Wednesday, December 10, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year One (Part Two - Control and Being an Adult)

Last Time on Ninja Stuff: I wrote about adjusting your expectations as a debut author to match reality, not your dream. I also discussed the virtue of patience as books depend on word-of-mouth to build readership and that takes time.

And now the thrilling conclusion...

Today, I want to share with you some of what I've learned over the last year publishing 4 ebooks, 2 print books, 3 (soon to be 4) audiobooks, and a whole lot of afterwords that a surprisingly large number of people have read:) I don't want to repeat myself, but if you're curious, I've already discussed my reasons for publishing independently, the thrill of having my story ranked next to Stephen King's, my excitement about being able to make my stories available, my troubles with covers, and the making of my first audiobook.

I love being an indie author. It's not for everyone, but it's for me. I've had more fun this year as a writer than I've had in any year previous. Last post, I may have come off a bit negative and that's not my intention. There's a difference between being negative and being realistic.

When I say I'm not a famous, best-selling author, I'm not being negative or down on myself, nor am I precluding the possibility of either of those things becoming true in the future. I'm simply assessing the reality of my situation which is easily verifiable by anyone with internet access and is similar to the situation of many debut novelists: better than some, not as good as others.

I want to present a balanced view of being an author. Authors, like any professional, wish to appear successful and they are, after all, professional liars (I made up some lies, people paid me for them). In my time obsessively reading the K-boards and other sources of information geared toward indie authors, I've noticed a tendency for some writers to present the world of independent publishing in the best possible light.

In too many cases, I've caught writers in outright lies. You can write a blog post about how your ebook is selling more copies than the Bible, but I have internet access and it's not going to take me long to decide whether I should continue reading your advice or whether you're writing it in an alternate universe unrelated to the one in which I live where facts apply.

Typically, we focus our attention on the extreme outliers, as though being the world's second best-selling author would be so bad. If you're not first, you're last might be a catchy slogan for a T-shirt, but it's a silly way for adults to approach the world. I'll take 50th best-selling author any day of the week and so long as the royalty deposits arrive in my account, you'll never hear me complain:)

This first year as an author has been a waking-dream, probably because it's also been my first year as a parent and sleep and I have gone our separate ways. I've never been more distracted from my writing and I've never needed to pay more attention to it. If I hadn't published All Together Now two months before the birth of my son, I might have stopped writing, at least for the year if not for longer.

I don't think it's coincidence, these two major life events happening simultaneously, as together they're forcing me to become something I've long resisted: an adult. What I'm about say next applies only to me and my experiences. For ME, I think querying in the traditional publishing model was a form of extended adolescence.

Obviously, I'm not against traditional publishing (I am against bad contracts for writers, but that doesn't apply to all traditional models). I'm providing a whole host of interviews with agents and editors for writers to query. For the right project, a traditional deal is absolutely the way to go and a writer should investigate every option available for her manuscript before publishing it. Your book should be published wherever you think it will reach the widest readership.

I'm sharing my experience because I think it will be helpful for writers going through something similar and for writers considering publishing their own work. Remember, being a successful indie author has only just recently become a viable option, so I can't be too hard on myself for the decade and a half I spent querying agents and editors and I consider myself lucky to have had that time to hone my craft. If I had been able to publish my first manuscripts, I might have, and I'd have been shooting myself in the foot as I wasn't ready for readers. I'm glad those early efforts aren't available and haunting my Amazon page.

I'm also glad I stayed with the traditional system long enough to have signed with an agent and to have had editors tell me yes (committees said no). After 15 years of writing queries, it would've always bugged me not to have achieved the goal. That I hung around waiting an extra year or two after the writing was on the wall that there was a better option available for my books haunts me a bit, but life's too short to waste on regret when it could be instead wasted on Facebook:)

When I was in my twenties, I decided I would wait to marry until I had published my first book. I didn't want a family because I knew I'd have a harder time writing and I do. My first apartment had a desk in the center of the main room and after a shift waiting tables, I wrote all night and slept only a couple hours before my next shift. It would all be worth it, I reasoned, because when my first book hit big I'd have time to relax and start living my real life. And there was nothing for me to do but keep writing and waiting on some agent or editor to change my life for me and make my dream come true. I also planned to quit smoking and swilling Mountain Dew at 7 or 8 cans per writing session (not as exciting as the habits of young Stephen King or old Ernest Hemmingway perhaps, but certainly self-destructive). After all, soda and tobacco were just short-term necessities to keep me writing until the big break came.

It's ironic to me then that my first year as an author, not just a writer, finds me happily married with a family. What's more ironic is I wouldn't have it any other way. I don't drink soda or smoke cigarettes these days and my desk is shoved against a window in an office rather than dominating the front room, and those are all good changes. Behind my desk is an elliptical machine I'm going to hop on before my morning is done, because I've learned my mind needs my body in at least bare minimum working condition to keep writing:)

I'm more than just a writer and who I am is separate from my books. I didn't believe that in my twenties, the source of no small amount of misery, but I believe it now. I'm somebody's dad and somebody's husband and more important than my next book is my son's next bottle. I'm going to write today and everyday, but I'm also going to play patty cake and both activities will make me happy.

Publishing my books on my own has done something for me nothing else ever has: it's given me perspective on my writing. It turns out my books aren't half bad. I'd always hoped this was true, but it's been quite something to talk with actual readers who think so. Not everyone loves my stories, but some readers do, and that's amazing.

A younger reader was planning to go to "book character day" at school dressed as Bilbo Baggins, but after reading my book, has instead decided to go as Banneker Bones (see the image above). That might be the greatest compliment anyone has ever given my writing, and it couldn't have happened if Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees was still sitting on my shelf unpublished. 

Doesn't change the fact that I have a diaper to change and soon the Diaper Geni will need to be dumped, which is hardly a task befitting a noble author, and yet he's going to do it anyway:) It also doesn't change the fact that I have to finish Banneker Bones 2 and Zombies 3. But I will finish them and publish them and by the time they arrive new readers will have read the first books and might be interested in reading more.

As Voltaire said, "the better is the enemy of the good." Having my books snatched up by a major publisher who loved them and was willing to put lots of cash into promotion would've been nice, but it didn't happen. It's not personal. It doesn't happen for 98% of writers (76% of statistics are made up), or whatever the actual, very large percentage is:) But letting that dream of ideal publication, which is extremely unlikely even if you get a contract offer, stand in the way of getting your fiction to readers is silly.

Although I'm not presently rich and famous, I am extremely happy and grateful for all my readers. And my writing royalties, though not enough to buy castles Nic Cage style, are paying for book production and providing a nice source of income that has allowed me to pay bills and justify the time spent writing more books. I didn't get an advance, but I've already earned more than the advance I was previously offered--I just had to accept it in monthly installments instead of a lump sum. And remember, my books will continue to earn something for the rest of my life (and I'm selling T-shirts and audiobooks). That money combined with not paying for daycare has allowed me to reduce my hours at my day job and stay home with my son during the week and I assure you that time is far more valuable to me than all the castles.

