Tuesday, February 9, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Kim Lionetti

Note: Kim is interested primarily in young adult fiction, not middle grade.

After eight years at Berkley Publishing, Kim Lionetti left her position as Senior Editor to join BookEnds in March 2004. While there, Kim enjoyed overseeing an eclectic list comprised of romances, westerns, young adult, mysteries, nonfiction, and general fiction. While she's narrowed her focus a bit with the books she represents, she still enjoys using her editorial skills to help authors shape their work into more marketable products and helping them to see their writing as part of the "bigger picture."

Kim's obsession with books began in middle school when she was introduced to her grandmother's collection of gothic romances by Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart. To this day, Kim harbors a soft spot for dark, tortured heroes, but also enjoys a good romantic comedy. A member of AAR, Kim is looking for fresh voices and compelling storytelling.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Kim currently resides in New Jersey with her son, daughter, cat, guinea pig, and very patient husband, who puts up with her crushes on Mr. Darcy, Eric Northman, blind dukes, and Ryan Gosling.

You can follow Kim  through Twitter at www.twitter.com/BookEndsKim.

Kim's areas of interest are women's fiction, historical and contemporary romance, cozy mysteries, and young adult fiction (except fantasy or sci-fi). She'd love to be invited to speak at a SCBWI chapter meeting or conference.

And now Kim Lionetti faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

It’s just impossible to pick only 3!  So I’m dreaming up 3 categories and my favorites in each…

Favorite classics:  JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte and anything Austen or Dickens (And not to cheat by jumping to the next question, but I also love any movie or mini-series adaptation of any of these!   I think Johnny Lee Miller as Knightley is my favorite!)

Nostalgic favorite:  SNOWFIRE by Phyllis Whitney — It launched my love of all gothic romances, which I shared with my mother and grandmother.  When I was in high school I wrote a letter to Phyllis Whitney and received a lovely response back.  I still have that letter.

More recent favorites: THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes

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

"The X-Files” — I’m so happy that Scully and Mulder are back (for now anyway)! I re-watched many, many of the old episodes in preparation for the new season and it just reminded me how brilliant it was.  The way their relationship was written and acted is unparalleled.

“Outlander” — So well done and unlike anything else on television.

“Notorious” — The Alfred Hitchcock film with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.  I’m a sucker for almost anything Hitchcock and, well…. Cary Grant.

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

Honest, hard-working, open-minded, determined, professional, communicative — and talented, obviously!

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

Right now, I’m most eager to find a YA thriller that’s both suspenseful and emotional, and  women’s fiction that’s both moving and romantic (ala Jojo Moyes).

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

My favorite thing is helping authors realize their dreams.  I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.  I recently made a first sale for a new YA client.  I love her book so, so much. I was already on top of the world when I received the offer, but then when I was able to share the news with her, and listen to her reaction… it was awesome.  I was literally jumping up and down and crying happy tears that day.  Best feeling in the world.

My least favorite thing is having to nag editors.  I was an editor for over eight years so I know how busy they get, but now I understand the authors’ frustrations when waiting and waiting for answers.   Now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I need to nudge — a lot  to get responses.  I hate pestering, but it’s a necessary part of the job.

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

Perseverance is probably the most important quality for any successful author.  I think what some writers don’t understand is that you don’t have to just persevere until you get published.  You have to be perseverant for the entirety of your career.  If that third book doesn’t take off, then you have to be just as determined as you were before you received your first publishing contract.  Be open-minded about how you’re going to build yourself a successful writing career.  That doesn’t mean you have to be a “sell-out”, but maybe there’s more than one way to get to where you want to be.  

Don’t ever give up.  But also, don’t ever think it’s going to be easy.  Being a writer is never going to be an easy job.  But as Phyllis Whitney wrote to me in her letter: “You write, because you HAVE to write.”  And it may be a hard, hard road, but it can also be so very rewarding.

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

Phyllis Whitney, but I’d want it to be a whole heavenly book club meeting.  I’d want my mom there and my late grandmother too, since most of my gothic romance collection belonged to her first.  My grandmother died when I was just 11 years old, but I still feel so connected to her when I hold those books in my hands.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

GUEST POST: "UGH! The Creative Process" by Margaret R. Chiavetta

I didn’t really get into creative writing until after college, when I worked on an island full of monkeys (sorry, I’m not explaining that any further). Most writers boast that they’ve been writing ever since they were kids. Well good for them! I’m sure they are seasoned veterans when it comes to the struggle that is the creative process. For me, however, suffering through such a tiring evolution didn’t start until the summer of 2012, right before I began my MFA at age 29. It wasn’t until my second year in the program that I discovered the carrot that got me to where I am now: 

I always keep trying, and as long as I do, give myself a break.

