Wednesday, April 9, 2014

An Afterword for PIZZA DELIVERY

WARNING: This ADULT novelette is mean and nasty and intended for a mature audience. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers. It is a gruesome, repugnant tale sure to warp young minds and it contains EXTREMELY COARSE LANGUAGESeriously.

The following is an afterword for Pizza Delivery, but I'm not going to spoil the story and I'm mostly going to write about publishing, so this might be interesting to you even if you haven't read the novelette (though you totally should). This is basically going to be a regular blog post in which I happen to frequently mention Pizza Delivery, available now:)

Let's get two things out of the way up front: 

1. The characters in this novelette swear a lot. Throughout. If there's a nasty word or phrase to say, the folks in this story probably say it. If that bothers you, sit this one out (The And Then Story is coming, MG readers). I don't swear on this blog and there was no swearing in All Together Now because it made thematic sense for there not to be. But if I'm going to continue to write horror geared toward older readers, and I am, I reserve the right to employ whatever language I deem necessary to best tell a story. I'll always warn you first, Esteemed Reader, so that if you find "bad words" objectionable, you'll know to skip that particular tale.

2. This a novelette. I love long novels and I intend to write some, but a novelette is nice too. It will get you through a study hall or a car ride and can be swallowed whole in a single sitting. If you're expecting a full novel, you'll have it soon enough, but this isn't it. Pizza Delivery is short and sweet and exactly as long as it needs to be. 

Publishing is tricky and I haven't even been doing it a full year yet. One thing that's been made clear to me is that it's not worth spending promotion money without more titles available, which is one reason I'll be releasing multiple books this year (including a middle grade title, I promise). That coupled with the fact that I'm so excited to be able to reach readers, I can't get my stories out fast enough. Fortunately, I've been writing for professional publication for nearly two decades and I have no shortage of material to pull from. Pizza Delivery is a story I've been reworking and revising for 10 years.

The reason it stars a college student who delivers pizzas in a small Indiana town is because when I wrote the first draft I was a college student who delivered pizzas in a small Indiana town. Actually, the fictional town of Harrington, Indiana is the location for many of my scarier stories, including All Together Now, which begs the question: how are there still pizza delivery drivers working in Harrington when the town was clearly overrun with zombies?

Well, this story takes place prior to All Together Now, but in that book there's a cameo from a manager for Tony Sty's Pizza Pies, which was a reference to this story that no one but me could've possibly known until now:) But although zombies are still present in the upcoming All Right Now, I'll be writing future stories set in Harrington in which there are no zombies as I believe every story takes place in its own separate, though similar universe (and at the center where the beams that run through all worlds converge sits The Dark Tower).

It didn't seem to bother Ricky Genero and Michelle Kirkman that Harrington had previously been visited by UFOs prior to the zombie apocalypse in an 879-page epic tale that took me two years to write, a lot of ridiculous research, and which no one's ever going to get to read because I'm not publishing it (I can't even edit it, which is why books I've written since are much shorter).

And that's my biggest point for writers this post: just because you can publish everything you write, doesn't mean you should.

The main reason I'm not publishing my beloved UFO book is that, despite having scary parts, my wife, my writer's group, multiple agents, and everyone who's ever read more than a page of it assures it me it's terrible. Me, I think it's brilliant, but that's why we don't let me make these decisions:) As much as I love it, I know that book doesn't work so I'm writing new things that might and those 879 pages were just part of the many, many terrible things a writer has to get out of their system to get to the good stuff.

One downside to the indie publishing boom is too many authors being widely published and available before they're really ready. If I could've published this story, originally saddled with the vague and uninteresting title 2675 200 W when I wrote it, it might've done just fine because Pizza Delivery has always been a reader pleaser. But I have that original draft and I promise you it's less than half as good as the version available today despite being twice as long.

And if I had published that draft it would've been a shame because 10 years later I feel my talent has only just possibly caught up to my ambition. I've written a lot of novellas and novels that aren't going to be published, despite my love for them, but I always liked this story and it always gets the response I most want--wide-eyed stares from Esteemed Readers, frequently accompanied by the question, "What is wrong with you?" But after that, people assure me it's scary and fun. I've read this tale to crowded rooms who afterward gave me a standing ovation.

The story works. I've written plenty that don't (which is why you won't be reading them), but I got hold of this one and I know that publishing it now will excite fans of All Together Now and attract new readers to my zombie stories and the horror stories I have yet to write. If I published Straw Houses, the aforementioned alien-abduction saga (God, even the title sucks), it would probably sell some copies because I'd get Steven Novak to do a cover as creepy as the one for Pizza Delivery, but those duped readers likely wouldn't try anything else I'd written.

Quick aside, this is the scariest cover any book ever had:



Ahhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!! Kill it! Make it stop looking at me!!!!!! That cover was the source of most of my nightmares (or screen memories?) in childhood and I keep it hanging on the wall in my office so I can peak up at it (it's always looking at me) when I need a quick reminder of how terror feels.

Welp, anyway, as I was saying, proficiency at writing takes a lot of hours and a lot of work. Many of the things I've written were part of what I had to write to get decent at writing. Another book of mine was praised by editors and agents (it came so close to published that time I tasted it), but when I read it again, I found the story wasn't up to my standard and it won't be published for a while until I have time to completely rewrite it--which I may never do as I could spend that time writing a new book.

The good Robert Kent name means something to me. If it's going to appear on the cover of a book, I want to feel assured that the book bearing my name is a quality read worth Esteemed Reader's time and hard-earned money. Every novel or novella or novelette (I don't have the skill for a short story) I publish could be Esteemed Reader's first encounter with my fiction, so every story has to be of the same quality as the rest of my cannon (there's a lot more coming). This novelette has been professionally edited and formatted and I'm as proud of it as I am All Together Now. I think if Esteemed Reader enjoys this story and it scares them, they'll likely read something else I've written.

And Pizza Delivery is a scary story. It scares me. It is perhaps odd that I'm promoting horror fiction through my blog devoted to middle grade books, but I love both genres. My middle grade book will be out this summer, but All Together Now was proof for me that I'll never really stop writing horror. I love it as much as I love children's stories and so long as I'm in charge of what gets published, I'm going to write both. It worked for Roald Dahl.

The reason I know I'll always write horror is because I'll always be afraid of something. I think of that scene in the classic film What About Bob in which Bill Murray's Bob fakes Tourettes  because if you fake it, you don't have it. And that's what writing horror is for me. It's whistling past the graveyard. If I fake these terrible things happening to fictional characters, they surely can't happen to me or anyone I love. And an irrational fear is more fun than a perfectly realistic fear.

On several occasions in college I found myself delivering pizzas to people who lived way out in the country. At one home, the owner kept wolves in a pen and they would meet me at the gate, snarling at the smell of pizza. Twice, I burst tires on drainage pipes poking out of driveways and was stranded until I could change them and my cell phone was always dying because I was always forgetting my charger. On multiple occasions, I found myself way out in the country with no phone and occasionally with car trouble and it occurred to me that if the universe wanted to take me out, I'd presented it with an excellent opportunity.

At the time I was delivering pizzas, being a deliveryman was statistically the fifth most dangerous job in the country. Even so,  I miss that job (who wouldn't want to listen to audio books all night) and being constantly invited into stranger's homes made for great writing material. I saw a lot of strange things and met a lot of interesting people and no shortage of folks who greeted me in the nude--never did understand why. If a flying saucer wanted to quietly snatch me up where no one could see, I gave it plenty of chances, and if I'd kept delivering I might've eventually encountered folks like the ones Brock Clouser meets in this story.

One thing I could not duplicate today is the voice of Pizza Delivery. It's very clearly written by another me of another time, which is one of the reasons I haven't cut the swearing in this newest version, though I have trimmed it considerably. This is very much a younger man's story and I love that about it.

In revising this novella, I've cleaned up the prose and expanded a few things (and cut others) to give them greater resonance, though this story has long been on frequent submission and got some very kind letters from editors who felt it was too long for a short story, but not long enough for a novel. I rewrite this one every other year and I'm going to miss it in 2016:) I've also served as a kind of curator. Young me had something he desperately wanted to say and I haven't censored him these many years later. I think if he knew this story would one day be so widely available, he'd be thrilled.

And that's it, except I can't finish an afterword for Pizza Delivery without mentioning my mentor, the writer Will Allison. I've talked about Will before and his books What You Have Left and Long Drive Home are two of my absolute favorites. Will taught a writer's workshop I attended for a semester and he was the first real writer I ever got to know. He was the one writing teacher I had whose work I truly admired and I wrote the first draft of this story to impress him. I think it did and his encouragement and instruction were crucial at a time I needed them most. If I were going to dedicate this novella to anyone, I'd dedicate it to him. If you're a writer teaching other writers, know that that instruction is valuable and will carry farther than it may seem at the time. 10 years later, I'm still hoping to impress Will Allison:)

I'll leave you with a clip containing language as foul as the language in Pizza Delivery:








Friday, April 4, 2014

Introducing The Middle Grade Ninja Newsletter

Hello there, Esteemed Reader. The blog has slowed down a bit at the moment. Sorry about that. I'm typing this with Little Ninja on my chest in the midst of revising one project, writing another, and planning a third. It would be work if I didn't love it so much. As is, writing and planning books is now what I do during the time I used to play video games.

I'm learning publishing as I go and as promised I'll share my lessons with you. Every source I've consulted assures me that to make it as an indie author I need to have a mailing list. That sounds like fun to me, so I've got one going and you can sign up right now.

The Middle Grade Ninja Newsletter will be an update about going-ons at this blog. When I secure my next big author or agent interview, I may share it through the newsletter before posting it here and I'll also send occasional information about book sales and free ebooks. I promise never to bug my subscribers more than twice a month and probably not that often. The newsletter is free if you want to sign up. I think it's going to be a good time.

My critique group the YA Cannibals has got some big things coming your way as well, including a possible podcast (still in the planning stages). Wouldn't you like to listen to Mike Mullin and I debate the proper use of the word "that?" Of course you would! Who wouldn't? And check out this amazing cover reveal for Love and Other Unknown Variables by one of my besties, YA Cannibal Shannon Lee Alexander. Isn't that a swell looking cover? It's an even better book, so you should pre-order it immediately. 

Speaking of cover reveals, I've got a new adult horror novella coming your way next week. Steven Novak's incredible cover is on display over at one of my favorite book blogs, The Bookie Monster. Head there for more details about the book and to enter her contest to win a free copy of both my newest and All Together Now. I'll be posting an afterword here next week.

Since I'm not posting Mr. Novak's cover here (yet), I wanted to share this sweet logo he made for the YA Cannibals. It looks to me like it was meant to be worn on the back of a leather jacket and next time the cannibals head to a conference, expect to see us wearing our insignia like the rough, tough gang of young adult writers we are:)  

I can't say enough about the artwork of Steven Novak. My biggest regret is that I can't write more books fast enough for him to design covers for. But he's working on a new kid-friendly cover now to be revealed sometime next month for The And Then Story. I promise, this summer, you'll know why I call myself the MIDDLE GRADE Ninja instead of the Adult Horror Ninja:)

Until then, I have so much to do and all of it is fun, fun, fun!


Thursday, March 27, 2014

7 Questions For: Author Sherrie Petersen

Here's Sherrie Petersen in her own words:

I was born in Ohio, grew up in Southern California and spent the first half of my married life in Arizona. My husband and I are currently planning our escape to North Carolina. I’ve visited most of the continental United States (only 9 states left to discover!) but I’m really looking forward to the day when I can visit the moon.
 
An avid reader since I memorized Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Dr. Seuss, I still enjoy reading and writing books like the ones I enjoyed as a child. My favorite authors are Suzanne Collins, Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling, Jennifer Nielsen, Maggie Stiefvater, John Green, Eoin Colfer and Anthony Horowitz. When I grow up, I want to write just like them.

In addition to writing middle grade novels, I moonlight as a graphic designer, substitute teacher, freelance writer, school newspaper advisor, yearbook advisor and mother of two children. I spend my free time watching movies, driving kids around and baking cookies. Or eating them.


And now Sherrie Petersen faces the 7 Questions:


Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

It’s hard to narrow down my top three favorites, so I’m going to cheat a little and say that my favorite middle grade series will always be Harry Potter. Every time I read those books I discover more about the story. I also really love the original Percy Jackson series and The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen blew me away. As soon as I finished reading it I handed it to my son and told him he had to read it, and then my daughter had to as well. Such a good book!


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

I usually wake up at 5:30 and write for an hour. Sometimes I can sneak in another hour later in the evening. I try to binge on the weekend and write 3000-6000 words. When I’m not writing I can read almost a book a day, but when I’m working on my own novel it drops to about a book a week, sometimes less.


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

WISH YOU WEREN’T is my second complete middle grade novel. (There was also a picture book that turned into a novel, but we’re going to ignore that one for now!) I wrote WYW in about four months but then spent a lot of time revising. Even after I signed with my agent, I ended up rewriting the book based on some excellent notes from an editor at Abrams. I finished the first draft back in September of 2009 so it’s taken five years of writing, rewriting and near misses with agents and editors to finally get to this point. I’ve written a lot more since then and I’m happy to say that it takes me far less time now to get a book to the point where it’s readable than it did when I started this one six years ago!


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

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but for me it was definitely a combination. I’ve always enjoyed writing, always felt confident in my ability as a writer. But the more I do this, the more I learn and the better I get. Looking back at some of my early writing, I’m glad it never saw the light of day! Blogging was extremely helpful to my education as a writer and going to conferences and workshops helped me improve even more. But I think reading is the best teacher. Studying what works in novels that you love will teach you a lot more than a class.


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

My favorite thing is when I get so caught up in my own make-believe world that I don’t want to stop. When the words are flowing, it’s a beautiful thing. 

My least favorite thing is being interrupted from my land of make-believe :)


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) 

Listen to critiques, even if they’re hard to hear. Every comment has some value and if you hear it from multiple people, then it’s probably a valid point. You can wait a few days or a few weeks, but don’t ignore an honest critique. It’s one of the things that will help you become a better writer. You don’t have to do everything a critique suggests, but don’t disregard a suggestion without thinking it through.


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

Judy Blume. Her characters were my friends. I loved her books as a tween and I’ve loved rediscovering them with my own kids. I hope to create stories that leave just as much of an impact on readers.




Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book of the Week: WISH YOU WEREN'T by Sherrie Petersen

First Paragraph(s): IT’S MIDNIGHT AND I’M FLAT ON MY BACK on a patch of grass in front of our hotel room, hoping that no one looks outside and wonders what the weirdos from California are doing. 
Tonight is the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. Every year my mom drags us out of bed just to see the shooting stars. My brother’s on one side of me, squirming around, trying to stay awake. My friend Paul’s on the other side, snoring. At least he already knew our family was crazy before he came on this vacation with us. 
When I was younger, I thought it was cool to get up at midnight and watch the stars. Tonight I’d rather be in bed. Like Dad. I swear it’s still over a hundred degrees out here. And don’t get me started with the mosquitoes.

Did you have a good weekend, Esteemed Reader? Never mind. I only ask as a segue to telling you about my weekend. You might ask why I bothered with the formality of inquiring about your weekend when I could've just started by telling you about mine. Well, Esteemed Reader, I didn't want to be rude:)

I have three siblings and I spent my weekend reunited with them and all the new members of the next generation. My poor nephew used to be the only baby in the family and we fawned over him. Then he had a little sister and a little brother and now two baby cousins and while we still fawn over him--of course we do, he's adorable--there's less fawning time to be allocated just to him. The pool of resources that was only his now has to be shared equally with others who have encroached on his territory. Countries go to war in this scenario, so is it any wonder there's such a thing as sibling rivalry? Having once been the only baby (long, long ago) before my little brother and sister arrived, I feel my nephew's pain.

This weekend was the perfect time to be reading Wish You Weren't by Sherrie Petersen, which is a book all about sibling rivalry. Middle grade readers are going to eat this story up. It's fun and charming and has all the feels. I knew I'd enjoy it as it comes highly recommended by old friends of ours:

“I love all the science details mixed with fantasy in Wish You Weren’t — just the kinds of flights-of-science-fancy I wish I had as child!” 
SUSAN KAYE QUINN 
bestselling author of The Mindjack Trilogy, Faery Swap and Third Daughter 

“Fun and accessible, rich with realism and heart, this magical adventure reminds us of the things truly worth wishing for.” 
CASEY McCORMICK 
literary agent intern and blogger at Literary Rambles

I am quite pleased to see more and more books being blurbed by bloggers and fellow indie authors. Having recently had a blurb of my own grace a book, I know it's a thrill, and I love to see authors and bloggers supporting each other in this way. Blurbs no longer need to be handed down on a mountain top. Casey McCormick is a blogger I've long known and trusted and her blurb carries more weight with me than the blurb of a formally posh literary magazine. And regular Esteemed Readers know I hang on Susan Kaye Quinn's every word:) Both these folks have been critique partners of mine. 

Meet eleven-almost-twelve-year-old Marten and note how Petersen tells most everything we need to know going in during a discussion seemingly about wishing on stars:

I roll my eyes. Mom always has her head up in the clouds, dreaming impossible dreams. I’m not really sure how she ever became a respected scientist. The guys in her lab would die laughing if they heard her talking about wishing on stars. 
My dreams are much more down to earth. Get through middle school without ever experiencing swirlies. Install an alarm system on my bedroom to keep my brother out. Change my parents’ minds about moving to Texas. 
I stifle a yawn and wonder how much longer we’re going to stay out of bed. When the sun comes up, it’ll be our last day of vacation here in Corpus Christi. If you can call visiting cousins and looking at model homes a vacation.

Marten's biggest problem is his little brother Aldrin (yes, named after Buzz):

Sometimes I think the reason my parents waited so long to have another kid is so that they would have a built-in babysitter.

Marten doesn't believe in wishing upon stars despite the charming Disney song. His dad embarrasses him, his mom placates him, and his little brother annoys him. He's in a tough spot we older siblings know all to well. Some people like to think of childhood as the finest time of life, and certainly it has its charms, but at a cost. Children have very little say in their day-to-day lives and that's poor Marten. He doesn't want to move. He doesn't want to be a babysitter, but he has very little choice in the matter. It's this powerlessness that makes Marten the perfect candidate to have a wish come true and to at long last have a say.

Even though the whole wishing on a star thing has never worked before, I’m willing to give it one more try. I take a deep breath, squeeze my eyes tight and make my wish. Sweat drips into my ear as a mosquito buzzes around my head, then . . . 
Silence. 
I relax my tensed muscles and listen for any telltale sounds. I open one eye and look around. 
Aldrin is staring up at me, his brown curls bouncing around his face. “What’cha doing, Marten?” 
I sigh. So much for that. 
Aldrin jabs me in the ribs, reminding me that I’ve failed. Again. 
I jog back toward the room, biting my tongue to keep the words inside. 
I’m wishing you weren’t here.

To be fair, prior to this wish Aldrin has been extra obnoxious. He's broken Marten's 1978 Han Solo action figure complete with The Rebel Alliance Medal of Honor. Noooooooooo!!!! I'm with Marten on this one. That kid's gotta go:) By the way, multiple references to Star Wars in a book about wishing on stars is the right call.

Marten doesn't give his wish much thought as everyone knows wishing on stars, while fun, is a mostly meaningless activity beyond articulating your goals and centering your focus on achieving them (always a good idea). Marten almost forgets his wish until the next day when this happens:

I rub my eyes, sure I’m just seeing things. But he’s still fading. In slow motion. I reach out to grab him, but my hands pass through his body. I glance around for help, but Paul looks like he’s frozen at the trashcan and no one else is near. Even the lady in the cowboy hat has wandered off. 
Panic twists my stomach into knots as I turn back toward my brother. Aldrin reaches for my hand, his mouth seems to silently scream my name. 
“Can you hear me?” I try to hold him, watch my hand pass through his rapidly disappearing body, squeeze the air that used to hold his form. 
And then he’s gone.

Now that's a situation! Marten's parents are quite concerned to learn their son has disappeared Marty McFly-singing-Earth-Angel style. Will Aldrin return in time for a rousing rendition of Johnny B. Goode!?! It's all good and well to wish your siblings would disappear, but the actual experience of it would be terrifying, I think. 

And speaking of movies, in addition to being a Star Wars and Back to the Future fan, I'm positive Sherrie Petersen's looking forward to that new X-men movie the internets are currently buzzing about. Whilst in a history museum, Marten and his buddy Paul find themselves suddenly the only people moving. Everyone else is frozen, then they move backwards in time, then they move about unable to see our heroes, and then one particularly interesting child from the past can see them, and then they travel through limbo:

“Limbo? Seriously?” I focus back on Aldrin. He doesn’t seem to be tiring of this constant motion. Not that the little guy tires out easily. “Isn’t Limbo like for Catholics and people who play Dungeons & Dragons?”

Wish You Weren't reminded me quite a bit of the classic A Wrinkle in Time. Our heroes are on a mission through space and time to save a loved one and are guided by a strange adult who seems to know the terrain, but is peculiar and not entirely trustworthy.

This weekend, as I read this book, I thought of the many times I wished my siblings had disappeared. None of them ever broke an original 1978 Han Solo doll, so I suppose they can be tolerated. All I can say to the Martens of the world is it does get better. There may come a day, many, many days from where you currently are, that you may be grateful for your brothers and sisters. They're the people who've known you longest and in some ways best and they preserve your past as you preserve theirs.

So is Aldrin returned to existence? Esteemed Reader, you'll have to read the book to find out and you should. Wish You Weren't is a fun tale with a story geared toward younger readers, but which will be enjoyed by older readers as there are plenty of tidbits aimed at adults. There's a pleasant twist at the end and you might just get a little emotional before it's all done.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Wish You Weren't:

My brother’s face lights up. That look makes me nervous. His innocent face always fools people, but not me. I know he’s a devil in cute kid clothing.

The problem is, my mother actually has no concept of time. Whenever we go to someone’s house and she says, “Okay, Marten. Stop playing that video game. It’s time to go,” what she really means is, “Stop what you’re doing and stand here and be bored while I keep on talking to my friend.”

Everything is deadly quiet. It’s like I’ve stumbled into the back room of a creepy department store and all the mannequins have surrounded me.



Every muscle in my body tenses. Paul squeezes his eyes shut, like that’s going to make us invisible again.


STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book of the Week: SUNRISE by Mike Mullin

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1939100011/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=211189&creative=373489&creativeASIN=1939100011&link_code=as3&tag=midgranin-20
WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and is filled with adult content. It's absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

First Paragraph(s): I left the farmhouse in the darkest hour of the night to make a weapon. The light from my oil lamp drew a pitiful circle of gray against the snow around my feet. Other lamps and torches shone here and there amid the ramshackle refugee encampment surrounding Uncle Paul’s farm, fading pockets of humanity in the chaotic dark. People huddled within the lights, cleaning guns and sharpening knives.
By sunrise I’d reached the dead forest behind the farm and cut a jahng bong. A staff was a ridiculous weapon for the coming fight, but it was the best I could do.

Hello there, Esteemed Reader. I know the blog has been slow and it's going to stay that way for the rest of the year. In addition to Little Ninja duties including a two-hour drive for daycare, I now have author duties. I have more books to get to readers by the end of the year and they take priority over blog posts. And every time I review a book here, I get requests to review ten more books and I hate turning writers down.

But of course I'm going to make time to review Sunrise, the final installment of Mike Mullin's Ashfall trilogy. I spent Saturday at Kids Inc bookstore here in Indianapolis and at Mike Mullin's house for the Sunrise launch party. If you read this blog, you know Mike Mullin and I are good friends and fellow members of the YA Cannibals critique group. Many of the readers of my book All Together Now were first attracted to it because of Mike Mullin's blurb. He's thanked in the back and there's a character in the story named after him (and characters named after the other Cannibals and Courtney Summers). I'm thanked in the back of Sunrise and Ashen Winter and I hope to be thanked in the back of Mullin's upcoming release as well as thanking him in the back of all my books. 

I tell you all of this upfront so we can agree I'm not an objective, impartial reviewer (not that I ever am). And it's a shame, because Sunrise really is the best book in the Ashfall trilogy. If I'd never met Mike Mullin, I'd tell you that. I spent an hour or so chatting with Mike Mullin's number one fan Saturday and he convinced me that Mike's an even better author than I thought he was. This young boy read Sunrise on a trip from Illinois to Indianapolis specifically to attend the Ashfall launch party and he was more excited about Mike's book than I've ever seen any reader for any book. If he were writing this review, he'd tell you to immediately go out and purchase your copy of Sunrise and if you haven't read Ashfall or Ashen Winter or Darla's Story yet, then both of us envy the hours of wonderful reading you have ahead of you.

But seeing as how my review can't be trusted, why don't we do this instead: I'll talk a little about the book, then we'll talk mostly about the critique process and a little about publishing. Sound like a plan? Ready, break!

It's one year after the events in Ashfall in which the Yellowstone supervolcanoe erupted and wiped out a whole lot of people as well as covered the countryside in great piles of ash. The survivors wage war on each other, naturally, and engage in all manner of nasty behaviors such as rampant cannibalism, rape, robbery, and senseless murder. Good times. And of course, like Ashfall and Ashen Winter, Sunrise is a love story. 

Since Tanglewood rolled out the revised cover for Ashfall in which two hands clasp each other, and then the cover for Ashen Winter in which the hands are separated and reaching for each other, I've been teasing Mike that the cover for Ashfall 3 should just be two bloody stumps. But the cover of Alex and Darla holding hands in front of a sunrise is also nice and quite brilliant in its own way. 

Alex and Darla have been through hell in the two books previous and things only get worse for them in Sunrise, which is what keeps those pages turning themselves, yet their very real love for each other is palpable in every paragraph. It's inspiring in the face of so much bleakness and their relationship is what invests readers in Mullin's world. The lesson for writers: you can get away with a whole lot of nasty business if you keep a warm and fuzzy center:)

So do Alex and Darla come out at the end of Sunrise happy and together, or does one of them die tragically but poignantly? Me, I'd have killed them both:) But readers will have to buy the book to find out as I'm not going to spoil Mike's incredibly satisfying conclusion to the three-and-a-half-ology fans have been waiting for. But I will say this: I got a little teary-eyed toward the end of Sunrise and so will you. 

By way of a plot summary, let us marvel at what a fine job Mike does of delivering exposition in chapter one and catching up return readers as well as giving newcomers a hope of following the story (why would you start with book three?):

The eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano had plunged Iowa and Illinois into chaos. Communications went down. Air travel ended. Roads became impassable due to the ashfall and brutal winter it triggered. Towns were on their own. And now, eleven months after the eruption, the towns of northwest Illinois had begun waging war on each other.
Almost two weeks before, a few hundred men from Stockton had attacked Warren. A short, sad battle ensued. The Warrenites lost their stored food and their homes. Many lost their lives. The survivors fled to my Uncle Paul’s farm. Mom, Darla, Alyssa, Ben, and I had arrived yesterday, finding the farm transformed into a rough refugee camp.
Today Warren’s mayor, Bob Petty, planned to lead a counterattack. The adult refugees would attempt to retake Warren and reclaim their food. Everyone was hungry. Replacing the stockpile of frozen pork stolen by the Stocktonites would be impossible. All the slaughterhouses and nearly all the farms had been shut down for months. If the counterattack failed, most of us would starve to death.
Apparently the term adults didn’t include me, despite the fact that I was sixteen.

Alex has really come into his own in Sunrise and in some ways I'm sad this is the end as I'd like to read more about him. One of my biggest notes for Mike when I wrote my critique for Ashen Winter was that Alex was frequently too passive and some of his poor choices annoyed me (the version I'm referring to isn't available as Mike sorted those and other cannibalized issues by the final draft pre-publication). In this third volume Alex is anything but passive:

Would Ed even do it? I lifted my gaze to Ed’s face. The flat look in his eyes told me yes, he would. He shrugged as if to say get on with it.
I nodded. “Do it,” I said. “Cut his throat.”
Ed’s grip tightened on the knife handle.
“W-wait,” Cliff stammered. Ed checked his cut. A thin line of blood, dark and viscous, appeared along Cliff’s neck. Two black runnels parted from the line, trickling toward Cliff’s collarbone.

Now there's an Alex I can get behind! I don't want to give away too much of the plot because if you're reading this and you haven't read Sunrise, odds are good you're going to. But Alex has come a long way in a year and in this book, he's a force to be reckoned with. Thankfully, he's the good guy.  

The way you know you're in a good critique group is you get honest feedback. The YA Cannibals can sometimes be too honest, perhaps, and it's not uncommon for one or two of our sessions per year to end in tears. I've never let them see me cry (though it's been hard a couple times) and I've never seen Mike cry, but I wouldn't have wanted to be him on the day we cannibalized the first draft of Sunrise.

Bear in mind, at the time of that critique, Mike was the only published member in the group. His first two Ashfall books sell so well he no longer has a day job and he's won multiple awards. Not for nothing, but he's kind of a big deal. It's a good critique group and more publications are forthcoming (I'll review them here, of course) and there's not a slacker among us. But Mike Mullin has been the big man on campus.

I tell you this not just because I know Mike is reading and blushing, but because I think it's worth noting that on the day we tore apart his baby, his final culmination of years of work, he took it like a professional. Mike is neither arrogant nor foolish and he knows that no matter how successful he is, the process is the process. We raked him over the coals, convinced him to drop an entire subplot (trust me, you'll never miss it), and rewrite entire long sections of the book. I wrote "boring" all over certain sections--I'm helpful that way.

Mike Mullin isn't driven by ego. He takes his success in stride and sometimes it catches me off guard when readers approach him with a sense of awe because to me he's just my friend Mike. But to readers he's a great deal more and the Ashfall books have meant a lot to a lot of people, myself included. He's taught me more about writing and the business of being a successful author by his example than just about any other one source I could name.

What he taught me in the case of Sunrise is what it means to be a professional writer. Mike didn't protest during his critique session. He took notes and put them to good use. It's not that Sunrise wasn't great from the first draft (it packs a second act surprise I love more than anything and I won't spoil it), but it wasn't perfect. Even with all the awards and success, Mike Mullin still puts his pants on one leg at a time, and he still writes a first draft, revises, gets feedback, revises again, and again, and again. He takes his medicine no different from the other cannibals and even appreciates it. I know because he said so in the acknowledgements:

I have a whole round table of literary knights in my corner: my wife, Margaret, slayer of unnecessary dialogue and prepositional phrases; Robert Kent, champion of the action scene; Lisa Fipps, warrior of word choice; Shannon Lee Alexander, chevalier of characterization; Jody Sparks, the emotional knight; and Josh Prokopy, the squire. Thank you all.

Well, check that out. I'm thanked first after the author's wife (**cabbage patches, raises the roof**). Sunrise is a family book. It feels like someone else's kid I used to babysit all grown up. I didn't raise the child, but I'm still proud, the way I feel about all the cannibal's books and the way they may feel about mine.

That's pretty much the end of the "review." I'm going to hit you with some of my favorite passages from Sunrise and of course encourage to buy your copy immediately, preferably using the link below:) And if you get a chance to see Mike Mullin in person, and as he's always on the road, you might--do it! Not only will you get to see him break a brick with his bare hand, you'll witness how an author can also be an entertainer and one-man spokesperson for his book.

But before we call it a post, I'd like to point out Sunrise's dedication:

To Peggy Tierney, for believing

Why it's our old friend, the managing editor and founder of Tanglewood Publishing. You know I'm a Peggy Tierney fan and I very much enjoyed chatting with her Saturday about publishing and rumors surrounding a possible Ashfall movie (fingers crossed). If I were going to risk being published traditionally, I'd want an advocate like Peggy in my corner.

You regular Esteemed Readers know I don't bash editors or even the traditional publishing model. I love literary agents and editors and I believe there are a lot of really smart, talented people working in publishing with a love of authors and books, which makes us natural allies.

Unfortunately, there's also a lot of sharks in suits, unfair practices, and unseemly behavior that goes on in modern publishing. I don't chronicle such things at this blog because frankly I don't have time or even that much interest. But I know a lot of writers and I've heard enough sad stories to be convinced that indie publishing is the safest route for my own work until the big five collapse into the big one. If you're interested in the sordid details of publishing, I highly recommend reading JA Konrath's remarkable (though often controversial) blog, The Newbie's Guide to Publishing.

Writers should be wary of publishers. No small number of agents have told me they spend large amounts of their days just trying to get publishers to pay their writers royalties owed. I considered linking to some recent stories of publishers behaving badly, but I don't want to confuse the point, which is this:

Whatever you may hear of other publishers, Tanglewood has done right by my friend Mike Mullin. Peggy Tierney has been there for all three books of the Ashfall trilogy and has given Mike the support all authors should expect but often don't receive from their publishers. Mike is the hardest working author I know and he's done plenty of promotion on his own, but Tanglewood has helped him build his career in a way most writers could only pray for.

When's the last time you saw an author dedicate a book, let alone the final book in a series, to their publisher? To me that's impressive and if you're a writer seeking a traditional contract, that ought to give you hope.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Sunrise:

As I stepped into the tiny foyer adjoining the living room, I noticed the smell. Sweat and a fecal stink blended with the stomach-turning stench of rotting wounds.

“Don’t go,” [Redacted] pleaded. “I love you.”
“I’ll never leave you,”
[Redacted] said. “I love you too.”
Three hours later, she was dead.


A dark figure rose from behind a monument, and suddenly there were dozens of people popping up from every hollow, tree stump, and stone marker on the hill above us. I screamed a warning, but my voice was drowned out by the roar of incoming gunfire.

In the dark, we raced through the main floor of the house, crashing blindly into unseen furniture, looking for a staircase. Finally I spotted a dim ray of light. I ran toward it, my empty gun held at shoulder level in front of me, commando style—at least I thought it was from what I’d seen in video games.

Darla choked back a sob, and I stood, wrapping her in my arms. Pretty soon I was crying too, crying for my dead father, for my estranged mother, for the whole disaster the world had become. Somehow it felt right to let it out there, in that greenhouse, our tears watering the kale that kept us alive. Only survivors are allowed the luxury of sadness.



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, March 5, 2014

Book of the Week: GIDEON'S SPEAR by Darby Karchut


http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00I8JCOOU/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=211189&creative=373489&creativeASIN=B00I8JCOOU&link_code=as3&tag=midgranin-20
First Paragraph(s): Screaming bored out of his mind, thirteen-year-old Finn MacCullen blew a long sigh as he wandered around the clearing in the woods. The late-afternoon rays of the summer sun lit the trees surrounding him, tinting the trunks of the Ponderosa pines with the same shade of bronze as that of the large knife, almost the length of his forearm, he held in one hand. With a snap of his wrist, he flipped it into the air and caught it by the handle.
Holding the weapon level with his eyes, he tilted it to and fro, trying to view his reflection. For just a moment, he caught a flash of blue eyes in a boyish face dusted with freckles, and a mop of hair the same flaming color as the blade. Adjusting the angle downward, he grinned as he was further rewarded with a glimpse of a twisted rope of gold, as thick as the Knight Mac Roth's thumb, that encircled his throat just above the collar of his T-shirt. "You are, Finnegan MacCullen," he murmured to himself, adjusting the torc so that the twin knobs on each end of the neckpiece were dead center under his Adam's apple, "one kickbutt warrior."
Gravel crunched behind him.
He whirled around. "Oh, crap." His heart rammed against the roof of his mouth at the sight of his worst nightmare.

Hello there, Esteemed Reader! Are you ready for St. Patrick's Day? In the past, I've spent the day at the bar (ahh, writer friends), but this year I'll likely be home reading a book with a baby on my chest drinking not so much as a green beer (I might do green tea). But you'll note from the new Irish background that I'm in the spirit, helped greatly by our old friend Darby Karchut's newest Gideon's Spear, the sequel to Finn Finnegan

You may note that the word count for All Right Now has slowed a bit, but I assure you this is because I've decided to prepare another horror story for you to be released in the next two months rather than waiting until October. For more details, I was interviewed yesterday at Jessica Lawson's extraordinary blog, Falling Leaflets, where I discuss character development in depth (if you're into that kinda thing, and if you're here, you might be).

Bad Ninja! My apologies, Esteemed Reader. How rude of me to discuss myself in a post about someone else's book. This space should be dedicated to Darby Karchut and an overview of her work, not a cheap ad for yours truly. I apologize. Won't happen again. 

Let's look at Gideon's Spear, available at fine retailers everywhere. Here is my favorite passage from Gideon's Spear written by Darby Karchut:

“Finn Finnegan is a Fine Folio of Fantastic Fiction!” — Middle Grade Ninja

Isn't that a--oh for crying out loud, I've done it again! I did everything I could to discuss this week's book and I ended up talking about me. That's because Gideon's Spear is the first book I'm aware of to feature a blurb from me, though any author who's book I've reviewed is welcome to blurb me anywhere they like. You may remember in my review of Finn Finegan I joked that the good people of Spencer Hill Press were welcome to use my blurb. I also offered this gem: 

Finn Finnegan is a good time read and you're going to enjoy yourself. This St. Patrick's Day, don't just get pass-out drunk. Read Finn Finnegan while-st you drink, then pass out

Well, the blurb Spencer Hill Press chose is good too and I'm thrilled with it. Gideon's Spear sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf as I bought an actual paper copy as a keepsake (though I actually read most of it on Kindle). And Darby Karchut was kind enough to blurb my book (all ways lead back to the ninja). I consider her a friend. So I think we can dispense with the review and spend the remainder of this post coming up with potential blurbs for the upcoming three-quel, The Hound at the Gate.

How about this: "Gideon's Spear through my heart and Darby Karchut's to blame. She gives writing middle grade Irish fantasy a good name." Or the trite: "Gideon's Spear is Good Stuff." Or the misleading: "I was so shocked when Finn died at the end!" Or the bizarre: "In the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, having watching everyone you ever knew or loved burn to a cinder, as you sit waiting for the radiation sickness to put you out and at last take your pain away, those hours will be made less agonizing by reading Darby Karchut's Gideon's Spear."

All right, honest and for true, let's talk about this book. Honest and for true, I liked Gideon's Spear even better than Finn Finnegan, though newcomers to the series would be better off starting with that book. The origin and introduction of our characters out of the way, Karchut is able to spend book two deepening the characters and their relationships, thickening the plot, and raising the stakes. Also, there's even more action this time around, which makes the pages fly by in no time. 

Karchut expertly reminds return readers and catches up new readers by giving us a casual conversation in chapter one between our heroes that works nicely as a "last time on Finn Finnegan" narration:

“But how can I learn anything if all I do is follow you around?” 
Gideon’s face darkened. “Arguing with me is as dangerous as hunting the Amandán.” 
“But I’ve fought them before.” Finn’s voice cracked in frustration. “I know—” 
“You know less than you think. A few skirmishes with the goblins do not make you ready to hunt alone.” 
“Why won’t you let me at least try?” 
“Because you’re not ready!” Finn scowled. “It’s because of the whole Spear thing, isn’t it?” 
“Oh, aye, that’s it,” Gideon said, heavy on the sarcasm. “Discovering that my apprentice of less than two months is none other than the legendary Spear of the Tuatha De Danaan has made me decide to treat you differently from now on.” 
“It has?” Finn’s heart sank. I’m sick of always being different. I just want to be a Knight. Like Gideon and Mac Roth
“No, you dolt.” Gideon reached out and cuffed him lightly on the side of the head.

What I like about that passage is not just the brevity of the exposition, but the way Karchut shows us the nature of Gideon and Finn's relationship (as well as explaining the title). Last time around, I compared Gideon to Hagrid from that other wonderful series of children's books you may have heard of. But that's not accurate. Gideon is a much more central figure than Hagrid and a large amount of this book is devoted to his and Finn's mentor/apprentice/surrogate father/son relationship and I think it's fair to say that relationship is the core of this series. Gideon even writes his own journal entries as does Finn, and Hagrid never got nearly this amount of screen time. 

But lest we forget, our heroes are in the middle of an ongoing war, naturally. Karchut catches us up on that score early on by having the Amandán conveniently attack with more exposition than weapons. Note Gideon taking center stage with no Finn in sight:

“Too bad yer whelp turned tail and ran,” spoke another one. “I likes me Fey young and fresh.” 
“I just likes mine dead,” a deep voice growled. “The day will come when ye high and mighty—” it stopped to spit out the name “—Tuatha De Danaan will be nothing but a pile of leftovers. And Eire will be ours once more.” 
“Not that old grievance again,” Gideon said, tedium in his tone. “You think the death of all Tuatha De Danaan will return the Green Isle to the likes of you?” He raised his chin. “Ireland will never be yours again. The Goddess Danu gave it to us to hold.” 
“We hads it first,” the first goblin hissed. “We be the true heirs of Eire. Us the Bog-born, not the feeble offspring of some upstart goddess.” 
Gideon curled his lip. “Yet here you are. In Colorado. Not Ireland.” 
“We could says the same thing about ye Tuatha De Danaan—” 
“Bah,” the second Amandán interrupted. “Too much talking, not enough killing. Let’s get him, mates.” The pack closed ranks.

As with Finn Finnegan, the language gets a little strong for younger readers, but is perfect for upper middle grade readers who will chuckle at "assengai" just as surely his new African neighbors and Finn do. Comparisons to Harry Potter like the one I made are inevitable, but truth be told this book reminded me more of the Lord of the Rings and a little of Duck Tales.

There are goblin battles galore, but Gideon and Finn can't just fight them all day. They've got to come up against a heavy hitter sooner or later. Enter Iona. She's a witch, though she prefers the term "enchantress," and she and Gideon have an interesting history that goes back centuries, as such feuds do when dealing with fantasy characters. Gideon has reason to believe Iona was indirectly responsible for the death of his son, which is a great touch. Iona wants to get her claws on Gideon's new son, which is what editors mean when they tell us to "raise the stakes." Gideon and Iona are gonna rumble and this time it's personal, which is as it should be, or no one's going to care enough to read book three.

Gideon's Spear surpasses the original and it's a great read to be enjoyed by younger readers and adults, especially teachers like Darby Karchut, who will surely get a kick out of allusions such as these:

“Finnegan, wake,” he said softly, smiling to himself at the old joke. He nudged the bed with a knee, giving it a shake.

If you like action, adventure, and fun, and if you don't, you probably don't like books, but if you do like those things, Gideon's Spear is for you. This one comes highly recommended and with just one more book to go, now is the perfect time to join the series.

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Gideon's Spear:

He looked down at Finn’s bandaged hands. His eyebrows asked the question. 

“And I’m assuming the O’Neills will be footing the bill for the festivities?” Mac Roth nodded in anticipation. “Ye know the O’Neills. They’re a proud family and enjoy sharing their wealth with the rest of us.” “You mean flaunting their wealth,” Gideon replied, then shrugged. “Well, I wouldn’t want to show disrespect by not partaking in their generosity.” “Forever thinking of others, Lir.” “Aye, that I do. Excessive kindness has always been a fault of mine.”

Something about Iona made Finn’s skin want to crawl off his skeleton. And hide.


A faint drumming accompanied the voice, the thump of a bodhran, its rhythm as ancient as the first heartbeat of the world.

Icy silence frosted the inside of the cab.  




 
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.