave us groaning. We can’t seem to escape bonnets and buggies.

However, is that really what Christian fiction is all about? This is where we tend to add our little “well, except” clauses. Christian fiction is bonnets and buggies, well, except…

Throw CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, or a half-dozen other writers into that space.

Then what is Christian fiction?

A [Badly] Working Definition

I’ve seen recently a push for the eradication of the term “Christian novel” altogether, partially stemming from this sort of confusion. We see this box, and we accept this box, and then the odd item doesn’t quite fit in the box, and now what are we going to do with the box?

After all, the box of the Amish romance that has become so synonymous with Christian fiction doesn’t exactly make room for a novel about two demons corresponding about their attempts to corrupt a young man’s soul in the midst of World War II, but there The Screwtape Letters sit anyways, talking about Christian concepts like faith, the afterlife, and responding to suffering.

It makes the box a little infuriating, so the temptation arises to just do away with it. Should we really call The Screwtape Letters “Christian fiction” if it’s interesting, well written, and engaging? After all, what happens then to our idea about those flat characters, predictable plots, and ham-fisted themes?

Try Number Two

So if that’s not what Christian fiction is really about, what is it?

My theory is this: it’s art made from a soul that desires Christ.

When I was just beginning to write, one of the best pieces of advice I got was to write about things I care about. If you’ve got a fire burning inside of you, why not let it light up your pages? At first, for me this meant writing about murder, because murder is interesting.

But as I progressed, I found myself turning my feelings and ideas into themes. After all, if I cared about something it was so much easier to write something that felt real. I wasn’t talking about vague, ethereal ideas anymore, but what I really cared about, and that made writing so much more fun.

This shouldn’t surprise me. After all, in Luke 6:25, Jesus said this as “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

So maybe Christian fiction has less to do with bonnets and buggies and more to do with the heart behind the endeavour. After all, if your heart is full of the love of Jesus, the Bible says that’s going to flow into your words.

Stigmatized

This version of Christian fiction is much easier to accept. However, when the association with Christian fiction is so negative, it’s hard to approach it without feeling silly. After all, Christian fiction has a stigma, so who would want to be associated with it? 

There are, I think, two truths that make dealing with the stigma easier.

First off, while there is a lot of bad Christian fiction out there, there is a lot of bad fiction out there in general. Yes, it’s totally possible to be preachy and ham-fisted about faith and hope, but it’s also totally possible to be preachy and ham-fisted about anything.

Cynicism and pessimism aren’t somehow immune to preachy-ness.

Secondly, Christian themes and ideas don’t have to be added to your art, as if you’re just following some recipe to make it up to Church standard. This is, I think, what Joshua S. Porter is alluding to when he writes:

Christian artists don’t have to offer a Jesus substitute to the secular acts; they can simply create art from the overflow of their love for Jesus, and he will do the rest… Art belongs to Jesus, not the world. There is no need to commandeer it.”**

 

Read part two, “Conveying Hope in Your Novel without Sounding Trite” »

* This quote is a common abbreviation of the original statement made by Damon Knight, included in his essays in In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction.
** The Joke that we Play on the World, Joshua S Porter.

Kyle de Waal, writer

About Kyle

Kyle de Waal is a long-time OYANer and veteran contest submitter. When his college and work schedules allow, he contrives mysteries and tries to pin them down and transform them into novels. If new ideas aren’t vying for his attention, his lengthy superhero novel is always waiting to soak up his time like a sponge. Kyle is working towards a major in English, but he dreams of adding a minor in Greek and Roman Studies, his second academic passion.

Those of you who are on the OYAN student forum, can find his contest-winning novel, Project Theta, in the 2011 contest showcase.

How Limitations Can Push You as a Writer

Guest post by J. Grace Pennington

J. Grace Pennington took The One Year Adventure Novel course and went on to write several novels. Her work has won contests, and she has self-published several books on Amazon, in particular Firmament, a science fiction series. Below, she shares her perspective on creative limitations.

When Life Gives You Broken Sharks - J. Grace Pennington When Life Gives You Broken Sharks

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Steven. Steven was an ambitious filmmaker with one film under his belt—a story about trucks. Being young and brave (and by his later admission, perhaps a little stupid) he thought that a hot new screenplay based on a bestselling shark-attack novel would be a good candidate for his second film. With only a few weeks to shoot, he and his crew headed out to a small island to deal with actors, boats, expensive equipment, and an animatronic shark. What could possibly go wrong?

Their biggest problem soon became apparent. The carefully-crafted shark refused to work for most of the shoot.

A movie entirely about a shark where you almost never even see the shark itself? That sounds like doom for a young filmmaker’s career.

Of course, anyone familiar with Jaws knows that it wasn’t a failure. The film went on to beat The Godfather as the highest-grossing movie of all time. Nor was Steven Spielberg’s filmography over.

Spielberg had several options in this highly stressful and frustrating situation. He could have tried to use the shark anyway, making a cheesy monster movie that wouldn’t have scared a six-year-old. He could have given up in frustration, wasting millions of dollars and writing his own directorial death-sentence. But he didn’t do either of these things.

Instead of bewailing or even simply accepting his limitations, he embraced them. He used them to force himself to be more creative. He decided to craft the film so that we never see the shark until the very end, creating tantalizing suspense as we see the horror the animal causes without actually laying eyes on it until the climax of the story. He used the fact that the shark didn’t work to make a better and more suspenseful film.

How can we apply this to our own writing? On the surface, our possibilities may seem unlimited. We can sit down at our word processors and type out anything our imagination can come up with.

There are, however, still many possible limitations. We are obviously limited by what we know or can find out about. We are somewhat limited by our own experience (“Write what you know!?”). We may be limited by word count, content, or subject if writing for someone else. But, like Spielberg, we can use these limitations to enhance our creativity and improve our craft.

Great writers have been doing this as long as fiction has been around. Charles Dickens published most of his novels as periodicals in magazines, forcing him to create segments that would hold the interest of a reader who’d read the previous installment last week or last month and might not read the next for equally as long. C. S. Lewis wrote by hand, so that his style is naturally structured in small pieces whose length depended on how long it took his pen to run out of ink before he had to refill it. J. R. R. Tolkien used a typewriter, but when he wanted to change something about his work, he had to completely start again from the beginning, rather than make a quick edit in the middle, as we can with computers.

And these limitations served these men well. Dickens’s plots are some of the most intricately gripping in classic literature. Lewis’s style is poignant and filled with concise, contained nuggets of meaning. Tolkien’s work is polished to a degree that most writers only dream of.

Today though, periodicals have mostly gone out of style. People want the whole story now. And most of us use computers instead of typewriters and quill pens.

Book cover of Radialloy by J. Grace Pennington

Book 1 of Pennington’s science fiction series; available on Amazon

Technology tends to remove limitations, but sometimes it’s a good idea to create your own, to force yourself to think outside the box and work hard and creatively.

As I started to understand this principle a few years back, I began looking for ways to implement it. I took a tip from Tolkien and started retyping my books when I do a major edit, instead of just sticking edits in the middle. This gives me a much better overall picture of the story and the changes. I also started asking friends to give me lists of random elements (for example, a librarian, post-it-notes, a gravel driveway, a jar of jam, crocheted lace) and then forced myself to write a short story that included all of those elements. Sometimes I even assigned myself random elements to write off of.

book cover for "Never" by J. Grace Pennington

A Western/mystery novel by J. Grace; available on Amazon

Our natural inclination is to be glad when everything is easy and we are relatively unlimited. But usually we have to work against this inclination in order to grow, whether in writing, filmmaking, or life itself. Most of us know from experience that God doesn’t usually hand things to us on a silver platter. He gives us a set of specific circumstances with specific limitations and invites us to use those things to learn and grow into a better person. We can treat ourselves the same way by not only embracing the limitations we have, but at times challenging ourselves with new ones.

When we create boundaries for our stories, and allow ourselves full creativity within those, we will actually have more room to explore what’s inside those boundaries than if we had the whole of the universe to choose from.

What limitation do YOU use to your advantage as a creative person? Leave a comment with your own tips!

J. Grace Pennington bio picture About J. Grace

J. Grace Pennington lives in the beautiful Texas Hill Country with her parents, her eight younger siblings, and her horse, Pioneer. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading good books of all genres, playing movie soundtracks on piano, and looking up at the stars. She blogs about writing at www.jgracepennington.com.

Why Go to a Writers Conference?

In a perfect world, every good book would find a print home, and every stupid book would die a horrible death. Obviously this isn’t how the system works, and I’m often asked by young writers what they can do to break into print. I usually begin with the three most obvious things:

  • 1. read extensively
  • 2. write every day
  • 3. build credibility by submitting articles and short stories to small publications.

But although these things are true, they usually miss the point. The real question young writers are asking is, “How do I get my manuscript read?”

It’s very difficult. The competition is fierce, not because there are so many great writers in our culture, but because there are so many mediocre submissions. Editors and agents don’t have time to wade through the tide of incoming paper.

Forty years ago if you submitted a decent manuscript to any major publisher you stood a reasonably good chance of having it thoughtfully considered. Even if it was rejected, someone would have taken the time to read your cover letter and opening pages. Today the publishing houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts are increasingly rare. In most cases a good novel will not even be read. Many publishers have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with a slush pile. Submissions are either discarded or returned unopened (and this only if you provide them with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, or SASE).

This is why I consider conferences essential to getting noticed. If you really want to break into print as a novelist, you will help yourself immensely by going to at least one conference per year, preferably one that focuses on your genre.

But even though I frequently tell young writers to start going to conferences, few take my advice. Perhaps they’re too poor to afford hotels, gas money, admission fees, etc. but maybe they just don’t understand the benefits. So here are three good reasons to attend a conference:
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1. You will make contacts.
Although attending a conference isn’t a guarantee you’ll meet anyone famous or influential, you will almost certainly rub elbows with people who know more about writing than you do. If you are teachable, you will probably learn a lot outside of the scheduled sessions. Hanging out with writers, editors and agents can be an education. At the very least you will discover that industry professionals are real people, not rock stars.

2. Appointments are your best chance of getting a manuscript read
Some conferences offer agent / editor appointments. These are short, private conversations with an industry professional. The point is to give you a chance to pitch your novel in a one-on-one environment.

This is great because it bypasses the slush-pile, the months of waiting for a response, the cold and unhelpful reality of a form rejection letter. Because some publishers (and many agents) will not read unsolicited manuscripts, a conference slot may be your only chance to get your book read.

An editor is more likely to request your work while meeting with you in person. It’s just harder to say no to someone when they are sitting in front of you. Also, having met you in person, the editor can gauge whether or not you are likely to wind up being a huge pain in her neck. Are you respectful? Polite? Knowledgable? Fifteen minutes in a room may not be a reliable way to tell if someone will be easy to work with, but it is better than what they can learn in your one page cover letter.

3. You will learn something
Some of what you need to know as a writer will be covered in the scheduled sessions. Beginning writers tend to make the same mistakes, and conferences spend a lot of class time trying to correct these unfortunate tendencies. Some conferences even offer mentor appointments and critique sessions. Feedback from an experienced writer can save you months of frustration.
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Nothing about writing conferences is guaranteed, except the fact that you decrease your chances of getting noticed if you don’t go.

I was surprised to see two young men in their late teens at the ACFW conference a few weeks ago. I stopped Christian Miles and J.R. Parker in the hallway after a session to ask them what they thought about the conference. Both were enthusiastic.

“I found an editor who wants my first 50 pages,” Christian told me.

J.R. nodded. “And I have a request for my complete manuscript.”

Such an outcome would be unlikely in the traditional submission process.

Banned Books Week

Today marks the end of the 2009 Banned Books Week. Call me jaded, but I can’t help seeing this as a massive publicity stunt cooked up by publishers and librarians in order to promote reading. Not that I blame them. In a society where every person is bombarded constantly by extreme messages from every conceivable perspective, it probably takes something like Banned Books Week to remind us of the importance of reading, to say nothing of the importance of free speech and the freedom of the press.

But I find it hard to take seriously the idea of books being banned in the United States. Sure, we have a few intolerant cranks here and there. What we don’t have is a trend, a movement of Fahrenheit 451 anti-book infidels.

Or do we?

Guess the title of this book.

Guess the title of this book.

First, it’s worth pointing out that “book banning” is, in reality, a fantastically inclusive term. A book can make it onto the Banned Books list if a couple of people per state mention concern about it to a librarian. An “Expression of Concern,” according to the American Library Association, is “an inquiry that has judgmental overtones.” And Inquiries with Judgmental Overtones, almost unbelievably, can be reported to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. (Yep, in the interest of free speech, expressions of free speech are reported. Go figure.) These reports are then compiled into a confidential database and published in the Banned Books Week Resource Guide. (Yep, there is a Resource Guide for Banned Books Week.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not coming to the defense of pitchfork wielding nut cases bent on burning down their local libraries–if indeed such people exist. I’m not even coming to the defense of people with Judgmental Overtones. I’m just wondering who cares enough to censor–of all things–books?

When kids are given condoms in school; when they’re afforded access to public computers, internet pornography, sexually graphic movies, reality television, cage fighting and, well, you name it; when they’re exposed to a veritable fountain of media stimulation 24/7, who cares about some random young adult novel that might happen to depict the violent rape of a young girl? (Yep, it’s out there.)

Okay, so maybe some books cross the invisible line of acceptability. According to the ALA, most objections about books are expressed by parents who have a natural and constitutionally protected right to protect their children from the constant stream of yuck that flows through our culture. Still, who are we to judge?

But we do judge. We apparently do think that some books should be banned.

Don’t believe me?

Consider the Bible, conspicuously absent from Wikipedia’s and the ALA’s lists of banned books. We don’t hear much about Bible banning in the U.S., mostly because it’s only banned in places like schools. But no book is more likely to draw the ire of communist dictators, who historically have used more than Judgmental Overtones to enforce censorship.

More importantly, you don’t have to live in China or North Korea to see the influence of what might be called the Okay to be Banned Books List.

Take the One Year Adventure Novel. In the interest of fairness, I must stress that banning and OYAN have only slightly more in common than do banning and Expressions of Concern. OYAN has not really been banned anywhere, but it has raised eyebrows and elicited Judgmental Overtones. Why? Because in it I mention a handful of stories from the Bible as excellent examples of storytelling. So far no one has Expressed Concern about my mentioning Buddha or Lord of the Rings. No one has mentioned my inclusion of Huck Finn, The Blood Ship, Zenda, Holes, The Book of Sorrows, A Christmas Carol, Tarzan, The Land that Time Forgot, Black Rock, or any of the other stories used in the curriculum. But teachers and administrators alike have told me that merely mentioning the Bible is a red flag. The context in which it is mentioned doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if the content is informative and true. It doesn’t even matter if the curriculum works. It only matters that the Bible is mentioned.

Just as close to home is the case of Runt the Brave. The book sold well to school libraries when it was first released. No one seemed to have any problems with it until a school principal read a review with Judgmental Overtones that indicated RTB might be based loosely on the story of David & Goliath, which of course is from the Bible. The principal told the school librarian that she could not have students read Runt the Brave because someone might Express Concern.

No doubt these experiences color my thinking, for I have very mixed emotions regarding Banned Books Week. On one hand, the ALA is calling attention to the importance of reading, and quite possibly building a shield wall against any unlikely future tendency towards national censorship. On the other hand, our culture has already accepted national censorship, against which the ALA’s Banned Books Week is merely a Maginot Line.

As human beings we constantly make value judgments about what is acceptable and what isn’t. One person finds graphic depictions of child rape offensive; another finds a novel loosely based on a Bible story offensive.

Strange that the hammer of intolerance comes down on the latter and not the former. Strange that these concerns can’t, at worst, be treated equally.

I wonder why.