Tuesday, November 3, 2015

GUEST POST: "On Hearing Voices and Improvising Relationships" by Gary Schwartz

My bio states that I’m an actor who began as a mime and ended up doing voices in film, animation and video games. I’d written material for myself and my partner as part of the comedy team of Schwartz and Chung. I also wrote some screenplays and teleplays too, but it is only recently I can call myself a published novelist. Being a voice actor with credits in many films, animations and video games, helped me enjoy the process of writing of my first book, The King of Average.  

Writing presented a lot of hurdles for me: story construction, plotting, word choice, tenses, and sentence flow were hard, but what made it fun for me was doing the voices. I think the most fun I had writing the book was when my characters talked to each other. I not only heard them in my head, I gave them voices I could actually do. 

Of course that means I’m now at work recording the audio version. Lucky for me, I work cheap.

The book grew in ways I didn’t predict because I let the characters improvise truthfully. I kind of ‘took dictation’ while they argued, discussed, or confessed. A lot like a ventriloquist who swears what comes out of the dummy’s mouth would never come from the person manipulating the dummy, there’s a great feeling that comes with letting your characters speak their mind.  It led me to travel, plot-wise, where I might not have gone adhering to an outline. That made this book very hard to shape, but that was my process.  

I thank my writing mentor, Susan Hughes and Booktrope’s editors and early readers immensely for making this book turn out as good as it did. It was a slog after the initial first draft. My next book, The Benji Loper Caper, actually has an outline and, though I’m willing to deviate if the characters demand, I’m having an easier time. Writing is  an endurance occupation.

I’m grateful for my training as an actor and improviser in this regard. My improv training taught me never to write a story while improvising. This is a lament I write about in my other blogs on improvisation. (Out of My Head at 
www.improv-odyssey.com)  Much improv focuses on story and what suffers is true relationship. I see improvisers trying to make a story rather than relating to one another, moment to moment. They work to be funny and make funny situations, when all they need to be doing is staying with each other, listening closely and reacting honestly.  That is why I often say what passes for true improvisation is comedy poorly rehearsed.

Writing is less solitary when you get to listen to your characters have at each other in the story and come up with ideas that spark you to the next scene. It is a lot of fun to see characters blossom into people as I write.

So, if you are a writer like me, willing to let the characters show you the way, then I will leave you with some improvisational advice from my mentor, Viola Spolin (Improvisation for the Theater). “A game, a scene, a play is a problem or set of problems to be solved. Stay with the problem (what she called the focus) and let it pull you through the scene. What’s left in your wake is stardust!”

Gary Schwartz began his professional career as a mime at age 13, performing up and down the Hudson River with Pete Seeger and the great folk entertainers of the 1960s. In the 1980s he appeared in numerous film and television projects including the Oscar-winning feature film Quest for Fire. Schwartz has lent his voice to hundreds of film and TV projects and is the voice of several well-known video game characters, including Heavy Weapons Guy and Demoman in Team Fortress 2.

Schwartz has written for two children’s television series in which he co-starred: Zoobilee Zoo, where he played Bravo Fox; and the Disney Channel’s You and Me, Kid.
Schwartz studied with and became the protégé of Viola Spolin, the creator of Theater Games, the basis for improvisational theater in America. He is a passionate, dynamic improv coach and facilitator devoted to carrying on Spolin’s techniques.

The King of Average is his first novel. To learn more visit gary-schwartz.com.

Acting Blog: http://www.improv-odyssey.com/
Twitter:  https://twitter.com/GarySchwartz14

*Find the Book*

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

GUEST POST: "Annihilation Day" by Alex Flynn

While The Misshapes: The Coming Storm, and The Misshapes: Annihilation Day, may be part one and two of a three-part trilogy, the writing process between the two books couldn't have been more different. The Coming Storm had a long process to wrestle with the divine flash of inspiration, the initial charge of realizing that you can create a whole weird world from scratch, the wonderful feeling that you can make jokes and have thrills even when you're playing around with the idea of "What if you're not the chosen one?"

Annihilation Day, on the other hand, had a different road. We were able to write it with the knowledge that it would get published, which was a big comfort. However, in the time we had to write it, we had a series of unfortunate events in our lives: moving, a broken leg, a death in the family. We had to carve out the space to write and focus on The Misshapes during this epoch of our lives. If the first book had the luxury of time, of writing and discussing and rewriting, this book needed discipline. Before we ever put a word on the page, we laid out the whole book. There was brainstorming, giant notepads, outlines, and chapter sketches. The process behind this book felt more akin to being in a writing room for a TV show as opposed to what may be a normal novel-writing process.

The most exciting part about writing Annihilation Day was the fact that we had already set up the world of Sarah and The Misshapes. We're committed to writing an anti-chosen one story, and we had laid out a difficult task in the first book: telling the reader about the protagonist's world, even though, thanks to various twists, this world was lived-in and normal for Sarah. In book two, we had a different path. Doolittle Falls was already built. It had Heroes, Supervillains, Misshapes, and (the much ignored) "Normals" (you know, the powerless). PeriGenomics was twisting its mustache, and we got write about a universe that was far less simple. No more black and white, good and evil; now it was time for shades of grey, for moral choices.

In the history of trilogies, the second book is where the author (singular or, um, plural, in this case) gets a chance to dive deeper into the world, and to go darker. Much of the time, the second book is the villain's book. It's a chance to explore the motives behind the antagonist and a chance to see our heroes not as "the chosen one," but more so as people who are choosing to act in a heroic fashion. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of the second in a series is The Empire Strikes Back, our favorite Star Wars movie. Evil wins in that film. Darkness falls over the empire. The heroes (or Misshapes, in this case) are losing.

