Sunday, October 20, 2013

I Am Not Michael Chabon

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. Still live there, in fact. And when I was in my early twenties--around the time I started to think of myself as being an author--the biggest thing in Pittsburgh was Michael Chabon.

Chabon's debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, hit the stands in 1988 and made him a household name. Chabon, though not originally from Pittsburgh, had attended school in my hometown, and his rendering of certain familiar places--the University of Pittsburgh campus, Schenley Park, the Strip District--was close enough to the real to satisfy a native. More importantly for Chabon's career, his imagined Pittsburgh was raved about by book critics nationwide, and his coming-of-age novel shot to the top of the bestseller list.

And was I envious?

What do you think?

I certainly was. Here was a guy about my age (he's a couple years older) living the dream I desired for myself. Here was "the boy with the golden pen" (as one swoony review dubbed him). Here was the fame and fortune that should have been mine.

I wanted to be Michael Chabon.

That was in 1988. I was twenty-three. Now I'm forty-eight, and my first novel has finally been accepted for publication. It's a good novel, I believe, and I hope it's the first of many. I like to think I'm a pretty good writer.

But I'm not Michael Chabon.

I'm just not. He's an incredible talent, a brilliant writer, a once-in-a-generation kind of guy. His The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer and just about every other award you can name, and it deserved to. His most recent book, Telegraph Avenue, contains a sentence that's twelve pages long. And he barely seems to be breaking a sweat when he writes it.

The funny thing, though, is that I'm okay with not being him. Call it the wisdom of my years, but I've accepted my place in things. When it comes to writing, there are people like Michael Chabon--a very few people--and then there's everyone else.

I'm everyone else. And that's okay.

I met Chabon a month or so ago at a reading. He was smart, funny, self-mocking (if not exactly self-effacing), eloquent, genuine. At the end of the event I asked him to sign my copy of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and he did. I didn't have time to tell him I'd written a short story, "Mishap" (which you might be able to track down online), in which a group of failed writers who hang out at a coffee-shop are unexpectedly visited by the boy who used to frequent their gatherings, but who's now become a best-selling author. I called that character Michael. I modeled him after Chabon. Maybe that was my way of exorcising the demons.

The woman who would become my wife gave me my copy of Mysteries back in 1989, half a lifetime ago. On its inside cover, she wrote: "May you be the next twenty-some-year-old author from Pittsburgh." Turns out I had to wait another twenty-four years.

But that's okay too. I've got my own book now.

And I've got Chabon's signature to boot.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On Not Being On Submission

I started publishing fiction in 2008. For fifteen years before that, I published academic books and articles.

During that entire twenty-year span, I've always had something or other on submission. Whether it was a monograph, an essay, a story, a memoir, or a novel, someone somewhere was reading something I'd written and weighing whether or not to publish the thing.

But now, for the first time in a very long time, I'm not on submission. My debut novel, Survival Colony Nine, is beginning to work its way through the production process. (I just got an email today asking for my author bio.) I've got a couple creative nonfiction essays coming out in the fall and winter, but nothing new making the rounds of literary journals. I'm working on a new novel, but it's nowhere near ready to show my agent or editor.

So here I am, not on submission. No anxieties, no watching the inbox, no middle-of-the-night questions for my agent, no drama. Just peace and quiet.

It's weird.

For anyone who finds her/himself in the same position, I offer twenty suggestions on how to fill the time (not in any particular order):

1. Read.

2. Write.

3. Review books.

4. Tweet.

5. Spend time with your significant other.

6. Spend time with your children/parents/extended family/neighbors/friends.

7. Take walks.

8. Work out.

9. Meditate on the wonders of creation.

10. Volunteer.

11. Fight racism, poverty, and environmental degradation.

12. Watch old movies.

13. Write your author bio.

14. Play with non-human animals.

15. Play with human animals.

16. Support writer-friends (or complete strangers) who are currently on submission.

17. Sleep.

18. Careen down water-slides.

19. Watch the stars at night.

20. Take a deep breath, center yourself, and thank whatever entity you feel deserves it for this moment's respite.

In short, LIVE! You'll be back on submission before you know it, and some of those mundane things will be swallowed in a sea of waiting and worry.

Monday, July 22, 2013

When Classic Becomes Camp

Last night I went to see Mysterious Island, one in a series of movies the local art-house theater is showing to honor the achievements of legendary stop-motion artist Ray Harryhausen, who died earlier this year. If you haven't seen it, it's an adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, with castaways encountering perils and (this being a Harryhausen film) giant monsters on a remote island. Though not one of the master's best films--the drama is slow and plodding, and some of the effects, particularly the glass paintings and traveling mattes on the island, are poorly executed--Mysterious Island is still an impressive piece of special-effects movie-making.

But you know, every time I go to see one of these older fantasy films, whether it be King Kong or The Valley of Gwangi, I have to sit through the lunkheads in the audience cracking up every time an effects sequence appears on screen. Last night, it was an older couple, probably in their sixties, sitting right behind me, yucking it up over Harryhausen's creations. It ticked me off.

I'm more sensitive to this than most, since Harryhausen was my boyhood hero, one of the main reasons (along with Star Wars) I grew up believing in the power of fantasy. But in a broader sense, the hilarity of last night's audience made me wonder: when did classic become camp?

There are campy movies out there, for sure. Many of them were made in the fifties and sixties, when Harryhausen was at the peak of his form. But his films weren't among them. They were designed as spectacle, perhaps, but not as camp. They were meant to be taken seriously: to inspire awe and wonder, not giggles.

Now, as a literary critic and film scholar, I know that what a creator intends for her or his artwork has nothing to do with how an audience receives it. If, in today's era of soulless but realistic computer effects, a film with stop-motion monsters appears silly, audiences will, perhaps naturally, perceive it as such.

But I can't help thinking you'd have to exist in a historical vacuum not to recognize artistry as artistry, regardless of its relationship to present standards. Cave paintings might look quaint today--but they were pretty damn impressive in their time. The acting in Citizen Kane is over-the-top by today's naturalistic standards--but that's still a pretty darn good film. Harryhausen, working alone and with budgets in the mere thousands, couldn't produce what immense teams of technicians equipped with multi-million dollar machines can produce today--but that doesn't make him a hack.

It's inevitable, perhaps, that a consumer culture such as ours--a culture that can't wait to get its hands on the next technological gizmo, simply because it's the next--will equate past with surpassed. It's perhaps inevitable that such a culture will perceive anything classic as campy.

But I'm going to stick with my convictions. Something that was good in its own time--something that was great in its own time, as all of Harryhausen's films were--can still be meaningful in ours. If we fail to acknowledge this, then we're the ones who have become silly and irrelevant.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Climate Deniers Versus Reality, Once Again

In a major speech yesterday, President Barack Obama laid out a plan for dealing with climate change. It's not a perfect plan--it gives too much away to "clean coal," which doesn't exist, and to fracking, which causes more problems than it solves--but it's a start. It's good to see the president finally delivering on the promises he made throughout his first and second election campaigns.

When I posted on Facebook praising the president's speech, I received the anticipated response from a climate denier. With roughly 250 friends, I was bound to have a denier or two among them.

We're rapidly reaching the point where the voices of climate deniers, for all their sound and fury, are being drowned out by common sense. Within a decade, I anticipate, climate deniers will be seen pretty much the way people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are seen: as odd, sad, strange people who, for whatever reasons, refuse to live in the reality the rest of us live in.

Because you know, it is strange.  A recent study demonstrates that over 97% of climatologists--those are the experts who study climate--agree with the consensus on anthropogenic global warming. That's a significant percentage of experts. The proportion of experts who disagree, the study concludes, is "vanishingly small."

When I pointed this out to my climate denier friend, he objected that science isn't based on opinion polls. And I agree. But expert consensus is not the same as an opinion poll.

Experts are those who know a subject best. Opinion polls involve random samples of people who probably know very little about the subject under debate.

