Friday, October 24, 2014

Book of the Week: Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander

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): Beginnings are tricky things. I’ve been staring at this blank page for forty-seven minutes. It is infinite with possibilities. Once I begin, they diminish.

Scientifically, I know beginnings don’t exist. The world is made of energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. Everything she is was here before me. Everything she was will always remain. 
Her existence touches both my past and my future at one point—infinity. 
Lifelines aren’t lines at all. They’re more like circles. 
It’s safe to start anywhere and the story will curve its way back to the starting point. Eventually.
In other words, it doesn’t matter where I begin. It doesn’t change the end.

Esteemed Reader, my heart is bursting with pride to tell you about this week's very special book, Love and Other Unknown Variables. This is a family book, by which I mean its author, Shannon Lee Alexanader, is a member of my writing family, The YA Cannibals. Therefore, as objective as my reviews never are anyway, this review will be even less objective than usual. You may as well ask me my opinion of one of my own books, which were critiqued at the same torture sessions as were the multiple iterations of this book--I liked it better back when it was distasteful and surprisingly violent erotica (kidding!).

I wrote that last line because I know Shannon is blushing pretty hard as she reads this, but she's cool enough to roll her eyes at yet another Rob-ism, usually followed by an even more off-color joke by author Mike Mullin that no one will laugh harder at than Julia Karr, Lisa Fipps, Josh Prokopy, Jody Sparks, or Virginia Vought. It's enough to make me want to write a third zombie story (probably going to happen) to think of Shannon's expression as I subject her to actually distasteful and surprisingly violent fiction (it's a big brother kind of thing).

Shannon is a woman of whom I imagine other women to be deeply envious. Her home is immaculate, her children are well-behaved and adorable (they once made zombie gingerbread men as a gift for "Mr. Rob"), her husband is handsome and charming (and puts on an amazing raw-chicken puppet show), and she's always well-dressed with perfect accessories. And despite being so perfect, she's extremely funny, volunteers most of her time to charities, is passionate about literature and local author events, knows Spider-man and his villains better than I do, and has an air hockey table in her basement (of that, I'm deeply envious). Shannon Lee Alexander is, in a way unlike anyone else I've ever known, the definition of cool.

It's a funny thing about my critique group, which Mrs. Ninja also refers to as my support group. We've been together years now. We send emails every Friday to hold each other accountable to our word counts, console each other during the never-ending stream of rejections, and celebrate when one of us finishes a book, lands an agent, or wins an award. Originally, we were just a group of neurotic workaholics suffering severe anxiety with an intense desire to one day be published. But we hung together, sharpened each other with our critiques, supported (enabled?) our writing habits, and now when we meet, I'm looking around not at a group of hopeful writers, but of successful authors.

Two weekends ago, I attended a signing and watched as a confident Shannon Lee Alexander addressed a crowd of eager readers, stacks of her book behind her. Little Ninja was just happy to see Aunt Shannon, unaware she'd made such an incredible transition to author, but I know how hard she worked to get there, and I was and am so proud to call Shannon my friend.

But this is supposed to be a review of the book, not the author, so let's get to it. First, let me say that John Green can now retire. He can maybe make some more YouTube videos or something, but Indiana now has a new YA novel about teens and cancer, and we've thrown out all our copies of The Fault In Our Stars:) Actually, I wouldn't even mention John Green if poor Shannon hadn't already been subject to a million don't-forget-to-be-awesome jokes, as the two books involving teens and cancer are very different stories and very different reading experiences (this book is better). 

Love and Other Unknown Variables is that book you just have to give to a friend along with a big box of tissues. Yes, the story involves a teenager with cancer, and yes, that is very sad, but that alone is not the reason to read this book and that's certainly not the reason you're going to need a box of tissues for this one. A teenager dying of a disease is not a story and a good book, this book, has more to it.

The first thing I think of when I think of Love and Other Unknown Variables is boners (more on that in a moment), but the second thing I think of is the characters. Charlie Hanson and Charlotte Finch are living, breathing people to me. I've been reading about them as well as Becca Hanson (my favorite character) and James and Gretta and Mrs. Dunwitty for years. I've seen them through multiple iterations as Shannon painstakingly crafted them and shaped them into fully realized characters that would be interesting in any story, even if no one had cancer. I happen to know there's a sorta sequel in the works and I'm so glad as these characters are too good to be limited to just one book.

Love and Other Unknown Variables is flat out drop-dead funny. I say to read it with a box of tissues, and you should, but Shannon adheres to the old Disney maxim of a tear for every laugh and a laugh for every tear. The first two thirds of this book are a laugh riot and I envy readers who get to enjoy Shannon's humor for the first time. She makes me laugh and this is a very fun book, despite also being serious.

Charlie Hanson, our main character, is a nerd. He dreams of going to MIT and becoming a great scientist and wearing a pocket protector for the rest of his life. He's all about logic and data and empirical evidence. There's no room in his worldview for an unkown variable, such as love. He's about to learn that questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as his heeeeaaaarrrt... (yep, it's a Coldplay thing)

Charlie's anal, scrubbed-down-and-disinfected, sterile view of life and love is the source for much of the book's comedy:

When an experiment’s results are unexpected, the scientist must go back and look at the methods to determine the point at which an error occurred. I’m pretty sure I’m the error in each failed attempt at getting a girl’s attention. Scientifically, I should have removed myself from the equation, but instead, I kept changing the girl.
Each experiment has led to similar conclusions. 

