Monday, November 24, 2014

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Brent Taylor

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

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

And now Brent Taylor faces the 7 Questions:


Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

Monday, November 17, 2014

7 Questions For: Audiobook Narrator Dwayne Colbert

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

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

And now Dwayne Colbert faces the 7 Questions:

 



Question One: What are your top three favorite books? 

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


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

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



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

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


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

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



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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Monday, November 10, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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






Thursday, November 6, 2014

7 Questions For: Author Robert Kent

Robert Kent is the author of the middle grade novel Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, the young adult novel, All Together Now: A Zombie Story, the novella for slightly older readers, All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story, and novelette for adults, Pizza Delivery. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and runs the popular blog for writers, Middle Grade Nina. This blog. He's also writing this bio and wrote the interview questions he's about to ask himself, so he's now going to switch to the first person.

Esteemed Reader, I've always wanted to answer these questions, but I've made myself wait until I'm an honest-to-God middle grade author. Now that I am, I'm going to face my own 7 Questions, but rather than just giving my answers, I'll also share some commentary on why I chose each question. If that sounds good to you, we'll have some fun. If not, here's a whole page of interviews with authors more interesting than me.

And now Robert Kent faces the 7 Questions:


Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

This first question is kinda brutal and now that I'm facing it, I understand why so many writers have complained about it over the years:) My intention in asking for three favorite books is to get an idea of what authors and publishing professionals like to read that I wouldn't get if I only asked them about their favorite book.

Still, after years of interviewee complaints, I now flat out encourage people to cheat on this question. In a world of so many wonderful books to read, we don't actually have to limit ourselves to just three. We can love them all and I do. But, as I know plenty of writers have tortured themselves picking only three books, I can't cheat on this question.

So I'm not going to pick the books I've read that make me sound smartest (is James Joyce's Ulysses ever really anyone's favorite book? I mean, really, that's the one you'd read if you couldn't read any other book?). I'm not going to pick the books that necessarily made the biggest impact on me. I'm not going to pick books by my friends, as much as I love them, and I'm not even going to pick one of Richard Adams's books, despite his amazing blurb for my book.

Rest assured, if I ever listed all my favorite books, they would fill fill this blog. And there are favorite books of mine out there I haven't read yet, which is why I keep reading. But these three books are the reading experiences I most remember and if I read just a few pages of any of them, I'm going to reread the whole thing. These books are the great loves of my reading life:

1. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Would you look at that? My first choice and I haven't even picked a book book, I picked a graphic novel. I don't care. I love this book with every fiber of my being and years later emotion swells up in me at just the thought of reading that final confrontation between Batman and Superman ("I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat... I want you to remember the one man who beat you." yesyesohgodyes! That's the poetry of my soul!) . If you never read any other comic or graphic novel in your life, read this one. For more, check out this ridiculous fanboy review I wrote a while back.

2. The Witches by Roald Dahl
This is the first book that ever had the courage to hurt me and began my love of scary stories. If I had a hundred years of writing time, I could never write a story as scary as this story was for me as a child. Of all the middle grade books I read back when I was kid looking for a story rather than an adult author looking for tips, this is the only one I remember telling me the truth: some adults are out to hurt you and it might not end well. All these years later, I'm still searching for a story as dark as this one or a situation as terrifying as finding oneself at the back of a conference room full of witches. Lots of middle grade stories promise to be scary, but The Witches truly is. For more, check out my review.

3. It by Stephen King
If Roald Dahl started me on the path to being an author of horror, Stephen King finished me off. This is the book that almost didn't make the list because the other two are flawless and this one isn't. But we're talking about love, and I love this book even with its flaws, such as sequences of talking sanitary napkins and a sex scene at the story's climax which makes perfect metaphorical sense in context and is still really, really icky. It is not Stephen King's best book (I'd list the best ones, except that would be cheating). But It is the first book for adults I ever read and it warped my mind forever. I had to get it from the library and read it in secret so my parents wouldn't find out and I lugged that stupid brick of paper around in the bottom of my backpack for a month. If there's a character in all of literature scarier than Pennywise the clown, I don't want to know about it. I have enough trouble sleeping as is.