For The Misshapes, Annihilation Day means that there's some growing up ahead. Alliances change. Struggles emerge. And our central character, Sarah Robertson, explores the mystery that's shaped much of her life: is her mother -- a former Hero turned Supervillain -- really a force of evil? Is the narrative around Lady Oblivion the truth, or is it a cover-up? 

If The Coming Storm was about a young girl learning about her power, no matter how silly or useless it seems to be, then Annihilation Day is about an older, wiser Sarah using that power to become a superhero. Her path may be knottier and weirder than the average touched-by-powers teen, but the result is funny and heartbreaking in equal measures. It's as if the resulting book echoed our strange process of writing it.

But one thing we can guarantee from Annihilation Day is this: there's weirder weather ahead, including the debut of the fire tornado.

Alex Flynn is the pseudonym for the writing team of Stuart Sherman and Elisabeth Donnelly. They met at a clandestine book club in Boston, where they broke into a fortified tower in order to discuss literature. They like garrulous Irish writers, Pushing Daisies, and anything involving The Tick, from the comic book to the short-lived series with Patrick Warburton. Their secret lair is currently in a hollowed out volcano in Brooklyn.

Click here to see them face the 7 Questions.

Click here to read my review of The Misshapes

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Victoria Selvaggio

With a strong background in business ownership, Victoria A. Selvaggio comes to The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency as an Associate Agent with over 6 years of actively working as a volunteer and Regional Advisor for SCBWI Northern Ohio.  Drawn to the publishing scene first as an author writing all genres, with her most recent publication in the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, Vicki’s passion for honing the craft carried over into reading manuscripts for the agency. Currently, she is excited to read compelling manuscripts that will resonate with her long after she’s done.

In addition to being an agent, she's also the author of BECAUSE I'M AFRAID and THE HOPE CHEST. She was most recently published in the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market.

Twitter: Victoria Selvaggio @vselvaggio1
Facebook: Vicki Selvaggio
Linkedin: Victoria Selvaggio

And now Victoria Selvaggio faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books? 

While this is hard to answer as I’m constantly falling in love with one book after another, I’ll share books from my childhood. These stories remain vivid in my memory as if I’ve read them yesterday...they’ve encouraged me and set me on my own writing path.

THE GIVING TREE by Shel Silverstein – As a child I loved this story. As an adult and parent, I understand it completely. I have yet to read it without having a sense of empathy and compassion wash over me—this story brings me to tears.

A SUMMER TO DIE by Lois Lowry—Having an older sister, this story opened my eyes on how quickly life can change. I did (and still do) argue with my sister…and yes back then, I wanted to draw my own line many times. But, no line would ever stop my sister from being my sister. Back then and now, I am truly blessed!

DOLORES CLAIBORNE by Stephen King—Stephen King influenced my path as an author…He encouraged me to find my own voice—to continue pushing until I reached my own goals and beyond. I’ve read almost everything he’s penned (that’s in print). THE TALISMAN, PET SEMATARY, CUJO, CHRISTINE, IT…I could go on. While I absolutely CAN’T pick a favorite, I’ve listed DOLORES CLAIBORNE—it is the perfect example to show how a story can work without (or limited) dialogue. It shows that mastering the art of writing is a skill and if perfected correctly, regardless how one portrays a story, a reader will fall in love! 

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

Another hard question, as I don’t have a lot of spare time (I do a lot of recording)!

For television:

I love watching THE WALKING DEAD and I’m starting to find FEAR THE WALKING DEAD compelling.
MAJOR CRIMES—I enjoy the mystery, humor, and wonderful cast of actors.
BATES MOTEL—I want “poor” Norman to be normal. The writers have done such a good job making you feel compassion for him when he’s murdering people left and right.

For Movies:

KING KONG—I know, I know…this is an oldie. But, I’m still so fascinated with this idea.
THE SIXTH SENSE—Another oldie, but right up my alley.
THE HUNGER GAMES—The scene where Katniss volunteers in Prim’s place—that’s what I look for in a manuscript—Captivating emotion.

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

My dream client:

·         -Hard-working
·         -Intelligent and knowledgeable about the publishing process
·         -A good understanding of business and the market
·         -Respectful
·         -Patient
·         -Realistic
·         -Sets goals and reaches them
·         -Great communicator and open to sharing thoughts/feelings, especially if we disagree
·         -And finally, has researched me—feels there’s something that will “click” when we talk for the very first time, regardless if it’s those first couple of e-mails, or my telephone call offering representation. Connection is key and not just with the story. I want to build lasting relationships with my clients, and I want my clients to feel the same way!

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

For any genre—a story that will remain with me forever. As with my listed books for question #1, the genre doesn’t matter—the story and how I feel about it days, months, and years later is what’s most important.

I’m all about the journey, the experience—captivate me, educate me, inspire me! 

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

We are all destined for the “right” path. Becoming an agent was mine! After several years as Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Northern Ohio, and becoming a published author myself, I found myself limited on what I could do to help writers and illustrators reach their goals. I was able to provide tools (education, motivation, inspiration), but building careers was out of reach, so I strived to make it reachable.
For me, I love, love, LOVE, working one-on-one with my clients!

