Friday, August 4, 2017

GUEST POST: "Beyond the Doors: Find Your Avocados!" by David Neilsen

The journey I underwent to get my upcoming novel published is not one I would recommend for other writers. While I am quite pleased and proud of the final result, a deliciously-creepy, humorous Middle Grade adventure called Beyond the Doors, getting to this point was difficult, stressful, and difficult. Did I mention stressful?
The story of Beyond the Doors, which is my second novel, begins with the story of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, which is my first novel. I wrote Dr. Fell, handed it over to my agent, and was in the midst of sitting back and calmly waiting for him to work his magic when he calls me out of the blue in the middle of the day.
“David, it’s your agent,” he said. “Why do you think I’m calling you out of the blue in the middle of the day?”
My jaw dropped. My stomach dropped. I almost dropped. An honest-to-goodness mainstream publisher wanted to publish my novel. I danced a little jig. But my agent had another surprise in store.
“They want a two-book deal,” he announced.
Two books! Holy guacamole! That’s twice as many as one! “They want a sequel already?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They want something new.”
I stopped jigging.
It seemed my new publisher wanted me to pitch ideas for a second book to them. They wanted a selection from which to choose. No problem. As it turns out, I already had three different projects in one state of completion or another. One even had over 40 pages written already. I sat down and wrote brief summaries for all three books, then added a synopsis for an idea for a sequel to Dr. Fell which had popped into my head. Satisfied, I passed the four pitches by my agent.
“Do another one,” he commanded. “Five is a better number than four.”
While unable to dispute the fact that five is a better number than four, the sad truth was I didn’t have a fifth idea. No other project was more than a couple of un-fleshed-out notes on a Word doc. I struggled with this for a bit, but finally settled on an old idea. It was just an image, really. Some kids standing in a big, empty, round room in the center of which stands this bizarre machine that has a plain, wooden door hooked up to it for some reason. A bunch of other plain, wooden doors are scattered around the floor.
That was it. I had no idea where the doors went. I had no idea why the kids were there. I had absolutely nothing but a single image. So I described that image and sent in my five pitches.
I think we all know which one they chose.
When my agent first told me they’d gone with “Doors” I thought he was joking. I laughed. Then I realized he wasn’t joking. I cried. Seriously? Doors? I didn’t even have a catchy title. I was literally just calling it “Doors.”
And thus, the adventure began.
The first thing I had to do was answer all the questions the single image in my head inspired. Starting with “Why is someone hooking up doors to this machine?” I came away with dozens of possibilities: some halfway decent, others truly horrid. At one point I entertained the thought that the doors led to some sort of intergalactic refrigerator.
That idea didn’t last long.
Eventually, however, I hit upon my solution. Avocados! Yes! Of course! It was all about the avocados
I should hasten to point out that my book is not, in any way, about avocados. I am using the word avocados as a placeholder for the true concept behind the story because I do not want to spoil the book for anyone. The question of what’s going on with all these doors is central to the book, and despite far too many book reviewers who seem determined to ruin it for everyone (I shake my fist at you all!), I maintain hope that some of you, at least, will be surprised.
The next question to answer was who were to be my main characters? Specifically, how many children? I didn’t want to do three, because Dr. Fell has three main characters and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as a writer who only writes books with three main characters. One or two main characters seemed uninteresting to me. Since zero was out of the question, I landed on four.
The Rothbaum children quickly took shape. Their world began to come to life around them. All was well. Until it wasn’t. I suddenly noticed the pages were coming slower and slower, and I was rewriting what I’d written the day before on a daily basis.
I was stuck.
I told my editor this fact and I suggested I move on to one of the other four pitches. My editor slapped me in the face (figuratively) and told me to get back to work. I got back to work. The story progressed in small spurts. My heart wasn’t in it. At the same time, a new story idea jumped on top of me. I loved it. It was awesome. I wrote about 50 pages of it and gave it to my editor, basically saying “Hey! Let’s do this instead!”
Face slap. Back to work.
When I’d first been given my deadline, I’d laughed. Dr. Fell had taken half that time to write, so of course I’d make this deadline. Now, however, I began to worry I wouldn’t finish a first draft of the book in time. Panic ensued. There was much tearing out of hair.
But then something happened that is hard for me to describe. Basically, I fell in love with the story. The new-found love came upon me suddenly. I’d pushed my way through another chapter, gone to bed, and woken up excited. I sat down and quickly burned out two chapters in a day. Suddenly, everything fit. I read what I’d written already and found that I really liked it. I really enjoyed playing with the avocados! There was so much in this story for me to explore!
Maybe the writing gods smiled upon me while I slept. Maybe a brain cell fired a certain synapse in a certain way at a certain time. But from that point on, I wrote with the innocent glee of a young child opening up a Birthday present. Each chapter I wrote was something new and exciting, and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. I surprised myself and was both writer and reader--living the story in real time as I wrote it, and doing a lot of giggling along the way.
As I said at the top, I don’t recommend this particular writing process to anyone. It’s not nice to fight with your book. But when you have something worthwhile, you would do well to follow where it leads.

Because you never know when you’re going to find your avocados.

David Neilsen is the author of odd, weird, supernatural, and occasionally slightly disturbing stories. His debut novel, Doctor Fell and the Playground of Doom, was published by Crown Books for Kids (a division of Random House) in August of 2016. His next book, Beyond the Doors, will be published August 1, 2017. David is based next door to Sleepy Hollow, NY and also works as a professional storyteller up and down the Hudson River Valley. His one-man performances based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft have sent many screaming into the hills in search of their sanity while his education school presentations have inspired hundreds of Middle Grade-aged children.  Learn all you could ever hope to learn about David and his work by visiting his website at He is not a ninja.

Fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Coraline will devour this dark and creepy, humor-laced tale about four siblings who discover a mysterious world where secrets hide around every corner.
When a family disaster forces the four Rothbaum children to live with their aunt Gladys, they immediately know there is something strange about their new home. The crazy, circular house looks like it stepped out of a scary movie. The front entrance is a four-story-tall drawbridge. And the only food in Aunt Gladys’s kitchen is an endless supply of Honey Nut Oat Blast Ring-a-Dings cereal.
Strangest of all are the doors—there are none. Every doorway is a wide-open passageway—even the bathroom! Who lives in a house with no doors?
Their unease only grows when Aunt Gladys disappears for long stretches of time, leaving them alone to explore the strange house. When they discover just what Aunt Gladys has been doing with all her doors, the shocked siblings embark on an adventure that changes everything they believe about their family and the world.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Brianne Johnson

From Publisher's Marketplace: “I started at Writers House as starry-eyed intern in 2007 and worked my way up to Senior Agent over several years. I LOVE what I do, and am cultivating a pretty omnivorous list. My main focus is children’s books, but I also love some select adult fiction and offbeat nonfiction-—see below for a more precise breakdown.