1. Subject: Sara Lewis, fifth grade,

Method: Hold her hand under the table during social studies,
Result: Punched in the thigh.

2. Subject: Cara Whetherby, fifth grade, second semester, 

Method: Yawn and extend arm over her shoulder during Honor Roll Movie Night,
Result: Elbowed in the gut.

3. Subject: Maria Castillo, sixth grade,

Method: Kiss her after exiting the bus, 
Result: Kneed in the balls.

Things are going as well as can be expected for Charlie Hanson when he reaches out to touch the neck tattoo of a beautiful girl named Charlotte Finch. To help this girl in her time of need, Charlie and his best friends are going to put their futures in 
jeopardy and risk everything they've worked for to pull off the biggest pranks in the history of the Brighton School of Mathematics and torture a poor English teacher to her breaking point; an English teacher also named Finch.

Although the story's main focus is Charlie's budding romantic relationship with Charlotte, I've always been more touched by Becca, Charlie's younger and even more akward sister, and her budding friendship with Charlotte:

Becca twists her brown hair around her index Finger as she carries on. “He didn’t listen, and because she’s new in school and doesn’t know about the whole me and people thing, Charlotte said 
she’d love to work with me.” Becca’s voice wavers a little. 
It’s not that people dislike Becca. Rather, people make Becca anxious, and the anxiety makes her build these impregnable walls around herself. It also causes babbling spells that make mere 
mortals cringe. I haven’t seen her this upset since the Harry Potter series came to an end.
She’s still rambling. “She said I should call her Charley instead of Charlotte, and I said, ‘No, because, my brother’s name is Charlie and it would be weird.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ So, I’m just calling her  Charlotte.” Becca runs out of breath and stops.

In the end, this isn't a book about cancer, it's a book about hope. This is the story of lonely people finding friends and of how people can bring out the best in each other. It's the story of a boy finding something in himself more important than the pursuit of logic and learning that life doesn't fit into a nice data table. This is a story about love (and other unknown variables), and loss is just part of that love. Nobody said it was easy; no one ever said it would be this hard:) Oh take me back to--no, I'll stop.

And that's it, except to talk about boners (just trying to keep the blog classy). Shannon has made an absolute impact on all my books to date, most notably those books with zombies in them. I like to think I made an impact on her work as well and the word zombie does appear twice in the published text, which could be a coincidence. Likewise, this sentence feels inspired by me, but I couldn't swear to it: James stands, his hands up like a ninja ready to kick the bee’s a**.

But one thing I know I had a hand in (ew) is the boner scene. Originally, this book, which features swearing and all other manner of adult content (not nearly enough violence, though) had no erections in it. I called bull on that version, and this is actually my biggest point to writers of YA fiction this post: a teenage boy's daily life is beset by erections. Morning wood, afternoon boners, and evening hard-ons--this is the daily routine of the average adolescent male. And no book about teenage boys is believable without some horny-ness.

In an early draft, Charlie met Charlotte, a girl so beautiful he just had to touch her neck back when they were strangers, in his hallway as he's just stepped out of the shower. I say to you it is impossible for a teen boy dressed in only a towel and confronted with his dream girl to not pop wood. Skipping a crucial detail like this would rob the story of authenticity.

I present to you the published version of that scene, sure to grow reader interest. You're welcome, world:

I peek at her again. She’s smiling this crooked smile with her full lips closed and hiked up to the left. I’d love to close the gap between us, just one step now, and kiss those lips. The thought hits me so hard that I begin to worry about the flimsiness of the towel currently hiding my growing interest in Charlotte Finch. 
Don’t mind me, Charlotte, just pitching my tent here in the hallway. You know the motto: thrifty, clean, brave, uh, I don’t know—I totally flunked out of Cub Scouts.

There are many benefits to being in a writer's critique group and yes, one of them is receiving notes on your own manuscripts. Whole sections of my books were rewritten at Shannon's suggestion in exchange for my one usable note of "add a boner, ha! ha!" But becoming so passionate about this scene's need for a boner informed my own writing because it helped me form the hard opinion (I just can't help myself) that books about teenage boys should have boners in them. The scenes in which Ricky and Michelle discuss sex despite being surrounded by zombies trying to kill them in All Together Now stemmed directly from discussions with the YA Cannibals about this scene.

In conclusion, all the awards and positive reviews for Love and Other Unknown Variables are due completely to my contribution:) I did it, it was all me, and Shannon was good enough to correct the spelling.

Nah. In conclusion, Shannon Lee Alexander is a brilliant writer and Love and Other Unknown Variables is an incredible debut novel I can't wait for you to read. If I could physically put a copy in your hands I would, but instead I'll just encourage you to head to the bookstore or library immediately and read this book. You'll be glad you did.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Love and Other Unknown Variables:

Her expression shifts, like Tony Stark slipping into his Iron Man mask. She shakes her arm free from my slack grip.

“This is my future.” I pick up the MIT catalogue. “This is who I am.”

“Some a** puppet on the front of a brochure?”

He winks at me, which is weird, and I hope never happens again. 

"Does her friend shoot lasers from her eyes like what's-his-face from the comic book you two are always talking about?"

“Cyclops!” James and I both shout. 

When most people think of explosions, they go for the Hollywood special effects version, with lots of noise and fire and people's limbs flying everywhere. In actuality, the silent ones are more devastating An exploding supernova can create enough radiation to outshine every star in a galaxy, but no sound. Greta’s fury unfolds like that

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, October 21, 2014

7 Questions For: Author Shannon Lee Alexander

Shannon Lee Alexander is a wife, mother of two, and furry dog owner. She's also a former middle school language arts teacher, book addict, and late bloomer. She only just figured out what she wants to be when she grows up. Her debut novel, Love and Other Unknown Variables, released this year to critical acclaim.

