Saturday, May 9, 2015

GUEST POST: "From Adult Thrillers to Kid Thrillers: 10 Steps to Writing Scary for Kids" by Donna Galanti

Do you love to be scared? I do, as long as I know it’s in a safe environment. Haunted houses. Hayrides. Rollercoasters. Adventure rides.

I got so scared once in a haunted house that I whacked the “ghosts” with the teddy bear from my costume. The management turned on all the lights and asked me to leave! Just last Halloween my friend dared me to do Terror Behind the Walls at Eastern State Penitentiary. Here we are getting our scare on (and it was scary!). I was very proud that I didn’t whack anyone this time. 

But I still get scared of real places in my old age. Of the dark garage. Of the creepy cellar. Of nighttime when taking the trash cans out. My heart pip-pops waiting for that creature or boogeyman to grab me. I know he could be! My imagination tells me so.

So it’s no wonder that I love to write stories that scare. I started out writing thrillers for grownups with my Element Trilogy and along the way fell in love with writing for kids. But could I transition writing dark thrillers for older folks to writing thrillers for tweens?

Lots of authors do it. John Grisham moved into the children’s market by writing thrillers for kids – so have James Patterson, James Rollins, and David Baldacci. One of my favorite magical thrillers for kids is The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. Some of my favorite new kid thrillers are The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen and The Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan.

And as my son became an avid and selective reader, I discovered that kids love to be scared not just in movies but in books too. I started reading some of the books my son had on his bookshelf like Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan, Joshua Dread by Lee Bacon, and Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo. In doing this I began to see patterns in these kid adventure tales – and I began applying what I learned to create my own stories.

My 10-step guide for writing scary thrillers for kids:

  1. Put the kids in charge. Kids don’t want to read about grownups having adventures.
  2. Which leads into…have the kids figure out how to take the bad guys down – not grownups. Kids want to see themselves as the hero, not Mom or Dad or their teacher.
  3. Whatever scary situations they find themselves in – they must navigate their way out.
  4. Don’t dwell on the dark stuff. Make it happen fast without gory detail – kids can use their imagination.
  5. Give them friends in their travels. Life is hard without friends! And a kid needs friends to help him along his scary adventure.
  6. Through story events have the kids discover their own strength and courage to overcome bad things happening to them.
  7. Make all seem lost! End the chapters on cliffhangers to encourage kids to want to keep turning the pages and find out what happens next.
  8. Have it work out in the end, or at least partially, even if all seems doomed for a while.
  9. Add humor! Interjecting a dollop of funny can alleviate the tension in the scariest of scenes and lighten the moment.
  10. Make it a series! Have a final resolution to the story but leave it open for more stories down the road for the characters. Kids love to follow their beloved characters into new adventures.

Check out my book trailer. Do you think it promises the elements of a kid’s thriller?

Writing thrillers for adults or thrillers for kids employs many of the same elements, but writing for kids is just more fun!

About Donna:
Donna Galanti attended an English school housed in a magical castle, where her wild imagination was held back only by her itchy uniform (bowler hat and tie included!). There she fell in love with the worlds of C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, and wrote her first fantasy about Dodo birds, wizards, and a flying ship. She’s lived in other exotic locations, including Hawaii where she served as a U.S. Navy photographer. She now lives with her family and two crazy cats in an old farmhouse, and dreams of returning one day to a castle. Donna is the author of the Joshua and The Lightning Road series (Month9Books) and blogs at Project Mayhem. Visit her at or on Amazon.

Praise for Joshua and The Lightning Road:
 "Vividly imagined characters in a gripping action fantasy that never lets you go until the very last page." —Jenny Nimmo, New York Times bestselling author of the Charlie Bone series

Joshua and the Lightning Road is available for pre-order now from these book sellers:
Barnes & Noble:
Check out Donna’s pre-order iPad Mini giveaway

Thursday, April 16, 2015

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Patricia Nelson

Patricia Nelson joined Marsal Lyon Literary Agency in 2014. Previously, she interned at The Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency and in the children’s division at Running Press.
Patricia represents adult, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and is actively looking to build her list.  In general, Patricia looks for compelling, well-written stories featuring complex characters that jump off the page and thoughtfully drawn, believable relationships. On the adult side, she is seeking women’s fiction, historical fiction, and accessible literary fiction, as well as contemporary and historical romance. For YA and MG, she is open to a wide range of genres, with particular interest in contemporary/realistic, magical realism, mystery, horror, and fantasy. She is interested in seeing diverse stories and characters in all genres.
Patricia received her bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in 2008, and also holds a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Gender Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the world of publishing, she spent four years as a university-level instructor of literature and writing.

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

This is such a hard question that I'm going to have to cheat a little. I'll give you three from my ultimate favorites shelf: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Sara Zarr's What We Lost, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. And then here's three that I've read and loved recently: Kate DiCamillo's Flora and Ulysses, Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun, and Bennett Madison's September Girls.

Question Two: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows??

A couple of my all-time favorites that I always go back to are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Veronica Mars, and Friday Night Lights. But again, it's so hard to choose! Lately I've been binge watching The Good Wife and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and I'm super excited for the new season of Orange is the New Black.

Question Three: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

Hard-working and devoted to honing their craft. Full of ideas. Driven to make writing a career, but aware that publishing is slow and takes patience. Persistent and not prone to giving up. Friendly and kind (never underestimate how far kindness will get you). And while it's not a necessity, funny doesn't hurt either!

Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I represent a pretty wide range of adult, YA, and MG fiction, and I always have lots of specific wants on my manuscript wish list, which you can find on my twitter. ​In general, I tend to be drawn to novels with compelling female protagonists, a strong sense of place or atmosphere, characters that are smart and witty without being snarky, and/or an offbeat, slightly askew, or even creepy sensibility. I also gravitate toward stories that have something interesting to say about friendship or found families, as well as stories that incorporate subtle, unique elements of magic into the real world. And of course I'm looking for diverse books of all kinds.

That said, the queries that I get the most excited about are often the ones that I wouldn't have been able to predict. I love to be struck by the unexpected: stories that surprise me, fresh voices, characters that feel like real/specific people, and writing that grabs me and doesn't let go. 

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

My favorite thing is the people, from my talented and amazing clients to all of the smart, savvy booklovers who have chosen careers in the publishing industry. My least favorite thing by far is sending rejections--I feel like most agents say that! After all, we got into this business to champion creative people, so having to spend so much time saying "no" can be a bummer... but alas, it's an unavoidable part of the job.

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

​In order to write, you have to have something to write about, so it's important to soak up as much of life and culture as you can. Work hard, but find ways to recharge your creative batteries. Read widely, go to the movies, seek out adventures, travel if you can. It will all make your work richer and more layered.

Question Seven: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

This may seem a little random, but I would love to have lunch with Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion and Judy Blume together. I feel like that would be an interesting conversation!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Book of The Week: CAMINAR by Skila Brown

First Poem:

Where I'm From

Our mountain stood tall,
like the finger that points.

Our corn plants grew in fields,
thick and wide as a thumb.

Our village sat in the folded-between,
in that spot where you pinch something sacred,

to keep it still.

Our Mountain stood guard at our backs.
We slept at night in its bed.

Do you like poetry, Esteemed Reader? April is national poetry month, so it's the best time for us to discuss Skila Brown's Caminar, which is a middle grade novel written in verse. I'm going to be honest with you, I'm out of my element this week. I've read plenty of poetry over the years and I've even written some. Here's an old Robert Kent original you won't find anywhere else because I don't think anyone would pay money for it:

Chomp, Chomp

                                                I can 
                                      be your 
                        power pellet
            When the spooks            get      too      close
               And them other 
                   pellets won’t do
                             Then they’ll 
                                           fear you

So that's pretty much the height of my poetic prowess:) I think we can agree I'm woefully under qualified to discuss serious poetry, The thought of writing critically about a book like Caminar intimidates me the way reading Shakespeare intimidated me as a teenager, but later I played Nick Bottom in a version of A Midsummer Nights' Dream and wasn't booed off the stage (I even understood most of my lines). I suppose I'll roll up my sleeves and give this a go as well.

I've read Caminar twice now. It is haunting and beautiful and will get you right in the feels.  One advantage of a free verse novel is it can be read quickly, even by middle grade standards, so I was able to read it once for comprehension, and once for appreciation. Part of me is excited to see a subject as serious as this can be presented in a middle grade book, and the other part hates to label Caminar as middle grade lest some readers view it as just a book for kids. This is a book of serious weight and magnitude to be appreciated by readers of all ages.

And like the best fiction, Caminar has a hook. For me, the hook was meeting Skila Brown at a conference last month and sitting in on a couple sessions of hers. I was so impressed by the author, I wanted to read her book. For the reader, I suspect the hook will be not the first poem above, although it does go a long way toward assuring the reader they are in the hands of a capable artist and are about to enjoy a story that will be richly told. For the reader who hasn't met the author, I think the hook lies with the Note to the Reader preceding the first poem:

In 1954, the democratically elected government of Guatemala was overthrown by a group of military men who were unhappy with the way the government had been passing laws to help poor farmers in rural communities. Forty horrible years followed, in which the people of Guatemala tried to resist, organize, and bring about change, all while the Guatemalan army did everything they could to discourage the "rebels" or "guerillas," as they called the organizers. The army went into the mountains of rural Guatemala, where they tried to prevent villagers from joining the rebels. 

Many lives were lost. And many more were never the same.

And that is to be the background of a novel perfectly acceptable to read to children. It's not a cartoon movie with a happy-meal tie-in. When I was in film school, I had a wacky professor who told me that if modern American story culture were a meal, it would be mostly desert, barely any meat and almost no vegetables. My response: I like desert and it sure seems to be popular. Now as an author, I'm serving up zombies and robot bees, but I try to remember to include some depth and meaning in my fiction so my readers don't get mental cavities.