I want to end this post by sharing the most important thing I've learned this year: I control what I can control. I don't have any say in what reviewers think of my books, I can only make sure they're reading the best work I can produce. I can't make readers recommend my books to their friends any faster than they're already doing. There's no sense patting myself on the back when I get a great review or beating myself up when I don't. Those things are beyond my control and therefore not worth worrying about.

What I can control is writing my next book and promoting the ones currently available. And that's it. That's plenty.

And so my first year as an author finds me back where I started and where I always return: staring at my manuscript and trying to think of the next thing to type to keep the story going and hoping that when it's finished, readers will like it at least half as much as I do. What else could I expect from a writer's life?

Monday, December 8, 2014

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year One (Part One - Fortune and Glory)

This is to be the last post of the year, Esteemed Reader, as I'm shutting down for the holidays. We'll start up again sometime in January with new guest posts and interviews with writers and publishing professionals and I might even review a book or two or finish that chapter-by-chapter retrospective of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the internets need more posts about Harry Potter!). But as you may recall, when I began my experiment in indie publishing a little over a year ago, I promised to share my experiences with you, so I thought we'd end the year with my thoughts on being an author so far.

Rather than telling you once again about the books I've published, I'd like to begin with a discussion of expectations and setting them properly that I think is relevant to all authors, whether traditionally published or otherwise. Based on chatting with a number of writer friends after publishing their debut novel and my own experience, I want to write a post assuring debut novelists that they're not alone.

If you find yourself moping a bit after the publication of your first book, it's completely understandable as most major happy life events are followed by a bit of moping to balance emotion--I find this is best offset with exercise and ice cream:) If you find your moping to be sliding on toward ruminating or depression, odds are that you haven't set realistic expectations for what life as a published author is going to be like.

As you know, I'm now wildly rich and famous and would someone please tell Steven Spielberg to stop calling me for ideas as I'm far too busy counting my money and reading my fan letters and marriage proposals from around the world. My hometown has recently been renamed Ninjasburg and all the girls who snubbed me in high school, recently renamed Robert Kent High School, have written to tell me how wrong they were and to assure me they cry their eyes out every night with bitter regret. Also, I have reason to believe I'm developing super powers, so my first year as an author is going pretty well:)

Obviously, none of the previous paragraph is true, nor would I want it to be (except the bit about superpowers--those would be sweet). In the information age, I can imagine few fates worse for someone than to become famous. I like twitter mentions and FB posts from strangers and I've got no problem speaking in front of a crowd (I once wanted to be an actor, after all), but real fame on the level of say, John Green, looks to be a hassle.

I occasionally make an emergency run to Kroger in sweat pants with my unwashed hair poking in all directions and I'd hate to be stopped while looking so slovenly by someone asking "aren't you that author fella?" Nor would I want people talking about how much money I must be making as I have no desire for a target on my back. A server friend of mine once waited on Stephen King and confessed that he and the rest of the restaurant staff gathered and stared at him and his daughter while they ate their lunch. I personally witnessed Michael Chabon being yelled at for his success while the screaming stranger's manuscripts had been rejected. And I mean really yelled at to the extent security moved in, as though Wonder Boys had taken the last publishing slot available.

This same waiter friend once told me he loved to play video games because most of us are destined for lives of mediocrity anyway, so why not fantasize about being something great for a few hours each night. I love video games, but I'm not living a mediocre life and I hope you don't feel you are either, Esteemed Reader. I'm not the President, or, more important, a teen idol, but I don't want to be either of those things. I'm perfectly happy being who I am and should future historians fail to note my many accomplishments, I won't be around to read their histories anyway, so I can't imagine I'll be bothered by the grievous omission. If friends and family think of me and smile, that will be memorial enough. Is being beloved by most of recorded history after he died penniless and in relative obscurity doing Mozart any favors?

I bring all this up because we Americans live in a celebrity-obsessed, capitalist society. It's just our time and place in history. Even if you don't subscribe to the idea that only the most rich and famous among us are truly successful, you'll be impacted by the fact that so many Americans do. One of the great absurdities of our age is the masses of Americans living lives better than any of the generations that came before them longing to be the folks at the very top, while the folks at the top appear largely miserable. If happiness in this life is being rich and famous, what is the deal with Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, next year's celebrity drug-related suicide, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?

Of course, despite these words, you may crave fame, Esteemed Reader. If so, you will probably have better luck dropping this writing thing and setting up a YouTube channel (or work as a cashier at Target).

I've been asked more times this year than at any other time in my life how much money I'm making. After all, I have books available, so I must be making bank right? And somehow the fact that a portion of my income now comes from writing seems to make it okay for people to ask about a dollar figure in a way it wasn't when I was just working a regular job. I never answer the question as it isn't anyone's business, but I'm doing much better than I thought I would, not as well as I would if I spent my writing time day trading. But I'd keep writing and publishing even if I made no money.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if making lots of money is your primary desire, writing isn't the way to do it. Yes, a handful of authors take off and make tons of cash. Some people also win the lottery. Neither writing nor lottery playing are strategies to great wealth for the majority of participants. If it's money you want, get 50k, a day trading investment account, and a copy of Technical Analysis of the Financial Markets (a great read, but never going to be a Book of the Week).

One advantage of knowing so many writers is that I was able to appropriately manage my expectations prior to publishing. I've been to plenty of author events where I was one of three attendants and I've talked with no small number of authors during the launch of their debut novel as they agonize over the lack of feedback in the form of sales and reviews.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit a small part of me fantasizes every time I hit the publish button that I'm triggering a mushroom-cloud explosion of excitement across the internet so great that every reader will stop what they're doing to immediately read my book. A horn will sound from the heavens heard around the world so that every head shall turn and there will be a rash of airplane crashes and automobile wrecks as pilots and drivers are too riveted by my new book to pay attention to the sky or road.

I have a similar version of this fantasy every time I publish a post at this blog. It never happens, even when it's an interview with somebody really famous. Instead, what happens is my most dedicated readers who follow me on Facebook and Twitter show up and traffic gets an initial burst, then it ebs and flows and builds steadily before tapering off. The number of readers varies depending on the post, but the pattern of traffic doesn't: A bunch of folks, a few more, another burst when the post gets retweeted and shared, a few more folks, a steady stream for a time followed by diminishing numbers until the next post.

When I started this blog, I used to watch those numbers like a hawk, refreshing every 30 seconds and celebrating a new reader with a cheer. Now I look at them once or twice a week, and sometimes not at all. I still celebrate new readers, but there's so many of them I can't spend all day cheering:) I know what the traffic numbers are and if I think about them too much, I begin to feel like I'm standing on a great stage.

But I also know a secret: whatever the number of people who read a blog post when it's first published, it's a tiny fraction of the number of people who are going to read it over time. Sometimes blog posts suddenly surge in traffic months or even years after they're published. When I do check traffic numbers, I'm frequently surprised to find some old blog post I forgot I wrote has suddenly become the most popular thing on the blog. This blog is available to readers all around the world while I'm sleeping, and they read it whenever it's convenient for them, irrespective of when I would prefer they read it.

I got an email from an excited reader of All Together Now last week with questions about the characters. For this reader, it doesn't matter that I published that book a year ago and I'm not really thinking about zombies any longer as I'm focused on Banneker Bones 2. She didn't care that I had to check old notes for details about Ricky Genero. For her, the story just happened, and the book will be available a year from now and five years from now and 50 years from now to have "just happened" for readers I'll probably never meet. Every month that book sells more copies than it did the previous month and certainly more than it did its debut month.

As of this posting, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees hasn't set the world on fire, but it's only been out a month. Let's give it a minute:) I've been less concerned with promoting the book than with publishing it and making sure it's done right. Now that I'm comfortable with the version currently available to follow me around for the rest of my life, I have forever to promote it. I'm going to be talking about that book while I promote its sequels and when I publish my next horror story. Whatever I write or do for the rest of my career, readers who seek out my writing will find Banneker Bones waiting for them, and some of them will tell their friends about him.

We live in a world of instant gratification, but books, however published, depend on word of mouth and word of mouth takes time. The best thing for an author to do while he or she waits is to write the next book. After all, however long from publication a reader finds a book, if they love it, they're going to want another book by the author. If they don't love it, it might be better if the next reader finds a different book by the author:) Either way, another book will be needed.

In the second part of this post, I'll talk about how becoming a parent informed how I approach publishing, some of the successes I've had, and Nicholas Cage. Same Ninja time, same Ninja channel.

Monday, December 1, 2014

GUEST POST: "Why I Self-Publish" by Jake Kerr

It’s the question I am asked the most: “Why are you self-publishing?” One of the reasons I am asked the question is that the road to a traditional publishing contract and agent representation is open to me. Of course there are no guarantees, but after being nominated for two of the most respected awards in fantasy and science fiction, the interest is definitely there. And for many writers, turning your back on that path makes no sense.

But I did it, and I’m glad that I did. So the question, again, is—why?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, and I thought I would outline them for you:

My personality

Certainly one reason is that I’m an entrepreneur at heart, having owned my own business and worked for start-ups. I love the risk and challenge of building something on my own. All writers share this love of creation, but not all share the love of risk and excitement in moving beyond the creation and into the other pieces like marketing and packaging. I do.

The money

While all contracts are different, on a per book basis, writers will generally make four times or more publishing themselves than going through a publisher. This means that you can price your novel at half what the big New York publishers price their books at and still make more than their authors.

For a lot of authors, the idea of an advance is a big inducement to a publishing deal, but these advances for new writers can be as low as $5,000. You can’t make a living on that much money. So the proper thing to do when thinking of your writing career as a business would be to maximize your royalties, not look at the advance. And there is no better way to maximize your royalties than self-publishing.

There are no guarantees with traditional publishing

When I looked at what traditional publishers bring to the table, the single biggest benefit to my mind was the marketing. But an examination of the experiences of published authors illustrated to me that even the power of New York publishing did little to move publishing success beyond a crapshoot. And in a crapshoot, the higher the return the more the risk is worthwhile. So the high return of self-publishing made sense to me.

The challenge

I love learning new things and taking on new challenges. Not everyone is like this, but I certainly am. As a result, self-publishing is fun to me. Learning how to use Adobe Indesign to design a trade paperback was very exciting. Examining contesting applications, investigating social media marketing tools, and assessing cover artists—all of these things were enervating. Make no mistake: Self-publishing takes an enormous amount of work and learning, but if you love the process then that is actually part of the appeal.

I have the network

While I noted that there are no guarantees with major publishers, there is no denying that they have the marketing resources and connections that nearly every self-publisher lacks. Just take a look at any review site run by librarians. A common review policy item is “no self-published works.” That’s just one illustration of the marketing advantage of traditional publishers. However, while I don’t have the marketing resources of a major publisher, I have a significant network.

I am a member of several large writing groups. I’ve been nominated for major science fiction and fantasy awards. My Twitter footprint is significant, and I have a powerful network of people who can potentially give me a major signal boost. As many of you know or expect, when a trusted and popular figure recommends your work, it has a major impact on sales. My network can move the needle in this way.

You’re racing a marathon and not a sprint

It’s the nature of major publishers that there is always another book in the pipeline. When your book is released the countdown clock starts. Even if your book is building slowly, it may not be building fast enough to maintain the attention of your publisher, and when you fall off the radar screen, your book will not get back onto it.

With self-publishing, the ebb and flow of your book’s fortune are not a big deal. The only thing that counts is if you continue to sell books and you are building a fan base. Your book could be out for a year, but a self-publisher knows that it is still not too late to take advantage of an opportunity to push sales, whether it is a review in a big newspaper or a promotional showcase.

Things like price pulsing (lowering the book’s price for a time to push sales) can be used for months after a book release. Again, there is no deadline. All you need is to continue to make progress to know that the possibility of a breakthrough is still alive.

Designing the frame

I wrote an essay on Medium about how much of the creative packaging of a book is outside of the writer’s control. This is not necessarily bad, but it’s the kind of thing that I prefer to oversee myself. As I wrote in that essay, I chose everything from the cover artist to the typeface used in the book. Each decision was important and personal to me, and these were all decisions that would be outside of my control if I were being published by a traditional publisher.

I decide on the schedule

A friend of mine recently signed a deal with a major publisher. Her book is coming out in the Fall of 2015, a full year from now. For books in series, the idea of releasing all of the books in a single year is almost inconceivable. Yet this is what the readers want.

So I love that: When my book is ready, I can release it as soon as possible. I can also immediately promote the next book release, which is months away, not years. This is not just great for me and my impatience, it is also good business.

I decide on the pricing

For a very long time I was going to price my debut novel at $6.99. It seemed relatively inexpensive and also on par with traditional publishers. But two things changed my mind: for readers with a limited budget, the difference between $3.99 and $6.99 was significant, and with the holidays coming up, I felt that the $3.99 price point would be low enough to push impulse purchases for parents giving their children a Kindle. If I’m an author at a traditional publishing house, I have zero say in pricing, even if I know that something like a Bookbub or other promotion would help.

I feel empowered

The pressure is obviously higher when you are responsible for everything, but that also provides a very real sense of empowerment and freedom. I can start and stop various marketing initiatives. I can look at my finished book and know that every piece of it has my heart and soul behind it. There is really nothing I can’t do. 

I can do what I want to do

The natural conclusion of all of the above is the simple truth that as my own publisher I can do whatever I want to do. This is not just true of the packaging, but in the writing, as well. If I want to write a thriller, I can. If I want to write a romance, I can. There is no one that will tell me that I’m at risk of being dropped by an agent or publisher by writing a novel in an unexpected genre or style.

And this leads me to my debut novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light. We all know that there are some significant trends in middle grade and young adult fiction, whether it is a dystopia or a shape shifter. The further you move outside of these conventions, the more pushback you may receive from your editor or agent.

