Trump’s VOICE Office: A Pending Moral Disaster

Donald Trump rose to power in the United States by exploiting hatred, fear and prejudice. It’s a technique exploited by countless demagogues, dictators and tyrants throughout history. His establishment of  VOICE, a Department of Homeland Security office that will publicize crimes committed by immigrants, is a classic example. We all need to recognize it for what it is, because it could lead to moral disaster.

People Are Tribal

Humans are extremely tribal. We are wired to include only a relatively small group of people into our close circle of friends and family, and then a slightly larger circle of acquaintances. Realistically a person can maintain several dozen relationships in this so-called tribe, maybe upwards of 100. Then we might feel a certain degree of kinship with a larger group, like people of a similar religion, ethnicity or political party. But there are still billions of others with whom we have no obvious commonality. Those strangers and foreigners are consigned to a group best described as “others.” How we treat these others is perhaps the best measure of our own humanity.

The best of us can feel empathy and compassion for these outsiders. We can work alongside them and do our best to treat them as equals. However, many of us are indifferent to the well-being of these others. And the worst of us fear and hate them.

Terrible Leaders Divide us With Fear and Prejudice

Leaders have exploited this fundamental human flaw for millennia. Demagogues and authoritarians gain power by harnessing fear and hatred and relying on the complicity of the indifferent. These leaders may convince the population that minorities and outsiders are not just strangers but less than human, unworthy of being among us. When this happens, terrible events befall us.

In 1990s Rwanda, the ruling Hutu government started a propaganda campaign against the minority Tutsi ethnic population. Hutu politicians and radio broadcasters railed against the Tutsis, demanding that they move back to their ancestral home of Ethiopia. Hutus dehumanized Tutsis, calling them cockroaches. At one speech, a Hutu politician said “[Any Tutsi] whose neck you do not cut is the one who will cut your neck.” That kind of rhetoric escalated for a couple years and ultimately resulted in a Hutu-perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis that left 500,000 people dead.

The fear of the other always exists in weak minds. Good leaders turn people away from their worst instincts, and they humanize the people that are subjected to hatred and prejudice. Terrible leaders exploit those  instincts.

Propaganda That Exploits Fear and Hatred Should be a Warning Sign

It isn’t easy to exploit fear and hatred. It takes hard work because most people are indifferent to outsiders. And that indifference has a constraining effect on those who are driven by fear and hated. The vast majority of people in a society will not accept the lawlessness that comes with something like systematic oppression of the other. People prefer stability. Demagogues and authoritarians seize power by growing the number of people who fear and hate outsiders and convincing a large enough part of the population that the best course of action is to attack the outsiders. Propaganda is one of the best ways to expand fear and hatred.

The propaganda machine of Nazi Germany did this systematically to European Jews. For example, in 1943, the Nazi regime sent a directive to the German press, declaring that “Jews are criminal by disposition,” and it urged newspapers to publish weekly reports on crimes committed by Jews. It was just one drop of water in an ocean of hate that Nazis poured on Europe’s Jews.

Donald Trump’s road to the White House was paved with hatred and fear. Muslims were all potential terrorists, according to his rhetoric. Blacks were violent, killing each other in the streets. Jews controlled the media and the financial system. And immigrants were bringing drugs and violent crime into our country. Oh, and trans people want to assault you in the bathroom. All lies.

Immigrants are Human Beings. Muslims are Human Beings. We Were All Created Equal

Trump wants to build a wall and kick out all the undocumented immigrants because he has convinced his followers that these people are a threat to our nation. Social science research has consistently found  immigrants do not commit crimes at higher rates than American citizens. In fact, crime often goes down in cities as the immigrant population goes up, but Trump insists on spreading propaganda to the contrary. During his address to a joint session of Congress, he invited family members of people murdered by undocumented immigrants as his personal guests. He  displayed them as props on national television.

And Trump announced that he was creating a new office in the Department of Homeland Security, Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE). VOICE will periodically publish a  list of crimes committed by immigrants, guaranteeing that his followers grow even more fearful and hateful, despite the research that proves that immigrants are not a threat.

If you’re having a hard time letting this sink in, do a mental exercise. Replace the word “immigration” from the VOICE acronym with “Jewish.” Now you can see what he’s doing. Dehumanization of the other.

Trump wants to  publicize every crime committed by an immigrant in this country. He’s also published lists of terror attacks committed by Muslims. His surrogates have fabricated terror attacks like the “Bowling Green Massacre.” His administration is extremely slow to condemn or even acknowledge xenophobic violence like the   shooting in Quebec or the recent shooting in n Kansas,  where a xenophobe killed a legal immigrant from India and wounded another because he thought they were “Iranians.”

The incident began after a man became agitated with two 32-year-old Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, at Austins Bar & Grill, witness Jeremy Luby told CNN.

Ian Grillot, a regular at the bar, approached the man and asked him to leave, according to CNN affiliate KMBC.

“He said (to Grillot), ‘Why are you standing up for them?’ He emphasized ‘them,’ as if ‘them’ was a derogatory term,” Luby told CNN.

Trump wants to create a narrative that reinforces the fear, hatred and prejudice that lurks in his core group of supporters. It gives him the mandate to push the policies that he and his inner circle want to implement. It will help him consolidate power. If we allow this to happen, we will all go down a road to moral disaster. Violence could become less incidental and more systematic. Too many communities are already living in fear today because of what Trump is telling Americans. We can’t allow it to continue unchecked.


US Intel Agencies Will Hammer Trump Into Submission

It is now crystal clear to me that the United States intelligence agencies have decided to do what the GOP majorities in the House and Senate refuse to do: Hold Donald Trump and his inner circle accountable for their corruption.

Tonight the New York Times published a story with a blockbuster headline: “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” This story is clearly a warning shot from the intelligence community. The Times cited four current and former officials from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Those sources refused to identify which Trump campaign aides were in contact with senior Russian intelligence officers. They also declined to name the Russian intelligence officers who were in contact with Trump aides.

But it’s obvious that those U.S. intel officials are ready to name  those people are. And they are holding that bullet for now. They are trying to force Trump’s hand, because he clearly didn’t learn his lesson during the Mike Flynn debacle.

Just look at the trickle of new stories that gradually made it clear to the nation that Flynn had to go. Over the course of several days, various news outlets revealed that Flynn had lied about his potentially illegal communication with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in the final weeks of Barack Obama’s presidency. The details emerged slowly as sources in the intelligence community leaked more and more information to the Times, the Washington Post, Reuters and other outlets. Democrats started calling for Flynn’s ouster as National Security Advisor, and even some Republicans expressed discomfort.

These were all warning shots by intelligence officials who had determined through their investigations that Flynn was at best a useful idiot and at worst a traitor to the republic. They were trying to put pressure on Trump to remove Flynn. But Trump refused to act. He played dumb, as this video makes clear.


And thus, several anonymous sources revealed to the Post that Trump was told about Flynn’s lies and his possible corruption by Russian intelligence weeks ago. He could no longer play dumb like he did on Air Force One. He had to remove Flynn.

Now the Times is the outlet for the next warning shot. Several Trump campaign officials had multiple contacts with several senior Russian officials over the course of the year leading up the the election. The intelligence community just fired across the bow of the S.S. Trump again. They have the names. Those names will come out. It could lead to impeachment. Trump must act now to save himself.

The only question that remains in my mind is how far this goes. Will the CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA and other agencies drive Trump out of the White House, or only force out his corrupt underlings?

If you have any doubts about how determined the intelligence community is about this  issue, read The Observer’s story about the “spy revolt” in Washington. U.S. intelligence agencies are holding back their most sensitive intelligence from the Trump White house because they believe that it has been “penetrated” by the Kremlin, and that anything they share with Trump’s administration will end up right in the hands of Putin. This is a national security crisis, and Congress refuses to address it.

Instead, the shadow government is taking charge. In the short term this is a good thing because it could save the country from an inept and malignant presidency. In the long term, it could be a disaster for future presidents who will find an intelligence community more willing to interfere in national politics. If you thought the FBI’s sabotage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Stop Trying to Win the Argument

Many people love to argue about politics. They are intent on winning the argument over whose ideas are the right ideas. Big government, small government. High taxes, low taxes. Free market, regulated market. People choose sides and fight.

In government this mindset doesn’t work. Elected leaders can debate and argue, but ultimately government thrives on compromise, not partisan unilateralism. The Reagan and Clinton presidencies functioned best when Democrats and Republicans found a middle ground.