I’m extra-crazy-picky with taking on picture books, but I do love them and rep them. I would love a great picture book series, like a Fancy Nancy or a Knuffle Bunny—something where we could see fabulous, memorable characters encounter a variety of new circumstances. My tastes tend to run toward the funny, here—very sweet, gentle picture books are just not for me. The same goes for chapter books. I’m particularly on the lookout for humorous, entertaining chapter books that also have some kind of educational angle to them, something that could be brought into a classroom to supplement the new Common Core Standards, and ALSO something a kid would gleefully reach for, themselves.

I’m also very interested in seeing illustration work for cover design and picture books, and would love to take on a great new author/illustrator.”

And now Brianne Johnson faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books? 

The entire Harry Potter series. Everything from the well plotted mystery within each contained book, to the steadily-building, overarching conflict stretched over the entire series, to the thorough and rewarding world building, to the cozy and often whimsical execution. I just think it's marvelously done.

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. It goes to show that the historical genre can be just as fun, funny, and relevant as contemporary stories.

The Weetzie Bat books by Francesca Lia Block. The combination of beautiful magical realism with gritty realistic subjects, and particularly the exploration of chosen family set in a fully realized counterculture environment, just makes those books an absolute delight.
Can I get a bonus round?  It’s SO hard to pick just three!  I lovvvvvve Roald Dahl.  And Shel Silverstein.  And for recently-published work, I’m really into smart middle grade like Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s and Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow.

I know the last paragraph is cheating.  I’m not sorry! :-)

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

 I actually watch almost no TV, but when I do, I like Game of Thrones, Planet Earth (I could listen to David Attenborough read the phone book) and man, did I love Stranger Things.

For movies, my favorites are Almost Famous, Forest Gump, Practical Magic, and pretty much all vintage Disney movies.  I am pretty much always singing a Disney song to myself.

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

Smart, talented, imaginative, professional, responsive, prolific.  A good balance of creative and business-minded.  Someone who truly loves writing.  There are so many people who just want to have written a book, and far fewer who truly enjoy the work of writing; who always want to take their writing craft to the next level.  This is a tall order, but I am truly searching for the best storytellers in the world. 

And it’s a huge plus when I love talking with them on the phone, whether it’s scheming about a future book, hashing out a tricky editorial note in a brainstorming session, or hearing about how they’re currently drafting in their dog’s dogbed, or how they are hiding in the pantry to talk to me so that their children would leave them alone, or how they’re finishing their edits while on tour with their jug band. I aim to represent authors for the longevity of their career, and I’ve repped many of my authors for years and years. So I suppose that’s all to say that warm, witty, wonderful weirdos make the best clients of all!

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

Right now I am probably most excited about literary debut middle grade that is unafraid to tackle enormous life-or-death themes in a modern and original way.  I especially love a unique execution, such as an epistolary novel, a story told out of order, or some other unique perspective or framing device. 

I also love a witchy book in ALL genres.  I’ll go for beach witch, goth witch, earth-loving nature witch, cut-a-witch-in-high-school witch, elbow witch (okay, I made that one up).  In any case, there are NOT enough good witch stories out there.  If you’ve got a witch story, TRY ME.

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

Knowing that I can discover, polish, and introduce exciting new talent and important stories to the world, stories that normalize difference and increase empathy and understanding, is wildly exciting to me, especially since children’s books can be so formative in a person’s life.  I have the ability to gather and amplify an incredible group of storytellers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and work to create big-hearted and inclusive books that will hopefully help kids feel more connected, more empathetic, and more accepting of themselves and of others. 

My least favorite thing is passing along rejection in all forms, but it’s a reality of the business.

Question Two: 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.  And then read some more.  Especially if you’re writing middle grade, you have to read SO much to really understand the middle grade voice, which is a delicate and crucial thing to absolutely nail.  And read recently-published middle grade.  Childhood favorites are okay, but if you want to sell your book to a trade publisher you really have to read books that have been published within the last two years.

My other advice for writing more literary middle grade is that you should be able to distill huge and very important emotional truths contained in your work for yourself in a concise sentence.  What is your book really about?  What are you trying to say?  It’s not enough to write a good story if you want to get noticed.  Your story must not only be great in a technical sense, but it also has to make the reader feel a certain way, very powerfully.  It’s the books that not only entertain, but that aren’t afraid to ask the big questions, questions that linger in a reader’s heart and mind long after the book has been read, that truly achieve the kind of immortality that most writers seek for their work.

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

I would have an elaborate three-course tea with Shel Silverstein aboard his ramshackle houseboat, The Evil Eye.  Talk about a witty, wonderful weirdo—his brain is delicious, and I would love to hear him talk about just about anything.  I would thank him from the bottom of my heart for his poetry, wax philosophically about The Missing Piece, and yell at him good-naturedly (and perhaps throw a scone or two) about The Giving Tree, a book I love to hate.

Friday, July 7, 2017

An Afterword for THE BOOK OF DAVID Part Two: "Pictures and Craft"

A quick reminder just in case you missed Part One of this Afterword, ideally to be read after you've read The Book of David: This book is not appropriate for younger readers. I wouldn't let my kid read it and I would never give a copy to your child. Should they obtain a copy elsewhere, this is me giving parents a heads up to use extreme discretion.

Don't write me an angry email or yell at me at a signing. Pay attention to your kids and what they're reading, dude.

All right, Esteemed Reader, hopefully it's just you, an adult old enough to have read the full novel and interested in some behind the scenes material, and me. But this is a public blog, so welcome whomever:)

I had a friend passively-aggressively leave behind a few church pamphlets during one of his ultra religious phases, which was irritating ("I'm judging you and worried you're going to Hell for not being as good as me"), but totally forgivable as one of those pamphlets featured a ridiculously sexualized depiction of Jesus on the cross. It's still hanging on my wall and never fails to make me smile. I've seen sex used to sell everything else, but religion? Really?

I'm not going to share that picture here because it doesn't match up exactly to the Sexy Jesus I described in the story. I think whatever erotic depiction of our Lord and Savior you conjured in your head as you read the story is perfect and I don't want to mess with it. The wonderful thing about a book is that it doesn't work without reader participation, which is why the scares are so much more personal than they could ever be in another medium. The reader has to help the writer terrify them by imagining the story in their head.

I once read a quote from a little boy in tears after he'd just seen the first Harry Potter film that made me cry. He told a reporter, "I got it wrong. I imagined Hogwarts all wrong."

I'm never sure just how much to share about these books of mine and how much to leave a mystery. On the one hand, we created the story in your head together and it's yours now. On the other hand, what's the point in writing these afterwords if I don't share some insight and some behind the scenes stuff?

So I'll make you a deal: I won't share the pamphlet that inspired Sexy Jesus (I also saw Ted Neely perform Jesus Christ Superstar in person), but I will share some ACTUAL PHOTOS from the four-wall mural painted on my son's room when we bought our house, starting with this guy:

Hopefully, the version you imagined in your head is scarier. I did my best to make him scarier. But I found the original painting creepy enough to start with before I started playing it up.

Actually, there are a lot of creepy animals painted on my son's walls that didn't make it into the book. Like what the heck was the painter thinking here? Tell me he didn't want to frighten children:

I think the animal paintings were a big part of what made me want to buy this house. I knew at once they were going in a story. I knew they'd work in The Book of David because I needed an equivalent for the hedge animals at the Overlook Hotel. As I revealed in part one of this post that my initial idea for this story came by simply tweaking The Shining, I decided early in the writing process to lean in toward that and make my first truly long horror story serve as my love letter to Stephen King--although I also wrote a lover letter just to be safe:)

There are multiple references to King's work throughout the five chapters. My favorite is a tie between the Takuro Spirit and the fact that all the souls in Heaven "float up here," though I do love the sentence: "Sexy Jesus strode across the desert, and David followed." The plot of BOD is an intentional remix of The Shining, both the novel and the film version.

I took a class on the films of Stanley Kubrick in college because it was available for a summer session and sounded like an easy way to fufill a credit requirement (it was). I came away with a deep appreciation for Kubrick, a lesser respect for the professor, and a whole lot more respect for Stephen King.

The professor annoyed me from the start because the only correct answer to any question was "Kubrick was a genius. Praise his holy name." A Clockwork Orange rules as does Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove, but I thought 2001 was "just okay," Barry Lyndon was a yawn fest no matter how excellent the lighting, and Eyes Wide Shut was so tedious it made nudity boring. I wrote the paper that would determine half my grade (the other half was determined by attendance, and yes, there were a lot of athletes in my class, why do you ask?) on a comparison between the novel and film version of The Shining. 

The conclusions I came to are that both are excellent tellings of the same story by two masters, showcasing their different strengths and weaknesses. King probably should've drank less, Kubrick was a huge a-hole, and neither of them handled the magical negro, Dick Halloran, in a way I'm completely comfortable with (more on that in a minute), but those heterosexual white guys sure could tell a story:) Ultimately, I got a 'B' on the paper because I suggested Kubrick's film wasn't 100% perfect and he was too busy trying to be smart to always be scary. Also, he made a lot of dickish criticisms of King's book while claiming he'd made a superior version by repackaging ideas already contained within the novel.

The Book of David is intentionally a remix of The Shining. I like to think that Stephen King, who wrote a remix of Dracula early in his career, wouldn't mind.

We've got a haunted house instead of a hotel and it's the wacky pop who's got the supernatural psychic abilities instead of the son (though I think on a long enough timeline, Peter would come into his own), wacky pop is the opposite of an alcoholic for much of the story, and it's mom who's the writer and eventually, the addict, and who chops through doors with an axe (point to Kubrick on that one as King's croquet mallet isn't as exciting).

There are multiple touch-points throughout The Book of David referencing The Shining so long as I didn't find them too intrusive. I never could find a spot for a fire-hose that becomes a snake or creepy twin girls and didn't go out of my way to create one. But you better believe it's not a coincidence that David has an interview with a man named Ullman, makes a bargain with a nonliving Entity in a meticulously described orange bathroom, has to contend with regenerating wasps nests, and B2-17 is totally a reference to Room 217 because of course it is. If you suspect something in my book is a reference to King's better book or Kubrick's film, I assure you it probably is ("Give me the knife, Andy").

One thing that is obviously missing in The Book of David is that there is no magical negro. In fact, there's no diversity among the cast whatsoever, which is something I went out of my way to establish. By all rights, Katrina Paskus should be the black friend as she's the closest proxy to a Dick Halloran character, but I made her white because my best friends from a small Indiana town are all white. Also, I promised my wife I would never write a magic negro character as she's black and they piss her off (we've been married more than a decade now, and she's lovely, but not magic). Once in a while I do my best Bagger Vance impression and assure her that "the rhythm of the game just like the rhythm of life," to keep things interesting:)

In fact, BOD has an (almost) all white cast because it's appropriate to the setting. It grew out of me telling my black father-in-law a story of my youth in a small Indiana town he deemed "a crazy white people story" (he meant it with love), and I thought, I'll tell you a crazy white people story.

I'm sure you regular Esteemed Readers remember that the main reason I gave up on traditional publishing was because mainstream publishers were uncomfortable with a white guy writing about a biracial character. I won't ever let a publisher tell me I have to write about exclusively white characters, but I'll totally do that sh*t if I feel like it:)

I'm writing Banneker Bones 2 now as penance. And besides, the racism in BOD is part of a larger theme as well as another touch point with The Shining. Both the film and the book drop N-bombs and if there's one decision I'm still not 100% confident in, it's my decision not to drop an N-bomb in BOD. The first draft contained a few and I don't believe in sacred words (or softening history), so I would definitely use the N-word in a story about slavery or the Klan (another bucket list item).

In the case of BOD, I found that the use of the N-word led to beta readers debating whether or not it was appropriate (it was). For this reason, I found that using the correct word I believe the characters might actually have said became too much of a distraction. And I wanted Esteemed Reader thinking "I wonder why racism is being brought up?" rather than "is Robert Kent himself a racist?"

I'm not against using the N-word in fiction when it correctly characterizes and is accurate in its deployment, but I never use it in conversation. When I sing along with Kanye, I sing "ninja." I don't mind looking black family members in the eye and saying, "yes, I used that word in a novel, never in your house," if the book truly called for it. But BOD doesn't absolutely call for it.

One of, if not the central theme of BOD is the momentum of the past and its impact on our protagonists. Thematically, one of the most important lines in the text is "Like so much of the United States, B2-17 felt to her like a collection of bad decisions made by some long dead white men no longer in this reality to suffer the consequences of those decisions." Stephen King wrote long pages about racist characters staying at the Overlook, Stanley Kubrick positioned a Calumet Can in different shots of his film, and I've got my sign for Brownsborough/Whitesville. The past is very much with all of us.

Originally, my plan was not to have any black characters in this story at all, because there are entire towns in Indiana that are still segregated. I grew up in one and I know some of what white people get up to when they're isn't any diversity to keep us honest. But by Chapter Four, I found that I wasn't completely against David even though I guessed Esteemed Reader might be, and his treatment of Susannah got me mostly onboard team f**k that guy.

I mean, sure, he was crazy, but it wasn't entirely his fault, and he was only killing hedge fund managers and politicians:). Any politician who supports the total repeal of their constituents' health care and the death of innocent people so another tax break can be given to the upper class might not actually be in league with Satan, but I ask you, if the result is the same, what difference does it make?

I think it's of great significance that I wrote the majority of this serial novel containing some definite political ranting in 2016. I cannot recall another election quite like the farce we held that year. I don't want to rehash that unpleasant contest as I didn't vote for either major political party's candidate and I don't really care who you voted for, Esteemed Reader. 