I didn’t begin actively working on my novel, The Alchemist’s Theorem, until the fall of 2013. It wasn’t even part of my thesis (a collection of nonfiction essays that I have lost interest in completely). Once I had set my mind to writing it, I was forced to figure out how to finish an entire book, something I had never done before.

Because the US government threw a ridiculous amount of pretend money at me (student loans), I got my own place that second year of grad school. It was a basement studio. Two obnoxious dogs lived above me and barked all the time. The wall next to my writing desk was shared with the bathroom of another studio. The man who lived there did not take good care of his bowels. But the biggest problem I had was the clingy, obsessive, unhealthy relationship I had with my beloved Xbox.

Early on, one of the dogs died, so things got quieter. I moved my desk to another wall in the apartment by a tiny window. I still occasionally heard my neighbor laughing at his own bathroom noises, but I was desensitized to it. And I finally set some boundaries with my inter-intelligence romance, and told my Xbox we could only see each other after 5:00 pm. These changes were all very helpful, but I didn’t exactly become a writing machine once they happened.

Years ago, when I began thinking about writing seriously, I did my research and asked questions of whomever would talk to me. People in the writing industry can be rather directive. I was constantly told I have to do this and I have to that, otherwise I shouldn’t bother. My knee-jerk reaction to these commands was always, “The hell I do!” I hate being told what to do. One of the directives I heard over and over was that I have to write at least 500 (sometimes it was 1000) words a day, no matter what, even if it was garbage. That one irritated me the most.

Between classes and my novel, I had plenty of good projects to work on, so I never stared at the wall with absolute blankness in my mind. I have endless universes in my head, enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, so I am lucky in that regard. But I sucked at actually sitting down and putting words to the page. I told myself that yes I have to try and write every day. For the first couple of months there were many days where I didn’t write a single word, despite setting a goal each day. But instead of buckling under feelings of guilt, ineptitude, and despair, I gave myself a break, and said, “That’s OK. No big deal. Try again tomorrow.” As long as I was always trying, I didn’t worry about it.

I gradually began to have better days, writing more words more often. Eventually, I had great days where the words poured out of me. Because I kicked my addiction to my Xbox, I needed to be addicted to something, and due to those great days, I became addicted to writing. Over time, I got used to sitting down and writing for the joy of it, but it certainly didn’t happen naturally or overnight.

I still don’t write every day. What I do though is set broad deadlines, and I give myself the room to write in my own time in my own way. I use my strengths in my writing process. I love completing tasks. “To Do” lists are my favorite tool. It feels so good to check things off my list. I also love to multi-task, so I let myself jump around from one project to the next (so I don’t lose interest). And sleep is so important to me. That’s why I let myself wake up naturally, which is anywhere from 9-11:00 am (sometimes I wake up at 8:30 am, like a grownup). All of these things take the pressure off and let me enjoy the writing process. Sometimes I’ll go too long without writing, and that’s when I stop giving myself a break and I start getting on my case.

The most important thing I learned, though, was this: I don’t have to listen to other people, but I do have to practice my craft in order to get better, and what’s key is that I do it in a way that suits me best. What works for me won’t work for everyone. I think the creative process is all about the individual. Other people's’ directives don’t necessarily account for individual differences. So I say ignore them, and figure out what works best for you.

I finished The Alchemist’s Theorem: Sir Duffy’s Promise last August (2015), and ran a successful Kickstarter campaign. The rave reviews have been coming in from both readers and reviewers. I couldn’t be happier with the way this book turned out. It’s now available in print and digital ($2.99) forms via Amazon or The Seattle Book Company, and it can be ordered wholesale through Ingram and Baker & Taylor. This is the first book of a series, and I am currently working away on the next. I hope you enjoy the adventure!

Margaret Chiavetta graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2005 with her BA degree in Anthropology. Afterward, she moved to Puerto Rico for a year where she spent the hot humid days following around free-range rhesus macaque monkeys. When the study finished, she went from one monkey job to the next, moving up and down the east coast for several years. Then she attempted a primatology graduate program in London, England, but soon developed an allergy to academia. Margaret dropped out and returned to the US and eventually went on to get her MFA in creative writing, graduating from the University of Washington Bothell in 2014. She lives in Seattle.

This epic fantasy novel for middle grade readers has fun potion-making, faithful animal friends, and fantastical adventures.

Mendel, an eccentric boy with an autistic nature, and the master alchemist Sir Duffy set out on a series of quests with their many weird and endearing creature companions like Esther the snake-ish gusselsnuff, and Gooder the fat, lazy, carnivorous horse. These determined travelers must venture across the continent of Terra Copia, an exotic land where the plants and animals in one forest are completely different from the next. It is up to them to safeguard secrets and dangerous artifacts from many enemies such as agents from the Academy of Advanced Disciplines, venomous pixies, and a mysterious pale stranger. If they fail, a terrifying curse will return to their land. 

