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.