But there was more anger in the populace than I can recall seeing during any other election in my lifetime. I found myself hating both Republicans and Democrats and fantasizing about a way in which I might be able to stop them and all their banker friends, who never went to jail despite my vote for hope and change eight years previous.

In the aftermath of current political events, I'm not sure how we go on from here. A revolution--hopefully a non-violent one--is inevitable. Our elected officials cannot be this openly evil and this openly corrupt and the rest of us still pretend we're living in a free country. 

How can we ever again take the office of the US President serious now that it's been held by Donald Trump? How can we can take the Democratic Party serious after they openly stabbed Bernie Sanders in the back and made it clear they don't care what the people want?

Of all the outdated momentum from the past the characters encounter in BOD, perhaps the greatest is the American political system. We're still operating on a patched-together shamble of laws originally conceived when people wrote with feathers and quills by candlelight. It's a system designed to benefit a certain class of heterosexual white males and its not coincidence that it continues to do so. That's what it's meant to do. If you want a system that supports all Americans, we're going to need a new system. Period.

That being said, I am not in favor of violent revolutionary tactics. Yes, we can all see that the United States has the largest prison population by far because we're the sort of as$h*les who make that and healthcare profitable for a select class, but that doesn't mean it's okay to kill innocent citizens to change society.

I'm also not playing fair in BOD. If you and I went out for a beer to discuss political policy, I would never be as extreme as the tone of BOD. My opinions are far more nuanced. It truly bothers me that we haven't punished any bankers and that those who are hoarding the nation's wealth aren't afraid of the rest of us. Otherwise, I'm generally pretty reasonable on most issues and I usually land somewhere in the middle between the extreme left or right.

But moderation in politics doesn't make for an exciting story. I want Esteemed Reader half on David's side by the end of Chapter Five, so I did my best to amp them up over the previous four chapters. I'm not going to slow the momentum of the novel by presenting every counterpoint to every political assertion made because this isn't a civics class, it's a horror story.

The day is coming when Americans are going to have to stand up and take their country back from the oppressive elite. Or the oppressive elite will likely stop messing around and crack down on the citizenry hard until we're all Ferguson, MO. The only thing that scares me more is how many nuclear weapons are out there just waiting to be picked up by the disenfranchised Americans politicians have been perfectly clear they don't care about. 

No doubt, much of my research for BOD has landed me on a watch list or two. I'll end this afterword by showing you the 60-minutes piece that scared the crap out of me and inspired much of the end of this story. I figure if this is the base approved for media coverage, how much worse off are the top secret bases whose top secret funding has likely been skimmed?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An Afterword for THE BOOK OF DAVID Part One: "Inception and Autobiography"

Esteemed Reader, if ever there was a strange book to promote from a site traditionally devoted to Middle Grade fiction, it's The Book of David. But this is my site (I can barely be bothered to manage one website, let alone a second), so we're doing this thing:) 

As much as I love writing stories targeted to a younger audience, I also love extremely gory fiction with gratuitous profanity, and life's too short to worry what other people might think about the disparity between my loves. I am who I am, I love what I love, and as seemingly anti-middle-grade as it is to have published this bonkers book that's likely to offend a whole lot of people, I'm as proud of The Book of David as I am of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees.

All that being said, although we're not going to discuss sex or violence in this post (just lost half its readership, I'm sure), and I'm not going to swear, I am going to discuss a story that contains all of those things and more. It also contains my only character (to date) who happens to be a middle grade writer. For that reason, I think some Esteemed Readers who enjoy this blog might also enjoy The Book of David, if you can get past all the swearing... and the sex... and the violence.. and the blasphemy.

The Book of David, which I will from this paragraph forward mostly refer to as BOD to save space, has a warning on its first page and in its book description for a reason. This book is not appropriate for younger readers. I wouldn't let my kid read it and I would never give a copy to your child. Should they obtain a copy elsewhere, this is me giving parents a heads up to use extreme discretion.

Don't write me an angry email or yell at me at a signing. Pay attention to your kids and what they're reading, dude.

Also, this is an afterword, to be read after you've read the book. Why you'd want to read this before and spoil the surprises of the story I've worked so hard to craft for you, I don't know. You can do whatever you like, but if I get a vote, I vote you read the book first. 

There are other non-spoiler aspects of BOD I've discussed elsewhere that I won't be discussing in depth here. So if you want me to know my thoughts on UFOs, or why there are so many gosh darn cuss words in the book, or you just want me to admit I want to be Stephen King when I grow up, here are some posts related to BOD in which I discuss those things:

          An Open Letter to Stephen King

          Author, Year Two

          Author, Year Three

          On Using Naughty Words in Fiction

          On Conspiracy Theories and Flying Saucers

          Funeral for a Friend (in which I discuss my failed novel)

          On the Destructive Desire for Fame (And Ben Affleck)

For this afterword, I'm specifically going to discuss some of my experiences writing BOD and some of the personal autobiographical elements that inevitably make their way into every work of fiction (or at least, they do in mine). I'm also going to share with you some insights, including some photos from my son's nursery readers might enjoy seeing (those are in Part Two). I wonder about the wisdom of sharing too much as I think some things are better left to the reader's imagination. 

So let me preface everything by saying: regardless of the author's thoughts on his story, the reader's experience is her own.

If you thought the best theme song for BOD should've been "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, I disagree, but that's a great song and it's your call. Over the year and a half it took me to write all five chapters of BOD, 200+ songs found their way into my writing playlist, many of them mentioned in the book. Favorites were "Power" by Kanye West, "Handlebars" by Flobots, "Reckoner" by Radiohead, "You Die or I do" by Hans Zimmer, "Imagine" as sung by Scott Bakula (naturally), "My Body is a Cage" as sung by Peter Gabriel, "When You See Those Flying Saucers" as sung by The Charles River Valley Boys, and "Soul on Fire" by Third Day. And just what sort of Hoosier would I be if I wrote an Indiana story without listening to John Cougar Melencamp's little ditty about "Jack and Diane?"

But in my mind the song that will forever be mentally linked to BOD is "A Blessing" by Max Richter. I've read that writing is a form of self hypnosis and I don't doubt it. I find it useful to have a theme song of sorts to begin each writing session to put me in "the mood" of the story. The somber, beautiful, hopeful, yet heartbreaking sounds of Richter's strings brought to my mind the sort of slow motion tragedy I intended to write. I didn't want to write just satire or horror, though I'll count myself lucky to have accomplished either; I wanted to move the reader the way Max Richter moved me. I can't imagine Miriam Walters wailing in the street outside her haunted house or David Walters finally telling his father, "I only ever wanted you to love me," without thinking of "A Blessing."

Right off the bat, it's a bit of a spoiler for me to tell you that of the many writers and works I drew upon to influence the creation of BOD, the foremost works my book is consciously modeled after are The Shining and, perhaps less immediately apparent, Stranger in a Strange Land. A great debt is also owed to the comedy of Bill Hicks, who I think would've got on well with Sexy Jesus, multiple articles published at, Hugh Howey's Wayfinding series, Vince Gilligan, as I've jokingly, but half-seriously thought of this story as "Breaking God," and the research and lectures of Richard Dolan, my favorite UFO historian, who was kind enough to email some words of support during the writing of BOD that meant quite a lot to me.