Shannon is a member of the YA Cannibals, and Indianapolis based critique group/secret society with authors Mike Mullin, Jody Sparks, Julia Karr, Lisa Fipps, Josh Prokopy, Virginia Vought, and Robert Kent (that's me!). Shannon is thanked in the back of all my books and I'm as excited about her debut novel as I was about my own. 

And now Shannon Lee Alexander faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

This is a hateful question. Why do you hate me, Middle-grade Ninja? Why!
I’ll go with 1) To Kill a Mockingbird, 2) the Harry Potter Series, and 3) I hate you for making me choose my favorite child!
Okay, for my third book, I choose Where the Red Fern Grows. It was the first book I remember bawling over, and I mean the clutching the book to my chest, snot running down my face, eyes all hot and squinty kind of crying. I remember thinking, Whoa! It’s words on a page. Why am I such a mess? It was the first time I truly understood the power of story.

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

I’m a mother of two busy school-aged kiddos, so my time is divided between my family and my writing. Most days I don’t feel like I have enough time for both. To assuage my guilt over simultaneously being a slacker mom and an idle writer, I read. I’d say I do a lot of reading each week. 

Question Three: What was the path that led you to publication?
My path to publication began years ago in a chemo lab. My friend Emily, the bravest woman I know, made jokes as a nurse in full HAZMAT gear came at her with a bag of toxic chemicals intended to kill the cancer Em had. At that moment, I realized my fears of failing were just about the silliest things ever. That was the moment I decided to be a writer.
It took years after Emily’s death for me to perfect the manuscript for Love and Other Unknown Variables. Years. My writing group, the YA Cannibals, was instrumental in helping me carve out the heart of my story and tell it with as much honesty and bravery as I could muster.
I queried agents and in July of 2013, I spoke on the phone with Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. I knew I’d found the person who was meant to represent my story from our first conversation. She is smart, passionate, compelling, and easy to talk to. I’ve loved every minute of working with Jessica.
Together, we did more revisions and submitted the manuscript to publishers. Within weeks, we heard from Heather Howland at Entangled Publishing. Once again, as soon as I spoke to Heather, I was thrilled to have found another amazing advocate for my story.
I adore being an Entangled author. Liz Pelletier, Stacy Abrams, and the rest of the team are all simply amazing. And the other authors are a wonderful community of support and encouragement for a debut author like me.
The entire journey from the hospital to publication has taken over six years. Most of those were spent trying out my courage and learning my craft. Since entrusting it to Jessica and then Heather, it has taken a year and a half from query to bookshelves. Love and Other Unknown Variables has been a (long) labor of great love and I hope it can inspire hope and courage in readers.

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

I’ve never considered this before. If a writer is born, I suppose they are born from a love of reading. At least, I think I was. I’ve always loved books and stories, and for me characters in those stories have always leapt off the pages to become a part of my life. I carry them with me everywhere, imagining them in new situations, hearing snippets of conversations, or trying to figure out how they might react in whatever surrounding I happen to be in.
I didn’t take many writing classes, but I’ve spent a lifetime reading anything I could get my hands on and paying attention to what I like and why I like it. And I’ve always sought out honest critiques of my own work. I learn a lot from my mistakes. A. Lot. 

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

My favorite thing is writing. My least favorite thing is writing.
It depends on the moment, really. I’ve either got the best job in the world or the worst!
Also, I like having an excuse for my coffee and candy habits.

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)

Find a great critique group. Writing is personal and while we know our stories are flawed, we can’t always figure out exactly how or why. I know without a doubt that the YA Cannibals will tell me EXACTLY how or why something in a story isn’t working.
Also, remember why you write. I hope it’s because you love it—because you can’t not write.

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

There are so many writers today that I would love to have lunch with, but I’m going to pick a reclusive one simply because I’m afraid I’ll say something dumb at lunch and if the author is reclusive, there’s less chance of me running into her on the street somewhere.

I’d like to have lunch with Harper Lee. I’d like to hear more stories from her childhood and ask her about what happens to Jem, Scout, and Dill in the years after Tom Robinson’s trial. And I’d want to thank her, for sharing Atticus Finch with us, and for defining courage so beautifully.

“You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book of the Week: THE MISSHAPES by Alex Flynn

First Paragraph: I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw a man fly. I was very small; I remember that much. My arms were tightly locked around my dad’s neck. He was giving me a piggyback ride through our perfectly ordinary town center. It was a crisp and cold fall day. Our heads craned upward as we tried to name the various clouds in the sky, giving them shapes, personalities, and identities. Mom still lived with us. I didn’t know about her abilities yet.

Quick Note: I don't think this YA book quite qualifies for the big red warning I throw up when I review hardcore cannibals-eating-and-raping-everybody-Mike-Mullin-style YA, but despite being kid-friendly, The Misshapes is not middle grade. There's some language and adult themes, but if a child sat through The Dark Knight (and they should, or their parents have failed them), they should have no trouble with The Misshapes

Do you love superheroes, Esteemed Reader? Unless this is your first time reading this blog, you know I do. Writing a superhero novel is one of the top items on my bucket list (Banneker Bones has no super powers, alas), and whatever the story, if a character has superpowers, I'm interested. 

