Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Guest Post: "A Pulse-Pounding, Hair-Raising, Gut-Busting Good Time (Reading and Writing as Physically as Possible)" by Patrick Hueller

I went to a great, weird elementary school. 

One of the great, weird things about it was that we didn’t have assigned classrooms or teachers. Or rather we did have these things, but only briefly. We had Homeroom for a few minutes at the beginning and the end of the day. We saw our homeroom teacher at these times and at our once-a-week, one-on-one conferences. Other than that, we were mostly on our own to complete the goals we’d come up with at our conferences. 

There were other, even greater, even weirder things about my elementary school. For instance, we were allowed to teach our own classes. I taught a class on drawing cartoons. I called it “Drawerings” because I liked a Saturday Night Live skit starring Mike Myers in which he played a little British boy named Simon who hosted a show from his bathtub and sang, “You know my name is Simon and I like to do drawerings.”

The greatest, weirdest thing about my elementary school was Cube City.

Simply put, Cube City was a structure/tower/edifice/thingamajig. Standing maybe 12 feet high, this structure/tower/edifice/thingamajig was made up of hollowed-out, human-sized blocks, stacked next to and on top of each other. 

It was located in the corner of the school’s library. After all, that’s what it was for.


And it worked. Kids would climb to the top of the structure, book in hand. Others would army crawl across the carpet to the bean bags located on the first level of the structure. They’d nestle into the bean bag at the exact same time they were nestling into the book they’d just checked out.

I didn’t think about this then, but it occurs to me now that whatever mad genius architect built Cube City understood that reading—when it’s done right—is a physical experience as much as it is a mental or emotional one. All of us, I think, at some level know this. We talk about the abstract act of reading in concrete and, yes, physical terms. We think of devouring and consuming books. (People talk of being voracious readers.) Books are described as pulse-pounding or breathtaking or riveting, the last of which refers to the experience of being riveted to one spot, literally immobilized by absorption. 

Before we can be riveted, we often first need to escape this world and enter a different reality (the author’s, the book’s, the story’s). Cube City offered this possibility literally. It allowed kids to get away, to drop everything, to burrow into a human-sized cube just as their imaginations were burrowing into the plot of a story.

That was the idea, anyway. Looking back, it’s totally possible that some kids just used Cube City to waste time or sleep or avoid doing actual work.

Come to think of it, I was one of those kids—though I didn’t realize it at the time. Truth be told, I didn’t realize much of anything at the time. In fact, I didn’t realize TIME at the time. 

I was too busy reading—too busy, that is, losing track of time.

I’d go into Cube City with a book and wouldn’t come out until I’d finished or a perturbed teacher tracked me down. If it was my third and fourth grade homeroom teacher, Ms. French, she’d want to know if I’d done any of the math or science work I’d promised to do that week. This was essentially a rhetorical question: we both knew the answer was no. As always, I’d gotten sick of, frustrated or bored by those subjects and had sought refuge in Cube City and whatever book I currently had my nose in. 

Our weekly one-on-one conferences were similarly unproductive. We’d go through the motions of making sure I’d achieved my academic goals, then she’d scold me for failing to do so. Don’t get me wrong—she wasn’t nagging. Her scolding was richly deserved. I dreaded those meetings because I knew exactly how they’d go and that I had no one to blame but myself. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to escape—the reality of my guilt was too much to bear. Ms. French would rightly chastise me for spending too much time in Cube City and not enough time on my schoolwork. And I’d shuffle away from the conference teary-eyed and feeling so badly that I’d make a beeline for Cube City so I didn’t have to feel like that anymore.

All these years and books later, I write kids’ books myself. My primary goal—one that, unlike my weekly elementary goals, I do my best to accomplish—is to create stories that invite kids to experience reading in the same physical way I did. I want them to inhale books, to wolf them down hungrily. I want their pulses and heartbeats to quicken. I want the hairs on the backs of their necks to tingle. I want their stomachs to hurt from laughter. 

I want them to escape from their reality and lose track of time.

I don’t think Cube City exists anymore. If memory serves, they tore it down and took it away shortly after I moved on to middle school. Too dangerous, was the rumor. A kid had fallen off, some middle schooler told me—broken a bone or two.

I doubt that last rumor is true, but I hope it is. Not the part about the broken bones, of course—but I like to think there was a kid reading all the way up on the top level, so riveted by the words on the page that he or she forgot all about space and time in the real world. So riveted, was he or she, that they forgot where they were.

So riveted there (wherever the narrative had taken them) that he or she became un-riveted here. 

He or she unconsciously leaned back, unconsciously assumed—incorrectly—that there was a wall to prevent them from falling.

I like to think that kid ended up physically fine—that he or she climbed right back up to the top so they could fall again, this time less literally: plummeting, tumbling, hurtling, head over heels in love with another story.

Patrick Hueller has an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Through various pen names, he has written several YA and MG novels. Foul, a sports-horror story written under the name Paul Hoblin, was described by Booklist as “the strongest entry yet in the Night Fall collection” and “unbearably tense.” The Beast (also as Paul Hoblin) was a School Library Journal selection. His most recent titles include Wolf High and The Wish (as P.W. Hueller), both of which made SLJ’s list of “Accessible Reads for Struggling Reluctant Readers.” His work is included in several anthologies, including Fright Before Christmas and Love and Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise and Intense Tales of Teenage Life.

Mr. Hueller is a writing instructor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Check out more of his and Stu’s thoughts on Twitter (@callmebirdbones).

Stu Sanderson is no ordinary eighth-grader. Almost seven feet tall, he vanishes into thin air, duels knights with ninja stealth, lifts the downtrodden, and woos the coolest, best-calved girl in school. Become a middle-grade legend with Stu and his sidekick, Bird Bones, on the journey of a lifetime in Stu Stories.

“Stu and Bird Bones’ adventures are hilarious, sometimes horrifying, and definitely legendary. This book hits on pretty much every topic I cared about when I was a kid (love, Jedis, severed legs, etc.).” Geoff Herbach, author of Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders
“Really fun . . . has tones of Wayside School and Maniac Magee and How Angel Peterson Got His Name.” Kurtis Scaletta, author of Mudville
 Stu Stories captures eighth grade life in its finest and wackiest form. A fun-filled zany ride!” —Frank Cole, author of The Afterlife Academy

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

7 Questions for Kurt Vonneguys: Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim

Esteemed Reader, you know I love podcasts and audio books and I firmly believe that if you're doing dishes or working out or any number of other activities that prevent you from actually sitting down and reading a thing, you can still be taking in useful information to improve you as both a writer and a human being. The Kurt Vonneguys Podcast is my new favorite and I would definitely classify it as "useful."

Here's an official description: Join reader-comedians Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim for a fun, digressive trip through the Kurt Vonnegut canon. It’s a book club, a comedy show, and a cavalcade of smart, entertaining segments. Discover Vonnegut works you’ve never read! Rediscover your Kurt favorites! And cure the terrible disease of loneliness by going on a K.V. appreciation deep dive with a friendly karass of your fellow listeners.

Here's a link where you can listen to it now, right now. Come back for the interview later:) Today, in honor of Valentines Day, I guess, The Slaughterhouse-Five episode goes live and that's probably a book you've read, so this is a good time to get in on this:)

I've been reading Cracked for years. I've laughed until I cried at times and learned things about the world I wouldn't know if I weren't reading for the jokes.The brilliant Daniel O'Brien was one of the first writers ever to face the 7 Questions and reading his stuff led me naturally enough to Michael Swaim and Alex Schmidt and the rest of the incredibly talented Cracked writing staff.

I'm a Hoosier and I once attended a reading and talk by Kurt Vonnegut. Despite this, I've always suspected he was a tad overrated. That's right, I said it, and while I'm at it, James Joyce is dry and intended for people who wish they were doing a crossword puzzle instead of reading a story! As a consequence of my prejudice, I had only read four Vonnegut novels (the big ones) prior to this year.

The Kurt Vonneguys have convinced me to reconsider the man and his work. Their show is very funny, naturally, but also extremely insightful. I'm learning more about this particular writer and his work than I did sitting through entire college courses on literature. I recently read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater for the first time to keep up with the show and I honestly enjoyed the book more because I was anticipating what sorts of things Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim were going to say about it. They're discussing Vonnegut's books in order, so there's still time for you to not only enjoy past episodes, but reread Vonnegut's later works in anticipation of future episodes.

I hope the Kurt Vonneguys will keep going even after they've completed Vonnegut's catalog (plenty of great writers to choose from). I wish there were more podcasts devoted to book club type discussions of writers. If you're thinking of starting your own podcast, please, follow the lead of the Kurt Vonneguys. Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim are doing good in the world and I'm thrilled they made time for us today.

And now the Kurt Vonneguys face the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite Kurt Vonnegut novels (ranked in order of your love) and your top three favorite non-Vonnegut novels (ranked however you prefer)?


1. Cat's Cradle
2. The Sirens Of Titan
3. Slaughterhouse-Five

1. East Of Eden (Steinbeck)
2 & 3. Right now it's some combo of: The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood), The Book Of Dave (Self), The Brief & Frightening Reign Of Phil (Saunders), The Killer Angels (Shaara), Speaker For The Dead (Card), The Subtle Knife (Pullman). That varies year to year though.


1. The Sirens of Titan 
2. Cat's Cradle
3. Slaughterhouse-Five

Then, in alphabetical order (by Title)...

1. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
2. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Question Six: What attracts you to writing comedy and producing online videos, podcast, and other forms of media?

Michael: Absurd piles of cash for little to no work at all. I seriously just sit around making model airplanes and jerking off, and they pay me enough to feed a family of four for a decade. I don't feel guilty about it either, because laughter is so important and uplifting to the human animal.*

*In case you are very stupid, this was not written in seriousness, but in jest.

Alex: It's a blessing to get to make stuff you're passionate about, with exciting collaborators, in an environment where you can fail fast & fail often till the good things happen. The Internet is the sandbox for that.

Question Five: If you were to pick another author's work to discuss in depth on your podcast after you finish with the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, what author would it be and why?

Alex: I talk about Ray Bradbury on our current show a lot. He did heaps of grounded, fantastical fiction in a way few people have before or since. And unlike Kurt's line about SF writers, Bradbury could write for sour apples.

Also I'd love to do Stephen King, because Michael would want to do that, and I want to talk about stuff with Michael. Also everything but 'On Writing' and Dark Tower Book 1 would be new to me.

Michael: Ray Bradbury, because Alex loves him so much and I like to talk with Alex. I would say Harlan Ellison--as fans of the show would no doubt guess--but I'm worried doing that show might reveal too much of my dark weirdness to the public. Ellison gets me, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Question Four: What is your favorite Kurt Blurt? For the uninitiated, Kurt Blurts are striking passages of Vonnegut's prose worthy of deeper consideration.

Michael: "I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all." 
-- The Sirens of Titan

Alex:  “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” -- Mother Night

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about hosting the Vonneguys podcast? What is your least favorite thing?

Alex: My favorite thing is when Michael, or a Vonnefriend reaching out to us, surprises me with a line of thinking that's so interesting it discombobulates my brain.

My least favorite thing is feeling like I dropped the ball on a part of the book worth diving into further, or better.

Michael: My favorite thing is having an iron-clad obligation to read for pleasure (and spiritual development) regularly. 

My least favorite thing is that I am only capable of talking about each book for a few hours, when in reality just the "Kurt Blurts" segment could be four to five hours long if we wanted it to.

Question Two: What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own podcast or otherwise build an online following for their creative work?

Michael: Do it, do it now! Faster Pussycat, Make! Make! Make! My point being, podcasting is an easy medium within which to execute, and if you're interested in doing one, there shouldn't be much stopping you. Think of a concept for a podcast you would want to listen to, make a LOT of episodes, learn from your mistakes, release the episodes, and if the podcast isn't a hit or runs its course, think of a new idea and make another one. In my experience, too often people think the idea of working in the creative arts is to find "the right idea," when really it's just to keep working on things that interest you. The audience will come or they won't. The sad truth is you have less control over that than you'd like. Keep your head down and keep at it until it's no longer something that fits well into your life for its own sake; then quit.

Alex: Do a lot of your thing. Keep doing it. Self-examine often, and kindly.

Question One: If you were to have lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, but could only ask him one question each, what would you ask?

Alex: "Can I buy your lunch?" Then if he says no, I insist on it till I wear him down.

Michael: MUST you fart every three to five minutes? Do you have some kind of medical issue; what's going on? 

BUT SERIOUSLY: What were your real beliefs--and how devoutly did you hold them--when you introduced the concepts of predetermination and handicapping for the sake of equality to so many of your fictional worlds? In other words...do you believe Free Will exists? Show your work.

Michael Swaim is head writer for Those Aren't Muskets, and performs in sketches regularly. He's a graduate of the UC San Diego department of theatre, a degree he is maliciously squandering by making stupid internet videos. He also contributes regularly to Cracked (the humor site, not the crack site) as a member of their group blog. He dreams of one day becoming a real boy.

Alex Schmidt is a Staff Video Writer for Cracked, where he makes sketch comedy, original YouTube shows, and guest appearances on Earwolf’s The Cracked Podcast. Before that he wrote comedy for BBC America, The Onion, Funny Or Die, CollegeHumor, My Damn Channel, McSweeney's, and more fun places.

He does stand-up comedy every week, in LA or on the road. He also does live sketch comedy every month, with his Pack Theater house team Gunslinger. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Post: "Adapting my Screenplay to a Middle Grade Novel" by Fred Holmes

Let me start off by telling you about my novel: THE UGLY TEAPOT is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who loved her father so much that she worried about him constantly. After all, he was a photographer who traveled to the most dangerous places in the world.

To allay her fears, each time he came home he brought her silly gifts, each one with supposed magical powers: the Seal of Solomon, the Ring of Gyges, even Aladdin’s Lamp. It was that lamp that the girl found most unbelievable, for it looked like an ugly teapot. Nevertheless, her father assured her it was real, and made her promise to save her three wishes for something very special.

Then . . . six months later . . . the unthinkable happened. Her father was killed while on assignment to Baghdad. And so on the day of his funeral the girl did something she never thought she would ever do. She took out that teapot and gave it a rub . . .

Okay, that’s the story blurb, and now I have a confession to make. I didn’t start out to write novels. I started out to make films. I directed two feature films starring Lou Diamond Phillips, one for Miramax and one for Lionsgate; then I directed a Bollywood feature film shot on location in India that starred two huge Bollywood stars, one of whom had won the Indian version of an Academy Award.

I also wrote and directed a lot—and I do mean a LOT! —of television. Some of these were documentaries shot all over the world, but mostly I worked in series television—and most of these shows were in the area of children’s television. According to IMDB, I’ve directed north of 250 episodes of TV, and along the way I’ve won quite a few awards, including two Emmys.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because none of it matters. Seriously, when I started writing novels I discovered that all of my work in television and film was irrelevant. It didn’t matter one bit. Okay, maybe it did matter one bit—writing so much television had taught me what a good story looked like, sounded like, tasted like (they taste like chicken and go really well with some fava beans and a nice Chianti), but I still had to learn how to translate that knowledge into writing prose. And there is a difference between writing prose and writing screenplays. Oh yeah, trust me on this. There’s a huge difference.

When I started writing THE UGLY TEAPOT I was like a deer in the headlights. I had no clue what I was doing and went through a bunch of drafts. I tried to educate myself by reading a lot of books on writing and by speaking with my friends who were novelists. Mostly, however, I read a lot of children’s fiction. I’ve always loved reading, and I’ve always loved children’s literature; plus I’ve been fortunate to work on television shows with children who fit my target age range. This all helped. It also helped that screenplays and novels have something in common. They both have the same “show not tell rule”. Unfortunately, they also have a major difference. Novels are meant to be read and screenplays are meant to be filmed. Yeah, I know, duh! But what this means is that you only put down in a screenplay what the audience will see and/or hear. You do not dig deep into the characters’ psyche—that’s for the actors to portray, and the director to cover visually—and they both get really upset with you if you mess with their territory!

So in order to write THE UGLY TEAPOT, I had to learn how to write fiction. This was a challenge for someone who had never taken a writing course. What I did have, fortunately, was a lot of experience telling stories. I also had a good story to tell. THE UGLY TEAPOT began life as a screenplay called FIREFLIES, and everyone who had read it, loved it. It had been optioned numerous times by some powerful producers (including Gerald R. Molen who had won the Academy Award for producing Schindler’s List). Jerry tried to get FIREFLIES made into a movie for a number of years, but he was known for producing big-budgeted films (HOOK, JURASSIC PARK, MINORITY REPORT, etc.), and FIREFLIES was a sweet, small-budgeted film, so he was never able to get it made. Then a friend of mine at Disney read it, loved it, and told me, “This is really good. You should adapt it into a novel.”

This struck a chord with me. First, I really appreciated the praise; and second, I’d always wanted to write novels, I just never thought I could. Why? Well, the best analogy I can give you comes from some of my actor friends in Hollywood. A lot of them will tell you, “I’m only acting in television and films to make money. My goal is to be a star on Broadway. That’s where the real actors are.” And that, in a convoluted way, was my attitude about writing for television—the “real” writers were writing novels—and I wasn’t a real writer. At the time, however, I was working in South Africa a lot and those seventeen hour plane rides to Cape Town gave me ample time to fuss around with the idea of writing a novel, and what came out of that fussing was THE UGLY TEAPOT.

The story itself had an earlier germination. My brother had died of cancer at a very young age and his death had a devastating impact on me. FIREFLIES was my way of dealing with my grief, and I wanted to use the story to help others. However, I didn’t want to write a sad, depressing ode to my brother. He wouldn’t have liked that. So what did I write instead? I wrote an action/adventure film filled with magic and humor.

Then when FIREFLIES the screenplay metamorphosed into THE UGLY TEAPOT the novel, I stayed true to my original story, but tried to make TEAPOT more “novel-like”. This required, for one thing, expanding my story. FIREFLIES was 110 pages long (normal for most screenplays, but too short for a middle-grade novel), so expanding it allowed me to flesh out my characters and situations. This was fun, but intimidating. I was helped along by the fact that I had kept most of my notes on character and plot from the original screenplay, and I had tons of material I’d been forced to cut from the screenplay in order to get it down to length.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed the process. So much so that I’m doing it again. I’m currently writing the sequel to THE UGLY TEAPOT. What’s it about? Well, I can’t tell you very much without a spoiler alert, but I can tell you this: Aladdin’s Lamp has appeared in a tiny village in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and the people living there will never be the same. Fathers will rise from the dead, dogs will start talking, and people will die. And that’s just on the first day.

If you would like to know more about THE UGLY TEAPOT: HANNAH’S STORY, here are some links:

The sequel will be out at the end of this year, and I hope you’ll check them both out. Thanks for listening!

THE UGLY TEAPOT is Fred Holmes’s first fiction novel, having previously ghost written a nonfiction book, LETTERS FROM DAD. He is known primarily as a writer and director of films and television, working primarily in family films and children’s television. His work can be seen on Mary Lou Retton’s FLIP FLOP SHOP, BARNEY & FRIENDS, WISHBONE, HORSELAND, IN SEARCH OF THE HEROES, and many other shows, for which he has won two Emmys and three CINE Golden Eagles, among numerous other awards. He has also directed three feature films, including DAKOTA, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, distributed by Miramax, and HEART LAND, a Bollywood feature film shot on location in India. He lives with his wife and son in the southwest United States, and can be found online at www.flholmes.com

Monday, January 30, 2017

7 Questions For: Author Jack Ketchum

Jack Ketchum is the pseudonym for a former actor, singer, teacher, literary agent, lumber salesman, and soda jerk–a former flower child and baby boomer who figures that in 1956 Elvis, dinosaurs and horror probably saved his life. 

His first novel, Off Season, prompted the Village Voice to publicly scold its publisher in print for publishing violent pornography. He personally disagrees but is perfectly happy to let you decide for yourself. His short story The Box won a 1994 Bram Stoker Award from the HWA, his story Gone won again in 2000 — and in 2003 he won Stokers for both best collection for Peaceable Kingdom and best long fiction for Closing Time. 

He has written over twenty novels and novellas, the latest of which are The Secret Life of SoulsThe Woman and I’m Not Sam, written with director Lucky McKee. Five of his books have been filmed to date — The Girl Next Door, The Lost, Red, Offspring and The Woman, the last of which won him and McKee the Best Screenplay Award at the prestigious Sitges Film Festival in Spain. 

His stories are collected in The Exit At Toledo Blade Boulevard, Broken on the Wheel of Sex, Sleep Disorder (with Edward Lee), Peaceable Kingdom and Closing Time and Other Stories. His novella The Crossings was cited by Stephen King in his speech at the 2003 National Book Awards. In 2011 he was elected Grand Master by the World Horror Convention.

Jack Ketchum has long been a personal hero of mine as he's cost me no small number of nights' sleep, an experience I've relished so much it's kept me coming back to him again and again. His prose is the kind of fearless that makes a reader want to give a standing ovation and tell everyone you know somebody wrote something that good. I've reproduced entire sections of Off Season and The Girl Next Door (a decidedly un-middle-grade thing to do) on my computer. My thought at the time was that even if I couldn't write the finest in horror fiction, I could at least type it:)  

If you love horror the way I do, Esteemed Reader, you might just be as excited about this interview as I am. If you just love fine writing, read this guy and note the precision of language and seemingly simple choices that add up to a terrifying whole. When I grow up, I want to write like Jack Ketchum.

And now Jack Ketchum faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Aww, come on...I read an even 100 books last year alone and loved many of them.  How about the top three I hated? 

#1 THE PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran
#3 FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce.  

Bummers all.

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

My writing's erratic.  If I'm working on a long piece I write every day for about three hours before I go brain-dead.  Revisions I can go six or seven.  But I take long holidays from doing any writing at all.  Like John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, I score a good one and then lay fallow for a while.  I read every morning for about an hour over coffee before I start the day, then intermittently during the day and evening.

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

I was an author's agent for about three years and finally figured, if I can sell some of this garbage I can probably sell my own.

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

Both, I think.  It comes from learning to love reading and usually somebody encourages you in that. For me it was my mom, and then some fine teachers in high school and college.  You love reading and you think, hell, I'd like to try that.  It must be great fun to create all these different worlds for yourself and Iive in them for a while.  Then you try it, and it is!

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

My favorite thing is getting lost in the sounds of a story or a poem, making the music, and getting lost in the characters and situations you set in motion, creating that world I mentioned. 

My least favorite thing is the business aspect, having to deal with who owes you what and when, dealing with the IRS for foreign sales and expenditures, fine-tuning contracts.  Luckily I have a wonderful agent, Alice Martell, who takes care of most of that nonsense.

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)

Apply a** to chair.  Read enormously and widely before you even begin to have the temerity to foist your stuff on us.  Don't copy, steal judiciously.  And as Robert Bloch told me when I was just a kid, if you don't have to write, please don't.

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

I'd love to have Jewish deli one more time with Bob Bloch.  I think he'd be proud of me.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

GUEST POST: "Stepping into the Past (Researching and Writing Middle Grade Historical Fiction )" by Yona McDonough

Even as a kid, I loved stories set in the past (Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess and A Tree Grow in Brooklyn were all favorites) and when I grew up to become a childrens book author, I gravitated naturally to creating historical fiction set in long-ago times.  So when I was tapped by Scholastic to write a middle grade chapter book set in WW II era France, I jumped at the chance.  

          Called The Bicycle Spy, it was to center on a 13-year-old boy who has no clue that his parents are part of the French Resistance movement. Since hes an ardent cyclist and they own the bakery in town, they ask him to deliver loaves of bread to various neighbors and relatives without arousing his suspicion.  But the discovery, early on in the story, of secret, coded messages that have been baked into the loaves absolutely rocks his world.

          Since Id had experience in this genre before, I assumed the research and writing follow a certain pattern.  But I found that this particular book created demands of its own.  For one thing it was slated to be longer than any such book Id done before.  And while I had previously used the past as a settingWWI, WW II, the Great Depressionin those books the history was more of a backdrop against which events unfolded whereas in The Bicycle Spy, certain historical events, such as the German occupation, played significant and even pivotal roles in the plot.

          Obviously, I knew where and how to begin. Books and the Internet provided plentiful sourcessometimes too plentiful.  So much dense material to wade through was difficult enough for me, but what about for my young audience? I wanted the book to be fact-based and informative, but not daunting.  So I turned to sources that were intended not for adults, but for other kids.  Books, like those from the excellent DK series, provided substantial material that was suited to young readers and I drew on them, as well as others like them,  to help me sort my way through the complexities of the period.

          I also relied heavily on visual images that were widely available on line and in books.  Although The Bicycle Spys sole illustration was on the cover, I wanted to steep myself in period details and have images at my fingertipsand in my minds eye.  Uniforms worn by French and German soldiers, the loaves of French peasant bread like those that housed the coded notes, maps that showed the occupied territories and most popular escape routesall these mental pictures added to my understanding of the time and place about which I was writing.

          Another subject to tackle was the Tour de France because Marcel, the protagonist, is a cycling enthusiast.  I familiarized myself with the history of the Tour and learned the names of its winners, especially during the relevant years. I learned about the origins of the race, as well as its early history. Research of this kind proved invaluable.

          But there was more to the novel than research. I was writing about France in the 1940s for kids in the 2000s and had the job of making Marcel and his pals sound both believable as characters from the past yet also relatable to readers of the present.  I had to think carefully about the dialogue.  It couldnt be too contemporaryno, hey dudesbut it couldnt be too fusty either.  I also wanted to use French terms and phrases where I could without putting off a reader who might not be familiar with them.  In order to do that, I sprinkled the French in sparingly yet I hope judiciously, and provided translations alongside the foreign words.  I also added a glossary at the end as another way of explaining these terms more fully.

          Another important element in writing middle grade historical fiction is the strategic use of back matter.  Back matter is catnip to librarians and teachers, and Ive heard from many kids how much they love it too.  Back matter is a way of adding context without bogging down the story and Ive learned to be a bit creative with it.  In addition to the glossary, back matter for The Bicycle Spy includes a brief history of WW II, a time line of the war and a brief history of the Tour de France; in other books, Ive included things like games, recipes and craft projects. 

          Working on a historical novel is an exacting, and often demanding task. Ive tried to meet those demands with a combination of the right kind of research and an expansive, kid-centric approach.  And the enthusiastic response to The Bicycle Spy makes me think that Ive succeeded. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the award-winning author of twenty-seven books for children and seven novels for adults: THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS, IN DAHLIA'S WAKE, BREAKING THE BANK (which has been optioned for a film), A WEDDING IN GREAT NECK, TWO OF A KIND, YOU WERE MEANT FOR ME, and THE HOUSE ON PRIMROSE POND.  Her essays, articles, and short fiction have appeared in numerous national and literary publications. She is also the fiction editor of Lilith magazine. McDonough lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two children.

Marcel loves riding his bicycle, whether he's racing through the streets of his small town in France or making bread deliveries for his parents' bakery. He dreams of someday competing in the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race. But ever since Germany's occupation of France began two years ago, in 1940, the race has been canceled. Now there are soldiers everywhere, interrupting Marcel's rides with checkpoints and questioning. Then Marcel learns two big secrets, and he realizes there are worse things about the war than a canceled race. When he later discovers that his friend's entire family is in imminent danger, Marcel knows he can help -- but it will involve taking a risky bicycle ride to pass along covert information. And when nothing ends up going according to plan, it's up to him to keep pedaling and think quickly... because his friend, her family, and his own future hang in the balance.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Guest Post: "From Idea to Book Trailer" by Eric Kahn Gale

About 1/3 of the conversation between my wife and I is us talking in the voice of our adorable pooch, Bowser. (Most-dog owning couples are like that, right?)

Years ago, in our first apartment together, Bowser was especially fascinated by the door that connected our unit to the hallway. I would speak for him in this little British boy’s voice. He would go on about the wonders of The Magic Door and saw my wife and I as wizards who had the power to open the door and produce delicious food at will.

It got me thinking that the dog of an actual wizard might have trouble distinguishing between standard human powers and real magic. It made me laugh and, as a life long dog lover, I’d always dreamed of writing a funny novel about the loyalty, humor, and beauty of dogs.

I thought of a dog called Nosewise, who would be owned by the famous wizard Merlin. Like all dogs, he would enjoy learning to Sit! Stay! and Fetch! But when he saw Merlin practicing magic with his apprentice, Morgana, and casting fireballs, levitating objects and weaving cloaks of invisibility, he’d wonder why Merlin hadn’t taught him such tricks.

I loved the idea of setting the story in the familiar Arthurian legend because seeing things from a magic wielding dog’s point of view was very silly, and it was helpful to have some touchstones the reader would be knowledgeable about.

I was bowled over when I first saw the cover art created by our illustrator, Dave Phillips. It was funny, exciting, and epic...and I wanted to see it move. I have a background in 2-D animation and whipped up a little animation test. It was so fun to do that I commissioned Dave to create five more pieces of full color illustrations, and after a few months of intense work, I produced the full book trailer.

This book has been my biggest labor of love, and I hope readers enjoy reading it as much as I have loved writing it. 

Eric Kahn Gale lives in Chicago, IL with his wife and his dog, Bowser--the inspiration for Nosewise in The Wizard's Dog.

"All of my books have been inspired by my life. My first novel, The Bully Book, is a a comic mystery taken directly from my experiences being bullied in 6th grade. My second, The Zoo at the Edge of the World, is a fantasy prompted by my lifelong obsession with animals. And my newest book, The Wizard's Dog, is what I imagine my lovely dog, Bowser, would be like if he was granted magic powers. Life has enriched my books, and these books have vastly enriched my life."

“A magical story full of humor and heart.” —Katherine Applegate, Newbery-winning author of The One and Only Ivan

For fans of The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom comes an offbeat, comedic spin on the Excalibur legend told from the point of view of a talking dog who wants to be a magician!

Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over!

But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it!

Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Three

photo by Jessica Holman
Esteemed Reader, the state of our ninja is strong:) I don't know how you feel about these yearly posts chronicling my journey as an author, but I like them. I liked reading last year's post moments ago and reflecting on the time that's passed (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast). There are plenty of incredible interviews and amazing guest posts available if you'd prefer to read something more interesting written by and about people who aren't me:)

But alas, this online repository of insights by superior writers and publishing professionals doubles as my author blog, so occasionally you're stuck with me: Robert Kent, the guy who promotes and celebrates middle grade fiction while publishing nasty horror novels filled with all sorts of foul language and violence and blasphemy of the sort my own dear mother would not have let me read back when she could still stop me.

When I gave Momma Ninja a verbal synopsis of The Book of David, she shook her head sadly and said, "Oh my." To the best of my knowledge, she hasn't read it (I surely would've gotten a late night phone call), and that's probably for the best. I've caused her enough worry over my lifetime:)

A lot happened in 2016 and there will no doubt be endless posts elsewhere about all the celebrity deaths, the media released (God bless you Batman V. Superman and Uncharted 4), and the craziest presidential election I've ever seen that has me wondering just how much longer we're going to continue to run our country using this outdated political model desperately in need of an upgrade. But I have outrage fatigue, I honestly didn't see that many movies (I'll get around to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2017, I promise), and most of the books I read or listened to were published in previous years.

As for the deaths of famous people, they've all hurt, partly because of the way media holds such a pervasive and intimate role in our lives that hasn't been true for any earlier era (there are people alive now who remember when you couldn't watch movie stars in bed). Carrie Fisher wasn't just an actress I never met, she was among my first loves. Carrie Fisher was a lot of people's first love, and a lot of other people loved her for reasons far beyond Star Wars. Also, if someone as famous and important as her can die, any of us can die, holy crap, we're gonna get old and die. I just saw Return of the Jedi for the first time how many years ago... oh no. Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast.

Richard Adams' death struck me particularly hard. Unlike the many other celebrities we've lost, I interacted with him. He was a very kind man who was gracious with his time and generous with his praise and I'll always be grateful for the incredible kindness he showed me. 

If I want to make myself misty-eyed, I have only to remember that first time I read his blurb for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, as it was more meaningful to me than any other milestone in my author career could be. If I ever get down on writing or blogging (happens to us all), or if somebody says something mean about one of my books (jerks!), I have only to remember that Richard Adams didn't think I sucked, and if that doesn't cheer me up or make me feel like I have as much right to participate in our shared literature as anyone else, nothing ever will.  And when some other author asks me for a blurb or to appear on this blog or for some other favor, I remember the kindness Richard Adams showed me and frequently feel obliged to pay it forward.

What I mostly did in 2016 was a lot of dad-ing. I bought a blow-up pool this summer marked down to 20 bucks from 60 and even though the pool sprung a leak by September, it's still one of the best things I ever bought. Little Ninja and I lounged in our pool and splashed each other in the backyard and laughed like loons over several long summer afternoons. If there's one thing I want to remember about 2016 in future years, that's the one:)

Little Ninja dressed as Prince for Halloween. After a decade of our clearance-special, Charlie Brown Christmas tree, Mrs. Ninja and I sprang for a brand new six-foot beauty that Little Ninja knocked over after it had been up a week. I changed a lot of diapers, attempted some potty training that's still a work in progress for 2017, worked with some wonderful child care specialists, and spent a fair amount of time worrying about some things that were out of my control (always a waste of time I'm rarely capable of avoiding). I also lifted a lot of weights and am now extremely proficient at picking up heavy things. While not transforming me into a Ben Afleck hunk, the exercise has helped me maintain a sense of calm-ish-ness.

(here it is again)

But this is a post about my being an author, not a dad (or a Batfleck), and some pretty cool stuff happened in 2016, like my being on that panel in the photo above. I'm the guy in white, talking about my books while sitting next to more talented authors. No, seriously. That's our old friends Skila Brown, author of Caminar, to my right, Sarah J. Schmitt, author of It's a Wonderful Death to my left, and John David Anderson, author of Ms. Bixby's Last Day on the end. A panel filled with that much talent and the guy who wrote Pizza Delivery is the one doing the talking? Are you freaking kidding me!?!

I'm elated that people are asking me to teach classes on writing and to speak on panels. I'm thrilled when really talented authors ask to appear on this blog or want to interact with me in other ways. I'm pumped to be swapping critiques with Laura Martin, whose series about dinosaurs in a post-apocalyptic Indiana has rocked my world. Is that Susan Kaye Quinn or Darby Karchut or Barbara Dee or any number of other amazing writers casually chatting with me on Facebook? You bet. One evening earlier this year I got an email from Andy Weir and while I was reading it my inbox chimed to let me know I had a new email from Hugh Howey, cause that's how the Ninja rolls, son. Whoo! Book life!!!

I'm not just bragging to be bragging, I have a point: somewhere in there while I was busy working so hard to become an author, I became one. I've got a whole bunch of writer friends and people are paying money to read my stories (as well as to see me in person) and it's awesome. What's the point of these year-in review posts if I don't acknowledge my successes? Some cool stuff happened this year to let me know that that thing I always wanted to do... I did it.

I could be doing some things better, and we'll get to some of my mistakes, but I'm no longer embarrassed to introduce myself at parties as a writer (I hand out a business card or sign a book). I'm not talking about something I'm going to do some day, I'm talking about something I have done and am actively doing. I'm still going to get old (maybe) and die (you too, Esteemed Reader, you too), but I honestly feel like I'm doing some stuff that's worth doing with the life I have while I can do it (Pizza Delivery is going to change the world!).

I've got three things left to share: a rant, a mistake, a personal insight, and then I'll tell you what's coming in 2017 and we'll call it a post.

First, a rant: I've been pleasantly surprised by how gratifying it is to publish my own books and by how many readers don't care one bit how a story gets to them so long as the pizza delivered is scary. Many authors who've been in the business long enough to have gotten a good look at how publishing actually works (not the imaginary way we hope it works when we're reading our first Writer's Market) are curious to know more about self publishing. Several editors and other publishing professionals who've been downsized or fear a layoff is coming have been curious to know how they can get in touch with other writers who are self publishing and in need of their services.

But some people are a-holes:)

It doesn't happen nearly as frequently as I feared it would when I first self published, but every so often someone will make a snide comment in my direction about self published authors not being real authors (real authors give up control of their work and settle for less money, apparently). I believe I've lost at least one friend due to my decision to self publish. Other well-meaning authors have said some fairly pedantic things in my direction.

In my third year of being an author, I can say I mostly don't care (I'm not made of stone). But, honestly, I'm having too much fun to worry what some sourpusses may think about it. When I decided to marry a black woman, some other white people advised against it, and when I decided to publish my own books, some other writers advised against that as well and I have yet to regret choosing what makes me happy. Boom! How you gonna refute my point when I brought racism into it!?!? Game, set, and match:)

Again, most of my fellow writers have been very kind. As for the handful of jerks, I recognize myself in them. The worst offenders are typically the authors who have published their first book, but aren't getting anywhere on the second, or who have been sending out queries for a long time. I've been there, brothers and sisters, and I used to say some mean things about self published authors myself; then I read some self-published books that were as good as, and in many cases, better, than what traditional publishers are offering and I quit being a snob. As for those of my brethren finding success with traditional publishing: Play on players. Get it how you live.

And it's not like traditionally published authors don't have to deal with jerks. I've got a traditionally published friend who assured me that an author famous for one book (still working on that follow up more than a decade later) treated him badly because he was simply a 'genre writer.' No matter how you publish, somebody somewhere is going to try to make you feel bad for daring to express yourself creatively. Life is short, haters gonna hate, so brush that dirt off your shoulder.

Second, a mistake: Ye Esteemed Readers without sin may cast the first stone. I'll be talking a lot about The Book of David the first part of 2017 when I put up one of my so-smug-as-to-practically-be-unreadable afterwords and some other book-related posts as soon as the fifth and final installment of my serial horror novel is published (it's coming as quick as I can get it to you, I promise).

But Ninja, you ask, didn't you publish the first four parts of your continuing series last year, making your readers have to wait an unreasonable amount of time for the climax to the story they already forked over good money to read? Shut up, Esteemed Reader:)

Alas, it is true. I'm never going to be as fast at writing as I think I should be (or as good as I think I am). I honestly thought writing a serial novel would be like writing one book broken up into five parts. Instead, it's been like writing five novels about one story. The last three installments each have a higher word count than All Together Now without so much as a single zombie in their pages.

I'm trying to grow as an artist and I'm so proud of The Book of David. It's my most ambitious project to date and honestly, I didn't think the series would have so many readers so fast. Aside from this blog, I've done almost nothing to promote it, and yet readers have found it and enthusiastically embraced it. Actually, some readers might've thought it sucked, but all the Esteemed Readers who've taken the time to write me and tell me how much the story scared them and has them hooked, wanting to know the ending, have delighted me to no end as that's what I most hoped would happen when I wrote those first four chapters.

Unfortunately, most of the Esteemed Readers who've written me to tell me nice things about my story were also writing to ask where they could pick up Chapter Five, and I've had to be all like, "well, it's funny you bring that up, because you can totally find it... nowhere except in my head."

My bad, dudes. Chapter Five is written (mostly) and is in revision with the many editors I depend on to keep me from making a fool of myself. I could publish it now, but the only thing worse for me than disappointing Esteemed Reader by being late is rushing to publish a final installment that's not worthy of their time and money. The Book of David is the most humongous story I've ever had to tell and it's important to me that it be done right.

Still, it was reckless and irresponsible of me to publish the first three chapters while still working on the fourth and fifth. I honestly didn't realize just how much story I had to tell. To any Esteemed Readers who have been left hanging: I'm so sorry to have made you wait and I so appreciate your patience and your enthusiasm for my work.

I suck. I'll try not to do it again in the future.

Third, a personal insight: There was a day in 2016 working on the end of The Book of David that brought me to tears. I've put my whole heart into that story and when it's published, I can walk away from it and know that I left everything I had on the field. Should it become the story I'm known for, as much as I'll ever be known at all, (I'd prefer to be known as the Banneker Bones guy) I'll be happy to be identified as the guy who wrote the long horror story in which many mean and offensive things were said about religion, the government, and flying saucers. The Book of David, for better or worse, is the story I had to share with the world and if I were only ever able to have published the books I've published so far, I'd be glad The Book of David was among them (oh my God, you guys, I love it so much, and I don't care that some reader somewhere thinks I'm going to Hell for writing it).

Still, sometimes when in the throws of writing a thing, it's easy to forget why we writers are bothering at all. I identify with the title character, David Walters, in more ways than I'm completely comfortable admitting to in public, but in retrospect, it's his wife, Miriam Walters, I most identify with. She's not me and her crazy tale of living in a haunted house while being pestered by UFOs should in no way be interpreted as an autobiography by proxy. I made all that stuff up, honest.

That being said, of course I identify with my protagonists (yes, all of them). Each of my characters is typically reacting in a story the way a version of myself likely would were I to find myself in their circumstances (I hope I never do).

Miriam Walters is my only character to date who is a writer, a write of middle grade fiction no less, and she wants to take care of her family, find readers for her fiction, and to never be tempted to smoke another cigarette. I want all of those things myself and of all my characters in all my books, I think she and I might get along best at a lunch if she didn't hold a grudge for all the misery I put her through in service of the story (she's a writer, so she'd understand).

During one of the last chapters of her story which I won't spoil here (for those of you who've read it, this particular scene involves an open garage door) I realized that my character's emotional crux, for once, was my emotional crux. I was in tears by the time I finished the chapter because it dawned on me that I had written everything else that happened to my character to get her to that moment so I could forgive her and in doing so, forgive myself. 

The details don't really matter to anyone but me. What does matter is that in writing Miriam's story I was able to relieve myself of a deep-rooted emotional burden I'd been carrying for nearly two decades. Don't get it twisted: I wrote The Book of David to show Esteemed Reader a good time and maybe poke at their brain a little and that's it. If I made you laugh, scared you a bit, and made you consider an alternate point of view, than I did my job. I get your money and your attention, you get my story that hopefully justifies the expenditure of both, and that's it. We're square.

But once in a while there are moments that come to a writer that reward beyond what I have any right to expect to receive. Realizing I can hate myself a little less because I don't hate my character is a reward you can't put a price tag on. There are a lot of great things about writing that will keep me writing in 2017 (not discounting Esteemed Reader's money by any means), but that moment of realization when you at last understand why this particular story had to be told by this particular writer the way it was told make all the pain that goes along with writing totally worthwhile. You can't find catharsis like this at the bottom of a bottle or on a therapist's couch. 

One of the many reasons I write is to free myself. If that doesn't make sense to you, Esteemed Reader, that sucks for you, but I bet a lot of you writers know what I'm talking about:)

Here's what's coming up in 2017: I have promised my number-one middle grade fan that I would stop writing so much horror and finish Banneker Bones 2 in time for his birthday in July.  That means I'm slowly ramping up into middle grade mode once again. My sentences will be shorter and my prose will be tighter and I'll knock off all the cussing, but I wouldn't go so far as to promise complete politeness or what would even be the point? I'll also be focusing on reading more middle grade books instead of horror stories and I might even review a few books here (don't worry, we'll still have plenty of interviews and guest posts).

Little Ninja recently broke my and Mrs. Ninja's hearts by starting pre-school (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast), which is freeing up a bit more time for me to write and one reason why this post is so long:) My number one writing resolution for 2017 is to focus on book promotion beyond this blog. Once Chapter Five is available, I'll finally have enough books out to justify spending money on promoting my stuff, so I'll be attempting various paid marketing venues and possibly be sharing some of my experiences here so you can learn from my screw ups:)

Here's hoping that 2017 is a very good year for both of us, Esteemed Reader. Author, Year Four, here I come!