There are two quotes from Robert Heinlein about Stranger in a Strange Land that I kept in mind while crafting my own novel. When facing pressures to tone down the more controversial aspects of his masterpiece, he said, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini." As to the reaction of certain readers to his work, he said,  “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.” 

That pretty well covers it and I cannot improve upon Heinlein, so when it comes to my own novel, I'll just say, "what he said."

I can't always tell you where the ideas for my stories come from, but with BOD, I can: I was actively looking for an idea. I wanted to write a serial novel (it's a bucket list item I can now check off), I wanted it to be a horror story for adults, and I wanted it to be something I thought older fans of All Together Now would enjoy. Having recently become parents, Mrs. Ninja and I were house shopping to leave apartment life and the last of our extended adolescence behind. So a haunted house story seemed a natural choice and another bucket list item to be checked off.

I was debating whether or not there was anything new to be done with a haunted house I hadn't read multiple versions of already. I'd just about decided there was not when an only just barely original idea occurred to me: what if at the end of The Shining, Jack Torrance carried a Bible instead of a croquet mallet and instead of talking to ghosts to help him find Danny and Wendy, he had a whole church congregation saying "right this way, brother, they're over here."

That idea made me laugh hysterically as the best ideas so often do (you can't fake love), and then immediately terrified me. "Don't you dare write that, Kent," I told myself. "You already ticked off enough religious folks with the zombie stories. Why would a nice Middle Grade Ninja like yourself want to upset your mother with such an offensive and outrageous tale destined to result in angry one-star reviews and emails and a general wishing of ill will upon you? Don't you dare write that story! Write something nice."

This was sensible advice, so I got back to work on Banneker Bones 2 and Zombies 3. But the thing about a great idea is that it won't leave you alone. Stephen King has said he never writes down his ideas as the good ones fight for a writer's attention, and I've found that to be very true. I was busy buying a house and living my life and the voice in my head that speaks up when my subconscious has worked out a story problem would every so often whisper tantalizing details to me: "the man's name is David and he has special powers because he's maybe/maybe not been appointed to be God's prophet. He believes he's an atheist and he's got a real sensible job, like a banker or something, but you can't fight destiny." And I would say, "No, the man's name is nothing, because I'm not writing that."

"It could end with a shocker like Stranger in a Strange Land--I mean,not exactly like that, but not not like that."
"Lalalala, I'm not listening."
"There's a painting on David's wall that talks to him. Guess Who the painting's of? Just guess. Sexy Jesus."
"That's even more offensive than the original idea! I'm not doing this. I mean that's pretty good, but... what would David even preach about?"
"The End Times, of course. And bankers, because seriously, f**k bankers. And David is himself a banker, so how deliciously ironic, right? Oh, and UFOs since you have to use all that 'research' you've done late at night on YouTube for something."
"Oooh, that's... that's... No, I'm not writing that. But if I did write it, could I call it The Book of David?"
"Crap. I can't not write it now. I'll spend the rest of my life wishing I had."

To understand why this idea so captured my imagination, I should share some personal information, beginning with where the title comes from. I was once a smart alec kid trapped in Sunday School who knew enough about the Bible to make my teacher hopeful, but was enough of a thinker to ask all the vexing questions that follow anyone compelling one to take something on faith. 

And sometimes I'd quote Bible verses that didn't, strictly speaking, exist, but which should've. On one such occasion when my teacher called my bluff and asked me to find the verse, I told her it was in "The Book of David." All the other kids laughed and it became a running joke when I spoke up and I laughed as well, but in the back of my mind I thought, "one day you'll see." So the title of my novel itself is its own bucket list item.

I don't write autobiographies. A novel about me playing video games while I listen to audiobooks after a day of spending time with my family would interest no one, not even me. Doubtless, some readers will ascribe qualities of my characters and their situation to me. No offense taken as this is a common experience for most authors and kinda goes with the territory. 

But for the record, I have (to date) never seen a flying saucer or a demonic alien (that I'm aware of), nor lived in a haunted house, nor been addicted to pills or booze or any of the other drugs in this book I had to research to write about, nor French kissed a baby (I once heard about a creep who did and have wondered about him ever since), nor had a conversation with any come-to-life paintings. My marriage is much, much better than the Walters' as is my relationship with my parents, which is much less compelling for a book. I have bumped into a couple situations of high strangeness, but I'm saving some of those for future novels:)

I have struggled with a cigarette addiction (I'm not smoking now unless you've got an extra cigarette) and I did grow up in a small Indiana town. I did buy a house not long ago and switch to part-time work so that my son wouldn't have to go to daycare (I would've never just quit my job without Mrs. Ninja's consent; WTF, Miriam!?!). None of those things is interesting enough on its own to sustain a novel, so I added a whole lotta lies to reveal some metaphorical Truths.

Here is something that is true: my grandmother lived in a house across from the park in the small Indiana town where I grew up and it really did have a white sign with multi-colored lettering on its front that read "Jesus Wants To Give YOU Eternal Life" (I added the exclamation point in the book) and it really was a local landmark. I love my Grandmother and I miss her terribly (if there is an afterlife, she's the one I'm presently most looking forward to seeing), but I hated that stupid sign. When the school bus passed her house, not every day, but enough days, someone would mock me for it. That sign is present in many family photos and forever printed across my memory. To the best of my knowledge, the house that the sign was attached to is haunted only by memories, most of them good.

But over the years, the message of that sign, "Jesus Wants To Give YOU Eternal Life," began to seem to me less like an enticing offer and more like a threat.

This same beloved grandmother was once chased by a flying saucer. I believed her when she told me about it and I've never doubted her since. I also had a cousin who saw multiple flying saucers, which really ticked her off as she was a strict science teacher and extremely uncomfortable with the experience she probably would've never admitted to having if she'd been alone. The memory of her annoyance as she tried to tell me facts about the world and I insisted on asking her again about the flying saucers still makes me smile. Over the years, I've collected enough credible UFO stories from various sources that I find staunch non-believers tiresome and silly.

Here is something else that is true, though more difficult to discuss and less likely to be believed: I have, at different times in my life, experienced moments of extreme intuition and Déjà vu. I believe this is a common experience that folks mostly keep to themselves. To be crystal clear, I am not saying I have super powers or even a particularly practical skill. But at different times in my life, I've had flashes of insight that should't have been possible for me to have in reality as I've come to expect it to behave; experiences that have led me to question the nature of existence and refuse outright atheism. Here is an account I wrote about one such experience. Good fiction reveals a truth inside the lie, and you can choose not to believe me on this point, but believe that I believe it, and it is a Truth I wanted to express.