As my own publisher I didn’t get any push back. I wrote a book that is kind of in between young adult and middle grade. No one told me to rewrite it to fit one age range over the other. I set the novel in 1938. No one told me that historical fiction was out of fashion. The motivations of various characters are complicated. No one told me to dumb it down. And on and on.

So that is the answer to the question why. But I think that in asking that question people miss a more important point: When I first started writing twenty years ago the question of why wasn’t necessary because the possibility of self-publishing success didn’t even exist.

What a wonderful world we live in where there are multiple ways of achieving writing success. For that reason I’m glad to answer the question of why. It celebrates new opportunities by asking about them from someone who chose one. 

After fifteen years as a music industry journalist Jake Kerr's first published story, "The Old Equations," was nominated for the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America and was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. His stories have subsequently been published in magazines across the world, broadcast in multiple podcasts, and been published in multiple anthologies and year's best collections.
A graduate of Kenyon College, Kerr studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and three daughters.

Monday, November 24, 2014

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Brent Taylor

Prior to joining TriadaUS Literary Agency, Inc. in 2014 as an assistant, Brent Taylor completed numerous internships in publishing, most recently at The Bent Agency. 

He is currently accepting queries for fiction writers of middle grade, young adult, new adult, and select adult fiction (crime and women’s). You can follow him on Twitter @NaughtyBrent.

And now Brent Taylor faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
If you’ve read at least two of those, then you can tell that I have an affinity for books with southern gothic flair, tragic romance, and bittersweet endings.
Question Two: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

I saw the Spike Jonze film Her and it knocked the breath out of me. My favorite show at the moment is Revenge. When it’s in season, I watch The Following obsessively. No one seems to be querying me with an adult crime novel similar to The Following, so I have to settle for watching reruns.

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

I like career writers, so my ideal client is someone whose vision for their future novels matches my own. I like writers that are communicative, collaborative, and above all, writers who are risk-takers. I consider myself a big risk-taker, and so I work extremely well with people who aren’t gripped by fear when presented with big decisions.

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

I’m determined to find a humorous, intelligent middle grade fantasy. Besides that, I’m accepting queries for a variety of genres in young adult, new adult, and adult fiction.

Also on my checklist is a contemporary YA, an adult crime, and a women’s fiction project.

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

There are way too many incredible things about this job to just pick one. I’m sure it will change as the years go by, but at the moment it’s watching the evolution of a project I love: from inception, to first draft, to submission-ready novel.

My least favorite thing would have to be the doubt. What if an editor doesn’t love this project as much as I do? What if I can’t get this book up off the ground? But these types of thoughts rack anyone in a creative industry, and I never let them linger in my mind for too long. There’s simply too much work to do.  

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)

One of the big reasons I’ve been rejecting manuscripts lately is pacing. Be sure that every sentence, page, scene, and chapter is moving your story forward—if it doesn’t, scrap it without remorse.

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

I’m fortunate that I have had lunch with a good deal of writers I admire greatly, but off the top of my head it’s Sylvia Plath. She’s my favorite poet and there’s something about her utterly transcendent verse that makes you feel as if the universe has spilled its guts to her and she’s in on all the secrets. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

GUEST POST: "Seeing All Sides Of The Apple" by Barbara Dee

Whenever I run a creative writing workshop with middle schoolers, I always bring a blank sheet of paper and an apple. First I hold up the paper. I tell the kids that it represents a  flat character--someone who's the same way all the time, from the first page on. "Paper" characters have no secrets, no quirks. They're the one-dimensional stereotypes--the Wicked Witch, The School Bully.

Then I hold up the apple. First I show its reddest, smoothest, most perfect side. Then I slowly rotate the apple by its stem, pointing out the bruises, freckles, bumps, discolorations, bird pecks--everything that makes that apple unique, everything that suggests that apple's back story.

I tell the kids:  See how this apple just looked like a standard, boring Delicious at first?  But when you watch it over time, you see its other sides. That's how to create good characters. Don't show everything on page one--gradually reveal  the little bruises and bird pecks, everything that makes your character unique and surprising.

Four out of my five tween novels are written in the first person, from the tween protagonist's perspective. My protagonists are all flawed in one way or another, which makes them fun for me to write about. And because they're all tweens doing normal tween things-- living at home, going to school--they constantly interact with adults. The challenge for me is to create adult characters who are "apples"--unique individuals with fully imagined back stories--and to convey all this through the perspective of a tween who probably thinks of the adults in her life as "paper:" The Clueless Mother. The Weird Teacher.

When the adult is a wildly idiosyncratic, obviously flawed person like the mom in TRAUMA QUEEN, it's not too hard to imagine her as someone with a history. But when the mom is more conventional, like Jen in my new book THE (ALMOST) PERFECT GUIDE TO IMPERFECT BOYS, it's a bit more difficult to suggest the depths of her character, especially when the tween narrator doesn't get it. Still, I think it's part of my job to show that adults are people, too--not flat stereotypes or stock authority figures .

And in fact, the mom in IMPERFECT BOYS is one of my favorite mom-creations. What I love about her is that you can always see her wheels turning. She's a stay-at-home blogger trying to raise non-sexist toddler twins while struggling to connect with a thirteen year old daughter careening  towards adolescence. All this makes her crazy-tired (or, to use Finley's word, "mental"), but she stays feisty, funny, passionately committed to  both work and family. Yes, she worries too much, and yes, sometimes she overreacts, but she's the first to acknowledge that she's no expert on child-rearing. "No parent has all the answers," she tells Finley. "We're all just figuring it out as we go along."

I think Finley's mom is pretty cool--not perfect, because perfect would be boring.

Oh, and did I mention she's a whiz at frog-catching?    

Barbara Dee is the author of the tween novels Just Another Day in my Insanely Real LifeSolving Zoe (2010 Bank Street Best Children's Books of the Year), This Is Me From Now On, Trauma Queen, and The (Almost) Perfect Guide To Imperfect Boys

She lives with her family in Westchester County, New York. You can visit her on the web at

Monday, November 17, 2014

7 Questions For: Audiobook Narrator Dwayne Colbert

Dwayne Colbert is an improviser, writer and all around good guy. Having been a writer for Nickelodeon and on the production staff of several animated TV shows and movies, Dwayne has risen out of that hellish world to the promised land of improvisation and sketch comedy. He is a graduate of The SecondCity's Improvisation Conservatory in Los Angeles, and has also studied with The Groundlings. He has toured with The Second City on Norwegian Cruise Lines, performing improvisation and sketch comedy throughout several countries, as well as locally at The Second City Studio Theater, iO West, Fanatic Salon and Bang Theater in the greater Los Angeles area. Dwayne can be seen performing improv with the groups, Just Wax It and DWAYNE!!!

Dwayne narrated the audiobook for my novella, All Right Now:A Short Zombie Story.

And now Dwayne Colbert faces the 7 Questions:


Question One: What are your top three favorite books? 

1. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
2. The Giving Tree by Shell Silverstein
3. Inferno by Dan Brown

Question Two: What was the path that led you to become an audiobook narrator? 

I guess my path began when listening to podcasts. I felt like listening to subjects that already interested me became that much more interesting when I enjoyed the voices of the podcasters. This led me to start listening to audiobooks based less and less on the reviews of the books, and more and more on the narrator reading them, and I thought to myself one day, "Hey, I'm a working actor and my friends always tell me I have a great voice. I bet I could do audiobooks and maybe one day someone will choose a book based on the fact that I'm narrating it." I'm still waiting on that day to come.

Question Three: What are the qualities you look for in the projects you choose?

The material is everything. The book has to be something that I feel compelled to narrate, whether I'm familiar with the subject matter or not. I also take into account how passionate the author feels about their material and the vision they may have for the read as well.

Question Four: What sort of book would you most like to narrate next? 

I'd love to narrate a crime drama. Those type of stories can be so compelling. In narrating All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story I really enjoyed the pacing, which I feel was very similar to a crime drama. Plus I love who-done-its. 

Question Five: What is your favorite thing about narrating audiobooks? What is your least favorite thing? 

I would have to say my favorite thing about narrating audiobooks is someone sharing their enjoyment of a turn of phrase that I might have used that they felt was an unexpected way of speaking that phrase. Often times there are several ways that the same phrase can be spoken, but what makes you you is how you choose to speak that phrase, in character, in the setting that the character finds themselves in. Awesome. 

My least favorite thing would have to be producing the work after the narration is recorded. It can be tedious work, and I've even fallen asleep in the middle of choosing which take to use for a narration. Yikes!

Question Six: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to writers looking to work with an audiobook narrator? 

That's a tough one. I guess I would say, how a potential narrator feels about an author's material should definitely be taken into account. A passionate narrator will bring that passion to the read. And another thing I feel strongly about is that it's all about the voice. Just like you don't want to judge a book by it's cover, you should only judge a narrator by the voice that they've showed they can bring to the material. Anything else should be left out of the decision. Voice is king.

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

Mark Twain. Hands down. He remains the quintessential comedic and socially conscious author of our time.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Afterword for BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES Part Three: Let's Talk About Bees (and economics)

This is the final part of a three-part afterword for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. If you read the first two parts, surely you've read the book by now, but if you haven't (why not? It's so much better than these blog posts), beware of casual spoilers ahead. In the first part of this post, I discussed race and my inspiration for the novel. In the second part, I told you my wacky beliefs about writing being magical rather than a rational artistic process involving the subconscious, which it probably is, but man it sure feels magic. So that just leaves us with a discussion of Richard Adams, robot bees, and economics (naturally).

So, as I explained in agonizing detail last part, Banneker took over my story and made me change the whole thing, bumping my planned plot involving alligator people to book two. Probably, that's just as well. Alligator people are an involved antagonist and Banneker had declared himself an antagonist for much of this first story. When Banneker did what he did, he changed the whole genre I was writing in. This was no longer primarily a science fiction adventure/mystery, though it's still all of those things as well. It was (spoiler and don't let young boys read this lest it kill sales) a love story.

No, really. Although there's a kidnapping and a great deal of action involving jet packs and robot bees, the plot of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is that of a romance novel. It's a Bro-mance. I can show you my original outline and notes (maybe someday I'll stick them in a special edition release), but the giant robot bees don't make their first appearance until Chapter 37, nearly halfway through the book, and I barely even mention them before then. If this were simply a mystery plot involving a ransom, halfway through the book is way too late in the game to introduce the villains. I'd never get away with it if the primary plot wasn't about something else, and it is.

The primary plot is introduced in Chapter 1, as it should be. Ellicott Skullworth is a lonely boy setting out on an adventure, the shy heroine of any first romance. When he arrives at Latimer City, he meets a dashing rogue in Banneker (also lonely) and naturally they hate each other, but the reader just knows by the last chapter they're going to be friends. Obviously, there's no kissing or stirring of passions, but there is a culminating bro-hug complete with back patting. Not all love is romantic love and a best friend is something every eleven-year-old boy, too young yet for actual romance, longs for. Mrs. Ninja is the love of my life, but Adam Smith, who illustrated the novel, has been my best friend since the third grade. There's never been any romance between us (I could do better), but our relationship means a great deal to me and he knows things about me Mrs. Ninja doesn't by virtue of having been around longer.

Before I wrote books, I wrote screenplays and I started my writing journey in film school. I wrote 8 screenplays before I realized I liked writing more than movie making (less compromise) and became a barely employable English major. My favorite of all my screenplays was one called Giant Robot Bees From Outer Space (best title evah!). I liked it so much I've promised myself I'll still make the movie one day even though I know I won't. It was a tale of beekeeping brothers in love with the same woman who discover the honey of the giant robot bees from space who've recently arrived is delicious and the brothers attack their hive for one big score. Man, it would've made a good movie if I had the budget to pull it off (never got close), but it wouldn't work as a horror novel for adults. Movies can be funny and scary at the same time, but I think books (outside of Stephen King's hilarious satire Needful Things) have a harder time of it.

But the giant robot bees seem perfectly at home in middle grade and the nice thing about writing books is I don't have to worry about a production budget. Should someone ever be crazy enough to make a live-action Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees movie, they have my sympathy trying to afford all the robot special effects in this story. I don't have to worry about how much it costs to bring the bees back in sequels, so I probably will. The lesson here for writers is never throw anything out. Always keep a copy of your previous work because you never know when you might find a good idea or two worth transporting to a fresh story.

I've said Banneker Bones is a lot like me, and he really is. I feel connected to Ellicott also, but unfortunately for my parents, I was much closer to Banneker at age eleven. One way in which we are exactly the same is in our aversion to bees. I've written horror for older readers, but nothing in those stories scares me as much as bees.

Back when I was making movies on no budget, I devised an overhead shot by sitting on the edge of a five-story parking garage and filming the actors below. All went well until a bee flew into my face, causing me to panic and topple over the edge. I didn't fall because Adam Smith caught me (and swatted the bee away), which is one of many reasons it's nice to have a best friend. If I could explain my irrational fear of tiny insects to which I'm not allergic (I think, though I've always run screaming before I could be stung), it wouldn't be an irrational fear. To this day, when a bee flies close, it requires every ounce of willpower I have to remind myself I'm a grown man and running would be embarrassing.

Another quality of Banneker Bones is that he's very wealthy, which comes in handy as I'll need him to have all sorts of gadgets and resources. As he's modeled after Batman (though nowhere near as glum as Banneker's parents are very much alive), I haven't deviated from the formula that he has no superpower apart from cold hard cash. I've always thought of the Bruce Wayne archetype as extremely optimistic. Wouldn't it be nice if the super-rich and affluent devoted their time and considerable resources to improving society and benefiting the least of us the way most of us like to think we would do in the same position?

