Tuesday, June 27, 2017

GUEST POST: "The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent" by Mark Gottlieb

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter…  

Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:


5)   FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.


4)   DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.


3)   PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author?  It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.


2)   READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.


1)   THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.



Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories. http://www.tridentmediagroup.com/agents/mark-gottlieb




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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

NINJA STUFF: Funeral For A Friend (in which I discuss my failed novel)

THE END HAS COME BLOWOUT: The fifth and final volume in my serial horror series, The Book of David, releases this Friday at a discounted price of just $.99. To celebrate, the first four books will all be free from Friday, June 23rd through Sunday, June 25th. This one weekend in history, Esteemed Reader, you'll be able to own the entire 5-book saga for less than a buck. The first book is free right now. After the compilation of all chapters is released on July 4th, the cheapest this story will be available for is $7.99. I'm hoping to drum up some Amazon and Goodreads reviews. If you're a reader of this blog old enough to read an adult horror novel and you have an interest in a haunted house story I promise you haven't heard told quite like this before, I'd appreciate you helping me launch my promotional efforts with a review. 

Okay. Enough with that.

It's a somber occasion, Esteemed Reader, so I hope you're wearing a black tie. Today I say goodbye to a book I once loved and still have some feelings for, even if I'm the only one. Actually, my critique partners and Mrs. Ninja also have strong feelings for the book, but not positive ones:)

I have a whole bookcase full of old manuscripts and screenplays, but most of them I promise myself can eventually be developed into better books. And why not? Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees took five years of revision before it was published and Pizza Delivery took 13. I have other stories that aren't ready for a readership yet, but may be revisited, even my 300-page screenplay about Batman. I've got a western that I would totally rework and publish if I could just get myself to change its inappropriate title (won't do it), an erotic horror novella that will never see the light of day, a story about a dying hooker that was good for me to write at the time and that no one should have to read, and some other stories that are actually pretty good that I hope to one day rewrite and make available.

But Straw Houses, my first epic adult horror novel about victims of alien abduction, has been picked over for parts and its ashes have been spread over my other works. All Together Now: A Zombie Story stole part of its ending, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees stole some of its characters (Grandma Juanita was the only character in Straw Houses I genuinely liked, and I transported her to Banneker's world as an apology for first putting her in such a terrible novel), and now The Book Of David has stolen its best scenes and ideas. In fact, that last book is very much Straw Houses 2.0, and if I've finally written a decent long horror story involving UFO lore, it's only because I first devoted a couple years of my life learning how NOT to write a long horror story involving UFO lore. 

So what went wrong? Like an athlete watching old games or comedians listening to past routines, I think authors should revisit their own works from time to time to assess their weaknesses and strategize for future victory. So this post will be a useful exercise for me and possibly interesting to you writers out there as well. And if it's not, next week we'll be back to interviews with authors, publishing professionals, and guest posts by the same. Plenty of useful archives for you to read if me mourning my dead book doesn't interest you:)

Here are the issues with Straw Houses as I see now them on this side of seven years past two years' writing and revising and rewriting and revising:

1. I didn't have a plan going in. Every writer has to decide where they sit on the spectrum between diligent, plodding plotter and fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantser, free-spirited, I-just-write-it-as-it-comes-to-me-man-cause-its-my-art-man dirty hippie:) Through trial and error, I've learned I do better if I know the ending up front (or at least have a good idea what it might be). I leave open the possibility that the characters will change the ending, and they frequently do, but not by much.

With Straw Houses, I had a lot of passion because I was nine years younger, not yet married or a father, and more of a UFO enthusiast. I was evangelical in my suspicions of conspiracy. I've since mellowed and backed off, having learned the hard way that it pays to be cautious with overly-interesting theories:) But in my enthusiasm, I decided to take an interesting situation: a small town Indiana couple, interracial like Betty and Barney Hill, comes to in their car, parked on a country road, with no memory of the five hours that have just passed. Meanwhile, another man in town is menaced by a UFO late at night that appears in his backyard and speaks to him. The two stories converge because the men are coworkers who confess their separate incidents after a UFO appears above the Harrington courthouse and one of them snaps a picture of it that becomes world-famous.

It's a good set up for a novel. Even now, knowing how it turned out, I still feel the opening was pretty swell. It's got plenty of intrigue and I may yet write at least a short story in which a UFO shows up over the courthouse of a small Indiana town because that is just pure fun. Aside from a few other issues we'll come to, I think the first 100-150 pages of Straw Houses is one of my most gripping openings. Unfortunately, the book went on for another 700 pages and I had no clue what happened next:) I just assumed I'd figure it out as I went. I didn't.


2. The characters weren't likable or, worse, interesting. The main character, Charles Cavanaugh, was a jerk who whined a lot, treated his wife poorly, and didn't have a goal other than to stop being abducted by aliens. That's motivation enough for the protagonist of a short story (Brock Clouser's main motivation in Pizza Delivery is not to get murdered) but not a stupid-long novel.

Charles was a financial consultant at Mitchell and Reynolds Investments because I always thought it was funny that a straight-edge banker be abducted by aliens, which is why David Walters works at the same branch in The Book of David and meets many of the characters from Straw Houses, which is interesting only to me and the handful of other people who read my first attempt:) Charles' wife, Christine, is even worse, and the two of them together were deplorable. They were always fighting.

The couple wasn't fighting because I was ticked at Mrs. Ninja and looking for a place to put it, but because conflict drives stories and I hadn't given the Cavanaughs an actionable conflict, so they turned on each other to keep pages turning:) And, okay, I was contemplating getting married and chose to create a worst-case scenario marriage. Ultimately, the Cavanaughs fought so much I convinced myself and my few readers their relationship was doomed, so there wasn't anything at stake. The other characters were a little better, but not much because...


3. I never established a clear concept or overarching conflict to drive the novel. Whoops:) The number one thing I learned about writing my first long horror story about UFOs is that "realistic" aliens make lousy villains. Fictional aliens to which I can assign a motive and make clear their plan would probably be bang-up antagonists, and I'm sure I'll write about some eventually. But I wanted to incorporate as many details from modern UFO sightings and abductions as possible, and if you've done that research (here's a place to start), you'll notice there is no consensus about where flying saucers come from and what their motives are.

That's fine for an hour-long program of talking heads on the History Channel, but it's not's fine for a long novel. I had the same problem as the film Twister in that my villains weren't worthy villains with a goal that brings them into conflict with the "hero" in a credible way ("You've never seen a tornado miss this house and miss that house and come after you!").

About 300 pages in, after multiple UFO encounters and detailed flashbacks to suppressed memories of alien abduction, my characters began to suspect that the aliens were actually demons. The problem then is the demonic aliens still didn't have a clear plan or motivation other than to mess with our heroes, apparently by convincing one of them that she had alien babies being raised on another planet. Worse, the heroes could now pray the aliens away, which is not an exciting finale to a long novel.

My attempted solution was to hold off revealing that the demons were aliens until the end of the novel after Charles Cavanaugh attempted multiple means of fighting them off. But this just exacerbated the original problem of the villains being without a clear motive, leaving our hero without a real goal, until page 750 or so. Even my mother isn't going to read a story like that.


4. I molded the story to serve its theme rather than allowing the theme to emerge from the story. In my mind, Straw Houses was destined to be literature read and studied for ages to come. What a fool I was. Only The Book of David and my other super important and impressive volumes of literature will be studied by future generations:)

About the same time I decided the aliens were demons, which is to say way too far along in the novel to reconsider, I decided they must be the big bad wolf. Oh my God, put on your tweed jacket with the leather patches and light your pipe, I've got myself a metaphor! I had two households being antagonized by a big bad wolf. If I had a third,  he could metaphorically huff and puff and blow two houses down, but then also the third, because in the end don't we all live in Straw Houses (Get it? Get it? I hate you, me from the past).