While all jobs have their disadvantages, I can’t seem to find many as an agent. I love going to work every day. It’s as simple as that!

Regarding my response time…I will note this as my least favorite thing about my job. Due to the overwhelming e-mails and queries I receive, and as my protocol (as an author knowing what it’s like to be on the waiting side), I respond personally to each one. Unfortunately, this takes time. 

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)

As with all professions, becoming a published author and/or illustrator takes education, dedication, and confidence. We all have imaginations and the ability to create, but learning how to hone this craft and bring life to words and/or illustrations, is only reachable for those who are willing to persevere!

As with all professions, one should expect rejections, obstacles/challenges, and possibly, when the timing is right, success!

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

Those who know me personally could answer this easily-- Stephen King, of course!
I find his path to publication fascinating.

I find his published works to be more than enjoyment for reading. For me, they’re instruments/tools—I’ve learned so much on mastering voice, playing with a manuscript’s structure, and even pushing those standard writing rules a tad.

His publications encouraged me to write about the sweet and innocent, while weaving in the crazy and unimaginable. They helped me push my own limits as a writer--learning to not hold back, writing about my deepest fears, while sharing those things that show my vulnerability.

And mostly, they encouraged me to be me--to write what I need to write!

While many of us will never know how we influence another’s life, I would love to properly thank Stephen King some day.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

7 Questions For: Author Sarah J. Schmitt

Sarah J. Schmitt is a K-8 school librarian and Youth Service Professional for Teens at a public library who, in addition to planning a variety of events, enjoys opening up the world of books to reluctant readers. She runs a teen writing program that combines Skype visits from well-known authors and screenwriters and critique group style feedback. 

Prior to immersing herself in the world of the written word, Sarah earned her Masters of Science in Higher Education Administration and Student Affairs from Indiana University where she worked with first year college students as they acclimated to college life. Sarah lives outside of Indianapolis with her husband, two kidlets and a cat who might actually be a secret agent. She is an active member of SCBWI, ALA and the Indiana Library Federation and is a regular participant at the Midwest Writer's Workshop. Her debut novel, IT'S A WONDERFUL DEATH, comes out Fall 2015 from Sky Pony Press.

Click here to read my review of It's A Wonderful Death.

And now Sarah J. Schmitt faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

This is always a tough question. There are so many books. So many to love. I'll go with my favorite series, classic and audiobook, just to keep it exciting. My favorite series of all time is Harry Potter. I have two kidlets who have FINALLY gotten to the age where we can read them as a family and it's such a cool experience to read them together! (Although I have to give a series shout out to Mike Mullin's Ashfall trilogy because holy cow the adrenaline rush!) My favorite classic is Pride and Prejudice. I read the book once a year and watch the BBC mini-series at least three times a year. The script is word for word the book. Finally, my favorite audiobook is hands down Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Libba does the narration and her voices are spot on with how I read the characters! If you haven't listened to it, you must do so right now. I'll wait.

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

The reading part is pretty easy. I would say I spend, on average, about 20 hours reading each week. I wish it were more, but things are kinda crazy right now with my debut getting ready to come out. Writing is completely different because I'm what I like to call a binge writer. I won't write anything for a couple of months and then sit down and hammer out a (very) rough draft in a few weeks. Once the draft is done, I spend about 20 hours a week in edits and revision until I'm ready to share with the rest of the world. (Okay, my crit partners.) It takes a little longer for the rest of the world.

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

It's A Wonderful Death is my first published novel but I completed two other novels before finally getting an agent. I signed with Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency in June and after reworking the manuscript, we went out on submission in August. By November, we had an offer with a UK publisher and had an October 2014 release date. On June 9, 2014, my agent called and I asked if I was sitting down. I said I was but I was driving an F250. Her response, "Pull over." It was then that I found out my publisher was closing. You know that part in the movie when everything goes wonky and the world slows down and gets quiet. When the main character can only hear the sound of their own breath. It would have been like that if I were breathing. But, while I was in the fetal position, Liza did what she does best and by September, I had an offer from Sky Pony Press for an October 2015 release. It wasn't the easiest path, but regardless, I ended up exactly where I belong. 

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

I think it's both. Writing is a passion that comes from inside. It's something you HAVE to do. However, I think just having that passion isn't enough. Writers need to learn their craft. They need to study every part of it. And they need to read everything they can so they can develop their own voice. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in elementary school. But it took a couple decades for me to hone my craft and figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be. I'm still learning. I heard someone say that being a writer is agreeing to do homework for the rest of your life. I agree with that statement. 

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

My favorite part about writing is revision. I love it. I know this might make me a minority among authors, but there's something about taking a rough draft and polishing it until it shines. When I'm writing, it's very individual. Since I normally work with critique partners, revision is the time when I can let my extrovert out. 

My least favorite thing about writing is the blank page. It's like a beacon taunting me. It's also a signal that there are a lot of hours of writing before revisions.

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. Read. It blows my mind when I meet people who say they want to write books but they don't like to read. 

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

J.K. Rowling. There's so many things I would want to ask her, but in reality, I would probably just sit and stare, unable to put three words together in a coherent order. In the end, I would just hope some of her literary genius would rub off on me. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book of the Week: IT'S A WONDERFUL DEATH by Sarah J. Schmitt

First Paragraph(s): The gypsy fortune-teller at the Halloween carnival predicts I’ll have a long life full of possibilities. Of course, that’s right before she uses me as a human shield to avoid the outstretched hand of a black-cloak-clad, sickle-wielding Grim Reaper and then flees hysterically from the tent. Really, if you think about it, that makes her a liar and a murderer. I better get a refund. 
And no matter what the Grim Reaper says about not meaning to collect my soul, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m looking down at my lifeless body while my friends stare at each other. Hello? Call 911. Or maybe someone could start doing CPR. Idiots. 
“Come with me,” the Reaper insists, tugging on my arm. “There isn’t much time.” 
I shake him off and shoot my best withering glare in his direction. “I don’t think so. You saw what she did. You were coming for her, not me. She’s the one you should be hauling out of here.” 
And then he shrugs his shoulders. Is he kidding? He rips my soul from my body and the next minute acts like I’m asking to change the station on the car radio. 

Have you ever read such an exciting opening, Esteemed Reader? Probably you have, there are a lot of great books in the world, so you've got me there. But you have to admit that's one's pretty darn good:) There are few ways as interesting to open a novel as with the death of the main character and by the end of the first paragraph, Schmitt has established the tone of this novel and the voice of the story. 

"Sarah J. Schmitt's It's a Wonderful Death is a wonderful read." --Robert Kent, Middle Grade Ninja (this blurb available for future editions). Also this one: "It's a wonderful breath of fresh air." Or my all time favorite blurb that Gideon's Spear declined to use for some reason (they hate selling lots of books and making fat stacks of cash, I guess): "In the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, having watched everyone you ever knew or loved burn to a cinder, as you sit waiting for the radiation sickness to put you out and at last take your pain away, those hours will be made less agonizing by reading Darby Karchut's Gideon's Spear Sarah J. Schmitt's It's a Wonderful Death."

Actually, one of the for real blurbs being used in the marketing of this book is from our old friend Mike Mullin. My own YA novel has one of those. And so if you're wondering, do all you Indiana YA authors know each other and blurb each other's books all day? The answer is yes; yes, we do. I've bumped into Sarah at multiple conferences and she always makes me smile and I'm looking forward to seeing her at future events. It's always exciting to read an excellent debut novel sure to launch its author toward super-stardom, but it's even more exciting when that author is someone you know and like and want good things to happen for.

It's a Wonderful Death is a fun fantasy set in the afterlife (or maybe the pre-afterlife) with just enough moral underpinning to be part Sunday school lesson as taught by somebody cool and funny who knows she's making it all up as do we, so there's none of that icky religious aftertaste:) Although Sarah J. Schmitt's afterlife seems to be influenced primarily by Christian and Greek mythology, Buddha puts in an appearance and all faiths (or lack thereof) are welcome:

“What if I don’t believe in God?”
He looks at me like he can’t believe what I’m asking. “Do you think all this is happening in your imagination?”
“No, I mean, what if I’m Buddhist or Hindu or something else?”
Understanding dawns on his face. “Do you think God cares what name you use? That’s something you humans get caught up in.”

If you're looking for some hardcore religious fiction, surely somebody's working on another extension to the Left Behind series, but this isn't that. This is closer to Dead Like Me or Defending Your Life, and I say we need more books about the afterlife we don't have to pretend are nonfiction. In fact, writing such a novel is on my bucket list and I'm always curious to read someone else's interpretation.

It's a Wonderful Death is related to us through the prism of sarcastic and snarky Rowena Joy Jones, a high school senior whose job is to win homecoming queen and who never apologizes to anyone ever. If she's sounds a bit irritating to you, Esteemed Reader, remember she dies in the first paragraph of the novel:) Here's how RJ Jones reflects on her passing while floating above her body in a fun variation on the old character looking-at-themselves-in-a-mirror routine:

I scan the rest of my body and notice the way my neck is tilting at a weird angle. Of course that could be because my jet black hair is pulled up in a messy bun. No one can lay comfortably with a bun. It’s physically impossible.
Other than all that, I look like I always do: perfect.

The afterlife, or perhaps Limbo is more accurate, first appears to be a ride on the The Polar Express to... wait for it... the Bureau of Motor Vehicles! Not really, but RJ does have to be processed, which involves sitting around in a large waiting room with other newly departed souls. In fact, there's a lot of being bounced from courtrooms and lawyers and guardian angles that goes into to standing at the golden gates of Heaven which are directly across from the gates of Hell. One of my favorite details is that RJ has to allow her life to be flashed before her eyes courtesy of laser disc:

He sighs. “It’s where they check you in and give you the recording of your life.”
“You mean like a DVD?” 
“Actually, they use laser discs up here.”
“Laser what?”
The Reaper gives me a look of exasperation. “You never stop asking questions, do you? Think of it like this: if an album and DVD had a baby, it would look like a laser disc. It’s a failed technology experiment from the nineteen eighties and nineties.”
“Album?” I ask.
 “You don’t know what an album is?”
In spite of everything, I’m having a good time watching him get flustered by my random questions. It’s one of many weapons in my verbal arsenal. “Relax, I know what it is. I saw one in a museum once.”

One of my favorite details is that RJ has to allow her life to be flashed before her eyes courtesy of laser disc, and she doesn't like what she sees: The older I get the more hateful this video is making me look. There’s no way I was that mean. Is there? And here is how Sarah J. Schmitt is able to not only show us not only who RJ has been but how her decisions, however small they seem at the time, have shaped her life. And all of this brings us to central conflict of our tale, judgement:

With a sigh, Peter sits down on the ground and motions for me to do the same. “Everyone has a plan before them. They have a purpose. Each choice they make keeps them on their path or leads them off course.” 
“Okay,” I say, still not understanding what he’s trying to say. 
“Well, you were pretty far off the path. In fact, you weren’t even in the same forest you started in.”
My shoulders drop. “But I still had my whole life in front of me. Maybe I would’ve changed.”
“Maybe,” he admits. “But for the first seventeen years you put yourself before others. You were more interested in being popular than being a good person.” 
“People can be both,” I argue. He shrugs. Wow. There is nothing like having Saint Peter insinuate that you suck as a human being.

And then later:

Zachriel continues: “In her mind, she knows she has done certain things that can never be redeemed, no matter how long she lives on Earth. She is shockingly callous in her treatment of others and easily manipulated by those she considers to be her friends.” 
The person he’s describing sounds weak and pathetic. There’s no way he’s talking about me. And why doesn’t he mention any of the good things I’ve done? 
“She has accomplished some marginal success in her life,” he adds. “There are acts of charity and moments where she seems on the verge of moving toward the path she’s meant to be on.” 
Well, that’s something. And then he drops the bomb. 
“But those moments are few and far between. In my opinion, to recast the fate of the world for this soul would be a waste of time. There is no evidence to 85 indicate that she would in fact make any changes in her life or that her continued presence among the living would make for a better society.”

So is RJ cast into Hell and tortured for eternity or is she returned to her life forever changed by her experience to run through the streets of Bedford Falls and be all Merry-Christmas-movie-houououousssse? Esteemed Reader, you'll have to read It's a Wonderful Death to find out and you should. It's a fun, irreverent story that's clever and witty throughout and it kept me chuckling from start to finish. And I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of RJ Jones and we certainly haven't seen the last of Sarah J. Schmitt. We'll see her here on Thursday to face the 7 Questions:)

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from It's a Wonderful Death:

“Can’t you at least tell me where we’re going?” I ask, sucking in my breath, which is pointless since I don’t actually need to breathe anymore. Still, there’s something comforting in doing it.

As much as I call Felicity my bestie, the truth is, we’re only friends because we know too much about each other to be enemies. It’s a relationship of tactical means.

“Well, look here,” he says, his thick Caribbean Island accent rolling off his tongue, and I can almost feel a tropical breeze blow gently through the room.

Hazel is trembling like the last leaf left on a tree in November.

“Over there. Next to gate. Is that Saint Peter?” 
Yeats glances up toward the line waiting to get into Heaven. “That would be him.” 
I stretch my neck to get a better look. “Who’s that guy sitting next to him?” 
“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Buddha,” Yeats scoffs. 
I try to cover up my surprise with indignation. “Yeah, I know who he is, but why is he here?” 
“I thought we covered this already,” Hazel says with a sigh. “It’s not God who has problems with other religions. That’s a mankind thing. Buddhists have as much right to the eternal grace as anyone else.” 
A smirk spreads over my face. “What about Scientologists?” 
Hazel’s face turns bright red as she starts to answer, but Yeats steps in front of her. “Why don’t we go see Peter?” He takes my elbow and leads me through the crowd, leaving Hazel to simmer.

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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

7 Questions For: Author Barbara Shoup

Barbara Shoup is the author eight novels, including Night Watch, Wish You Were Here, Stranded in Harmony, Faithful Women, Vermeer's Daughter, Everything You Want, An American Tune, and Looking for Jack Kerouac, as well as the co-author of Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process and Story Matters. 

Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony were selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Vermeer's Daughter was a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults. She was the recipient of the 2006 PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. 

She lives in Indianapolis, where she is the Executive Director of Indiana Writers Center.

Click here to read my review of Looking for Jack Kerouac.

And now Barbara Shoup faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

AARGH. That’s impossible. There are so many books I love. But here are a few that I’ve found especially enlightening as a writer because they are wonderful stories and offer insight the process by which stories are made: 

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien 
Atonement by Ian McEwan 
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

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

I usually get up around 5 AM and write for a few hours every morning before the “real” day starts. This works best for me when I’m in the middle of something. It’s harder when I’m still trying to get something going. I still get up early, but I sit and stare a lot. 

Reading? I’m addicted. I read every night before I go to sleep, which can be anywhere from ten minutes to several hours. (Depending on how tired I am.) I always have a book or my kindle with me, so I read in restaurants, cafes, hospitals, airports—any place I have a few extra moments. I read in the car when I’m a passenger; when I’m the driver, I’m listening to an audio. Once I start a book I like, it’s marathon time. I’m in that world; I can’t stop. I’ve been known to read eight (or more) hours straight. (When I went to the hospital to give birth to my daughter, Kate, I was in the middle of a big, fat Michener book and kept trying to read while in labor and, afterwards, holding Kate and reading at the same time. I know. It’s awful.

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

I didn’t have any training as a writer and took my first writing classes at the Indiana Writers Center. I don’t know what I would have done if it hadn’t been there to get me started and make me feel like being a writer was possible. I was lucky. I jumped into the novel, got an agent with the first one I finished (though it never sold). The second novel I wrote, Night Watch, sold pretty quickly. But it was twelve years before I published the next novel, Wish You Were Here. That was hard! I kept writing, though a lot of times I wondered why.

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

Both. I think the best writers were born with the ability to see things more clearly than other people, though they may not figure this out for a long time. They’re curious about how the world works, often painfully aware of the complexity of human existence. They’re always trying to figure out what it means to be alive. This doesn’t make you a writer, though. Writing is a craft. You have to learn it. If you’re lucky, you have some good teachers and mentors along the way.

I definitely got that “thing” about seeing things more clearly (often painfully clearly). But it took me years to learn how to translate that sensibility into words and stories. I went to writers conferences, found other writers to share work with, and had a wonderful mentor, a woman quite a lot older than I was, who took me under her wing and taught me so much. I still hear her voice when I’m revising.

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

I love how sometimes, writing, I write something that surprises me, something I didn’t know I knew. 

My least favorite thing is starting…anything. Once I get going, I just keep following the thread and, eventually, I get there. But starting? Ugh.

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)

I love this quote from Flaubert, which I think says it all: “Talent is a long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” 

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

Kurt Vonnegut. He was so smart, funny, honest—and had such a large heart.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book of the Week: LOOKING FOR JACK KEROUAC by Barbara Shoup

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and is filled with adult content. It's absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

First Paragraph(s): IT WASN’T DUKE WALCZAK’S FAULT that I took off for Florida, like Kathy thought. The truth is, we started getting sideways with each other on our class trip to New York and Washington D.C. nearly a year earlier—which, looking back, is ironic since she was the one dead set on going. 
Not that I wouldn’t have loved to go…anywhere, especially New York, if I could have gone on my own and just wandered, searching for the places I’d read about in books. But I didn’t like hanging out with big groups of kids at home, so why would I want to hang out with them in New York? And, believe me, two days of lockstep sightseeing once we got there didn’t change my mind about that. Not to mention our tour guide talking us senseless, determined to tell us every single thing she knew.

It's to be a more mature YA novel this week, Esteemed Reader (it's got F-bombs and N-bombs, so be warned), if that works for you. Barbara Shoup has long been on my to-be-read pile as there are only so many Indiana authors publishing young adult  and I like to read stories about my state I didn't write to see how it could be done better:) Next week we'll be chatting about It's A Wonderful Death by fellow Hoosier scribe Sara J. Schmitt. I've seen John Green around town, but haven't been able to ask him one question, let alone seven of them, and Kurt Vonnegut so rudely expired before I started this blog (though I did get to see him read), but otherwise I intend to feature as many Indiana authors as I can. It restores my faith in my state and makes up for the many adult Hoosiers who don't even have the good sense to appear properly ashamed when they tell me they don't read.

Looking for Jack Kerouac starts out in East Chicago, Indiana in 1960s, but naturally, it becomes a book about a road trip. What else can we expect from a book that invokes the author of On the Road and has classic cars on its cover? This is a trip you want to take, Esteemed Reader, and one I'm sorry to have finished so soon. I absolutely loved this book. I loved that it never condescends to its reader or attempts to patch a solution onto a situation for which there isn't one and I love that its honest and eloquent in its execution.

Paul Carpetti is in a period of transition many of us older readers will remember well. He's just graduated high school and now he's faced with the big question: what next? His mother has died just before the start of the novel and his girlfriend has moved to take her place as much as possible. She's got plans for Paul to be her husband and father of 2.5 kids with a home in the suburbs and all the rest of it. Paul simply needs to show up to work at his dead-end job, put his brain on autopilot, and everything will simply fall into place for him.

Naturally, it's time for him to get out of town. His reasons for needing a road adventure are myriad, but number one on his list is the love of a great novel, which makes him my kind of protagonist:

I wanted like Sal wanted, too—I didn’t even know what I wanted. I just wanted. Maybe everything. It was like an ache sometimes, that wanting. I never mentioned it. There wasn’t a single person in my life who’d have understood, even if I had been able to explain it—and I doubted I could. But lost in the pages of On the Road, I felt like…myself. Like the book knew who I was, knew what I wanted, and was speaking back to me somehow.

Actually, it Paul's new friend Duke Walczak I most identified with. He's got a head full of "dangerous" new ideas, the makings of a future alcoholic, and a dream of being a writer. Paul's girlfriend sees Duke for what he is from the start: trouble. The story is a bit hard on old Duke, and to be fair, he's cruising for a bruising, but I felt more of a kinship to Duke as he reminded me of a foolish young Ninja I once knew many years ago:) Duke's the one who learns Jack Kerouac is hiding out in Florida through an obituary listing and his motives in seeking out the great writer are far less altruistic than Paul's, though I personally found them more relatable:

“It’s all there, ready to be made into the Great American Novel,” he said. The main character, Duke himself, was going to be named Jack Bliss, he said—Jack, of course. I was in it, too. Rocco Minetti. 
“Rocco Minetti?” I said. “That’s idiotic. Jesus. Don’t name me that.” 
“Rocco Minetti,” Duke repeated, firmly. “My book. My characters. You’ll like it just fine when you get famous because of it. Like Kerouac’s buddies did.” 
“Yeah, right,” I said. 
“You think that won’t happen? Hey! Put your money on it, man. It’s been ‘mutely and beautifully and purely decided.’ What I’m going to write in those Big Chiefs, starting today, will make Jack Kerouac look like old news.” 
“If you think that, how come you’re so hot to find him?” I asked. 
“To pay homage, man,” he said, indignantly. “To stand before him and, you know, get his blessing to carry the torch.”