"Chiavetta employs a gale-force imagination in conjuring her alchemical realm... While immersed in this crowd-pleasing adventure, young readers should marvel at Chiavetta’s Alice in Wonderland vibe, and adults should appreciate the sweeping mythos.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The detailed botanical specimens and creatures of the “canny class” were very imaginative and well thought out… I thought the book a worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to those looking for a fantasy story set in a different world.”—Middle Shelf Magazine

"The strongest part of Chiavetta’s work is the world building: the world of Terra Copia is an interesting and thoroughly magical landscape to read about.” —BestFantasyBooks.com

"Chiavetta avoids showing autism as either an entirely crippling illness or a special gift in and of itself. Mendel has autism and he has to learn ways of coping with the world . . . It becomes one aspect of who he is, not the sole defining quality of an inquisitive and inventive young man.” —Fangirlnation

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Two

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I hope your holidays were as merry and bright as mine were. All of 2016 lies ahead of us, fresh and clean and ready for us to make of it what we will, but don't get suckered into an expensive gym membership this year unless you're actually going to use it (jogging is free).

You may remember I finished up last year with a popular Author: Year One post about my experiences my first year as a published author. Now a year older and wiser, I thought I'd share with you what I learned in 2015, and maybe next year we'll do this again.

An elder family member once told me to buy a jug when I got married and for the first year, toss a quarter in every time the missus and I did "it." I'm aware this blog is mostly about children's fiction, but this post very much isn't, so stay with me:) For every year after the first we should take a quarter out upon "it-ing." Her theory was that we'd never again see the bottom of the jug. Cynical, but a concise and memorable metaphor.

I think that if I added all the blog posts I've written after the first year against the many posts I published hot and heavy when this blog was new and full of possibilities, there would probably be more posts published since, but it would be close. When I started this blog I wasn't also publishing books and raising a toddler. It's not that I don't love this blog, but by necessity our relationship has changed. I don't have time to write endless reviews or relentlessly hunt new interviews. On the upside, now, in addition to getting blog posts, you get the occasional book:) And it's not like this blog didn't feature multiple killer guest posts and interviews in 2015. Did you see my most candid interview ever with Hugh Howey in July? If you didn't, you should totally read it instead of this post.

I hope 2015 has done all right by you. It's been one of the most stressful and at times most frustrating, but also one of the best years of my life. I didn't publish any books in 2015, but I've got a new one coming in  2016 I'm very excited about. The Book of David is taking more time than past projects, but I'm in a race only against myself and I'd rather publish right than fast. It's also longer than Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees and All Together Now combined and its the most ambitious and challenging thing I've ever written. I'm both ecstatic and terrified at the prospect of publishing it.

I believe every author has their own natural pace for production. I'm aware some authors publish 12 books a year, but I would posit many of those books read as though they were written in a month, and the author only sells me one book when they could've sold me multiple books if they'd taken the time to do it right. There are authors who can produce a novel of impeccable quality in a short period of time (not nearly as many as think they can), I just don't happen to be one of them.

I'm plodding and slow and a big believer in revisions, which is often where I find the truest version of my story. Publishing novels myself rather than handing them off to my agent to submit in no way alleviates my responsibility to polish my work until it shines and is worthy of Esteemed Reader's time and money. I have more responsibility than ever. In addition to my invaluable critique group, I now employ four professional editors, because it's my name on the cover and it matters to me that Esteemed Reader finds my book to be of at least the same quality if not superior to other books available, whether they're traditionally published or not.

The flip-side of the writer who writes too fast is the writer who is too precious about his work. I'm closer to this side of the spectrum. If you're spending an entire day debating a single word or comma, you might try writing something as well:) Overthinking your work is sometimes a way to stall, so I set and keep deadlines for myself. This keeps me honest. Sometimes a book takes extra time because there's more work to be done, and sometimes it's because its author was playing video games instead of working:) But oh my God, have you played Arkham Knight or Just Cause 3!?! I say if there's one more novel I could've written but I didn't get to experience those games, it wouldn't be worth it, and I'm usually pretty good about writing first, then reading, then playing (all work and no play makes Ninja a dull boy).

There will be plenty of posts about The Book of David in the coming year, including another of my obnoxiously smug afterwords.Today, however, I don't want to discuss the book so much--you can't read it yet anyway--as the process that led to its creation.

After putting out 4 ebooks, 2 print books, and 3 audiobooks during the same 12 month period as Mrs. Ninja giving birth to our first child, I was perhaps understandably exhausted. I took a month off to recharge, then got to work on Banneker Bones 2. But it was slow going.

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees was the hardest of my existing books to write and publish and it cost the most to produce and so far, it's sold the fewest copies. It's also my favorite, so I regret nothing. Middle grade books are more difficult to promote independently, not that I'm going to let that stop me from publishing Banneker 2, but I'm glad I also published Pizza Delivery and All Right Now. Horror readers have proven easier to find and market to, and they like me, they really like me, so much so that they write me occasionally to ask for more scary stuff, and like, offer to pay additional money for more.


