Friday, March 27, 2015

NINJA STUFF: On Heartbreak And Diversity In Traditional Publishing (Part Two)



Last Time On Ninja Stuff: The YA Cannibals went to a SCBWI conference on "Finding Common Ground In Diverse Characters" held in one of the least diverse places I've ever been: McCormick's Creek State Park in Spencer, Indiana. There I learned the first girl who ever broke my heart now, 16 years later, runs a popular blog where she interviews writers and literary agents like the one she just signed with; my agent. I talked about heartbreak and how there comes a time when, with perspective, it just doesn't hurt anymore.

And now the thrilling conclusion...

Don't worry, Esteemed Reader. This isn't to be another post about me crying all over myself on a picnic table in a fashion most un-ninja like, or me talking about how the secret of life is my baby boy:) I don't want to blog about none of that crap! Today we're going to talk about writers, writing, publishers, and publishing, the proper subjects of a blog supposedly about reading and writing middle grade novels utilizing ninja stealth and skill. And we're going to discuss diversity in traditional publishing and some of the reasons there isn't more of it. But, if you'll permit me, I want to talk first briefly about some kook stuff.

Reality gets fuzzy around the edges, Esteemed Reader. It's a problem. 

I'm not particular in my religious views and I'm not about to discuss religion with you unless you've purchased a copy of one of my zombie stories. However, I can see the appeal of the strict atheist view of the world: We live, we die, and because there is no us after death, it's not something to be worried about. There's Nobody in the sky watching out for us, sorry to say, but we don't have to answer to Him/Her/It either, so you take the good with the bad. Things happen because of human action and natural action and that is all. The universe is random and does not care. If it seems otherwise to you, you might be slightly mentally ill, and the poor atheist has to contend with life among the vast majority of us who are all suffering varying degrees of mental illness:)

I could hold with the atheist view if life didn't get weird every so often. But it does and I'm not the only one who's noticed. It could be I get weird and every time a coincidence happens, I go off thinking the universe is trying to tell me something because it's all about me, baby. Could be.

I submit to you that if I'm suddenly struck dead, all consciousness gone in an instant, and I believed kooky stuff right up until that moment, it's not going to bother me one bit as there will be no me to be bothered. But a whole lot of people feel the presence of Something in this world and I've felt It as well. Refusing to acknowledge that because of a belief it's not possible is as much of a dogma as actual dogma. I'm perfectly willing to say I don't know how the universe works, and it doesn't bother me since there's way more stuff I don't know than stuff I do.

But dude, SOMETHING is up. I acknowledge that, as a writer, I live half in a dream anyway. And kookiness is not what we're here to discuss. I'm working on a new horror story that incorporates my thoughts on this subject, so I'll not write much more about it here for free when I could charge you to read it later:)

Quick aside: Julia Karr got me to sign up for an open mic reading at the conference this post is supposed to be about. I figured I'd read part of a published book and sell some copies, but it turned out to be a mass critique session. Each participant read 2 minutes of a project and everybody else wrote constructive criticism on index cards. Reading a book that's already published would've been a waste of those critiques. So, what the heck, I read the first chapter of my new horror novel for adults as I intentionally front-loaded it with F-bombs to clear out younger readers early and I like to keep the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators on its toes:)

To my surprise, my reading ended in lots of laughs and loud applause. I'm not sure how the book will come out, but the first chapter appears to be working. I got almost universally positive cards assuring me the hook was strong and the voice was great, but the language was perhaps a bit strong for middle grade:)

I had such a wonderful time at the conference and before I say some negative things about traditional publishing, let me first thank SCBWI for holding such a fine event as I have no doubt it took a great deal of work. Let me also thank the writers and publishing professionals who traveled to Nowhere, Indiana, to participate. At no point in what follows do I want there to be any doubt that their efforts weren't appreciated. I hope Indiana conferences will continue to draw such excellent guests.

I do so hate bitter indie authors and when I decided traditional publishing and I had to part ways for a time, I promised myself I wouldn't become one of them. But I understand. Traditional publishing broke many of our hearts. It didn't mean to. Traditional publishers aren't out to get anyone. They just do what they do, much of it in response to a global market that moves faster than their business model can adapt, and writers get hurt unintentionally.

During a Q-and-A session the last day of the conference I stood up and asked a questionthe questionI most wanted to ask at the perfect time to ask it. And if there was a betrayed quality to my voice, it's because undeniably a part of my question was "Why didn't you love me?"

Let me back up and set the scene. Remember, as I've said, this was the whitest conference in one of the whitest towns in America gathered to discuss diversity in children's literature. The majority of the panelists were white and an even greater number of the participants were white. The whole thing felt a bit like satire.

And it just so happens that of all the publishers in all the world, two of the representatives who came to Spencer, Indiana were from two of the publishers who came closest to publishing Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees. Of all the girls in all the world who could've signed with my agent, it's the one who broke my heart that did and against all odds, the news came to me without my looking for it or even wanting to know it. Reality gets fuzzy around the edges.

I didn't even want to go to this conference. Mrs. Ninja and I just bought a house and I didn't want to spend the money. All nine members of my critique group had to sign up and practically drag me there and even then, I still didn't want to go (I had to take off work and be away from my kid). I only went because my wife told me that she didn't care about the money, I needed to attend a conference about diversity in children's books. The universe aligned to get me in that auditorium for that panel and as Shrug Avery might sing, "Maybe God is trying to tell you something..."

I believe somebody was. You believe what you want. But there were strange winds blowing and whispering through the woods of McCormick's Creek State Park last weekend.

In response to a previous question, one of the editors told us her house had to fight to accept a book about a transgender character written by a heterosexual white male. Many of the folks involved in the publication approval process wanted to know why this author would write such a thing when he himself was not transgender. They were suspicious of his motives. Many of the senior editors didn't want to publish the book, regardless of the man's reasoning (most of his friends and a family member were transgender), and it's still not published, so the fight goes on.

And a part of me, the cold part, understands this is a simple risk vs. reward business decision. Doesn't make it right.

"Who has another question?" the moderator asked.

My hand shot up and someone gave me the microphone. I remember my question almost verbatim: "As you can see," I said, every eye seeing me, "I am a heterosexual, white male." Nervous laughter from many locations, most notably the panel. "What you can't see is I'm married to a black woman and we have a son. I've written a middle grade adventure story about a biracial boy good enough to have received a blurb from Richard Adams." And I never get tired of telling people about it:)

"I have a literary agent who passionately submitted this book to many publishing houses" (your publishing houses) "where individual editors told us yes and then editorial committees said no. We came so close and it got back to me that the reason it was turned down is because I'm white. And you say you're having difficulty publishing a transgender-themed book for the same reason. I take umbridge at the notion that I can raise a half-black boy, but I can't publish a book about one. 

"Speaking for a room of mostly white faces in our conference about diversity" a lot of nervous laughter from everyone save for the lone black woman beside me (not my wife, but a fellow zombie author) who gave me an "Amen," "—what can we white people do to overcome this obstacle?"

It was an unfortunate position these editors found themselves in and I want to be clear: they were and are not my enemies. I've got nothing against them and though they represented the publishing houses what done me wrong, so far as I know, they had nothing to do with the decision personally. I wouldn't have wanted to sit in their seat and answer my question or the one asked immediately after mine. These are smart people who love authors and publishing books and we can absolutely be friends. I was asking about an issue in publishing far bigger than any one publishing house and certainly any one editor. But they were there to represent the institution from which I wanted an answer.

And I got it.

"It's an unfortunate scenario," said one editor, and I'm paraphrasing from memory here, "but it is common. I'd hate to think that was the only reason your book was rejected, but..." the editor trailed off and shrugged, implying it might be. "It could be something else about the project, but the author's race is an issue and one that in the current market can be impossible to overcome." The other editor agreed.

There was a lot of talk about finding a small press or perhaps the writing of something different first, the implication being something with an all or mostly white cast, with maybe a more colorful friend in a minor role. Ya know, the sort of book that gets published.

Remember, these were editors who came all the way to Spencer, Indiana, to talk with us and I don't want to paint them as villains because they most certainly were and are not. To my mind they're heroes because when asked an extremely difficult question, they gave honest answers, and what more could I possibly ask from them?

But there was a different feel to the room after that. A crowd of almost all white writers heard a very specific message: it's all good and well to talk about diversity, but if you want to be published in the traditional way, don't write about it. 

Fortunately, Skila Brown, whose debut novel, Caminar, has rocked my world, lightened the mood when she told me I should keep working and keep fighting to reach readers. After all, she's a white woman married to a Latino man and raising biracial children herself and she was able to use the traditional route to publish a novel set in 1981 Guatemala. On the whole, I was so very impressed by Skila Brown and I hope to feature her here. After her keynote, I gave her a copy of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees so that she would know I never even considered not fighting.

"There's time for one more question," a much wearier-looking moderator said. And look at that, just behind me, Indiana celebrity author Mike Mullin had his hand raised. Mike is an award-winner and friend to librarians everywhere. He participated in some of the conference events and was practically faculty. There were other hands raised, but if there was a safe person to call on after the previous question, surely it was Mike Mullin.

I've been accused of being too nice to Mike over the years. I would say I'm too nice to everyone as I try never to criticize books on this blog even if they deserve it. You may have read my glowing reviews of Sunrise and Ashen Winter, but you didn't read my critiques of their early drafts full of complaints and tough love. Mike Mullin is an impressive writer and better than me at a lot of things, which is why I think it's a good idea to listen when he talks, but I've also heard him say some pretty dumb stuff (and vice versa). We've had squabbles and disagreements and he never seems to let me forget how bad my unpublished book about aliens was or how I should've listened to him about the original cover for All Together Now in the first place.

But Esteemed Reader, I wish you could've been there on Sunday to see my friend Mike Mullin address that panel. I wish there was a YouTube video of it to go viral. In a few words, Mike earned every nice thing I ever said about him and more. I wish I could remember his exact wording, but I can't, so I'll have to settle for giving you a summary of the content of his question. Just imagine the most courageous man you ever saw.

Mike asked about the practice of traditional publishers using unpaid interns, which seems like a small thing unrelated to diversity. But statistically, the only folks who can afford to work for publishers unpaid are mostly white and of the upper-class. With publishers slashing budgets and having to rely more and more on these unpaid interns, doesn't this create an issue of an overwhelmingly similar well-to-do white staff that is then in a position to be promoted up the ranks? Isn't it dangerous to have only a certain group of elites able to make decisions for the rest of us and doesn't that make a lack of diversity in traditional publishing an institutional problem?

Oh Mike Mullin, you magnificent ba****d:)

There was a lot of hemming and hawing among the panel, but the man had a point. Both editors agreed that this was an economic reality of today's publishing market. Sure, one of the editors insisted their interns were paid, but didn't say how much, nor brag about their diversity. The other insisted their interns, though unpaid, only worked 20 hours a week. They're mostly white though, the editor agreed, and I got the sense a part of the editor (avoiding pronouns) wanted to be standing with us calling out this issue rather than stuck at the front of a crowd defending institutions with systemic problems larger than any one person.

The Q-and-A quickly ended after that.