The fellas hitchhike their way south, along the way encountering interesting people such as a sexy mermaid (a performer in a tail, not Ariel) in a convertible sports car who likes to party. And there's another girl later in the book, who may or may not be of particular interest to our heroes, and a certain famous writer who may or may not put in an appearance, though it would be spoiling to tell. Given that his name is in the title, it would be sort of weird if Jack Kerouac didn't show up, but maybe it's just a weird book--I'm not going to spoil it:)

One of my favorite of Paul and Duke's many encounters is a trucker named Bud:

“You got a truck, you got a rolling motel room.” He gestured over his shoulder, to a built-in bed between the seat and the back window. 
“You’ll notice, the wife even made me up some nice throw pillows.” He winked. “I’m going to tell you something, boys: In addition to all its other benefits, trucking is the secret to a happy marriage.” 
“How’s that?” Duke asked. 
“Simple,” Bud said. “You’re gone a lot, you see the world. You romance the occasional lady who doesn’t expect anything but a nice steak dinner and a few drinks for a roll in the hay. So you come home and find out the wife’s gone overboard with the Sears Roebuck catalogue? It’s a small price to pay to dodge the nine-to-five grind, coming home to tuna casserole, whiny kids, and mowing the grass every Saturday morning. There’s damn good money in it, too—if you can put together enough to get your own rig.”

What a charming fella that Bud is:) But the boys don't buy it:

But when Bud dropped us at a truck stop a few miles south of Clarksville and pulled into the truckers’ parking lot to sleep, Duke shook his head and laughed. “Poor old Bud. He thinks he’s got it knocked, but he’s just kidding himself. His leash is just longer than most other guys’, that’s all.”

Looking for Jack Kerouac is a fascinating read and worthy of closer examination, which I intend to give it, the way I might re-watch a magic trick in slow motion to catch the magician at work. One of the things I like about Bud is even though I wasn't alive in the sixties, I've met him. I've heard a similar spiel from truckers. But I picked his passage in particular because I believe its an example of Barbara Shoup at work. 

Thematically, marriage is shown again and again throughout the novel as a force of coming unhappiness (better throw up an example), the likes of which I haven't encountered since Revolutionary Road:

I flipped the TV channels for a while, coming up with nothing but moronic shows that only housewives would watch, which reminded me of dinner at Kathy’s house the night before. Mrs. Benson falling all over herself re-filling my plate of meatloaf, making sure I was happy in every possible way in between nagging Mr. Benson to death about chores that, if you listened to her, had to be done ten seconds after dinner was over, or the whole house was going to fall down around us. The sheepish grin Mr. Benson cast my way when she wasn’t looking, as if to say get used to it, buddy, a few years from now this will be you.

Paul's reason for skipping town in the first place is to avoid being herded into marriage. As I read, I couldn't help but notice the absence of any strong female characters except the conniving girlfriend and the overall picture painted of females is not particularly positive until late in the novel. I found myself thinking of how the female writers in my critique group would come after me if I turned in such a manuscript, and here this book was written by not-a-dude:)

But as usual, I was missing the point and was later amused to find myself genuinely challenged by a clever story. After all, the world is presented to us from the limited perspective of one Paul Carpetti. Barbara Shoup may or may not be a marriage enthusiast, but Paul has reason to fear marriage and women. It was a woman who hurt him and he's so very, very angry:

I was done feeling guilty about having a little fun, I decided. Seriously. I was so frigging tired of doing the right thing. Where had it gotten me? Where did it get my mom? Or my dad, for that matter? He was nuts about Mom, he treated her like a queen, and all he got was a broken heart.

If you're the sort of reader who needs to be spoon fed, Looking for Jack Kerouac may not be for you. But if you yearn for a more adult story about a young adult coming of age, Barbara Shoup has crafted a rewarding tale I'm glad to have read and am looking forward to rereading. 

I should end my review there as it's really long, but I can't finish without commenting on Shoup's treatment of history. There's a bit of nostalgia for an era gone by--isn't that the fun part of reading a Jack-Kerouac-themed road trip novel? But it's tempered with an unblinking view of that world as it was:

“Y’all do not want to be hitchhiking down through Georgia at night,” he said. “Niggers around here have gone plumb crazy.” 
“I’m not afraid of Negroes,” Duke said, stressing the correct pronunciation. “I’ve got friends back home who are Negroes.” 
“This ain’t the North, son,” Darnell said. “I got nothing against them myself—and it ain’t so much them you got to worry about, anyway. You know what happened to them friendly white boys in Mississippi this summer, don’t you? You want to end up like that?” 
Duke shrugged. But I’d read about shootings and lynchings by the Klan and by the police, too, who were likely to assume that two guys obviously from the North, like Duke and me, had come down to cause trouble, as they saw it.

It would've been perhaps easier to give us the 1960s lite, but less honest. Kudos to Shoup for having the courage to report the facts, including the rebellious ideas that were brewing in the citizenry. Duke has his suspicions that the Gulf of Tonkin was "a big scam to crank things up over there" in Vietnam and he suspects that maybe, just maybe, Oswald had help executing our President. You know I'm a conspiracy nut, Esteemed Reader, and I've told you Duke is the character I liked most. But it's quite something to see those events through the eyes of someone who lived through them and knew his government was lying to him. It shapes a very different view of history than the one we're taught in schools. Thank goodness all of that happened in the distant past and in no way impacts our present life.

In conclusion, Looking for Jack Kerouac is a terrific book to be enjoyed by readers of all ages:) Find your way back here on Thursday to see Barbara Shoup face the 7 Questions, and if you happen to be in Indianapolis around Central Library on Saturday at 2:00pm, stop by to see her, me, and Shannon Alexander, among others. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Looking for Jack Kerouac:

You couldn’t be halfway married any more than you could be halfway dead.

