Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book of the Week: BATGIRL AT SUPER HERO HIGH by Lisa Yee

First Paragraph(s): Oh, sure, there were injuries. Lumps and bruises were an occupational hazard. Sometimes it was because a muscle-bound metahuman was momentarily careless when working out in Wildcat’s phys ed class. Or because a flyer took a turn a tad too sharply and slammed into a wall (or a fellow student or the cafeteria) at full speed. Or because of something like what had just happened: an invading interstellar alien army had targeted the student population for total enslavement to the powers of evil…which was all part of the daily routine at Super Hero High School. And most of the super heroes in training loved it. 
Now, as the young heroes flew, ran, stretched, strolled, and teleported into the auditorium, they laughed and congratulated each other. They admired their new casts and bandages and bruises. Never had so many been so sore—and so happy about it.

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this over the course of this blog, Esteemed Reader, but I'm something of a fan of Batman and other superheroes. As I recently told you in a post featuring a Batman gif, I'm plunging myself back into the world of middle grade writing and working on a second adventure for Banneker Bones, my character based on Batman.

Lisa Yee is a middle grade author I've wanted to feature here since I read her wonderful Millicent Min, Girl Genius and she'll be here on Thursday, so look forward to that. When I saw she was writing the Super Hero High series, I wanted to read it at once (and so will you when I tell you more). Batgirl and Supergirl are two of my favorite characters and Lisa Yee is an author I admire, so I knew I was in for a treat. And this was the perfect book for me to read in preparation for my own project.

What a fun series this is! It's clever and hit all the right notes for a middle grade book for girls about girls that can also amuse a grown man who still likes his comics. Super Hero High is like Hogwarts if Hogwarts had way cooler students based on DC characters. Personally, I would never want to go back to high school unless it was Super Hero High, and then I might consider it, because I'd love to take these classes:

In PE, instead of running laps around a track, they were often asked to run laps around the city. And in Weaponomics, they were learning about devices that could cause mass destruction—or save the world. As the school’s part-time tech wizard, Batgirl had seen it all.

As Principal Amanda Waller warns Barbara Gordon, A.K.A. Batgirl:

This isn’t like your old high school. Here, we train students to save lives, make the world a better place, and lead by example. There are villains who will aim to bring you and the world down. We have to be prepared for that.”






Obviously, as Amanda Waller is principal of a high school, Super Hero High is set in its own continuity separate from any other DC story. Although I can't say for certain as Harley Quinn's Super Hero High book doesn't come out until January, I'm guessing she didn't fall in love with the Joker after obtaining her doctorate in kindergarten. I'm also betting money that Batgirl won't be shot in the spine and paralyzed before the end of the series, though Yee does endow her with all the technical know how she'll need if she ever does become Oracle. 

In this version of the DC Universe, Dr. Arkham is a school counselor, which strikes me as rather ominous. More fun, Crazy Quilt is teaching costume making, and Red Tornado and Comissioner James Gordon are on the faculty as well (more on him in a moment). Steve Trevor is working at the local Capes and Cowls Cafe and wouldn't you know it, Batgirl's classmate Wonder Woman (the girl) has a crush on him. The reader is running into other characters from the DC universe every other chapter, sometimes literally:

“Barbara reporting to Supergirl. Supergirl, do you read me?” 
Her wafer-thin com bracelet crackled before she heard “Oops, ouch! Sorry! Sorry.” There was a moment of silence, followed by a loud thud, and then Supergirl’s voice came in. “Hey there, BFF. I flew too fast and The Flash was running too fast and we had a major collision. But we’re both okay. At least, I think we are. He looks sort of wobbly. What’s up?”

Sorry fellas, but the focus of this series is on the female characters of the DCU, most of them as teenagers. Aside from the Flash and Cyborg, I didn't spot a teenage Auquaman, or even Robin. But I think I would've enjoyed this series even as a teenage boy as superheroes of both sexes make for the most fun adventures.There are plenty of stories focusing on teenage Superman, but that's for another series.




Yee is careful to maintain the essential essence of every character in the DCU without being a slave to the source material. Yes, Harley's a bit crazy, but mostly about media and her own fame, and one gets the sense that in this version of the DCU, she might grow up to be... not good, exactly, but not bad bad either. As for Barbara Gordon, who mostly goes by the name Batgirl in school, Yee has lots of fun along the way with an oh-so-slight rearranging of her mythology:

Batgirl was relieved that she got to keep her annex, or as she referred to it, her Barbara-Assisted Technology Bunker. This was also called the Bat-Bunker.

Of all the characters present, I felt that Batgirl was the most true to her comic book self. When Red Tornado insists the teen super heroes learn to drive non-super-people vehicles so they can blend in as necessary (half of them will grow up to have secret identities, after all), Barbara naturally chooses the motorcycle, because it is her destiny.




Yee wisely shifts the novel's focus from the superhero aspects of our teen superheroes' lives to the more universal situations faced even by regular human teenagers without superpowers. At the end of the day, this is primarily a story about a girl and her father readers know from Batman comics, which is what most Batgirl stories have always been about. Commissioner Gordon wants his little girl to be safe and needs to learn to back off, Barbara Gordon wants to be a super hero, but needs to remember her father cares about her and has her best interest at heart. Though I did find it quite funny that Gordon, who is on the faculty at Super Hero High, wants his daughter to go to Gotham City High School where she'll be safe. It's like, Bro, do you even read Batman comics?

What makes Yee's version of Batgirl all the more interesting is that she employs an intellectual response to her problems the same as her young readers can. This is how she handles her father's objections to her attending a school for superheroes:

Barbara knew she couldn’t argue with her dad’s feelings. She also knew he couldn’t argue with facts. Employing complex computer graphs and charts featuring a matrix of statistics to support her argument and supplemented by state-of-the-art videos, she worked deep into the night. 
The next day was Saturday. That afternoon Barbara invited her father into the living room. Her presentation took over an hour, and as Commissioner Gordon sat in his favorite chair nodding, neither smiling nor frowning, Barbara piled fact upon fact and reason upon reason as to why she should be allowed to go to Super Hero High.

It's good that Barbara is ready to use her brain, as she's at a school where most of the students outmatch her in the brawn department. Most of her fellow students "were born with powers, or developed special skills at a young age. Her peers had been nurtured at super hero preschools, then super hero elementary and middle schools. Conversely, Batgirl was a latecomer and had to make up for a lot of lost time." 

In doing everything she can to fit in with superheroes, not to mention running most of the school's IT needs, and taking care of a sick bat, and also competing in a reality show, Batgirl runs herself down and has to learn how to manage her time and her life, which is a lesson needed by most teens and their parents and everyone:

“People think I’m stressed,” she told him. “But really, I’m not. Okay, okay, maybe a little. Sometimes. But not all the time. Not when I’m asleep!” She let out a too-loud laugh. Batgirl kept dreaming about all the things she was supposed to get done and would wake up exhausted


Batgirl at Super Hero High is a fun story filled with beloved characters used in new and interesting ways. It's chock full of humor and charm and soars high (look at me, I'm Gene Shalit!). Although, even in the fantastical world of the DCU, one still runs across the occasional troll.

“NO!” he yelled. The sides of his mouth curled downward and there was insult in his eyes. “Not you!” 
Batgirl stopped. 
“In my day, super heroes could fly and move buildings, and were all men. NOT GIRLS!” Mr. Morris grumbled. 
Batgirl continued to remove the shoes, then lent a hand to help him up. 
“Next time,” he grumbled, “I want a real super hero, not a girl.”

Me, I just say that adds a degree of realism to a story, that while unrealistic, is absolutely accessible to younger readers. You should absolutely add this series to your reading list and for sure check back here on Thursday to see Lisa Yee face the 7 Questions. 