And there it is. Take another look at the graphic above, which I shamelessly stole from Skila Brown's keynote address. That overwhelming stack of books about white characters written by white authors is no accident. If books by diverse authors about diverse characters have such a low success rate of being published and white authors, who can evidently more easily get published, can't write about diverse characters, just where are all these diverse books publishers claim we need going to come from? The whole situation writers of diverse books find themselves in reminds me of the words of another white, male author:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

But let us end on a more positive note than Mr. Fitzgerald's. Our mostly white conference on diversity was more successful than I would've ever imagined. After all, the first step towards any solution is admitting you have a problem. We need diverse books. And it's going to take a hell of a lot more than a hashtag to get them. 

As for me, I left the conference feeling elated. I knew from reputable sources that Banneker was rejected for the reasons above, but a part of me might have always wondered if I hadn't heard it straight from the mouths of the publishers themselves. These same publishing representatives told my fellow writer that the zombie market is over saturated, so she should set her zombie books aside and write something else.

Well, maybe. But I leaned over and let her know I'd paid for my hotel room with money I made selling books about zombies.

You broke my heart traditional publishing. I needed you to be better than you are. 

It's okay. I've had my heart broken before and I know what to do. I learn from the experience and move on.

I came home to find audiobook chapters of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees ready to be approved and soon people around the world will be able to listen to them. Before long, there will be a second Banneker book and it too will be available to every reader in the world who wants it.

I will not be stopped. I will not be thwarted. I will write books about characters of whatever race I see fit and they can be read by anyone who wants them.

If traditional publishers won't give us the diverse books we need, if they can't, then we'll have to get them from some other source. Don't tell me the indie revolution isn't real. Don't tell me it isn't necessary. We've never needed it more.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

NINJA STUFF: On Heartbreak And Diversity In Traditional Publishing (Part One)



Oh Esteemed Reader, my mind is filled with all the thoughts as I've just come from a SCBWI conference where I had a breakthrough moment and also learned odd news of an old nemesis/ex-girlfriend-kinda-sorta, and since I've just attended author Skila Brown's session on compelling openings, I'll hope to hook you by saying she's someone you may know (it's a little weak, but I save the good hooks for the writing I'm allowed to charge money for). It was a long, weird weekend in which the universe threw me an opportunity to mend old heartbreak. 

I'm going to share some personal stuff, partly to get it off my chest, and use my heartbreak to talk a bit about an issue with diversity in traditional publishing as I see it. If you'd prefer to read an interview with a more talented writer than myself or an editor or literary agent, that is perfectly understandable. You'll be happy to know I've secured some future interviews to share with you, but today it's just little old me.

I haven't attended a writer's conference since I made the decision to publish independently, mostly because I had a new baby and getting away has been a hassle. Also, one nice thing about publishing my own books is I'm allowed to query myself in whatever way I like, so there's no need for me to sit through an eleventy-billionth session on writing the perfect query letter. 

But the other YA Cannibals (my beloved critique group) signed up for the conference which was held 90 minutes away and only cost $150, which I judged to be a fair price for a weekend of drinking with my buddies. Author Mike Mullin and I are dangerously obnoxious around a bottle of booze, but I've only had a drink once in the 15 months since my son was born and I was overdue for some adult fun--and thankfully, no one recorded our buffoonery. Even so, I had Mrs. Ninja send me multiple pictures of Little Ninja eating and playing because two nights is the longest I've ever been away from him, and as much as I love my friends, I couldn't get back home fast enough.

I've written before about attending a conference with the YA Cannibals. We had a marvelous time, as usual, and I don't have words for how grateful I am to have such wonderful people in my life. But I don't want to bore you with a bunch of stories such as author Shannon Alexander's 7:00 am text of "Wake up, B*****s," which you really had to be there for to find funny. My legs still hurt because someone thought it was a good idea to let the author of Ashfall lead our hike through the woods and we scrambled over rocks and nearly died multiple times following a path Mike swears was an official trail, but I have my doubts.

The conference was held at McCormick Creak State Park in Spencer, Indiana where the next most exciting event planned for the week is the feeding of a small turtle in a tank (they had signs advertising the time and day of the turtle's feeding so we could make sure we weren't late). The theme of this year's conference was "Finding Common Ground In Diverse Characters" and to fully appreciate just how hilarious that is, you have to visit Spencer, Indiana with its white crosses everywhere and gun shops. You can't even get there by highway and one can almost hear the dueling banjos when one drives into town. Most of the diverse folks I know wouldn't let the sun set on them in such a place. In our conference I saw only two non-white faces who hadn't been imported as guest speakers. 

I'll say a great deal more on all that before the end, but as promised, this is a post about me, the most diverse of heterosexual white males:) Life is very strange, Esteemed Reader, and if it should some day be revealed we're actually living in a computer simulation as some have claimed, I won't be completely surprised. Reality sometimes gets fuzzy around the edges, that's all, and there are odd coincidences too strange to be ignored. I spent part of my weekend collecting ghosts stories and a tale of a grandmother who could accurately predict deaths of family members based on recurring dreams she had. I'm working on a new horror novel I'm quite excited about and such tidbits are of great use to me.

A few months back, I got an out-of-the-blue email from another conference I sometimes attend containing an interview with the newest faculty member. I usually delete such emails without opening them, but the email caught me on a morning when I was avoiding writing and the picture at the top of the interview caused my heart to skip a beat as smiling back at me was a face I banished from my mind many years ago, her face. Somewhere far off I heard Sarah McLachlan singing about the arms of the angel, which was the theme of a prom I once attended (sort of funny, given what Angel is actually about). I banished that song from my house long ago as it brought with it too many painful memories, but these days it just makes me think of those commercials about unwanted puppies and kittens.

I checked the bio and the first name was the same, even if the last has changed. I hadn't seen that face in 16 years and the last time I saw it was through the windshield of my car when I nearly hit her while delivering pizzas. She ran out in front of me and I slammed the brakes because I hadn't seen who it was first:) But all that took place in an Indiana town smaller than Spencer when I was much younger and she's someone I haven't spent much time thinking about since.

The interview came with a website link and would you look at that, she's still writing, is in fact an aspiring young adult novelist who now runs a very popular blog where she interviews writers and literary agents, which is why I'm not using her name as you may have read it. There can only be so many YA authors blogging in Indiana and attending conferences and my thought was "F**K! Sooner or later I'm going to bump into this person (God, anyone but her!) in a professional setting and wouldn't it be nice to not have that blow up in my face.

So I shot her a quick email: "Hey, how you doing, sorry I nearly killed you with my car 16 years ago, remember when we tried to make that movie about giant robot bees, well I haven't changed much, if you see me in public, let's not be awkward as we're adults now, peace!" She responded, "Hey, glad you didn't kill me, what a small world it is, and look at you, also all still alive and stuff." And I offered her a review copy of a book because, ya know, I have books to sell and she does run a very popular blog:)

The End.

Except her name came up at the conference this weekend as Indiana is a very small place and the Hoosier writing community is even smaller. I didn't bring her up as for me, she'd already disappeared back into that same ethereal nothingness that swallowed most of the other folks I knew when I was a teenager and whom I also have no overwhelming desire to ever see again. Apparently she's just signed with a new literary agent. My literary agent. 

"Huh," I said to the person who mentioned this to me. "She and I used to date,"--which is not quite accurate, but it's the closest shorthand word for our extremely unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship/dramatic love triangle that involved me paying for a lot of food, some dancing, some kissing, and tears--"and she's a liar."

Whoa! Easy, killer! How long has that anger been rattling around my subconscious?

Immediately, I had to back up. "I'm sorry," I said. "She's probably a wonderful person now and I don't know her at all. She's a total stranger to me, which is a relationship that's going really well and I hope continues. I read she's married and has kids and if she ever publishes her novel, I'll probably read it as her writing was the thing I liked most about her. I'm sure she's very truthful."

Oh my God, my agent and the first girl who broke my heart! The first girl who broke my heart and my agent! But this means... But this changes... And how does all this effect ME!?!

It doesn't, actually. It's a little weird, but it doesn't mean anything. It changes nothing. After all, my agent's got to sell somebody's book, so why not somebody from my hometown who I certainly thought was someone special once upon a time?

If this were a novel, there'd be more to this story, perhaps when she and I got booked working the same booth at a conference and the power suddenly went out! Fuzzy around the edges it may be, but life isn't a novel and I think this story ends the way so many of reality's stories end: with a bit of self reflection followed by the next chapter in life.

And as I drove the 90 minutes from Spencer back to Indianapolis, memories seeped through my veins and I thought for the first time in at least a decade, probably longer, of that sweet madness, ohhooooh, and gloryeeeeous saaaaadnesss, that brought me to my kneee-eh-heeeees (writer tip--always reference copyrighted lyrics in a free blog post rather than your fiction so you don't have to pay Sarah Mclauglin squat, though I promise to adopt another animal some day).

The first time your heart breaks is the worst. When it happens to Little Ninja, I'm sure I won't understand, as no parent does, and I'm no longer sure I understood my own. Because I remember weeping in a park after an encounter with this person, and not just crying, but sprawled out on a picnic table moaning and writhing as though I'd been in a war.

Sorry, young me, but I'm laughing at you. I can't help it. You were ridiculous! Teenagers, am I right? That's probably why in the only young adult novel I've written, I killed them all:) And as I drove, I began to remember the actual events of 16 years ago, not the fiction I weaved for myself as we writers are predisposed to doing. I looked objectively (mostly) at just the facts, forgetting I was the hero and she was the villain, and tried to piece together what happened as well as I can this far removed.

The conclusion I came to was that if I had a daughter, I wouldn't let a boy like young me anywhere near her. For the first time it occurred to me that this person who shall not be named was not Sauron, the dark lord, but just some girl growing up in the same Indiana town as I who had the misfortune to meet me in my awkward transition to adulthood, though judging by some of this weekend's antics, I'm still transitioning:) She's just another writer, and I know a lot of those, so can I really be surprised she occasionally behaved in strange ways? I certainly did (and do). She was no more innocent or guilty than I was, and even if one of us could definitively be proven to have been the bad one, we were children. We survived, we're both still writing, we have families, so it's to be happy endings all around. 

Had we met now for the first time as writers with families, we might have shared some writing tips and never spoke again. And in the event I bump into her some time, which somehow seems likely in this teeny, tiny state of ours in which the cast of characters apparently does not change, I don't need to be awkward or afraid or any kind of way. Two writers growing up in the same small town at the same time and then going on to run similar blogs and be represented by the same literary agent isn't fate or proof reality is a simulation, but a coincidence. Probably:)

And when I reached home and came through the front door and Little Ninja, who only just started walking earlier this year, came running toward me with his arms raised and yelled "Da-da" and my heart really, finally, and truly did explode with a happiness that brought me to my knees, and Mrs. Ninja, my faithful partner and best friend gave me a big kiss, I wondered how I could ever have thought I knew what love was when I was so very young, and so very stupid.

But I won't be too hard on myself. Later, as Little Ninja stumbled around our new home shouting gibberish and smacking things, he fell and hurt himself and wept. Naturally, I pulled him to me  and held him and made soft sounds and whispered "All Right Now" TM:) But Little Ninja wept and screamed and was inconsolable for several moments until at last I tickled him and got him laughing, and then everything in the world was the best thing evah!!! again.

And that's what it was for me! I thought.

I'm doing the best job of parenting I can, honest, but unless you tie them up, kids fall down and bump themselves. Sometimes dinner isn't ready the exact moment it occurred to him he should have it and sometimes he doesn't want to go to bed yet and sometimes the cat runs away before he can smack her and each time it's the worst thing that could ever happen or has ever happened in the history of all mankind and inconsolable weeping is the only appropriate reaction he can be expected to have. And as I hold him and do my daddy duty, I hurt for him because I know he has no perspective and it really is as bad as all that until he learns there are degrees of pain. 

I was a child who got his heart broken, that's all. It wasn't the last time a girl broke my heart and it wasn't the worst time (not blogging about that one, but I might put it in a novel someday). I know I broke a couple hearts myself. But I never again behaved so badly after a heart break, because I gained perspective.

So I reach back through the years and pat young me's shoulder as he makes a mess of himself on that picnic table. You fell down and bumped yourself, young me. Learn from it and move on and know that one day you will write a very long post on a blog that's at least as successful as hers and snort laugh about the whole thing. 

And also, SMACK!!! Pull yourself together man! People might see you! Put those cigarettes down and would it kill you to get a haircut!?! Get a pen, young me, because we have a long list of behaviors that need to be modified. 

Oh, and those casually racist thoughts I know you sometimes have? One day you're going to occasionally appear on lists of bestsellers in African American fiction, so you're definitely going to want to rethink some things:) Let me show you a picture of your future wife and son because this is going to blow your small-town mind.

Which brings us back to diversity in traditional publishing and the other did-that-just-actually-occur-in-reality-for-real thing that happened when Mike Mullin and I asked some pointed questions about diversity to publishing representatives during a Q and A at this weekend's conference. But this post is out of control long, so I think we'll save that strange tale for part two. 

Come back on Friday for more, same Ninja time, same Ninja channel.





And if you happen to be she-who-must-not-be-named and you found your way to this post, how weird must that be for you!?! I totally didn't write this for you and kinda wish you hadn't read it as it's not actually about you, but if you did read it, I hope you got a laugh and I'm sorry for being a jerk way back when:) And please take comfort in knowing that being a jerk to you got me to the place where I could be less of a jerk to others, which doesn't really help you out, but I'm sure 16 years is enough time to let it go (this post aside). Congrats on signing with the world's best literary agent and good luck.

Friday, March 20, 2015

7 Questions For: Author Erik Weibel

Erik is an thirteen-year-old eight grader who loves to read. He started his blog, This Kid Reviews Books when he was nine and published his first book, The Adventures of Tomato and Pea, when he was eleven. Erik writes a monthly book review column for a local free newspaper. He has a black belt in TaeKwon Do and in his spare time enjoys building things out of LEGOs. He hopes to be an inventor and a published author when he grows up.

https://twitter.com/ThisKid_Erik

https://plus.google.com/u/0/112528909448326897409

https://www.facebook.com/Thiskidreviewsbooks



Click here to read my review of The Adventures of Tomato and Pea.

And now Erik W becomes the youngest writer ever to face the 7 Questions:


Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

Egads! This IS a hard one! Do I really have to choose? If I HAVE to choose…

Redwall by Brian Jacques (and any other works by him)

Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation (also titled The Accidental Hero, when it was re-released) by Matt Myklusch.

The Three Musketeers (unabridged) by Alexandre Dumas


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

Sadly, I don’t spend that much time writing my book. I have been working on some short stories and 
picture book drafts (I participate in Julie Hedlund’s 12x12 challenge.  But, besides that, I write in school, 
at home, on my blog, in gym class (don’t ask :) ), etc. I think maybe around 25 hours total.

Now, reading… WOW. Like the before list, my estimated time is spent with all things involving reading, including books, school, at home, my blog, etc. It’s too hard to calculate this.


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

A bunch of rejections. :)

No, really. No agent or publisher took a 6th grade kid seriously. I don’t know how many query letters I’ve 
sent out. I only managed to get one publisher to reply to me (and it was a rejection). But, I didn’t let that discourage me. I really liked the story I told in The Adventures of Tomato and Pea and, as a kid, I was proud that I actually wrote a whole book. I was hoping other people would enjoy the story I wrote, so I self-published.


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

I think that both is a good answer. Writers can be born. They have raw talent, but they will write anyway, no matter how good (or bad) it is. Even if you are born with a natural talent to write, learning from others will always make you a better writer. I also believe people who struggle with writing, but have a great story to tell can learn how to be a good writer. For me, I don’t think I have a particular talent for writing. I like to do it and I like to make up stories. That’s why I am trying to become a better writer. 


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

My favorite thing is forming the ideas. My mind is always working. I love to make up stories, or even just characters. Sometimes I just play out scenes from random stories I make up in my head. I have ideas for tons of scenes from more than one book that I have never written down.

My least favorite thing is actually sitting down to write. (I actually don’t mind editing – I’m kind of a grammar freak myself- I enjoy finding mistakes (I know, weird…). I don’t know why, but it’s true. I wish there was a USB connector that could just download my ideas into a Word doc. Sitting down to write and not getting distracted is VERY hard for me. But once I’m there, I’ll keep on writing.


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

Well I could say “Write what you like” or “Write what is you” or “Go after your dreams with a lightsaber or batarang,” but I believe that they’ve all been said before (I’m not so sure about the lightsaber or batarang one…), so I’d like to say - keep writing. Sure, I’ve written a book, but I am a reader first. There are tons of kids out there just like me who want to read stories – your stories. You keep writing, I’ll keep reading.  

ERIK’S “OTHER” BIT OF WISDOM:

Buy the orange properties in Monopoly.

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

Really, just one? 

How about I host a banquet?

No?

Hmm. You see there are so many authors I admire, I’d have a hard time choosing. All the names are swirling in my head right now. Look there’s Brian Jacques and Matt Myklusch WOOSH Alexandre Dumas, Tom Angleberger, Jude Waston SWISH Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Abraham Lincoln, George Lucas, Edgar Allen Poe, Brandon Mull, Patrick Carman. - AAH! I’m getting dizzy!- JK Rowling, Michael Buckley, Lois Lowry. Look out here comes James Patterson!

Wait!

I have it. I am having lunch with him/her!

Julia Child - Booyah!


Thanks for having me Mr. Kent!



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book of The Week: THE ADVENTURES OF TOMATO AND PEA by Erik Weibel

First Paragraph(s): The rookie was preparing to sneak out of his room, even though he knew it was against regulations. He had overheard the plans for the mission. Plans that he knew wouldn’t work, but no one would listen to a mere rookie. The aliens invading his home planet of Oarg must be stopped. Three of the main cities of Oarg were in ruins and under the Wardoes’ control.  No one even knew what they wanted, other than to destroy or enslave the inhabitants of Oarg. Scientists at the National Observatory first detected the Wardoes’ ships approaching Oarg last week. Officials set out a welcoming ship to meet the beings they were hoping would be new allies. The ship was destroyed and the Wardoes began a brutal invasion of the planet. Most of the inhabitants of Oarg fled to underground bunkers. The military was trying everything they could to stop the invasion, but the giant Wardoes were winning. 

The rookie had been studying the invasion patterns and intercepting enemy communications. Using all of his mental skills, he hatched a desperate plan. He knew he had to do it alone, even if it meant a painful end for him. He had to save the planet.

Hello there, Esteemed Reader. Have you read Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees yet? If not, you can get the ebook for free today and tomorrow.

David Radtke is at about the halfway point in recording the audiobook version and I can't wait for you to hear it. In the meantime, Banneker Bones 2 is coming right along and I've suddenly become obsessed with writing a new and probably very long horror story. Both of those will be available soon enough, but I've been neglectful in promoting Banneker 1 as I figure there's plenty of time for that when sequel hits. That's a bad Ninja! Being an author means I can't just do the fun part of writing the book. I also have to promote it.

I'm trying to be better, so I've done some upcoming interviews and I've started looking for bloggers to review the book. This is how I came across one of my new favorite book blogs, This Kid Reviews Books. Seriously, you've got to check out this blog. Today's a good day as Erik is reviewing my book the same day I'm reviewing his, almost like we planned it:)

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little jealous of Erik Weibel. He's a published author and he runs a blog filled with more reviews than mine that are possibly more insightful than mine. Oh, and he's only eleven. 

What a world we live in where an eleven-year-old can reach out to his favorite authors and no one can stop him from publishing his own book. I like to think (old guy alert) that if I'd had access to the internet or today's publishing tools when I was eleven, I might've done something similar. But the truth is Erik Weibel is a much better writer than I was at eleven and he clearly has a level of discipline I absolutely lacked.

Let me be clear: I'm all for supporting writers of every age, but I'm still not reviewing any book that's not well edited, formatted, or that hasn't got a good looking cover:) I may not comment on the negative qualities of each week's book, but I don't write pity reviews. So when I tell you that The Adventures Of Tomato and Pea is a fun book that kept me engaged and made me laugh, I don't mean it was a pretty good book for an eleven-year-old. I mean it's a good book that happens to be written by an eleven-year-old. The Adventures Of Tomato and Pea was head and shoulders above a lot of traditionally published books I've read written by much older writers.

That being said, let's get to it.  The Adventures of Tomato and Pea Book1: A Bad Idea is an adventure in the style of a larger-than-life comic book about a sidekick protagonist (sort of an interplanetary Nick Carroway) who tells us the exploits of a bolder character that crusades about on a jet pack with gadgets. Obviously, this is a story after my own heart and I wonder if Erik chuckled at the similarities between our tales as he reviewed my book (I don't know as we made a pact to release our reviews at the same time). 

I could spend another paragraph or two outlining the characters and their conflict, but Mr. Weibel does such a fine and succinct job of it early on that I'll let him take this one:

Wintergreen wasn’t always bad. There was a time when he wanted to be a ballerina. But being the only boy who wanted to be a ballerina was hard, and the other Smidges at school (Smidges are the beings on our planet) made fun of him. Oh, who am I kidding?!? He was always bad! From the time he blew up the meatloaf in the school cafeteria to the time he took over the Main Machine Plant in order to control all the machines on the planet! He is a rotten Smidge! He would have taken over our planet Oarg by now if Tomato hadn’t stopped him. 

See, Tomato is Oarg’s greatest crime-stopper. I guess you could call him a hero. Tomato doesn’t have any super powers but he is real smart and he can kick some serious butt. He stops bad guys even when he’s outnumbered! He even single handedly stopped the giant Wardoes when they invaded Oarg! After he did that, he became our planet’s hero. 

Wintergreen has been trying to get rid of Tomato for as long as I can remember. He figured with Tomato gone he could easily take over the whole planet instead of being stuck out in Misery Swamp. That’s pretty much why we are all in the trouble we are in now. Who am I? OH! Sorry, I forgot! My name is Pea. I am Tomato’s best friend.


There's a lot of action and adventure and chases and a whole lotta laughs. The story never takes itself too seriously, but takes itself seriously enough to tell an engaging story. Through a lot of fun turns of events, Tomato, Pea, and the wonderful cast of additional sidekicks and villains find themselves crash landed on a planet very familiar to the reader: ours. Except, on earth, the larger-than-life Tomato is the size of a bug.

I don't want to give the whole thing away, but it's a fun story to be enjoyed by children and adults and one of the best books I've read so far this year. Weibel has a flare for description and a very active imagination. He's sly and much of the humor comes from his self-aware style of presenting characters and events. Note the way our villain displays both vanity and an awareness of the narration:

Wintergreen, dressed in a business suit, paced back and forth inside his secret lair deep within Misery Swamp. He saw his reflection in the window. He admired how his blue skin coordinated so well with the suit he had on. 

I’m more of a blueish-green, he thought to himself. He studied how he looked. He hated it when others said he looked similar to Tomato. It is true they have the same straight body and horns angled out of their heads, but that’s where the similarities end. “I’m much taller than that loser, and WAY more handsome,” he declared.

Wintergreen quickly became my favorite character and I suspect he might be Weibel's as well. He's not going to win and a part of him seems to know it, but he's got heart:

“This is perfect!” Wintergreen smiled. “It IS going to work this time!” 


Pye spoke up next. “Not to be too negative here, Mr. W, but it never seems to work. Like the time you tried to get Tomato to-” 

“It WILL work this time!” Wintergreen interrupted. “My plan is fool-proof. We simply have to get Tomato and his friends on to the rocket. THAT’S IT! JUST GET THEM ON THE ROCKET! The ship is already programmed to take them into a black hole where they will meet their DOOM! MWAHAHAHAAA!

Fair warning: this book ends on a cliff hanger with a promise of more adventure to come in Book 2. That's all good and well, but Book 1 was released in August of 2013 and I'm writing this review in March of 2015. I hope we'll get another round of Tomato and Pea soon. I promise to review it here as soon as it's available. 

If you're a writer, and you're here so odds are good you are, surely you've wondered what sort of book your target audience would publish if they could. I'd say any middle grade writer not watching out for Erik Weibel and other writers his age (there's not many of them, but they're out there) is doing themselves a great disservice. And any reader looking for an enjoyable story guaranteed to make them laugh is doing themselves a great disservice if they don't read The Adventures of Tomato and Pea.

That's going to do it. Make sure you find yourself back here on Friday when Erik Weibel becomes the youngest author ever to face the 7 Questions. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Adventures of Tomato and Pea:

He held a gasp in as he realized it was his own shadow on the bay wall. He paused for a moment to look at it as if he was looking in a mirror. His body was perfectly straight except for the two horns formed out of the top of his head at an angle. He smiled to himself. “I kind of look like the letter ‘Y’.”

We all got on our scooters and headed off for Aero City Port #8 and or BIG ADVENTURE!


Tomato skillfully picked the lock and the door swung open. Our jaws dropped open when we saw the three villains clinging together wide-eyed, screaming and yelling at each other. “Wintergreen? Is that you? What are you doing here? I thought this was a cruise for outstanding citizens, not outstanding criminals,” Tomato said. 

Wintergreen roared, “YOU DOLT! YOU HAVE NO— Did you just call me outstanding?”

The library was humongous. Huge shelves stacked with books with strange titles lined the walls.  “Look, over there,” Tomato whispered pointing to a very large desk. “That female creature must be the commander of this book depository. The minions at their work terminals must be doing something top secret because the commander keeps SHUSHING them and won’t allow them to communicate with each other.


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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

NINJA STUFF: Indiana, My Home


Do you love where you live, Esteemed Reader? Did you consider all the wonderful places there are in the world and decide to live where you are instead of a tropical paradise because you like your spot better? Were you born there and simply happy to stay put? Were you compelled to move there and now you're making the best of it?

Mrs. Ninja and I are buying our first home, which is why this blog is going to stay quiet for a time. I've got some reviews and interviews planned for you, but I'll be posting them later this year from my new office once I get all my stuff out of the old one.

When I lived briefly in Chicago, more years ago now than it seems to me, I dated a big city girl not entirely unlike Margot Wilson in All Right Now. Turns out the country mouse and the city mouse do not always make a good pair. Sometimes they try to destroy each other:) But before that, she told me that you can take the boy out of the small Indiana town, but you can't take the small Indiana town out of the boy. She didn't mean it kindly, but as I'm planning to publish three new books this year, all of them featuring characters from small Indiana towns to match the four already published, I can't say as how she was wrong.

I'm a Hoosier and wherever I may go, for better or worse, Indiana is my home. Our new house rests between four churches within a five-mile radius (Indiana has more churches than Starbucks or McDonalds). I could book a lot of speaking gigs and sell a lot of Christian fiction provided none of my new readers accidentally read All Together Now:) If I'm honest, I don't mind a little church now and again. Everybody dresses up and takes pains to act better than they are, which is nice to see even if it's an act, and the music reminds me of my childhood.

I like Indiana people and a fair number of them seem to like me. Sure, our state used to be the head of Klu Klux Klan (my mother taught the daughter of the grand wizard how to sew), but no place is perfect and we're trying hard to do better. It seems to me such a checkered past is all the more reason to dig in roots with my mixed-race family and let my fellow Hoosiers know that this is what an Indiana family looks like now. I haven't got any Christian fiction to sell, but I'm happy to sign your copy of Banneker Bones:)

I once saw a comedian at an Indianapolis club (yes, we have comedy clubs) who remarked that Indiana gave him the creeps because we still have a highway sign pointing one direction toward Brownsburg and the other direction toward Whitestown. His punchline: It's 2014 people, time to change the sign! I didn't laugh and neither did anyone else. I grew up next to both those towns and naturally there's a sign for them that's been there since before I was born. I looked around at the many puzzled faces of Hoosiers in the audience all thinking: "yes, that's our sign, what's your point young fella?" Oh Indiana, I wish I knew how to quit you:)



There's more than corn in Indiana, though seriously, there's a lot of corn. John Green lives here, after all, and so do all my beloved Young Adult Cannibals, so I'm a short distance from authors Mike Mullin and Shannon Alexander. Stephen King lived here for like a year, Kurt Vonnegut was a Hoosier, and we've got Jim Davis (some of my finest early reading experiences were volumes of Garfield and US Acres). Indiana is a good place for writers and if I'm going to continue to write about Hoosiers being chased by zombies and giant robot bees (and I am), I think I'll settle in where I can keep an eye on real life Hoosiers for inspiration.

I've been happy renting for years. Some might argue that I've been throwing money away instead of purchasing a tangible asset, but I also haven't been mowing the lawn or paying for repairs or taking on other homeowner responsibilities, freeing up more writing time. And whenever Mrs. Ninja and I have got tired of a place, we simply moved. Of course, that was before Little Ninja was born, and now at a year old (where does the time go?) he loves to be outside and our third floor apartment isn't conducive. Our number one goal has been to get him a yard with a fence.

The other reason we've rented is that I've clung to a notion that one day I would escape the Midwest and flee to one of the coasts. But now in my thirties I've accepted that if I was really going to leave, I'd have done it. I've had the money to do it (at least I did before buying this house) and the opportunities, but my family is here and my friends are here and now my child's family and friends are here.

The protagonist of Pizza Delivery (worked all my books in with links!) is a young punk dying to get out of the small Indiana town he feels trapped in. It's a thematic thing, but when I wrote the first draft of that story I was delivering pizzas in a small Indiana town I desperately wanted to escape. My favorite line in that story is The sound of a child not crying, but my second favorite line comes when our hero is surveying the disgusting state of an Indiana home and he poses the question:
Jesus, does anyone actually mean to end up like this, or does it just sort of happen? Like cancer.

Well, young me, all these years later I know the answer is both. Like cancer, a place grows on you, and right or wrong, if you stay there long enough it begins to feel like home. And when I get around to ordering a pizza at the new home, the know-it-all kid who comes to the door can be assured I have invested quite a lot in my decision to end up like this:)

Indiana is a fine place and I'll do my part to make it finer. There are many wonderful people here and I'm happy to live among them.

Wish me luck with the move. I'll be back before long with some new reviews and I've got some new books coming later this year, mostly middle grade, but I may have a scary one for those of you who like the scary ones as well. Here's hoping that wherever you are Esteemed Reader, you're happy to be there.

Monday, February 2, 2015

GUEST POST: "How My Day Job Makes Me A Better Kidlit Writer" by Katie Sparks



After you publish your first book, it’s not uncommon to hear friends and family say: “Bet you can’t wait until you can quit your day job, become famous, and let the riches roll in…cha ching!”


Yeah, right.

As you might have guessed, writing for children is NOT my full-time job.

By day: editor for parenting books

By night: children’s author


FROM ASSISTANT…
 
 
After college, I continued to foster my passion for writing, and took the following steps to immerse myself in the publishing industry:
 
·         Began as a creative content writer
·         Took some crazy but well-paid off risks, such as quitting my day job to take a non-paid internship and moving back home, and got my foot in the door of a popular and widely successful independent publishing company
·         Dabbled in editorial, customer service relations and eventually became the Assistant to the Publisher
·         Moved on to a non-profit medical association in 2010
·         Three years later, hired to manage the consumer product line of parenting books
 
…TO DEVELOPMENTAL EDITOR
 
 


From bubble baths to naptime, poopy diapers and dinnertime messes, feeding routines and potty training, the parenting books I acquire cover it all.  Using my journalism background and my own experience of the industry, I develop resources sure to bring comfort and information to even the busiest of parents: helping mothers balance work-life environments, offering strategies to dads for bonding with their children or guiding first-time parents to raise healthy twins.

 

Obviously you do not need to be an editor of the genre you write in for you to become better at the craft of writing. There were times in my previous job, working so closely with children’s books all day long, that I found myself burnt out once I got home and had the opportunity to work on my own stories.  Now in this current role, there’s something refreshing about being able to work with authors, medical editors and pediatricians on different manuscript topics that reach millions of parents, while still finding the energy to craft my own stories at home. 
 

INSPIRATION FOR WRITING
 
 
 
Being an editor also offers me the wonderful opportunity to work alongside many talented doctors and writers. By embarking on a literary journey with them and hearing funny stories about their children, I have found ideas and inspiration for my own stories.  From imaginary friends with a sneaky pet mouse to balloons animals who have feelings, nothing is too small or too insignificant to bring life to my stories.   
 
Since I am not yet a parent, it’s these special moments that ring true when weaved together in a picture book.  Being a twin myself and helping develop a guide on raising multiples added authenticity to the personalities of twin siblings in my middle grade novel, REALITY NATALIE, as well as for a picture book I wrote on some crazy and fun double trouble twins! 
 

THE PRICE IS “WRITE”
 
 


Working for a company that specializes in giving authentic advice to parents weighs heavily on the decisions I make regarding the books I edit. This mentality recently filtered into the decision regarding my own novel’s cover design. Initially the cover photo for REALITY NATALIE depicted a girl with her forefinger and thumb out. Unsure of any unknown symbolism this could represent or be perceived as guns, my publisher and I opted to edit the forefingers out from the photo. Now the cover successfully depicts a girl with attitude who is giving thumbs up to the TV world, perfect for Natalie and for readers alike.

So while the odds of me quitting my job, becoming famous and making millions are as likely as winning the lottery, I can admit to waking up everyday and loving what I do.  Being an editor is not an easy job but it is definitely one that is priceless because it makes me happy – just like writing!


 (Credit: all photos courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

 
At a very young age, Katie Sparks discovered the magic of books. She counted on weekly library visits and treasured receiving her first library card at the age of five. At six, she wrote her first story called Baby Carrie (still in her collection today!)

Katie knew then that writing would be in her future. By day, she is an editor for the parent consumer line at a non-profit medical association and enjoys working closely with authors and industry professionals. Immersed in the publishing industry in both her professional and personal life is a dream come true. On weekends you will often find her writing and sipping coffee at one of the many unique coffee shops in Chicago, spending time with family and friends, or curled up with a new book.