In more recent years, compromise has become a dirty word. Perhaps the last gasp of bi-partisan government was George W. Bush’s deal with Congressional Democrats to get the No Child Left Behind Act passed. It was a major piece of legislation for education reform. People may differ on how effective it was, but at least it was ambitious.

In the years since then, the Republican Party has shifted toward inflexibility. Many of the party’s elected represented compromise as a betrayal or anathema. Anyone who worked with Democrats on anything risked being labeled a traitor. Ideological purity became more important than getting things done. Through eight years of Obama, I’ve watched Republicans collectively refuse to come together on any major bipartisan legislation. Even legislation proposed by other Republicans has been rejected because it was stained by Democratic support and compromise.

Government can’t function this way.

Obamacare draws so much disdain from Republicans, but it was based upon a proposals from a Republican think tank. It was designed explicitly for bipartisan support. Democrats abandoned the idea of single-payer system and went with a middle path that Republicans could support. And yet, nearly all Republicans rejected it, simply because it had been brought forward by Democrats. A Republican-designed program was rejected because Democrats wanted to support it. This is madness.

Now we  wake up to a world where Republicans control every lever of government. They can finally pass laws on their own, without Democratic input. The Democratic minority in the Senate will filibuster here and there, but ultimately the GOP no longer has to win the argument. They have all the power. It’s up to them to make things work.

My only question for America is this: When Republican policies fail miserably, like they did during the last Bush presidency, will you start to accept the fact that maybe compromises is a good thing for both sides? I hope so. Because the last two decades have been disappointing. So many things need to be done, but people would rather win the argument than accomplish anything.

Notes from the Locker Room

Last night I made my 4,160th trip to a gym locker room since 1996. (based on my the fact that I have averaged 4 trips a week to my local gym for 20 years). This marks 4,160 times that I heard no discussion of grabbing a woman’s  genitals, no discussion of popping tic-tacs in preparation for kissing a woman against her will, no laughter about “hypothetical” sexual assault.

In my recent experience, these are the topics usually discussed in men’s locker rooms: Job searches, sports, marriage proposals, health problems, workout routines, TV shows.

The election is over and millions of people decided to convince themselves that bragging about sexual assault is a normal topic of discussion among men. This is not normal.

My country has elected a man who blithely normalizes talk of sexual predation. People have convinced themselves that all men are capable of talking this way. I do not want to be associated with this mindset, one that is indicative of a callous, narcissistic soul with no sense of shame or decency.

All men are not misogynists. Trump is a misogynist. Our president-elect would have us paint all men with this broad and disgusting brush. I reject this outright. It is the mindset that encourages sexual violence, the oppression of women, and the revocation of a woman’s right to live her life as a respected peer to the men around her.

Voters who disregarded or explained away Trump’s misogyny should be ashamed of themselves. Trump has no sense of shame, but most Americans do. They need to own this for the next 4 years. Don’t explain it away as locker room talk. It simply isn’t true.

The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.

Why the love? Give your characters a reason to want each other

Writing about relationships — whether romantic or not — in fiction is hard, but I think you can make it a little easier if you think about that relationship as a character.

Character development is perhaps the most important step any writer needs to take before embarking on a story. The needs and wants of a character drive plot, create conflict and help readers sympathize with the character and his or her story. A writer has to flesh out those needs and wants with concrete details about the character that convince the reader of their authenticity. If you give your character experiences, emotions and physical attributes that make these needs and wants plausible, the reader will buy into the fiction and care about your story. Why is your character angry? He lost his job. She can’t throw a ball like she could when he was younger. His daughter doesn’t call him as much as she used to. She struggled with learning how to read and it still affects her confidence years later. Characters are driven by these challenges and when you write against these conflicts, your characters come alive.

The same holds true for the relationships that characters form, whether in friendship or romantic love. There has to be something between those people that bonds them together. And that relationship should evolve if it is central to the plot of the story. As the characters change, so too should their relationships.

I recently read “Wormwood is also a Star,” a novella by Andy Stewart that appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is an inventive and enjoyable story, part murder mystery and part romance. Although I liked it a lot, something was missing. There is a romantic relationship at the center of the novella that the author hasn’t fleshed out.

The characters are having an illicit affair, and Mitka, the female protagonist, is torn between her passionate love for Vitaly and her sense of obligation to her husband Yuri. This triangle has a lot of things going for it, but one essential piece is missing. I never saw any explanation in the story for why Mitka had fallen in love with Vitaly.

Vitaly has some paranormal attributes that make him intriguing on the surface. But he’s mostly a flat character. In fact, he’s a cipher. He’s a teenage boy who is emotionally unsophisticated and expresses almost no needs or wants throughout the story. He has a wound, in the form of a sister who committed suicide. But we only perceive that tragedy through the eyes of Mitka. Vitaly never really expresses any feelings about this loss throughout the story, except at the end of when he expresses a desire to be reunited with his sister.

The author never presents a moment or a feeling or an experience that explained why these two people were together. Mitka was simply in love with the boy who was more than a decade younger than she was. Perhaps the relationship was about her own pathos. Perhaps Vitaly was meant to be a cipher and so the relationship was meant to be one-sided. Still, the affair rang hollow to me. The passion they had for each other seemed inauthentic. And it kept me from truly buying into the novella.

Overall, Stewart’s novella is a good read, but that flaw in the story’s core relationship held me back because most of Mitka’s actions throughout are driven in part by her love for Vitaly. It’s not the only relationship that drives the story. Her relationships with her father and husband are also pivotal. They are also more well-developed, which makes them work.

In my in-progress novel, I’ve been fleshing out some central relationships between characters. Some are romances. Others are friendships. Still others are mentorships. I find that the more time I spend treating these relationships as characters, the more realistic they are. And as those relationships develop, they drive the plot. One of my characters finds himself torn by loyalties to two different mentors. As I strengthen each of those relationships, the dramatic tension for the character is heightened.

I’m bolstering the portrayal of those relationships with tiny details. A couple lines of dialog here. And kind gesture there. A promise of reward here. A punishment there. These things flesh out the relationships and make them characters in their own right. The relationships develop their own narrative arc. I don’t feel comfortable pushing my plot forward until I’m convinced that all of the relationships intertwined throughout have a firm foundation. If I neglect this step, I’m convinced that my readers will not buy into the story.

Three lessons learned from Stephen King’s “On Writing”

On Writing by Stephen King is much more of a memoir than I anticipated. I expected it to be more prescriptive, like many of the books on writing that I’ve read. But King had a different lesson in mind. He decided to show how his life had shaped his writing, and vice versa.

King does offer some instruction on writing in the latter half of the book. I took away three key lessons from it.

1. The first draft is for you.  The second draft should be for everyone else. King says he learned this approach as a teenager from his first newspaper editor, who told him: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade, and I know this lesson well. Reading it in King’s book was a good reinforcement. Every piece of writing I have ever done has begun as a story I told to myself. I think that’s my favorite part of the process — getting the story out there so that I can enjoy it. I admire the heart of the story. I enjoy the turns of phrase. I stuff in every bit of information I have that I think is interesting.

When I’m done, I read it as a reader, not  a writer. The second draft is for everyone. Maybe a turn of phrase is too florid for someone who isn’t particularly impressed with my writing skills. I take that out. I notice some repetition of an idea or information, so I make some cuts. I examine whether my reader will have any unanswered questions. I ask myself if I’ve given the reader a reason to start and finish the story. As King says in this book, you write the first draft with your door closed. The story is just for you. Then you open the door upon starting the second draft, because after that the story belongs to the whole world.

2.  Fear is a writer’s enemy. King writes: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

I’m an editor as well as a writer, and I’ve seen my fair share of bad writing. Some of the worst writing has come from writers who had no confidence in their abilities. They assumed that whatever they wrote was going to be terrible. And they fulfilled that prophecy.

King points out that overuse of the passive voice, for instance, comes from a writer’s timidity. The writer is fearful of asserting an idea too strongly. He or she backs into ideas or actions rather than boldly laying them out for the reader. The timid writer writes “Joe was shaken by his own quick decision to shoot the guy” rather than “Joe shot the guy and trembled.”

The same goes for turgid prose. Overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Reaching for cliches rather than coming up with something original. Writers do this when they think their writing is plain or dull. But a confident writer can pen lean prose that rivets an audience. Any inexperienced or tentative writer should approach the second draft of a story with the intention of cutting 50% of all their adverbs and adjectives. Replace adverbs with more descriptive verbs and nouns. Those are the most powerful words in any sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are like perfume. Too much will give you a headache.

3. A good story with good characters beats everything else. This sounds simple, so let me quote King: “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

What does this mean to me? It’s not the gimmicks that really matter. Genre writers might be able to catch some eyeballs with some fabulous world-building, cool magic systems, and awesome technology. But in the end, readers want good characters that they can relate to and care about. And they want a story that pulls them along.

With that in mind, you should try to put a something real into all of your characters. Give them a piece of you or a piece of someone you love. Or someone you hate.  You don’t have to make your characters analogs of yourself. Every human being is complicated by thousands of memories and feelings and fears and desires. Just give one or two of those things to your characters. Yearning for a lost love. A desire to rise to the top in a career. A fear of heights. A weakness for cookies. These things make characters human. And you’ll find it easier to add other traits and quirks to them that don’t necessarily come from you.

Once those characters come alive, the story also comes alive. Whatever your characters want will drive the story.

4. King had another lesson related to the one about a good story, a lesson I disagree with. He says plotting isn’t important. Character and situation is important. Put a good character in a situation that they need to get out of and the story will come. Apparently that is King’s approach to writing his gigantic novels. Obviously it works for him. He’s made a fortune with it. Others subscribe to this approach, too.

I can’t operate that way. I do build characters and I do put them into situations. But I also need to have a plan. Otherwise, I get stuck. I don’t have to start with that plan, but ultimately I need to have it. I need to map the plot to some extent. Thousands of other writers agree with me, so I won’t bother to argue the point.  Some writers are gardeners and others are architects, or as Chuck Wendig would say: Some people are plotters and some are pantsers (i.e. seat of their pants).

A meditation on women in fantasy and scifi

I read a short story this week by a well-respected science fiction and fantasy author that had five characters — four men and one woman. The physical description of the one female character started with “high-breasted.” Not her hair color or eye color. Not her complexion. Just “high-breasted.”

The author’s treatment of the character didn’t improve from there. While all the male characters in the story had reasonably complex personalities, the woman in the story served almost exclusively as a sexual foil. She slept with two of the other characters in the story. And her personality was generally just a reflection of the protagonist. She amplified  his personality rather than challenged it. She was only a “high-breasted” source of moral support.

I’ve been acutely aware of issues like this ever since a sexist cover of the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ of America touched off a heated blog debate among authors in the market. Many authors, both men and women, have written very thoughtfully about this issue, like Delilah S. Dawson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Chuck Wendig has written a whole series of posts about the issue.

I’m an unpublished genre author and my experience with this situation is limited. I don’t have anything substantial to add to the debate. But this whole episode has made me much more thoughtful about how I portray women in my own work.

When I was describing the fantasy novel I am writing to a female friend of mine recently, she asked me if it had any strong women characters in it. My answer was a qualified yes. I had some interesting women characters, but not any strong women characters. The book has three protagonists — all boys or men. There were two major female characters. One dies early on. The other is pivotal to the plot, but rather passive. I think this is a problem.

The issue has been percolating in the back of my mind as I work on the book. Coincidentally I reached a point in the writing process where the book wasn’t working. The plot was not coming together the way I wanted it to. I started avoiding the book. I lost the will to deal with it.

I stepped away from the writing process for a couple weeks and did a lot of thinking. I realized that I needed to change some the motivations of my principal characters to unlock the plot. To do this, I needed to a couple more characters.

I decided that the new characters would be women. Not only women, but powerful women. Not damsels in distress. Not sex objects. Not foils. They would be well-rounded characters with their own hopes and dream. They would command respect within their communities. And they would have the ability to determine their own destiny.

These characters were not there to fulfill a quota of strong female representation. I needed them in the book. And as soon as they were added, the pieces of the plot started falling into place. With these women there, I was able to change the relationships between the men in the story. The women took on some of the roles previously played by male characters. The plot became more complex but it also started to make sense again. The book is back on track and I’m excited to be work on it once more.

The Red Wedding still hurts! Why?

I finally watched the Game of Throne episode, “The Rains of Castamere,” and even though I knew what was coming it was still painful to see it happen again. I’ve read A Storm of Swords three times, so I was prepared for what was to come. I’d seen this horror before in my mind’s eye. But watching it play out on the screen was a surprisingly emotional experience. I think this is interesting, because I was never particularly emotionally attached to the characters who suffered the most during the Red Wedding. So why should it be such an emotional experience to read or watch it unfold? I think it has to do with George R.R. Martin’s genius.


First let’s get the particulars out of the way. The Red Wedding is perhaps the most pivotal moment in all of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire saga. Major characters die, the balance of power in the ongoing struggle for Westeros shifts tremendously. The King in the North Robb Stark and his mother Catelyn Stark are murdered, as are many Stark and Tully bannermen and soldiers. It’s a disaster.

When I first red that chapter ten years ago, I was shattered. But why? I was never particularly attached to Catelyn Stark, who had been a primary “point of view” character in the first three books. She hated one of my favorite characters (Jon Snow). She undermined her son’s authority by freeing Jaime Lannister. She sparked a war by kidnapping Tyrion Lannister. Cat and I weren’t close.

And Robb? Readers of the books know that Robb is a much more distant character than he was in the show. Martin never writes from his point of view. When he goes off to war, falls in love, and gets married, there are no point of view characters with him. Martin always maintains a narrative distance between Robb and his readers. We are much more emotionally attached to characters like Jon Snow, Sansa, Arya, and even Bran Stark, despite that silly, three-eyed crow business. And everyone loves Tyrion, But I never loved Robb and I never loved Catelyn. So why did it hurt so much when they died?

Here are the reasons:

  1. The Red Wedding is a major violation of the cultural norms that Martin created in his world.  Martin’s world building is fantastic. His readers are well-versed in the laws of hospitality and honor in Westeros. Before Walder Frey and his co-conspirators murdered the Starks, he offered them guest rights. This is the formal act of offering bread and salt to your guests. If they accept it, then you are both bound by the old gods and the new to do no harm to each other. Frey violates that sacred right when he kills Catelyn and Robb and so many others (Umbers, Mormonts, Mallisters, etc.)
  2. The fall of Stark also boosts the Lannisters. Martin has done a wonderful job of crafting a villainous family in the form of the Lannisters. Even though readers love Tyrion from the outset and grow to like Jaime Lannister after he loses his hand and learns humility, we still hate House Lannister. Cersei is a witch. Tywin is jerk. And Joffrey. Ugh! Joffrey. Worst. King. Ever.  Robb and Catelyn’s deaths seem to let the Lannisters off the hook for cuckolding King Robert, murdering Ned Stark and everything else. The Starks won’t be able to take their revenge, which we’ve been craving for thousands of pages. Now, someone else might come along and teach them a lesson (If you’ve read all the books, don’t spoil it for the TV-only folks. We know something is coming). Still, we wanted to see Joffrey and his kin answer to Robb for their crimes. Now it isn’t going to happen.
  3. We don’t love Robb, but we do love House Stark. We care about House Stark and what it stands for. We love Arya. We grow to like Sansa as she gets over being a brat. We love Bran. We love the wolves! These characters are complex. They have flaws, but they are also fundamentally interesting and sympathetic. And we want to see things turn out well for them. We want them to get home to Winterfell safe and sound. The best hope for that was Robb Stark. He was winning the war, until he screwed up and broke off his betrothal to House Frey (cursed be that name). When Robb dies, our hope for a happy ending for the Starks dies, too. The north is shattered. Bran is the next in line and he’s paralyzed. In the medieval world of Westeros, a pre-teen boy who can’t walk won’t be able to lead. Rickon is a toddler. Jon Snow is a bastard. Our hope to see some measure of peace for this family is gone.  Martin has chosen his key characters and we readers have invested emotionally in them. We love Robb Stark’s kin, but we don’t love him. But we hoped Robb would redeem and protect his house and restore order in this world. Alas, it will fall to someone else to fulfill that. Dany Targaryen and her dragons are still on the loose, so… we’ll see.

Robb was one of the best hopes for restoring order to Westeros and saving many of the characters I love.  But Martin knew that Robb wasn’t the person that needed to do these things. He’s not one of the heroes of this series. He was always a secondary character. His success would have felt like a betrayal to the structure of the story. Instead, Martin used Robb’s character as best he could. He sacrificed Robb in spectacular fashion, and that sacrifice advanced the plot of these books tremendously. Everything changed. The order that Robb was supposed to restore was thrown even deeper into chaos. Readers like me were hooked forever. I will never give up on these books until I see someone set things right in Westeros. Let’s hope Martin’s endgame gets us there.

Fantasy novel revision: Introducing Horace

Here is a revision of the first couple pages of an early chapter in my book. It introduces Horace, the main character, as a child. He is an adult for most of the book, but here we see him when he  uses magic for the first time.

This revision is based on suggestions made by an editor I met with at the Manuscript Mart at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace.

If you want to learn more about Horace and the nature of his power, stay tuned 🙂

When Horace was five years old, he used magic for the first time. In his mind it wasn’t magic. It was just a wish that came true.

Horace and his brother Zain were walking home to their village of Stony Field. They had spent the day sitting beside the West Tower Road, near a spot where a nasty wheel rut was baked hard as stone by the summer sun. It was the only road that led out of their village, to the border town of West Tower. A few wagons made the journey between the towns every day.

When wagons struck that rut, their wooden frames groaned, their drivers cursed, and — if Horace and Zain were lucky — something good would shake free from the wagon load. The drivers never noticed. But Horace and Zain would scramble forward and scoop up whatever fell. Mama sent them out to beg and scrounge every day for whatever they could, and this rut was generous to them. Today they had collected two winter apples, a head of lettuce, a small loaf of hard, black bread, an onion, and a wooden mug. Six-year-old Zain carried their treasure in a patched linen sack slung over his shoulder.

There was one other prize that Horace had wrapped in a dirty rag and stuffed into his pocket. It was a handful of seeds.

“Mama will find out about the seeds,” Zain said. “Seeds go in the garden.”

“I want to feed the bird,” Horace said.

“She’ll hit you with her broom.”

“She won’t know.”

A house finch with a brilliant red neck had been perching on the scrap-wood fence that Mama and their older brothers and sisters had built around the family’s garden. Horace thought it was a beautiful bird, with its narrow brown body and the shock of raspberry-red feathers around its neck. Every morning it would land on the fence and whistle a couple notes. Horace waited for the bird to see its red feathers, but it didn’t stay long. It was searching for food. It was waiting for something good to grow in the garden. Horace knew birds liked seeds.

“Don’t get beat for a stupid bird, Horace.”

“I won’t!”

They walked in the tall grass that lined the West Tower Road. Stony Field was only a mile away, closer if they cut across the rocky field that gave the village its name. Horace had no shoes, so crossing the field was always hard on his feet. The stones left bruises if he wasn’t careful. Zain cut toward the field and Horace followed.

“I’ll race you,” Zain said.

“All right.”

As Horace sprang forward, Zain pushed him to the ground and sprinted away.

“Not fair!” Horace yelled. Horace was the youngest of his seven brothers and sisters, and the others were always pushing him around, including Zain. But Zain made a joke of it when he shoved Horace. They laughed about it together as brothers. Zain was the second smallest, so he knew it was hard to be the little one.

Horace got his hands and feet under himself and prepared to stand. He stopped. He had landed on an earthworm and crushed its middle. It was twisting back and forth trying to right itself, but its middle wouldn’t work.

Horace felt a desperate, guilty sadness as watched the worm struggle. It was dying and it was his fault.  Well, it was Zain’s fault, too. Zain had shoved him down. But Horace didn’t like the idea of something dying because of him. Stony Field had already had its share of dying. So many of the men had gone off to fight in the emperor’s war. They marched away and they didn’t come home. Horace’s father was one of them, but Horace didn’t remember him. He was only a baby when their father marched to war.

Horace watched the worm struggle in the stony earth and wondered if a worm could feel pain. He touched its crushed middle with the tips of his fingers. It was cold and moist. The worm just twisted and twisted. Horace closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry, little worm. I’m sorry I landed on you.”

He imagined the worm all better. He wished he had never hurt it. The thought made him dizzy. Then the dizziness passed and he felt tired. He opened his eyes and shook his head to clear it. He didn’t want to fall asleep in the field. Mama would be mad.
He looked down at the worm. It was whole again. It crawled away.

“Oh,” Horace said. “Isn’t that lucky?”