If I were a different writer, I might be able to ignore the fact that Banneker is a member of the richest 1%, but economics are a passion of mine. On top of the wealth of the Bones family there are robots in Banneker's world, displacing human workers the way automation has been steadily displacing them in the real world. If I currently made my living driving a truck, a cab, or a bus, the emergence of self-driving vehicles would make me very nervous indeed. Younger readers are growing up in a time of complete social revolution, so the issues of Banneker's world are the issues of their world.

I myself am extremely wealthy by world-wide standards (so are you, probably, if you're reading this in North America) and by historical standards, there are kings who haven't lived as extravagantly as I do (I have a PS4, after all). I'm writing this from an air-conditioned home office after breakfast and before lunch. Mrs. Ninja and I have two cars, smart phones, and we've lived into our thirties without contracting a terrible disease. In the lottery of birth, we landed in the United States where we were taught to read and write (no need for this afterword without that), so in the grand scheme of things, we're doing pretty well for ourselves. Like most Americans, we don't appreciate this nearly enough.

For a decade, I've been working various financial consultant positions, so I can also appreciate how many people have a whole lot more money than us and I was working as a stockbroker in 2008 when economics jumped to the forefront of everyone's mind. I read Wall Street news each and every day and during 2008 I became utterly fascinated by how our financial system actually works (not the way we're told in school). It's no coincidence that at this same time I became interested in conspiracy theories, given the vast and sickening conspiracies the actual news was reporting. And when I read these smug banking CEOs explain why it was okay they'd stolen from America and betrayed the country, they frequently referenced the work of an important author and philosopher: Ayn Rand.

So I read some of her books and my blood ran cold. Actually, at first I laughed because surely no one could've taken this poor insane woman seriously. But, of course, many important people had, including such key folks as former Chairman of the Treasury Alan Greenspan. And as I looked at the world around me, suddenly it made sense. Atlas Shrugged is like a decoder ring for understanding the way our present society has formed.

The bottom line for most every major problem in America is someone thinking it's okay to put profit above the well being of others. Sure, soda and processed food companies are poisoning children and weakening the entire country, but they're making a lot of money; sure, trickster bankers destroyed lives and communities, but they made a lot of money; sure, for-profit American prisons have the largest incarceration numbers in the world, but they're making a lot of money, etcetera, ecetera forever. Not every issue boils down to greed, but most do, and so it makes sense that many Americans would champion the work of the philosopher who framed selfishness as a virtue.

Astute Readers may notice there is a character in Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees named Mr. Rand. I assure you, this is a complete coincidence. Although she didn't make the final cut for this first book, in the coming books we'll meet Mr. Rand's dog, Ayn. This name is also a complete coincidence and in no way relevant to the promised economic parables to come in this series--because younger readers love economic parables:)

But not to worry. The thing I love most about The And Then Story is that there's always another adventure ahead. Fun and excitement will always be my first, second, third, fourth, and fifth concern. But I do feel that so long as I have an audience, particularly a young audience, I should make sure that whatever I say to them is worth saying. As they're inheriting this mess America finds itself in, one message I want to proclaim is selfishness is not a virtue and its not okay. We need to rethink our national idea of wealth as it relates to an individual's value and though I don't have any answers, I intend to continue asking the questions in this series.

And that's it, except to talk about Richard Adams. Regular Esteemed Readers know that I interviewed Richard Adams for this blog in 2011 and that I was able to tell him what his book, Watership Down, meant to me. After the interview, I told him Watership Down was actually referenced multiple times in the book I had on submission to publishers and offered to send him a copy. He was so amused by this he offered me the blurb on Banneker's cover (and every other place I could paste it).

I remember the day I got a response from him featuring his blurb as one of the proudest, happiest moments of my writing life. I sent his words to my agent and my wife and then I cried just a little. Only another writer can really understand the pain of spending hours upon hours alone crafting manuscript after manuscript, hoping and praying that someone, somewhere will think you're not crazy, only to be rejected by editors and agents for reasons that don't seem to make any sense. Future writers may not be able to relate ("Wait, you mean writers once had to beg publishing conglomerates to take total control of their lifetime rights in exchange for a pittance and minimal marketing? Really? And writers put up with that!?!"), given that anyone, anywhere can now publish their work.

But the day I got Richard Adams' kind words about my writing, I knew this story would find readers, somehow, someway. There were a lot of protracted discussions with publishers that followed, so many "yes's" followed by "no's" that I prefer not to relive them all here. Through it all, I had Richard Adams' words and the words of the students who read early copies to convince me I wasn't crazy, and one day this story would find readers.

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is the fourth book I'm publishing, but it's the reason I published the other ones at all. As much as I love my scary stories, I only published them first so that I could make any newbie mistakes with them. All Together Now was a sacrificial lamb to clear the way for this story, which is the story I've always wanted to tell. As of now, it's available around the world to readers of all ages and it will find them, somehow, someway.

Richard Adams gave me the gift of hope. If it hadn't been for his endorsement, I might've put Banneker back on the shelf and tried traditional publishing again with some other book (possibly with an all-white cast). And I would've always regretted it. Instead, with the confidence that the author of Watership Down thought my book worthy of reading, I did something different.

The version of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees now available with a brilliant cover by Steven Novak and wonderful illustrations by Adam Smith is the book I dreamed it would be. It's the reason I spent all those years rewriting and reworking it. It's my heart, made print. It's a book I placed on my son's shelf and when he gets old enough to read it, it will be waiting for him.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

An Afterword for BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES Part Two: Let's Talk About Magic (and, of course, Batman)

This is a continuation of the three-part afterword for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. If you're reading this after reading part one and you haven't read the book, you're obviously interested. I promise the actual book is better than this afterword for it, so why not go read it, then come back so you don't have to worry about the spoilers ahead. You can try out the first five chapters for free here.

From this sentence forward, I'm assuming any Esteemed Readers still with me have read the book, so I'm not going to worry about casually dropping spoilers.

I've talked elsewhere about how writing involves an element of magic. Whether it actually does or whether my subconscious simply plays wacky tricks on me, I prefer to believe in magic. Encountering that magic is one of my chief reasons for writing. When I try to explain this to non-writers I get met with blank stares and people nodding while slowly backing away. Fair enough.

Writing is tedious and hard and takes a whole lot of time and effort, frequently without paying back a fraction of what it costs in labor. Believing in magic enables me to do my job. And besides, magic is the only way I know to explain Banneker Bones. If you can think of a more rational explanation, keep it to yourself please, as I still have to write the rest of Banneker Bones 2 and I'll need confidence in magic to get me through:)

I had a plan. I had an outline and I even had a title: Banneker Bones and the Case of the Alligator People. I knew this story was the first in a series I would call The And Then Story, named after the way I used to tell stories as a child, excited and out of breath, unable to speak the words fast enough, and never getting to the end, because and then something else happened. When I was three, I amused my relatives and a waitress by telling a story about Snoopy that lasted a nice dinner because every time I approached an ending, I'd say "and then."

And so it's to be with Banneker Bones. I don't know what's going to happen in this series. I wish I were J.K. Rowling (who doesn't?) with a master plan for seven intricately entwined novels adding up to a cohesive whole. I'm sure my readers also wish I were J.K. Rowling, but I'm not, and beyond the second story in this series, I don't have a plan. I can see as far ahead as what I'm writing now and that's it. But at the end of Banneker 2, I'll write "and then" and eventually Banneker 3 will present itself.

And after all, Batman, on whom Banneker is based, and who himself is a rip-off of Zorro, is an "and then story." Batman never really retires, whatever silly-third-movie-making-when-he-shoulda-stopped-at-two Christopher Nolan thinks, and Batman's story is never really over. There's always another villain to fight and another chance to save people and/or Gotham City and/or the world/universe/multiverse.

When I decided Banneker was a story without an ending, I knew I had to model him after the one story I never get tired of reading. I could lie and pretend not to follow comics (who is this Batman character you speak of?) and claim Banneker was a completely original idea (no such thing), but the entire contents of this blog, this review in particular, and the fact that every third picture that has ever been taken of me is of me wearing a Batman T-shirt would prove me a liar:)

Not to worry, I've hidden references to Batman throughout this and my other books to acknowledge my debt. When I get to writer heaven, if Bob Kane feels sore about it, we can fight it out. There's a character in this story named Frank Nolan Kane, which is hands down the nerdiest name I've ever given any character in any story. His first name was nearly Tim, but in a fight between The Dark Knight Returns and Batman (1989), Frank Miller wins. Not to worry, there's a Mayor Burton late in the story and a bright red phone kept under a glass case. My wife and son aren't the only ones this story is a love letter to:) Batman fans may note there is no character in this story named "Joel" or "Schumacher" as Batman and Robin can never be forgiven.

For this first book in the series, my goals were modest: introduce my characters and their world and try not to rule out any future possibilities. Latimer City is a big place and there all sorts of interesting people and things waiting to encounter our heroes and when they arrive, I'll be just as surprised as Esteemed Reader. In Book One, I've simply tried not to preclude the possibilities of all the adventures to come.

The And Then Story has a little bit of everything. I've rarely been so happy as when I spent a morning writing a long chapter for this book (the chapters were made shorter in revisions) that opened with an attack by velociraptors and closed with an attack by sharks. There aren't any aliens in this story (unless they look like people, and they might) and no one travels through time, but I've got a lot of books to fill, so we may see both those things in future Banneker sequels. All Together Now: A Zombie Story was originally envisioned as Banneker 3 until the tone of that story ruled it out for middle grade readers (Banneker will never be that dark). This series will end when I'm no longer able to write it. The book I write before an asteroid strikes me will simply be the last one. Until then, there's always going to be another Banneker whether I write it down or not.

So, knowing going in that I was writing a book with no ending, I did my best to pick characters I like and would want to spend multiple books with. In college, I had a girlfriend who believed whole-heartedly in astrology and she quoted a never-ending stream of pseudo science at me and all I really remember from the hours of nonsense spewed (her being very attractive the whole time) is that I was born on an astrological cusp between the signs of Leo and Virgo, which is a most conflicting spot. Virgo is the shy worker, Leo is the proud dreamer, and a person such as myself born smack dab in the center exhibits both qualities in almost equal measure. I don't know that anything else in astrology is reliable, but that internal conflict of personality explained to me much of my behavior throughout my life.

And so in picking characters that would always be interesting to me, I centered them in this very conflict (I never get tired of writing about myself!). Ellicott is too shy for his own good and Banneker is too proud for his own good. From experience, I know that both humility and confidence serve a person well and so my boy-genius detectives balance each other. As a writer, it does me no good to believe my book is the best thing ever written as I need to revise, rewrite, and make it better. On the other hand, if I weren't an egomaniac believing everything I write is probably going to be the best thing ever written, I wouldn't write anything. Poor Mrs. Ninja is good enough to put up with me on the days I'm convinced I'm a literary lion and on the days when I despair I'm a no-talent hack.

Getting back to the plan, my outline called for Ellicott to be summoned to the Archimedes Program in Latimer City where he would meet his cousin Banneker Bones and the two would set off on an adventure involving alligator people (I thought it was funny to introduce robots to the story, then ignore them in favor of a plot about biological monsters). It was a simple plan. The first five chapters would introduce Ellicott and tell the story of his leaving Brownsborough, Indiana for Latimer City, all of which would be ordinary and plain like the black-and-white scenes of The Wizard of Oz (big thanks to literary agent Amy Tipton for the suggestion). Once in Latimer City, I would introduce robots and other fantastic elements, colorizing the world. At chapter six, Ellicott would meet Banneker, the two would become friends, and the rest of the book would revolve around alligator people.

And so, I was minding my business, writing my story, and when I got to the part where Ellicott reaches Latimer City, he and his mother are attacked by a security robot, which is quite dramatic and fun. Not to worry, the security robot is stopped and no one gets hurt (I warned you there'd be spoilers). And then in Chapter Six, this happened:

     From the end of the hall, Ellicott heard a sound like someone choking on a peanut butter sandwich. When he looked, he saw a boy about his age with dark skin standing in the far doorway, his hand cupped to his mouth to hold in his wild laughter.
     All Ellicott could see of the boy’s face was his hand, the trilby hat he was wearing, and his huge, square glasses. But that was enough.
     So, this was the world-famous Banneker Bones.

What the heck is that!?! I didn't write Chapter Seven until a month later. I had a perfectly good outline and Banneker Bones made me throw the whole thing out. In the story, he's laughing at Ellicott, but I assure you, he's also laughing at me. Because Banneker decided to sick the security robot on Ellicott all on his own. I didn't decide it, nor was I consulted. He just did it and I couldn't make him not do it, even though there was no room in the outline for such shenanigans.

It turned out Banneker Bones was kind of a jerk. He didn't want to share his room with Ellicott and he was determined to get his cousin sent home. And this is why I say writing is magic. Banneker Bones exists as a character in another reality I've had the good fortune to meet. If he were solely my creation or under my control, he would've saved me a whole lot of time and played his role the way the outline called for. But noooo, he had to do things his own way and that's when I realized I was in Banneker's world. I serve his needs, not the other way around.

So for chapter after chapter, Banneker tortured Ellicott and in Chapter Twenty-Four he decided to moon all of Latimer City while flying a jet pack. By the time Banneker was done doing exactly what he wanted, he'd completely altered the plot of the book and there was no longer enough space left for the alligator people, who got bumped to book two (as long as Banneker's okay with it, so we'll see). For this reason, I haven't bothered outlining the coming stories. It wouldn't matter if I did.

Banneker does what he wants the way he wants. I just write it down. He doesn't care that Ellicott is technically the protagonist of this book. It's his name in the title much bigger on the cover than the other words because that's the way he wants it.

But not to worry, I got my revenge on Banneker. While I was passing on many of my own attributes to him (embarrassing as some of them may be), I gave him my greatest fear: bees. Then I set some giant robot bees after him and every time they attacked him I'd laugh the way he laughed at me and I'd think that's what you get for screwing up my story! But of course, without Banneker, there wouldn't be any story in the first place.

Join me in part three for further discussion of bees, a shout-out to Richard Adams, and as usual, a session of making fun of Ayn Rand (something else I never get tired of).

Monday, November 10, 2014

An Afterword for BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES Part One: Let's Talk About Race (and get it over with)

The following is a three-part afterword for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. You don't have to have read the book to read this first post (I'm saving heavy spoilers for parts 2 and 3). I'm mostly going to talk about the book, but I'm also going to talk about race.

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees isn't about race. In fact, the story goes out of its way to avoid the topic of race and I have no plans to address it in Banneker's future adventures (I'm well into writing part 2 now), though I have and will continue to address it in books outside of this series. The way I see it, by not addressing race in the Banneker Bones books, I'm making my biggest statement on the subject.

This book is about love. Honestly, as giant robot bees are a nightmare of mine from childhood, it's also about fear. But it's mostly about love:)

I can't tell you where most of my ideas come from--they just sort of come to me, usually when I'm thinking about something else. But I can tell you exactly where I was when I had the idea for this story: Seven years ago, I was driving on Indiana's most boring highway (it's nothing but cornfields and a creepy white church I inserted into my zombie tales) and talking with my future wife about an adult horror book I was no longer enjoying writing. I'd previously written some middle grade books and I'd very nearly had one of them published by a major house (back when there were more than five of them), which let me know I should probably write another. 

Most every middle grade book I read at that time was a knock off of Harry Potter: likable protagonist with surprising supernatural ability gets word that he/she has been invited to live someplace magical where hi-jinks ensue. Fair enough. This plot was old when J.K. Rowling got hold of it and it's likely to stay with us long after both she and I and all the other writers currently taking a shot at it are gone. Still, reading those books got me thinking. If an owl were to have brought me a letter when I was eleven, where would I most have wanted to have been invited?

I was also in my late twenties and a new candidate named Barack Obama looked like he had a shot at being President, which was good because I was a white man deeply and truly and forever in love with a black woman and looking for signs that our one day having a child in traditionally racist America wasn't a terrible idea. 

It was this line of thinking that led me to start poking around bookstores in search of books our child might one day read and I saw something that had always been true, I just hadn't ever really seen it: the section for books about black kids was sparse and depressing. There are several great books for children of all races written by authors of all races, but white kids have long had a lot more media available to them staring white kids. Growing up white in a small Indiana town, this had never struck me as unusual. I was white and so was almost everyone I knew. 

But looking at the kids bookshelves as an adult and future father of a half-black child, I didn't care for the looks of all those white kids on book covers as far as the eye could see. The one-shelf selection of books about black kids was mostly books about the civil rights movement and slavery, both of which are important, and both of which make for lousy leisure reading. Where were the books about black kids going to magic school, or riding a giant peach, or touring a chocolate factory? There were books about white kids having exciting adventures with their black friends, but that's not the same thing at all, and there were no books about biracial kids having adventures.

Obviously, there is no requirement that the character of a book be similar to the reader. I have enjoyed reading Watership Down numerous times despite not being a rabbit. One reason we read is to gain perspective from points of view unlike our own. Still, for there to be NO books whatsoever about biracial children in the largest bookstore in Indiana's largest city--it didn't sit well with me.

And so, getting back to that car ride with my future wife, I was complaining about this very thing and she told me it had always been that way for her. When she was a kid, her father read her Black History flashcards so she would know this country was not built by white people alone. And she always fantasized about one day writing a version of Encyclopedia Brown staring a black detective she'd named Banneker Jones, after the flashcard for Benjamin Banneker. 

I had two responses to that: 1. Great name, but Indiana Jones pretty well used up "Jones" for everyone, so his name should be Bones and his sidekick would be Skullworth, which struck me as a funny name. 2. Batman was the world's greatest detective:) 

And that pretty well got my wheels turning, because the answer to my previous question was: If an owl had brought me an invitation to go anywhere when I was eleven, I would've picked Gotham City. If that owl came today, I'd opt for a nice beach, but as a child I didn't know that red 'R' Robin wears on his chest may as well be a target and being Batman's sidekick has long been a fantasy of mine--not sure what it says about me that I imagined myself in that role and not the cape and cowl. 

For more than a year I sat on the story while working on something else, and little by little all the pieces fell into place. I would take the viewpoint of the sidekick, who like me, was a lonely white boy growing up in a small Indiana town trapped in a school he found less than interesting, and I'd make my dream come true for him. And the star of the show would be a biracial boy detective who in many ways is probably a more accurate version of myself at age eleven (my apologies to my poor parents).

And most important to me, the story would mention race just the once, and then drop it:

Ellicott wondered what it would be like to live in a family in which everyone was a different skin color. Most of the families in Brownsborough were all one skin color, including his. Now that he considered it, he supposed it was sort of boring that way.

I identify the race of each character, and then I tell the story of what happens to them. This isn't a book about slavery or civil rights or the racism so many have had to overcome and are still overcoming. Those books are available and should be read, but this book is for my son. So when he goes to find a book about a boy who looks like him, here's one that's just for fun. Banneker Bones rides a jet pack and has a robot butler and is too busy getting in adventures to worry about what it means to have a white father and a black mother or to care what other people might think of it. When it came time to do the book's cover, I asked artists Adam Smith and Steven Novak to make Banneker look like this guy:

I don't spend a great deal of my time worrying about what it means to be married to a black woman. It's not that "I don't see race." My wife has very nice skin and I like seeing it. Growing up black in Ronald Reagan's America has gone a long way to making her who she is, and that's the person I love most. But usually the only time the subject of our different races comes up is when some external person or situation brings it to our attention and then we remember, oh yeah, that's still a thing for some people.

Banneker Bones lives in a world that's moved past all that. He lives in the world I want for my son (but with fewer robot bees). And I'm pleased to say that the real world is slowly moving in that direction, even if it takes forever. Racism will never die, it will only multiply--it's too useful a tool of conformity and social control and we can't realistically divide all people permanently into shirts and skins. But I do think we're approaching a time of a browner, more unified America (it's all of us versus the 1%), and that angry racist buzzing you hear in the media is just old wasps who know winter is coming and their time is nearly done.

I've been reworking Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees for half a decade now. Of all the books I've yet written, it's my favorite and the most important to me. It's the reason I started this blog and the reason I decided to publish independently. Many individual editors at traditional publishing houses were interested and no one could've fought harder for this book than my agent, Uwe Stender, but you try getting a book about a biracial boy past an editorial board, let alone one written by a white guy from Indiana.

The story of Ellicott Skullworth finding a home in Latimer City (I totally used those flashcards for names throughout the book) is the story of me falling in love and finding my own home. It's a love story for my wife and it's a book written with love for my son.

In the 2nd and 3rd parts of this afterword, I'll talk more about the plot of this book and the choices I made because regular Esteemed Readers like it when I talk about those things. Now that we've discussed race, let's please, please, please talk about something more interesting:)