Since I bug the publishing professionals for their three favorite movies and tv shows, I'll tell you mine as well. The reason I ask literary agents and editors this question is because I want a sense of the stories they like and the way the story is presented, which could be useful information if you're considering submitting a manuscript to them. I'm not accepting manuscripts, but here's what I like:

Movies: The Dark Knight (I should list Batman '89 since that's the version I grew up with, but Nolan's version is better), Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan has made some real stinkers, but I've never seen a more emotional moment on film than when David Dunn discreetly shows his son the newspaper headline confirming his father knows who he is now and their family is going to be okay), and since I can't list the collected works of Quentin Tarantino as a choice, we'll go with Jesus Christ Superstar (it was made before I was born, but I've paid to see Carl Anderson and Ted Neely perform live and the film's symbolism and conflict are mind-blowing to a boy who grew up in Sunday school).

TV Shows: The Simpsons, Breaking Bad, and Quantum Leap (yea growing up in the 80s!)

Whew. If all my answers are as long as this first one, we'll be here all day. Time to speed it up:)


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

Tragically, this varies from week to week. The reason I've asked this question is because I want to know how I measure up to writers I admire (not favorably). In an ideal world, I read for 2-4 hours an evening and write 4-8 hours during the day and some days that ideal actually occurs:) I do make time to sit down and read something everyday and I always write, though sometimes I write blog posts and emails instead of fiction, and other times I have author duties to attend to such as answering these questions. I also have a day job and a baby, so I don't beat myself up if I miss an hour here and there. Instead, I listen to plenty of audiobooks while doing anything that doesn't require my full mental attention (housework, exercise, video games, etc) and I take my Kindle everywhere to sneak in extra reading.

When I'm working on a rough draft for fiction, I aim for the embarrassingly slow pace of 500-1000 words a day. I've written at a faster pace (after fiction, I often crank out blog posts at 1000-3000 words a day), but I used to write much longer books than the ones I'm publishing. I'm a big believer in quality over quantity and far too mannered about my rough drafts, which will go through a minimum of fifteen revisions anyway (I didn't say it was smart, it's just the way I know to do it). But if I ever finish a rough draft and die before I can do the revisions, that book will be publishable and pretty close to what the final version would've been, provided someone corrects my grammar:)


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

If there's one question I might change at some point, it's this one. Increasingly, this question is of less interest to me as I interview a lot of indie authors and the path to publication is far clearer now than it ever has been. I may as well be asking people how they start a blog or send an email. In my case, I've kept this blog to record my author's journey. So you can read about my hard work revising Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees here, you can read about how I got my literary agent here, and you can read about how I got sick of waiting my life away for someone else to green light my dream here. As my path to future publications continues, you can bet you'll be able to read all about it at this blog:)

As of this posting, 85 writers have answered this question and none of them have given the same answer. Most author's paths to publication involve luck and a whole lot of work to get lucky. If I had found twenty or even ten authors with the exact same path to publication, I would've done likewise. Instead, what asking this question over and over again has taught me is that there is no one way to do this and your publication path will be unique to you.


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

I think the wording of this question betrays my answer:) I believe writers are both born and taught, but I'm always curious to hear different opinions. I think most writers can be identified at a young age due to natural aptitude, but talent is cheap and plentiful and useless without a lot of hard work and instruction.

The circumstances of my own birth were curious. Due to complications in delivery, blood was shut down to my brain for a time. Afterward, doctors grimly informed my mother I'd lost the portion of my brain responsible for creativity and advanced motor function. I would never walk and I would likely be an unimaginative, literal thinker who had trouble with metaphor and humor. Well, since when do doctors know everything:)

I did walk finally walk at age three, but it took a lot of physical therapy and effort. It makes my heart swell to watch Little Ninja crawl with strength and ease and way too much speed:)  I've always been clumsy and I was always the last kid picked for sports teams, but I can walk and run and skip and I'm very grateful. Still, when it comes to athletic pursuits, I've always felt like the only normal in a class of superheros. As a result, sports have never interested me and I was more inclined to read at recess than to lose at basketball, again. Being shunned from most things physical developed in me an outsider's perspective from an early age.

My creativity, however, has always been in overdrive, which at times has made for its own disability (hard to buckle down and learn math when you can't shut your imagination off). My mother often tells me how teachers always remarked on my creativity (mostly as a polite way of saying I was a troublemaker). My grandfather owned a small town newspaper, my father worked for a city newspaper, and my other grandfather was a farmer with a dream to publish a book. I told my stories to a tape recorder in the first grade and was able to write "books" by the second grade. I've always had an aptitude for writing and literature and I was annoyed it was so difficult for my classmates the way they were annoyed sports were so difficult for me.

I've also worked long and hard and I don't want to short change any of that effort. I'm up every morning while the rest of the house sleeps to write and I've logged more hours writing than just about any other activity in my life save for maybe sleeping. I'm not anointed (sigh). I've taken every writing course available to me, attended conferences, maintained this blog, read every writing manual I could get my hands on, and had a lot of wonderful writing teachers who've made a clear impact on me. I can't speak for other writers, but I believe I was both born a writer and taught to be one.


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

What kind of lazy question is this:) Actually, this question usually leads to my favorite answers in each interview.

My favorite thing about writing is the magic. Every time I stumble upon a story idea that makes perfect sense, it feels less as though I'm solving a problem and more like I'm discovering a truth from another dimension and simply transferring it to ours to place it where it was always meant to be. When my characters begin to act and speak on their own and the plot feels not like something I'm constructing, but an experience I'm living through, that's as close to real magic as I've ever been. If the magic is all in my head and a necessary trick my subconscious plays in order to get the books done, I'm okay with that, but I don't think it is. I feel less like an originator and more like a conduit through which stories pass.

My least favorite thing about writing is my own insecurity as an author. I hate that fear of starting a new story because I know there's always a chance readers won't care for it, it will get all 1-star reviews, I'll lose money on the publication, and it will be so roundly rejected that no one will bother to read my other stories. The trick is to use this fear as motivation to work harder and do just one more revision to at least avoid giving haters an easy target. I also find it useful to accept that much of a book's success or failure is out of my hands. Book sales depend on word of mouth and luck, neither of which I can greatly influence. I control what I can control by ensuring the book is as good as I can make it and to promote it as much as I can without taking too much time away from writing my next book. Fortunately, I've also got a bit of Banneker's ego and a part of me always believes the next book is the best thing I've ever written:)


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 there are two bits of advice that show up in the answer to this question over and over and over again, it's read a lot and write a lot. There's nothing else for it and if you want to be a writer, you should do both these things. You should also get as much advice from other writers as you can collect, especially bad writers, who will show you what not to do.

Fortunately, I don't have to choose just one bit of "wisdom" as I run this blog and I offer advice pretty regularly. My biggest piece of advice for writers is to do things your way. As I've said, what I've learned running this blog is that no two authors do things exactly the same way and there is no one way to be an author. That being said, there are similar things that many authors do and they must have a reason for doing them, which is worth investigating. Gather as much information as you can, then figure out the way to write and publish that works best for you.

A lot of authors plot their books from start to finish and I'm sure that makes writing them easier. Other authors pick a place to start and write until they reach the end. Neither of these methods works for me. I keep a loose plot outline of only general events and update it as I go so that I can mostly experience the story as the characters and the readers experience it, but plan enough moves ahead to keep the narrative coherent and avoid writing myself into a corner. That works for me. Find what works for you.

Here's a whole lot of other advice I've offered.


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

I didn't cheat on question one, but I am going to cheat here. How could I ever pick just one writer to chat with when I have questions for so many? I wouldn't want to waste my lunch on Stephen King or J.K. Rowling as they're still alive, so I might theoretically meet them, whereas Roald Dahl or Robert Heinlein or Ayn Rand (more of a boxing match than a lunch) would require the supernatural event offered in this question.

But I would very much like to shake the hand of every writer who has ever faced these 7 Questions and thank them in person. So I think I'll chose more of a conference than a lunch with all those fine writers and their choices for lunch (that should cover most of the writers I'd like to meet who haven't appeared here) and you, Esteemed Reader. It wouldn't be the same without you.



(no sense linking to my website as you're here)

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book of the Week: BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES by Robert Kent

First Paragraph(s): IN SOME WAYS, SCHOOL IS better than prison. Not many, but some.
     Like prison, school is all about routine. At 5:30 each morning, Ellicott Skullworth’s mother woke him. At 6:30 he rode the school bus. At 7:00 the first bell rang and class began, recess was at 9:30, lunch was at 12:30, second recess was at 1:30, and the final bell rang at 3:00.
     Ellicott rode the bus home and at 5:30 the next morning it began again. Each day the same as the last, the same as the next: an infinite stretch of the same miserable day to be lived over and over again.
     The day Ellicott Skullworth’s life changed forever began just this way.

Esteemed Reader, this week's book is the greatest novel ever written by a man. All literature from Homer to Shakespere to Stephen King has served only as steps toward the creation of this sacred tome that is the absolute finest literary work humanity has ever produced. Upon reading Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees (my, even the title takes my breath), J.K. Rowling will despair and wonder how she ever thought herself a capable writer. I'm sure other authors will publish novels, but now that this book exists, you have to wonder why they'll bother.

That concludes the review portion of this post:) Not sure what the author's opinion of his own book does for you. Though I'm joking (mostly) in the paragraph above, I do love this book. Therefore, my opinion is not to be trusted and we can ignore it.

As I did with my review of humanity's second greatest novel, All Together Now: A Zombie Story, I'm mostly just going to tell you about the book and why the author made some of the choices he did, just as I do every Book of the Week post. Except this week I don't have to guess why the author did what he did because he is me, and unknowable subconscious motivations aside, I remember exactly why the author made most of the choices he did.

On Thursday we'll have Robert Kent here (as we do each and every day) to face the 7 Questions. I was available previously, of course, but I've made myself wait until I was truly a middle grade author. All Together Now is so dark it just barely qualifies as a YA novel. Pizza Delivery and All Right Now are explicitly intended for older readers, and I'm going to eventually write more horror (couldn't stop if I wanted to), but Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is a fun and happy and gloriously middle grade story with no zombies (pity) and it's my favorite. 

It's not that I don't love my other books. They're each a piece of my heart, but Banneker Bones is the biggest piece. I often think of my stories as love affairs Mrs. Ninja is okay with my having. I get swept up in them, they occupy my every thought, and I learn and grow as a result. If All Together Now was a full-fledged relationship, and it was, then Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, the first book in a planned series, is a marriage. This is the story I've brought home to meet my parents and that I'm committing myself to for life. 

In fact, this book is the reason my blog is the Middle Grade Ninja and not the Adult Horror Ninja. Years ago, when I started this blog, I came to a point when I was pressured to choose which type of writer I wanted to be under the traditional publishing system. It was Banneker Bones that convinced me to focus on writing family friendly stories, though later I obviously decided choosing was silly and now I write what I want. But if Esteemed Reader only ever reads one story I've written, to date I would want it to be this story.

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is the book I wish I'd had to read when I was eleven and it's a book I've written for my son. I talk more about this in The Afterword (link coming next week after you've had a chance to read the book), but I knew from the start Banneker Bones would be the star of multiple novels, so I've infused his world with all my favorite things (lots of robots and monsters and robot monsters) to ensure I never get tired of writing sequels. He's an archetype (always a good idea for sustainability) based heavily on my favorite character in all of literature: Batman (my best characters are based on Batman):


     Banneker walked straight to his lab. He laid his trench coat open on one of the tables, and Ellicott saw for the first time there were four rows of triple pockets on either side of the inner lining, for a total of 24 pockets. 
     Ellicott couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever need so many hidden pockets. But as he watched, Banneker rummaged the lab and found something to put in nearly every pocket.
     “Smoke bombs.” Banneker shoved seven black balls the size of marbles into a coat pocket. “One canister knockout gas, tranquilizer darts, lock pick, evidence bags…”
     “Is that a grappling gun?” Ellicott asked.
     Banneker nodded and put a thing that was part grappling hook, part gun into one of the top pockets.
     “Why would you ever need that? Where is it you think we’re going that the use of a grappling gun will be required?”
     Banneker fastened the last of the inner pockets closed and put on his trench coat. It looked remarkably smooth on the outside considering all the stuff Banneker had packed the inside with. Ellicott couldn’t see a single lump in the coat betraying the bulk beneath it.
     “When it comes to grappling guns, cousin,” Banneker said, “It’s better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Banneker is an extremely wealthy inventor (add a dash of Tony Stark), a brilliant intellectual, a skilled fighter, and he's world famous, naturally. He's also eleven years old. Oh, and he's an egomaniacal jerk no one can stand to be around save for his parents, whom I haven't killed despite the fact it would've made plotting easier. Banneker lives at 221 Garrett Street which is absolutely an admission that I'm also borrowing heavily from Sherlock Holmes:

     Banneker sighed the way an adult might when trying to explain an extremely complex issue to a toddler.
     “I don't know exactly what we're searching for. We are simply looking for facts. It's a great mistake to theorize before we have them. We'd run the risk of twisting facts to serve theories rather than theories to serve facts."


Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is a big budget summer movie in a book and I love that about it. The entire last act is devoted to boys flying jet packs through the night sky to chase after robot bees the size of cars. This is a good-time story and if readers should happen to learn anything by its end, I assure you it will be by accident. I'm hoping to make readers laugh or at least smile and that's it.

The trick then has been to take all the fun stuff and shape it around a simple middle grade plot. The protagonist of the story is not actually Banneker Bones, even though he's the star, but his eleven-year-old cousin, Ellicott Skullworth. After all, Sherlock Homes' tales are told to us from Watson's perspective and Banneker is in some ways too grand a character to relate to in the same way readers can relate to his sidekick.

Ellicott is also a genius. The first chapter finds him lonely and bored out of his mind in a public school in a small Indiana town (naturally). Worse, he hides his intelligence to avoid being bullied. Through a series of plot machinations, Ellicott tests into the Archimedes Program at Latimer University in Latimer City where he'll be staying with a cousin he's never met who does not want to share his room:

     Banneker paced back and forth in front of a long steel table. He lifted his black hat with the white band and ran a hand over his head. His hair was kinked so close to his scalp, it didn’t move as his hand passed over it.
     Ellicott cleared his throat. “It’s nice to meet you.”
     Banneker went on pacing as though he hadn’t heard.
     “Cool hat,” Ellicott said.
     “It’s a trilby hat.”
     Ellicott didn't know the difference between a hat and a trilby hat, but he nodded. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
     “Of course you have,” Banneker said. “I’m world-famous.”
     “Well, that’s true.”
     “You’re not, though, are you?” Banneker stopped moving and turned to Ellicott for the first time.
Ellicott Skullworth, inventor of nothing, shook his head.
     “So, the niceness in this meeting is all on your end, wouldn’t you agree?”
     Ellicott swallowed. “I guess so.”
     Banneker nodded as though this were just the answer he'd expected and went back to pacing. “In the future, I’d advise you to stay out of this room. It’s my office and I must be left alone if I’m going to get any work done. There’s a television in the guest room, so you can watch your mindless cartoons and sporting competitions in there.”
     Banneker rubbed his chin.
     “And you should stay out of my workshop as well. There’s lots of dangerous equipment, and a boy with a troglodyte’s mental capacity such as yours would probably only hurt himself. Really, you should just avoid this side of my bedroom entirely. As much for your own benefit as for mine.”
     “What’s a trogioright?” Ellicott asked.
     “It’s a caveman,” Reggie said. “And it’s troglodyte.”
     “I see,” Ellicott said. “And I’m guessing having the mental capacity of a toglio thingee is not a good thing?”
     “No, not at all.”
     Ellicott nodded and turned back to Banneker. “Well, anyway, thanks for letting me stay here.”
     “Not my idea,” Banneker said. “You have my mother to thank for that. But she’s been wrong before. She adopted a stray puppy once and put it in my room to,” he made a face to show his disgust, “keep me company. The puppy survived two days.”
     Banneker looked Ellicott up and down as though he were appraising something for purchase and deciding against it. “And now she’s adopted another stray, hasn’t she? We’ll just see how long you survive.”


Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees has taken me half a decade to polish. I've never worked harder on a book or loved a story more. In some ways, I'm sorry to be done writing and revising it, but I'm so glad it's available for readers and I hope they'll love it as much as I do. You can check out the first five chapters here. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees:

      The man sounded like he recited Shakespeare to adoring crowds of English teachers on the weekends.


     There was a ladder carved into the wall of the pit. Ellicott ran for it, but by the time he reached it, the cover was more than halfway across the pit. If he climbed the ladder, he'd only get far enough out of the pit to be cut in half.
      No, not cut in half—squished in half. Ellicott wondered if the top of him would burst like a mashed ketchup packet.


     The ninjas were fast, but Banneker Bones was faster. He knocked two ninjas down with one spin kick and they stayed down. He chopped a third ninja across the neck as he landed, leaving only two ninjas standing.
     The first ninja charged him with a barrage of kicks and flying fists. Banneker ducked and weaved, dodging each blow with ease. The second ninja charged Banneker from behind.
Banneker appeared not to notice until the last possible second, then he spun and seized the ninja by his black garb. Using the ninja’s own momentum, Banneker slammed him into the other ninja, knocking them both out.
     Banneker began walking away, but just then one of the supposedly unconscious holographic ninjas began to rise. Banneker kicked him in the chest without even stopping to look at him.
     A second ninja lying nearby yelled “Hi-ya!’’ and sat up.
     Banneker leapt on him at once, letting out a guttural scream like the primal cry of an animal. The ninja was slammed back to the ground and Banneker punched him across the face once, twice, three times.
     Banneker screamed again and began striking the ninja with both fists, one after the other, again, and again, and again, the ninja crying out louder and louder and then not at all.
     “Dude,” Ellicott said, watching all from the lab. “You're one seriously messed up kid.”
   
     It was a robot.
     Ellicott knew that at a glance by the way the sun reflected off the thing’s enormous steel body so brightly that at first its shape was impossible to distinguish in the glare.
     It had six thin legs like an insect and beneath them, beneath this great robot the size of a car, a woman in a business suit was pinned to the street and screaming her head off for someone, anyone, to please help.
     Just above the woman’s screams, Ellicott heard something else that sounded like the roar of heavy machinery mixed with the whirr of a weed wacker.
     It was buzzing, Ellicott was sure of it, like the buzzing of a bug if a bug were ever as big as this robot.
     The robot had a body like an insect to match its six legs, and its face was all giant round eyes like a bug’s face. Huge steel wings extended from its back and at the rear of the robot was a sharp steel spire.
     Its metal body was striped dark steel, and lighter reflective steel, so it made sense that it had a stinger, because it was—
     “It’s a giant robot bee,” Banneker said. His breath caught.
     There was no denying it. Ellicott didn’t have any idea where the thing came from or why it was here just now, but whatever the answer to those questions, this was clearly a giant robot bee in the middle of the street attacking a woman.
     That the situation was insane was irrelevant.


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.