Remember, I'm now a publisher as well as an author and the business part of my brain knew that Banneker 2 should be demoted to a project of my heart. I spent some time on Zombies 3 (I'll get back to it), but I really needed a break from the walking dead and a change in venue, so I started exploring other types of horror stories. I re-read Stephen King's wonderful Danse Macabre and his breakdown of The Amityville Horror as a story of economic woe really captured my imagination. After all, Mrs. Ninja and I bought our first house this year and I knew exactly what kind of new homeowner fears King was talking about (we've replaced our roof and just about everything else, and it has been an economically terrifying experience).

While diligently searching for an idea, I was struck with one. I had an idea for a variation on the classic haunted house story that made me laugh in the same wicked oh-I'm-going-to-get-in-so-much-trouble-but-it's-sooo-worth-it way I laughed when I realized what happened to the folks at New Life Christian Church in All Together Now.

If you want to know how I executed on my idea, you'll have to read my serialized novel (chapter one should be available in the spring), but what I find interesting about my idea for the purposes of this post is how I came up with it. There exists within every artist the tension between a desire for pure artistic expression and the demands of the market. This is an internal struggle each writer must resolve for themselves on each and every project.

I know I have demons I need to exorcise (metaphorical--don't get excited), which is why I write horror in the first place and they're going to come out no matter what I do, so I try to plan for them and give them room to run. All Right Now didn't just happen to star a brand-new father uncertain of his ability to care for his child. I wrote the original, unpublished version of Pizza Delivery at a time I was delivering pizzas.

The best lies contain an element of truth, and though none of my works have been even close to autobiographical (who would read a story that boring?), I try always to find a core element of honesty onto which I can pile the bull crap of zombies and giant robot bees:)

I find setting parameters to be enabling of creativity. If I can do anything, it's difficult to come up with an idea, but as soon as I say my idea must be for a horror story, preferably one I can break up to publish as a serial, and it must be geared toward adults, I can come up with a lot of variations to fit that criteria. And it's worth noting that I didn't establish the criteria. Esteemed Reader did.

I would never write a book SOLELY because I think its what the market wants--that's a sure path to hackdom and unhappiness.  The Book of David is a novel I love and creating it is absolutely fulfilling me as an artist.

But I want Esteemed Reader to enjoy it, so I've been listening to their feedback on my other books and I've crafted this new tale with their likes and dislikes in mind. I know most of my Esteemed Readers have been adults and they like the naughty language of Pizza Delivery, so there are F-bombs (the subject of a future post on my blog about children's fiction) throughout The Book of David. And the book is stronger for them.

The set-up and much of the plot of The Book of David are very much adherent to genre expectations. I've been rewriting the book's official description repeatedly as I write the actual book and I commissioned Steven Novak's fabulous cover 2/5ths of the way through my first draft. From day one, I've been consciously creating a product to be marketed, which I feel has helped me maintain focus.

I see emerging in myself a confident author as all the work I did between panic attacks that I was doing it wrong is beginning to pay off. I was invited to speak at a few events in 2015, I'm teaching a class on publishing in 2016,  and readers, (actual readers!!!) have come up to meet me and approached me with a bit of that hello-special-author-person-who-wrote-that book-I-like-so-much manner I've previously only seen fellow writer friends approached with. It's like sunshine falling fresh on my face and I soak it up while feigning false modesty, then I change my son's diaper and take out the trash and remember I'm just another dude who occasionally gets to dress up and pretend to be a special author person.

And then there are days like a Saturday last fall in which my closest friends in the world, the YA Cannibals, came to my home (where my wife sleeps and my child plays with his toys!) and sat around my table for 4.5 hours tearing my manuscript and a piece of my heart to bloody shreds. Afterward, I raked up all the leaves in my yard and lifted weights to keep from falling into a never-ending depression sleep.

Don't get me wrong. I love the Cannibals and I so appreciate they're making time to critique my work and help me make it so much better than it could ever be without them. I'll take their criticism when I can still do rewrites ahead of one-star reviews from paying customers all day everyday. And to be fair, I have no doubt I've driven some of them to drink with my "tough love" for their books. We're a writing family. It's what we do.

They confirmed for me that parts of the story are working as well as I hoped they would and helped me cultivate a plan to fix what isn't working. What I found particularly vexing as I took notes on their input is that many of their suggestions were nearly identical to suggestions made for previous manuscripts. I have consistent blind spots in my rough draft writing so that I need to be retold with each and every new story not to make the same types of mistakes I always make.


I spend a lot of time writing. One would think I might eventually get better at it:)

I am getting better in some ways, I suppose, but writing is a difficult task and though it gets easier the more I do it, I doubt it will ever get easy. If it did, I might find something more challenging to do with my time.

My second year of being an author has not matched the excitement of my first year--it's been better. I no longer stay awake at night dreaming of that glorious day in the distant future when some benevolent publishing professional allows me to publish a book. Instead, I sleep so I can wake up early and get on with the business of living that dream each and every day. The shiny newness and passion of the first year of a marriage (brought it all back around) fades, but what replaces it is a relationship that is stronger and steadier and more fulfilling: the day-to-day business of loving each other through good times and bad.

Reaching milestones such as the end of the first draft, first revision, copy-edited version that's suitable to print, and so on, have become less thrilling than they were the first time, but they're still a lot of fun. I'm not sitting around in awe of myself that I've written a whole book. Of course I have. I'm a writer; it's what I do. I need to finish this project and move onto the next one. But I still take the same pride and joy in my work as always. Writing is hard, but it isn't like work-work hard. I enjoy doing it and I'm having fun.

The Book of David is MY story that only I could tell, told the way only I could tell it. I don't want to hug it close to me the way I do Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees because it's not an especially nice or kind novel, but it scares me (which means it might scare readers) and it is my mind's child and right or wrong, I love it just as much as I love my other books (I'm typing this wearing my All Together Now T-shirt).

Whether The Book of David sells a bajillion copies and gets all 5-star reviews or whether it gets universally panned and my own mother returns her copy, I'm still going to write and publish another book and another after that. And I'm still going to be proud of The Book of David.

I could've spent this last year a lot of different ways, but I spent it taking care of Little Ninja and writing this really naughty horror novel during his naps and I regret nothing. I can think of no finer way to have spent my time. Whatever happens in 2016, I think it's important to remember that in 2015, I was happy and felt my life was mostly awesome:)

I hope you've had as good a year as I have, Esteemed Reader, and I hope this new year treats us both even better.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


Occasionally, Esteemed Readers have come up to me or written me with questions about grammar in my books. My first reaction is embarrassment as typos happen to the best of us despite paying multiple editors and when one is found I want to hear about it post haste so I can correct it for future editions of the book in which it was found. More often, I'm pleased to say (this is a professional outfit we're running here) I find that readers haven't found a typo, but disagree with me on a grammatical stance.

I started an official house style guide years ago to keep things consistent as I work with multiple editors and critique partners on each project. I was trained on The Chicago Manuel of Style and have whole pages of it memorized, so typically it's my default... except for when I disagree.

One of my critique partners, God love her, marks every ellipses of mine with the need for an extra space before it and has done this for five or six books straight as though I simply haven't picked up on her not-so-subtle hints. I don't care what AP says! Spaces before an ellipses are gross and anyone who doesn't think so is welcome to publish their own book with the spacing however they like, but my books will never have that hideous space ahead of or after an ellipses ... or will they ...no, they won't:)

What follows is a seemingly random listing of grammar rules I've encountered in publishing my books. These are either decisions I've had to make, or in too many cases, rules I never bothered to learn and now have to be reminded of so I don't look silly. I continue to update this listing with new items as they come up (though I prefer to keep the guide short enough to be useful).

I don't know why anyone not connected to the publishing of my books would be interested in this house style guide, but after multiple emails engaging me in grammar arguments (the most bitter battles I've had), I'm making this guide public in the interest of saving time.


--Proper titles of books, movies, and names of albums italicized, song titles in quotation marks

--Use 's to establish ownership, except after a name ending in 's' such as in Banneker Bones' case.

--Jet pack is two words, never jetpack

--Dual = two. Duel = fight, frequently with swords (yeah!)

--Light shone, not shown

--Reverend capitalized only when used as a formal title, not as an identifier. The reverend Brian Hopstead. The reverend forced Chuck's hand.  "This is the Reverend Hopstead," Peter Davis said. "We got Sister Rachel inside, Reverend," said one of the men.

--Shapeshifting is one word, not shape-shifting

--Spell out "street" in 221 Garrett Street (not 221 Garrett St), but not "north" in 1112 N Torrance Avenue or West in 2675 200 W.

--88 miles-per-hour, not 15 miles per hour

--Crime scene tape, not crime-scene tape

--Use 'gray' when referring to the color, 'Grey' when referring to the creepy billionaire

--Always use 'blond' over 'blonde' except when referring to a woman as a noun; i.e. the pretty blonde

--Numbers one through ten are written, 11 and up are numerical EXCEPT IN DIALOGUE. Any numbers within quotation marks should be spelled out.

--Comma after "well" as in "Well, that's settled." Exception: "well then," in which case the comma goes after "then"

--Comma after "Oh" at the beginning of phrase except for two words such as "Oh no," and "Oh crap!"

--Times shall be numerical, such as 12:27, space, am or pm, no periods. Example: 12:27 am.

--Catty-corner, not cattycorner

--Double-take, not double take

--Checkout aisle, instead of check out that aisle, it's hot!

--In between when used as a noun, in-between when used as an adjective or adverb:  But in between all that we went on hikes. Margot makes a sound that's not quite a hiccup or a sob, but something in-between.

--House style for ellipses: no space before/after subject, but before new thought. ...and died, he couldn't eat at all... or could he?

--Email, not e-mail

--Unholster a gun, not un-holster

--T-shirt, not t-shirt, tee-shirt, or tee shirt, though all are technically correct.

--President is capitalized when it comes immediately before the name of a president of a country. It is not capitalized when it refers to a president but does not immediately precede the name.

--"Ark" when used to refer to the Ark of the Covenant should be capitalized. "Ark" when referring to another structure should NOT be capitalized (sorry, Noah).

--Anymore, except when referring to actually more of something: I don't love you anymore, I'm not going to give you any more sex.

--Abbreviation for United States is US, not U.S. like Indiana's abbreviation is IN.

--When swearing, goddamn it, goddamned, not capitalized (unless character is really religious and I find it funny).

--If you are talking about the Earth as a proper noun, as a planet or celestial body, then you can capitalize Earth and use no article (the): How far is Earth from the Sun? But it is also fine to leave it as lowercase and use the with earth if you are talking about it as the planet we live on.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Guest Post: "Chronology V. Plot: Dawn of New Years" by D. A. Winsor

The Calendar Is Ending! We Are All Doomed!

My middle-grade fantasy, Finders Keepers, turns partly on the struggle to avert a disaster that will occur when the calendar changes to the year 4000. As the story approaches New Year's Eve, 3999, a plague kills many people, earthquakes swallow buildings, and floods threaten to drown the city. All will be lost unless the book's 12-year-old hero, Cade, is willing to risk his own well-being to save everyone else.

I got the idea for the plot while I was drafting this book in 2012. The internet was abuzz with speculation over what might happen on 12/21/12, the last date on an ancient Mayan calendar. Speculation that the world would end was so common that NASA put up an information page thatexplained why it wouldn't.

The furor reminded me of similar fears when the calendar rolled over to the year 2000, and we endured the so-called Y2K panic. Even some rational people feared civilization would collapse because of computer problems caused by the date change. Given how dependent we are on computers, it was hard to say people had no reason to worry, but a portion of the population entered into the panic with gusto, buying guns and stocking up on food and fuel. They generalized from a computer glitch to a gigantic social meltdown and possibly the end of the world.

Why do people put so much weight on the change from one page of the calendar to the next? After all, dates are created by humans and are somewhat arbitrary. So why do we lend them such significance?

I think it's because we human beings want to understand the unknown. We want cause and effect.  We want meaning. Psychologists say our brains are wired to find patterns, to connect one thing to another even though there's no necessary connection. So in a primal way, the link between the end of a calendar and the end of the world makes sense.

Given this need, fiction is satisfying partly because a plot shapes events into a pattern. If something happens, experienced readers expect it to matter. If an event has no consequences, we're likely to be annoyed, or at least wonder why the editor didn't insist the scene should be cut.

Events that matter and form a pattern create the difference between plot (one thing causes another) and chronology (one thing simply comes after another). My life has chronology, but not much of a plot. What I'm doing now probably has little connection to what I'll do this afternoon. On the other hand, my character Cade's life has a plot. Everything matters. That's one reason fiction often feels richer and more satisfying than daily life.

Of course, Cade's plot causes him a lot of problems and pain. I was happy to still be around to give an open house on January 1, 2000. I'm contented to stick with my chronology and enjoy my plots  in fiction.

D. A. Winsor spent years as a technical communications professor, studying the writing of engineers, before discovering that writing YA and MG fantasy was much more fun. Finders Keepers is Winsor's first novel, though if you look closely, you can probably find a literal million words of Winsor's Tolkien fanfiction posted somewhere. Winsor lives in Iowa. 

A summary of Finders Keepers on twitter would read: Boy senses presence of heart stones. Girl recruits him to steal some. World ends at New Year if they fail. Boy also rescues mother. Tricky.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Book of the Week: MADE YOU UP by Francesca Zappia

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

First Paragraph(s): If I was good at the grocery store, I got a Yoo-hoo. If I was really good, I got to see the lobsters. 
Today, I was really good. 
My mother left me at the lobster tank in the middle of the main aisle while she went to get Dad’s pork chops from the deli counter. Lobsters fascinated me. Everything from their name to their claws to their magnificent red had me hooked. 
My hair was that red, the kind of red that looks okay on everything but people, because a person’s hair is not supposed to be red. Orange, yes. Auburn, sure. 
But not lobster red. 
I took my pigtails, pressed them against the glass, and stared the nearest lobster straight in the eye. 
Dad said my hair was lobster red. My mother said it was Communist red. I didn’t know what a Communist was, but it didn’t sound good. Even pressing my hair flat against the glass, I couldn’t tell if my dad was right. Part of me didn’t want either of them to be right.
“Let me out,” said the lobster.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader! I hope this post finds you well and set to have a Merry Christmas (or whatever holiday you prefer) and a Happy New Year. Next week we'll have a guest post and then I'm signing off until 2016. The blog has been a little slow here recently as I'm devoting most of my energy into preparing a massive horror serial novel for adults (details coming in my first post of 2016). But I couldn't finish the year without telling you about Francesca Zappia's wonderful novel.