The trick in writing about characters with superpowers is the same as writing about magic or zombies or any other subject. First, invest the reader in the character, then you can put them in whatever compelling situation you choose and pages will be turned. That's what I love about The Misshapes and particularly the paragraph above, which is one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read.

Alex Flynn first hooks us with the situation in sentence one: this is a world in which people can fly--or we'd be hearing about the time Sarah saw a man fly rather than just the first time. As a comic book junkie, I'm hooked at least enough to read to the end of the first chapter, but then Flynn sets the hook with the last sentence. Mom is apparently gone--not dead, but gone--and she also has abilities. Things just got personal. I'm interested in the world of the story and I'm now interested in our protagonist, Sarah Robertson, whose mother has left her and who may have inherited superpowers. 

16-year-old Sarah Robertson does indeed have superpowers, She's pretty much teenage Storm:

I flipped the switch on the humidifier. The plastic mechanism inside it whirred. A warm skein of moist air poured out of the nozzle. I waved my hand through it a couple of times and tried to focus my emotions on the jet. With a small dark thought and a little tension in my muscles, I was able to shepherd the rising moisture and form a small cloud. It looked like a floating pile of marshmallows.

How much fun is that? If you're like me, Esteemed Reader, you're hooked already and there's no need for you to read the rest of this review. Go ahead and buy your copy of The Misshapes. You can always come back and read this later:) And you'll be glad you did. The Misshapes is a fun book with a lot of heart and some truly interesting characters. 

Sarah lives in a world where superheros and villains are an everyday thing. Rather than concocting a scheme in which everyone in the town of Doolittle Falls is bitten by a radioactive spider, Alex Flynn has a much simpler explanation:

Mom said that Heroes have been around since the dawn of time. Throughout the ages, people have held them in high esteem and great disdain, depending on whether they’re fighting in a war or trying to rule a country.

Some of the national celebrities wear their capes around town, like Freedom Man, but almost everyone else Clark Kents it. Mom explained it like this: Everyone is born without powers, but as they grow older, they develop. And once puberty hits, boom, you’re a full-on one-person crime-fighting machine. Or, in some cases, crime-causing. But until that point, you’re in limbo, with some traces of powers to come. Some may find that they can control the elements, like turning rocks into liquid. Others may just be able to fly, although very few can without some assisted propulsion.

She tried to explain how superpowers happened once. They’re the result of a small rogue chromosome that broke off from the rest of the genes thousands of years ago. That was all well and good, but when some virus interacted with this chromosome, it transformed it into a source of potential superpowers. That’s how Heroes came into existence, and that’s how they marry other Heroes and they pass down powerful powers from kid to kid. The process of finding out who was going to have awesome powers, the right kind of powers, was similar to finding a prima ballerina. Prima ballerinas are discovered when they’re young, when experts check the make of their feet and their legs to determine whether they’ll develop into sylphs that you can throw around.

So there you have it. We've got a town full of superheros and you just know that sooner or later some villains are going to present themselves. There's some dark threats on the horizon that will likely follow Sarah into the sequels, assuming there will be some (don't worry-there's no cliffhanger ending, just room for more story if readers want it).

Comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable to most middle grade and young adult books written A.R. (After Rowling). I'm not about to tell you The Misshapes is basically Harry Potter with superheroes instead of wizards, nor is it the book version of Sky High. It's its own thing. Oh sure, the superheroes play a game that very much reminded me of quidditch, but more complicated and without brooms. But in some ways, Sarah Robertson is kind of the anti-Harry Potter, or Bizzaro Harry, if you will:)

Why do I say this? Well, Sarah's parents weren't killed by a super-villain. Sort of the opposite (or bizzaro-site):

I was rudely awoken by the sound of Megan’s whiskey-tinged drawl. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t the Bane of Innsmouth’s little daughter. Oh, and let’s not forget, the sister of Stupor Man.” She lowered her sunglasses and glared at me. “You know no one wants you here. Half their parents tried to kill your mom, and with your brother drunk all the time your family doesn’t have the best rep.” It was a rude awakening, to say the least.

That's a coincidence, you say? Could be. But then Sarah gets a letter (true, it's not delivered by an owl) from the superhero Hogwarts uninviting her to attend. She actually gets it at a superhero party and is shamed in front of the group she most wants to be part of rather than triumphing over the family that's done her wrong. Doomed to never become a proper superhero (or is she...), Sarah becomes a Misshape.

I don't know if this Harry Potter stuff really holds up, so I'll drop it. Just struck me as interesting as all.

The Misshapes is a hilarious book perfect for fans of The Tick and other humorous superhero stories. Some of the powers, such as one boy's ability to conjure back-up singers, kept me chuckling and turning pages to the end. And there's plenty of social satire and a metaphorical discussion on class--lots of those going around now that America is at peak inequality. I had a good time making my way through this book and you will too.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Misshapes:

Even though there are a lot of Heroes in this town, parents are still pretty mistrusting of strangers. A town with Heroes can draw villains out of the woodwork.

Luke yelled after us as we made our way to the stands, “You should come to my place after the game. I mean, my parents’ place. They’re not home and …” He stopped and started again. “I’m having an after-party. You should come.” 

“Can my friends come or is this a party of two, Luke?” said Christie. 
He turned bright red. “No. I mean yes. Of course they can.” 
She smiled at him and he melted to the floor. Not literally though. That power would be gross.

The more I looked at her, the more I realized that even though she was a Normal, she totally had superpowers—she was super hot, she was super rich, and she lived in this super neighborhood.

Professor Cyclopso is so creepy. He always stares at the girls with his one eye.

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, October 14, 2014

7 Questions For: Author(s) Alex Flynn

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.

Their book, The Misshapes, launches in print today! Pick up a copy at Barnes and Noble or Indie Bound

And now Alex Flynn faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

Only three, that’s unpossible! We moved recently and our books were taking all of the room. But if we have to choose 3 between the two of us, let’s pick Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, and James Joyce's Ulysses.

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

Depends on the week. We also both write a lot of non-fiction stuff for work (Elisabeth is an editor at Flavowire and Stu is the director of a bioethics Task Force), so probably another 25 hours on top of that. We usually try to spend at least an hour a day writing fiction and 2-3 a day on weekends, so 11 hours or so, which includes editing. That's average, some are much more and some are much less. We probably each read a book or two a week, tomes, and a huge amount of essays and articles. Maybe 40 hours or more a week reading. 

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

Circuitous to say the least. We went through the agent roundelay after 100 or so queries we got a lot of interest but no bites. We were considering self-publishing when I saw Jason post that he was starting Polis Books. We sent a query and some sample chapters and that's what started the ball rolling. Originally it was going to be an e-book, but there was enough interest to put it in print, which we’re absolutely thrilled about!

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

Hmm, probably a little of both. Bio-psycho-social if you will. Stu’s grand theory is that storytellers are born and writers are taught. There are just some people who are natural storytellers, without having to understand plot structure or how the engage a reader, you can just listen to them for hours. They are often old Irishmen, too. Writing is more of a craft and requires patience, practice, and good teachers (although reading is the best teacher). You can learn to be a good storyteller, but there's something innate about the level of creativity and imagination that can't be taught.  What makes a good storyteller is someone who is naturally curious. If you have curiosity, and you can make the audience curious, you can tell a good story. If you are dedicated enough and put in the time, you can become a good writer. 

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

It’s great to create new worlds and concepts and explore ideas through narratives. Writing is a job, a fun one, and hopefully the resulting stories are fun to read.

For me, Stu, I'm a pretty crappy copyeditor. I was in special education classes until 5th grade because of learning disabilities, which was probably ADHD, but they didn't know it at the time (I wasn't hyper) and chalked some of it up to being diabetic and blood sugars. In reality not classifying me probably helped because I didn't feel confined by something, I just thought (and still do) that I think differently than everyone else, and I eventually learned to compensate in my own. Anyways, I make terribly stupid mistakes in first drafts and feel awful about them. If you ever read a first draft of mine you'd think I'm just learning English and not learning it fast. 

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)

Only do it if you love the process. No one gets famous or rich writing, despite the fact that there’s an ethically dubious industry out there of people telling you that they know all the secrets and how to do it right. Even if you do hit it Stephen King big, it's just you and a keyboard most of the time. And go do stuff that’s interesting in the world. Take weird jobs, learn about all sorts of people in the world, get a perspective on things that isn’t your own. Stay curious!

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

It's a tricky question because some of the greatest writers are probably terrible companions for a meal. I don't speak early Florentine Italian so anything Dante said would be wasted on me. And I'd be worried F. Scott Fitgerald would just get drunk and stick me with the bill. I think I'd like to speak with George Orwell. He was a great writer but also an astute social observer and critic, and I'd like to pick his brain about what's going on in the world today. George Orwell would be amazing. 

I, Elisabeth, would also love to talk with Tracy Kidder, your favorite nonfiction writer’s favorite writer, who’s able to take on topics mundane (a house) and great (the development of computers, genocide, human survival), and make them all pulse with relevance. He’s fantastic.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Michelle Witte

Michelle Witte brings with her a wealth of experience to her work as a children's literary agent with Mansion Street Literary Management, where she represents middle grade and young adult fiction and nonfiction. Over the past nine years, she has worked in a variety of positions that encapsulate the various stages of a book’s publication, from the idea and writing stages to editing and design, bookselling and publicity. With her editorial background, she has a keen eye for quality prose and storytelling. But it is her overall experience as a reader, writer, editor, and bookseller that guides her as she searches for enthralling new writers and manuscripts.
Michelle began her career as a journalist, first reporting and then later copy editing for the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, Utah. From there, she transitioned with her editing skills to nonfiction publisher Gibbs Smith, where she oversaw creation, editing, and production of more than thirty titles, including children’s activity, humor, gift, cookbooks, and a smattering of other topics from blacksmithing to green living.
In her spare time she writes on a variety of topics and genres, though her great love is young adult fiction. Her first book, The Craptastic Guide to Pseudo-Swearing was released 2012 by Running Press, followed a year later by The Faker’s Guide to the Classics: Everything You Need to Know About the Books You Should Have Read (But Didn’t), from Lyons Press in 2013.
And now Michelle Witte faces the 7 Questions: 

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?
It rotates, depending on what I've read recently or what I'm reminiscing about at the moment, but these three are almost always in the top 10: Matilda by Roald Dahl; Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith; and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

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

I tend to go through Netflix binges, so my favorite will probably depend on the day and/or show I'm currently binge-watching, though I'm always up for a good k-drama (Korean drama, for the uninitiated). Some recent faves include Longmire (about a sheriff in Wyoming; it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, and the cultural dynamics are great), Haven (sci-fi based on a Stephen King short story), and Hart of Dixie (NY doctor in smal-town Alabama). I'm also inordinately excited about the upcoming Galavant. (Google it. Seriously. You won't be disappointed.) If you can't tell, I'm a bit all over the place. Same goes for my reading habits and interests as an agent (hint, hint).