“Yeah, I was scared. So what? Hemingway said courage is being scared and doing the right thing, anyway. Did you know that?” 

“Hemingway blew his brains out,” I said. “What kind of courage is that?”

I walked slowly, weaving a little, stopping to look in the window of a souvenir shop or listen to music drifting out from the other honkey-tonks. The bars were mostly set up like Tootsies, with a band in the front window. Framed by the open doorways, people writhed in the neon light, looking weirdly like the pictures of hell the nuns showed us in grade school to scare us straight.

“Jack Kerouac. The writer. He lives here, in St. Petersburg. Me and my buddy here, we’re looking for him.” 

“Writer. No, I don’t know any writers. G.D. Reds, most of them.”

A guy at a nearby table glanced up from the newspaper he was reading. Disheveled, unshaven, not quite clean, he looked a lot like the guys we’d seen in Morris Park the day before. There were others, too, their heads bent over books or newspapers, their dirty green army surplus duffels at their feet—and it occurred to me that whatever had deposited them in this place, rootless, without purpose, might have seemed like a grand adventure at the start

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, September 22, 2015

GUEST POST: "Undeniably Real: An Author Realizes He Can Make a Difference" by Chris Minich

Over the summer, I was fortunate to speak with my target audience on a couple of occasions related to my first book as an author. There I was, in a room full of students, one class about to end the school year and another class participating in a summer reading program. The spotlight was on me and it was pretty scary.

Okay, the students varied from kindergarteners to second graders but I was nervous. See, a long time ago, I was a little lad just like them.

As a student similar in age to the classes I visited, I too had guest speakers come for visits. School was always very hard for me. My eyesight was poor at best and from the age of four, I’ve worn glasses. I always sat at the front of the class so I could see and keep pace with the teacher. Keeping pace was another problem; I had trouble concentrating and reading was especially difficult related to my eyes. I was six and very frustrated and didn’t understand why I couldn’t pick up things as fast as my classmates. Consequently, I fell behind in school. My first-grade teacher and parents made the decision to hold me back and re-take that first year of school.

I got older and school continued to get harder for me. School would always be tough. When I reached high school, I spent my freshmen year in entry-level classes because my placement scores were low coming out of junior high. I never felt dumb. I felt like something was wrong with me. High school is hard enough for an overweight kid with glasses to add additional feelings of insecurity.

Then something remarkable happened. During my junior year, my English class included creative writing. For the first time, something at school clicked. I was interested in what my teacher was presenting, and I got positive feedback from her related to my assignments. I didn’t know at the time, but that class cracked a door open for me. A door I would walk through many years later.

I got a job right out of high school and, except for some college, I’ve been working ever since. However, I never stopped writing. I still have many of my old Mead spiral notebooks from high school tucked away in the garage filled with poems for girlfriends I wish I'd had before meeting my wife or song lyrics to music that didn’t exist yet. That creative spark ignited in high school never went away. It was always there for me, if only just me.

Well, it turns out it wasn’t just for me after all. While I stood in front of those students talking about my journey from a shy boy in grade school with glasses to a now published author of a children’s book, all eyes were focused on yours truly. That realization wasn’t lost on me. Those students wanted to hear about the book. They wanted to hear about me. I sat with one class and read a chapter. I tried my best to engage with them and ask questions about the book, school, and what they want to be when they grow up. My visit ran long the first time, as I kept fielding questions. Turns out, I’m really great at engaging. I had the attention of the entire class. I don’t know how, but I did. One student said he wanted to be an author when he grows up. That statement still chokes me up a little bit, as I type this. I told him – and each of the classes – that they can do anything they set their minds to.

Someone recently asked me why I write middle-grade chapter books. I didn’t set out with that specific genre in mind. I set out to tell a story. I’m a writer, that’s what we like to do. I have always felt comfortable expressing myself through writing. It was my “safe” place to share my thoughts and feelings at a given point in my life. I didn’t even know if the book would be read outside of my immediate family and friends. To my surprise, it was.

Talking about the book with students opened a new avenue for me. The platform allowed me to share a story of laughter, challenges and importance of family with the young men and women of our future. Not only did I write a book for my wife and me, I wrote a book for children of all ages to enjoy. I wrote a book that parents can read with their kids. Wow, I wrote a book.

What now? Well, I’m currently in the editing process for my second book in the Sydney series. Yes, I now have a series, which hopefully means more school visits. Which means more opportunities to engage with students.

Growing up can be tough, I know, but kids don’t have to feel uncomfortable about reading or give up if they have trouble. Much like writing a book, it takes time, practice, and determination. I saw all of those traits emerge this summer. I look forward to seeing them again. Does this mean I’m on the path to public speaking? If it means sharing my story and letting kids know they can accomplish their dreams, I guess I am. Ooh, perhaps a talk show? Too soon? Okay, too soon but, as I told the kids, it’s good to have goals.

"Misadventures of Princess Sydney," published in 2014
"Misadventures of Princess Sydney: Have Parentals, Will Travel," coming in fall 2015

Chris Minich is a writer living in Snoqualmie Washington. He enjoys spending time with his wife and their two precocious dogs, Sydney and Buddy. Chris is also a die hard Seattle Seahawks fan.

To learn more about Chris Minich and "Misadventures of Princess Sydney":
Twitter: @cockapoosyd

Author pages:
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/9885547.Chris_Minich