I believe psychic communication is possible as are a whole lot of other wacky scenarios in part because of my own experiences, even though they've been mostly mundane stuff. Sometimes I'll recognize someone's future importance to me the moment I first meet them. When I met Mrs. Ninja, I knew pretty quickly she was the one. I've known when something tragic was coming and something good, but I can't decide what to know or when and I've had plenty of false alarms. I wouldn't pick a stock or place a bet based on my intuition, but when my sixth sense kicks in, I've learned to pay attention, and I've talked to plenty of folks who've had similar experiences. The world is an interesting place and there are odd things in it to be found by those who go looking.

When our realtor showed us the house we would buy, I knew it was the one as soon as we pulled up. I experienced flashes of our living here as though they were already memories (This is the place, welcome home). You can think I'm a crackpot (did I mention I believe in flying saucers?), but I've had similar experiences throughout my entire life and I'm just being honest because I have no doubt there are Esteemed Readers who know exactly what I'm talking about. I have often wondered if this sense of mine wouldn't one day come in handy when at last divine prophecies were revealed to me, because...

Here is one other thing that's true: I occasionally preached as an adolescent, though never at the level of David Walters. After one occasion of my speaking in front of our church, a respected missionary who was a man of great faith and integrity really and truly did pull me aside and tell me that God had revealed to him that I, Robert Kent, future author of Pizza Delivery, would one day be a prophet of the Lord.

Honest. That happened.

It wasn't the exact scenario I wrote in my story, because, again, where's the fun in that? If Esteemed Reader wanted real life, they wouldn't be reading fiction. I didn't smack my head on a podium or see any bright lights or aliens. That's all bullcrap I added to show Esteemed Reader a good time. People like stories that are fun and full of conflict.

I remember the moment of this man telling me of my coming prophecy very clearly. He held my shoulders as he spoke the declaration with all the seriousness of Garrick Ollivander giving Harry Potter his wand. He went back to the mission field quickly after that, so I never got to ask many follow-up questions. But I've never forgotten our conversation and it has weighed on me heavily during different periods of my life. I've both longed for it to be true and been terrified at the possibility that it might be.

One last thing that actually happened: When I was first learning to drive, I was behind the wheel on a trip from Chicago back to small town Indiana and I really did have occasion to slam the brakes while traveling at 65 miles-per-hour. My father was in the passenger side seat, my brother was sleeping in the back, and we all screamed as the family roadster spun around in the center of the highway, cars passing on either side. Did God save us? It certainly felt like it at the time and I haven't come up with a better explanation in all the intervening years. Nor was that the only time I've been bailed out by Something greater than myself.

So am I God's prophet? Dude, I don't know. I hate to say "no" as it's a fun fantasy to indulge in. I will say that my prophetic status strikes me as an extremely dubious proposition. I can think of far more popular blogs than this one and more successful authors far better positioned than me for God to use as His mouthpiece for mankind (one would think He'd pick a filmmaker, or at least a writer with less of a potty mouth).

I can't promise that an angel won't yet come to me to reveal The Truth and command me to share it with the world. But I'm older than Jesus ever was at this point without having had even a single prophetic vision and should I start having them now, I imagine my credibility will be greatly undercut by my having published this fictional account of a man who does have such visions. This was one of the reasons I wrote the book; as an insurance policy:)

Tell you what: though I took most of the predictions David makes from actual doctrines, if some of it starts to come true, we'll know I called it because I was a prophet:)

What's important for our purposes is that I did believe this missionary when I heard him and for a long time after. While growing up, I used to fantasize about one day writing books or making movies (or both), then I'd remind myself that I really needed to be preparing for my coming prophecy.

When I got older and ditched my faith for a time, I laughed bitterly at the memory and concluded that this missionary was either a loon or worse, a liar (smug, young punk atheists are quick to write off large portions of the world as crazy).

Was it the missionary's schtick, I wondered. None of the other kids at my church had been told they would be prophets (I asked), but was it possible this creepy dude went from church to church and occasionally pulled aside the kid he judged most likely to be a sucker? I have a brother and two sisters who have all been missionaries, and two of them have been ministers, so obviously there's something to Proverbs 22:6, which was the key Bible verse that propelled my desire to write BOD.

While we're on the subject of Bible verses, I should mention that none of the verses quoted in BOD are actually replicated in any existing editions of the good book. It turns out Bible translations are copyrighted, which is gross and wrong and one of many terrible things about the modern world and possibly evidence of Satan's work in publishing (joking, mostly). But I don't want to be sued, so every "Bible verse" in BOD is my own translation, worded however I felt best suited the story. I remember my own disappointment in finding Ezekial 25:17 in the King James Bible is nothing like Jules Winnfield thinks it is:)

Esteemed Reader, that brings us to a discussion of the actual writing of BOD and the techniques employed, and as I see that this Afterword is quickly catching up in length to the book,  why don't we save that for next time? We'll be discussing the crafting of the story and the characters in Part Two and I'll show you some pictures of the animals actually painted on the walls of Little Ninja's nursery, if you'd care to join me...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

GUEST POST: "The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent" by Mark Gottlieb

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter…  

Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

5)   FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

4)   DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3)   PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author?  It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

2)   READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

1)   THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on in Overall Deals and other categories.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

NINJA STUFF: Funeral For A Friend (in which I discuss my failed novel)

It's a somber occasion, Esteemed Reader, so I hope you're wearing a black tie. Today I say goodbye to a book I once loved and still have some feelings for, even if I'm the only one. Actually, my critique partners and Mrs. Ninja also have strong feelings for the book, but not positive ones:)

I have a whole bookcase full of old manuscripts and screenplays, but most of them I promise myself can eventually be developed into better books. And why not? Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees took five years of revision before it was published and Pizza Delivery took 13. I have other stories that aren't ready for a readership yet, but may be revisited, even my 300-page screenplay about Batman. I've got a western that I would totally rework and publish if I could just get myself to change its inappropriate title (won't do it), an erotic horror novella that will never see the light of day, a story about a dying hooker that was good for me to write at the time and that no one should have to read, and some other stories that are actually pretty good that I hope to one day rewrite and make available.

But Straw Houses, my first epic adult horror novel about victims of alien abduction, has been picked over for parts and its ashes have been spread over my other works. All Together Now: A Zombie Story stole part of its ending, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees stole some of its characters (Grandma Juanita was the only character in Straw Houses I genuinely liked, and I transported her to Banneker's world as an apology for first putting her in such a terrible novel), and now The Book Of David has stolen its best scenes and ideas. In fact, that last book is very much Straw Houses 2.0, and if I've finally written a decent long horror story involving UFO lore, it's only because I first devoted a couple years of my life learning how NOT to write a long horror story involving UFO lore. 