Caminar is meat and vegetables. It is rich and nutritious and the sort of reading experience a young mind needs to grow strong. And there's some desert: the pleasure of fine language composed artfully is a desert that refines taste. And now I'm going to drop the metaphor before I start talking about how a good book review is an antacid:) 

Caminar is the story of Carlos, although really, it's the story of what happens to Carlos' village, Chopan, when an army invades with the intent of eventual genocide, as told from the perspective of a young boy.  It's a coming of age story and it's a historical narrative and it's a work of art. The violence is never graphic and Brown is smart enough to keep much of the horror "off-screen," while still telling the truth about what happened. I'm terrified of reproducing passages as spacing is crucial and I'll sure I'll muck it up, but here's a good example:

Why I Dropped the Mushrooms

pop pop pop pop
pop          pop          pop                                            
pop      pop

it sounded like

on a saint's day

except for the


In fact, spacing is crucial to most of the poems, which is perhaps the reason Caminar isn't currently available as an ebook. Sometimes the reason for spacing is obvious such as:

"Here we have                        space."


"I was your age when I stepped away
from Child,      stepped into Man."

In other poems, the spacing helps to form an image, such as is the case in my favorite poem, listed below. Another poem, called Smoke, features short lines spaced back and forth across the page to evoke the image of rising smoke. I was so inspired I reformed my highly literary poem Chomp, Chomp into old school Pac-Man, or tried to:)

At other times, the spacing is less obvious and left to the reader to determine the reasoning behind it. And that is the pleasure of Caminar: the language that's used and the way it's used. Brown sets up multiple lines early in the book to be called back to later, rewarding the reader for paying attention. Even if you don't write poetry, the skills on display here are applicable to all fiction writing and worth paying attention to whatever you write.

Caminar is a good story, well told, and it will haunt you. I'm so glad I got to meet Silka Brown and enjoy her novel as both experiences have made a lasting impression on me. Typically, I end each review with four or five of my favorite passages from the text, but this isn't your typical book so I'll leave you with a favorite poem instead:


I looked, pointed
    my eyes toward the village, toward
          Chopan. Looked through
               trees to see. Something
                      moved. Something
                                         fell. A limb.


                                                       And then—the sky
                                                                                     was filled
                                                                                        with blue,            butterflies,
                                                                                   tiny blues
                                                                         that fluttered and flew,
                                                                past my tree,
                                                     over my head, above
                                                 the forest,
                                            into the sky.
                                   I blinked
                                   and saw
                     the last one
was yellow.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

7 Questions For: Author Skila Brown

Skila Brown holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee, lived for a bit in Guatemala, and now resides with her family in Indiana. Caminar is her first novel.

Her first job ever was selling hot dogs. She is terrified of frogs and hates being tickled.

Click here to read my review of Caminar. 

And now Skila Brown faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

Well, obviously this changes from day to day. But I won't cheat on this. I'll really give you just three. My three favorite today. 

Terry Pratchett's Nation
Kristin Cashore's FIre
Rainbow Rowell's Attachments

And - you didn't ask what my favorite series was - but if you did, I'd say Suzanne Collins's Gregor the Overlander series. With Tui T. Sutherland's Wings of Fire a close second.

Question Two: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

The writing time varies a lot. When I'm drafting a novel - it's probably 20 hours or so a week? But when I'm not--when I'm revising or fiddling with poems or freewriting or brainstorming--it's often less. Maybe more like 8 hours a week? (Gosh, that's a small number. No wonder I feel like I never finish anything.)

I'm a big reader. I'd guess 20-30 hours reading on an average week.

Question Three: What was the path that led you to publication?

If I were more tech-savy, I'd draw this out with diagrams and arrows and such. So just imagine that. In your head.

Freelance writing for magazines and newspapers led me to some publications in Highlights and Ladybug and the like. Which led me to "Hey. I want to write books for kids." Which led me to an SCBWI conference. In which I first heard of Vermont College of Fine Arts. There I learned everything I know about being a writer. And left to land a fantastic agent (Tina Wexler at ICM) and a great publishing house (Candlewick) to boot.  

Those are the major stops along the path to publication. But rest assured, there were detours. I have a file cabinet full of printed-out detours. 

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

Oh, that's such a great question. The obvious answer is both, I think. Right? Doesn't everyone say both? I think some of us are born with this instinctual need to tell stories; we're comfortable crafting narratives, filling in the details. We're excellent liars. But we can learn so much about the craft. I'm the kind of person who loves to learn. I'm always studying something. Writers are artists, first and foremost. So while we may have some kind of talent we've been gifted with, we've got lots of room to grow and improve with classes, training, education, and by studying the masters. 

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

Well, my least favorite part is definitely revision. Too bad that's 70% of writing a novel. After about Draft Eight, I just feel completely drained and confused about why I ever thought the idea was worth my time. 

Favorite thing: I get paid to lie. 

Close second: I get to eat doughnuts. For research. And it's a tax deduction. 

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Read, read, read. Write, write, write. You can't do either of these too much. 

Question Seven: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

Oh, wow. I needed to think about this one for a bit. I want to say J.K. Rowling just for the fact that I could blow my kids' minds. But selfishly, I've love to say Judy Blume. Her books were so influential to me when I was growing up, I'd love to be able to sit down and tell her that. But then - I could say the same for Shel Silverstein too. I remember feeling like the subversiveness in his poems was speaking directly to me--like he could see inside my brain. Also, I kind of want to pick Neil Gaiman. Because doesn't every writer have a tiny crush on Neil Gaiman? Right? Wait. Is that just me? 

Okay, I might have cheated on this last one. But I didn't on the first, so it all evens out.

Reviews, Interviews, and Guest Posts for BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES

If you have a blog or a site and you'd like to interview me or have me over for a guest post, I'd be thrilled. Just ask.

If you've written a review of the book, let me know and I'll link to it here.


Five Out Of Five Bookworms! "This is a really cool book. Mr. Kent has written a unique story where the government’s fear is that robots will be taking over everyone’s jobs. And Banneker’s family are the ones making the robots. I like the fact that Banneker Bones isn’t the main character, and that he’s a jerk. It provided a lot of humor in the story. Ellicott is a great kid that you really feel for."

"Mr. Kent has created a work that reads a bit like Sherlock Holmes meets Sci Fi pulp  meets Richie Rich in this near future middle grade science fiction adventure... a highly entertaining and interesting story that  dives into its subject matter with passion and enthusiasm."
View From The Tesseract

"This wonderful story made me laugh, cry, and all other emotions in between! It's a terrific read for all ages to enjoy! I loved it!"

"If my nine-year-old son could review this, and believe me, he wants to, he'd give it ten stars. Five just isn't enough. He was instantly drawn into the story. He laughed throughout."


A discussion about writing middle grade versus young adult and adult with Jessica Lawson at Falling Leaflets

Guest Posts

Rambling About Voltaire and Indie Publishing While Parenting at Literary Rambles

Friday, March 27, 2015

NINJA STUFF: On Heartbreak And Diversity In Traditional Publishing (Part Two)

Last Time On Ninja Stuff: The YA Cannibals went to a SCBWI conference on "Finding Common Ground In Diverse Characters" held in one of the least diverse places I've ever been: McCormick's Creek State Park in Spencer, Indiana. There I learned the first girl who ever broke my heart now, 16 years later, runs a popular blog where she interviews writers and literary agents like the one she just signed with; my agent. I talked about heartbreak and how there comes a time when, with perspective, it just doesn't hurt anymore.

And now the thrilling conclusion...

Don't worry, Esteemed Reader. This isn't to be another post about me crying all over myself on a picnic table in a fashion most un-ninja like, or me talking about how the secret of life is my baby boy:) I don't want to blog about none of that crap! Today we're going to talk about writers, writing, publishers, and publishing, the proper subjects of a blog supposedly about reading and writing middle grade novels utilizing ninja stealth and skill. And we're going to discuss diversity in traditional publishing and some of the reasons there isn't more of it. But, if you'll permit me, I want to talk first briefly about some kook stuff.

Reality gets fuzzy around the edges, Esteemed Reader. It's a problem. 

I'm not particular in my religious views and I'm not about to discuss religion with you unless you've purchased a copy of one of my zombie stories. However, I can see the appeal of the strict atheist view of the world: We live, we die, and because there is no us after death, it's not something to be worried about. There's Nobody in the sky watching out for us, sorry to say, but we don't have to answer to Him/Her/It either, so you take the good with the bad. Things happen because of human action and natural action and that is all. The universe is random and does not care. If it seems otherwise to you, you might be slightly mentally ill, and the poor atheist has to contend with life among the vast majority of us who are all suffering varying degrees of mental illness:)

I could hold with the atheist view if life didn't get weird every so often. But it does and I'm not the only one who's noticed. It could be I get weird and every time a coincidence happens, I go off thinking the universe is trying to tell me something because it's all about me, baby. Could be.

I submit to you that if I'm suddenly struck dead, all consciousness gone in an instant, and I believed kooky stuff right up until that moment, it's not going to bother me one bit as there will be no me to be bothered. But a whole lot of people feel the presence of Something in this world and I've felt It as well. Refusing to acknowledge that because of a belief it's not possible is as much of a dogma as actual dogma. I'm perfectly willing to say I don't know how the universe works, and it doesn't bother me since there's way more stuff I don't know than stuff I do.

But dude, SOMETHING is up.

I had such a wonderful time at the conference and before I say some negative things about traditional publishing, let me first thank SCBWI for holding such a fine event as I have no doubt it took a great deal of work. Let me also thank the writers and publishing professionals who traveled to Nowhere, Indiana, to participate. At no point in what follows do I want there to be any doubt that their efforts weren't appreciated. I hope Indiana conferences will continue to draw such excellent guests.

I do so hate bitter indie authors and when I decided traditional publishing and I had to part ways for a time, I promised myself I wouldn't become one of them. But I understand. Traditional publishing broke many of our hearts. It didn't mean to. Traditional publishers aren't out to get anyone. They just do what they do, much of it in response to a global market that moves faster than their business model can adapt, and writers get hurt unintentionally.

During a Q-and-A session the last day of the conference I stood up and asked a questionthe questionI most wanted to ask at the perfect time to ask it. And if there was a betrayed quality to my voice, it's because undeniably a part of my question was "Why didn't you love me?"

Let me back up and set the scene. Remember, as I've said, this was the whitest conference in one of the whitest towns in America gathered to discuss diversity in children's literature. The majority of the panelists were white and an even greater number of the participants were white. The whole thing felt a bit like satire.

And it just so happens that of all the publishers in all the world, two of the representatives who came to Spencer, Indiana were from two of the publishers who came closest to publishing Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. Of all the girls in all the world who could've signed with my agent, it's the one who broke my heart that did and against all odds, the news came to me without my looking for it or even wanting to know it. Reality gets fuzzy around the edges.

I didn't even want to go to this conference. Mrs. Ninja and I just bought a house and I didn't want to spend the money. All nine members of my critique group had to sign up and practically drag me there and even then, I still didn't want to go (I had to take off work and be away from my kid). I only went because my wife told me that she didn't care about the money, I needed to attend a conference about diversity in children's books. The universe aligned to get me in that auditorium for that panel and as Shrug Avery might sing, "Maybe God is trying to tell you something..."

I believe somebody was. You believe what you want. But there were strange winds blowing and whispering through the woods of McCormick's Creek State Park last weekend.

In response to a previous question, one of the editors told us her house had to fight to accept a book about a transgender character written by a heterosexual white male. Many of the folks involved in the publication approval process wanted to know why this author would write such a thing when he himself was not transgender. They were suspicious of his motives. Many of the senior editors didn't want to publish the book, regardless of the man's reasoning (most of his friends and a family member were transgender), and it's still not published, so the fight goes on.

And a part of me, the cold part, understands this is a simple risk vs. reward business decision. Doesn't make it right.

"Who has another question?" the moderator asked.

My hand shot up and someone gave me the microphone. I remember my question almost verbatim: "As you can see," I said, every eye seeing me, "I am a heterosexual, white male." Nervous laughter from many locations, most notably the panel. "What you can't see is I'm married to a black woman and we have a son. I've written a middle grade adventure story about a biracial boy good enough to have received a blurb from Richard Adams." And I never get tired of telling people about it:)

"I have a literary agent who passionately submitted this book to many publishing houses" (your publishing houses) "where individual editors told us yes and then editorial committees said no. We came so close and it got back to me that the reason it was turned down is because I'm white. And you say you're having difficulty publishing a transgender-themed book for the same reason. I take umbridge at the notion that I can raise a half-black boy, but I can't publish a book about one. 

"Speaking for a room of mostly white faces in our conference about diversity" a lot of nervous laughter from everyone save for the lone black woman beside me (not my wife, but a fellow zombie author) who gave me an "Amen," "—what can we white people do to overcome this obstacle?"

It was an unfortunate position these editors found themselves in and I want to be clear: they were and are not my enemies. I've got nothing against them and though they represented the publishing houses what done me wrong, so far as I know, they had nothing to do with the decision personally. I wouldn't have wanted to sit in their seat and answer my question or the one asked immediately after mine. These are smart people who love authors and publishing books and we can absolutely be friends. I was asking about an issue in publishing far bigger than any one publishing house and certainly any one editor. But they were there to represent the institution from which I wanted an answer.

And I got it.

"It's an unfortunate scenario," said one editor, and I'm paraphrasing from memory here, "but it is common. I'd hate to think that was the only reason your book was rejected, but..." the editor trailed off and shrugged, implying it might be. "It could be something else about the project, but the author's race is an issue and one that in the current market can be impossible to overcome." The other editor agreed.

There was a lot of talk about finding a small press or perhaps the writing of something different first, the implication being something with an all or mostly white cast, with maybe a more colorful friend in a minor role. Ya know, the sort of book that gets published.

Remember, these were editors who came all the way to Spencer, Indiana, to talk with us and I don't want to paint them as villains because they most certainly were and are not. To my mind they're heroes because when asked an extremely difficult question, they gave honest answers, and what more could I possibly ask from them?

But there was a different feel to the room after that. A crowd of almost all white writers heard a very specific message: it's all good and well to talk about diversity, but if you want to be published in the traditional way, don't write about it. 

Fortunately, Skila Brown, whose debut novel, Caminar, has rocked my world, lightened the mood when she told me I should keep working and keep fighting to reach readers. After all, she's a white woman married to a Latino man and raising biracial children herself and she was able to use the traditional route to publish a novel set in 1981 Guatemala. On the whole, I was so very impressed by Skila Brown and I hope to feature her here. After her keynote, I gave her a copy of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees so that she would know I never even considered not fighting.

"There's time for one more question," a much wearier-looking moderator said. And look at that, just behind me, Indiana celebrity author Mike Mullin had his hand raised. Mike is an award-winner and friend to librarians everywhere. He participated in some of the conference events and was practically faculty. There were other hands raised, but if there was a safe person to call on after the previous question, surely it was Mike Mullin.

I've been accused of being too nice to Mike over the years. I would say I'm too nice to everyone as I try never to criticize books on this blog even if they deserve it. You may have read my glowing reviews of Sunrise and Ashen Winter, but you didn't read my critiques of their early drafts full of complaints and tough love. Mike Mullin is an impressive writer and better than me at a lot of things, which is why I think it's a good idea to listen when he talks, but I've also heard him say some pretty dumb stuff (and vice versa). We've had squabbles and disagreements and he never seems to let me forget how bad my unpublished book about aliens was or how I should've listened to him about the original cover for All Together Now in the first place.

But Esteemed Reader, I wish you could've been there on Sunday to see my friend Mike Mullin address that panel. I wish there was a YouTube video of it to go viral. In a few words, Mike earned every nice thing I ever said about him and more. I wish I could remember his exact wording, but I can't, so I'll have to settle for giving you a summary of the content of his question. Just imagine the most courageous man you ever saw.

Mike asked about the practice of traditional publishers using unpaid interns, which seems like a small thing unrelated to diversity. But statistically, the only folks who can afford to work for publishers unpaid are mostly white and of the upper-class. With publishers slashing budgets and having to rely more and more on these unpaid interns, doesn't this create an issue of an overwhelmingly similar well-to-do white staff that is then in a position to be promoted up the ranks? Isn't it dangerous to have only a certain group of elites able to make decisions for the rest of us and doesn't that make a lack of diversity in traditional publishing an institutional problem?

Oh Mike Mullin, you magnificent ba****d:)

There was a lot of hemming and hawing among the panel, but the man had a point. Both editors agreed that this was an economic reality of today's publishing market. Sure, one of the editors insisted their interns were paid, but didn't say how much, nor brag about their diversity. The other insisted their interns, though unpaid, only worked 20 hours a week. They're mostly white though, the editor agreed, and I got the sense a part of the editor (avoiding pronouns) wanted to be standing with us calling out this issue rather than stuck at the front of a crowd defending institutions with systemic problems larger than any one person.

The Q-and-A quickly ended after that.

And there it is. Take another look at the graphic above, which I shamelessly stole from Skila Brown's keynote address. That overwhelming stack of books about white characters written by white authors is no accident. If books by diverse authors about diverse characters have such a low success rate of being published and white authors, who can evidently more easily get published, can't write about diverse characters, just where are all these diverse books publishers claim we need going to come from? The whole situation writers of diverse books find themselves in reminds me of the words of another white, male author:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But let us end on a more positive note than Mr. Fitzgerald's. Our mostly white conference on diversity was more successful than I would've ever imagined. After all, the first step towards any solution is admitting you have a problem. We need diverse books. And it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a hashtag to get them. 

As for me, I left the conference feeling elated. I knew from reputable sources that Banneker was rejected for the reasons above, but a part of me might have always wondered if I hadn't heard it straight from the mouths of the publishers themselves. These same publishing representatives told my fellow writer that the zombie market is over saturated, so she should set her zombie books aside and write something else.

Well, maybe. But I leaned over and let her know I'd paid for my hotel room with money I made selling books about zombies.

You broke my heart traditional publishing. I needed you to be better than you are. 

It's okay. I've had my heart broken before and I know what to do. I learn from the experience and move on.

I came home to find audiobook chapters of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees ready to be approved and soon people around the world will be able to listen to them. Before long, there will be a second Banneker book and it too will be available to every reader in the world who wants it.

I will not be stopped. I will not be thwarted. I will write books about characters of whatever race I see fit and they can be read by anyone who wants them.

If traditional publishers won't give us the diverse books we need, if they can't, then we'll have to get them from some other source. Don't tell me the indie revolution isn't real. Don't tell me it isn't necessary. We've never needed it more.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NINJA STUFF: On Heartbreak And Diversity In Traditional Publishing (Part One)

Oh Esteemed Reader, my mind is filled with all the thoughts as I've just come from a SCBWI conference where I had a breakthrough moment and also learned odd news of an old nemesis/ex-girlfriend-kinda-sorta, and since I've just attended author Skila Brown's session on compelling openings, I'll hope to hook you by saying she's someone you may know (it's a little weak, but I save the good hooks for the writing I'm allowed to charge money for). It was a long, weird weekend in which the universe threw me an opportunity to mend old heartbreak. 

I'm going to share some personal stuff, partly to get it off my chest, and use my heartbreak to talk a bit about an issue with diversity in traditional publishing as I see it. If you'd prefer to read an interview with a more talented writer than myself or an editor or literary agent, that is perfectly understandable. You'll be happy to know I've secured some future interviews to share with you, but today it's just little old me.

I haven't attended a writer's conference since I made the decision to publish independently, mostly because I had a new baby and getting away has been a hassle. Also, one nice thing about publishing my own books is I'm allowed to query myself in whatever way I like, so there's no need for me to sit through an eleventy-billionth session on writing the perfect query letter. 

But the other YA Cannibals (my beloved critique group) signed up for the conference which was held 90 minutes away and only cost $150, which I judged to be a fair price for a weekend of drinking with my buddies. Author Mike Mullin and I are dangerously obnoxious around a bottle of booze, but I've only had a drink once in the 15 months since my son was born and I was overdue for some adult fun--and thankfully, no one recorded our buffoonery. Even so, I had Mrs. Ninja send me multiple pictures of Little Ninja eating and playing because two nights is the longest I've ever been away from him, and as much as I love my friends, I couldn't get back home fast enough.

I've written before about attending a conference with the YA Cannibals. We had a marvelous time, as usual, and I don't have words for how grateful I am to have such wonderful people in my life. But I don't want to bore you with a bunch of stories such as author Shannon Alexander's 7:00 am text of "Wake up, B*****s," which you really had to be there for to find funny. My legs still hurt because someone thought it was a good idea to let the author of Ashfall lead our hike through the woods and we scrambled over rocks and nearly died multiple times following a path Mike swears was an official trail, but I have my doubts.

The conference was held at McCormick Creak State Park in Spencer, Indiana where the next most exciting event planned for the week is the feeding of a small turtle in a tank (they had signs advertising the time and day of the turtle's feeding so we could make sure we weren't late). The theme of this year's conference was "Finding Common Ground In Diverse Characters" and to fully appreciate just how hilarious that is, you have to visit Spencer, Indiana with its white crosses everywhere and gun shops. You can't even get there by highway and one can almost hear the dueling banjos when one drives into town. Most of the diverse folks I know wouldn't let the sun set on them in such a place. In our conference I saw only two non-white faces who hadn't been imported as guest speakers. 

I'll say a great deal more on all that before the end, but as promised, this is a post about me, the most diverse of heterosexual white males:) Life is very strange, Esteemed Reader, and if it should some day be revealed we're actually living in a computer simulation as some have claimed, I won't be completely surprised. Reality sometimes gets fuzzy around the edges, that's all, and there are odd coincidences too strange to be ignored. I spent part of my weekend collecting ghosts stories and a tale of a grandmother who could accurately predict deaths of family members based on recurring dreams she had. I'm working on a new horror novel I'm quite excited about and such tidbits are of great use to me.

A few months back, I got an out-of-the-blue email from another conference I sometimes attend containing an interview with the newest faculty member. I usually delete such emails without opening them, but the email caught me on a morning when I was avoiding writing and the picture at the top of the interview caused my heart to skip a beat as smiling back at me was a face I banished from my mind many years ago, her face. Somewhere far off I heard Sarah McLachlan singing about the arms of the angel, which was the theme of a prom I once attended (sort of funny, given what Angel is actually about). I banished that song from my house long ago as it brought with it too many painful memories, but these days it just makes me think of those commercials about unwanted puppies and kittens.

I checked the bio and the first name was the same, even if the last has changed. I hadn't seen that face in 16 years and the last time I saw it was through the windshield of my car when I nearly hit her while delivering pizzas. She ran out in front of me and I slammed the brakes because I hadn't seen who it was first:) But all that took place in an Indiana town smaller than Spencer when I was much younger and she's someone I haven't spent much time thinking about since.

The interview came with a website link and would you look at that, she's still writing, is in fact an aspiring young adult novelist who now runs a very popular blog where she interviews writers and literary agents, which is why I'm not using her name as you may have read it. There can only be so many YA authors blogging in Indiana and attending conferences and my thought was "F**K! Sooner or later I'm going to bump into this person (God, anyone but her!) in a professional setting and wouldn't it be nice to not have that blow up in my face.

So I shot her a quick email: "Hey, how you doing, sorry I nearly killed you with my car 16 years ago, remember when we tried to make that movie about giant robot bees, well I haven't changed much, if you see me in public, let's not be awkward as we're adults now, peace!" She responded, "Hey, glad you didn't kill me, what a small world it is, and look at you, also all still alive and stuff." And I offered her a review copy of a book because, ya know, I have books to sell and she does run a very popular blog:)

The End.

Except her name came up at the conference this weekend as Indiana is a very small place and the Hoosier writing community is even smaller. I didn't bring her up as for me, she'd already disappeared back into that same ethereal nothingness that swallowed most of the other folks I knew when I was a teenager and whom I also have no overwhelming desire to ever see again. Apparently she's just signed with a new literary agent. My literary agent. 

"Huh," I said to the person who mentioned this to me. "She and I used to date,"--which is not quite accurate, but it's the closest shorthand word for our extremely unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship/dramatic love triangle that involved me paying for a lot of food, some dancing, some kissing, and tears--"and she's a liar."

Whoa! Easy, killer! How long has that anger been rattling around my subconscious?

Immediately, I had to back up. "I'm sorry," I said. "She's probably a wonderful person now and I don't know her at all. She's a total stranger to me, which is a relationship that's going really well and I hope continues. I read she's married and has kids and if she ever publishes her novel, I'll probably read it as her writing was the thing I liked most about her. I'm sure she's very truthful."

Oh my God, my agent and the first girl who broke my heart! The first girl who broke my heart and my agent! But this means... But this changes... And how does all this effect ME!?!

It doesn't, actually. It's a little weird, but it doesn't mean anything. It changes nothing. After all, my agent's got to sell somebody's book, so why not somebody from my hometown who I certainly thought was someone special once upon a time?

If this were a novel, there'd be more to this story, perhaps when she and I got booked working the same booth at a conference and the power suddenly went out! Fuzzy around the edges it may be, but life isn't a novel and I think this story ends the way so many of reality's stories end: with a bit of self reflection followed by the next chapter in life.

And as I drove the 90 minutes from Spencer back to Indianapolis, memories seeped through my veins and I thought for the first time in at least a decade, probably longer, of that sweet madness, ohhooooh, and gloryeeeeous saaaaadnesss, that brought me to my kneee-eh-heeeees (writer tip--always reference copyrighted lyrics in a free blog post rather than your fiction so you don't have to pay Sarah Mclauglin squat, though I promise to adopt another animal some day).

The first time your heart breaks is the worst. When it happens to Little Ninja, I'm sure I won't understand, as no parent does, and I'm no longer sure I understood my own. Because I remember weeping in a park after an encounter with this person, and not just crying, but sprawled out on a picnic table moaning and writhing as though I'd been in a war.

Sorry, young me, but I'm laughing at you. I can't help it. You were ridiculous! Teenagers, am I right? That's probably why in the only young adult novel I've written, I killed them all:) And as I drove, I began to remember the actual events of 16 years ago, not the fiction I weaved for myself as we writers are predisposed to doing. I looked objectively (mostly) at just the facts, forgetting I was the hero and she was the villain, and tried to piece together what happened as well as I can this far removed.

The conclusion I came to was that if I had a daughter, I wouldn't let a boy like young me anywhere near her. For the first time it occurred to me that this person who shall not be named was not Sauron, the dark lord, but just some girl growing up in the same Indiana town as I who had the misfortune to meet me in my awkward transition to adulthood, though judging by some of this weekend's antics, I'm still transitioning:) She's just another writer, and I know a lot of those, so can I really be surprised she occasionally behaved in strange ways? I certainly did (and do). She was no more innocent or guilty than I was, and even if one of us could definitively be proven to have been the bad one, we were children. We survived, we're both still writing, we have families, so it's to be happy endings all around. 

Had we met now for the first time as writers with families, we might have shared some writing tips and never spoke again. And in the event I bump into her some time, which somehow seems likely in this teeny, tiny state of ours in which the cast of characters apparently does not change, I don't need to be awkward or afraid or any kind of way. Two writers growing up in the same small town at the same time and then going on to run similar blogs and be represented by the same literary agent isn't fate or proof reality is a simulation, but a coincidence. Probably:)

And when I reached home and came through the front door and Little Ninja, who only just started walking earlier this year, came running toward me with his arms raised and yelled "Da-da" and my heart really, finally, and truly did explode with a happiness that brought me to my knees, and Mrs. Ninja, my faithful partner and best friend gave me a big kiss, I wondered how I could ever have thought I knew what love was when I was so very young, and so very stupid.

But I won't be too hard on myself. Later, as Little Ninja stumbled around our new home shouting gibberish and smacking things, he fell and hurt himself and wept. Naturally, I pulled him to me  and held him and made soft sounds and whispered "All Right Now" TM:) But Little Ninja wept and screamed and was inconsolable for several moments until at last I tickled him and got him laughing, and then everything in the world was the best thing evah!!! again.

And that's what it was for me! I thought.

I'm doing the best job of parenting I can, honest, but unless you tie them up, kids fall down and bump themselves. Sometimes dinner isn't ready the exact moment it occurred to him he should have it and sometimes he doesn't want to go to bed yet and sometimes the cat runs away before he can smack her and each time it's the worst thing that could ever happen or has ever happened in the history of all mankind and inconsolable weeping is the only appropriate reaction he can be expected to have. And as I hold him and do my daddy duty, I hurt for him because I know he has no perspective and it really is as bad as all that until he learns there are degrees of pain. 

I was a child who got his heart broken, that's all. It wasn't the last time a girl broke my heart and it wasn't the worst time (not blogging about that one, but I might put it in a novel someday). I know I broke a couple hearts myself. But I never again behaved so badly after a heart break, because I gained perspective.

So I reach back through the years and pat young me's shoulder as he makes a mess of himself on that picnic table. You fell down and bumped yourself, young me. Learn from it and move on and know that one day you will write a very long post on a blog that's at least as successful as hers and snort laugh about the whole thing. 

And also, SMACK!!! Pull yourself together man! People might see you! Put those cigarettes down and would it kill you to get a haircut!?! Get a pen, young me, because we have a long list of behaviors that need to be modified. 

Oh, and those casually racist thoughts I know you sometimes have? One day you're going to occasionally appear on lists of bestsellers in African American fiction, so you're definitely going to want to rethink some things:) Let me show you a picture of your future wife and son because this is going to blow your small-town mind.

Which brings us back to diversity in traditional publishing and the other did-that-just-actually-occur-in-reality-for-real thing that happened when Mike Mullin and I asked some pointed questions about diversity to publishing representatives during a Q and A at this weekend's conference. But this post is out of control long, so I think we'll save that strange tale for part two. 

Come back on Friday for more, same Ninja time, same Ninja channel.

And if you happen to be she-who-must-not-be-named and you found your way to this post, how weird must that be for you!?! I totally didn't write this for you and kinda wish you hadn't read it as it's not actually about you, but if you did read it, I hope you got a laugh and I'm sorry for being a jerk way back when:) And please take comfort in knowing that being a jerk to you got me to the place where I could be less of a jerk to others, which doesn't really help you out, but I'm sure 16 years is enough time to let it go (this post aside). Congrats on signing with the world's best literary agent and good luck.