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

My ideal client is someone who is able to take feedback (and even criticism), and then leap into revisions, producing something so much better than I could have imagined. Good communication is essential, as is a willingness to have a dialogue about issues instead of holding things in until they explode.

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

I'd love to get more queries for narrative nonfiction, for both MG and YA. And by that, I mean stories that read almost like fiction but are based on fact, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood being one of the most famous examples. I'm fascinated by pretty much everything David McCullough writes, and Sam Kean's ability to make even the elements on the periodic table utterly enthralling is on the point of brilliance. Writers, send me stuff like that—but for kids.

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

The best—I love discovering new authors and falling in love with stories and characters that become an important part of my life. 

The worst? Rejection, both in sending it to authors and receiving it from editors.

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)

Learn everything you can. Be open to feedback, even if it seems utterly ridiculous at first. Don't shoot off emails or respond to reviews in anger. Be professional. But most importantly, have fun. Kids can tell when a writer's heart isn't in the story.

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

Couldn't we just have a party? I've had lunch and/or hung out with some pretty amazing writers—some famous, and some who I hope will become household names someday—and there are plenty who I'd consider close friends. It's one reason I'm so enthusiastic to participate in local writing events, because it's like a big family reunion, seeing various authors at different conferences and events throughout the year. Recently, my sister and her husband got to hang out with some of these writers during Salt Lake Comic Con, and they had a blast. I just like talking to writers in general. Most of them are great storytellers, if you can believe it. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

GUEST POST: "Screenwriting vs Prose Writing" by Dale Kutzera

Having written quite a few screenplays and teleplays, I looked forward to trying my hand at prose. I hadn't written a short story or novel in years and thought it would be a snap compared to the minimalist haiku of screenwriting.  Best of all, I'd have the final word (well words) on the story, without any pesky meddling from actors, directors, and editors. But there are differences between screenwriting and prose writing. Now that I've finished my second novel (the kid's adventure Andy McBean and the War of the Worlds) I thought I'd make a list:


Screenplays tell a story with images and dialogue. Those are the main tools in the utility belt, and the screenwriter conveys visuals in very sparse prose like, "The sun rises over the city." A prose writer can't rely on a great director and cinematographer to turn that simple sentence into a visual masterpiece, and must describe it.

Screenwriters also skip the description of characters unless it is integral to the story. A character may be introduced as  "tall, thirties, heavy-set" and that's it. There's a practical reason for this: anyone reading the script can imagine their preferred actor in the part. Novelists aren't writing a story that will be cast later, and I still have to remind myself to describe each character as they are introduced.

Screenplays are written in the present tense.  Events happen as you are reading them, just as they happen as you are watching the movie. While some novels use present tense, most are written in past tense. Novels have a lot in common with oral storytelling and we're used to being told stories as something that has already taken place ("How was school today?" "What did you do at work?").  I've found some agents and publishers won't even look at a novel told in present tense. I used it in my first novel "Manhunt," but I'll never do it again.

Prose does perspective better than any medium. A reader can crawl inside a character's mind and understand his or her every thought. Many novels are written in the first person where the reader is inevitably linked to that character. Films can approximate this with POV shots and voice-over narration, but it's not nearly as effective. 

One thing a movie can do is shift focus from one character to another merely by changing who the camera is pointed at.  I learned from the beta-readers of Manhunt that this is called "head-hopping" in the prose-world and can give readers perspective whiplash. The general rule is stick with the same character's perspective for the entire chapter.

This has nothing to do with writing…and maybe everything to do with writing. A screenwriter is but one contributor to a film or TV show that may or may not be made. Even a script written entirely on spec, from an original idea, is just a blueprint that other people follow faithfully or ignore completely. Unlike a theatrical play, a screenplay is typically bought completely, including copyright, so the writer is powerless to influence the final product.
Not so in novels, where the writer retains copyright. More importantly, the writer retains responsibility. There are no collaborators to muck up your work, but neither are there any to spot your mistakes and offer better ideas. A prose writer can't slack off and hope someone will "fix it in post." It's all on you.

Here's something books and movies have in common: they have to be marketed to an audience of buyers. I'm pretty sure a falling tree always makes a noise, but a book or movie that isn't marketed won't. While there are more media-opportunities than ever before, this makes marketing more difficult. Studios prefer to make films about characters the public is already aware of like Godzilla or Spider-man. Publishers seek celebrity-authors who can promote their books on the talk-show circuit.
Independent authors are getting wise to marketing in the same way movie studios have. Writing in a series is one tactic. Branding your author name within a popular genre is another. Smart writers know the book cover is just as important as the movie poster. With "Andy McBean," I'm well aware that the story plays on the widespread name recognition of the H.G. Wells' story, and that the cover image of a boy chased by a giant alien tripod "sells" the story at a glance.

It's strange to think of an author as a programmer.  Writers are the folks locked in a room full of books who only come out twice a decade to promote their latest literary effort. That is also changing as writers learn their best chance of making a living is to program their work, much as a studio designs a release schedule, or a network devises an evening of television.
The goal is to develop a consistent product that will entertain a paying audience over time. A series of romance, mystery, or thrillers with the same hero has proven to be successful, and some writers are taking this a step further and writing shorter works in series, much like a season of a TV show.

In closing, no matter what medium you're working in - novels, movies, plays, comics, operas - a story still has a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters still have goals and face obstacles. If you have the skills to tell a story, today's transmedia world offers more outlets than ever. You just have to learn the rules of each particular road.