As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Batgirl at Super Hero High:


No one dared move, and Miss Martian couldn’t because Killer Frost had just frozen her, “as a joke.” The only sound in the cavernous auditorium was a tiny ping coming from Cyborg’s internal circuitry.

 Batgirl felt an icy chill go through her entire body. “Ice to meet you,” Captain Cold said.

"When you meet new people, you should always hit them hard, and if that doesn’t work, hit them harder. Remember to always lead with a punch. BOOM!” 
“When I meet someone new, I prefer to lead with a smile,” Batgirl said, offering her one. 
Barda looked at her with suspicion.


Everyone applauded and Cyborg smiled. He had a nice smile. Cyborg lifted his arm to wave, and wave, and wave. It wasn’t until a minute had passed that Batgirl realized he was malfunctioning and couldn’t stop waving.

The library installation had gone well. Now students were able to access books and resource material from their dorm rooms, space vehicles, anywhere—though many still congregated at the heavy wooden tables in the library that were lit with old-fashioned green banker’s lamps. 
“It feels so awesomely retro and academic to study in here,” Hawkgirl whispered. 
“I know!” Batgirl agreed. “I know…but this is where all the knowledge is. I love the smell of information in this room.” 
Just as she was about to sniff an old leather-bound copy of Ra’s al Ghul’s The Decline of the Ancient World, someone cried, “THERE YOU ARE!”







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. 

Banneker Bones Appendix

Because this blog has always doubled as my writer's notebook, I sometimes store things here that may not interest regular Esteemed Readers, such as my handy Middle Grade Ninja Style Guide. I check that page (and update it frequently) and direct editors of my work there as well. And because it's online, anyone who needs it has access to it and I can't lose it:)

The following is a living document (expect regular updates) to help me keep track of the details of Banneker's universe. If you're a fan of Banneker Bones, this might come in handy for you as well. If you've never read Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, I assure you, the book will prove far more interesting than this scattering of author notes. Why not start with the first five chapters?

As today is the first day of this appendix, expect it to get much, much longer and more detailed. This will be useful for me. Maybe you'll care, maybe you won't. Whatever:) There's a new book of the week for you to check out.



CHARACTERS (humans)


BANNEKER BONES: 11-year-old genius detective, biracial with light brown skin, brown eyes, and dark hair kinked close to his head (with faint blond patches), hums tunelessly when nervous or concentrating, terrified of bees. Invented the Gyration Rotation Station: Teachers across America told their students the legend of how the then only six-year-old Banneker Bones put together the final bit of circuitry essential to his father’s invention of the first Autobox robot, using the pieces of a broken watch. Always wears the same outfit and thick, square black glasses. He was dressed in the clothes Ellicott would come to think of as his uniform because Banneker never wore anything else: mud-brown slacks and a black dress shirt with a cherry-red tie, over which he wore a forest-green v-neck sweater. Atop his head was a black felt hat with a wide white band just above its brim that made Banneker look a little like a detective in an old pulp comic book.


ELLICOTT SKULLWORTH: 11-year old genius sidekick, white with blond hair, blue eyes. Partial to hoodies and jeans, but unlike his cousin, wears different clothes everyday. Originally attended Mrs. Eddy's fifth-grade class at Brownsborough Elementary in Indiana before testing into the  Latimer University Archimedes Program. Loves to read, is partial to horror novels. Excellent writer.


REGGIE RAND (the third): 11-year-old comic book artist, creator of Sa-Ninja, biracial, deeply enjoys mocking Banneker. The skinny kid had light brown skin and wore glasses, but his hair was too long and he was too tall to be Banneker Bones.


LING BONES: 7-year-old sister of Banneker, Chinese, proud of the fact that she's adopted, very talented piano player, extreme pain in Banneker's backside.


MR. REGINALD RAND (the second): Father of Reggie, Owner of Rand Enterprises, hulking bald white man. like a white bull stuffed into a shirt and tie. Has a distinctly deep voice. The man sounded like he recited Shakespeare to adoring crowds of English teachers on the weekends. He smokes cigars with a red 'R' wrapped around the end.


DR. MYRA BONES (Aunt Myra): Banneker's mother, Professor of English at Latimer University, very tall black woman with natural hair. Does not wear glasses.


PATRICK BONES (Uncle Patrick): Banneker's father, president of the Autobox Company, inventor of Robots, sort of out-to-lunch most of the time. very tall, very thin white man said as he came into the hall and approached the now-stationary bronze robot. He was dressed in jeans, a white lab coat, and a button-down shirt that was only half tucked in. He had at least three days’ stubble on his hollow cheeks and his blond hair went every which way.


DR. JUANITA FRANKLIN (Grandma Juanita): Banneker's 70-year-old grandmother who cooks all the food served at 221 Garrett Street, Myra Bones' mother. Devoted reader of The Latimer City Inquisitor.



ROBOT CHARACTERS (non-humans)


WINSTON: Robot butler. If it had a last name, it would be Pennyworth, but robots don't have last names:) Banneker's best friend. A bright silver robot appeared at the top of the staircase. It descended on thin metal legs finished in three-pronged feet, the long toes of which curled around each stair as the robot stepped.Its center was a bulky cube. The robot had two arms as thin as its legs. Its head was a metal box with a hinged jaw. Two dark pink eyes bulged out past the edges of its face. Has jet flames that fire out its feet when Winston wants to fly.


BISHOP: Giant security robot who protects the Bones family penthouse.  A bronze robot that projects a beam of red light from its eye. Ellicott marveled at the robot’s arms, which were large guns with at least 30 barrels each.

Monday, September 11, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Jim McCarthy

Jim McCarthy interned for DG and B while studying urban design at New York University. Upon graduating in 2002, Jim realized he would much rather continue working with books than make the jump (as he had originally intended) to the field of city planning. As an avid fiction reader, his interests encompass both literary and commercial works in the adult and young adult categories. He is particularly interested in literary women’s fiction, underrepresented voices, mysteries, romance, paranormal fiction, and anything unusual or unexpected. In addition to fiction he is also interested in narrative nonfiction, memoir, and paranormal nonfiction. Jim was raised just outside of NYC and currently lives in Manhattan.

And now Jim McCarthy faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Victor Hugo

It’s tough to call out three favorites. These are three that I read in high school and made me really fall in love with literature. So they’re more books that shaped and defined me as a reader than necessarily absolute all-time favorites. But they’re all genius and still move me deeply.


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

TV: RuPaul’s Drag Race; 30 Rock; Veep
Movies: This is somehow even harder to narrow down than books: Leaving Las Vegas; Clue; Carol


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

First and foremost, talent. Then kindness, tenacity, and drive.


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

I am always, always on the lookout for great sci-fi and fantasy from middle grade through adult. Non-Western based settings a plus. But I also would love to find exciting historical fiction and hook-y contemporary. And it’s hard to define exactly what I want in nonfiction, but I would love to find more narratives that open up the world a little wider—that can be in science or history or memoir or social justice. I just want stories that feel fresh and thrilling.


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

Nothing is better than the feeling of calling an author and telling them their first book has an offer. Being an integral part of making people’s dreams come true can’t be beaten.

The hardest part is the flip side of that: you get very emotionally invested in the lives and work of your clients, and not every book is a hit. So learning to roll with the punches and not take things personally/working to keep spirits up and keep driving forward is a constant journey.


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)

I’ll leave this to much more capable hands: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison


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

J.D. Salinger. And you know what? I don’t even like his books. But if someone turns into a hermit and doesn’t reveal almost anything about themselves for several decades? Then I want to know more. So just the impossibility of it and the potential for secrets is too tantalizing for me to turn down.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

NINJA STUFF: Return to Middle Grade


"I'm back in baby's arms. How I've missed those loving arms. I'm back where I belong."

I hope this post finds you well, Esteemed Reader, and if it does not, I hope you are swiftly on your way to wellness. As I write this, I'm officially a fourth of the way into writing a new middle grade novel and I'm enjoying myself very much. I've been so focused on horror fiction for adults these past couple years (I've even taught a class on the subject), I nearly forgot how much I love middle grade fiction.

Rest assured, Esteemed Reader, I haven't run this middle grade oriented blog these past 7 years as a clever ruse to get you interested in my writing, and then suddenly switch to being exclusively a horror author. The part of my brain that handles marketing and branding insists that's exactly what I should do, but that part of my brain is a bit too cold and calculating for my taste, and I write for love. I've always written for love. Money is nice and necessary, but I know several good ways to make it without dedicating myself to the craft of fiction. In my capacity as a financial adviser, I have never once recommended a client turn their finances around by writing a book:)

I've spent the last few months on a sort of victory lap for The Book of David that is still ongoing as I need to get out there and shake my paperback to promote the series. And I've so loved the kind feedback I've received and am continuing to receive from Esteemed Readers. I took a lot of big risks and swung for the fences with The Book of David and knowing some readers love my story almost as much I do is enormously gratifying. I do a happy dance every time an Esteemed Reader writes me to let me know how happy the final chapter in the series made them. And they inevitably ask me when the next book is coming and I'm all like, dude, I just gave you five horror novels, give me a second:)

But the writer's journey, at least for me, is a lifelong one, and it doesn't end with a single novel (or five of them). Esteemed Readers eager for a new story is always something I'll take into consideration, and I know they want more flying saucers or more zombies or both or maybe something about a scary clown as that's so popular just now. Esteemed Readers know I'll deliver on all the violence and offensiveness of a scary story and I have no doubt that on a long enough timeline, I'll write another one (I've had a werewolf story brewing in my brain for years, and there is an All Together Now 3 if I ever get to it).

Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees is the least popular of my novels and the worst selling. It's also my favorite and the Esteemed Readers who've read all my books tell me it's their favorite as well. I haven't figured out how to successfully market an indie middle grade title, but I also haven't changed the name of this blog to Horror Ninja because I hold out hope that I will. I've gotten far less emails about Banneker, but the young readers who've written me are ticked that I've written another horror story they're not old enough to read and they want Banneker 2 yesterday. I can't do it that fast (and you wouldn't want to read it if I did), but I honestly am writing it now.



It's exhilarating to find myself back in Banneker's world at the top of a penthouse at 221 Garrett Street. My boy genius detective and his ever faithful sidekick Ellicott Skullworth have got their hands full with a new mystery to solve and new monsters to do battle with. It's like coming home to write new dialogue for Ling and Grandma Juanita and all my other beloved friends whom I haven't seen in far too long. Their concerns are far less brooding than the concerns of David and Miriam Walters and certainly Ricky Genero and Michelle Kirkman. Not to promise there aren't at least some zombies in Banneker 2:)

The real world is a bit too dark for my taste just recently and I'm relishing this opportunity to indulge in a fantasy far less serious in its tone. And it's a thrill to find that after my time away, I still know how to write middle grade. My ninja skills may be a bit rusty (that's what revisions are for), but the basic equipment is still intact.

In The Book of David, I was intentionally channeling the style of Stephen King (however less skillfully deployed), and so was able to indulge in long run-on sentences, seemingly lackadaisical plotting, profuse profanity, and long flashbacks to establish character back story. All those tools have been removed from my writer's toolbox for Banneker 2, but replaced with some also fun-to-use tools I haven't been able to play with for far too long.

After all, this is a sequel to a book in which two eleven-year-old boys rode jet packs to blast giant robot bees out of the skies with EMP rifles. There's no need for extended flashbacks to establish character or a slow build of evidence to convince Esteemed Reader that something they know isn't possible might just be possible for the length of the story. As in most superhero stories, the world of Banneker Bones is so preposterous from the outset that Esteemed Reader either agrees to suspend disbelief going in so we can have a good time, or doesn't. Because middle grade is largely intended for younger Esteemed Readers with minds more open than the minds of adults, less convincing is required.

And yet, just as when I wrote All Together Now, I felt like a middle grade author putting on the airs of a horror author, and now I feel like a horror author putting on the airs of a middle grade writer:) I had always intended for Banneker 2 to be darker than the original story as the second story in a series is traditionally darker, but at times I worry I might be going too dark. We'll see if passages such as this one make the final cut:

Ellicott flew in the opposite direction slowly, the headlights from his jet pack leading the way until they caught on the corpse of an animal laying on the cement walkway. The animal was too long dead for Ellicott to know what it had been.
A rat perched atop it, the dead animal’s decayed eyeball lodged in its mouth. The rat tugged against the cords connecting the eye to its socket the way Ellicott might've pulled a cherry from its stem. When the jet pack’s beams swept across it, the rat leapt into the river of sewage with a panicked squeak and swam away.
Ellicott swallowed the bile that rose in his throat and flew past the dead animal.

Of more concern to me is my planned ending, which is presently extremely dark, at least on the outline. It's the sort of ending that would be perfectly at home in a horror novel (possibly even too light for the horror crowd), but which may prove too mean-spirited for middle grade. As ever, though I outline my novels ahead of time, the characters are welcome to take actions to talk me out of my plans. We'll see if they do or not.

And at the end of the day, I suspect that what I'm feeling is the same early stage fright I have endured during the first act of every story I've ever written. It's also a mindset shift that accompanies going from the high of finishing a project to the low of working in the early stages of a new one (after the initial excitement of the opening). As ever, it's best to take a deep breath and keep writing.

We're going to be doing some cool stuff at this blog as well. I'm going to write some actual reviews of middle grade books to get me back in the proper middle grade mindset, we're going to have some great blog posts, some interviews with lots of interesting people, including some authors who are really, really famous (no spoilers, but one author's name rhymes with Pate Picamillo), and some other authors who soon will be.

As ever, I hope your writing and, more importantly, your reading, are going well, Esteemed Reader. If you'll excuse me, there is a signal in the sky with a ninja in the middle of it and I must return to my own middle grade writing:) It feels good to be back.









Friday, August 4, 2017

GUEST POST: "Beyond the Doors: Find Your Avocados!" by David Neilsen

The journey I underwent to get my upcoming novel published is not one I would recommend for other writers. While I am quite pleased and proud of the final result, a deliciously-creepy, humorous Middle Grade adventure called Beyond the Doors, getting to this point was difficult, stressful, and difficult. Did I mention stressful?
The story of Beyond the Doors, which is my second novel, begins with the story of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, which is my first novel. I wrote Dr. Fell, handed it over to my agent, and was in the midst of sitting back and calmly waiting for him to work his magic when he calls me out of the blue in the middle of the day.
“David, it’s your agent,” he said. “Why do you think I’m calling you out of the blue in the middle of the day?”
My jaw dropped. My stomach dropped. I almost dropped. An honest-to-goodness mainstream publisher wanted to publish my novel. I danced a little jig. But my agent had another surprise in store.
“They want a two-book deal,” he announced.
Two books! Holy guacamole! That’s twice as many as one! “They want a sequel already?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “They want something new.”
I stopped jigging.
It seemed my new publisher wanted me to pitch ideas for a second book to them. They wanted a selection from which to choose. No problem. As it turns out, I already had three different projects in one state of completion or another. One even had over 40 pages written already. I sat down and wrote brief summaries for all three books, then added a synopsis for an idea for a sequel to Dr. Fell which had popped into my head. Satisfied, I passed the four pitches by my agent.
“Do another one,” he commanded. “Five is a better number than four.”
While unable to dispute the fact that five is a better number than four, the sad truth was I didn’t have a fifth idea. No other project was more than a couple of un-fleshed-out notes on a Word doc. I struggled with this for a bit, but finally settled on an old idea. It was just an image, really. Some kids standing in a big, empty, round room in the center of which stands this bizarre machine that has a plain, wooden door hooked up to it for some reason. A bunch of other plain, wooden doors are scattered around the floor.
That was it. I had no idea where the doors went. I had no idea why the kids were there. I had absolutely nothing but a single image. So I described that image and sent in my five pitches.
I think we all know which one they chose.
When my agent first told me they’d gone with “Doors” I thought he was joking. I laughed. Then I realized he wasn’t joking. I cried. Seriously? Doors? I didn’t even have a catchy title. I was literally just calling it “Doors.”
And thus, the adventure began.
The first thing I had to do was answer all the questions the single image in my head inspired. Starting with “Why is someone hooking up doors to this machine?” I came away with dozens of possibilities: some halfway decent, others truly horrid. At one point I entertained the thought that the doors led to some sort of intergalactic refrigerator.
That idea didn’t last long.
Eventually, however, I hit upon my solution. Avocados! Yes! Of course! It was all about the avocados
I should hasten to point out that my book is not, in any way, about avocados. I am using the word avocados as a placeholder for the true concept behind the story because I do not want to spoil the book for anyone. The question of what’s going on with all these doors is central to the book, and despite far too many book reviewers who seem determined to ruin it for everyone (I shake my fist at you all!), I maintain hope that some of you, at least, will be surprised.
The next question to answer was who were to be my main characters? Specifically, how many children? I didn’t want to do three, because Dr. Fell has three main characters and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself as a writer who only writes books with three main characters. One or two main characters seemed uninteresting to me. Since zero was out of the question, I landed on four.
The Rothbaum children quickly took shape. Their world began to come to life around them. All was well. Until it wasn’t. I suddenly noticed the pages were coming slower and slower, and I was rewriting what I’d written the day before on a daily basis.
I was stuck.
I told my editor this fact and I suggested I move on to one of the other four pitches. My editor slapped me in the face (figuratively) and told me to get back to work. I got back to work. The story progressed in small spurts. My heart wasn’t in it. At the same time, a new story idea jumped on top of me. I loved it. It was awesome. I wrote about 50 pages of it and gave it to my editor, basically saying “Hey! Let’s do this instead!”
Face slap. Back to work.
When I’d first been given my deadline, I’d laughed. Dr. Fell had taken half that time to write, so of course I’d make this deadline. Now, however, I began to worry I wouldn’t finish a first draft of the book in time. Panic ensued. There was much tearing out of hair.
But then something happened that is hard for me to describe. Basically, I fell in love with the story. The new-found love came upon me suddenly. I’d pushed my way through another chapter, gone to bed, and woken up excited. I sat down and quickly burned out two chapters in a day. Suddenly, everything fit. I read what I’d written already and found that I really liked it. I really enjoyed playing with the avocados! There was so much in this story for me to explore!
Maybe the writing gods smiled upon me while I slept. Maybe a brain cell fired a certain synapse in a certain way at a certain time. But from that point on, I wrote with the innocent glee of a young child opening up a Birthday present. Each chapter I wrote was something new and exciting, and I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. I surprised myself and was both writer and reader--living the story in real time as I wrote it, and doing a lot of giggling along the way.
As I said at the top, I don’t recommend this particular writing process to anyone. It’s not nice to fight with your book. But when you have something worthwhile, you would do well to follow where it leads.

Because you never know when you’re going to find your avocados.




David Neilsen is the author of odd, weird, supernatural, and occasionally slightly disturbing stories. His debut novel, Doctor Fell and the Playground of Doom, was published by Crown Books for Kids (a division of Random House) in August of 2016. His next book, Beyond the Doors, will be published August 1, 2017. David is based next door to Sleepy Hollow, NY and also works as a professional storyteller up and down the Hudson River Valley. His one-man performances based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft have sent many screaming into the hills in search of their sanity while his education school presentations have inspired hundreds of Middle Grade-aged children.  Learn all you could ever hope to learn about David and his work by visiting his website at https://david-neilsen.com/. He is not a ninja.





Fans of A Series of Unfortunate Events and Coraline will devour this dark and creepy, humor-laced tale about four siblings who discover a mysterious world where secrets hide around every corner.
 
When a family disaster forces the four Rothbaum children to live with their aunt Gladys, they immediately know there is something strange about their new home. The crazy, circular house looks like it stepped out of a scary movie. The front entrance is a four-story-tall drawbridge. And the only food in Aunt Gladys’s kitchen is an endless supply of Honey Nut Oat Blast Ring-a-Dings cereal.
 
Strangest of all are the doors—there are none. Every doorway is a wide-open passageway—even the bathroom! Who lives in a house with no doors?
 
Their unease only grows when Aunt Gladys disappears for long stretches of time, leaving them alone to explore the strange house. When they discover just what Aunt Gladys has been doing with all her doors, the shocked siblings embark on an adventure that changes everything they believe about their family and the world.






Tuesday, July 11, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Brianne Johnson

From Publisher's Marketplace: “I started at Writers House as starry-eyed intern in 2007 and worked my way up to Senior Agent over several years. I LOVE what I do, and am cultivating a pretty omnivorous list. My main focus is children’s books, but I also love some select adult fiction and offbeat nonfiction-—see below for a more precise breakdown.

I’m extra-crazy-picky with taking on picture books, but I do love them and rep them. I would love a great picture book series, like a Fancy Nancy or a Knuffle Bunny—something where we could see fabulous, memorable characters encounter a variety of new circumstances. My tastes tend to run toward the funny, here—very sweet, gentle picture books are just not for me. The same goes for chapter books. I’m particularly on the lookout for humorous, entertaining chapter books that also have some kind of educational angle to them, something that could be brought into a classroom to supplement the new Common Core Standards, and ALSO something a kid would gleefully reach for, themselves.

I’m also very interested in seeing illustration work for cover design and picture books, and would love to take on a great new author/illustrator.”


And now Brianne Johnson faces the 7 Questions:

 
Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books? 

The entire Harry Potter series. Everything from the well plotted mystery within each contained book, to the steadily-building, overarching conflict stretched over the entire series, to the thorough and rewarding world building, to the cozy and often whimsical execution. I just think it's marvelously done.

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman. It goes to show that the historical genre can be just as fun, funny, and relevant as contemporary stories.

The Weetzie Bat books by Francesca Lia Block. The combination of beautiful magical realism with gritty realistic subjects, and particularly the exploration of chosen family set in a fully realized counterculture environment, just makes those books an absolute delight.
     
Can I get a bonus round?  It’s SO hard to pick just three!  I lovvvvvve Roald Dahl.  And Shel Silverstein.  And for recently-published work, I’m really into smart middle grade like Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s and Lauren Wolk’s Wolf Hollow.

I know the last paragraph is cheating.  I’m not sorry! :-)


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

 I actually watch almost no TV, but when I do, I like Game of Thrones, Planet Earth (I could listen to David Attenborough read the phone book) and man, did I love Stranger Things.

For movies, my favorites are Almost Famous, Forest Gump, Practical Magic, and pretty much all vintage Disney movies.  I am pretty much always singing a Disney song to myself.


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

Smart, talented, imaginative, professional, responsive, prolific.  A good balance of creative and business-minded.  Someone who truly loves writing.  There are so many people who just want to have written a book, and far fewer who truly enjoy the work of writing; who always want to take their writing craft to the next level.  This is a tall order, but I am truly searching for the best storytellers in the world. 

And it’s a huge plus when I love talking with them on the phone, whether it’s scheming about a future book, hashing out a tricky editorial note in a brainstorming session, or hearing about how they’re currently drafting in their dog’s dogbed, or how they are hiding in the pantry to talk to me so that their children would leave them alone, or how they’re finishing their edits while on tour with their jug band. I aim to represent authors for the longevity of their career, and I’ve repped many of my authors for years and years. So I suppose that’s all to say that warm, witty, wonderful weirdos make the best clients of all!

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

Right now I am probably most excited about literary debut middle grade that is unafraid to tackle enormous life-or-death themes in a modern and original way.  I especially love a unique execution, such as an epistolary novel, a story told out of order, or some other unique perspective or framing device. 

I also love a witchy book in ALL genres.  I’ll go for beach witch, goth witch, earth-loving nature witch, cut-a-witch-in-high-school witch, elbow witch (okay, I made that one up).  In any case, there are NOT enough good witch stories out there.  If you’ve got a witch story, TRY ME.

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

Knowing that I can discover, polish, and introduce exciting new talent and important stories to the world, stories that normalize difference and increase empathy and understanding, is wildly exciting to me, especially since children’s books can be so formative in a person’s life.  I have the ability to gather and amplify an incredible group of storytellers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and work to create big-hearted and inclusive books that will hopefully help kids feel more connected, more empathetic, and more accepting of themselves and of others. 

My least favorite thing is passing along rejection in all forms, but it’s a reality of the business.


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)

Read.  Read.  And then read some more.  Especially if you’re writing middle grade, you have to read SO much to really understand the middle grade voice, which is a delicate and crucial thing to absolutely nail.  And read recently-published middle grade.  Childhood favorites are okay, but if you want to sell your book to a trade publisher you really have to read books that have been published within the last two years.

My other advice for writing more literary middle grade is that you should be able to distill huge and very important emotional truths contained in your work for yourself in a concise sentence.  What is your book really about?  What are you trying to say?  It’s not enough to write a good story if you want to get noticed.  Your story must not only be great in a technical sense, but it also has to make the reader feel a certain way, very powerfully.  It’s the books that not only entertain, but that aren’t afraid to ask the big questions, questions that linger in a reader’s heart and mind long after the book has been read, that truly achieve the kind of immortality that most writers seek for their work.


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

I would have an elaborate three-course tea with Shel Silverstein aboard his ramshackle houseboat, The Evil Eye.  Talk about a witty, wonderful weirdo—his brain is delicious, and I would love to hear him talk about just about anything.  I would thank him from the bottom of my heart for his poetry, wax philosophically about The Missing Piece, and yell at him good-naturedly (and perhaps throw a scone or two) about The Giving Tree, a book I love to hate.


Friday, July 7, 2017

An Afterword for THE BOOK OF DAVID Part Two: "Pictures and Craft"

A quick reminder just in case you missed Part One of this Afterword, ideally to be read after you've read The Book of David: This book is not appropriate for younger readers. I wouldn't let my kid read it and I would never give a copy to your child. Should they obtain a copy elsewhere, this is me giving parents a heads up to use extreme discretion.

Don't write me an angry email or yell at me at a signing. Pay attention to your kids and what they're reading, dude.

All right, Esteemed Reader, hopefully it's just you, an adult old enough to have read the full novel and interested in some behind the scenes material, and me. But this is a public blog, so welcome whomever:)

I had a friend passively-aggressively leave behind a few church pamphlets during one of his ultra religious phases, which was irritating ("I'm judging you and worried you're going to Hell for not being as good as me"), but totally forgivable as one of those pamphlets featured a ridiculously sexualized depiction of Jesus on the cross. It's still hanging on my wall and never fails to make me smile. I've seen sex used to sell everything else, but religion? Really?

I'm not going to share that picture here because it doesn't match up exactly to the Sexy Jesus I described in the story. I think whatever erotic depiction of our Lord and Savior you conjured in your head as you read the story is perfect and I don't want to mess with it. The wonderful thing about a book is that it doesn't work without reader participation, which is why the scares are so much more personal than they could ever be in another medium. The reader has to help the writer terrify them by imagining the story in their head.

I once read a quote from a little boy in tears after he'd just seen the first Harry Potter film that made me cry. He told a reporter, "I got it wrong. I imagined Hogwarts all wrong."

I'm never sure just how much to share about these books of mine and how much to leave a mystery. On the one hand, we created the story in your head together and it's yours now. On the other hand, what's the point in writing these afterwords if I don't share some insight and some behind the scenes stuff?


So I'll make you a deal: I won't share the pamphlet that inspired Sexy Jesus (I also saw Ted Neely perform Jesus Christ Superstar in person), but I will share some ACTUAL PHOTOS from the four-wall mural painted on my son's room when we bought our house, starting with this guy:



Hopefully, the version you imagined in your head is scarier. I did my best to make him scarier. But I found the original painting creepy enough to start with before I started playing it up.

Actually, there are a lot of creepy animals painted on my son's walls that didn't make it into the book. Like what the heck was the painter thinking here? Tell me he didn't want to frighten children:


I think the animal paintings were a big part of what made me want to buy this house. I knew at once they were going in a story. I knew they'd work in The Book of David because I needed an equivalent for the hedge animals at the Overlook Hotel. As I revealed in part one of this post that my initial idea for this story came by simply tweaking The Shining, I decided early in the writing process to lean in toward that and make my first truly long horror story serve as my love letter to Stephen King--although I also wrote a lover letter just to be safe:)

There are multiple references to King's work throughout the five chapters. My favorite is a tie between the Takuro Spirit and the fact that all the souls in Heaven "float up here," though I do love the sentence: "Sexy Jesus strode across the desert, and David followed." The plot of BOD is an intentional remix of The Shining, both the novel and the film version.

I took a class on the films of Stanley Kubrick in college because it was available for a summer session and sounded like an easy way to fufill a credit requirement (it was). I came away with a deep appreciation for Kubrick, a lesser respect for the professor, and a whole lot more respect for Stephen King.



The professor annoyed me from the start because the only correct answer to any question was "Kubrick was a genius. Praise his holy name." A Clockwork Orange rules as does Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove, but I thought 2001 was "just okay," Barry Lyndon was a yawn fest no matter how excellent the lighting, and Eyes Wide Shut was so tedious it made nudity boring. I wrote the paper that would determine half my grade (the other half was determined by attendance, and yes, there were a lot of athletes in my class, why do you ask?) on a comparison between the novel and film version of The Shining. 

The conclusions I came to are that both are excellent tellings of the same story by two masters, showcasing their different strengths and weaknesses. King probably should've drank less, Kubrick was a huge a-hole, and neither of them handled the magical negro, Dick Halloran, in a way I'm completely comfortable with (more on that in a minute), but those heterosexual white guys sure could tell a story:) Ultimately, I got a 'B' on the paper because I suggested Kubrick's film wasn't 100% perfect and he was too busy trying to be smart to always be scary. Also, he made a lot of dickish criticisms of King's book while claiming he'd made a superior version by repackaging ideas already contained within the novel.



The Book of David is intentionally a remix of The Shining. I like to think that Stephen King, who wrote a remix of Dracula early in his career, wouldn't mind.

We've got a haunted house instead of a hotel and it's the wacky pop who's got the supernatural psychic abilities instead of the son (though I think on a long enough timeline, Peter would come into his own), wacky pop is the opposite of an alcoholic for much of the story, and it's mom who's the writer and eventually, the addict, and who chops through doors with an axe (point to Kubrick on that one as King's croquet mallet isn't as exciting).



There are multiple touch-points throughout The Book of David referencing The Shining so long as I didn't find them too intrusive. I never could find a spot for a fire-hose that becomes a snake or creepy twin girls and didn't go out of my way to create one. But you better believe it's not a coincidence that David has an interview with a man named Ullman, makes a bargain with a nonliving Entity in a meticulously described orange bathroom, has to contend with regenerating wasps nests, and B2-17 is totally a reference to Room 217 because of course it is. If you suspect something in my book is a reference to King's better book or Kubrick's film, I assure you it probably is ("Give me the knife, Andy").

One thing that is obviously missing in The Book of David is that there is no magical negro. In fact, there's no diversity among the cast whatsoever, which is something I went out of my way to establish. By all rights, Katrina Paskus should be the black friend as she's the closest proxy to a Dick Halloran character, but I made her white because my best friends from a small Indiana town are all white. Also, I promised my wife I would never write a magic negro character as she's black and they piss her off (we've been married more than a decade now, and she's lovely, but not magic). Once in a while I do my best Bagger Vance impression and assure her that "the rhythm of the game just like the rhythm of life," to keep things interesting:)

In fact, BOD has an (almost) all white cast because it's appropriate to the setting. It grew out of me telling my black father-in-law a story of my youth in a small Indiana town he deemed "a crazy white people story" (he meant it with love), and I thought, I'll tell you a crazy white people story.

I'm sure you regular Esteemed Readers remember that the main reason I gave up on traditional publishing was because mainstream publishers were uncomfortable with a white guy writing about a biracial character. I won't ever let a publisher tell me I have to write about exclusively white characters, but I'll totally do that sh*t if I feel like it:)



I'm writing Banneker Bones 2 now as penance. And besides, the racism in BOD is part of a larger theme as well as another touch point with The Shining. Both the film and the book drop N-bombs and if there's one decision I'm still not 100% confident in, it's my decision not to drop an N-bomb in BOD. The first draft contained a few and I don't believe in sacred words (or softening history), so I would definitely use the N-word in a story about slavery or the Klan (another bucket list item).

In the case of BOD, I found that the use of the N-word led to beta readers debating whether or not it was appropriate (it was). For this reason, I found that using the correct word I believe the characters might actually have said became too much of a distraction. And I wanted Esteemed Reader thinking "I wonder why racism is being brought up?" rather than "is Robert Kent himself a racist?"

I'm not against using the N-word in fiction when it correctly characterizes and is accurate in its deployment, but I never use it in conversation. When I sing along with Kanye, I sing "ninja." I don't mind looking black family members in the eye and saying, "yes, I used that word in a novel, never in your house," if the book truly called for it. But BOD doesn't absolutely call for it.



One of, if not the central theme of BOD is the momentum of the past and its impact on our protagonists. Thematically, one of the most important lines in the text is "Like so much of the United States, B2-17 felt to her like a collection of bad decisions made by some long dead white men no longer in this reality to suffer the consequences of those decisions." Stephen King wrote long pages about racist characters staying at the Overlook, Stanley Kubrick positioned a Calumet Can in different shots of his film, and I've got my sign for Brownsborough/Whitesville. The past is very much with all of us.



Originally, my plan was not to have any black characters in this story at all, because there are entire towns in Indiana that are still segregated. I grew up in one and I know some of what white people get up to when they're isn't any diversity to keep us honest. But by Chapter Four, I found that I wasn't completely against David even though I guessed Esteemed Reader might be, and his treatment of Susannah got me mostly onboard team f**k that guy.

I mean, sure, he was crazy, but it wasn't entirely his fault, and he was only killing hedge fund managers and politicians:). Any politician who supports the total repeal of their constituents' health care and the death of innocent people so another tax break can be given to the upper class might not actually be in league with Satan, but I ask you, if the result is the same, what difference does it make?

I think it's of great significance that I wrote the majority of this serial novel containing some definite political ranting in 2016. I cannot recall another election quite like the farce we held that year. I don't want to rehash that unpleasant contest as I didn't vote for either major political party's candidate and I don't really care who you voted for, Esteemed Reader. 

But there was more anger in the populace than I can recall seeing during any other election in my lifetime. I found myself hating both Republicans and Democrats and fantasizing about a way in which I might be able to stop them and all their banker friends, who never went to jail despite my vote for hope and change eight years previous.




In the aftermath of current political events, I'm not sure how we go on from here. A revolution--hopefully a non-violent one--is inevitable. Our elected officials cannot be this openly evil and this openly corrupt and the rest of us still pretend we're living in a free country. 

How can we ever again take the office of the US President serious now that it's been held by Donald Trump? How can we can take the Democratic Party serious after they openly stabbed Bernie Sanders in the back and made it clear they don't care what the people want?

Of all the outdated momentum from the past the characters encounter in BOD, perhaps the greatest is the American political system. We're still operating on a patched-together shamble of laws originally conceived when people wrote with feathers and quills by candlelight. It's a system designed to benefit a certain class of heterosexual white males and its not coincidence that it continues to do so. That's what it's meant to do. If you want a system that supports all Americans, we're going to need a new system. Period.




That being said, I am not in favor of violent revolutionary tactics. Yes, we can all see that the United States has the largest prison population by far because we're the sort of as$h*les who make that and healthcare profitable for a select class, but that doesn't mean it's okay to kill innocent citizens to change society.

I'm also not playing fair in BOD. If you and I went out for a beer to discuss political policy, I would never be as extreme as the tone of BOD. My opinions are far more nuanced. It truly bothers me that we haven't punished any bankers and that those who are hoarding the nation's wealth aren't afraid of the rest of us. Otherwise, I'm generally pretty reasonable on most issues and I usually land somewhere in the middle between the extreme left or right.




But moderation in politics doesn't make for an exciting story. I want Esteemed Reader half on David's side by the end of Chapter Five, so I did my best to amp them up over the previous four chapters. I'm not going to slow the momentum of the novel by presenting every counterpoint to every political assertion made because this isn't a civics class, it's a horror story.

The day is coming when Americans are going to have to stand up and take their country back from the oppressive elite. Or the oppressive elite will likely stop messing around and crack down on the citizenry hard until we're all Ferguson, MO. The only thing that scares me more is how many nuclear weapons are out there just waiting to be picked up by the disenfranchised Americans politicians have been perfectly clear they don't care about. 

No doubt, much of my research for BOD has landed me on a watch list or two. I'll end this afterword by showing you the 60-minutes piece that scared the crap out of me and inspired much of the end of this story. I figure if this is the base approved for media coverage, how much worse off are the top secret bases whose top secret funding has likely been skimmed?






Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An Afterword for THE BOOK OF DAVID Part One: "Inception and Autobiography"

Esteemed Reader, if ever there was a strange book to promote from a site traditionally devoted to middle grade fiction, it's The Book of David. But this is my site (I can barely be bothered to manage one website, let alone a second), so we're doing this thing:) 

As much as I love writing stories targeted to a younger audience, I also love extremely gory fiction with gratuitous profanity, and life's too short to worry what other people might think about the disparity between my loves. I am who I am, I love what I love, and as seemingly anti-middle-grade as it is to have published this bonkers book that's likely to offend a whole lot of people, I'm as proud of The Book of David as I am of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees.

All that being said, although we're not going to discuss sex or violence in this post (just lost half its readership, I'm sure), and I'm not going to swear, I am going to discuss a story that contains all of those things and more. It also contains my only character (to date) who happens to be a middle grade writer. For that reason, I think some Esteemed Readers who enjoy this blog might also enjoy The Book of David, if you can get past all the swearing... and the sex... and the violence.. and the blasphemy.

The Book of David, which I will from this paragraph forward mostly refer to as BOD to save space, has a warning on its first page and in its book description for a reason. This book is not appropriate for younger readers. I wouldn't let my kid read it and I would never give a copy to your child. Should they obtain a copy elsewhere, this is me giving parents a heads up to use extreme discretion.

Don't write me an angry email or yell at me at a signing. Pay attention to your kids and what they're reading, dude.

Also, this is an afterword, to be read after you've read the book. Why you'd want to read this before and spoil the surprises of the story I've worked so hard to craft for you, I don't know. You can do whatever you like, but if I get a vote, I vote you read the book first. 

There are other non-spoiler aspects of BOD I've discussed elsewhere that I won't be discussing in depth here. So if you want me to know my thoughts on UFOs, or why there are so many gosh darn cuss words in the book, or you just want me to admit I want to be Stephen King when I grow up, here are some posts related to BOD in which I discuss those things:

          An Open Letter to Stephen King

          Author, Year Two

          Author, Year Three

          On Using Naughty Words in Fiction

          On Conspiracy Theories and Flying Saucers

          Funeral for a Friend (in which I discuss my failed novel)

          On the Destructive Desire for Fame (And Ben Affleck)


For this afterword, I'm specifically going to discuss some of my experiences writing BOD and some of the personal autobiographical elements that inevitably make their way into every work of fiction (or at least, they do in mine). I'm also going to share with you some insights, including some photos from my son's nursery readers might enjoy seeing (those are in Part Two). I wonder about the wisdom of sharing too much as I think some things are better left to the reader's imagination. 

So let me preface everything by saying: regardless of the author's thoughts on his story, the reader's experience is her own.

If you thought the best theme song for BOD should've been "Black Hole Sun" by Soundgarden, I disagree, but that's a great song and it's your call. Over the year and a half it took me to write all five chapters of BOD, 200+ songs found their way into my writing playlist, many of them mentioned in the book. Favorites were "Power" by Kanye West, "Handlebars" by Flobots, "Reckoner" by Radiohead, "You Die or I do" by Hans Zimmer, "Imagine" as sung by Scott Bakula (naturally), "My Body is a Cage" as sung by Peter Gabriel, "When You See Those Flying Saucers" as sung by The Charles River Valley Boys, and "Soul on Fire" by Third Day. And just what sort of Hoosier would I be if I wrote an Indiana story without listening to John Cougar Melencamp's little ditty about "Jack and Diane?"

But in my mind the song that will forever be mentally linked to BOD is "A Blessing" by Max Richter. I've read that writing is a form of self hypnosis and I don't doubt it. I find it useful to have a theme song of sorts to begin each writing session to put me in "the mood" of the story. The somber, beautiful, hopeful, yet heartbreaking sounds of Richter's strings brought to my mind the sort of slow motion tragedy I intended to write. I didn't want to write just satire or horror, though I'll count myself lucky to have accomplished either; I wanted to move the reader the way Max Richter moved me. I can't imagine Miriam Walters wailing in the street outside her haunted house or David Walters finally telling his father, "I only ever wanted you to love me," without thinking of "A Blessing."




Right off the bat, it's a bit of a spoiler for me to tell you that of the many writers and works I drew upon to influence the creation of BOD, the foremost works my book is consciously modeled after are The Shining and, perhaps less immediately apparent, Stranger in a Strange Land. A great debt is also owed to the comedy of Bill Hicks, who I think would've got on well with Sexy Jesus, multiple articles published at Cracked.com, Hugh Howey's Wayfinding series, Vince Gilligan, as I've jokingly, but half-seriously thought of this story as "Breaking God," and the research and lectures of Richard Dolan, my favorite UFO historian, who was kind enough to email some words of support during the writing of BOD that meant quite a lot to me.

There are two quotes from Robert Heinlein about Stranger in a Strange Land that I kept in mind while crafting my own novel. When facing pressures to tone down the more controversial aspects of his masterpiece, he said, “If I cut out religion and sex, I am very much afraid that I will end with a nonalcoholic martini." As to the reaction of certain readers to his work, he said,  “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers. It is an invitation to think, not to believe.” 

That pretty well covers it and I cannot improve upon Heinlein, so when it comes to my own novel, I'll just say, "what he said."

I can't always tell you where the ideas for my stories come from, but with BOD, I can: I was actively looking for an idea. I wanted to write a serial novel (it's a bucket list item I can now check off), I wanted it to be a horror story for adults, and I wanted it to be something I thought older fans of All Together Now would enjoy. Having recently become parents, Mrs. Ninja and I were house shopping to leave apartment life and the last of our extended adolescence behind. So a haunted house story seemed a natural choice and another bucket list item to be checked off.

I was debating whether or not there was anything new to be done with a haunted house I hadn't read multiple versions of already. I'd just about decided there was not when an only just barely original idea occurred to me: what if at the end of The Shining, Jack Torrance carried a Bible instead of a croquet mallet and instead of talking to ghosts to help him find Danny and Wendy, he had a whole church congregation saying "right this way, brother, they're over here."

That idea made me laugh hysterically as the best ideas so often do (you can't fake love), and then immediately terrified me. "Don't you dare write that, Kent," I told myself. "You already ticked off enough religious folks with the zombie stories. Why would a nice Middle Grade Ninja like yourself want to upset your mother with such an offensive and outrageous tale destined to result in angry one-star reviews and emails and a general wishing of ill will upon you? Don't you dare write that story! Write something nice."

This was sensible advice, so I got back to work on Banneker Bones 2 and Zombies 3. But the thing about a great idea is that it won't leave you alone. Stephen King has said he never writes down his ideas as the good ones fight for a writer's attention, and I've found that to be very true. I was busy buying a house and living my life and the voice in my head that speaks up when my subconscious has worked out a story problem would every so often whisper tantalizing details to me: "the man's name is David and he has special powers because he's maybe/maybe not been appointed to be God's prophet. He believes he's an atheist and he's got a real sensible job, like a banker or something, but you can't fight destiny." And I would say, "No, the man's name is nothing, because I'm not writing that."

"It could end with a shocker like Stranger in a Strange Land--I mean,not exactly like that, but not not like that."
"Lalalala, I'm not listening."
"There's a painting on David's wall that talks to him. Guess Who the painting's of? Just guess. Sexy Jesus."
"That's even more offensive than the original idea! I'm not doing this. I mean that's pretty good, but... what would David even preach about?"
"The End Times, of course. And bankers, because seriously, f**k bankers. And David is himself a banker, so how deliciously ironic, right? Oh, and UFOs since you have to use all that 'research' you've done late at night on YouTube for something."
"Oooh, that's... that's... No, I'm not writing that. But if I did write it, could I call it The Book of David?"
"Absolutely."
"Crap. I can't not write it now. I'll spend the rest of my life wishing I had."

To understand why this idea so captured my imagination, I should share some personal information, beginning with where the title comes from. I was once a smart alec kid trapped in Sunday School who knew enough about the Bible to make my teacher hopeful, but was enough of a thinker to ask all the vexing questions that follow anyone compelling one to take something on faith. 

And sometimes I'd quote Bible verses that didn't, strictly speaking, exist, but which should've. On one such occasion when my teacher called my bluff and asked me to find the verse, I told her it was in "The Book of David." All the other kids laughed and it became a running joke when I spoke up and I laughed as well, but in the back of my mind I thought, "one day you'll see." So the title of my novel itself is its own bucket list item.

I don't write autobiographies. A novel about me playing video games while I listen to audiobooks after a day of spending time with my family would interest no one, not even me. Doubtless, some readers will ascribe qualities of my characters and their situation to me. No offense taken as this is a common experience for most authors and kinda goes with the territory. 

But for the record, I have (to date) never seen a flying saucer or a demonic alien (that I'm aware of), nor lived in a haunted house, nor been addicted to pills or booze or any of the other drugs in this book I had to research to write about, nor French kissed a baby (I once heard about a creep who did and have wondered about him ever since), nor had a conversation with any come-to-life paintings. My marriage is much, much better than the Walters' as is my relationship with my parents, which is much less compelling for a book. I have bumped into a couple situations of high strangeness, but I'm saving some of those for future novels:)

I have struggled with a cigarette addiction (I'm not smoking now unless you've got an extra cigarette) and I did grow up in a small Indiana town. I did buy a house not long ago and switch to part-time work so that my son wouldn't have to go to daycare (I would've never just quit my job without Mrs. Ninja's consent; WTF, Miriam!?!). None of those things is interesting enough on its own to sustain a novel, so I added a whole lotta lies to reveal some metaphorical Truths.

Here is something that is true: my grandmother lived in a house across from the park in the small Indiana town where I grew up and it really did have a white sign with multi-colored lettering on its front that read "Jesus Wants To Give YOU Eternal Life" (I added the exclamation point in the book) and it really was a local landmark. I love my grandmother and I miss her terribly (if there is an afterlife, she's the one I'm presently most looking forward to seeing), but I hated that stupid sign. When the school bus passed her house, not every day, but enough days, someone would mock me for it. That sign is present in many family photos and forever printed across my memory. To the best of my knowledge, the house that the sign was attached to is haunted only by memories, most of them good.

But over the years, the message of that sign, "Jesus Wants To Give YOU Eternal Life," began to seem to me less like an enticing offer and more like a threat.

This same beloved grandmother was once chased by a flying saucer. I believed her when she told me about it and I've never doubted her since. I also had a cousin who saw multiple flying saucers, which really ticked her off as she was a strict science teacher and extremely uncomfortable with the experience she probably would've never admitted to having if she'd been alone. The memory of her annoyance as she tried to tell me facts about the world and I insisted on asking her again about the flying saucers still makes me smile. Over the years, I've collected enough credible UFO stories from various sources that I find staunch non-believers tiresome and silly.

Here is something else that is true, though more difficult to discuss and less likely to be believed: I have, at different times in my life, experienced moments of extreme intuition and Déjà vu. I believe this is a common experience that folks mostly keep to themselves. To be crystal clear, I am not saying I have super powers or even a particularly practical skill. But at different times in my life, I've had flashes of insight that should't have been possible for me to have in reality as I've come to expect it to behave; experiences that have led me to question the nature of existence and refuse outright atheism. Here is an account I wrote about one such experience. Good fiction reveals a truth inside the lie, and you can choose not to believe me on this point, but believe that I believe it, and it is a Truth I wanted to express.

I believe psychic communication is possible as are a whole lot of other wacky scenarios in part because of my own experiences, even though they've been mostly mundane stuff. Sometimes I'll recognize someone's future importance to me the moment I first meet them. When I met Mrs. Ninja, I knew pretty quickly she was the one. I've known when something tragic was coming and something good, but I can't decide what to know or when and I've had plenty of false alarms. I wouldn't pick a stock or place a bet based on my intuition, but when my sixth sense kicks in, I've learned to pay attention, and I've talked to plenty of folks who've had similar experiences. The world is an interesting place and there are odd things in it to be found by those who go looking.

When our realtor showed us the house we would buy, I knew it was the one as soon as we pulled up. I experienced flashes of our living here as though they were already memories (This is the place, welcome home). You can think I'm a crackpot (did I mention I believe in flying saucers?), but I've had similar experiences throughout my entire life and I'm just being honest because I have no doubt there are Esteemed Readers who know exactly what I'm talking about. I have often wondered if this sense of mine wouldn't one day come in handy when at last divine prophecies were revealed to me, because...

Here is one other thing that's true: I occasionally preached as an adolescent, though never at the level of David Walters. After one occasion of my speaking in front of our church, a respected missionary who was a man of great faith and integrity really and truly did pull me aside and told me that God had revealed to him that I, Robert Kent, future author of Pizza Delivery, would one day be a prophet of the Lord.

Honest. That happened.

It wasn't the exact scenario I wrote in my story, because, again, where's the fun in that? If Esteemed Reader wanted real life, they wouldn't be reading fiction. I didn't smack my head on a podium or see any bright lights or aliens. That's all bullcrap I added to show Esteemed Reader a good time. People like stories that are fun and full of conflict.

I remember the moment of this man telling me of my coming prophecy very clearly. He held my shoulders as he spoke the declaration with all the seriousness of Garrick Ollivander giving Harry Potter his wand. He went back to the mission field quickly after that, so I never got to ask many follow-up questions. But I've never forgotten our conversation and it has weighed on me heavily during different periods of my life. I've both longed for it to be true and been terrified at the possibility that it might be.

One last thing that actually happened: When I was first learning to drive, I was behind the wheel on a trip from Chicago back to small town Indiana and I really did have occasion to slam the brakes while traveling at 65 miles-per-hour. My father was in the passenger side seat, my brother was sleeping in the back, and we all screamed as the family roadster spun around in the center of the highway, cars passing on either side. Did God save us? It certainly felt like it at the time and I haven't come up with a better explanation in all the intervening years. Nor was that the only time I've been bailed out by Something greater than myself.

So am I God's prophet? Dude, I don't know. I hate to say "no" as it's a fun fantasy to indulge in. I will say that my prophetic status strikes me as an extremely dubious proposition. I can think of far more popular blogs than this one and more successful authors far better positioned than me for God to use as His mouthpiece for mankind (one would think He'd pick a filmmaker, or at least a writer with less of a potty mouth).

I can't promise that an angel won't yet come to me to reveal The Truth and command me to share it with the world. But I'm older than Jesus ever was at this point without having had even a single prophetic vision and should I start having them now, I imagine my credibility will be greatly undercut by my having published this fictional account of a man who does have such visions. This was one of the reasons I wrote the book; as an insurance policy:)

Tell you what: though I took most of the predictions David makes from actual doctrines, if some of it starts to come true, we'll know I called it because I was a prophet:)

What's important for our purposes is that I did believe this missionary when I heard him and for a long time after. While growing up, I used to fantasize about one day writing books or making movies (or both), then I'd remind myself that I really needed to be preparing for my coming prophecy.

When I got older and ditched my faith for a time, I laughed bitterly at the memory and concluded that this missionary was either a loon or worse, a liar (smug, young punk atheists are quick to write off large portions of the world as crazy).

Was it the missionary's schtick, I wondered. None of the other kids at my church had been told they would be prophets (I asked), but was it possible this creepy dude went from church to church and occasionally pulled aside the kid he judged most likely to be a sucker? I have a brother and two sisters who have all been missionaries, and two of them have been ministers, so obviously there's something to Proverbs 22:6, which was the key Bible verse that propelled my desire to write BOD.

While we're on the subject of Bible verses, I should mention that none of the verses quoted in BOD are actually replicated in any existing editions of the good book. It turns out Bible translations are copyrighted, which is gross and wrong and one of many terrible things about the modern world and possibly evidence of Satan's work in publishing (joking, mostly). But I don't want to be sued, so every "Bible verse" in BOD is my own translation, worded however I felt best suited the story. I remember my own disappointment in finding Ezekial 25:17 in the King James Bible is nothing like Jules Winnfield thinks it is:)

Esteemed Reader, that brings us to a discussion of the actual writing of BOD and the techniques employed, and as I see that this Afterword is quickly catching up in length to the book,  why don't we save that for next time? We'll be discussing the crafting of the story and the characters in Part Two and I'll show you some pictures of the animals actually painted on the walls of Little Ninja's nursery, if you'd care to join me...