We base many of our decisions on expert consensus. When more than 97 percent of cardiologists tell us we have a heart problem, most of us decide to get heart surgery. When more than 97 percent of plumbers tell us we have a plumbing problem, most of us decide to get the pipes fixed. When more than 97 percent of ex-girlfriends tell us we have a bad breath problem, most of us decide to invest in some Tic Tacs.

Opinion, as I tell my students, isn't the same as informed opinion. And informed opinion isn't the same as expert opinion.

We're all entitled to our opinions. But only if we're informed--or better yet, experts--are we entitled to have our opinions count.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I'm thrilled to be doing something new on the blog today: a COVER REVEAL of Rachel O'Laughlin's forthcoming COLDNESS OF MAREK.  Check it out:

Book Blurb:
Serengard has been under Orion rule for centuries. Centuries of insufferable adherence to laws and traditions that none of its people ever asked for or agreed to. Raised by her scholarly grandfather in the fiery southern city of Neroi, Trzl is out to turn the monarchy into a free society where knowledge is king and no one has to be subject to the whims of an Orion.

As the rebellion escalates, her choices have an eerie impact on the revolution at large, elevating her to a position of influence she has only dreamed of attaining. But there are downsides to her power: appearances and alliances that must be upheld. One of them is Hodran, a rich rebel who wants to aid her cause, and another is Mikel, a loyalist farmer who wants to destroy it… and who just might be winning her heart at the same time.

By the time Trzl realizes she is in too deep, she has an infant son and a dark mess of betrayal and lies. She runs, to the farthest corner of the kingdom, in hopes she will be left alone with her child. But she has a few too many demons. Someone she once trusted takes her captive among the chilling Cliffs of Marek. She is thrown back into the political mess she helped create… at the mercy of a man she never wanted for an enemy.

Author Bio:
Obsessed with all things history, Rachel grew up reading adventure stories the caliber of Rafael Sabatini and only recently fell in love with fantasy as a genre. She lives in Maine with her husband and children, grows roses and tweets often. In addition to reading and writing, she loves coffee, spy series, and alternative rock.
Release DateAugust 6, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Reader Is Always Right

I received my editor's notes on SURVIVAL COLONY NINE yesterday.

She suggested a number of major changes concerning chronology, world-building, character relationships, narrative arc, plot developments, and more. My eyes nearly popped out of my head.

But the thing is, she's right about everything.

Which leads to the point of this post: the reader is always right.

I tell my students this when we're peer editing. I would say the same to any writer who's received a comment they didn't like from a critique partner or beta reader. I'd say the same to any writer, anywhere, any time.

The reader is always right.

Now, let's be clear about this. I'm not saying readers are always smarter than writers, or writers always have to listen to their readers. You're the writer, so you should, hopefully, be pretty smart and know your book pretty well. And if you don't like your reader's suggestions, don't follow them. The fact that the reader is always right does not obligate the writer always to follow the reader's advice.

In my case, of course, I'm going to follow the reader's advice. She's my editor. I'm trying to get a book published. I have one question for her concerning her comments, but once she clarifies that one point, I'm going to do as she says.

The way I'm going to do as she says is, of course, my own business. No one's telling me exactly how to make the changes I need to make.

She's just telling me I have to make them. And I will.

I think this is important advice for writers to learn. Many writers--students and otherwise--get all hot under the collar when anyone dares suggest there's something that could be improved about their brilliant prose. They storm, they pout, they sulk. And then they retaliate by not doing what their reader tells them to do. Or, worse, they refuse to show their work to readers at all, and they go ahead and self-publish something that's nowhere near ready. So there!

Yeah, that'll really show 'em.

As writers, I think we'd do ourselves a great service if we just remembered that the reader is always right. If we'd remember that, then we could focus on what we're supposed to do as writers. Not storm, pout, sulk, or retaliate. Not lash out at our readers. Not curl up into a little ball and hide from the reality of the writing life.

But listen to our readers.

And then write.

Friday, June 7, 2013

... And More Bad Writing Advice

Bad writing advice comes in all forms.

In some cases, as in yesterday's example, it was bad advice about the content of the writing.

In other cases, as today, it's bad advice about the path to publication.

This morning, I found this guest post in a blog I follow. I usually like this blog, so I don't want to suggest that it's a bad place to get writing advice. Usually, it's not.

Today, it is.

In the post, the author--who by no coincidence is a paid ghostwriter--suggests that everyone who's seeking an agent or a publisher had better first employ the services of, you guessed it, a paid ghostwriter. Here are her exact words:

You don't want your book to be passed over. So it's best to always hire a professional book editor to give your manuscript a thorough going-through before presenting it to an agent or publisher.

I'd suggest that if you do hire a professional book editor, you don't hire this one, who obviously doesn't know what a split infinitive is.

But leaving that aside, is her advice sound?

Well, it depends. She tells us later that "spending money on your book is worth it" in today's competitive marketplace. But she also tells us that the kind of services she's advertising can run anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 dollars. Do you know what the average advance for a debut author is?

I'll give you a hint: it ain't 50,000 dollars.

Look, there are some books that are in desperate need of editorial assistance.  There are some writers who don't write very well.

But those writers are probably not going to get published no matter how much someone else tinkers with their books. Those writers just aren't good enough.

Other writers can discover the weaknesses in their manuscripts with the assistance of unpaid critique partners or beta readers. And they can fix what's wrong themselves before subbing to an agent or editor.

Then there are some writers who are good enough to get published, but who need a paid editor to get a book into agent-or-publisher-ready shape. Those authors should consult their consciences and their pocket-books and make their own decision.

But to say it's "always" best to hire a paid editor is to put false hope in the minds of those writers who are unpublishable, while putting unnecessary fear into the minds of those writers who don't need to pay anyone.

And it's all done in the name of making a buck.

I'm an old-fashioned guy. I believe you don't lie to people or take advantage of them. In that respect, I guess I'm out of step with the whole capitalist mantra, which seems to be: anything goes.

So on the one hand, as a blogger, I'm thankful for all the bad advice out there. It gives me something to do. It keeps me in business (though obviously, I don't get paid for these posts).

But on the other hand, as a writer and a human being, it really ticks me off.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Problem with Paradise

The Eagles' song "The Last Resort" begins with these lines:

She came from Providence 
The one in Rhode Island
Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air.
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee
Just as her father came across the sea.

It's a song about emigration, about westward movement, the colonization (and destruction) of the continent.  With each westward move, to the farthest coast and then to the islands beyond, the colonists believe they've found Paradise, the ultimate place of rest and beauty.

But there's a problem: no sooner do they arrive than they begin to turn Paradise into a wasteland.

I was thinking about this song when I watched After Earth, the Will and Jaden Smith vehicle.  Not a bad film, as summer sci-fi fare goes; if you want a full review, check out my other blog, YA Guy.

But what got me thinking about the Eagles song as I watched this film was the theme of emigration and colonization, in this case emigration away from earth and colonization of distant planets.

In After Earth, humans have destroyed our home planet's environment, and so they leave, seeking a new, more hospitable planet.  It's a theme we've seen in a number of recent fantasy/sci-fi films: Avatar, Wall-E, Battle for Terra.  I wrote about those films here.

And what I wrote is that I find such films disturbing, because--for all their ostensible environmental awareness--they suggest that even if we trash this planet, there'll always be another planet waiting for us.

Some people actually believe this.  Should earth become uninhabitable, they say, we'll simply pull up roots and terraform the moon or Mars.  That such a feat is far beyond our current technologies isn't the main problem with such thinking.

The main problem is that, unless we can overcome such thinking, no matter where we go we'll start doing the same thing all over again.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Paradise: we don't really want to live in it.  We want to devour it and move on.

The Eagles song ends:

And you can see them there on Sunday morning
Stand up and sing about what it's like up there
They call it Paradise
I don't know why
You call someplace Paradise
Kiss it goodbye.

What's going to save us, if anything is, is not another place "after Earth."  There is no such place, or if there is, it won't be safe from us for long.

Paradise can't save us until we decide there's something worth saving.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Paying Our Dues

I got into it yesterday with my son's Little League coach. Not the regular coach, who was out of town; this was the assistant coach. I noticed he was playing all the younger kids (including my son) in the outfield every inning. The head coach's practice has been to switch the kids from infield to outfield each inning, his reasoning being that not much happens in the outfield in a league for 9 and 10-year-olds and it's only fair that they all get a chance to make some plays and learn some skills.

Apparently, not all coaches agree.

When I asked the assistant coach about it, he became irate, telling me the kids needed to "pay their dues" before they got a chance to play in the infield. He also told me it was because of parents like me that he hates coaching.

Personally, I think it's because he hates children that he hates coaching.

Because the absurdity of his "pay their dues" statement is so patent, I can only think he intensely dislikes the kids he's supposed to be nurturing.

"Paying your dues" is an expression from the business world, the working world, the professional world--the ADULT world.  It has nothing to do with children. Most of the kids in a league for 9 and 10-year-olds will never play beyond Little League; in fact, many of them won't even graduate to the league for 11 and 12-year-olds. They'll lose interest, move on to other sports, or simply be unable to keep up with the competition at the older levels. I played in recreational leagues until I was fifteen, which was pretty good--but then, I was pretty good. I had some friends who played on the high school team. I knew no one who played professionally. The odds against that are so steep--tens of millions of Little Leaguers, only a few thousand players in the majors--it's not even worth thinking about.

Little League is--or should be--about having fun, developing fundamental skills, getting kids to love and respect the game, learning teamwork, and all those things. It should not be about preparing players for professional careers. If a kid whose playing career is likely to last no more than two or three years has to "pay his dues" before getting his shot, when is he ever going to get that shot? How, for that matter, is he ever going to develop the skills he'd need in order to get it?

I wish I'd been able to say all these things to my son's coach. The situation being what it was, I did little more than sputter incoherently when he dropped his "pay their dues" bombshell on me. But I do believe it's because of people like him that so many kids find youth sports a source of anxiety and an occasion for tears, rather than a source of joy and an occasion for achievement.

But okay, this blog isn't about youth sports. It's mostly about writing. So what does this have to do with that?

I do believe writers have to pay their dues. Professional writers, that is. Many of us labor in obscurity for years before we make it big; most of us never make it big at all. And if we do make it big, it's because we worked our butts off, honed our craft, developed our abilities as self-promoters, cultivated a fan base, and so on and so forth. You think John Green came out of nowhere? You think Suzanne Collins did? You think even J. K. Rowling did? Maybe she didn't do a ton of writing before she penned her breakthrough novel, but she did a ton of living, and that's just as good, probably even better.

Rowling paid her dues.

As writers, we all need to pay our dues. We shouldn't expect overnight success. We need to be tough and prepared for disappointment, even for failure. We need to recognize that not all of us will make it to the Show.

But that's us. We're adults. We're professionals. We shouldn't let our own difficulties shape how we treat our kids.

Let's pay our dues. But let's let our kids play the game.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: JUST FOR KICKS by Racheal Renwick

Racheal Renwick’s enjoyable upper-MG novel Just for Kicks tells the story of teenager Meriwether Brookes, an orphan who can’t seem to stop herself from causing trouble at school and with her foster families.  When her latest prank gets her expelled and moved to a new temporary home, Meri’s life looks as if it’s going to continue its downward spiral.
But then Meri meets a girl who can fly.  And it turns out she’s not the only one with special talents.
Recruited to join a group of superhero teens, Meri is whisked away from her world to their hidden lair.  There she discovers her own surprising abilities (which I’m not about to divulge!), verbally spars with the group’s adult supervisor, Ox, and begins to fall for Eli, one of the boys in the group.  She also learns that her parents were superheroes too, killed by the renegade Super known as the Shadowmaker.  And perhaps most importantly, she learns that she alone possesses the power to defeat him.
The greatest strength of Just for Kicks is the character of Meri: full of energy and mischief, bristling with anger at her abandonment, and putting up a show of bravado to hide her feelings of worthlessness.  “I know I’m not a super-anything,” she remarks.  “I don’t deserve to be among people like this.  I couldn’t save the world if I tried.  I am, and will always be, a failure.”  Renwick supplies Meri with a voice that perfectly balances humor, defensiveness, and vulnerability: “I’ve never been a part of any clique before,” she comments of her new school.  “But I don’t think I’d want to; giggling’s not my thing, and I’m pretty sure that’s mandatory.”  Young readers will identify with this lonely girl’s desire for belonging, her wish to “finally be a real kid.”  But they’ll also note that “being a real kid” comes with a catch for Meri, who knows she’ll never fit in until she accepts her superpower—which also means accepting the responsibility of fighting the dreaded Shadowmaker.  The question of whether Meri will be able to overcome her past and embrace her new role in her foster family of Supers keeps the pages of Just for Kicks turning.

Though the writing of Just for Kicks is as lively as its main character, I felt the story moved a bit too fast, and I found myself wishing the author had spent more time describing the superheroes’ lair, the individual powers each teen possesses, and the nature of their world-within-our-world.  It’s perhaps inevitable that Just for Kicks will be compared to the Harry Potter series (orphaned hero trains at elite academy to cultivate world-saving power), and readers may find the alternate world of Renwick’s novel less well-developed than Rowling’s.  This is why one of my favorite scenes in Just for Kicks is the scene in which Meri’s power first manifests itself: it’s one of the most vivid, detailed, and well-realized scenes in the book, and it draws the reader right into Meri’s new world.

I could also wish that the book had a more unique and descriptive title; Just for Kicks didn’t seem to capture the character, the world, or the conflict satisfactorily.

But these are minor reservations about a fun, poignant, and exciting book.  Young readers will enjoy Just for Kicks, and they’ll look forward to reading more from Renwick’s inventive mind.

DISCLOSURE: The author received a free advance PDF of JUST FOR KICKS for review. The author's review is independent and unencumbered.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Story Time

I've been asked recently to share some of the old short stories I wrote back when I was using my pen name, J. David Bell, before I turned to novel-length YA fiction.

Looking over my oeuvre, I found two readily available stories (both were published online) that feature child protagonists and fantasy or science-fiction related material.  So I guess, in retrospect, I've been moving toward speculative YA all along!

The first story is called "A Chimaera Story with Four Morals."  It appeared a couple years ago in Jersey Devil Press.  It started out as a simple experiment in writing a very short story, but it refused to remain a mere experiment.

The second story is called "Cats in the Backyard," and it appeared in the journal Niteblade three years ago.  It's one of my favorite stories of all time--a hybrid of literary fiction, horror, and something else I can't quite put my finger on.  It was first written years ago--as many as 20 years ago--then set aside and reworked when I returned to writing fiction.

I'd love to hear some reactions to these older pieces!

The YA Guy Has Arrived!

I've started a new blog, "YA Guy," which will focus on YA fiction (especially, though not exclusively, YA fiction written by and for guys).  Check it out at:

"Bell's Yells" will continue to provide posts about writing, the environment, and other matters of importance in my life.  But if you're specifically interested in YA fiction, I encourage you to follow "YA Guy."

Looking forward to continuing to serve the blogging community, at least until my head explodes from running two blogs simultaneously!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bad Writing Advice, Part Two: Form Versus Formula

As a writing teacher, I frequently find that my students want to be given a formula for writing their papers.

Some of this may have to do with laziness or the desire to obtain an unearned grade.  Most of it, though, I believe derives from anxiety: the stakes are high, the process is arcane and unfamiliar, and it would greatly lighten the student's cognitive load if there were a simple, paint-by-numbers way to write a paper.

Unfortunately, of course, there isn't.

All art has form.  But no good art is formulaic.

To differentiate between the two, I use form to mean the shape or structure that emerges from the artwork itself.  Such a form will, of course, resemble the form that emerges from other artworks; no work of art creates an entirely new form.  But such repetition of conventional forms is not the same as a formula, by which I mean a predetermined shape or structure that is imposed on the artwork, whether it belongs there or not.

Pursue form, I tell students, but shun formula.

And so it's depressing to see how much writing advice on the internet seems to be pushing people toward formula--telling people, in fact, that if they nail down the "right" formula, they're virtually guaranteed success.

The problem with this kind of advice is twofold:

1. There is no magic formula.  The form that emerges naturally from one artwork will not be precisely the same as the form that emerges naturally from another.

2. When two prescribed formulas conflict--as they necessarily will--the writer is left confused, angry, and even more anxious than before.

To provide a small example of these problems, let's look at the advice on writing query letters, which represent an artform in themselves.  Such advice is all over the place, and some of it is quite good.  For example, the advice on writing queries in Agent is loose, relaxed, fun, and non-prescriptive; though it does provide a list of "do's" and "don't's," the tone of the article makes it pretty clear that the rules are made to be broken.  And the article provides lots of examples to show the variety of queries that can be successful.

But then there's this advice, from the normally redoubtable Huffington Post, which tells writers in no uncertain terms what they must never, ever include in a query letter:

Skip rhetorical questions or flashy introductions.  In the first few lines, agents are looking to get a sense of your book's genre and marketability, not your sense of humor, and definitely not to ponder the answers to any broad questions.

I'm reading this, and I'm thinking, "Huh?"

Agents don't appreciate a sense of humor?  Agents aren't intelligent people who like to ponder big questions?  Agents are all robots, clones, and/or idiots?

Perhaps more importantly: all queries have to look the same?  No query could possibly exist whose form demands humor, rhetorical questions, and/or pondering?

The trouble with this formula--or any formula--is that, while it might apply to some queries under some circumstances, it can't possibly apply to all queries under all circumstances.  If you're concerned about agents despising rhetorical questions, relax; you don't have to look far to find an agent who's okay with a good rhetorical question under the right circumstances, as evidenced by this post from Kristin Nelson.

If, on the other hand, you're worried about breaking some kind of law, offending the gods, or daring to do something different, I would also say, relax.

If the form demands something the formula prohibits, then the formula is wrong.

And that's the only formula I accept.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Black But Not Gay: The Jackie Robinson Story

Today I saw 42, the biopic about Jackie Robinson's first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Not a bad film; it did a fine job of showing Robinson's heroism, his struggles, his effect on other players and the game as a whole.  It could have used two or three fewer shots of doe-eyed children staring in rapt wonder while the soundtrack swelled, but aside from that, I thought it was a good piece of work.

There was one moment in the film, however, that I found odd and objectionable.  It occurs late in the film, when Robinson's white teammates have begun to accept having a black man on the team.  One of the white players asks Robinson why he always waits for the team to shower before taking his own shower, and when Robinson explains that he doesn't want to make anyone uncomfortable, the teammate says, "Take a shower with me."  He then twists himself into knots trying to explain that he doesn't really mean take a shower with me, but, you know, take a shower at the same time as the whole team.  Once that little misunderstanding is resolved, we get a shot of Jackie stepping into the shower room with the boys.

This scene, predictably enough, got a lot of laughs and disgusted noises from the audience--because, you know, it's okay to shower with a black man, but God forbid you should shower with a gay man.  Structurally, it's significant that only after the movie establishes that no straight player would consent to take a shower with a gay teammate is it possible to have the heartwarming scene of white players taking a shower with a black teammate.

What's going to happen when a gay man showers with straight men?  I'll tell you what's going to happen: nothing.  Given the numbers, I'm sure I've showered with lots of gay men, and none has assaulted me, propositioned me, or otherwise done anything inappropriate to me.  It's just a bunch of men taking a shower, after all.

It might be an exaggeration to say that gay athletes are the Jackie Robinsons of our day, though you could certainly make a case for it.  With pro basketball star Jason Collins coming out earlier this year, it may seem that this barrier in pro sports is about to come down as the racial barrier did almost seventy years ago.

But as 42 reminds us, we haven't quite rounded that base and headed for home yet.

Fourth Time's the Charm

I read a really interesting blog post yesterday about why it's so important to write multiple novels, even if the first two or three (or four, or five, or whatever) don't get published.

Personally, I couldn't agree more.  But my reasons for believing this are a bit different.

In my case, I wrote three novels before the one that sold, Survival Colony Nine.

Now, granted, the first was written when I was sixteen, the second when I was twenty-two, and the third, after an unbelievably long hiatus during which I pursued other writing projects, when I was forty-five.  If you're interested in the full story behind that, check out my post "The Things That Take a While."

But my point is this: sometimes, maybe most of the time, the first novel doesn't take.

When that happens, you're left with three options.

1. Keep working on that same novel, revising it, sending out queries, and (in all likelihood) getting rejections, until the day you die.

2. Decide that you're a pathetic hack because your first novel didn't get published, give up, and sell car insurance until the day you die.

3. Write another novel.  And another.  And another.  Until the day you... get published!

Look, there are no guarantees.  Novel #27 might not be any more publishable than Novel #1.  I've written two novels after Survival Colony Nine (one a sequel, one something entirely different), and I have no assurance that either or both will be published.

But that's not stopping me from beginning the next novel.

To me, in the end, it's less about "honing one's craft" than it is about being who I am.  The craft-honing is important, of course; it's quite likely that the reason Novel #4 is being published when Novels #1-#3 weren't is that my writing got better through practice and experience.

But if you think about writing only in terms of craft-honing, I think you're still missing the point, still focusing on the unknown future (publication) and not the moment (the act of writing, the fact of being a writer).  If you're really desperate to get published, anyone can do it through a variety of self- or vanity-publishing options, so that can't be the point either.

The point is that even if Survival Colony Nine hadn't sold, I would have kept writing.  Even if it ends up being the only novel of mine that sells, I'll keep writing.  Because that's what being a writer is all about.


Until the day you die.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Querying By the Numbers

This is going to be a really short post.  I was reading author Lydia Kang's blog post on "The Lucky 13s" website (blog for YA authors debuting in 2013), and I noticed she posted her querying stats.  Seemed like a good way to show people the realities of finding an agent, so I thought I'd do the same.

Here are my stats for Survival Colony Nine.  As you recall, I had two rounds of querying (one that resulted in finding my first agent, one that resulted in finding Liza), but I've combined the numbers for ease of reference.

And the numbers are (drum roll please)....

100 queries
11 requests (11%)
3 offers (3%)

These figures don't reflect some of the details, such as agents who never responded, agents from whom I withdrew my query or manuscript after I accepted an offer, and so on.  But the bottom line is, I queried 100 agents, 11% of whom requested the full manuscript (I received no partial requests), and 3% of whom (two the first round, Liza the second) offered representation.

I should also say that I have no idea how representative these numbers are.  Kang's numbers, for instance, are much better (more requests, more offers).  Other writers' numbers may be worse.

But that's not the point.  The point is simply this: it's tough out there.  Even successful searches ("successful" in the sense of obtaining an agent) are filled with rejection, anxious waiting, close-but-no-cigar moments, and general misery.

Whaddya gonna do, though?  It's the nature of the beast.

And by the way, while I have your attention, check out the website and Facebook page of the debut authors' group to which I belong, "OneFourKidLit," YA and MG authors debuting in 2014.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Agents Who Rock

My previous post, "Agents Who Suck," described my experience with my first agent, who sucked.

Clever title, no?

Today's post concerns my current agent, Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency, who does NOT suck.  In fact, she rocks.

You can see where I'm going with this, right?

For every sucky agent, there's a rocking agent (or maybe two or three).  And it's our job as writers to figure out which ones are which.

For the benefit of everyone who's trying to sort this out, especially debut authors, here's how I knew (and know) that Liza rocked (and rocks).

1. She genuinely fell in love with my book.

As in, genuinely fell in love with it.  No ranting and raving (like the previous, sucky agent) about how great it was and how it was going to set the world on fire.  Just her own, personal, sincere love of the book.  That's what you want in an agent: genuine love, not a bat-signal in the sky and a three-ring circus.

2. She never leaves me hanging.

To this day, every time I call or email Liza, I get a reply within a day (usually more like within minutes).  With the sucky agent, I waited days, weeks, months.

3. She has a sense of humor about the process.

You'd have to talk to her to know Liza's particular brand of humor, but as a general rule, I'd advise hooking up with an agent who finds the process at least partly bizarre and amusing.  Sucky agent was a nail-biting worry-wart who treated everything as if it was a major offensive in a world war.  I wanted to say to her, for heaven's sake, we're just trying to get a book published here.

4. She's a rock.

There are days when I, like all writers, feel really low.  Even after my book was accepted for publication, I had those days.  They happen.  As writers, we're allowed to have those days.  Agents are allowed to have them too--but they're not allowed to dump them on their clients.  Sucky agent did.  Liza doesn't.

5. She doesn't bullshit you.

From the get-go, Liza struck me as someone I could trust absolutely--no hidden agendas, no games, no shenanigans.  She doesn't praise when no praise is due, and she doesn't dangle promises she can't deliver.  For sucky agent, take everything I just said and reverse it.

So there you have it, folks.  If this post seems more effusive than the norm, that's because I'm so pleased to have found an agent who is all of the above.  If you can't say the same about your agent, then in my humble opinion you need to keep searching.

We all owe it to ourselves to find our Liza.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Agents Who Suck

In a previous post, "Double Agent," I talked about my less-than-positive experience with the first agent for my debut novel, Survival Colony Nine.  Fortunately, as I detailed there, the story had a happy ending for me, as I fired the first agent and found another who's been supportive and effective (and who's responsible for the book securing a publisher).

But sometimes, even today, I ask myself: should I have seen the warning signs with the first agent before I committed to her?  Could I have acted differently and not wasted three or four months of my writing life?  Could I have bypassed an ineffective agent and found my current agent more quickly?

I don't know.

The problem with bad agents--by which I mean ineffective agents, not unscrupulous ones, because I don't believe my first agent was unscrupulous--is that they don't advertise their badness up front.  Their ineffectiveness might not be apparent until after you sign with them.  In fact, there are agents who aren't "bad" in the general sense but who, for whatever reason, just don't work out with a particular writer.

This problem, I think, is particularly acute for debut authors.  We're just so darn excited to have an agent make an offer, it can be especially difficult to sort out the bad from the good.

So for what it's worth, here are the things I wish I'd thought about last year, before I signed.  I offer this list in addition to all the other information that's out there about choosing an agent (e.g., make sure the agent has a record of recent sales in your genre, etc.).  This list grows out of my own experience as a debut.  And it's not all about the agent; it's at least half (maybe more than half) about me.  My hope is that it'll be helpful to someone else.

1. Enthusiasm is great, but let's be realistic.

In our very first conversation, before she'd even read the full manuscript, BA (Bad Agent) was raving about my book, asking if it was part of a series, talking about movie rights.  That might have meant she was genuinely blown away by the book.  But it might also have meant she was desperate, naive, inexperienced, or deranged.  As a debut, it's easy to get your head turned, so I'd be cautious about agents who come on too strong.

2. Agents had better be good readers.

In a later conversation, I found it puzzling when BA had trouble remembering the names of characters in my book, but I didn't make a big deal of it.  I said to myself, "Well, she reads a lot, there are a lot of unfamiliar names in this futuristic novel, so it's not surprising she can't instantly call them to mind."  In retrospect, I think that was a mistake on my part; I think her fuzziness about details meant she hadn't read the book closely enough, and that should have been a warning sign.

3. Listen to others.

Being a good boy, I dutifully contacted the clients to whom BA connected me.  But oddly enough, when those clients offered only lukewarm praise, I ignored them.  I rationalized, read between the lines, tried to come up with excuses that would quell the nagging doubts in my mind.  None of them had said she was bad; they just hadn't praised her to the skies.  I should have asked them point-blank why they hadn't.  And if BA herself couldn't come up with anyone who would praise her to the skies, I should have asked her point-blank for an explanation too.

4. Fear breeds bad decisions.

I see now that one of the main reasons I accepted BA's offer is that I was afraid: afraid that if she didn't represent me, no one else would.  This being the first offer I'd received, I told myself it was the only offer I would receive; even though I had another agent interested in looking at the book, I turned her down and went with BA.  This, of course, represented flawed thinking on my part; I should have realized that if the book wasn't good enough to attract another agent, chances are it wasn't good enough to be sold.  It's very hard, especially for a debut, to turn down an offer.  But sometimes, that's the best thing to do.

5. First drafts aren't best drafts.

This, I think, is the hardest lesson.  Every writer knows that the first thing you produce isn't likely to be your best.  Early drafts need lots of work before they're ready for submission, much less publication.  But what if the same is true of agents?  What if the first offer should be subjected to particular scrutiny, because it's the first?  Had someone told me this a year ago, I probably would have dismissed it: to me, and I suspect to many debut authors, the first offer is uniquely special, the act that confirms one's legitimacy as a writer.  To question it is tantamount to questioning oneself.  But maybe, for that very reason, one should question it.  In my case, I should have grilled BA.  I should have been a hard-ass.  I should have made sure she passed every test I threw at her, and then I should have thrown three more tests at her just for good measure.  If, at the end of that process, I wasn't satisfied, I should have declined representation and continued my search.

The common thread in the above remarks is that insecurity and inexperience--the two factors every debut author faces--need to be countered by reason and willpower.  Don't believe every glowing word an agent says.  Don't be reluctant to challenge an agent if s/he commits strange gaffes concerning your book.  Don't accept anything less than the best from the agent or anyone else associated with him/her.  Don't tell yourself s/he's the only agent in the world for you.  Don't confuse first with best.

In the end, though there are certainly agents who suck, it's the author's responsibility to find one who doesn't.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ray Harryhausen, The Master of Fantasy

He died Tuesday, at the age of 92.  I don't follow the obituaries, but my dad, roughly ten years Ray's junior, does.  He called to tell me of the master animator's death.

There has been much written about Ray, and so I have no intention of providing a biography of the man.  Nor is this post meant to be a eulogy.  It's simply a personal reflection from one of the countless thousands of fans whose lives Ray touched.

When I was a child, my favorite movie was King Kong (1933).  It still is, in fact.  That's one thing Ray and I shared.

Another was our love of fantasy.  At the age of ten, I received a book titled From the Land Beyond Beyond, a guide to the films of Ray and his mentor, King Kong animator Willis O'Brien.  I read it so many times the cover came off, and had to be reattached with Scotch tape (the old kind, the kind that yellowed and cracked after a few years).  It's still on my bookshelf--as, in DVD and Blu-Ray where available, are all of Ray's films.

They're all great.  My favorite is Jason and the Argonauts, but The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Twenty Million Miles to Earth are close seconds.  When I wrote my own book on fantasy film, Framing Monsters, I noted the absence of Ray's films in scholarly treatments of the genre and included a chapter of my own on the Sinbad trilogy.  The book received mostly positive reviews, but even the less positive ones singled out the Ray chapter as the book's high point.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a stop-motion animator.  Turns out the industry left that dream behind, and had I stuck with the craft of motion pictures, I'd likely have become a CGI artist, one of the thousands whose names roll past in big-budget movies like The Hobbit and Iron Man 3.

Ray was different.  Working solo, he created life.

There's really no way I can sum up my feelings about Ray.  He was--and is--one of my heroes, one of the people who absolutely made me who I am today.  He was--and is--the single greatest magician the cinema has ever known, or ever will.

I've been in the habit of dedicating my books to influential people in my life who are no longer with me.  My first academic book was dedicated to my grandparents, my second to a dear friend who died young, my third to a college mentor.  I've wondered whether to continue this practice when my debut novel appears next year, and if so, to whom the book should be dedicated.

But there's no longer any question about that.

It's Ray.

Taken by TAKEN

While waiting for my own debut YA sci-fi novel, Survival Colony Nine, to come out, I've been reading as many debut YAs as I can get my greedy little hands on.  Most that I've read have been good.  But there are some I've been wanting to read more than most.

Erin Bowman's Taken falls into that category.  I'm not sure what grabbed me when I first heard about it.  Maybe it's the premise: a small town in the future where males mysteriously vanish at the age of eighteen.  Maybe it's the really cool cover.  Maybe it's that the author replies to all my tweets.

I don't know.  Whatever it is, I was really looking forward to Taken.

And now that I've read it, I'm happy to report....  It's really good.

The premise, as I said, is intriguing: in the town of Claysoot, there are no adult males, because all boys disappear in a bright beam of light on the day of their eighteenth birthdays.  This disappearance, which the townspeople call "The Heist," is completely unexplained--because once you're Heisted, you're gone for good.  The story begins as seventeen-year-old Gray Weathersby awaits the Heist of his older brother Blaine.  Once Blaine is gone, further unexplained events lead Gray to climb the wall surrounding Claysoot in search of answers.  No one's ever come back from climbing the wall.  But maybe Gray will be different....

Well, of course he'll be different, or there'd be no story.  I'm not going to give anything else away, but suffice it to say he makes it over the wall and discovers a lot of really wild stuff.

Taken is impressive in a number of ways.  The writing is crisp and clean, the characters are well rendered, the pace is fast (a bit too fast; Gray's impulsiveness sometimes seems excessive), and the world is suitably original.  At first I thought it was rather derivative of The Hunger Games--the Heist seemed reminiscent of the Reaping, while the main character, Gray, is a feisty hunter who favors the bow and arrow and whose relationship with his sibling is central to the plot--but Bowman takes the story in new and surprising directions.  The revelation of the mystery behind the Heist wasn't quite as awesome as I'd hoped it would be, but it was awesome enough.  Especially for a debut, Taken was good stuff.

And even better, I get to meet Bowman in a few weeks at a Young Adult authors tour.  I can purchase my autographed copy, talk a little shop, and thank her in person for her book--and for replying to all my tweets.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Twitter, She Wrote!

As I become more adept at Twitter--at least I think I'm becoming so--I find myself more curious about its properties, its qualities, its vagaries.  I suppose this is the way it is with any new skill: once one masters it to a sufficient extent, some of the energy that was previously expended on the brute act of doing can be diverted into reflection about the doing.

And so I find myself pondering the widespread use among tweeters of a punctuation mark most writers eschew: the exclamation point.

I use exclamation points all the time in my tweets.  So do lots of others.  They're everywhere!

But, like most writers, I use them sparingly in my other forms of writing (including this blog).  In fifteen years of academic writing, I'd be surprised if I used a single exclamation point.  In fiction, I do use them occasionally, though exclusively in quoted dialogue; somehow, the words "Watch out.  A monster is about to eat your face." just don't cut it.

However, I've been taught--and I tend to agree--that over-use of exclamation points is a crutch, a way of manufacturing apparent excitement when the writing itself isn't particularly exciting.  This is the only thing I find problematic about J. K. Rowling's otherwise excellent prose; when you've got dialogue like "'YOU KILLED MY PARENTS, YOU EVIL SNAKE-MONGER!!!!' Harry yelled loudly," you begin to feel the lady doth protest too much.

But okay, if we're so exclamation-point averse in our other writing, why are we so exclamation-point prone in Twitter?

Maybe it's because, constrained by the small size of each tweet, we're desperate for something to give our words punch.

Or maybe it's because we know we're competing with a feed containing thousands if not millions of comparably small, in-themselves-unexciting nuggets.  So we're clamoring to be heard above the racket.

Or maybe it's the relative anonymity of Twitter.  I'm beginning to develop some fun, playful, bantering kinds of relationships with the people I follow and/or who follow me, but still, these relationships are, by definition, mediated and thus not intimate.  So it's no biggie if I engage in exclamation-point-overkill; no one's going to hold it against me.

Or maybe, as a final suggestion, it's because tweeting, like so many of our forms of communication in this virtual age, possesses a certain unreality, a certain artifice, that we resort to the readiest (and stingiest) symbol of emphasis, the exclamation point.  Maybe, by ending every sentence with that familiar vertical-and-dot, what we're really saying is, "Look!  What I have to say is real!"

And if that's what we're doing, maybe we need to go back to the writing-advice manual and recall that we can't manufacture reality typographically.  It needs to be there in the first place.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Pantsers of the World, Unite!

A Facebook friend asked me to post on the topic of writing without a plan.  Ever eager to oblige, here goes....

Conventional wisdom holds that when it comes to drafting, there are two kinds of writers: Planners and Pantsers.

The former plan everything out.  The latter fly by the seat of their pants.

Now, like most dichotomies, this one falls apart in actual practice.  There's no writer so organized that s/he doesn't wing it sometimes, nor is there any writer so carefree that s/he doesn't plan sometimes.

However, if we're thinking not in terms of absolutes but in terms of tendencies and dispositions, it's certainly true that some writers lean more toward the Planner side, while others incline more toward the Pantser side.

I'm more of a Pantser.  I like to discover what I'm writing while I'm writing it.  Part of this comes from my history as a teacher, where I've had plenty of opportunity to watch emergent writers discover their skills, their ideas, their point of view over the course of a semester or a paper or a paragraph.

But my Pantser-ish tendencies are also a matter of disposition: I find it boring and tedious to plan everything out.  I find that it limits my creativity rather than liberating it.  I know I'm going to change everything anyway, so why bother?

Case in point: my forthcoming YA novel, Survival Colony Nine, started only with a setting (post-apocalyptic desert world), a name (Querry), and a relationship (father-son).  After a few pages an antagonist emerged: the creatures I call the Skaldi.  After 150 pages or so, I decided I needed to be a bit clearer in my own mind about where the story was headed, so I wrote a series of 2-sentence summaries for the remaining chapters.  Shortly thereafter, I also decided I needed to be clear about the physical layout of an important plot space, so I drew a map.  Finally, as the character list grew, I typed up a running roster of their names.

But that was the extent of my planning.  The rest emerged through the writing and revision.

And oh, did it ever emerge through the writing and revision!  The narrator's voice settled into a rhythm, new characters popped up, relationships among existing characters morphed and solidified, the nature of the Skaldi became clear, the history of the world came into focus, and so on and so forth.  The stuff I'd planned out changed radically while I was writing it (I ended up scribbling changes on the original print-out), and even more radically through five complete revisions: one chapter vanished entirely, two others fused, scenes from still others were created anew or modified or deleted or moved.

In short, I found out what I was trying to say in the act of trying to say it.  The book ended up in a place I never anticipated when I started it, but I'm very happy with where it ended up.

Another case in point: the sequel to Survival Colony Nine, the working title of which is Scavenger of Souls.  When I started, I had only that title, which sounded kind of cool to me.  I also knew I had to take my narrator to a new place, both physically and emotionally; I had to open up his world to new vistas, new possibilities, new threats and challenges.  But what any of those things was going to be, I had very little idea.

I'm now two-thirds of the way through the manuscript-in-progress, and I have a pretty good idea of it all.  But there's still room for surprise and discovery.

The bottom line is this: there is no "right" way to write a novel.  (Or a poem, or a play, or an essay, or an anything.)  In a previous post, "Wake Up and Smell the Novels," I harped at overly restrictive advice about how to structure one's novel; here, I would emphasize that the same applies to how one writes one's novel.

If you're a Planner, you must have a good reason to be so.  If you're a Pantser, same deal.  Don't try to be a Planner when you're a Pantser at heart just because somebody in publishing told you you have to be.  And don't try to write by the seat of your pants if, deep down, you thrive on the planning process.

Be grateful that in writing, as in life, there are many roads to the realization of your dreams.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Part-Time Full-Time Writer

I'm a full-time writer.  But I write part-time.


Let me explain.

I've got a full-time job which, for the most part, pays the bills.  (My advance for my debut YA novel should come in handy when it arrives, but it's not going to keep me afloat forever.)  I seriously envy those writers whose fame and/or life circumstances and/or willpower and/or ability to give up creature comforts enable them to forego the "pay-the-bills" job.  Those people are awesome.

But they're not me.

When my daughter was a baby, I had a part-time job that enabled me to stay home with her two out of five weekdays.  I'm so glad I had that opportunity.  She's not a baby anymore, but we're still very close, and I'm convinced those early daddy days are what cemented our relationship.

Now, though, I teach full-time.  I have summers off and all that, but during the school year, I'm on campus most of the week.  And my circumstances don't enable me to change that--or at least, not without changing the living conditions of three additional people whose needs and desires I don't feel it's my right to ignore.

So I write part-time.  But I'm a full-time writer.

This means two things to me:

First, when I have the time to write, I write as if it's the only thing in my life.  I concentrate on the writing, logging as much solid, uninterrupted time at the keyboard as I possibly can.  I find music and television (not to mention Facebook, Twitter, and other social media) distracting when I write, so I resist the impulse to have noise in the background and multiple windows open on the computer.  When I'm writing, I write.

But more importantly, when I say I'm a full-time writer, I mean that writing is one of the things--though not the only thing--that defines me as a person, full-time.  It's the same, actually, as being a father: though I'm not with my kids every moment of the day (for which, I assure you, they're profoundly grateful), there's never a moment of any day that I don't think of myself as a dad.  Same with being a husband.  Like most married people, my wife and I are only together part-time, thanks to jobs and family and friends and so forth.  But I'm never not a husband.  It's who I am.

I'm also never not a fan of fantasy literature and film, never not a social activist and environmentalist, never not a teacher, never not a lover of language and bad jokes and frogs and gorillas.  I may never see another frog or gorilla in my life--though the former are pretty numerous at the pond near my home--but I've always loved them, and I love them every moment of my life to this day.

Writing can't be a full-time job for everyone.  But that doesn't mean you can't be a full-time writer.

Monday, April 29, 2013

(Self)-Publish or Perish?

I've been thinking a lot lately about self-publishing.

Let me correct that.

I've been thinking a lot lately about NOT self-publishing.

Many of the people I follow or who follow me on Twitter are self-published.  Some are experiencing great success; others aren't.  For those who are, I could not be more thrilled.  For those who aren't, I could not be more hopeful.

But have I thought about self-publishing my own creative works?

Not for a second.

Lest you fear that this is going to turn into some kind of rant against self-publishing, rest assured, it's not.  I don't believe that self-published work is inherently or universally inferior to traditionally published work, nor do I believe that self-publishing is going to destroy traditional publishing or tear apart the fabric of the nation.  Truth be told, traditional publishing is far more likely to destroy itself than to be destroyed by some boogie-man.

No, for me, it's just a personal preference, based on my own sense of self.

For me, there are two major factors that determined my pursuit of traditional publication for my debut novel, Survival Colony Nine, and that will, unless something drastic changes, determine my course in the future as well.


As anyone who knows me will tell you, I'm not the world's most outgoing person.  I'm okay at presenting myself in public, but not so okay at selling myself.  I could probably get better.  In fact, I've been working on it, with (I think) some success.  By the time my book comes out in 2014, I expect to be even better.

But I'll never be as good as some people, people to whom it either comes more naturally or who are willing or able to work harder at it than I am.  In my case, I feel it's essential to have the support of other professionals whose business it is to sell authors and books.

Don't get me wrong.  I know that, these days, authors can't sit back and expect the publisher's promo machine to do everything (which is one reason I might end up employing the services of a publicist).  But for purely personal reasons, I know I'd feel totally at a loss if I were largely or solely responsible for marketing, advertising, and selling the fruits of my creative labor.


I started out in academic publishing, where no matter how good your manuscript may be, lots of other scholars and critics are going to weigh in on it before it sees the light of day.  I'm comfortable with that model; it makes sense to me as a teacher and writer.  I believe it's vitally important to have fellow readers--and, given my background, to me that means "expert readers"--making editorial judgments.  As with the promotional side of things, so with the writing side: I don't want to go it alone.

Now, of course, self-published authors don't have to go it alone.  There are beta readers, friends and fellow writers, editors for hire, and so forth.  All of these people can help the self-published author, if s/he so chooses, to improve her/his work.

But I know myself.  Much as I believe in the power of outside opinions, I know that my desire to get my book out there might overcome my good sense.  I know I might be inclined to cut corners: skip the beta readers, or ignore editorial advice, or simply be lazy with my own revisions.  I know I need someone to push me to make my writing as good as it can be--someone who simply will not publish my book if it's NOT as good as it can be.

Hence my decision to travel the traditional route.  I could, if I chose, ignore my beta readers.  But I can't ignore my agent and my editor.  If the former doesn't like my manuscript, it doesn't get subbed.  And if the latter doesn't like my manuscript, it doesn't get published.  So in my case, I feel I need the gate-keepers, the categorical imperatives that traditional publishing provides, to make sure I don't cut corners.

I don't want this to sound as if I see the traditional publishing system as a crutch for lazy writers, any more than I see the self-publishing system as a short-cut for poor writers.  Neither characterization is accurate.  My point is simply that each writer has to determine for herself or himself which route is best.

And this means, in the end, that each writer needs to know herself or himself, both strengths and weaknesses.  You can't let either success stories or horror stories decide for you.

If you do, you may never publish.  And your creative spark may very well perish.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Keeping It Real

An interesting conversation on Twitter (started by Erin Whalen) got me thinking about where my ideas for fiction originate.  Do I start with the characters, the plot, or the setting?  Most people in this conversation were character or plot devotees, but I have to admit I'm a setting guy.

Maybe this is because I write mostly speculative fiction, which puts a premium on where things take place.  The fictional world isn't our world, and so it's particularly important for the author to visualize it distinctly and to know it intimately.

And that's what tends to happen in my creative process: I see a place that I think would be interesting, then I ask myself what kinds of characters would be there, and why.  From that, character and plot flow more or less naturally.

An example is my forthcoming novel Survival Colony Nine.  I couldn't get the image out of my head of a wasteland world, a desert setting sparsely populated by small roving groups of people.  The questions of how the world got that way, who these people were, what they lacked and wanted, what obstacles stood in the way to their achieving their desires, and how they might overcome these obstacles all developed from that original image, which I quote here as it appears in the manuscript's current form:

The world stretched in an endless circle of dust around me, broken only by the shapes of ragged tents and squat, rusted trucks.  Both were patterned with camouflage colors.  Everything else was a dead reddish-brown, the color of dried blood under fingernails.  The sky was a uniform brown so similar to the land my head spun with the feeling that the solid ground was only a reflection.  The heat felt like a blanket wrapped around my hands, my eyes, my throat.

That setting was enough to propel me into the story of fourteen-year-old Querry Genn and his colony, Survival Colony Nine, as they struggle for existence in a ruined world overrun by the monstrous antagonists I call the Skaldi.

I wrote in a previous post about the risks of "info-dumping," or revealing too much about the fictional world in a single lump of information.  But balanced against that risk is the need for the author--and particularly the author of speculative fiction--to have all that information in mind.  Indeed, I've found that the more I know about my own setting, the less inclined I am to dump what I know on the reader all at once; if I feel confident in the setting, I also feel confident in letting it emerge slowly and organically.