Dale Kutzera has worked as a screenwriter for both film and television. His credits include the VH1 series “Strange Frequency,” “Without a Trace” for CBS, and the independent comedy “Military Intelligence and You!”

He is a recipient of the Carl Sautter Screenwriting Award, the Environmental Media Award, and participated in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. In his youth, he won the National Scholastic Writing Competition.

His first novel, Manhunt was set in the absurd world of show-business. Andy McBean and the War of the Worlds is his second novel. A graduate of the University of Washington, he currently resides in Seattle.

Monday, September 29, 2014

GUEST POST: "The Magic of Middle Grade Book Marketing" by Daniel Harvell

After writing, publishing and marketing my first novel, The Survivors, I thought I knew everything there was to know about getting a book out there. The process isn’t easy, and there’s no one single path to take – a writer has to employ a variety of methods to get his or her material in the hands of readers. With my first book, I tried a lot of different things, learned some valuable lessons that would save me time and money with future releases, and plotted a general strategy I thought I could employ with all upcoming novels.

The Survivors is young adult contemporary fantasy. Wishing Will, my second book, is middle grade contemporary fantasy. They have different audiences, sure, but what difference does that make? As I came to find out – it’s as big of a difference as night and day.

A huge component of my marketing strategy is online-based – social media posts, online reviews, e-book sales, blog tours and interviews, and so on. But guess what? My target market of 8 to 12-year-olds aren’t online yet. They don’t have social media accounts (nor should they). I realized that going in, which is why I attempted to market to moms and the younger teen crowd. It didn’t work. Sure, some adults saw the cross-market potential of the book and have snatched it up (and loved it). But I was still left with the question of how to reach my core audience.

I did a lot of reading on middle grade book marketing, and even though the answer was staring me right in the face, it wasn’t until I got a real world invitation to participate in the perfect middle grade marketing event that it dawned on me – I had to visit schools. Two friends who are elementary school teachers first offered to have me visit their classrooms, read an excerpt of Wishing Will to their students and talk about being a writer. The idea was a great one – I remember being in fifth grade and meeting my first author (James Howe of the Bunnicula series) and finding the entire experience exhilarating. But I didn’t know many other elementary and middle grade teachers. How was I going to make this work on a mass scale?

It turned out to be a lot easier than I’d expected. The first thing I did was compile a list of all the area schools (and their principals) that met the age requirements of my target market. Next, I searched for the direct email addresses of the principals, which required a few hours of my time, but it wasn’t difficult – it just required persistence. Finally, I sent an email to each principal individually, addressing them and their school by name, briefly describing my book, what I was offering (copies of the book donated to their library and a brief classroom visit to discuss creative writing and/or read an excerpt of the book), background information on me, and then the book synopsis and the book cover image (embedded into the email, NOT as an attachment).

I scheduled all 85 emails to go out at 6am the following morning since it’s important to get to those inboxes before the administrators are overwhelmed by the day’s events. By the end of the day, I’d heard back from 20% of those I’d emailed – every single one was a positive response. Some wanted to review the book first, others were ready to sign me up immediately to come for a classroom visit. Some principals copied their librarians and teachers, and they were all very enthusiastic about having me to their school.

I’m still in the process of scheduling visits and handing out review copies of the book – but judging by the responses, I may have solved the mystery of middle grade book marketing.

Daniel Harvell is author of the middle grade contemporary fantasy novel WISHING WILL, which was named by as a “hot new release” for children’s fantasy coming of age novels during its debut in July 2014.  His first novel, THE SURVIVORS, was a #1 download for “superhero” fiction at in July 2013 and maintains a five-star rating. For more information about the book, upcoming novels, tips on writing fantasy and more, visit his website at

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ninja Stuff: The Making of My First Audiobook

Do you love a good audiobook, Esteemed Reader? You know I do. At least half the books I read each year are read to me by talented narrators. If you're a writer (and you're here, so odds are good you are), I don't see how you can afford not to listen to audiobooks.

You know I love sitting down and reading a good book. More, I consider it an essential activity for an author. I want to see how the author/editor formatted the book. I want to see the length of the author's paragraphs and their use of white space. I want to imagine the characters speaking dialogue the way it sounds to me. I even read the occasional print book just so I can experience the difference between it and my kindle screen.

That experience alone is enough for the casual reader, but a Ninja like myself mourns that there just aren't enough hours in the day to read more books. Sure, I take my kindle with me everywhere I go so that if I'm waiting in a line I can whip that sucker out (or sometimes my phone) and get in some extra reading time. But there are all sorts of other activities I have to do such as exercising, washing the dishes, driving my son 45 minutes away so Grandma Ninja can watch him, etc. during which I can't read. I could simply stare off and think about whatever story I'm writing (and I do), but I only have so many interesting thoughts in a day (not half as many as I think I do) and I have a forever long list of books to read.

I try to sit and read most middle grade books so I can highlight passages to share here if I decide to write a review. As I'm also a horror author, I make it my business to read new horror novels as well. Since I'm not reviewing them, most horror books get downloaded from audible as do nonfiction works (Robert Reich never sounds so eloquent as when he narrates his own economic complaints). And it occurred to me early on that if my horror titles were written by someone else I'd be in danger of skipping them as there's no audio version available.

Well, no more. My first audiobook, a brilliant narration of Pizza Delivery by David Radtke, hit the market last week. You could be listening to it now! And David reads the first four chapters of All Together Now after the story to preview my next audiobook, which will be out in October. I'm coming at readers on all formats! I'm in your ears and in your head! You try to shake me, but I just keep coming, and eventually you will succumb to my tale of haunted pizza (not actually what the story is about, but I kind of like that idea so maybe I'll write a sequel).

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there has never been a better time in the history of the world to be an author. Without ever leaving the comfort of my office (though I'll be doing a handful of public appearances in the near future) and while wearing Batman pajama pants, I've published three ebooks, a print book, and now two audiobooks (with lots of help). I've even sold the T-shirts. All these things are available all around the world and people are buying them. People I don't know who live in other countries write me emails to tell me how much they liked my scary stories.

I'm not telling you this to brag, or not just to brag. I'm telling you this in case you're an author on the fence about whether or not to join the indie revolution like I was for years. I can't tell you what to do or the best way to publish--only you can know that. But I'm less than a year into this whole indie author thing and I'm having more fun writing than ever before. It's a lot of work, but it's work I love. There has been and continues to be cost involved, but I've made it back and a whole lot more. No one's sent me a "request" for revision that I have to do to be published in over a year and it's freaking awesome.

Perhaps most important, I hold all my rights and I'll never consider giving them away again, though I might lease them. If I had signed those rights away to a publisher as I nearly did many times, I couldn't slap covers on T-shirts without permission and I certainly couldn't commission my own audiobooks. Some traditionally published author friends of mine have told me privately they're quite jealous. "You mean you can just DO that?" they ask. "Nobody has to let you?"

I learned my lesson after readers hated my version of the All Together Now cover. Unless a task is something I'm qualified to do, I now partner with a professional. I looked into setting up my own recording studio in a closet to record an audiobook and I may still record one some day, but for now I'm better off letting the pros handle things. It's true that no one could perform my writing the way I would, but I've found someone who's done it far better than I could've.

So how did I, mild-mannered writer dad in Indiana have my book professionally recorded and produced in another country all while feeding Little Ninja, who was also wearing Batman pajamas? Because I own my rights and don't need anyone's permission, I was able to join up at Audiobook Creation Exchange for free and partner with my choice of brilliant narrators. If you're in a position to do this with your own book, I can't recommend it enough as it's a lot of fun and produced results surpassing my highest expectations.

Upon joining, I posted a sample from each of my books and various narrators auditioned. Within a week, I had dozens of recordings to listen to, all variations of the same poor pizza delivery driver on his way to Hell (still not actually what the story is about, but I like that idea too, so I think I'll save it for the threequel). I wish I could do this with rough drafts as I gained new perspective on my writing by hearing so many talented folks lend their voice. Sure, a couple were clearly just starting out and had no previous credits to their name, but I don't exactly have a full body of work to my name yet either, and I'll be watching for their future recordings as everyone who auditioned was passionate and professional.

I also had auditions from seasoned narrators whose work I'd heard previously as someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks. Choosing between them was one of the hardest things I've ever done as I know I shut the door to some incredible performances, but it's a good problem to have.

When I heard David Radtke read my words I knew in the first paragraph I had my narrator. I stalked him online, which is something I advocate doing when considering any publishing partner and David stalked me back, which is one of the many reasons it's important for authors to maintain a professional web presence. This blog's address appears on all my books, my business cards, my email signature, and anyplace else I can sneak it in. It's not the most professional site I've ever seen, but I work hard on it and it's opened more doors for me than almost anything else I've done in my writing career.

David maintains an incredible online presence and it's immediately clear to anyone who visits that he's passionate about audiobooks and extremely professional. Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to work with him, I enjoyed reading his blog and wanted to have a cup of coffee with him so I could learn more about audiobook creation. We emailed back and fourth and very quickly I realized David was a kindred spirit and my book was in good hands, so I convinced him to narrate All Together Now and some other upcoming releases as well.

I've been an actor and I've certainly had my share of rejection, so I reached out to all the narrators kind enough to audition and thanked them. Every writer should do this. Auditioning for a project requires a lot of work and the courage to put yourself out there. In a perfect world, I could release multiple versions of every book and listen to them all, but being an author means making hard choices. The good news is these folks are still available to narrate your audiobook, Esteemed Reader.

I've directed a couple films and plays and collaborated with a lot of really talented, creative people. I've learned the best way to work with such folks is first pick the right person for the job, then get out of their way and let them do it. David has been very good about taking my feedback and making any changes I requested, but I haven't requested many. We had upfront conversations about the characters and tone of the story, but once heread my books, he had his own unique take, which is why I picked them in the first place.

My job is to listen and offer my input. Not one chapter makes it into an audiobook without my approval and I won't lie, I enjoying having that power (and try never to abuse it). But honestly, after some up front discussion, David knew what I wanted and the chapters he turned in for me to obsessively listen to four or five times through almost always blew me away, and his reading of All Together Now is still blowing me away. I may ask for a word change here or there or I may have the occasional performance note, but I always feel like the princess atop all those mattresses complaining about a pea beneath.

I was nervous signing up through ACX, but it's been one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had and soon all my books will be available in audio form all around the world. If you're nervous about entrusting your book to a narrator, Esteemed Reader, I'll remind you you were probably nervous when you first started writing the book and then when you published it. As with anything, a writer should plan for success, employ their best judgement, and take the first step forward. The result may not be what you thought you'd get, but it's certainly more than you'll get doing nothing, and a lot of times what you get is better than what you hoped for.

I love being an author in the modern age. Anything is possible and there are no boundries. So go fourth and buy a copy of the Pizza Delivery audiobook:) Also, take your first step toward your dream and don't stop until you reach it.