So what went wrong? Like an athlete watching old games or comedians listening to past routines, I think authors should revisit their own works from time to time to assess their weaknesses and strategize for future victory. So this post will be a useful exercise for me and possibly interesting to you writers out there as well. And if it's not, next week we'll be back to interviews with authors, publishing professionals, and guest posts by the same. Plenty of useful archives for you to read if me mourning my dead book doesn't interest you:)

Here are the issues with Straw Houses as I see now them on this side of seven years past two years' writing and revising and rewriting and revising:

1. I didn't have a plan going in. Every writer has to decide where they sit on the spectrum between diligent, plodding plotter and fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantser, free-spirited, I-just-write-it-as-it-comes-to-me-man-cause-its-my-art-man dirty hippie:) Through trial and error, I've learned I do better if I know the ending up front (or at least have a good idea what it might be). I leave open the possibility that the characters will change the ending, and they frequently do, but not by much.

With Straw Houses, I had a lot of passion because I was nine years younger, not yet married or a father, and more of a UFO enthusiast. I was evangelical in my suspicions of conspiracy. I've since mellowed and backed off, having learned the hard way that it pays to be cautious with overly-interesting theories:) But in my enthusiasm, I decided to take an interesting situation: a small town Indiana couple, interracial like Betty and Barney Hill, comes to in their car, parked on a country road, with no memory of the five hours that have just passed. Meanwhile, another man in town is menaced by a UFO late at night that appears in his backyard and speaks to him. The two stories converge because the men are coworkers who confess their separate incidents after a UFO appears above the Harrington courthouse and one of them snaps a picture of it that becomes world-famous.

It's a good set up for a novel. Even now, knowing how it turned out, I still feel the opening was pretty swell. It's got plenty of intrigue and I may yet write at least a short story in which a UFO shows up over the courthouse of a small Indiana town because that is just pure fun. Aside from a few other issues we'll come to, I think the first 100-150 pages of Straw Houses is one of my most gripping openings. Unfortunately, the book went on for another 700 pages and I had no clue what happened next:) I just assumed I'd figure it out as I went. I didn't.

2. The characters weren't likable or, worse, interesting. The main character, Charles Cavanaugh, was a jerk who whined a lot, treated his wife poorly, and didn't have a goal other than to stop being abducted by aliens. That's motivation enough for the protagonist of a short story (Brock Clouser's main motivation in Pizza Delivery is not to get murdered) but not a stupid-long novel.

Charles was a financial consultant at Mitchell and Reynolds Investments because I always thought it was funny that a straight-edge banker be abducted by aliens, which is why David Walters works at the same branch in The Book of David and meets many of the characters from Straw Houses, which is interesting only to me and the handful of other people who read my first attempt:) Charles' wife, Christine, is even worse, and the two of them together were deplorable. They were always fighting.

The couple wasn't fighting because I was ticked at Mrs. Ninja and looking for a place to put it, but because conflict drives stories and I hadn't given the Cavanaughs an actionable conflict, so they turned on each other to keep pages turning:) And, okay, I was contemplating getting married and chose to create a worst-case scenario marriage. Ultimately, the Cavanaughs fought so much I convinced myself and my few readers their relationship was doomed, so there wasn't anything at stake. The other characters were a little better, but not much because...

3. I never established a clear concept or overarching conflict to drive the novel. Whoops:) The number one thing I learned about writing my first long horror story about UFOs is that "realistic" aliens make lousy villains. Fictional aliens to which I can assign a motive and make clear their plan would probably be bang-up antagonists, and I'm sure I'll write about some eventually. But I wanted to incorporate as many details from modern UFO sightings and abductions as possible, and if you've done that research (here's a place to start), you'll notice there is no consensus about where flying saucers come from and what their motives are.

That's fine for an hour-long program of talking heads on the History Channel, but it's not's fine for a long novel. I had the same problem as the film Twister in that my villains weren't worthy villains with a goal that brings them into conflict with the "hero" in a credible way ("You've never seen a tornado miss this house and miss that house and come after you!").

About 300 pages in, after multiple UFO encounters and detailed flashbacks to suppressed memories of alien abduction, my characters began to suspect that the aliens were actually demons. The problem then is the demonic aliens still didn't have a clear plan or motivation other than to mess with our heroes, apparently by convincing one of them that she had alien babies being raised on another planet. Worse, the heroes could now pray the aliens away, which is not an exciting finale to a long novel.

My attempted solution was to hold off revealing that the demons were aliens until the end of the novel after Charles Cavanaugh attempted multiple means of fighting them off. But this just exacerbated the original problem of the villains being without a clear motive, leaving our hero without a real goal, until page 750 or so. Even my mother isn't going to read a story like that.

4. I molded the story to serve its theme rather than allowing the theme to emerge from the story. In my mind, Straw Houses was destined to be literature read and studied for ages to come. What a fool I was. Only The Book of David and my other super important and impressive volumes of literature will be studied by future generations:)

About the same time I decided the aliens were demons, which is to say way too far along in the novel to reconsider, I decided they must be the big bad wolf. Oh my God, put on your tweed jacket with the leather patches and light your pipe, I've got myself a metaphor! I had two households being antagonized by a big bad wolf. If I had a third,  he could metaphorically huff and puff and blow two houses down, but then also the third, because in the end don't we all live in Straw Houses (Get it? Get it? I hate you, me from the past).

So I added a third house and a fourth major character about 300 pages in for the soul purpose of later killing him and showing that his metaphorical house wasn't built so good after all. At one point the demonic aliens called him on the phone and were all like, "Are you scared? We know your phone number!!!" And this happened because he wasn't tied into the main plot that was already going.

5. I ended a very long book with a total downer ending. This goes hand in hand with my previous mistake as missteps build on each other to lead a writer way off path.

I've always been suspicious of that third little pig in the brick house. Why's he so happy at the end of the story? Both his brothers got ate up and he's all alone. I mean, he's safe, so long as he never goes outside again. I realize I'm reading too much into an allegory, but I maintain that third pig is not a happy fellow.

So, after 800 some-odd pages of UFOs torturing our three households (or huffing and puffing) one character kills himself, one gets shot by a woman who is herself possessed by an alien demon, one character is killed when she attempts to flee the ritual suicide of a UFO cult, and our main character, Charles Cavanaugh, is left all alone to mourn his dead homies and never be happy again. Here's the actual ending:

     Only Charles remained. He was the smart pig who built his house of brick, the wise man who built his house upon the stone. The rains came down and the winds came up, and the wolf huffed and puffed, but he couldn’t get old Charles’s house down. Charles Cavanaugh was the wise man living on the rock. Charles Cavanaugh was the clever pig in the brick house and he was doing just fine, thank you very much.
     Charles filled his glass to the brim with whiskey and a dash of Sprite. He listened to the roar of the surf outside the kitchen window and the quiet stillness all around him. There were no voices, no other sounds of any kind. There was no one else here, only him.
     Charles raised the glass to his lips and began to drink.