So I added a third house and a fourth major character about 300 pages in for the soul purpose of later killing him and showing that his metaphorical house wasn't built so good after all. At one point the demonic aliens called him on the phone and were all like, "Are you scared? We know your phone number!!!" And this happened because he wasn't tied into the main plot that was already going.


5. I ended a very long book with a total downer ending. This goes hand in hand with my previous mistake as missteps build on each other to lead a writer way off path.

I've always been suspicious of that third little pig in the brick house. Why's he so happy at the end of the story? Both his brothers got ate up and he's all alone. I mean, he's safe, so long as he never goes outside again. I realize I'm reading too much into an allegory, but I maintain that third pig is not a happy fellow.

So, after 800 some-odd pages of UFOs torturing our three households (or huffing and puffing) one character kills himself, one gets shot by a woman who is herself possessed by an alien demon, one character is killed when she attempts to flee the ritual suicide of a UFO cult, and our main character, Charles Cavanaugh, is left all alone to mourn his dead homies and never be happy again. Here's the actual ending:

     Only Charles remained. He was the smart pig who built his house of brick, the wise man who built his house upon the stone. The rains came down and the winds came up, and the wolf huffed and puffed, but he couldn’t get old Charles’s house down. Charles Cavanaugh was the wise man living on the rock. Charles Cavanaugh was the clever pig in the brick house and he was doing just fine, thank you very much.
     Charles filled his glass to the brim with whiskey and a dash of Sprite. He listened to the roar of the surf outside the kitchen window and the quiet stillness all around him. There were no voices, no other sounds of any kind. There was no one else here, only him.
     Charles raised the glass to his lips and began to drink.

Now, if I were Esteemed Reader, after dutifully acknowledging that I'd clearly just read the next Adventures of Huckleberry Finn penned by a modern master of the craft whose every brilliant sentence allows me to believe in a brighter tomorrow, I might be ticked to have read so much story only for all the characters to die or otherwise be miserable and no resolution to be had for any of them. I know all of my critique partners were angry:)

Metaphorically, it's true that every character in the story had demonstrated the weakness that led to their undoing, but that just makes readers want to know about the characters who didn't screw up their lives and my 800-page tome would've been better off including some (even if it messed up the three-little pigs motif, which is better left to James Patterson).

So, from this experience, I learned that as a rule, downer endings are more acceptable at the end of shorter works. Readers are generally more forgiving if they've invested less time with the doomed protagonists. Better yet is the downer ending that's still somewhat happy for at least one or two major characters. Conversely, a happy ending is better tempered with at least a little darkness.


One mistake I made with Straw Houses that is no longer a mistake was the length. The plot problems would've still been an issue had it been a shorter book, though I might've got away with a narrative poem:)  I like long horror novels and am convinced there is still a market for them. And there's a very good reason some of my most favorite horror novels have been long.

The most astute critique I ever heard of Stephen King came from a fellow Burger King employee many, many years ago when the Ninja was a teenager. We both agreed the stories were amazing, and by far the scariest, but he remarked, "Doesn't it seem like if you shook hands with that dude at a party, you'd have to chew through your wrist to get away?" I have thought about that criticism ever since every time I reread King's works but also when I read other long books.

I've talked at length about my undying love for Stephen King, but my coworker did have a point. There have been a few Stephen King novels when I've wondered if the editor just didn't feel comfortable asking Mr. King to please not review other writer's books in the middle of the book Constant Reader paid for (get a blog, man). And yet most of King's novels are white-hot reading experiences demanding to be read as quickly as possible that are still popular decades after they were written, despite large word counts. So either Stephen King is just super lucky every book (and no doubt, some luck was involved), or there's a method to his madness.

Many of Stephen King's books thrive on details. They have to. He's asked Constant Reader to suspend their disbelief by quite a lot on numerous occasions.

The Shining has a cast of four major characters in a straightforward horror story that can be boiled down to a few sentences or endless 2-5 minute animated parodies. King took 160,000 words to tell his version and it worked and continues to work. King is a master salesman who convinces Constant Reader that his characters are real people because Constant Reader will know everything that's relevant about them. King convinces that the situation those real characters are in is real as well.

Even if it takes King 444,000 words, Constant Reader will believe there is a killer clown in the sewers capable of transforming into their worst fear and Constant Reader will believe because every detail about that fantasy will add up to an argument convincing enough until the lights come on again.

Straw Houses at its longest draft was 182,000 words. A literary agent literally laughed in my face when I told her. Nobody was going to traditionally publish a novel that long by a debut author, she said, and she was right. That's not the same as saying there aren't readers looking for long horror stories. If they've read King (and what kind of jerk loves horror and doesn't read King?), they know those seemingly mundane details add up, like the passes of a hypnotist's golden watch, to convince the reader the story is real and that they should be terrified.

The compilation of all five volumes of The Book of David is 279,000 words. I knew going in it would be a long story because it asks the reader to suspend their disbelief about a whole lot of stuff, the least of which is that flying saucers and alien abductions are real and a practical concern for everyday people:) But I learned my lesson from previous mistakes and published this very long story as five books, which allows for marketing considerations. 

Because I only get paid for the fifth book if Esteemed Reader made it through the first four, this insured that I would be forced to keep the narrative focused with built in cliffhangers.

I did a few other things differently in writing The Book of David that I knew to do only because I'd first written Straw Houses:

1. I absolutely had a plan going in. I knew what the last chapter would be before I wrote the first one, while keeping the plot flexible enough to allow the characters to dictate their own actions (sometimes). I didn't have a full outline, but I did have a list of planned events to help me determine where each chapter needed to start and stop to get where I wanted to go.


2. I had a clear concept going in: The Walters family has bought a haunted house. From the first line of Chapter One to the last line of Chapter Five, this is a haunted house story. There are aliens and flying saucers, but the reader is told in Chapter One as well as in the book's description that those aliens may actually be demons. There's an alien with demonic horns on the cover. My cards are pretty much on the table from the start. And the aliens are prominently featured without ever bearing the responsibility of being the primary antagonist. This is a haunted house story with aliens in it, not an alien story with a haunted house in it. 


3. Because I knew the ending, I knew some of what the themes were likely to be and allowed them to emerge from the story rather than bending the story to serve the themes. If you read the whole story from start to finish and don't pick up that this is a story in part about addiction and in part about parenting, you won't be bothered because the plot moves right along without your needing to pick the themes up. If you don't think it's thematically relevant that every volume starts with "Do you believe? Do you have faith?" than maybe it isn't. I'm okay with The Book of David being thematically misunderstood so long as Esteemed Reader is entertained and kept in suspense. This is a for fun story, not homework.


4. David and Miriam Walters are both flawed characters, but they're also likeable and they have actionable goals. I know because I used critique partners' and beta readers' feedback to rewrite my characters until I knew they were likeable and I wrote out fact sheets about them to keep them consistent through five volumes of story. I know all kinds of details about them that aren't relevant enough to be in the book. It thrilled my heart when one Esteemed Reader wrote in a review, "The main character David is down to earth and likable which is a good part of what makes this book so enjoyable to read." I couldn't have paid someone to write a better compliment than that, assuring me the book was doing what I wanted it to do.


5. The ending is satisfying, whatever the author's opinion of it does for you:) I didn't write 279,000 words just to tell you the ending on my free blog, but I do feel it's my best ending of all my stories so far published. It makes me smile to think of how I hope Esteemed Reader will feel when they reach it.


There were many other mistakes made in Straw Houses, some of which I'm probably still making because I don't yet know they were mistakes:) But every story I've told since Straw Houses has been better because I wrote that ill-fated novel destined to sit on my shelf of manuscripts not good enough. Straw Houses taught me the lessons I needed to know to write the manuscripts that are.

That shelf of old manuscripts isn't a graveyard of failed dreams. It's a monument to the heroic efforts made by the stories who went first so future stories could resonate with Esteemed Reader. 





"The Lord has appointed you to a special duty in these last days and given your life a unique purpose. Will you turn away from the myriad temptations of this wicked world and answer His righteous calling?"

The Walters family has just purchased the perfect home if only it weren't located in the small hick town of Harrington, Indiana, and if only it weren't haunted. David Walters is an atheist now, but his minister father taught him from a young age that Satan would one day deceive all mankind by pretending his demons were extraterrestrials. The day the Walters family moves in, they spot a flying saucer outside their new home. Things only get stranger from there. David Walters is about to learn what it means to be truly haunted, forcing him to confront his past, fight for his family, his soul, and his sanity.


WARNING

This horror story is intended for a mature audience. It's filled with adult language, situations, and themes. It's in no way appropriate for the easily offended or younger readers of BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin

When Alyssa Eisner Henkin became an editorial assistant in 1999 she was just happy to have coworkers who loved Anne of Green Gables as much as she did. Little did she know, over the next decade children's publishing would become the fastest-growing genre in reading and entertainment.

Alyssa candidly admits that she did not foresee the magnitude of this when she became an agent. "I joined Trident because I wanted to be an entrepreneur, to have a more direct impact on authors' careers, and to use both my creative and business acumen". While at Trident, Alyssa has been able to take advantage of changing formats and venues for her clients. "Most companies consider the international market to be secondary," says Alyssa, "but at Trident, we view foreign as a 'must' market, and my clients are pleased to find their books selling around the world."
"Through all of the growth and change", Alyssa emphasizes, "there is no doubt that the key elements of storytelling have remained the same. The book that cannot be put down will continue to hold value, whether as a groundbreaking app, or as a beloved and tattered paperback that still reigns your bookshelf." Alyssa considers it a great privilege to represent books that readers cannot put down.

She is actively seeking new clients and represents all forms of literature for young people. Query letters should be submitted via email to ahenkin@tridentmediagroup.com. The first five pages of text for a longer work, or the full manuscript for a picture book text should be submitted below the query letter in the text body of the email, not as an attachment. Art samples or dummy texts should be inserted as links in the body of the query letter.

In middle grade and young adult fiction and memoir, Alyssa craves tight plotting, lyrical prose, rich regional flavors, and unexpected conclusions. She especially enjoys mysteries, period pieces, contemporary school-settings, issues of social justice, family sagas, eerie magical realism, and retellings of classics.

In nonfiction, history and STEM/STEAM themes are always intriguing. Alyssa would also love to find a series with the interactive spirit of a trivia game.

Above all, Alyssa digs deep when she sees potential, from editing, to title brainstorming, to securing the best publisher, to devising new marketing ideas and making ancillary sales across all forms of media. "There's no greater professional joy than championing a book that you believe in and watching the world delight in it."

And now Alyssa Eisner Henkin faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?


The Group by Mary McCarthy
In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett



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


Movies:
Steel Magnolias
Little Miss Sunshine
Brooklyn


Television shows:
The Wonder Years
Mad Men
Downton Abbey


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


Someone who is diligent about revisions, who is innovative and dares to take chances in his or her work, who has the patience and confidence to stand by those daring choices, and who is most passionate about craft but willing to wear a savvy marketing hat or scarf from time to time.



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


I would love to see more fun nonfiction projects with series potential: I’m searching for The Magic School Bus for the smartphone-addicted kid generation. I’m looking for middle grade that has the plot nuance of The Mixed Up Files… with a diverse cast of characters and a setting  that oozes kid-appeal and lends itself  to innovative world-building .  Wolf Hollow is one I just fell in love with recently, so I’d love to see more period pieces with super high plot-stakes that feel truly relevant to today’s kids. Now that my sons are 7 and almost 3, I’m channeling them and actively seeking more illustrated work, things like The 13 Story Treehouse on down to smartly-packaged-picture books with interactive elements that prompt family bonding, like in Tickle Monster and The Elf on The Shelf.


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


I love learning little-known facts from submission that pop up in my inbox.

I love the thrill in an editor’s voice when he or she is hooked on a project as much as the sheer delight in a client’s voice when he or she decides on the perfect editor and or scores a place on the bestseller list or wins an award!

My biggest frustration is the glut of books that are published to copy trends rather than buck them. It reminds me of the first-graders on the soccer field when a dozen kids swarm around one ball and nobody scores a goal. I much prefer to dribble my books up the sidelines!


Question Two: 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)


It’s important to read a lot of frontlist titles so you understand the comp titles when editors describe what they are seeking to acquire. However, it’s also crucial to stay true to your own vision for your story and not try to fit a square peg into a round hole; it has to feel right.


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


It would have to be at tea party with Maud Hart Lovelace, L.M. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary and Sydney Taylor, and maybe I’d throw in Jackie Kennedy. The first 4 ladies are kind of the reasons I sought a career in children’s publishing.  As for Jackie, I’m a huge Kennedy buff and she was an editor after all!



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Thursday, June 8, 2017

7 Questions For: Author Laura Martin




Laura Martin believes in chasing her dreams and she brought that philosophy to her classroom for six years as a seventh grade English teacher.  Edge of Extinction-The Ark Plan is Laura’s first novel—and a dream come true. When she isn’t writing stories about dinosaurs and underground civilizations, she can be found in the Indianapolis area with her dashing husband, Josh, her adorable kids, daughter London and son Lincoln, and two opinionated bulldogs.

Edge of Extinction-Code Name Flood is available now.

Click here to read my review of Edge of Extinction-The Ark Plan.

And now Laura Martin faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?


Harry Potter will always and forever have my heart, so I’m going to cheat and count the entire series as one book. The second would have to be The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Peirce. I devoured those books over and over as a kid. Pretty much everything she’s ever written has a permanent spot on my shelf and in my heart. And finally The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffennegger.  


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


Not enough? I have two little kiddos at home, so free time is something that I vaguely remember. I write after my kids go to bed at seven at night, and I keep writing until my eyes won’t stay open anymore. Sometimes that’s a few hours…sometimes that’s a few minutes. It all depends on the day and how much is left in the tank after a day of toddler wrangling. As far as reading goes, I do most of that through audiobooks. I always have one in rotation to listen to in the car or while I fold laundry, so the amount I listen to varies day to day.


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


Like a lot of life-long bookworms, I always dreamed about writing a book. While I was in the middle school trenches teaching seventh grade English, I set a goal to get published before I turned thirty. So, goal set, deadline approaching, I started writing a book. It was terrible, but it took over 150 rejections before that fact really sunk in. So I wrote another book, and that book ended up getting noticed by Alec Shane, who was working at Writer’s House as Jodi Reamer’s assistant at the time. He asked me to do a huge revision and rewrite on the book before he showed it to Jodi, with no promises or guarantees attached, and I jumped at the chance. (I’d submitted my book to Jodi in the same way one applies to Harvard…with a lot of prayers but not much hope.)  It took a year from the time Alec first noticed my book to the day that I got the phone call that Jodi was interested in representing me. My daughter was only two weeks old when she called, and I was a little worried that it was all one big sleep-deprived dream. The book, which at the time was just called The Ark Plan, sold to HarperCollins who asked me to turn it into a two book series.


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

I believe writer’s are born, but it is the teaching they receive the books they encounter that determines whether or not they actually become a writer. I think to be a writer you have to first fall head over heels in love with books and the magic they hold between their pages. I fell in love with books via The Chronicles of Narnia in second grade, but I firmly believe that the real reason that I am a writer today is because I grew up listening to books, not reading them. I started training for cross country in middle schol, and I discovered that a six mile run was bearable if I was listening to Jim Dale narrate the Harry Potter series, and if you look the science behind what makes a writer, you will discover huge ties between listening to books and becoming a writer.


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



I love that it’s never felt like work. When I get to delve into a story I’m working on, it’s fun. And I guess it’s that simple. I’ve been able to make my passion into a paycheck, and even when I’m exhausted after a long day of keeping two small children alive and happy, writing is a soft place to land. My least favorite thing about writing is the sedentariness of it. I love to be up and moving, preferably while multi-tasking. Spending hours sitting in front of a computer screen starts to get to me after a while. Which is why I guess it’s lucky that I rarely get more than an hour or two after my kids go to bed for the night!  


Question Two: 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)


My first would be to write a book, and even though you are going to think it’s bestseller material, shove it under your bed and write another one. Always have something new and exciting in the pipeline so that as you are getting all those lovely rejection emails, you won’t lose hope. My second piece of advice would be to set a deadline on your dream. Mine was to get published before I turned thirty (I missed this goal by about nine months), but really, even if it had taken me until I was one hundred, it still would have been worth it. A lifetime spent pursuing a dream, even a dream that is never realized, is better than I life spent with regrets. Once you set a tangible deadline you will be forced to take the steps to make it happen. And lastly, turn off the internet when you write and move your phone to another room.

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

It’s a hard choice between Tamora Pierce and J.K. Rowling, but if push came to shove I’d have to say Tamora Pierce. I love everything about her writing, and if I could live in the worlds she creates, I’d pack my bags tomorrow. 




Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book of the Week: EDGE OF EXTINCTION - THE ARK PLAN by Laura Martin

First Paragraph(s): I needed two minutes. Just enough time to get to the maildrop and back, but I had to time it perfectly. Dying wasn’t an option today, just like it hadn’t been an option the last ten times I’d done this. I’d thought it would get easier after the first time. It hadn’t. 
I gritted my teeth and scanned the holoscreen again. The mail was due to arrive in less than a minute, and although the forest above me looked harmless, I knew better. The shadows between the trees were too silent, too watchful. I hit the refresh button. The drill was simple—refresh the screen, scan for a full minute, refresh again and scan the opposite direction. I imagined it was similar to what parents used to teach their kids about crossing the street, back when there were still streets to cross and cars to drive on them.

Esteemed Reader, there is nothing quite so enjoyable as a middle grade action novel that's taut and exciting with characters you can care about and root for. Many have tried and failed, but Laura Martin succeeds on every level. In fact, I'll give Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan the highest compliment I have to give: I wish I had written it. Plucky middle grade characters with a handful of futuristic gadgets traveling across a post apocalyptic Indiana inhabited by dinosaurs in a story containing subtle Biblical overtones? Dude, I should've been all over that, but now I can't because Laura Martin got there first.

On the upside, I did get the experience of reading such a wonderful novel without any effort on my part. You can have that same experience and better because this first book in the series, while self contained, builds plenty of promise to be fulfilled in the second book, Code Name Flood, which just became available. You can read the whole saga now (you're going to want both books) and please do so we can convince Laura Martin to write a third Edge of Extinction novel, perhaps subtitled Two of Every Deadly Species or maybe Forty Days and Forty Nights of Blood. Should anyone at Harper Collins be reading this, help yourself to these subtitles free of charge:)

Also, there's a decent chance yours truly might get thanked in the back of a third volume just as Laura will be thanked in the back of Banneker Bones 2 (coming soon-ish). Laura wrote a guest post for us last year and anytime an author does that, I at least browse their book. Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan sucked me in at once and I knew I wanted to meet Laura because I respected her work and our brains clearly run on a similar track creatively (she also likes stories about fun conspiracy theories). Turns out she's a fellow Hoosier and a short drive from my house, and yadda, yadda, yadda, she's now a member of my beloved writing group, the YA Cannibals.

Okay, full disclosures out of the way, let's talk about this book. I imagine if I made a pie chart of all the elements of books I've discussed in these reviews over the years, the largest wedge by far would go to my admiration for a great opening. In my mind, chapter one is the most important in the book as it either hooks me and interests me in the story or it doesn't and I imagine it to be the same for my readers. I've read great books with lousy openings I was glad I stuck with, but more often, a lousy opening promises more of the same, and if I'm still struggling to care about what I'm reading two chapters in and I haven't promised to review the book here, I'm usually looking for a new book. I imagine younger readers to be even more impatient.

We're about to meet eleven-soon-to-be-twelve-year-old Sky Mudy, her best friend Shawn Reilly, and later, my personal favorite character, the nearly feral Todd. We're going to learn their backstories, the rules that govern their world, and their motivations for the adventures they're about to have. In chapter two we'll learn Sky has gray eyes and curly red hair (that's how you know she's a middle grade character). But we don't care about that in chapter one.

The first 100 pages or so of Michael Crichton's classic--you know the one I mean and so does Harper Collins, which is why it's mentioned heavily in Edge of Extinction's marketing--are devoted to a mystery of strange animals appearing in Costa Ricca, which is its own brilliant opening as the reader has convinced himself of the reality of dinosaurs having returned from extinction before they arrive in the story to find the reader's disbelief already suspended. That's all good and well for a book targeting older readers, but middle grade readers want to know that they're going to get dinosaur action and plenty of it. Laura Martin gives it to them straight away, promises more, and delivers:

Turning on my heel, I sprinted for the compound entrance. I spotted the disturbance to my left when I was still fifty yards from safety. The ground began to tremble under my feet, and I willed myself not to panic. Panicking could happen later, when I was safely underground with two feet of concrete above my head. 
I spotted the first one out of the corner of my eye as it burst from the trees. Bloodred scales winked in the dawn light as its opaque eyes focused on me. It was just over ten feet and moved with the quick, sharp movements of a striking snake.
My stomach lurched sickeningly as I recognized the sharp, arrow-shaped head, powerful hindquarters, and massive back claw of this particular dinosaur. It was a deinonychus. Those monsters hunted in packs. Sure enough, I heard a screech to my left, but I didn’t bother to look. Looking took time I didn’t have. I hit the twenty-yard mark with my heart trying to claw its way up my throat. The deinonychus was gaining on me

Laura hints at backstory and supplies the most necessary of details to involve us in the action, but what she cares about is what the reader cares about: people are going to get chased by dinosaurs in this story. Count on it. By the end of the chapter, she's established the broad strokes of what sort of novel we're going to read and the tone has been set:

One of the deinonychus’s nails screeched across the metal hatch that separated their world from mine, forcing me to clap my hands over my ears. The creatures were still scrabbling and roaring, furious at their lost meal. And I wished, for the millionth time, that I could feed them the idiot scientists who had brought them out of extinction in the first place. Although being ripped to pieces might be too kind for the people who had almost wiped out the entire human race.

Speaking of Michael Crichton, this novel leans in on the inevitable comparisons and pays homage up front, which I think is smart and a thing I usually do myself. It's hard to imagine readers sitting back with arms crossed, scoffing that Laura is just trying to tell a Jurassic Park-type story when the author herself acknowledges the similarity and takes the contention off the table, as if to say "yes, this is a dinosaur action story, yes you've read one or two of these before, but this one's also darn good, and do you want another dinosaur story or don't you?" It's not unlike naming the beverage that causes my The Walking Dead-esque zombie apocalypse Kirkman Soda:)

“All right, Miss Mundy,” Professor Lloyd said, glancing down at the port screen in front of him. “If you wouldn’t mind giving the class an explanation of the similarities between the events that transpired in Michael Crichton’s ancient classic Jurassic Park and the events that have taken place in our own history.” 
“Similarities?” I asked, swallowing hard. I’d just finished reading the novel the night before, so I knew the answer, but I hated speaking in public. Facing the herd of deinonychus again would have been preferable. I wasn’t sure what that said about me. 
“Yes,” Professor Lloyd said, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice. “Quickly, please. We are wasting time that I’m sure your classmates would appreciate having to work on their analyses.”
“Well,” I said, keeping my eyes on my desk. “In Mr. Crichton’s book, the dinosaurs were also brought out of extinction.” I glanced up to see Professor Lloyd staring at me pointedly. He wasn’t going to let me get away with just that. Clenching sweaty hands, I plowed ahead. “The scientists in the book used dinosaur DNA, just like our scientists did a hundred and fifty years ago. And just like in the book, our ancestors initially thought dinosaurs were amazing. So once they had mastered the technology involved, they started bringing back as many species as they could get their hands on.”

This scene goes on a bit longer, but I can really only reproduce so much of this book on my free blog before I get a letter from Harper Collins' legal department:) Her due diligence done, and quite cleverly at that, Laura unfolds the details of Sky's life in an underground compound. She's a social outcast because her father ran off some time back and took some supplies with him, making him an enemy of the compound. But I wouldn't worry about the details too much. There aren't any dinosaurs underground, so you know our characters are going topside to be chased before too many chapters have passed:)

Sure enough, on Sky's twelfth birthday, a secret message is discovered in the compass her father gave her before he left. Yadda, yadda, yadda, he's still alive, she needs to find him, Shawn's coming with her, and the story is off and running... from dinosaurs. Turns out that a life spent underground has not equipped Sky and Shawn for the world above and after a few close calls with a T-Rex and other not-so-friendly dinos, they meet Todd, a surface-dwelling boy whose proficient at navigating among the beasts and even has his own pet dinosaur. 

I smiled. I thought that I might like Todd. He had a spark to him, as though he was so full of life that it slipped out of his pores. I wondered if I’d be like that too, if I’d been raised in the sunlight and fresh air.

We meet Todd's family who live in a village composed of tree houses placed well above biting range. Laura keeps us there just long enough to learn some crucial plot details as well as some interesting insights as to how surface dwellers manage to cohabitate an environment overrun with prehistoric monsters. But safe from dinos is no place to keep our character in an action novel like this one and soon enough, they're on the run once again, being chased by both dinos and humans. There's some food for thought along the way and some pilosophical musings, but the majority of Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan is devoted to what we all came to read:

The creature was gaining on me. Teeth snapped together only inches from the back of my head, and I knew that this was how I would die. There was movement off to my right, and I realized that the dinosaur might be part of a pack. I prayed that it would be quick, that the creature would break my neck and not rip me to shreds while I was still alive.

There's no graphic violence as this is a middle grade novel, but young readers will be thrilled to discover that's not the same as no violence. There' good times to be had throughout:) I know you'll love this book as much as I did, Esteemed Reader. I can't go into a great deal more detail without spoiling things that shouldn't be spoiled, so I'll share a tidbit I learned from this book because I've been chatting with its author.

While critiquing one of Laura's future novels that I've read and you can't because my life is awesome and involves awesome things, I suggested she not use forms of speech attribution other than 'said' as well as cut down on the adverbs accompanying them. This is sage advice I learned from Elmore Leonard and countless other writers and have tried to employ in my own work. Back in my day, this was surefire advice passed from many a writing instructor onto me like a sacred law never to be broken, but the Ninja is getting older and the world is moving on, as it does.

Laura asked me why I hadn't complained about employment of adverbs such as 'she huffed,' 'she breathed,' 'she complained warily,' and so on in this book. I admitted that I noticed their usage, but I rarely offer critique notes on a book that's already on shelves as they're of little use by then. Turns out Laura was encouraged by those in the know to use varying forms of speech attribution. An editor had even marked uses of 'said' and requested they be livened up. Another critique partner told me her daughter's class had held a funeral for the word 'said' and they were all being encouraged to use more creative words in their writing.

It's a brave new world, Esteemed Reader, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. As for me, I like 'said' as I still feel its nearly invisible on the page, but I'm become less rigid about it. I share this detail with you in the hopes of improving your own writing.

Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan is a good story well told. You're going to love it. Trust me.  As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“You are going to get killed.” He frowned. “And all for some stupid hunch.” 
“I won’t.” I huffed into my still-wet bangs in exasperation, wishing that I’d chosen a best friend who wasn’t so nosy.

He had the greasy, unwashed appearance of a kid whose parents didn’t keep track of how often he bathed, and a hollow look that I’d seen in the mirror a bit too often.

Shawn cried out as the man scrambled for the hatch on his hands and knees. He made it inside, but part of his right leg did not

“You compound moles don’t have much of a sense of humor, do you?” Todd said. 
“I’m actually hilarious.” Shawn grunted. “Just not when I’m hanging thirty feet above angry dinosaurs

“I did mention Sky was incredibly stubborn. Right?” Shawn asked, a crooked grin on his face. 
“I prefer the word determined,” 

I was snapped from my musings by the staircase Ivan was climbing. It seemed to disappear into the floor, and I stared at it in confusion. 
“Escalator,” he called from above us. “An old-fashioned transportation device to bring people from one floor to the next. Our ancestors were lazy. And probably fat.”


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, May 30, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Lauren Spieller


Assistant Literary Agent Lauren Spieller comes to TriadaUS with a background in literary scouting and editorial consulting. She has a sharp editorial eye, and is passionate about author advocacy. Lauren is seeking Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction, as well as select Adult fiction and non-fiction. Whatever the age category or genre, Lauren is passionate about finding diverse and underrepresented voices.

In MG, she’s drawn to heartfelt contemporaries, contemporary fantasy and magical realism, and exciting adventures. Some of her recent favorites are Rules for Stealing Stars, George, The Thing About Jellyfish, Wonder, Hour of the Bees, and Rooftoppers. In YA, she’d love to find authentic teen voices in any and all genres. She is especially fond of fantasy, magical realism, and space operas; contemporary stories with a hook; and anything with a feminist bent. A few favorites include Dumplin’, Scorpio Races, An Ember in the Ashes, OCD Love Story, Six of Crows, The Raven Boys, and Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda.

In Adult, Lauren is seeking commercial fiction, particularly female-driven psychological thrillers (a la Lauren Beukes and Gillian Flynn), and immersive literary fantasies, such as The Night Circus, The Miniaturist, and A Darker Shade of Magic. She is also interested in female-driven Upmarket General Fiction, especially if it's funny or has a touch of magical realism (note that she is NOT looking for Romance), and unique non-fiction with an existing platform. She's particularly hungry for counter culture books, cocktail books with a twist/theme, or narrative nonfiction with a unique hook (if you’re the next Lindsey West, Roxanne Gay, or Lauren Duca, she wants to hear from you).

And now Lauren Spieller faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?


This question is impossible--does everyone say that?--so I'm going to tell you three of my recent favorites! When Dimple Met Rishi (coming out in May 2017!), Rooftoppersand Three Dark Crowns


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


Again--so hard! But I'll give it a shot. 

TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, BBC's Sherlock, and Parks and Rec.
Movies: Star Wars (the originals, plus The Force Awakens), Ratatouille, and Spirited Away

I reserve the right to change my answers in five minutes.


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


My ideal client is hard working, compassionate, and has tons of great ideas! I'm in this for the long haul, and I want to work with people who feel the same way.


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

I'd love to find a project that stops me in my tracks. Something with a voice and point of view that's absolutely unique to them. The quickest way to my heart is through character. Make me care about them, and I'm along for the ride to the very end. If you have a project like this, please send it!


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


I love that every day brings new adventures, challenges, and possibilities. A fabulous query, a great client manuscript, an exciting meeting with an editor--every day is different! 


My least favorite part is all the waiting!


Question Two: 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)


-Don't be afraid to take risks, but also don't be afraid to ask for help. 

-Build your writing community, and always make sure you're giving as much as you're getting. This business is tough, but a strong community makes all the difference. 

-Read, read, read, read, read.

-Make sure you're refilling your creative well from time to time. Sometimes that means reading, but sometimes that also means taking a walk, going out with friends, exercising, or watching a movie. Do whatever makes you feel inspired, healthy, and energized. Your greatest tool is your mind. Take care of it.


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


This will sound pretentious, but probably James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. I studied both extensively in grad school, and I would love to talk to them about finding the universal in the personal in writing. There would definitely be wine involved, too.


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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NINJA STUFF: On Conspiracy Theories And Flying Saucers

WARNING: Today's post has nothing to do with middle grade fiction, the reading or the writing of it. This is going to be an epic post I already regret publishing. 

Don't worry, Esteemed Reader. This isn't about to become a blog about conspiracy theories and flying saucers. There are plenty of those available already. I should split this post in two, but I'm going to leave it extra long because we're only going to do this once.

I've written a book with an alien on its cover (sort of), so at some point we have to talk about them, at least a little:) The Book of David concerns a number of kooky, crazy crackpot ideas, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to write it. The fifth and final chapter of the serial series is available for preorder now!!!  I know writing about such things as flying saucers and a government cover-up will lead readers to question whether or not the author believes in them. The answer, naturally, is of course I dobut let me qualify that statement!

Admitting to a belief in a conspiracy theory is like admitting to a belief in religion in that some additional context is required for the reader to appreciate my position. People like to take an all-or-nothing position whenever possible, especially when it comes to conspiracy theories. All or nothing keeps things simple, but life is rarely simple. Children are allowed to see the world in black and white, but maturing means learning to accept that the world (and possibly the aliens visiting it) exists in shades of gray.

One conspicuously missing conspiracy theory in The Book of David is any reference to a 9/11 cover-up because that event is too fresh and raw and even I have a limit to what I'm comfortable exploiting for the entertainment of my readers. Many of you Esteemed Readers reading this have your own 9/11 experiences, as do I, and my bull crap tale of flying saucers and a corrupt government supported by a greedy financiers has plenty of fun with less sensitive conspiracy theories. Also, my book takes place prior to the swearing in of Donald Trump, so I'm choosing not to deal with that craziness here.

My interest is in crafting fiction. I read about UFOs as a boy and the stories captured my imagination. More, people very close to me have seen them and so from childhood, I've known flying saucers were probably real. But I've never seen a flying saucer. There is no definitive, established narrative for where they come from or what they're up to, so beyond pondering the wonder of their existence, flying saucer lore is not particularly useful to me on a daily basis. I've approached the topic for years now with the explicit intention of crafting scary stories, so if it should somehow be definitively proven that flying saucers have never existed, I'll still have my stories, which are a pack of lies anyway. It's win/win for me, Esteemed Reader:)

That bears repeating: I've approached ufology looking for fun tidbits and without much concern for truth. There's plenty of truth in the actual news I read. When I read conspiracy theories, I'm looking for entertainment and instruction on what resonates with large numbers of readers by terrifying them with "alternative facts." I have no reason to think the moon landing was actually a hoax, but a story about it being one just captures the imagination, doesn't it? It's fun and interesting and I think applying the best elements of that bull crap story to your own bull crap story improves your fiction craft:)

In preparing The Book Of David, I didn't actually have to believe in haunted houses to write a haunted house storybut you better believe I read as many haunted house stories as I could before starting and while writing, because that's my due diligence. A danger in writing about scary things is you have to research scary things, and if you go looking for things that go bump in the night, believing they don't exist does nothing for you when you actually bump into them (or scarier yet, when they bump into you).

I've learned that lesson previously, so I do most of my research by reading books and interviewing people who have actually faced scary things, doing my best to stay out of harm's way, nice and cozy in my writing office with my Batman action figures on display and a cooling mug of coffee. I've talked with multiple ufologists and several victims of alien abduction and religious leaders who take the issue extremely seriously. What I learned from them scared me badly enough to get me back into church (for a couple Sundays).

It's really best not to make up your mind about a thing until you've done your due diligence. It's my experience that most people who write off the subject of UFOs haven't read the research, and nothing annoys me more than a strongly held opinion by someone who hasn't qualified it. "Everyone knows something can't be true," is never a valid argument against contradictory evidence. Everyone knew the world was flat. Everyone knew the sun revolved around Earth, which was the center of the universe. Everyone knows flying saucers aren't real and that our planet has never been visited by any outside life.

Do your homework. If there's nothing to this flying saucer thing, you'll be able to speak with confidence that it's all just as you thought: tabloid garbage used to sell budget-less programs on the History Channel that would otherwise just be about history (booooring!). And that will be a valid opinion as you've done the due diligence. Keep an ear out should new data become available, but you will be justified in your view.

The Ninja once suspected there was no Santa Claus. I've looked into it and though I keep an ear out for new data as I'm terrified it might be true (I don't want to live in a world where an old fat guy breaks into the homes of all children every year), I feel confident in saying "No, Virginia, there's no Santa Claus. Your well-meaning parents have just introduced you to your first conspiracy theory. Now remember for the rest of your life that the people you loved and trusted most lied to you, as did many other adults in your community."

If, on the other hand, you should discover there is evidence for flying saucers, you'll have to reconsider your opinion. I'm not interested in converting anyone to a religion, but I am interested in spreading awareness of evidence. The more informed our population becomes about a phenomenon presenting as flying saucers, the more likely we are to find an answer to who these visitors are and what we might learn from them. A majority of folks questioning whether or not Galelleo was onto something with his crazy Earth-revolving-around-the-sun theories led to an eventual definitive answer for all of us, save for the flat-earthers out there, who make all conspiracy theorists look bad.

Sudden subject change: to state that the government of the United States or of any country is always good or always bad is absurd. A government is too huge a body involving too many players to be said to be uniformly any kind of way. Our forefathers knew this and thus our government is set up to be changed around every so often. More, if you love America (or at least live here), it is your duty as a citizen to keep an eye on government and criticize when it's being unfair (stop trying to take away our healthcare to give more tax breaks to wealthy people you elitist, immoral A-holes!). And if you don't think the American government would conspire against a group of its people, I remind you that we had a civil rights movement (still going) to try to get the government to stop conspiring against a group of its people.

A comparison between religion and conspiracy theories is a major theme of The Book of David as I believe both serve the same function of building a mental framework in which to accept otherwise in-congruent occurrences. Much of life is flat and straightforward: get up, eat, go to work/school, go home, eat, sleep, repeat. If I step on a tack, I will bleed, and it isn't a supernatural occurrence. The tack isn't out to get me. It was simply in my path. Had I walked elsewhere, or paid more attention, I wouldn't have stepped on it.

And yet, I believe I have experienced direct divine intervention at least twice (probably more often in subtler ways) that saved my life on both occasions (the subject of an upcoming post, but we'll get back to middle grade books after that, I promise). I don't want to get too far off course, so let me just say that both events could be written off as coincidence or mental illness and would not convince the true skeptic. But I personally experienced the events and I know something greater than myself got involved to directly influence the course of my life.

And that's all I know.

I've talked before about reality being fuzzy around the edges. I'll assume many of you Esteemed Readers have had one or two events of high strangeness in your life. They're common enough that most everyone has at least one in a lifetime, even if they insist on denying it or calling it something else.

After a genuine supernatural event, life has a way of getting on much the way it did prior to the event: get up, eat, go to work, etc. And the event is just there, dangling, something that does not add up, does not conveniently fit in the otherwise logically structured narrative of life. If I had formal religious beliefs, I suppose I could accept that Jesus was looking out for me, and so long as I continue to have faith and live in a particular way, He'll keep it up. But at this point in my life, I prefer private religion to formal religion. There was nothing in either experience that suggested to me with any certainty the identity of my Divine Intervene-r (who was that masked Entity!?!).

Nor do I have any insight as to why keeping the author of Pizza Delivery alive is apparently a priority for divine intervention over aiding the many starving and diseased children of the world. Beyond the fact of the event's occurrence, I have no knowledge of the why or how, only speculation. And speculating about the intentions of the Almighty is a good way to eventually end up in a compound surrounded by my own cultwhich part of you always knew was where this blog about reading and writing middle grade novels would eventually lead:)

Just as there are incongruent events in our individual lives, there are such events in our nation's life that leave us struggling to fit them into the national narrative. America is the land of the free and the home of the brave and our leaders are the best and brightest selected by We The People. And those leaders are held accountable to us, except none of us really believe that once we get out of grade school. Nor should we.

As I write this, we've just gone through one of the largest wealth transfers in our history. We all of us watched not so long ago as our government handed our money directly to bankers with little to no restriction and put none of them in jail as the rest of us lost our jobs and had our homes foreclosed on. We know the NSA is archiving all our communications and possibly reading this blog post right now. We know the Bush administration led us into a seeming pre-ordained oil war that in retrospect, appears largely unrelated to the events of 9/11, and the Vice President's company and friends of the Bush family made a whole lot of money, which seems to have been the point.

None of this suggests an outright conspiracy. There's no need for an Illuminati council of bankers to meet secretly for bankers in general to agree that it's an inspired idea to get their grubby hands on as much money as they can just as there's no need for sharks to meet and strategize before they go into a frenzy and attack a bleeding animal. Quick covering of my butt: I use Illuminati in the pop culture sense, not the traditionally racist one. Greedy bankers intent on stealing America out from under us come from all races and creeds and walks of life (being terrible is not the exclusive domain of any one culture).

Far more troubling to me is this study by professors from Princeton and Northwestern University that shows from 1981 to 2002, Congressional votes cast over those twenty years aligned with the popular opinion of average Americans less than 18 percent of the time. Now I'm no expert on such matters, but that sure sounds a lot closer to taxation without representation than I think our forefathers would be comfortable with.

We're still telling ourselves we live in a democratic republic (we light our fireworks every 4th of July), but I imagine future history books will correctly label this period in our history as the American oligarchy. Maybe you voted for Trump because you didn't want Hilary Clinton's homies from Goldman Sachs to be appointed to high-level government positions, but the joke's on you because Trump's been appointing Goldman Sachs folks almost as frequently as his democratic predecessor. Or maybe you donated money to the Bernie Sanders campaign and learned that the Democratic National Committee has more than a passing familiarity with conspiracies (#stillmad).

Looking simply at the facts of our modern  American lives suggests a system that is working against the majority of Americans. It could be market forces, it could be the technological revolution, it could be the amalgamation of a lot of factors and probably is, but just a glance at a chart like this one shows that something has been working against the majority of Americans:



And then there are the events and facts we just don't talk about and wish would go away. Remember when that handsome young President was executed in broad daylight in front of a huge crowd and the government officially said the event happened one way, but it was captured on a film that was released years later and we all watched JFK's head go back and to the left from a bullet supposedly fired from a window behind and above him? And the guy we were told did it told everyone he was just a patsy before he got shot and the guy that shot him died a short time later of a highly suspicious heart attack while in custody. I know it sounds like a bull crap story, but the stakes are really, really high on this one, so let's all just accept the magic bullet theory and put the whole unpleasant business behind us because if you go lifting up that particular rock, God knows what might come scurrying out.

It's possible Lee Harvey Oswald got off the world's most amazing three shots; not likely, but potentially possible, or so we've been told by official government sources. What amuses me is the vehemence with which some people insist that the official story is the only way in which events could've transpired and if you think otherwise, you're unpatriotic. And who can blame such folks? What are the implications of people within our own government covering up something like the murder of our elected leader? If it's true, do we really want to know it? They, whoever they may be, appear to have gotten away with it, so maybe we should just live and let live and not worry our pretty little heads about it.

In one of my favorite scenes in my own book,  All Together Now: A Zombie Story , a manager for Tony Sty's Pizza Pies loses his mind at the start of the zombie apocalypse. He tries to give away free pizzas as though his little bit of authority still means anything in such a situation. When a cop turned zombie attacks him, he screams "that's not riiiiiight!!!" because that's not what police officers are supposed to do. And it's him I think of when I bump into the true skeptics and debunkers. The case is closed on Kennedy, there are no flying saucers, because "that's not riiiiiight!!!"

Actually, I'm being facetious here, which brings me to another point: you can't always trust conspiracy theorists, especially when they're selling books:) I wasn't there (or alive at the time) and I don't know exactly what went down in Dallas, Texas on 11/2/1963 and you don't either (probably). However, I think the most plausible theory is that Kennedy was hit by friendly fire from his own secret service in an attempt to protect him, thus instigating a perhaps understandable and far less nefarious government conspiracy to save face. The fact that Kennedy complained multiple times that his security detail was overzealous and that Johnson insisted on reducing his own detail even after his predecessor was shot would seem to support the idea. Here's a book worth reading on the subject.

Or maybe Kennedy was shot once by Bigfoot and once by the Loch Ness Monster from an invisible flying saucer fueled by the top-secret cure for cancer. Who knows? But if you say to me that you're 100% certain that the official version of the Kennedy assassination is the only version of events that could've occurred, you're willfully ignoring an awful lot of suspicious evidence to the contrary that's not so easily dismissed and I don't know that I feel comfortable trusting your opinion on other matterswith the notable exception of Stephen King, who had a book to sell:)

I believe it's possible and perhaps preferable to bury your head in the sand. There are sports teams to root for and entire seasons of television to binge watch and novels to read and most of us are working more hours for less pay in the new economy, so there's no time to really worry about what's happening in the upper echelons of power where billionaires are buying our politicians wholesale and ensuring things only get more unfair from here.

We'll get to the flying saucers (we will, don't worry, or you could just read my book on the subject), but we don't need them to illustrate that our world is rife for conspiracy theories because our official reality so often doesn't match up to the facts. Every American has to walk around with the knowledge that an actor who later became a corporate spokesperson was elected President and appointed as his chief of staff the former chairman of Merryl Lynch, and then proceeded to cripple unions and champion the trend of tax breaks for the wealthy that brought us to our current times. Say what you will about Michael Moore, I frequently disagree with him and I think he's often played unfairly, but God bless him for drawing attention to this clip for all to see:



We don't need a conspiracy theory's explanation when the corruption in our system is this blatant.

And there are other facts that once you know them, you can't un-know them. For example, once you've read about Operation Northwoods, which called for the CIA to commit acts of terrorism against US citizens in preparation to justify war with Cuba, you can't ever again completely dismiss the notion of a government conspiracy to kill American citizens. This isn't some questionable document Alex Jones is waiving in the air while spouting psedo-science and craziness, this is a proposal signed by The Joint Chiefs of Staff and submitted to the President of the United States.

You could also read about how various black civil rights leaders were murdered and followed by agencies within our government. You could read about the Tuskegee experiments in which members of the US Public Health Service told black men they were being given free healthcare and were instead intentionally infected with syphilis. You could read about Operation Midnight Climax and MK Ultra in which the CIA dosed unwitting US Citizens (of all races and creeds this time) with LSD. Oh, and while you're bumming yourself out, make sure to bone up on how the CIA has occasionally sold drugs when it's of the mind to. And don't forget Robert McNamara admitting, on camera, that the Gulf of Tonken never happened.



Conspiracies have existed within the United States government to subvert authority and betray US citizens. Period, case closed, end of debate. We can argue about what is and what is not currently a conspiracy, but let's not waste time arguing that they cannot happen and have not happened.

The internet is abuzz with conspiracy theory articles and videos, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised to learn they're second in popularity only to pornography. The theories, especially the really crazy ones, amuse me to no end. They're scary stories and you know I love campfire tales told just before we have to go to sleep to keep our minds working on overtime into the late hours. I've never been sorry for reading about a conspiracy theory and some of the best rival Stephen King's tales of terror.

I'm especially fond of David Ike's lizard people. Obviously, I DO NOT ACTUALLY BELIEVE there are lizard people wearing human skins and secretly running all governments (though I can't prove there aren't), but what a great story! I'm kicking myself that David Ike came up with that one before I did as it's the set-up for a fantastic horror novel. I think most writers are amateur sociologists at heart and a group of people who can be convinced of the reality of lizard people greatly interests me the same way people who run with the bulls in Papmlona interest meI have no intention of joining them, but I think it's fascinating that they're doing it.

And before we write off the extreme conspiracy theorists as being "just crazy," let us remember that a huge percentage of our population has long believed that there is a dark prince of this world. What could be more of a conspiracy theory than the working thought model that there is a fallen angel presiding in Hell actively plotting the ruin and degradation of mankind? Whatever the various interpretations may have said, The New Testament is very clear that Satan and his minions are active in this world and have taken a personal interest in every soul on Earth (including yours, Esteemed Reader!).

I'm not here to tell you there's no God or no devil. The world is a very strange place. Reality is fuzzy around the edges, and both could indeed exist in some form (do They read blogs, you think?).

If you'd like me to make up a story about both as well as flying saucers and other conspiracy theories, The  Book of David is now available:) But a story is all it is. I don't have any inside information to share, only my insight gathered over a lifetime of reading conspiracy theories. And unlike the numerous crackpots hawking supposedly true stories, I've labeled my tale fiction and I'm telling you from day one I made it all up. 

No one knows for sure what happens to our consciousness when we die (if anything other than ceasing), but there's a lot of money to be made by saying you do. The folks in position to know what happens behind the closed doors of the powerful don't always talk, but there's lots of money to be made in pretending to know what happened. And in a field of unknowns, there's a lot of room to make things up, which is a constant problem in both religion and conspiracy theories.

Ufology is a scam artists' paradise as scammers thrive in fields in which many key details are presently unknowable. I can admit to a belief in flying saucers while still being fully aware that John Mack's (Harvard psychologist interested in alien abduction) research was sloppy at best, Erich Von Daniken, responsible for much of the Ancient Aliens lore, is a sketchy fellow, and Ed Walters (for whom David Walters is named) probably faked The Gulf Breeze Sightings.

Battlefield Earth is one of my favorite novels (never saw more than 10 minutes of the movie) and if L. Ron Hubbard went on to write some highly dubious stuff, it doesn't change the fact that there's a truth in that classic work that makes it still worth reading. I can appreciate the tale without signing up for Scientology. I can agree that Dr. Steven Greer is either a nut or a con artist or both, but it doesn't change the credentials of his witnesses in The Disclosure Project (do not watch the video unless you're ready to have your mind blown).



So what is some of this evidence I keep talking about? Esteemed Reader, I don't know where to begin. Maybe I should let my favorite UFO historian Richard Dolan handle this one. Incidentally, Mr. Dolan was kind enough to write me a few encouraging emails while I was working on The Book of David, which meant quite a lot to me. I told him privately that I consider him to be the Bill Hicks of Ufology, by which I mean his presentation style is extremely engaging, and while I haven't always agreed with his conclusions, I'm so grateful that's he's out there making an argument and bringing information to light that is too often ignored elsewhere:



Or, if that doesn't do it for you, how about some testimony from Buzz Aldrin:



Esteemed Reader, there is no end to the ufology-themed YouTube videos I could post here, but I'll let you stumble down the rest of that particular rabbit hole yourself. There's more pilots, former military and government officials, police officers, and regular people testifying than I could possibly cover here. But I hope that you'll look into this topic on your own. The battle for disclosure needs every able-bodied thinker it can get. Do the research and remember that evidence of SOMETHING is not evidence of EVERYTHING.

In other words, yes, there are controlled vehicles of unknown origin flying in our skies in a manner in which we are currently not capable and were certainly not capable of 70+ years ago. This is not a matter of debate. If you disagree, do the research and come back. We can debate what these craft are, but the argument of their existence is settled.

Are flying saucers or triangles responsible for the crop circles not done by fraudsters? Could be, but that's a separate issue. Are they chopping up cows? Maybe, but I've heard convincing evidence that many so-called mutilations are a naturally-occurring phenomenon, and again, that's a separate issue.

Are aliens abducting people and probing them? This is the subject of another post I'll probably never write, but it's a separate issue. Although I will say I interviewed multiple abduction victims and what I learned from them terrified me. Whether they were abducted by aliens or are suffering some form of sleep disorder (and yes, some are attention-seeking liars and crazies, but not all), I know I wouldn't want whatever they experienced to happen to me and if it had, I wouldn't appreciate people making light of it.

The problem with many conspiracy theories, as I see it, is the same problem of many ideologies: humans have a tendency to apply a thing that's true in one situation to all situations. Ayn Rand is quite correct that an entrepreneur competing with other entrepreneurs is likely to produce a superior product; the issue I take with her is that she applies that same model to everything, and not everything in life is best done for a profit motive or in competition (like healthcare). Similarly, government officials lying about one thing does not mean they're lying about all things, one fake UFO photo doesn't make all UFO photos fake, and so on.

Esteemed Reader, I'm not the UFO ninja, I'm the Middle Grade Ninja. My focus and the focus of this blog has always been and will remain writing. My opinions on most matters ufological remain subject to change in light of new evidence and I accept there's a great deal about this topic I don't know and likely will never know.  Again, if someone could prove to me that all the witnesses who've come forward were full of crap, I'd still have my perfectly lovely serial horror novel. I suspect flying saucers are not alien craft, but an older and more frightening phenomenon, but the evidence doesn't allow me to draw any definitive conclusion (the beings inside could also be whatever the heck those not-aliens were in Indiana Jones 4).

The outer-space alien hypothesis also makes sense. The universe is so big we don't even know how big it is and thus how small we really are. Give us another generation or two and we'll be colonizing space ourselves, probably with robot bodies if Ray Kurzweil is to be believed. Given that we're a young species in terms of the universe's age, it seems likely to me that folks elsewhere with a healthy head start might've already done the same. They might've been coming here before we started walking upright, and may even have had a guiding hand in that process. Or, perhaps reality is all a computer generation and these flying saucers come here from outside the official program, but I speculate.

Another possibility is that there are no visitors from anywhere and that agencies within our government are spreading rumors of flying saucer visitations as a psych op of some kind. Before you dismiss this idea, read up on Richard Doty and consider watching the absolutely riveting documentary Mirage Men. I suspect plenty of flying saucer evidence may either have been intentionally released or fabricated at an official level for purposes I can only guess at.

Whoever the craft occupants are, however long they've been here, wherever they come from, they're here now. It's always possible they're planning to wipe us out, but I remain optimistic. I think there's a lot for our species to learn and a whole new potential market for me to sell books to:) And it all starts with us, you and me, everyday citizens waking up and saying "There's enough evidence for it to be time for us to have an adult conversation on this topic." If enough of us agree, the focus of our mainstream scientific inquiry will change and rogue elements of our government will have to fess up to what they know.

We aren't likely to find an answer until enough of us agree that there's something here worth investigating. I just want to nudge you in that direction.

Or maybe it's all bull crap. I don't know, do I? Either way, The Book of David is available now:) Buy my book!!!




"The Lord has appointed you to a special duty in these last days and given your life a unique purpose. Will you turn away from the myriad temptations of this wicked world and answer His righteous calling?"

The Walters family has just purchased the perfect home if only it weren't located in the small hick town of Harrington, Indiana, and if only it weren't haunted. David Walters is an atheist now, but his minister father taught him from a young age that Satan would one day deceive all mankind by pretending his demons were extraterrestrials. The day the Walters family moves in, they spot a flying saucer outside their new home. Things only get stranger from there. David Walters is about to learn what it means to be truly haunted, forcing him to confront his past, fight for his family, his soul, and his sanity.


WARNING

This horror story is intended for a mature audience. It's filled with adult language, situations, and themes. It's in no way appropriate for the easily offended or younger readers of BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES.