Monday, June 27, 2016

NINJA STUFF: On Using Naughty Words In Fiction

I have a confession to make, Esteemed Reader: I sometimes have a potty mouth. But don't look so smug. You do too. Sometimes we all do. And if you're insisting you really, actually don't have a potty mouth, then you're repressing yourself and would probably be better off saying a few bad words now and again to let out some steam (you can whisper them into your pillow after your nightly prayers).

I've just published the first chapter in my serial horror novel for adults, The Book of David (it's FREE to download!!!), and it's filled with filthy language. There are four more chapters to be published in the coming months and all of them contain multiple F-bombs (and many other offensive things) because The Book of David is just that kind of story.

Bad words are one of the most brilliant inventions of mankind and an essential component of human society. We all have to compromise to live together peacefully, which means we're all engaging in some form of internal repression at any given time.

For example: You tell me you accidentally broke my vintage Jack Nicholson Joker action figure motorcycle from the 1990 Toybiz line, so rare my mother had to send away for it when I was a child and I've kept it in mint condition on a shelf in my office ever since (how could you, Esteemed Reader, when I trusted you!?!). You offer a sincere apology. I repress the urge to do you bodily harm, even though it would be well-deserved Batman-style justice, and I even agree not to hold a grudge... eventually.

This is our social contract. To my face, you don't tell me how unbelievably childish it is for a grown man (and somebody's father, for Pete's sake) to put so much value in a purple piece of plastic. To your face, I don't tell you I think you're a destroyer of everything good in the world. If you value my friendship, you hop on ebay and raid some other man-child's collection to find me a replacement ASAP (can they deliver by drone!?!). And in time, the incident will be behind us and our friendship can continue more or less uninterrupted (stay away from my Joker Van, or sleep with one eye open the rest of your short life!).

All of this is made far easier by the fact that at any given time either of us can rattle off some harsh-sounding nonsense and diffuse the tension. These naughty words can be muttered or shouted, possibly at each other, and they can be moaned as I cradle the bits of my broken Joker motorcycle and my Bob-the-Goon sidecar and my dreams and wail to the heavens about the cruel futility of existence.

The nice thing about even the nastiest swear word is that it is just a word, not a stick or a stone, and I'll take someone swearing at me rather than throwing a stone any day (and would, naturally, prefer neither). The more repressive our lifestyle, the more we need forbidden words to step briefly away from the social contract. Some of the the foulest mouths I've heard have belonged to teachers and school librarians after hours as they have to keep their language stringently clean all day at school.They need those naughty words at the end of a long day.

Having "forbidden" words is essential to society. As writers, who craft entirely through words, the forbidden ones have to interest us and we cannot master language if we're afraid of any part of it.

Here is the most controversial thing I'll say this post: A writer who does not use so-called foul language, even though he wants to and his story or his characters demand it and it is crucial to the story's truthful telling, out of a fear of reader response and/or reader rejection is a coward and his words are not worth reading.

My, what a bold and uncompromising declaration that is, completely lacking in any nuance:) So let's unpack it a bit, shall we?

I believe a writer's primary function is to entertain. First, engage me as a reader and take me briefly out of myself and away from my problems. A writer's secondary and nearly-as-important function is to tell The Truth. If your story is entertaining me and I'm engaged, mission accomplished. But your story will resonate with me and make a far greater impression if you reveal to me a vision of the world that is true and changes the way I see things, if only even slightly. This is a writer's highest calling: tell The Truth.

For example, in my favorite middle grade novel, The Witches, Roald Dahl first entertains us by placing compelling characters (who have emotionally-manipulative backstories) in an incredibly tense and frightening situation. I have never been more terrified by any story I've read since as Dahl got to me young. I was a child reading my first true horror novel. I also laughed and cried and was by any definition suitably entertained and was therefore open and willing to hear The Truth Dahl also conveys: some adults are out to get you, child, and it might not end well. You are not safe, and you'd better be on your guard. There are other truths Dahl reveals, but that one's the biggie, and if you don't believe me, here's my full review of the text to convince you.

If you focus too much on telling The Truth, you run the risk of preaching a sermon and boring poor Esteemed Reader. On the other hand, it's impossible not to convey some meaning in the telling of your story (the act itself has meaning). So you should strive to reveal to your readers The Truth of the world as you see it. And you're going to have a harder time revealing that truth if you start by watching your language and presenting a false version of yourself as a storyteller and/or your characters.

On the other, other hand, we present different versions of ourselves to the different people in our lives, don't we? I don't swear around Little Ninja or other children just as I don't coo or sing baby songs when I'm talking with my adult critique partners (YA authors have horrific potty mouths). I never swear on this blog because its focus is kinda/sorta middle grade fiction, so I write posts here with the assumption that my audience will be mostly adults with the occasional young person.

Imposing the restraint on myself of not being allowed to swear forces me to be more creative in my expression. The so-called "f-bomb" can be a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective, and any other conceivable part of speech. Using it regularly is fun, but too easy. It's possible to use this one word for everything, and if you're not a wordsmith, feel free to wallow in such banality. But we writers need a firm command of more than one word.

There are no inappropriate words in Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees as that is a story written primarily for a middle grade audience. I have since read portions of it aloud to audiences of children and their parents. I'm writing the sequel with those same audiences in mind. I made the decision early on that in Banneker's world, swear words as we know them don't exist, therefore none of the characters are repressed in their expression. They wouldn't say words they don't know.

The Banneker books are middle grade, of course, but I also write for adults. My horror novella marketed explicitly to older readers with a warning on its front, Pizza Delivery, is a story I would argue could not work without its swear words (I attempted such a draft just to be sure). That story is about an angst-ridden teenager in a very tense and violent situation and if he doesn't react accordingly, the reader will believe in neither him nor his tense situation, and the whole thing crumbles house-of-cards style, scaring no one and selling no copies of my more expensive books:)

So consider first your audience and the purpose of your story. If you're writing for children, including profanity in your prose is an odd choice and you'll need to justify its inclusion. I'm a fan of Mrs. Weasley swearing in the seventh Harry Potter novel as I think it's a wholly satisfying moment made more so by the six previous novels of characters not swearing.

But someone, somewhere was no doubt scandalized by an expletive placed in a story marketed to children. Presumably, Rowling, her editor(s), and whoever else would've been involved in the decision, weighed the costs of some readers' outrage against the immense satisfaction likely to be felt by other readers. Making such a decision is a writer's duty and if you're hoping to always make everyone who ever reads your fiction happy, you're not being realistic about the costs of artistic expression.

I like to think that so often choosing not to include profanity in my writing makes it clearer to Esteemed Reader that when I do include it, it's absolutely a considered choice intentionally made to evoke a calculated reaction.

My newest, The Book of David, has a clear warning in its description and on its first page and is being marketed toward adults. The characters in the novel have extremely filthy mouths and I can't convey The Truth of who they are if I censor their speech. It is also thematically important that the tone of the narration have a casual irrelevance to it, which is sometimes best achieved with foul language. Because the profanity is pervasive (positively profusely pervasive!), I made it my business to work in a couple f-bombs in chapter one so that the Esteemed Reader who ignored my warning on page one and in the book's description would know right away what she was getting herself into while she still had time to stop (her loss).

I don't think it's any coincidence that I've written this foul-mouthed serial at the same time Little Ninja has begun speaking and repeating everything I say. I've had to clean up my real life language, so my fiction language has had to bear that weight until my boy gets old enough to read some of the bad words I wrote at which point I'll admit that profanity is just another set of sounds he can make if he really wants to, but at home, not at school or at grandma's or anywhere his cursing might get ME in trouble:)

Swearing doesn't just put me at ease in writing, but also in reading. If I'm chatting with a friend and they casually swear it sends a signal that they trust me with their candor and are letting their hair down. The same can be said of well-used profanity in fiction as swearing can be soothing:) When Parker, the narrator of Cracked Up To Be, swears excessively, it reveals a core of her character and her approach to the world. I wouldn't believe her if she didn't swear.

Yes, Esteemed Reader, swearing is fun and should absolutely be used in fiction, but one last word of caution: profane words are spicy words, and like any spice, they can be overused. This comes back to the writer's judgement (and the council of editors they trust) as to when too much of a good thing is bad. Overused profanity not only runs the risk of diminishing impact, it can be a signal of weak writing. It's usually not the only signal, but it is easy to spot.

Intentional profanity used as one tool from the box to demonstrate the author's total command of language will always earn my respect.  If it's called for, go for it, if it feels good, do it, but be judicious, know your audience (know also that profanity use narrows that audience), and be wary of it becoming a crutch for lazy writing (and speech). 

I've said my piece (in my usual puritanically pure prose reserved for this blog), so I'll conclude with a personal anecdote: There is no swearing in my book All Together Now: A Zombie Story because: 1. It's YA, and I'm already really pushing at boundaries with the amount of violence and potentially offensive ideas within the story without giving detractors bad words as an easy target. 2. The story is told from the fixed perspective of one character who makes it clear he's editing out the story's swearing. 3. The novel is about conformity (and zombies, cause I love me some zombies), so it makes thematic sense that the language conforms.

However, when I wrote All Right Now, which is a zombie story set in the same universe told from two third-person adult perspectives, it was much harder not to include the swearing I would expect to accompany an apocalypse. Since All Right Now was a novella, I was able to navigate around profanity--but it was tricky and if the story had gone on longer than it did, my efforts to not allow any characters to swear would've no doubt become obvious and tiresome. I have a bang-up idea for another zombie story, but I keep going back and fourth on whether or not I should finish it primarily because I'm not sure the story can properly be told without profanity.

I'll figure it out. Or I won't:) Either way, you should buy all my books. Good luck with your own writing, Esteemed Reader, and may your own use of language reflect your unique gift of craft.

Monday, June 20, 2016

GUEST POST: "Visions Of Ore" by Cam Baity and Benny Zelkowicz

When we set out to write our trilogy, THE BOOKS OF ORE, we ambitiously (and quite naively) attempted to build an entirely new world from scratch. Why hold ourselves to the familiar fantasy building blocks of medieval Europe, or magic, or talking animals? Our experience as animators taught us that every cliché could be challenged, so that even basic assumptions of what makes a tree and how the planets move could be turned on their ears. 

It sounded like a great idea at the time––if only we had taken a moment to look around at the massive hole we had dug ourselves into!

So we labored to invent and envision every detail of two worlds: Albright City, a “Deco-punk” metropolis of streamlined retro futurism, and Mehk, a mysterious realm of living metal and organic machines.

That meant that we first had to communicate these concepts to one another to ensure that we were on the same page. In this process, we found that drawing was an invaluable tool in unifying our vision, and over the course of writing the trilogy, we have produced hundreds of sketches, maps, and schematics.

Here are three illustrations that stood out from our years of development, images that say something unique about our worlds and the nature of our story:

1) PHOEBE FACES OFF (Art by Cam Baity)

When our heroes, Phoebe and Micah, go on a daring rescue mission, they find themselves stranded in Mehk. There they learn that all of the machinery and technology of their world is not invented, but rather poached from the living mehkan creatures. This illustration is one of our earliest, back when we were just starting to brainstorm the possibilities of Phoebe’s epic journey. It captures the threat of a young girl facing off against a titanic, unfathomable being. There is a suggestion of the mechanized biology that defines mehkans and of the immense danger that an unprepared human child would face.

2) CABLE BIKE ADVERTISEMENT (illustration by John Foster)

Phoebe and Micah’s home of Albright City is an amazing place, full of lightning-fast Auto-mobiles, glittering skyscrapers, and a never-ending parade of gadgets and gizmos that delight the eager citizens. Every machine and scrap of metal is produced by a powerful global corporation called The Foundry. One of their most popular products is the Cable-Bike, a thrilling means of transport that allows riders to shoot across the city suspended on a network of cables high above the ground. We wanted to create an image that would not only convey what the machine looks like, but that would also express some of the slick 1920’s design aesthetic that permeates the book.

3) UAXTU (Illustration by Cam Baity)

Another important part of our process was the development of the myriad mythologies, histories, and cultures of Mehk. We knew we wanted the world to be populated by numerous sentient species, which required us to think deeply about what they believe and why, and how those beliefs evolved over time. Among the legends that play an important role in the trilogy is the story of the Uaxtu, mythical necromancers who used amoral practices to cheat death. Mehkans fear these vengeful spirits that are said to wander the landscape in pursuit of living souls to consume. This image captures the dread that the mythic Uaxtu inspire, fogged by uncertainty and—like so many things in THE BOOKS OF ORE—it is not necessarily as it appears to be.

Cam was born during a nasty heat wave in Richardson, Texas. He has been drawing ever since he figured out how to use his hands, and in second grade he wrote his first book about an adventurous wombat in fluorescent high-top sneakers named "Mr. Cuzul." In fourth grade, he got his first taste of celluloid when he starred in an independent feature penned by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Tracy Letts. Fortunately for Cam, the film was never completed.

Attending the Arts Magnet High School in Dallas, he won accolades for his work including First Place in Painting at the 1996 Visual Arts Guild Exhibit. Cam's obsessions with art and story collided when he studied animation at The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan as well as Calarts. He made short films, which screened around the world at festivals like Cinequest, Anima Mundi, and the BBC British Short Film Festival. With fifteen years of experience in the film industry, his credits include major motion pictures such as TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE and popular television series like SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS and ROBOT CHICKEN for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation.

Born to professional musicians, BENNY bucked family tradition to pursue a sensible career in the hard sciences. While studying biopsychology at Oberlin College, he spent countless hours in the lab analyzing the tiny brains of the African knifefish.

By the time he graduated, he realized that his own brain was consumed not with his research, but with the film he was animating in his spare time. So Benny left the poor fish alone and earned an MFA in Experimental animation. He made an award-winning film, The ErlKing, animated entirely with sand, that screened all over the world. Benny also directed the kids' show "Lunar Jim" and provided the voice for the title character. Over the past thirteen years, Benny has worked on tons of commercials, music videos, feature films, and TV shows, and now, through some weird twist of fate, he's an author, too.

For Phoebe Plumm, life in affluent Meridian revolves around trading pranks with irksome servant Micah Tanner, and waiting for her world-renowned father, Dr. Jules Plumm, to return home. Chief engineer for The Foundry, a global corporation with an absolute monopoly on metal production and technology, Phoebe's father is often absent for months at a time. But when a sudden and unexpected reunion leads to father and daughter being abducted, Phoebe and would-be rescuer Micah find themselves stranded in a stunning yet volatile world of living metal-one that has been ruthlessly plundered by The Foundry for centuries and is the secret source of every comfort and innovation the two refugees have ever known.

Monday, June 13, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Caryn Wiseman

Caryn has been an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency since 2003, and she has sold over 325 books. She handles children's books only: young adult and middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, chapter books, and picture books (fiction and non-fiction). She represents NYT bestselling authors, award-winning authors, debut authors, and authors at every stage in between. No matter the genre, Caryn is looking for books with emotional depth and a strong voice; excellent writing in a tightly-plotted story; and characters that stick with her long after she has closed the book. In YA, she gravitates toward books that make her think and toward books that make her cry; in middle-grade and chapter books, laughter tends to be the common thread; in picture books, it's lyrical story-telling and heart. She loves books that are intellectually challenging and that take risks, but in a very logical way. 

Caryn is drawn to contemporary YA and middle-grade with a strong voice, multi-faceted characters, complex relationships, beautiful writing and a well-developed hook. Great world-building is essential, whether it's a real time and place that becomes almost a character in a book, or a light fantasy element in a unique story that's grounded in reality. Zombies, horror, and high fantasy will, most likely, never appeal. She would love to see a YA thriller with the pacing and twists of The Americans, and a YA Pitch Perfect, Downton Abbey, or Big Bang Theory

Caryn is particularly interested in books for children and teens that explore themes of diversity and social justice. She would be thrilled to see more books that deeply explore another culture, as well as books in which the ethnicity of the character is not the issue. She adores a swoon-worthy romance with an intelligent heroine who isn't simply swept off her feet by a hunky hero. A sweet, funny or poignant middle-grade novel, with a hook that makes it stand out from the crowd, would hold great appeal, and she's partial to lyrical, non-institutional picture book biographies and character-driven, not too sweet picture book fiction. The common denominator in Caryn's list, no matter the category, is "smart with heart." She is always open to terrific children's work that doesn't fit these categories as long as it makes her laugh, makes her cry, and keeps her awake at night, either reading the manuscript or thinking about it. She does not represent adult projects. Please do not query her regarding adult work. 

Caryn represents Tom Angleberger, author of the NY Times, USA Today, PW and national indie bestselling ORIGAMI YODA series (Amulet/Abrams), Cece Bell, author-illustrator of the Newbery Honor Award, Eisner Award and NYT bestselling graphic novel memoir EL DEAFO, Nate Evans, co-author of the NYT bestseller THE JELLYBEANS AND THE BIG DANCE and its sequels (Abrams), and Tamara Ireland Stone, author of the NYT bestseller EVERY LAST WORD. 

And now Caryn Wiseman faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L'Engle, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster, FEED by MT Anderson, and THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater (in addition to my own clients' books, of course).  Those are my favorite kids'/YA books, anyway.  

I would have to include TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Leon Uris' EXODUS, as those are books that I go back to and re-read, time and time again, ever since childhood.  More recent adult titles that I love include Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, M.L. Stedman's  THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS and Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER

Okay, that was a lot more than three.

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

I adore THE AMERICANSSMASH was one of my favorites but, sadly, it's gone (I love musical theater!), so now I love NASHVILLE.  My kids and I watched all of the WEST WING re-runs, and I was amazed (once again) at the quality of the writing, the snappy dialgoue, and the relevance of this show years later.   I also love MODERN FAMILY and THE BIG BANG THEORY for making me laugh out loud. More than three again.  Oops! 

Movies are tougher to choose favorites - there are too many.  Many of my favorites are probably from the 1940's!

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

My ideal client is an incredibly talented writer who always strives to be even better; who isn't afraid to get his or her hands dirty and revise in a big way.  Someone who cares deeply about craft, but also understands the business of marketing his or her books.

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

A YA thriller with the intrigue and heart-stopping twists and turns of THE AMERICANS.  A middle-grade with heart that makes me laugh hysterically and sob uncontrollably.  Jewish/Muslim or Israeli/Palestinian themes with hope.  Diverse themes in any genre/category.  YA SF/F with the grand scale of an opera or family saga that doesn't feel like SF/F.

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

Favorite things:  

Falling in love with a new character or voice for the first time
Telling a debut author that I have an offer(s) for their manuscript
Walking into a bookstore and seeing a book that I helped get there (still!)

Least favorite thing:

When amazing books aren't discovered, despite heroic efforts of both the publisher and the author.  

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

Read all the books you can in the genre and category in which you aspire to write.   

Support your fellow authors.

Develop patience and a thick skin.

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

Louisa May Alcott, because she was kind of a bad@$$.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

GUEST POST: "A Very Serious Disclaimer for 'HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES'" by Andrew Buckley

HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES is a new book from the slightly unhinged mind of Andrew Buckley. Be warned, it’s not a safe book; in fact it’s potentially quite dangerous. As described in the opening disclaimer:

First, a word of warning . . .

I don’t want to get too scientific here, but there are a few things you should know before you sink your teeth into this book. I’ve tried to keep it simple enough that anyone twelve and up could read and understand it. Werewolves were everywhere in Europe in the late sixteenth century. Go to a party, there would be a werewolf. Go to work, you’re probably working next to a werewolf. Bump into a stranger on the street—werewolf!

They were slowly killed off in Europe as the true nature of a werewolf is a terribly hard thing to control. Eventually you get that urge to eat someone. And let’s face it; eating people is just rude.

Now here’s the scary bit, the bit that concerns you. While werewolves ceased to be a part of the world, they didn’t necessarily leave it. On the contrary, humans evolved to repress the werewolf gene out of the fear they would be decapitated, shot with a silver bullet, burned alive, or a terrifying combination of all three. What this means is that every single human being is still carrying the werewolf gene. You, right now, sitting right where you are, have the werewolf gene swimming around somewhere inside of you.

Genes are strings of DNA. DNA makes you who you are. You have that werewolf gene inside you. It’s just not active. Not yet.

To fully activate that werewolf gene, you’d have to be bitten by another werewolf, someone who turns into a giant wolf-like creature when there’s a full moon. So fear not! As long as no one has bitten you recently, you’re likely okay.

So why this warning? You’re probably thinking there’s no chance I’ll turn into a werewolf because I haven’t been bitten. That is absolutely true. However, while it’s impossible to turn into a werewolf unless you’re bitten, it is very possible to awaken that sleeping werewolf gene by learning too much about them. This book will teach you a lot about those hairy creatures of the night, so I want you to be extra careful while reading it.

If you notice any of the following things, stop reading immediately:

  - You find yourself looking at other humans and thinking lunch.
  - You start to notice smells you never smelled before.
  - You growl at people instead of talking to them.
  - Your nails begin to grow at an alarming rate.
  - You scratch your head in public using your leg.
  - You greet your friends at the bus stop by sniffing their butts.
  - You begin to grow hair in all the wrong places.
You’ve been warned.

Did you read this and think that’s nothing but a bunch of ridiculous mumbo jumbo? Well, why not find out for yourself . . . pick up a copy and see how it affects you. I dare you! No, I double dare you!

Andrew Buckley attended the Vancouver Film School’s Writing for Film and Television program. After pitching and developing several screenplay projects for film and television, he worked in marketing and public relations, before becoming a professional copy and content writer. During this time Andrew began writing his first adult novel, DEATH, THE DEVIL AND THE GOLDFISH, followed closely by his second novel, STILTSKIN. He also writes a spy thriller series under the pen name ‘Jane D Everly’. 

Andrew also co-hosts a geek movie podcast, is working on several new novels, and has a stunning amount of other ideas. He now lives happily in the Okanagan Valley, BC with three kids, one cat, one needy dog, one beautiful wife, and a multitude of characters that live comfortably inside of his mind.

Andrew is represented by Mark Gottlieb at the Trident Media Group.

What has he done? What's happening to him? And what on Earth is that smell? For Colin Strauss, puberty stinks. Blackouts, hallucinations, and lapses in memory are the perils of growing up werewolf. Worse than that, Colin worries he might have had something to do with the recent attacks on the townspeople. He may have eaten a person. It doesn’t matter that it’s someone he doesn’t particularly like. What kind of boy goes around eating people? Foolishly, all Colin can think about is how Becca Emerson finally kissed him for the first time. Yep, hormones are afoot. Yikes! But girls will have to wait. Collin better get himself under control before someone else ends up hurt or worse . . . dead.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

GUEST POST: "Finding My Story's Voice(s)" by Tracey Hecht

When I was a child I loved the Roald Dahl books. They made me laugh, used interesting language, and though they possessed characters unlike the people I knew in 'real' life, felt very believable to me.  I can almost remember which Dahl books I read where in my house and at what stages during my youth.  

When I thought to write a middle grade series, I had two things in mind:  

The first was my desire to create a voice that was unique to the series and distinguishable in the way that Dahl's books were distinguishable to me as a kid. 

The second was my hope to create a world of stories that could be enjoyed by kids as a group in the way that television and movies are shared and watched among friends. 

The two of these things together, the appeal to readers as group entertainment and in a distinct voice, were the goals that guided me in developing what we call a literary cinematic vernacular.

I have been told, though I didn't know it when I conceived it, that a three person protagonist voice is unusual for middle grade fiction.  The Nocturnals does not have a classic narrator voice, or single protagonist point-of-view.  

The Nocturnals has three characters:  a sugar glider named Bismark, a pangolin named Tobin, and fox named Dawn.  These three characters speak in a 'singular' voice that work in a loose 3-2-1 iambic pentameter:  for every three words from Bismark, there are two words from Tobin and one word from Dawn. 

 The ration is not literally 3 words, to 2 words, to 1 word, but it is the guiding rhythm and helps distinguish the voice of the series.

Bismark is a tiny marsupial who yammers on and on (and on!), Tobin chimes in to frame the things in which Bismark is ranting, and then Dawn speaks a word or two to punctuate the conversation.  It's snappy, cheeky, and from what we have seen, compels a kid to read (and share it) out loud. It's also great fun to write.

Tracey Hecht, founder of Fabled Films, is a writer and entrepreneur who has written, directed and produced for film. Tracey has launched several start-ups including DoughNet, an online company promoting savings and social responsibility for kids. Fabled Films brings together her passions and interests: writing, creativity, teamwork, and entrepreneurship. When she isn’t writing and managing a business, she can be found hiking, reading or spending time with her family. Tracey currently splits her time between New York City and Oquossoc, Maine with her husband, four children and three pets—none of which are a sugar glider.

The Nocturnals features three unlikely friends: Dawn, a serious fox, Tobin, a sweet pangolin and Bismark, the loud mouthed, pint sized sugar glider.  The stories all play out in their nighttime world with teamwork, friendship and humor in every adventure. 

In The Mysterious Abductions, the animals form a brigade of the night after a random encounter with a blood-thirsty snake, and just in time because something is threatening their night realm. Animals are disappearing without a trace. Together with the help of a wombat, a band of coyotes and many others, Dawn, Tobin and Bismark journey to the depths of the earth in a wacky, high stakes game that will determine all of their survival.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

GUEST POST: "Past Classics Still Inspire the Present" by Sally Barlow-Perez

I was about 18 months and 20,000 words into my middle grade novel, The Unintended Runaways, only then, it was called, Lia’s Journey.  It was starting to lag. I worked in the afternoons and my mornings seemed to be getting shorter and both my writing and my psyche seemed uninspired. Furthermore, my weekly library runs --which included checking out several YA and MG titles—were getting depressing. Egads. I was surrounded by vampires, werewolves, factions, scorched planets, sixth-grade love stories, and teenagers with super powers! And here I was writing a novel set in 1850 that read more like something written by Frances Hodgson Burnett than Rick Riodan.

Was it too late to change my setting from rural England to Transylvania? Could Lia morph from orphan to shapeshifter and could her gypsy wagon become a mysterious black hearse? 

“Nope. Too Late,” I told myself, as I dumped my armload of library books on the couch, wishing I could bury myself in the latest Lee Child thriller and not go back to the computer. No point in second guessing myself when a glance at some of the more ancient books on my crammed shelves might suggest why my unfinished novel had a 19th century flavor: Because it was an era I loved. So shoot me. I was born a hundred years too late.

Sure, everyone’s read Heidi, Treasure IslandHans Brinker, and Anne of Green Gables. And maybe the Jungle Book, Peter PanThe Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And probably The Little Princess, my all time favorite. But who else has heard of Daddy Long LegsThe Railway ChildrenGirl of the LimberlostThe Birds’ Christmas Carol and Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley?  I own them all. And all were penned between 1888 and 1912. 

There is something magical about those books. They take me someplace special. So after a lifetime of writing non-fiction, when I finally sat down to write my own middle grade novel, I wondered if I could make that feeling work for me? What were the qualities that I loved in these very unfashionable old-fashioned books?

The simple, compelling stories: Heidi at the mercy of her selfish aunt; Mary Lennox, suddenly snatched away from her privileged life in India and thrust into a cold, lonely mansion on the moors of England; Jim Hawkins, alone at sea with a vicious bunch of pirates; Anne, not the boy who was ordered by the Cuthberts;  Kim, a half-cast alone in a frightening world of secrets; all simple but dire situations.  And frankly, they're not so different from the situations we see today. Young children are still prey to the whims of more powerful adults, and even other young people. They must learn to negotiate relationships and create places of safety for themselves, just as these early 20th century characters did.  

The Characters: As a result of the society they lived in, the young people in these books were bound by more rules and mores than characters in contemporary novels. As a young reader, that made them exotic to me. Without the freedom I was accustomed to, I marveled that they still seemed so fully drawn and that they were able to maintain any sense of independence and self respect. And yet, of course, they did. Like Sara Crewe in The Little Princess  who as the wealthy young school girl, bathed in luxury, warned her friends that you cannot know if you are a princess until you are tested by adversity. The struggles of the characters in my old fashioned books are as real today as they were when they were written. 

The descriptions: “The valley lay far below in the full morning sunshine. In front of her Heidi saw a great wide field of snow, stretching high up into the deep blue sky; on the left stood an enormous mass of rock, each side of which stood a higher tower of bald, jagged cliffs rose into the sky a and looked very sternly down on Heidi. The child sat as still as a mouse everywhere there was great deep stillness; only the wind passed very softly and gently over the tender bluebells and the radiant gold rock roses which were everywhere gaily nodding to and fro on their slender stems. “ Heidi by Joanna Spyri.

“The Hispaniola was rolling scupper under in the ocean swell. The booms were tearing at the blocks, the rudder was banging to and fro and the whole ship creaking, groaning and jumping like a manufactory. I had to cling tight to the backstay, and world turned giddily before my eyes…”  Treasure Island  by Robert Louis Stevenson

Not that I can compare myself to these beloved writers. But I wanted to remember how much I enjoyed traveling to the places they depicted. There is a place for descriptive writing in today’s literature.

The style: There’s no question that readers put up with more pedantry a hundred years ago, even young people. So The Birds’ Christmas Carol for all its charm is apt to seem very wordy to most young readers, as will Girl of the Limberlost and Daddy Long Legs. But the better-known classics of this era moved right along. Certainly, my plan was to make that happen in my novel with a minimum of fuss. 

My goal: a good story, with characters one could like, who would grow and change, and whom we could admire for their ability to overcome injustice and incredible odds. At the same time, I wanted to introduce readers to a different world, one with pleasures that might be more simple, but that was filled with challenges as equally complex as the world we know today.

So in the end, I went back to the computer, plotting in the present but inspired by the past, allowing Lia and the three Carrin brothers to make their way down the rural roads of England in a Gypsy wagon without a single werewolf, shapeshifter or superperson in sight, their creator still hoping that good storytelling, no matter the subject, never goes out of style.

Sally Barlow-Perez openly admits that books have taken over a good chunk of her life. She gobbles down two or three library books a week, ranging in genre from young adult, to middle grade, to fantasy, to mystery. She tries to balance her book obsession with writing, hiking, and hanging out with the young people who inspire her. But no matter how hard she tries, she always comes back to books. As a fiction writer, Sally’s focus is curiosity. “Curiosity is a great excuse for writing, as well as for reading,” she says. “Even when I finish a book, I still wonder what the characters are doing!” Sally makes her life in Palo Alto, California. She has two grown sons, whom she believes to be her greatest contribution to mankind. The Unintended Runaways is her first middle-grade novel.

For a girl who loved adventure, twelve-year-old Lia Leonides had the perfect life. Every summer, she and her grandfather traveled the rural roads of England in their gypsy wagon, stopping at fairs and selling horse brasses along the way. It was exactly the life Lia wanted, until the day a mysterious letter arrived. Lia’s grandfather warned her not to get her hopes up, but lifelong dreams are hard to ignore. Lia’s father was alive and looking for her. But when her grandfather suddenly passes away, Lia is sent to work as a servant in an orphanage and is left with a choice that she never wanted to make: let the world decide her future for her, or run away and decide it for herself? Lia, with the help of her beloved pets and some unexpected friends, must take her gypsy wagon south on a harrowing journey before her father disappears forever. A persistent sheriff and the constant threat of misfortune won’t make the trip easy, but Lia and her friends don’t plan to let anything stop them from forging their own destinies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill

Stephanie Fretwell-Hill started her publishing career in 2004 at Walker Books Ltd. in London, where she sold foreign language rights. Working in a design-led company with legendary artists such as Helen Oxenbury and Lucy Cousins sparked her love of illustration, while her sales role gave her an international perspective on children’s publishing.
In 2011, Stephanie moved back home to the United States, where she joined Peachtree Publishers as an editor. During her four years there, she acquired fiction and non fiction picture books, middle grade, and young adult titles. Her acquisitions received such honors as YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year, Parents’ Choice Awards, and numerous starred reviews from major trade magazines.
As the newest agent to join Red Fox Literary, Stephanie represents both authors and illustrators of board books, picture books, middle grade, and young adult. She will consider stories in any genre, but looks for a strong voice, rich and multi-layered plots, and stylish, classic, or quirky illustrations. Most of all, she loves anything that really makes her laugh.
Stephanie lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her English husband, brand new baby girl, and a border collie named Rooney. When her nose isn’t in a book, she can often be found changing diapers, renovating a house, traveling someplace new, or cooking dinner.
And now Stephanie Fretwell-Hill faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

That’s an ever-changing list! But I’ll go with one classic and two recents: 

To Kill a Mockingbird 
Doll Bones
Eleanor and Park  

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

Breaking Bad, Fargoanything by Hitchcock

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

Positive attitude, excellent writer or illustrator, fun to work with

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

Literary and commercial picture books, middle grade, and YA. Can be fiction or non-fiction, but I’m looking for a strong voice, excellent writing, memorable characters. I don’t tend to love fantasy or sci-fi, or anything saccharine sweet (but I could be persuaded to by the right project).

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

My favorite thing is working with talented and wonderful people. 

My least favorite thing (so far— I’ve only been an agent for about two months now!) is my query inbox, which has 2000 manuscripts waiting for me as we speak.

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

Read, read, read. In whatever genre you are writing in, read everything you can get your hands on. And then think about what you’ve read. Why does it work? Why doesn’t it? 

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

Hmm…I’m going to go back to my first answer, and say Harper Lee. Because not only did she write fascinating characters, I think she must have been one herself.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

NINJA STUFF: On the Destructive Desire for Fame (And Ben Affleck)

Do you want to be famous, Esteemed Reader? Do you yearn for the attention and possibly even adoration of millions--nay, billions--of strangers? Are you going to live forever? Are you going to learn how to fly? Are you gonna make it to Heaven and light up the sky like a flame (FAME!!!)? Will the love of all mankind finally fill the empty place inside you so that you can at last feel the sun warm on your face and be at peace?

I've been thinking about the desire for fame quite a lot recently as it's a major thematic concern in my next novel. The Book of David is the hardest thing I've ever written and I'm not entirely certain I want a large readership as its contents are potentially so offensive that they are better hidden in a book available only to readers, who are more likely to be mature enough for a FICTION intended for adults. In a world where director Richard Donner to this day receives death threats for the Biblical parallels in Superman: The Movie, which came out in 1978, I don't want to be famous for writing a book in which I say a few decidedly impolite things about God and religion (but always from the heart).

Yet I also believe in boldness and honesty in the written word. Otherwise, why is the author wasting my time with banality? I believe a writer who asserts some observations about the world should own them, which is why I haven't used a pen name. I'm sort of counting on the high improbability of fame, especially for writers, to bail me out. I want my book to be read, of course I do, but ideally by readers who will hear me out to the end of the story and give it its due consideration, not folks who will start their one-star review at the first mention of "Sexy Jesus." Scaring off such readers early is one of the chief reasons the language in The Book of David is so very filthy.

But we were talking about fame and the common desire for it, not my sudden fear of it as I publish a book that if it were written by someone else, I wouldn't be surprised to learn had generated hate mail (of course it did, the author was dumb enough to say mean things about God and use his real name).

Real talk: most writers, J.K. Rowling being the possible exception, aren't that famous anyway. When Stephen King, who was at one point the world's best-selling novelist and who has frequently been discussed as the standard-bearer for traditional publishing's promise despite having published in 1974, has made an appearance on a late-night talk show, he's often been the SECOND or even THIRD guest brought out after some movie star. Who gives a crap what Handsome McPretty-Boy thinks ("the movie I'm in is way awesome as were all my coworkers I have to see again for the sequel and the studio responsible should continue to pay me lots of moolah") when the author of The Stand and The Dark Tower is available for a conversation?

("Want to know my very important thoughts on philosophy and literature?")

That the majority of America does not value literary superstars the same way they value other types of celebrities should hardly come as a surprise. I'll never forget the day I went into my day job positively beaming that not only was I going to interview Richard Adams, but he was going to consider blurbing my book, only to be met with blank stares from every one of my college-educated coworkers to whom I had to explain Watership Down was a popular novel back when people used to read literature instead of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (I'm not saying I agree with those who are ready to bring on the apocalypse already, but I understand).

Every so often I find it useful to remember that we in 2016 are living through circumstances unlike any other humans have ever lived through in recorded history. This has been true of every generation and will always be true. Past generations may say I don't know what it's like to be forced into farm work and illiteracy and die of old age at 36, and that's fair enough. But those past generations have no idea of the stress of living in a time when you can lose your job, your family, and everything you hold dear with one wrong tweet. They don't know what it's like to walk around with the burden of knowledge that we all have access to.

For example, I'm going to wake my son and feed him breakfast shortly, then give him a bath and take him to the playground and it's going to be pleasant and yet the whole time I'm doing it I'm going to be simultaneously aware that there are over 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, many of them housed in outdated and  poorly-maintained facilities (and those are just the bombs acknowledged by governments). I'm going to know both that Chelsea Clinton's wedding cost 3 million dollars (thank you Goldman Sachs!) and that over 49 million Americans, many of them children, are "food insecure."

I'm also going to be aware that somewhere in the world is Ben Affleck, who's been handsome his whole life from child star to adult actor and he's dated all the famous ladies you would most want to date (and Gwenyth Paltrow for some reason) and he's well endowed (or did you blink during Gone Girl) and he has all the money and he's smart enough to write great screenplays and direct good movies and people love him and now he gets to be Batman and when he dies, the whole world will notice and possibly sing songs about him.

Affleck's only a few years older than me and look at all he's accomplished. What have I been doing with my time/why didn't I date J-Lo!?!?

The answers to this query are numerous and self-evident, beginning with my weak jaw that looks very meh in a bat cowl (never stops me from wearing one anyway), and the fact that I can't dance in the sultry rhythmic fashion required to lure a hip hop star of J-Lo's magnitude. But let's not forget that there are over 318 million people in the United States alone and only one of 'em gets to be Batfleck. Even if I sorted my jaw and my dancing,  the world's most optimistic gambler has to admit that one-in-318-million odds do not make for great probability.

If you take nothing else away from this post, take away this: read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I would rank it as one of the five most important books I've ever read and it has honestly, unequivocally improved the quality of my life. When he's old enough, I plan to share its contents with Little Ninja (sit down, son, and let me explain why most of your dreams probably won't come true). I can't hope to adequately summarize the book for you here, but Gladwell's main tenant is this: the notion of the self-made man is a myth, and it is empirically provable that extreme success is more a result of luck and being at the right place at the right time than it is a result of talent and work ethic, though those qualities are also required.

In other words, if you have two inventors of equal intelligence working exactly the same amount of hard with exactly the same resources and the same education, it is not the fault of one inventor for not being as successful as the other if the government grants only one of them access to a recovered flying saucer. You can work as hard as you possibly can and do everything right and if somebody else also works that hard, but through sheer luck lands the alien technology, they're going to win, and I'm sorry if this is the first time you're hearing that life is not fair.

I want to repeat that: life is not fair. This seems obvious, but it's hard to accept.

Ben Affleck really was born more attractive than I was with a better jaw seemingly formed for that bat-cowl and it isn't exclusively (I don't want to diminish Batfleck's workout routines) anything I did wrong along the way or even necessarily things he did right that I didn't do. My parents didn't take me to audition for Voyage of the Mimi to start me off on the path to super-stardom young, but even if I had been born to parents who did that, I would still have lost to Affleck as a glance at these photos should make painfully clear:


(Dawn of Average Attractiveness At Best)

It's okay. I've had my whole life thus far to get over it and a few girls were kind enough to give me pity kisses. Human life-spans are so ridiculously short anyway; it seems a shame to waste one regretting not being born luckier (I WAS born with access to clean water and food, not to mention white and male, and if you don't think that's a good deal, you haven't been paying attention). It might've been nice to play Batman, but again, there's 317,999,999 other Americans who also aren't having that golden Batfleck life experience, so after I have myself a good cry, it's time to get on with my life as it is and find a way to be happy despite never Chasing Amy or V'ing Superman on the silver screen:)

I don't want to belabor the point (too late!), but I cannot stress this enough: Life is not fair. This isn't a sentiment frequently put on posters or stitched on throw pillows, but it's absolutely essential to remember and folks who fail to acknowledge this truth cannot approach the world in a rational way. You look at a child born with his heart on the outside of his body or some other terrible condition and tell me all people are created equal and we all start from the same fair place.

Some folks is lucky and some folks ain't and it's not fair.

("Well hello there, Lady Luck!")

Don't blame me, I didn't make the rules. Eventually our sun will erupt in a great solar flare that will destroy all life on Earth (assuming we don't utilize those 23,000+ nukes I mentioned first) and on that day grievances over who did and who did not get to play Batman will matter very little.

I believe there are at least two primary reasons why many Americans are both rationally aware of life's inherent unfairness and irrationally choose not to factor it into their worldview:

1. Dwelling on life's unfairness leads to a negative attitude and is a go-to for losers. We've all known or met someone with a sour-grapes approach to life. Because they expect not to succeed, they're often correct. Someone who wants to be successful is better off with a positive mental attitude. It's as essential to the successful outlier as it is to the folks who take second and third place. At no point should my assertion that life is not fair be interpreted as an excuse for not making the most of the opportunities available to you.

2. Continued capitalism depends on the majority of its participants believing they can get ahead and come out on top just as a democratic republic requires its participants believe their votes matter regardless of what the empirical data suggests. As you're no doubt tired of hearing, the top one percent of the top one percent control more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. But Americans focus their attention on extreme outliers in all fields as though they were the expectation, rather than, by definition, the exception.

Being an adult means learning to see the world as it is as opposed to how you would have it be and the world is nuanced. The choice before a person isn't as simple as work really hard, become super successful, fabulously wealthy, and all kinds of famous, OR don't work hard enough and therefore not become those things. Many of the factors responsible for a person's level of success are outside of their individual control. Not all of them, of course, and hard work is so often its own reward. Yet there are factors at play and momentum from the past bigger than an individual and their work ethic, which isn't a good thing to bring up if I'm trying to sell you a self-help book, but it's true none-the-less.

There's only so much positive thinking can accomplish and spoiler to anyone who hasn't read it, The Secret doesn't work. Oprah just thinks it does because in her experience, positive thinking and hard work did go hand-in-hand with great wealth and success. But the media doesn't interview all the positive thinkers who weren't Oprah Winfrey.

I had a psychology professor in college who assured his students that all reality is manifest based on our individual impact on the world through our conscious and unconscious desires. If we wanted to improve our world, we had only to improve ourselves, allowing ourselves to summon love and success instead of pain and misfortune. This is a lovely sentiment and perhaps even has some metaphorical application (like a mental night light/security blankie). But when I asked this professor why, given "the secret" truth of reality, some little kids get cancer, he at first only scowled at me. Then, after consideration, he told me it was possible their parents had unconsciously summoned that trial into their lives, at which point I stopped being bemused by his fantasy and started suppressing my overwhelming desire to punch him in the face.

(I'm Bat-MAD!!!)

Tyler Durden famously said, "an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact."  That he said this in the film version of Fight Club while simultaneously being Brad Pitt made the line all the more memorable.

In retrospect, it's easy to see why so many members of my generation yearned to be famous from an early age. After all, this was television's great sales pitch: watch closely and one day you'll be famous too. Watch Wheel of Fortune and practice for the day you'll be a contestant. Watch a movie's special features and listen to the director's commentary to learn how to direct your own film because one day you'll grow up to do it, or perhaps you'd prefer to be a movie-star, or a famous singer (why not both?).

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was practically a video tutorial to come in handy... one day. Every year at the Academy Awards I was told to practice my speech for... one day when somehow, someway I would win one, and until then, make sure I pay to see all the nominated films. With a steady diet of television shows about the importance of being famous... one day, it's a wonder American children ever think to be anything else.

My great hope is that as the means to create and distribute art become more widespread, we'll eventually see the death of the megastar. It may come to pass that tomorrow's Ben Affleck can only afford one nice home instead of multiple mansions and one car as opposed to several:

(Hashtag #winning)

But I say if giving up one little Batfleck in exchange for fifty, maybe even one-hundred or more actors who all get to make movies and live relatively happy lives, that's a good trade.

Let us turn our attention, as we always must, from acting to writing and publishing. Sure, the mainstream story of self publishing tends to focus on the extreme outliers such as our old friends Hugh Howey and Andy Weir. These two names, incidentally, also meant absolutely nothing to my coworkers and were met with blank stares when I bragged about getting emails from both of them on the same day. So here I must reiterate: if you really want to be famous, number one, grow up; number two, stop writing and do something for which people actually become famous (like recording yourself having sex with an already-famous person).

For every outlier, there are thousands of writers enjoying a life of doing what they love and making some money, in some cases a lot of money, for doing it. Perhaps this isn't as exciting as the prospect of being super rich and super famous, and again, if you want to be either of those things and have the opportunity, take it.

Being grown up means learning to accept life beyond the terms of the extreme outliers. It's possible if you publish a book or more your work may be widely celebrated (assuming Ben Affleck appears in the movie version). It's also possible you'll win the lottery or be struck by a disease so rare they name it after you.

More likely, you're not going to be famous. Me, I'm already internet-famous, and that's plenty famous enough. I've been able to chat with many of my writing heroes (Stephen King's people have assured me that he might one day have time to face the 7 Questions). I have fans of my writing who will buy my books as I continue to publish them and a family that loves me, and though I'm likely never to know what it's like to V. Superman or get a full-body hug from the President, I can objectively see that I'm living a charmed life, especially by historical standards or even the standards of most people currently living on the planet right now.

("I'd ask what's poking my leg, but I saw Gone Girl")

Here's where I should leave it as I've made my point and then some, but I want to share some personal anecdotes with you that may illustrate the potentially destructive nature of a desire for fame. When I was in high school--which was a longer time ago than I want to acknowledge, but Alanis Morrisett was still a thing and acting in Dogma with a certain Batfleck--planning to be famous after graduation was a common desire. We had plenty of graduates who knew fame was a sales pitch and were just hoping to get into a good college so they could score a decent job and have a nice life because they didn't know greedy bankers and corrupt politicians were already liquidating the middle classes.

But there were also plenty of graduates who, like me, wanted to fly to Heaven and light up the sky like a flame. For many of us, future fame was an idea we had to grow out of, like a long-lingering belief in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Given that some of us went on to factory work and now face an uncertain future of being replaced by automation, having an extended childhood full of fantasies of one day being a superstar was maybe in some ways a mercy. If you're already screwed, why not have some morphine while you learn to make the best of things?

For the Ninja, it meant wasting a bunch of money on a semester of expensive film school before learning some tough lessons courtesy of the school of hard knocks. If I knew then what I know now, I would've read fewer books about Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton and spent more time hitting actually-relevant text books.

But it's okay. The Ninja grew up to live in a nice house and have a wonderful family with access to an Imax theater where I can watch Batfleck V. the hell out of Superman in 3D and I'm living a life that's pretty swell, even if it's not Batfleck-swell. And asking a writer not to be a dreamer is asking him to perform the impossible task of rewiring the brain he was born with. Despite writing this post, I'm still going to occasionally mentally compose my Oscar speech in the shower because I could still win one for best adapted screenplay from one of my novels. Right? Right!?!?!

To date, the small Indiana town I  refer to in fiction as Harrington has yet to produce any truly famous people. But I spent some time as a substitute teacher in my old high school and can verify there are still plenty of clusters of students (the delusional tend to cling to one another) hoping to one day be superstars if they can just graduate and get out of the go-nowhere town that's holding them back. And I hope at least one of them does, but if Little Ninja should one day talk such nonsense, I'm going to burst his bubble--not to be mean, but to save him time because I love him and I don't want him wasting his youth yearning for a future that isn't going to come. Because I've seen what a desire for fame can do a person.

("I'm so happy and well-adjusted and better than you")

Of some of the friends I had in high school who wanted to one day be famous, one of them went on to become a popular book blogger and to be represented by my literary agent, as I've already told you.

One of them moved to California where he discovered he's... wait for it, just gay:) And good for him. I see pictures of him on Facebook with handsome men. He's not on a poster for a major motion picture, but he's smiling just the same and he looks happy away from the small Indiana town he grew up in and I'm proud of him.

Another of my friends from way back when discovered hardcore drugs and that if you do enough of them, you presumably won't notice that you're not a superstar and that your impossible dreams didn't come true. A few of my other friends went on to get married and have kids and have epiphanies about how the dream of fame is a necessary Hollywood tool to sell products to impressionable youths and they did it quietly without subjecting their poor readers to overly-long blog posts:)

But another of my friends from high school showed up at both the four-year and eight-year reunions and proceeded to get belligerently drunk so he could yell at his former classmates that although he wasn't famous now, he would be by the next reunion, count on it. I'm sure he showed up at the twelve-year reunion as well, but honestly, the folks I wanted to keep in touch with I have, and everybody else I can see on Facebook easily enough, so I think I'm done with reunions.

And a girl I was once more than friends with is now in a mental institution. Last time I talked to her, she was telling me that if she could just lose 40 pounds, she was certain she could nail an audition and finally at last be famous and therefore happy. She can't drive and she has no money because she has no job and her family hides her away. But she didn't want me to worry. Because as soon as she gets her big break (and never mind that we're ever approaching 40 in an unstoppable, un-slow-down-able trajectory), everything is going to be okay because she's going to be rich and famous... one day.

("I'm so famous and awesome I don't need haircuts")

Yet, it's not her I'm thinking of primarily as I write this post, but another very close friend of mine. She's someone I would consider to be extremely successful. She's raised two wonderful children, she's had a long and what-appears-from-the-outside-to-be-happy marriage, and she lives in a house that while not quite at the level of a Batfleck mansion, is by Indiana standards a very nice residence indeed. She's a very fortunate woman and she deserves her success because she's worked hard and lived a good life. Again, she's a very close friend and I'm too old to waste my time on people I don't consider to be admirable. What's more, in the last couple years she had a bad health scare and had to face her mortality and was granted a stay of execution.

Despite all of this, she said to me in an email (half-joking I'm sure, but only half) that if she didn't get offered a traditional publishing contract soon, it might break her. She quoted Steel Magnolias (I really need more guy friends) and told me she'd rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special. She's since recanted. She's stronger than all that and knows she's living a good life even if she's facing the same long odds of publication and even longer odds of becoming famous through writing as the other 318 million of us. In fact, she's investigating self publishing, which has me excited as I know she'll be amazing at it.

But the thought did occur to her and no doubt it's occurred to you as well, Esteemed Reader. We are living in the information age and it's a hell of a burden. We have to know not only that there are 23,000+ nukes in the world, but that there's a definition of success beyond what's possible for us and our peers. 

Previous generations lived lives in which they could recognize their success in relationship to those around them without ever knowing it was possible to be born handsome, land a role in a video series, get work in early Kevin Smith films, win an Oscar at age 25, have romances with both Jennifer Lopez AND Jennifer Garner (and Gwenyth Paltrow for some reason), and to go on to wear the most sacred cape and cowl there could be and fight Superman. Previous generations knew how happy they were without the burden of knowing how happy it was possible to be.

("I'm so go****ed f***ing happy!")

But hey, we have a cure for polio and many of us are living longer than ever and if we can hang in there long enough, the singularity will happen and maybe we'll get robot bodies:) And it's easier now to be a writer than it's ever been in all of recorded history and there are lots of cameras out there these days so sooner or later enough people will photograph the same Stephenville/Phonenix-lights-level close encounter to force the government to disclose what they know about flying saucers and we'll all have access to the technology, so cheer up. Whether you're Batfleck or the other 317,999,999 of us, it's a good time to be alive and it's quite possible to enjoy life without being famous despite what television programming may have led you to believe.