Now, if I were Esteemed Reader, after dutifully acknowledging that I'd clearly just read the next Adventures of Huckleberry Finn penned by a modern master of the craft whose every brilliant sentence allows me to believe in a brighter tomorrow, I might be ticked to have read so much story only for all the characters to die or otherwise be miserable and no resolution to be had for any of them. I know all of my critique partners were angry:)

Metaphorically, it's true that every character in the story had demonstrated the weakness that led to their undoing, but that just makes readers want to know about the characters who didn't screw up their lives and my 800-page tome would've been better off including some (even if it messed up the three-little pigs motif, which is better left to James Patterson).

So, from this experience, I learned that as a rule, downer endings are more acceptable at the end of shorter works. Readers are generally more forgiving if they've invested less time with the doomed protagonists. Better yet is the downer ending that's still somewhat happy for at least one or two major characters. Conversely, a happy ending is better tempered with at least a little darkness.

One mistake I made with Straw Houses that is no longer a mistake was the length. The plot problems would've still been an issue had it been a shorter book, though I might've got away with a narrative poem:)  I like long horror novels and am convinced there is still a market for them. And there's a very good reason some of my most favorite horror novels have been long.

The most astute critique I ever heard of Stephen King came from a fellow Burger King employee many, many years ago when the Ninja was a teenager. We both agreed the stories were amazing, and by far the scariest, but he remarked, "Doesn't it seem like if you shook hands with that dude at a party, you'd have to chew through your wrist to get away?" I have thought about that criticism ever since every time I reread King's works but also when I read other long books.

I've talked at length about my undying love for Stephen King, but my coworker did have a point. There have been a few Stephen King novels when I've wondered if the editor just didn't feel comfortable asking Mr. King to please not review other writer's books in the middle of the book Constant Reader paid for (get a blog, man). And yet most of King's novels are white-hot reading experiences demanding to be read as quickly as possible that are still popular decades after they were written, despite large word counts. So either Stephen King is just super lucky every book (and no doubt, some luck was involved), or there's a method to his madness.

Many of Stephen King's books thrive on details. They have to. He's asked Constant Reader to suspend their disbelief by quite a lot on numerous occasions.

The Shining has a cast of four major characters in a straightforward horror story that can be boiled down to a few sentences or endless 2-5 minute animated parodies. King took 160,000 words to tell his version and it worked and continues to work. King is a master salesman who convinces Constant Reader that his characters are real people because Constant Reader will know everything that's relevant about them. King convinces that the situation those real characters are in is real as well.

Even if it takes King 444,000 words, Constant Reader will believe there is a killer clown in the sewers capable of transforming into their worst fear and Constant Reader will believe because every detail about that fantasy will add up to an argument convincing enough until the lights come on again.

Straw Houses at its longest draft was 182,000 words. A literary agent literally laughed in my face when I told her. Nobody was going to traditionally publish a novel that long by a debut author, she said, and she was right. That's not the same as saying there aren't readers looking for long horror stories. If they've read King (and what kind of jerk loves horror and doesn't read King?), they know those seemingly mundane details add up, like the passes of a hypnotist's golden watch, to convince the reader the story is real and that they should be terrified.

The compilation of all five volumes of The Book of David is 276,000 words. I knew going in it would be a long story because it asks the reader to suspend their disbelief about a whole lot of stuff, the least of which is that flying saucers and alien abductions are real and a practical concern for everyday people:) But I learned my lesson from previous mistakes and published this very long story as five books, which allows for marketing considerations. 

Because I only get paid for the fifth book if Esteemed Reader made it through the first four, this insured that I would be forced to keep the narrative focused with built in cliffhangers.

I did a few other things differently in writing The Book of David that I knew to do only because I'd first written Straw Houses:

1. I absolutely had a plan going in. I knew what the last chapter would be before I wrote the first one, while keeping the plot flexible enough to allow the characters to dictate their own actions (sometimes). I didn't have a full outline, but I did have a list of planned events to help me determine where each chapter needed to start and stop to get where I wanted to go.

2. I had a clear concept going in: The Walters family has bought a haunted house. From the first line of Chapter One to the last line of Chapter Five, this is a haunted house story. There are aliens and flying saucers, but the reader is told in Chapter One as well as in the book's description that those aliens may actually be demons. There's an alien with demonic horns on the cover. My cards are pretty much on the table from the start. And the aliens are prominently featured without ever bearing the responsibility of being the primary antagonist. This is a haunted house story with aliens in it, not an alien story with a haunted house in it. 

3. Because I knew the ending, I knew some of what the themes were likely to be and allowed them to emerge from the story rather than bending the story to serve the themes. If you read the whole story from start to finish and don't pick up that this is a story in part about addiction and in part about parenting, you won't be bothered because the plot moves right along without your needing to pick the themes up. If you don't think it's thematically relevant that every volume starts with "Do you believe? Do you have faith?" than maybe it isn't. I'm okay with The Book of David being thematically misunderstood so long as Esteemed Reader is entertained and kept in suspense. This is a for fun story, not homework.

4. David and Miriam Walters are both flawed characters, but they're also likeable and they have actionable goals. I know because I used critique partners' and beta readers' feedback to rewrite my characters until I knew they were likeable and I wrote out fact sheets about them to keep them consistent through five volumes of story. I know all kinds of details about them that aren't relevant enough to be in the book. It thrilled my heart when one Esteemed Reader wrote in a review, "The main character David is down to earth and likable which is a good part of what makes this book so enjoyable to read." I couldn't have paid someone to write a better compliment than that, assuring me the book was doing what I wanted it to do.

5. The ending is satisfying, whatever the author's opinion of it does for you:) I didn't write 279,000 words just to tell you the ending on my free blog, but I do feel it's my best ending of all my stories so far published. It makes me smile to think of how I hope Esteemed Reader will feel when they reach it.

There were many other mistakes made in Straw Houses, some of which I'm probably still making because I don't yet know they were mistakes:) But every story I've told since Straw Houses has been better because I wrote that ill-fated novel destined to sit on my shelf of manuscripts not good enough. Straw Houses taught me the lessons I needed to know to write the manuscripts that are.

That shelf of old manuscripts isn't a graveyard of failed dreams. It's a monument to the heroic efforts made by the stories who went first so future stories could resonate with Esteemed Reader. 

"The Lord has appointed you to a special duty in these last days and given your life a unique purpose. Will you turn away from the myriad temptations of this wicked world and answer His righteous calling?"

The Walters family has just purchased the perfect home if only it weren't located in the small hick town of Harrington, Indiana, and if only it weren't haunted. David Walters is an atheist now, but his minister father taught him from a young age that Satan would one day deceive all mankind by pretending his demons were extraterrestrials. The day the Walters family moves in, they spot a flying saucer outside their new home. Things only get stranger from there. David Walters is about to learn what it means to be truly haunted, forcing him to confront his past, fight for his family, his soul, and his sanity.


This horror story is intended for a mature audience. It's filled with adult language, situations, and themes. It's in no way appropriate for the easily offended or younger readers of BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES.