Game of Thrones & The Case Against Closure in Fiction

Any Game of Thrones fans out there? No spoilers, but… last night’s episode? All I gotta say about that final scene is… damn, girl. Maybe you oughta see a doctor about that!

*Shudders*

We’ll get back to Game of Thrones in a moment (spoiler-free of course). I promise this is all related, tangentially, as most of my thoughts are, and as most of George R.R. Martin’s characters are.

See what I did right there? Tying it all together like that? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, one of my favorite things about writing for teens is that they’re passionate readers, they know how to get in touch with their favorite authors, and they aren’t afraid to ask questions and share their own ideas (that’s more like 3 or 4 favorite things, but like my thoughts and the cast of Martin’s books, they’re all related, so let’s just roll with it).

I love hearing from readers. They ask about whether the cupcakes featured in Bittersweet are real recipes (yes), or whether Twenty Boy Summer’s Zanzibar Bay is a real place (no). They want to know if Fixing Delilah’s Patrick is based on a real person (in part, and I totally married him). They seek writing and publication advice (don’t give up!), or details on how a book becomes a movie (magic spells are definitely involved). But the number one question I get, hands down, is…

Will you write a sequel to Twenty Boy Summer?

Twenty Boy SummerEveryone wants to know what happens next: do certain characters ever meet up again? Do Anna and Frankie go back to California the following summer? Can the girls rebuild their friendship and trust each other again after everything that happened? Can Sam’s family buy a house from Anna’s father in their same neighborhood? Is it possible that Matt’s death was misreported and he’s living on a remote island somewhere totally safe, waiting for Anna to find him? Can Matt come back from the dead like in Pet Sematary or in some kind of secret government experiment?

All of these questions are from actual reader emails, and though some are more serious than others, the root of each is the same: desire for closure.

Closure in Fiction and in Life

We all long for closure in stories, for the mostly happily ever after, for resolutions and answers when we reach THE END. When we get attached to characters, as I am with the people who populate Game of Thrones, we follow them through the journey of the story, and then we want to know how their life turns out after the last page. It’s the mark of a great tale, right? If I’m still thinking about the characters long after that final passage, if I’m wondering how things turn out for them, then I know that a book really affected me. And I’m always honored and humbled to learn that my books have affected other readers in this way—enough that they want to know what happens next in the lives of my characters.

I like happy endings. I like to know that things worked out for my favorite fictional people just as I want things to work out for my favorite real life people.

But real life isn’t like that, is it? We don’t always get to know how things turn out for everyone we’ve ever loved. We don’t always get the final say. We don’t always get any say, because unfortunately, endings are just that—endings. And they’re often abrupt and unpredictable.

Everything—even the best and seemingly most unshakeable things—end.


Elrond is kind of a downer Dad in this scene from the film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, warning his daughter (an immortal elf) against holding out for her true love (a man). Elrond obviously missed elf-parenting class the day they taught the critical lesson: when fathers tell their daughters what to do, daughters will do the exact opposite. Still, his words are true. No matter the outcome of Arwen and Aragorn’s story, one day, their relationship will end.

Personally, I’m still bewildered by certain friendships in my life that ended; people I’d naively and hopefully assumed would be there forever simply… weren’t. Maybe they faded away, or maybe I did. Maybe we all changed and no longer recognized one another. Maybe we all had intentional, irrefutable reasons to walk away. I’m not sure, because in most cases, I didn’t get the luxury of closure. It makes me think of missing persons or funerals without a physical body. There’s always some question, some doubt, some stupid hopeless hope that it didn’t really happen that way. That it could still change.

Closure, unfortunately, is not one of life’s guarantees. It’s a luxury, like I said. Never required. Rarely offered. Whether a relationship ends because of death, a breakup, an insurmountable disagreement, a misunderstanding, or as Elrond so eloquently put, the slow decay of time, it’s still an ending. And in the absence of closure, endings usher in uncertainty. Was there something else I could’ve said, something else I could’ve done if only I’d had the chance? One more day, one more conversation, one more hug? It’s not fair, it just… is. Sometimes all we can do is accept it (or go crazy trying to deny it, which I don’t recommend).

Game of Thrones: You’re Killin’ Me, George!

Like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the HBO television series based on the fictional series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, gets it absolutely right. We’re currently in season two on the show (I haven’t read the books yet because books with tiny fonts and thousands of pages totally intimidated me, but I really want to read them), and pretty much every weekend I want to phone up George and be all, “Oh. My. God! WTF just happened, George? Why do you insist on making me cry, like, every single effing episode? Why do you keep killing and tormenting the characters I adore? How can you put them in those horrible situations? Why aren’t the good guys saving the day? Argh!”

I get seriously mad at the guy, but honestly, he’s a freaking genius and a wonderful writer. He gets the characters in my head, in my heart. He makes me fall in love with them and then he yanks them away or knocks them down without any consideration for my feelings.

Sound familiar?

When was the last time you were given an opportunity to halt or reverse the death of a loved one? Did anyone consult with you before breaking your heart with that breakup? Before evaporating that best friendship you wanted to believe was forever? Before life yanked the rug out from beneath your feet and stomped on your fingers?

On the surface, Game of Thrones—particularly the HBO interpretation—is fraught with intense violence and sex. Honestly, there are a lot of boobs on that show, and sword fights, among other things. But it’s neither the brutal acts nor the nude buffet that most of us relate to; it’s the emotional aftermath. The sudden ends, the confusion, the heartache, the raw unmet desire, the lack of closure. Most of us have never witnessed the brutal decapitation of a loved one, for example, but haven’t we all wished for one more chance, one more day to say the important things? An opportunity to make our case, to fight for it?

How many times have you actually gotten that chance?

Life isn’t fair or logical. Martin understands that. Tolkein did, too, though his story was much less brutal. In both cases, I was hooked. Lord of the Rings lives on for me, long after reading the books and seeing the movies a bazillion times. I still think about the characters, still imagine what their lives are like now. As for Game of Thrones? Every Sunday night leaves me upset and enraged or plain old freaked out, and Martin has created a loyal fan for life—enough to make me get over my issue with small-print adult books, happy endings or not.

Speaking of Happy Endings… What About Them?

All of this isn’t to say that storybook characters (and their loyal fans!) don’t deserve happy endings. Many fictional heroes emerge stronger and wiser after surviving the external challenges of a story. They’ve overcome their great weaknesses, found hidden strengths and allies, and slayed their literal and figurative dragons (especially in young adult stories, where coming of age is a paramount internal theme). Maybe they’ve also discovered the buried treasure, snagged the girl, saved humankind from utter extinction.

Even so, “happy ending” is a misnomer. The end of a story doesn’t mark the end of a character’s life or the lives of all those she impacted along the way. It’s just a happy moment, and life is full of them, just as it’s full of heartache. Neither is forever—they’re just for now. Remember Frodo in The Return of the King, that scene in the harbor? “We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved… But not for me.”

Layered with happiness and regret, love and loss, creation and destruction. Like life.

Absolutely beautiful. Like life.

Your Assignment

Writers, take a look at your current project. Are you tying everything up too neatly for your characters? Are you resolving every thread, addressing every possible outcome? Giving your hero everything she’s ever dreamed of, leaving nothing left for her to fight for? To desire? Take another look. See if you can find a few places to leave things undone. Not dropped or forgotten, but uncertain. Unresolved. Life is messy and unfair as often as it’s amazing. Let us feel the whole range of it on the page. Give us something to wonder about later, long after we’ve closed the book.

Always leave room for a sequel—if not on paper, than in your readers’ imaginations.

Readers, how do you feel about closure? Do you like loose ends, the sometimes unfair twists and turns of life, or do you prefer the safety net of happily ever after in your fiction? What are some of your favorite books? Do they tie up all the threads, or leave you wanting more? Share your spoiler-free thoughts in the comments!

Banned Books Compromise: “I’m not touching him!”

If you have a sibling, you know what I’m talking about.

You’re crammed into the backseat of the car, or maybe stuck side-by-side at the table at Applebee’s, and you exercise your natural right to torment your younger brother. Within seconds, he’s screaming. “Mom! Sarah’s touching me!”

“Stop touching your brother,” Mom says.

“Fine,” you say, raising a threatening eyebrow. Then you wave your hands directly in front of his face, blow in his ear, give him creepy looks, and otherwise annoy him to the greatest extent possible while still following Mom’s directive, proudly proclaiming, “I’m not touching him! I’m not touching him!”

Still with me on the tangent-coaster? Good. Because the whole I’m not touching him thing? That’s how I view the Republic school board’s “compromise” on recently-banned Twenty Boy Summer and Slaughterhouse Five. Last night, the board voted to put the two books back in the school library… in a “secure area” where only parents will be able to check them out.

(Remember those old school video stores—you know, pre-Netflix—where they had all the “adult” stuff in a separate back room behind a curtain? I really hope there’s a curtain at the library. Just saying.)

From the article in today’s Springfield News-Leader:

“It does keep the books there in the library, and if parents want their kids to read the book, by all means come and check it out,” said Superintendent Vern Minor. “…It still puts the decision in parents’ hands.”

With no discussion — and only board president Ken Knierim commenting on the change — the board voted 6-0 to adopt a revised draft of the book standards originally approved earlier this year.

It merely changed the way “challenged” books — the two in question and any others removed in the future — would be accessible in the district.

“…That’s what has come under scrutiny, that if parents want their children to read a book that has not met the district standards, they have to get the book from somewhere else,” Minor said. “It’s not in our library. That’s the issue that seems to have surfaced.”

In other words, we’re still censoring books by limiting access, but since everyone complained about the books being removed from the library, we’ve addressed that by putting them back in the library. You can’t get to them unless you’re a parent, but they’re technically in the library. Problem solved.

While I’m glad that the school board was willing to reconsider the original ban, I don’t believe this compromise is the answer. I’ve stated before that my biggest issue with Mr. Scroggins’ complaint is that he took the decision and discussion away from other parents. So I totally support parents who want to be involved with their kids’ reading and want to make decisions on appropriateness for their own families. The thing is, I’m not sure this should be happening at the library, before the book is even checked out. Do all parents have time or inclination to go to the school and request the books from the secure area (ahh, visions of secret parental cabals whispering together behind that curtain!)? Is the school library staying open beyond school hours to accommodate parents’ work schedules? What about the parents who’ve already made the decision to let their teens read whatever they’d like? Now those parents have to go down to the school just to check out a book? And what about the parents who just aren’t involved, one way or the other? The books are not accessible to those teens. And even if one teen has parents who can’t or won’t make the trek? She might be the one who most needs to read those books. And that’s what kills me.

Parents, what do you think? Should teens need you to check out their books from a public school library? If not, how do you get involved in your child’s reading (if you do), and what do you do if you feel something might be inappropriate for him?

Teens, what are your thoughts on this?

I’d love to hear your opinions. Because while I don’t pretend to have the answers on this, for me, the issue still stands: Limiting reading options for all teens on a broad institutional level is not the way to go.

Banned, But Never Shamed

I woke up this morning to the news that TWENTY BOY SUMMER, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, has been officially banned from the Republic, Missouri school district.

That’s right, the crazy train has finally derailed. You all might remember the SpeakLoudly issue from last fall, as it took up lots of blog space here after the book was initially challenged in the district by Wesley Scroggins, a parent whose own kids don’t even go to the public school, along with Vonnegut’s book and Laurie Halse Anderon’s beautiful novel, SPEAK.

Not surprisingly, the whole thing caused a major uproar (particularly among the great citizens of Republic, most of whom find Scroggins’ actions as deplorable as I do). But that was just a challenge. Last night, nearly a year after the challenge was issued, after convening committees and discussion groups and who knows what else, the board made their decision. SPEAK stays (thankfully!), but Vonnegut and I are out. You can read the whole article in the News-Leader, but here are a few juicy tidbits:

“We very clearly stayed out of discussion about moral issues. Our discussions from the get-go were age-appropriateness,” [Superintendent Vern Minor] said.

Minor also stated:

“Most schools stay away from this and they get on this rampage, the whole book-banning thing, and that’s not the issue here. We’re looking at it from a curriculum point of view.”

Um, okay. Let’s just get this on the record right now: Twenty Boy Summer was never part of the curriculum. It was simply available in the school library for students to check out and read on their own time. So clearly, this wasn’t about the curriculum.

The article goes on:

Minor said feedback [from the committee] for “Twenty Boy Summer,” available in the library, focused on “sensationalizing sexual promiscuity.” He said questionable language, drunkenness, lying to parents and a lack of remorse by the characters led to the recommendation.

“I just don’t think it’s a good book. I don’t think it’s consistent with these standards and the kind of message that we want to send,” he said. “…If the book had ended on a different note, I might have thought differently.”

So… just so I’m clear on this (forgive me for not catching on right away — I’m a little slow, since my brain is so addled by the long hard hours it puts in each day devising ways to sensationalize sexual promiscuity and questionable language and whatnot), you’re staying out of a discussion about moral issues, yet stating that if the characters in Twenty Boy Summer had been remorseful about sex, language, or lying to parents, then you might have thought differently? That it’s not consistent with messages you want to send?

Again, I’m a little fuzzy on how morals work, obviously, since I’m so busy making sure my books influence teens not to have any morals, but… how is that not a moral discussion? How is that not a moral judgment?

Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more. I get that my book isn’t appropriate for all teens, and that some parents are opposed to the content. That’s fine. Read it and decide for your own family. I wish more parents would do that — get involved in their kids’ reading and discuss the issues the books portray. But don’t make that decision for everyone else’s family by limiting a book’s availability and burying the issue under guise of a “curriculum discussion.”

But you all know my views on banning books — any books. What I really want to say today is this (close your eyes, Dr. Scroggins, as you’ll likely find this content alarming):

Not every teen who has sex or experiments with drinking feels remorseful about it. Not every teen who has sex gets pregnant, gets someone pregnant, or contracts an STD. Not every teen who has sex does so while in a serious relationship. Not every teen who has sex outside of a relationship feels guilty, shameful, or regretful later on. And you can ban my books from every damn district in the country — I’m still not going to write to send messages or make teens feel guilty because they’ve made choices that some people want to pretend don’t exist.

That’s my choice. And I’ll never be ashamed of my choice to write about real issues.

You know what, just for Dr. Scroggins, I’m giving away 2 copies of TWENTY BOY SUMMER to random commenters. Happy reading, all. And thanks for speaking loudly! Update: the winners have been chosen and notified by email, but please keep those comments coming! I appreciate the discussion and I’m so grateful for the outpouring of support! THANK YOU!

Think Authors Profit From Book Banning?

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]Lots of people think that authors want to have our books challenged. We’ve all joked about the merits of stirring up a little controversy to boost sales, right? I know I have, because on the surface, yeah, it’s pretty cool to write a book that pisses someone off so badly he wants to hide it from everyone else. And that’s often the fastest way to ensure it will never be hidden. Banned books are discussed in the media, through social networks, in bookstores and libraries, in schools, at home, and soon people are flocking to stores and libraries to see what all the fuss is about. Sounds great for authors, right?

Hmmm.

When Ellen Hopkins recently blogged about the experience of being booted (i.e., censored) from the Humble Teen Book Festival, some people accused her of intentionally trying to profit from the situation. I was shocked. I mean, Ellen obviously cares about teens. She cares about sharing powerful stories in ways that save lives. Why would she try to profit from a situation that was preventing her from interacting with the very teens who so desperately need her work? Why did these people find it appropriate to personally attack an author who’s trying to do some good for teens in this world? Baffling.

Ellen, of course, handled (and continues to handle, each time her books are challenged) the whole thing with class and determination, an example to us all. But it really got me thinking about how I might react if my book was ever challenged.

I never expected I’d get to test that theory so soon.

In reading about Ellen’s struggles against censorship, I came across a story about a conference in which Judy Blume spoke about book banning. An author in the audience jokingly asked her for tips on how to get his own book challenged, and Judy replied something like:

“Your book will be challenged. And you won’t like it.”

People laughed. But you know what? Aunt Judy was absolutely right.

Book Challenges Actually, Um, Suck

When I heard about Wesley Scroggins challenging Twenty Boy Summer as part of his 29-page manifesto against sex education, separation of church and state, evolution, and groundbreaking books like Speak and Slaughterhouse Five, I wasn’t excited at the prospect of increased sales. I didn’t do my happy dance at the thought of increased media exposure. Instead, my heart sank in a way I didn’t think possible over one man’s personal agenda. He said my work — something I’d put my heart and soul and years of my life into creating — was immoral, filthy, and un-Christian (the implication being that I personally am immoral, filthy, etc.). Ouch.

I don’t deny him the right to his opinion, and if he would’ve shared it in an email to me or a public book review on Goodreads, I would’ve shrugged it off, like I must with any negative review. But Scroggins didn’t post a review or give me the dreaded one-star rating on Amazon. He didn’t even read the book. He’s simply attempting to remove it — along with the other books — from the public school library. He’s attempting to infringe on the intellectual freedoms of the student body, parent children who are not his own, and disempower teens by sweeping the discussion and validation of their very real issues under the rug.

Essentially, the message he’s sending to kids in Republic, Missouri — including his own kids, who don’t even attend the public school — is this:

We don’t care about you. We don’t want to discuss your problems because they don’t exist. If you’re the victim or rape or assault, it’s your fault. Shut up. Do not SPEAK of it. And if you’re a “good, clean, moral, Christian kid,” you obviously aren’t capable of reasoned thought, because reading these books will brainwash you into experimenting with alcohol and sex when you otherwise wouldn’t have known these vices existed.

When the dust settles and this issue is resolved, whether the books are burned in the Republic school parking lot by Scorggins and his cronies, or put front and center on every bookshelf in the state by champions of literary choice, Scroggins’ attitude still disgusts me. It infuriates me. Hate me and my work all you want, but in this country, you don’t get to do it for other people. Calling for institutionalized censorship of any kind is an outrage, and Judy was right. I don’t like it one bit.

Now on to this so-called financial profiteering. I was inspired to blog about this today after reading this post: Book Banning for Profit.

I agree with the author’s point that the teachers standing up for our books in Republic should absolutely be involved in the conversation and in sharing their important perspectives on what’s going on inside the school walls. What incenses me about the article, however, is the assertion that Wesley Scroggins “might as well have written a check to those authors.” That the controversy has resulted in “money for a beautiful webpage called ‘Speak Loudly.’ Moving up 2,000 spots on the Amazon seller list.” The author goes on to say:

“Frankly, shouldn’t some of those who have co-opted this issue for their own profit write a thank you note to Mr. Scroggins and to the teachers of Republic. I think they can do better than send 20 books. These authors and supporters of YA lit do believe in protecting our right to read, but let’s not overlook the profit to be made from being a part of this conversation.”

Profit being made? I know that the Speak Loudly web site is a labor of love for founders David Macinnis Gill and Paul Hankins, who host and maintain the site out of their own pockets. Same goes for Paul and the #speakloudly campaign he so bravely spearheaded.

And as for my personal profits from this, well…

*scratches head*
*looks in wallet*
*looks under couch cushions*
*scratches head again*

Fuzzy Math

Donating copies of challenged books is not something authors do for profit or fame. We do it to ensure that readers still have access to books that are being challenged or banned and to meet a library’s newly increased demand for books that are suddenly being debated and discussed in the local media.

Consider the numbers here. I can’t speak for Laurie, but for me, to donate 20 paperback copies of Twenty Boy Summer out of my own pocket, I’d have to sell more than 200 paperback copies at full price at my current royalty rate to cover my purchase and shipping costs. To donate hardcovers, I’d have to sell almost 400 of those copies. And since Twenty Boy Summer is my first book and I haven’t yet earned out my initial advance, I won’t see any royalties for quite a while, despite the momentary jump in sales this controversy may have sparked. So while I’m grateful that Wesley Scroggins has brought my book and the others into the spotlight despite his attempts to bury them, thereby earning me some new readers who might never have otherwise heard about Twenty Boy Summer, that spotlight won’t last forever, and it won’t pay my bills. If it did, I certainly wouldn’t be celebrating the long-term notoriety and increased cash flow. I’d be stocking up on duct tape and canned goods because folks, if a quiet little book like mine can be challenged or banned on that level, free society as we know it is over.

Time is Money

I’m self-employed. Writing, whether its fiction or corporate freelance, is my sole source of income. My corporate rates are upwards of $100 an hour. Since Scroggins publicly voiced his opinion, I’ve spent entire work days — going into week two, actually — not working on my usual income-generating projects, but responding to emails, phone and print interview requests, Tweets, blog posts, news article commentary, and other information requests sparked by the news in Missouri. I’m happy to be involved in defending intellectual freedom and proud to be in such good company as Laurie Halse Anderson and Kurt Vonnegut, and I won’t deny that all this effort has increased visibility for my book. But to earn back my full investment on the time I’ve spent managing this issue, I’d have to sell over 5,000 full price copies of Twenty Boy Summer (and counting). When you’re not Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, that’s a lot of books, my friends.

War is Good for the Economy

Yes, book challenges are controversial and controversy increases publicity, which often increases sales. But saying that authors are eager to profit from challenges or bans is a bit like saying war is good for the economy. Whenever a book is challenged, someone — either in an official capacity or not — is advocating the challenge of basic intellectual freedoms and free choice. Someone is advocating his or her personal right to make reading decisions for other people. Someone is advocating censorship. It doesn’t matter if challenged books see a bump in sales when the sole reason for that bump is a potential loss of freedom, realized or not.

As an author of a recently challenged book, I will not trade freedom for profit. And I wouldn’t trade freedom for profit, even if the math was on my side.[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]

Win a Wesley Scroggins Filthy Books Prize Pack!

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]Update: This contest is from the original book challenge in 2010, not the ban in 2011. The prizes have been awarded and the contest is now closed. Feel free to comment, though!

The outpouring of support from the book loving community over the Wesley Scroggins Crazytrain Manifesto has been amazing, especially through the #SpeakLoudly Twitter campaign. As a gesture of thanks to Dr. Scroggins for reminding me and thousands of others about the awesomeness of challenged books, I’m giving away two Filthy Books Prize Packs, containing one copy of each of his challenged “filthy, immoral” books, including:

SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by the masterful Kurt Vonnegut,
SPEAK by trailblazer Laurie Halse Anderson, and
TWENTY BOY SUMMER by yours truly!

I’m going to add some dark chocolate, too. Because it’s dangerous and naughty and it goes great with banned books!

To enter, simply leave a comment below telling us what you’re doing to #SpeakLoudly against censorship. Next Friday, I’ll randomly select 2 winners from the entries.