So let's hear it for setting!  Plot is what makes readers keep reading your book, and characters are what make them fall in love with it--but setting is what keeps it real.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Remembering E. L. Konigsburg

I was greatly saddened by the news that two-time Newberry Medal-winning author E. L. Konigsburg died Friday.  I remember her novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968) as one of the books that made me believe, way back when, that I might grow up to be an author.

I don't recall the exact age at which I read Mixed-Up Files.  I was probably 9 or 10.  It was certainly before I encountered J. R. R. Tolkien (at age 13), another huge influence.  My old copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have been lost and replaced, but my original paperback copy of Konigsburg's book is still on my shelves.  A few years ago, I read it aloud to my daughter.  With any luck, it'll still be on my shelves when it's time to read to my grandchildren.

Like all kids who dream of being writers, I read a lot.  I read whatever I could get my hands on, whether that was fantasy, sci-fi, history, travel, memoir, or anything else.  My mom seemed to buy a lot of books for my little sister, so I read a lot of what she had on her shelf, which meant a lot of Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Roald Dahl.  (My older brother read nothing but sports biographies, one of the few genres that left me cold.)  I assume Mixed-Up Files was another book I nabbed from my sister, along with such titles as Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Charlotte's Web.

Even though I was reading it, I didn't know at that time that there was a genre called "middle grade" or "young adult" literature.  Maybe the terms hadn't yet been developed by the industry.  All I knew was that certain books resonated with me, inspired me.  Made me say, "Man, I wish I had written that!"

Mixed-Up Files was at the top of that list.  It blew me away.  It was a coming-of-age story, a mystery, an adventure novel, an introduction to art history (I'd never heard of Michelangelo before), and more all at once.  The story seemed so simple--two kids run away and hide out in a museum--but at the same time it amazed me how much surprise, insight, and raw life Konigsburg wrung out of that premise.  I loved the characters, especially Claudia; I think I even had a little crush on her.  The story turned out exactly as I felt it had to, and yet still it made me feel as if I'd never seen the end coming.  To this day, I'm not sure how Konigsburg pulled it off.

There are so many favorite passages I could pull from this book, but here's one that strikes a particular chord for me:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal.  But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.  And you can feel it inside you.  If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.  You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.  It's hollow.

As a teacher, a parent, a writer, and a human being, that passage speaks to me strongly, tells me what kind of life I want to live.

Thank you, E. L. Konigsburg, for giving this to me.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Info-Dumping

I was thinking about the subject of this post recently, while reading a futuristic YA novel.  Good story, interesting premise, tense and intense opening scene.  And then, just as the scene got REALLY gripping....


It stopped everything cold.  It lasted only a page or so, during which time the author filled us in on the history of the world that had brought the protagonist to this moment in time.  But for me, it killed the scene.  I wish the author had let us find out organically, as the plot unfolded, how the world had come to be.

That, to me, is the definition of an info-dump.  Providing information isn't bad in itself; in fact, providing information is precisely what novels do.  But when the information appears grafted onto the plot, or distracts from it, or reeks of "my readers might not know what's going on, so I'd better tell them," it's an info-dump, and it's generally a bad idea.

To give a personal example, here's a draft of a scene I wrote for a novel titled Ecosystem.  This scene occurs early in the novel--maybe ten pages in--and I tried to insert the information more "naturally" into the story by presenting it as someone's speech to an audience.  But I still think it's an info-dump.


I am first of the Sensors to return.  Not surprisingly, as my circuit was by far the shortest, my track the safest.  A hundred rods into the forest beyond the sward, a quick kill, the same distance back.  The others will have gone deep into the Ecosystem, to places of which I have only heard, places I can only imagine.  In time, if I’m successful, I will seek out those places as well, where the game is thickest and the dangers greatest.  In time, if I live to Aaron’s age, I will train the next generation of Sensors to plunge into the Ecosystem’s everchanging maze.

But today, I will celebrate.  The village will celebrate.  They will celebrate me.

They will meet as always in the great hall, the entire community gathered as one, with the exception of those few assigned this day to ward the periphery.  In the flagstone hearth they will light the fire that is the Ecosystem’s chief grievance against the village, that and the cutting tools with which the threshers keep the greensward from encroaching on the pavilion of stone.  The Sensors will step forward to be acknowledged, to bask in the village’s thankfulness for the risks they take on the commoners’ behalf.  In their identical uniforms of close-fitting brown fur, cut short to expose muscled arms and long legs, the Sensors will stand in a line, aloof, imperturbable, their Sense of the Ecosystem removing them always from the community they are pledged to serve.  And for the first time, wearing the same uniform as they, I will stand among them.

Then Chief Warden Daniel will deliver the customary address, rehearsing our history, reminding the populace of how the Sensors came to be.  He will talk of the old days, when humans were numerous and powerful, when their cities stretched for miles across a landscape subdued by machines.  He will speak of species driven to extinction by the hand of man, of habitats despoiled, life’s essence corrupted.  For us who have known only the Ecosystem these past thousand generations, such a picture will seem fanciful, but none of us will laugh.  And then he will tell of the rise of the Ecosystem, how unseen and undreamed of by those who thought they had secured Earth’s domination, the innumerable threads of life and will knitted themselves into one, sentience burgeoning from dim, disparate signals to full roaring consciousness.  He will speak of cities overwhelmed by jungle, of food sources turned to deadly poisons and others to deadly predators, of virulent pathogens borne by vermin and birds and insects and cultivated crops, of newly weaned livestock feasting on their owners’ blood.  It was a coordinated attack, and it succeeded.  It gave birth to the world we know, a world in which the Ecosystem rules and we who were once its masters hide in its angry shadow.

Then Daniel will talk of the relearning, how the few who were left discovered a Sense of the Ecosystem’s will, and in so doing found ways not so much to fight back but simply to survive, to establish small enclaves the Ecosystem could not breach.  These few were the first Sensors, and as they gathered the people around them there grew the first villages of stone, the first walls and firewells, the first masters and apprentices.  But the Sensors, Daniel will tell us, were meant not to rule but to serve, and once they had established those first villages they willingly relinquished their authority to become what they are today: messengers and mediums, interpreters of the Ecosystem so finely attuned to its ways only they can pass safely through its winding passages in the daily hunt for food, drink, and fuel.  They are selfless, Daniel will say, so selfless they have agreed to serve the communities of which they can never fully be a part, the communities where they can never know the joys of love and family and children.  Perhaps, he will say, his lips curling in a grateful smile, it is their selflessness that is their Sense, their abjuring of mortal pleasures that enables them to project themselves into the Ecosystem and know its will.  Perhaps, too, it is this quality that makes them immune to the Ecosystem’s snares: for when they enter it, they enter it without the concentration of self that marks other humans as objects of the Ecosystem’s rage.

When he is finished the community will applaud, and I will glance at the other Sensors who stand silently around me, and wonder if, like me, they doubt this portrait Daniel has drawn of our class.  I’ll wonder if it is me alone who draws the Ecosystem’s fire, who taunts it, who hates it beyond all measure for what it has done.  And I will wonder too if it hates me with a special fury, if it knows me not just as a human, not just as a Sensor, but as the particular concentration of self that is me.
But I will voice none of these thoughts.  As the village's newest Sensor, I will step forward....
From "Then Chief Warden Daniel" on, the info-dump takes over, not relenting until the paragraph beginning "But I will voice none of these thoughts" returns us to the narrative.  It's too much, too soon.  It tells the reader so much about the history of this world, s/he might reasonably feel there's little point in reading on; what's left to discover?
It's no good, and the simple solution was to take it out (which I did) and let the reader discover the world's history through action, dialogue, and context.  I kept the info-dump in a separate file in case I needed it later, but the truth is, everything I said in it emerged much more plausibly and inobtrusively elsewhere in the book, so I never needed it after all.
So, what do you think?  How do you define or deal with info-dumping?  Why is it so easy to fall into that trap?  I'd love to hear what others think.