I had the good fortune to meet Francesca earlier this year. We did an author panel with our old friends Shannon Alexander and Barbara Shoup. We were asked what made Indiana a great place for writers, or something to that effect. I don't remember what I said (something about how Hoosiers rock!!!), but I remember Francesca said that Indiana is Gothic and creepy, a good place for stories. At that moment, I knew she was a kindred spirit and that I wanted to read her novel as I'm endlessly fascinated by how my fellow Hoosiers craft Indiana tales. 

Made You Up is a fascinating read and absolutely an Indiana story:

Hannibal’s Rest. Home. 
Here’s the thing about Hannibal’s Rest, Indiana: It is astoundingly small. So small I’m sure it wouldn’t show up on a GPS. You’d pass right through without realizing you were anywhere different. It’s just like the rest of central Indiana: hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and the only way to know the weather other times of the year is to walk outside. You drive west to get to Hillpark and east to get to East Shoal, but nobody from either school can tell you the name of a single person who goes to the other, and they all hate one another. 
My parents didn’t grow up here or anything. They chose to live in this nowhere town.

Meet Alex, named for Alexander the Great. She's transferring to a new high school her senior year after some trouble at her previous school that led to her being "chased out." Her father is somewhere in Africa and her mother is a strange person, homeschooling Alex's little sister to be a future strange person. Reading about the family made me wonder who the crazy person really was (spoiler, it's Alex).

You'll recall the first paragraph featured a talking lobster, which is always a wonderful way to begin a novel. In the next chapter, Zappia hits us with the first of many twists and surprises:

For two years after that fateful day in the supermarket, I thought I’d really set the lobsters free. I thought they’d crawled away and found the sea and lived happily ever after. When I turned ten, my mother found out that I thought that I was some kind of lobster savior. 
She also found out all lobsters looked bright red to me. 
First she told me that I hadn’t set any lobsters free. I’d gotten my arm into the tank before she’d appeared to pull me away, embarrassed. Then she explained that lobsters only turn bright red after they’re boiled. I didn’t believe her, because to me they had never been any other color. She never mentioned Blue Eyes, and I didn’t need to ask. My first-ever friend was a hallucination: a sparkling entry on my new resume as a crazy person. 
Then my mother had taken me to see a child therapist, and I’d gotten my first real introduction to the word insane.
Schizophrenia isn’t supposed to manifest until a person’s late teens, at the earliest, but I’d gotten a shot of it at just seven years old. I was diagnosed at thirteen. Paranoid got tacked on about a year later, after I verbally attacked a librarian for trying to hand me propaganda pamphlets for an underground Communist force operating out of the basement of the public library. (She’d always been a very suspect type of librarian—I refuse to believe donning rubber gloves to handle books is a normal and accepted practice, and I don’t care what anyone says.

As you know, I'm not a mental health professional and thus far, I have no diagnosed mental disorders (but if you've read my books, you've got to wonder). So I can't vouch for how accurate Zappia's portrayal of schiziophrenia may be, which I realize is a point of controversy elsewhere, but it's a fantastic story device. Alex may be the most unreliable narrator I've ever come across and it's not her fault.

But the reader can't trust her and in a first person narrative, we never know which things are actually happening in a scene and which are in Alex's, not because she's hiding information from us or intentionally making things up, but because she doesn't know what's real:

The doctors were oodles of help, but I developed my own system for figuring out what was real and what wasn’t. I took pictures. Over time, the real remained in the photo while the hallucinations faded away. I discovered what sorts of things my mind liked to make up. Like billboards whose occupants wore gas masks and reminded passersby that poison gas from Hitler’s Nazi Germany was still a very real threat. 
I didn’t have the luxury of taking reality for granted. And I wouldn’t say I hated people who did, because that’s just about everyone. I didn’t hate them. They didn’t live in my world. 
But that never stopped me from wishing I lived in theirs.

One of my many rules of writing is that the more extraordinary a situation, the more normal the characters should be and vice versa. Since Alex is such an extraordinary character, her situation is mostly normal and it's compelling stuff. She wants to fit in and be normal. What teenager couldn't relate to that goal?

When she meets Miles, an equally interesting boy with a love of obscure history and a touch of autism, the narrative takes a turn of the familiar. Sure, he makes money by carrying out revenge pranks, but he's mostly friendly and he and Alex spar like Bennedict and Bernice in Much Ado About Nothing--me thinks they're might be something there.

The only issue, and it's a small thing, but Alex is concerned Miles might not actually be real. He might be an updated version of the same boy with blues eyes Alex remembers from the day she freed the lobsters:

He laughed and disappeared into the kitchen. 
Was that Blue Eyes? 
I grabbed the Magic 8 Ball and rubbed the scuff mark as I looked down into its round window. 
Better not tell you now. 
Evasive little b#@ch.

Whether or not Miles or any other story element is real or a fantasy created by Alex's treacherous brain is not for me to say. You'll have to read Made You Up and see for yourself and you'll be glad you did. Zappia's finely turned prose and sense of humor shine in this debut and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does next and I hope we bump into each other again so I can tell her how much I enjoyed this fun and interesting novel that's not quite like anything else I've ever read.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll have a good time. Make your holidays happier by picking up a copy of this book. Should you need further convincing, I shall leave you as always with some of my favorite passages from Made You Up by Francesca Zappia: 

“You smell like lemons.” 
I felt a flurry of delirious joy because he’d said, “You smell like lemons” instead of “Your hair is red.” I knew my hair was red. Everyone could see my hair was red. I did not, however, know that I smelled like fruit. 
“You smell like fish,” I told him. 
He wilted, his freckled cheeks burning. “I know.”

It was ten-thirty, and the place was dead. And by dead, I mean it was like the entire possum population of suburban Indiana.

The first thing I noticed about East Shoal High School was that it didn’t have a bike rack. You know a school is run by stuck-up sons of b#@ches when it doesn’t even have a bike rack.

In AP Chemistry, Ms. Dalton seated us in alphabetical order and handed out lab notebooks, which look like notebooks on the outside but are filled with graph paper and make you want to kill yourself.

I turned to Art, a black kid who was a foot and a half taller than me and whose pecs were about to burst out of his shirt and eat someone. I gave him a two on the delusion detector. I didn’t trust those pecs.

Was there some kind of law about drop-kicking @#holes in the face? Probably. They always had laws against things that really needed to be done.

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, December 8, 2015

7 Questions For: Author Francesca Zappia

Francesca Zappia lives in Indiana, majors in Computer Science at the University of Indianapolis, and still isn't sure exactly how that happened. She spends most of her time writing, reading, drawing, watching anime, and playing way too much Pokémon. Some of her stories have nice neat endings, and others don't have very neat endings at all.

You can find her on Twitter @ChessieZappia, Tumblr (exeuntstormtroopers.tumblr.com), and on her website, www.francescazappia.com.

And now Francesca Zappia faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

1- The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
2- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
3- Fire by Kristin Cashore

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

I spend at least half an hour each day writing, but if I don’t have to work that day, I’ve been known to write from the minute I get up until I can’t hold my eyes open anymore. It really depends on the story I’m working on and what my schedule looks like. As for reading, I try to get in an hour of reading every day while I exercise, but if I really can’t put the book down, I’ll spend 4-6 hours finishing it in one day. (Definitely did that with Fire!)

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

I started writing when I was eight years old, but when I was fifteen I realized that publishers don’t just pick books off trees somewhere; writers have to send them in. I did some research, started looking for literary agents, and the summer after my freshman year of college, it all paid off. I got an agent, and six months later we’d sold my first book to HarperCollins. I did a lot of work over many years, but I also got very lucky, and I’m thankful every day for the happy circumstances that got me here.

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

A little of both, which I think is true for any skill. You can be born with an aptitude for anything, but if you never practice or try to improve your skill, you’re not going to go anywhere. On the flipside, maybe you don’t have an aptitude for a specific something, but if you practice it often, you can become much better at it. It also helps if you enjoy what you’re doing.

I can’t say whether or not I have an inborn aptitude for writing, but I know that I practice it a lot, I learn from reading, and I love doing it, so that’s enough for me!

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

Brainstorming! I LOVE coming up with ideas, especially for fantasy, sci-fi, and horror stories. Nothing beats the rush you get when a great idea hits you, then knowing that you can actually put it into a story.

I enjoy editing, too, which is weird because editing is also my least favorite part. It’s my least favorite because sometimes I just want a story to be right the first time around, sometimes because I don’t like it that much or because I have other books I want to work on, but when I figure out a way to fix the problems in the story and make it better, it all feels worth it.

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)

If you want to write books, write books. It’s difficult, and it takes a long time, but if you have the passion for it I promise you can do it. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or not. And don’t feel obligated to write “literary” or “highbrow” fiction unless that’s what you love. Write what you want, because when you enjoy it, you’ll do it more, and you’ll get better at it. 

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

J.K. Rowling. I’d probably be too star-struck to speak, though. Harry Potter was the reason I started writing in the first place, and it was my life from ages six through eighteen. I’d be grateful just to be in her presence.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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