Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book of the Week: THE NIGHTMARYS by Dan Poblocki

We haven’t had a chance to discuss horror in middle grade fiction. How did that happen? I love horror! Before I decided to devote all of my ninja training to middle grade fiction, I used to read and write adult horror and when I fantasize about having lunch with any writer, living or dead, it’s Stephen King I most often imagine sitting across from me at some place classy like The Olive Garden (and, of course, all of the writers who appear on this blog). I even paid good money to see Piranha 3D last weekend, and though it’s too adult of a film for me to review here, I must say bravo to the makers of that fine cinematic masterpiece. I’ve rarely seen a movie that so thoroughly anticipated what its target audience was hoping for when it paid to see a 3D piranha movie and the flick satisfied on every possible level.
The thing I love about horror as a genre is that like comedy, it either works or it doesn’t. I’m not talking about subgenre pieces like Bunnicula or Ghostbusters, which are really horror comedies. I’m talking about serious horror crafted with the intention of horrifying. A drama can be very good in places, but lacking in others. A crime novel can have a great plot but ho hum characters. But a comedy is either funny or it isn’t. The reader either laughs or he doesn’t. So too, a horror novel is either scary or it isn’t. The reader is either nervous to turn off the light when she finishes or she isn’t. There are varying degrees of horror like the nervous shiver one gets reading The Increadible Shrinking Man as opposed to the up all night too scared to stay awake, too scared to fall asleep sensation one gets from reading Salem's Lot. But my point stands: a horror novel is either A) Scary B) Not Scary. There is no inbetween.

So then, the big question: Is Dan Poblocki’s The Nightmarys scary or not? You tell me:

A little after midnight, she awoke to a soft tapping on glass. Before she even opened her eyes, Abigail feared what she would see at the window--two faces, smiling at her.

Timothy screamed and fell backward, landing halfway down the stairs. He watched, paralyzed, as a thin brown arm reached through the broken window for the lock. Its skeletal fingers turned the knob, and slowly, the front door creaked open.

The corpse stood in the entrance, the dawn lighting the sky in the distance. The creature's white hair lay limp across its skull. The bottom half of its face was missing. Its empty eye sockets were barely visible, but Timothy felt their blackness dig into his chest. The corpse clutched at the wood frame and dragged its feet across the threshold.

Scared, Esteemed Reader? I must admit Mr. Poblocki gave even the piranha-loving ninja a few goosebumps. If you don’t care for horror, you’ve probably stopped reading this review already. But if you like things that go bump in the night, pick up a copy of The Nightmarys or come on back next week and try to win one.

So there you go. I’ve established my criteria for a horror book review: scary, not scary. The Nightmarys is scary, therefore my review is done and in record time. Now I have only to tell you about the book, we’ll talk a little craft, and then we’ll all go get a taco.

The plot is as follows: Timothy July partners up with Abigail Tremens for a school project and while they’re at the museum doing research, Timothy experiences the first of many waking nightmares. He discovers a book there that helps him to unravel a mystery that has something to do with a writer named Nathaniel Olmstead, who astute readers will recognize from Poblocki’s first book, The Stone Child. Shortly thereafter, Timothy’s buddy is attacked by another nightmare image as is his teacher. There’s a supernatural force prowling about and Timothy’s new friend Abigail knows more about it than she’s letting on.

Eventually, after some other events I won’t spoil for you, Abigail spills the details about two girls named Mary she used to know:

Oddly, Mary Brown was white, and Mary White was black; they were both beautiful...

...Together the Marys were an entity, the likes of which Abigail had never seen before. She didn't like it, and she decided she didn't like them. So Abigail gave them a tase of their own medicine. She made up a nasty name for the two girls: the Nightmarys, of course. To Abigail's horror, the girls liked it, and it stuck. They wore it like a badge of honor.

The Nightmarys begin haunting Abigail after she’s moved. Did the girls die, you ask? Ahh, but that would be a spoiler. The important thing is that two supernatural entities are following Abigail around and causing her waking nightmares. And she can’t shake them, no matter what she does:

"I actually thought I could hide from them. I dyed my hair. I was planning on sleeping on the couch in the living room tonight. I thought maybe they wouldn't recognize me..."

Does Abigale overcome the Nightmarys or do they drive her insane? Does Timothy July banish the Nightmarys away forever or at least until the sequel? Naturally, I'm not going to tell you. Instead, I'd like to share with you two passages from one scene and then we'll see about that taco.

The Nightmarys opens with a classic teaser scene. I know different writing guides refer to this opening under different terms, but I've always liked "teaser" scene. Most horror novels open with them. Probably the most famous is the opening of  the film version of Jaws: naked chick swims in the ocean at night, dies a guesome death, establishing the presence of the shark and the need of a hero to rid us of the shark. It also makes a promise to the audience that though we're about to spend some time learning about the characters and establishing the premise, we're going to see more shark at some point and our characters must interact with it, for good or ill. As for examples from books, Pennywise the clown has a chat with Georgie and murders him in the first few chapters of Stephen King's It, a woman is stopped and chased by cannibals in the first chapter of Jack Ketchum's Off Season, and a nearly restored Voldermort kills a man at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (by far my favorite of the Potter books).

In the prologue, or "prelude," of The Nightmarys, we meet Abigale's grandmother, though we don't know who she is yet, as she is haunted in a laundry room. It's a very effective scene and the suspense it promises hooks us through the opening chapters of character and premise introduction. It's a shame more novels don't open with a teaser scene like this one. First, notice how effectively Poblocki establishes the setting and mood in a few sentences:

The corridor was longer than she recalled. The light was dim. The pipes hung from the low ceiling, craning at wicked angles every which way. A bitter scent lingered in the air.

Nothing good could possibly happen in such a place. Secondly, I want to draw attention to a rhythm game Poblocki plays with the reader. Notice the way he uses the same sentence pattern three times, lulling the reader a bit, and then suddenly breaks the pattern to great effect:

With a huff, she rolled up her sleeve and reached in, digging through the wet clothes. Finding nothing unusual, she closed the lid. Whirring, the machine started up again.
But before she sat down, the thumping noise returned.

And that's it for this week. Buy yourself a copy of The Nightmarys or come back here next week to win one. Either way, you don't want to miss it. Don't forget to check back on Thursday to see Dan Poblocki face the 7 Questions.

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.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Dr. Uwe Stender

Dr. Uwe Stender represents me, the Middle Grade Ninja, among others:) Here's a guest post he wrote for this very blog.

Here's a two-part post I wrote about my experiences being represented by Dr. Stender.

TriadaUS Literary Agency founder, Dr. Uwe Stender, is a Full Member of the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives).

Our best known clients are actress Melody Thomas Scott, CNN HLN and TruTV's In Session News Anchor Christi Paul, Eric Deggans, former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan, 4 time Grammy Award winning composer Lalo Schifrin ("Mission Impossible"),  Elizabeth LaBan, Stacy Tornio, Dale McGowan, actress Dana Davis, and legendary NBA referee Bob Delaney.

In 2013, Uwe will attend (and speak at) several major conferences including DFW Writers Con (@DFWCON) in Dallas, Pennwriters (@Pennwriters) in Pittsburgh, and Thrillerfest in New York City.    

TriadaUS Literary Agency is always open to any strong fiction (our current focus in fiction is YA, middle grade, Women's Fiction, Literary Fiction and Mysteries) and all non-fiction projects.

You can follow Uwe on twitter @UweStender

If you get a chance to meet Dr. Stender, jump on it. I had the good fortune to bump into Dr. Stender at the Midwest Writer's Workshop. He’s very funny and I learned more about the world of literary agents in a couple hours talk with him than reading a hundred books on the subject. He described the queries he gets and his process for sorting them in as frank a manner as I’ve ever heard. He even showed me the portable device on which he reads them and examples of queries that would or would not interest him. He was real and genuine and if you want to know what happens with your query after you send it, he’s the guy to ask. 

And now Dr. Uwe Stender faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I assume you mean of all time and any and all books included...hmmm, I guess in some ways that changes often...right this minute, off the cuff, I'd say...The Little Prince, The Big Sleep, Thirteen Reasons Why

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

LOL....well, that probably also changes all the time...okay, won't think...just write what comes to mind right now:

Movies: Cinema Paradiso, Pulp Fiction, Goodbye Lenin

TV shows: Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Big Bang Theory

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

Creative, smart and low maintenance

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

Projects with great hooks and super strong writing in both fiction (especially in YA, middle grade, Women's Fiction, Literary Fiction and Mystery) and nonfiction.

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

I love discovering a great new project. Least favorite: Rejections, getting them and giving them.

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)

Don't quit. Don't give up, don't ever give up. Work at your craft and don't take rejections personally.

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

Raymond Chandler so he can explain the plot of The Big Sleep to me.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

7 Questions For: Author Mark Peter Hughes

Mark Peter Hughes is the author of I Am the Wallpaper, and Lemonade Mouth. His latest, A Crack in the Sky (Greenhouse Chronicles), hit bookshelves on Tuesday. Click here to read my review. Here is Mr. Hughes' official bio:

I was born in Liverpool, England in the Oxford Street Maternity Hospital, the same hospital as John Lennon--an important detail to a huge Beatle fan like me! My family moved to the U.S.A. when I was one. We lived in Massachusetts and California, but most of my childhood was spent in Barrington, Rhode Island.

I've been making up stories for about as long as I could hold a pencil. Even before then I loved to tell them. Today I spend hours sitting in coffee shops typing into a keyboard.

I was a very late bloomer so starting in fifth grade I was always the shortest kid in my class. I spent gym periods terrified that someone might pass me the ball and I'd end up getting trampled, which actually happened on more than one occasion! Fortunately, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I grew. I'm pleased to report that I now stand five foot eleven inches tall. Today, I occasionally run into people I knew in high school but haven't seen since then. Invariably they say something like, "Oh my God, Mark! Why aren't you short?!"

As a teenager I worked in many different jobs including gas station attendant, fast food zombie, beach sticker enforcer, dishwasher (I was fired after only two days), clam factory worker (this was the smelliest of jobs--my sisters avoided me all summer), and movie theater usher, among others.

I now live in Massachusetts with my lovely wife, Karen, and our three kids: Evan (12), Lucía (11), and Zoe (8).

And now Mark Peter Hughes must face the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Jeez, there are too many to list. I love The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, The Cover Artist by Paul Micou, Call of the Wild by Jack London -- and there are so many more!

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

On a good writing week I'll spend well over 50 hours just writing. It would be much harder for me to gauge my reading time because I fit it in here and there and not in organized blocks like my writing.

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

I wrote all my life but got degrees in engineering and health administration. I had a regular cubical-type job for years, but still I wrote. Then I entered a manuscript into the Delacorte Press Young Adult Novel Competition, and that's how my first novel ended up getting published.

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

I believe a writer is anyone who writes. Some of us love it, some of us don't. Out of all those who do, a very few of us do it a lot. Out of all those who do it a lot, a very few of us revise, bring stuff to completion, and send it out for consideration. The more a writer revises, shares his or her work, revises some more, and completes his or her work, the better the writer will get and the more likely they will be published.

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

Revision is my favorite thing. However well or badly I've written, revision always makes it better. My least favorite thing is fighting the distractions from phones, the Internet, and other interruptions.

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)

Wisdom? Hmmm. It's a cliche but the more writing you do, the better you'll get. Write what you love. Revise. Share your work with other writers and accept criticism thoughtfully. Give thoughtful criticism to others. Read a lot. Revise some more. Send your work out. Don't worry too much about the publication part because if you don't love writing for its own sake, it's not worth it.

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

Fun question! Hmmm. Probably a cookbook writer, as long as they're doing the cooking. How about having lunch with tomorrow's lottery ticket winner today--as I watch them write down their lottery guesses. I'd love to have lunch with George Martin, the producer of the Beatles--he's written stuff, so I s'pose he's a writer, right? How about the Queen of England--I bet she lays out quite a spread. She must have written out an invitation or two.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book of the Week: A CRACK IN THE SKY by Mark Peter Hughes

Greetings, Esteemed Reader! Happy Mockingjay day. Rest assured I have my copy and as you're reading this review I am likely enjoying the final Katniss adventure on audiobook. I don’t anticipate reviewing the books here, but I’ve loved The Hunger Games trilogy as much as anyone. I was Team Gale, but I’ve come around on Team Peeta, and so long as the evil government pays for all, I’ll be happy with the ending.

It must be hard to be any other book aimed at younger readers coming out just now, which is why I want to do my part to promote another dystopian Science Fiction novel that also releases today. This week’s book is A Crack in the Sky by Mark Peter Hughes. I’m not sure if it’s upper middle grade, or actually tween, or perhaps even YA. Its protagonist is a thirteen-year-old boy, but its page count is 397 and many of the themes are aimed at older readers who have been reading the increasingly bad news over the last decade. Either way, adult, teen, or younger reader, if you find time to read two books this week, I recommend this one and Mark Peter Hughes will be dropping by to face the 7 Questions on Thursday.

A quick side note, Mrs. Ninja and I saw The Other Guys this weekend. It's a very funny movie in the vein of Anchorman, but the reason I bring it up is because its plot revolves around the rich robbing the poor. Amazingly enough, the end credits of the film consist of statistics about the growing gap between the super rich and everyone else. You know things are far gone when even Will Ferrell movies devote their running time to protesting our current economic model.

 A Crack in the Sky is an angry book, so much so that I don’t think Mark Peter Hughes will mind me taking up so much of this review with a discussion of economic injustice. Or perhaps I’ll recieve an angry email from him:)

Either way, I wanted to take a moment to establish what I see as a clear link between populace rage and the rise in popularity of the dystopian novel. A reader who spends their day inundated with news stories of financial scams, corrupt political officials, and oil spills, and who has either lost their job, knows someone who has, or is otherwise feeling the pinch of the recession, a reader who lives in America right now and isn’t part of the top 1% is more likely to relate to a story in which children are forced to murder one another in competition by a government who controls all of their nation’s prosperity and diverts it to the few at the top.

But that's The Hunger Games again. Without further delay, let us discuss the plot of A Crack in the Sky and see if you can’t pick up on our current political and economic model seeping into the tale of a future society that has otherwise never existed:

Thirteen-year-old Eli Papadopoulos lives in a futuristic dome city. I don’t want to give everything away, but in the future the environment is so bad that humans can’t live outside, so we all gather in domes. Citizens of the domes are assured this is not a permanent situation. They are waiting for the Cooldown at which point they can go back outside, though there are those who believe the Cooldown may be a myth.

At the heart of all things is Infinicorp, the major corporation responsible for all aspects of life in the dome cities. Their slogan is “Don’t worry. Infinicorp is taking care of everything,” and as you might expect, the slogan takes on deeper meaning as the story progresses.

Infinicorp manufactures and sells all products and own everything and everyone. At age thirteen, citizens of the dome cities officially become employees of Infinicorp and they work out their lives in service to the corporation. Not our Eli, though. He’s being groomed for upper management. His grandfather founded Infinicorp and his family runs things. It is fascinating to read the parallels Hughes draws between kingdoms of old and the corporate structure.

Anyway, prince Eli, if you will, is sitting pretty. He is in the top 1% and all he has to do is mind his manners and he could one day rise to CEO if he can survive the rivalry of his cousin. Of course, something comes along that changes Eli’s world forever, or there wouldn’t be a book. Hughes takes his time in fully revealing what that something is, so I won’t spill the whole story here. But for those of you fellow writers looking for a way to work in conflict from the first page on, you could do worse than the first line from A Crack in the Sky (not counting the prologue):

Something was wrong.

While sitting in class being taught by a robot instructor (awesome), Eli witnesses an explosion in the dome sky. There is no need to worry, of course. Infinicorp is taking care of everything. But Eli does worry and he sneaks out of class to investigate, leading to an encounter with an Outsider. Outsiders are people who live outside the dome cities in the harsh desert heat of a destroyed environment. They are not fans of Infinicorp and are dismissed as

"practically animals… Cannibals, cutthroats, and criminals… if starvation doesn’t get them, brain fever rots their minds away. It’s very sad.”

At this time, Eli also finds a copy of Alice in Wonderland, which is appropriate. This encounter leads to further encounters with the Outsiders and Eli chases them down the rabbit hole where he gains a new perspective on Infinicorp and how their actions impact the rest of the world.

Here is what one Outsider has to say, and I’ll let this speech stand for all the rest:

"Consider how Insiders are kept sedated with hollow jobs and empty aspirations. They're distracted with products and meaningless entertainment. Have you ever asked yourself what the purpose is?" Behind the mask the boy narrowed his eyes. "It's a diversion, Eli. A reassuring ruse to maintain a semblance of the old ways. For now it appears safe, but the fantasy comes with a cost. The Great Sickness wasn't the end of the trouble--it was barely the beginning. Harsh reality is still building up out there. It's knocking at the door, rattling the domes' foundations. It won't be ignored much longer--you can be sure of that. But you already sense this. I can see it. It's not Outside that's dead. The wasteland is the only truth we have left, the land of the real survivors. Look around. It's your world that's a living death."

There is more plot than what I have described to you and I haven’t even touched on the revolutionary Tabitha Bloomberg, but you get the idea. The plot of this first book in what promises to be an exciting series is a little like The Matrix. Eli, like Neo, with the help of outside revolutionaries discovers that everything he knows about the world around him is wrong. Perhaps a giant corporation controlling the lives of an entire society isn’t so great after all.

And it’s no coincidence that the novel cleverly opens with a falling bit of “sky.” Eli is a chicken little of sorts and of course his revelations are not really intended for the employees of Infinicorp, but for the readers who live in a corporate controlled environment with disaster impending from all sides. The metaphor holds and provides Hughes with an opportunity to satirize and criticize our own world. Fun stuff.

I don’t want to spoil this book for you, Esteemed Reader, so I’ll stop now. But I will spoil one small thing that is revealed in the first fifty pages anyway. Eli has a pet mongoose. The mongoose had a chip implanted in her head in an illegal operation that enhances her in some way, though no one knows how. Well, it turns out she is telepathic and can have mental conversations with Eli. How awesome is that? In a world of fiction riddled with every type of cliché, Hughes finds all sorts of original twists on conventions. Better yet, he occasionally tells the story from the perspective of the telepathic mongoose. Love it!

I see we are way past our word count. I went over because I felt bad for taking up so much of this review with rantings about how Ayn Rand was wrong (of course she was; virtue of selfishness indeed) and the wealthy don’t always use their cash to provide a greater world for the rest of us, holding industry upon their mighty shoulders like Atlas holds the world. Sometimes they use it to play money grabbing games on the market and bankrupt the country. Sometimes they blow it on every selfish desire they have, including paying Justin Bieber to sing at their daughter’s sweet sixteen party while their fellow Americans lose their health insurance, their jobs, their homes, and slide into oblivion.

But A Crack in the Sky is a great read. You’re going to the bookstore today anyway to get Mockingjay, so why not pick up this book and make it a week of dystopian rage? Come on, everybody! We’re as mad as heck and we’re not going to take it anymore! I, for one, will be demonstrating my populace rage by continuing to review children’s books:)

Let me close with one last observation from a book filled with witty observations because I just really liked this one. Projected on the dome's ceiling is not only the sky, but also various advertisements. At one point, Eli sees something on the ceiling that is projected, but not selling anything, and he is lost as to why anyone would want to project something without a sales pitch. Fascinating stuff. I shall leave you with an early quote from the text regarding the advertisements that I think resonates:

"Nurturing a customer's sense of well-being through positive message repetition," Dr. Toffler was saying, its voice cracking with age, "not only encourages complacency but is also a useful tool that ultimately leads to widespread respect for authority and obedience to rules."

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.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Amy Boggs

Here is Amy's official bio from the Donald Maass Literary Agency's website:

Amy Boggs joined the agency in 2009. She is looking for fantasy and science fiction, especially urban fantasy, paranormal romance, steampunk, YA/children's, and alternate history. Historical fiction, multi-cultural fiction, Westerns, and works that challenge their genre are also welcome. She worked previously for the Beth Vesel Literary Agency and is a graduate of Vassar College. Please email her at aboggs@maassagency.com with a query letter and the first five pages pasted into the body of the email.

Amy Boggs was recently promoted to Contracts Manager. I had the good fortune to meet Amy at the Midwest Writer's Workshop. We talked about our mutual love of The Duff and science fiction/fantasy and all sorts of other cool stuff. She showed me her ereader and how she reviews manuscripts She told me about her client’s upcoming book and she was so excited and passionate about it you would have thought it was her book. Anyone who can get Amy to feel that way about their project is a lucky person indeed.

And now Amy Boggs faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Ha, start with an impossible one. I'll follow the other agents' lead and concentrate on MG.

* Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling - These stories were my childhood, and I simply would not be who I am without them. They made me more confident and renewed my love for children's books just when I was hitting an annoying "I'm too good for that kids' stuff" stage of my teenagerdom. Plus they are fantastic stories! I can always pick them up, open to any page, and instantly fall in love again.

* Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner - I didn't read The Thief until I was 18, which means for 7 years the book was out there and I was oblivious. I try to make up for it with my adoration now. The Thief was so good that when I found out there was a sequel, I refused to read it for years. I didn't want anything to possibly tarnish the wonderfulness of the first. When I heard a 3rd book in the series had come out, in hard cover, with a complete reissue of the other two with shiny new covers, I figured that the sequel had to be somewhat good. It was. And the 3rd was even better (dare I say, even better than TheThief?). The 4th came out this year and was fantastic. This series is an absolute must-read for any writer. If not for the stories themselves, do it for the point-of-view. MWT is the Goddess of POV.

* There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom by Louis Sachar - The only book on the list which I actually read when I was in the intended MG reading bracket (I still have my beat-up old paperback from 3rd grade). I also loved Sachar for his Wayside School stories, and later for Holes (at which point I discovered his other work and I have yet to find one I didn't love). But this book stands out. I can't tell you what my younger self loved about it, but my current self could wax eternal about the gender and violence issues, the realistic portrayal of elementary school social interactions, and the deft handling of the question "how does a 'bad' kid come from a good home?"

Honorable Mentions: The Big Splash, The Castle in the Attic, The Boys Start the War/The Girls Get Even, Bunnicula, My Teacher is an Alien, Chronicles of Narnia

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

Movies: All my favorite movies have one theme in common: story-telling.

* The Fall - This is both light- and heavy-handed storytelling at their best. Our POV character is a little girl, so much of what is happening in the anchor story is over her head but an unwinding mystery for the audience. And then there is the story our stuntman tells the little girl. Astounding visuals aside, it really highlights the fact that each story must have two things: a teller and a listener. Together they create the story; it cannot exist without one or the other. Good lesson for writers.

* Stage Beauty - What makes a story, who can tell a story, what happens when people no longer want to hear your story. Plus complicated gender issues, and one of the best final lines ever (up there with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow's).

* The Brothers Bloom - I'm a bit of a sucker for con stories. And a con story where the con artist isn't so much focused on the con as creating a story? Yeah. Love.


*Firefly - I love westerns. I love space. I love snarky rebels. Any questions?

*Soap/Golden Girls - Since they were done by the same creative team, I'll count them as one. Just sheer brilliant writing. The scenarios get crazy hilarious, but they always know when to pull it in and focus on the humanity.

* Being Human - The only currently-running show on my list, the premise might sound like a bit of a joke but it is brilliantly executed. Also, I can't think of any other show that has ever let one of their main characters become such an utter monster and yet still manage to pull sympathy from me. It also has the only werewolf transformation I've seen that actually seemed painful; the boy can scream.

Honorable Mention to The 10th Kingdom, House, Supernatural, Castle.

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

Excited, passionate, brilliant, funny, patient, open to critique, eager to revise, and eager to write.

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

I tend to prefer works with a fantastical bent. I love being taken into new and fantastic places, and as a kid I was wild about works that took me on an adventure (that I would then reenact with friends). This sense of adventure is possible without the fantastic as well, like the wildly inventive Big Splash or the realistic portrayal of "the kids I wasn't friend with in school" that Sachar specializes in. But really all I want is a fun and engaging plot set in a vividly drawn setting filled with uniquely wrought characters. That doesn't sound too hard, does it?;)

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

My favorite thing is delving in deep with clients, helping them push their work to become something even greater than it already is. My clients are thoughtful, intelligent people who love talking about writing, so the back and forth with them always gets my head and heart racing.

My least favorite thing is nothing is every finished! I know this is true for any work, but knowing that you are never shelving the "last" book or responding to the "last" query gets a bit Sisyphean sometimes.

I enjoy the tasks themselves, just not quite the unending nature of them.

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)

Be daring. It's far better to fail spectacularly than to stay safe and achieve "meh." Push your stories beyond the boundaries of what makes sense, make your characters do things that they would never, ever do. Of course it is then up to you to make those plots and actions seem perfectly logical, but by writing big you'll surprise the reader and yourself.

Note: While this advice can be applied to many things in life, it doesn't apply to queries. Keep those simple and straightforward, and let your book do the wowing.

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

Well, I never choose living writers because there's always a slim chance I could talk with them someday, so I'll go with Agatha Christie. I utterly devoured her books in middle school, and after reading her autobiography, I was convinced we would get along famously. I'd love to test that theory. Plus she's a brilliant storyteller, so I would definitely be entertained.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

7 Questions For: Author Marcus Sakey

Today, as promised, we have prominent thriller writer Marcus Sakey here to face the 7 Questions. Marcus Sakey is the author of The Blade Itself: A Novel, Good People, At the City's Edge, and The Amateurs. Because no one can put it better than him, here is his official bio in his own words:

I was born in Flint, Michigan. Loving parents still together, forty-plus and counting. My brother Matt is a respected video game columnist and owner of the website Tap Repeatedly.

I attended the University of Michigan, two majors, both promptly ignored. Collected single terms at grad schools in several states. Ten years in advertising and marketing gave me the perfect experience to write about thieves and killers.

To research my books, I've shadowed homicide detectives, toured the morgue, gone shooting with Special Forces soldiers, ridden with gang cops, and learned to pick a deadbolt. My first novel, THE BLADE ITSELF, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR, and chosen both a New York Times Editor's Pick and one of Esquire Magazine's "Top 5 Reads of 2007." Ben Affleck's production company has bought film rights for Miramax. The Chicago Tribune called my second novel, AT THE CITY'S EDGE, "nothing short of brilliant." My third, GOOD PEOPLE, came out to wide critical acclaim, with movie rights selling to Tobey Maguire.

My wife g.g. and I live in Chicago.

I love traveling, especially if there's a chance of hurting myself. I'm a wicked good cook. I never miss the Golden Gloves. I like bourbon neat, food so spicy the guy sitting next to me catches fire, and the occasional cigar. I've watched Firefly more times than I'm comfortable admitting.

It is true, Marcus Sakey is not a middle grade writer. But he's a fantastic novelist for adults and we're lucky to have him with us today. If you'd like to read about my experience meeting Marcus Sakey (why wouldn't you?), click here. Otherwise, it's time for Marcus Sakey to face the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell. INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace. Those are my easy top two.

Picking a third, though….yikes. How about a heap of authors share the third place position? It will be like Honorable Mentions in the Science Fair. Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Kurt Vonnegut, Michael Cunningham, Tom Stoppard, James Ellroy, Tim O'Brien, Joss Whedon, Philip Roth, George Pelecanos, Aaron Sorkin, T. Jefferson Parker, Jeannette Wintersen, Kent Anderson, Richard K. Morgan, Chuck Palahniuk, Arthur Phillips, Tom Perrotta, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, George Saunders, Pete Dexter, William Golding, Thomas Pynchon, Jim Harrison, Richard Price, George R.R. Martin, Laura Lippman, Michael Chabon, Jerzy Kosinski, James Crumley, William Gibson...

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

I write in the afternoon for around four hours, five days a week. The time is divided between staring at the screen, hating myself, and putting words on paper.

I read an hour or two most days, more if I’m between projects or really caught up in something.

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

I’d always wanted to be a writer. But after college I went on to work in television and advertising for about ten years. Good jobs and I learned a lot, but I was burning out, and one night I told my wife I was thinking of quitting my job to take a stab at writing a novel. We talked about it for hours, and decided that now was the time.

The next morning, before I could get a word out, I got laid off. It was kind of a karmic kick in the behind.

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

You can teach technique and style. You can build up the muscles of voice. You can collect a tool kit of tips and tricks and methods.

But ultimately, you learn to write by reading, and doing it for decades. You cannot write if you have not been a lifelong reader. It just won’t work.

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

I get to sit around in my underwear and tell lies for a living. That’s pretty cool.

I also love the research, riding around with cops and touring the morgue and learning to fire automatic weapons.

And there’s no feeling like getting an email from someone who loved your book, who said it kept them up all night. That’s really something.

My least favorite parts are the days and weeks when it’s not working. When you don’t know what you want to say, or how to say it, and worse, when you start to doubt the importance of saying it at all. Those are tough times. But they come with the gig, so you just put your head down and get through, one word at a time.

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)

Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. That’s how a book gets written. All the classes, all the textbooks, all the planning in the world won’t result in a book.

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

Kurt Vonnegut. He was a brilliant writer and a unique thinker, and he influenced a generation of Americans. Plus I bet he told good jokes.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book of the Week: THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD by Lynne Reid Banks

The Indian in the Cupboard is absolutely a classic and one of my favorite books from my own childhood. Having just told you that, I think you’ll agree that there’s little point in my bothering with a review. I loved this book as a kid, I read all  the sequels, and having only just rediscovered it as an adult, I found I loved it no less for having grown up (sort of). I've tried a couple of times to watch the movie version, but I just can’t get into it—probably because they cast American actors and this is very much an English story, despite its reliance on American western mythology.

If you haven’t read The Indian in the Cupboard and you’re still a kid, drop everything and read it right now! If you’re an adult and you haven’t read it, well, give it a look. You’ll still enjoy it, I guess, but it won’t be quite the same. Because there’s magic in The Indian in the Cupboard. There’s magic in a lot of books, but this one is special in that it really does help to be a kid.

Don't miss my interview with author Lynne Reid Banks, one of my biggest writing heroes.  

The premise of the Indian in the Cupboard is thus: on Omri’s birthday he’s given a magic cupboard, a magic key, and a plastic Indian. He puts the Indian in the cupboard overnight and in the morning he finds that the Indian has come to life. Why? Did you not read the part about the cupboard being magic?

What blew my mind in rereading this book is that the three inch tall Little Bear, Omri’s living Indian toy is introduced on page six, and keep in mind, one of those pages is taken up with an illustration! If this were a Stephen King book, we would read one hundred pages minimum about tales of ancient cupboards and hints and teases about what Omri’s cupboard might be capable of before the Indian is introduced.

But Banks is writing for children and knows she doesn't need to bother with much explanation. In fact, she wisely avoids most of the potential larger issues that a lesser writer might have worried over such as: What right does a boy have to keep a living, breathing person, even if they used to be a toy, cooped up in a room or carried about in a jeans pocket? As best I can tell, Little Bear isn't a metaphor for some social issue. He’s a toy come to life and here to have an adventure with Omri. And that’s it. Omri tries turning a couple of other toys real and concludes:

“It works,” breathed Omri. And then he caught his breath. “Little Bear!” he shouted. “It works, it works! I can make any plastic toy I like come alive, come real! It’s magic, don’t you understand? Magic!”

And there you are. Exposition complete. On to adventure! Oh sure, Banks concocts reasons for why Omri can’t tell adults about his magic cupboard:

The trouble was that although grown-ups usually knew what to do, what they did was very seldom what children wanted to be done. What if they took the Indian to—say, some scientist, or—whoever knew about strange things like that, who would question him and examine him and probably keep him in a laboratory or something of that sort? They would certainly want to take the cupboard away too, and then Omri wouldn’t be able to have any more fun with it at all.

And my favorite, Omri’s rationalization about how to deal with a sometimes violent Indian who has taken thirty scalps and who has stepped out of the past with a somewhat different sense of values and morality:

Even now, weren't soldiers doing the same thing? Weren't there wars and battles and terrorism going on all over the place? You couldn't switch on television without seeing news about people killing and being killed. Were thirty scalps, even including some French ones, taken hundreds of years ago, so very bad after all?

What I most admired about Banks’ craft is how quickly she was able to move, ignoring anything that is not story. If you’re sitting on a 500 page manuscript intended for children and are convinced you cannot cut a single word, study Banks. She, like Roald Dahl, could write War and Peace in about two hundred pages, and you probably wouldn't notice anything missing. 

By way of example, here is a transition between scenes Banks employed that blew my mind:

(in class--MGN)
“Omri and Patrick! Will you kindly stop chattering?”
They stopped.
At long last lunchtime came.
“I’m going. Are you coming?”
(at lunch--MGN)

In one line she changed the scene entire and it was not the least bit jarring. There is no need for additional explanation or description of scenery. What matters is that Omri and his friend Partick are talking and their school day is flying by so we can get back to the Indian, which is who we really want to read about. Later, Banks does it again:

On impulse he asked the shopkeeper, “Do you know what the maize is?”
“Maize, son? That’s sweet corn, isn’t it?
“Have you some seeds of that?”
Outside, standing by Omri’s bike, was Patrick.

Oh dear. I see we’re out of time once again, Esteemed Reader. But I took lots of notes and I want to share them with you. So let’s change tone. In conclusion, The Indian in the Cupboard remains one of my most favorite books and I highly recommend it. 

It also breaks a lot of “rules” modern American publishers insist on for new fiction. There are several overly long sentences that would nowadays be cut in half or thirds, but with which I didn't have a problem. Here is my favorite long sentence:

Omri and Patrick watched, spellbound, as the little man in his plaid shirt, buckskin trousers, high-heeled leather boots, and big hat, scrambled frantically up the side of Patrick’s right hand and, dodging through the space between his index finger and thumb, swung himself clear of the horse—only to look down and find he was dangling over empty space.

Banks also writes in dialect so thick it might make Mark Twain blush. Many editors and agents eschew writing in dialect, but I think it works great. Here is a short speech from Boone the cowboy that lets Boone be Boone:

“You shet yer mouth!” shouted the little man. “Ah won’t take no lip from no gol-darned hallucy-nation, no, sir! Mebbe Ah do drink too much, mebbe Ah cain’t hold m’likker like some o’ them real tough guys do. But if’n Ah’m gittin’ the dee-lirium tremens, and startin’ in to see things, why couldn’t Ah see pink elly-fants and dancin’ rats and all them purty things other fellas see when they gits far gone?”

“—man to man, Injun! D’ja hear me? No weapons! Jest us two, and let’s see if a white man cain’t lick a red man in a fair fight.”

And last but not least, Banks upsets Elmore Leonard with her creative use of speech attribution. According to Leonard and most modern editors it is always best to use the word “said” when assigning dialogue, and I mostly agree, though I’m still partial to the occasional “he shouted.” 

By using only "said," a writer avoids writing, “I’m so angry,” he shouted angrily. I remain unconvinced that “I’m so angry,” he said, conveys the same meaning. Better, I think, is to use no speech attribution: The character slammed his fist against the table. “I’m so angry.”

In any case, a quick survey of agent and editor blogs as well as many writing manuals will convince the young writer that using any form of speech attribution other than "said," and only "said"--no adverbs--will destroy a work of fiction. Well, maybe. But here are some of the more colorful choices of speech attribution Banks employs:

He added accusingly.

“Omri’s friend, Little Bear’s friend,” said Little Bear magnanimously.

Breathed Patrick reverently.

He burbled.

It's true that "he burbled" jolted me out out of the story in a way that "he said" would not have. But then I'm a ninja and training to notice these things. But did it destroy the work that Banks used creative speech attribution? Absolutely not. And if I weren't looking for it, this slip in convention wouldn't have bothered me at all. And that's the last point I want to make. The Indian in the Cupboard is a classic work. If we try to frame it in terms of modern "correctness," it doesn't hold up.

But no matter! It's a great story well told and that works regardless of stylistic choices. And it makes you wonder what sort of style foibles we writers are making now, convinced we are superior, that some blogger will single out in a distant online review (we should be so lucky to achieve even a little of Banks' longevity).

UPDATE: I didn't address the topic of the depiction of Native Americans in this review. It's a touchy subject and as I only write about the positive aspects of each week's book, I left it alone. But if that's an aspect of the book that interests you, I recommend checking out the blog American Indians in Children's Literature.

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.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Bree Ogden

Bree Ogden's life in the arts and training as an artist have combined to bring her to the new position she has just achieved as a literary agent for graphic novels and children's book with Martin Literary Management. 
She was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and spent much of her youth and teenage years intensely studying the performing arts. She attended Arizona School for the Arts and graduated with an emphasis on vocal performance and classical guitar. 

At Chapman University she became a part of the Chapman University School of Music, under the direction of William Hall. It was after two years there that she felt her love of good writing pull her toward the art of journalism. The sensibilities developed by her life in the arts all came together for her when she moved on to Southern Virginia University and began to put her creative drive into writing.

Bree worked on SVU's newspaper, The Paladin, as both writer and editor for two years, and served as the editor-in-chief during her senior year. She devoted herself to the growth of the newspaper, eventually turning it into a newsmagazine that not only explored issues of concern to the school, but national and global issues as well. She was awarded Most Valuable Player and Editor of the Year by the paper, and in 2008, she was awarded SVU's Pioneer Award, an honor the University awards to two students each year. 

After graduating from SVU with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, she entered the master's program in journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass. There she worked for the New England Press Association Bulletin, and also served as the features editor of the premier campus music magazine, Tastemakers Magazine. 

She received her MA in Journalism with an emphasis in graphic design, photojournalism, and expository writing, then moved to the Seattle area where she entered the professional writing field at Martin Literary Management as an executive assistant to Sharlene Martin. In less than a year's time, Bree's strong work ethic and love of the writing process propelled her forward into a full agent's position with the company. 

Bree is representing graphic novels at MLM because she is devoted to the genre as a passionate reader of all things graphic - and she credits her sixteen adorable nieces and nephews for inspiring her to also represent children's books. 

She is thrilled to be working with Sharlene Martin and with the wonderful ghostwriting team and editorial staff of Martin Literary Management. 

Follow Bree on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/breeogden

And now Bree Ogden faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Hardest question EVER! Okay here is my best shot, although it changes all the time. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (that one never changes), Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Oh and Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. Sorry I always cheat at this game.

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

Movies AND TV? I get to give three of each? If not, that is how I choose to interpret this question.

Movies: The Evil Dead 2 by Sam Raimi, Magnolia by Pt Anderson, and A Streetcar Named Desire by Elia Kazan/Tennessee Williams

Television: Dexter, Arrested Development, Mad Men. All three are mind blowing in their own right.

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

Hard working. And I have some REALLY hard working clients. One of my clients likes to say, "Bree Says Jump, and We Say How High." I don't require that--haha--but man...they do it. I've had clients cut down 700 page manuscripts in a matter of a month. I've had clients take criticism like solid rocks. I've had clients with absolutely no ego about their work. These are the clients I surround myself with. They are amazing.

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

Oh I just did a blog post about this: I would love a very very serious, scary, and unique zombie story. You can read more about that here: http://wp.me/pRGY1-9v

Other than that, I feel like I get a very wide variety of queries, I'm like a kid in a candy store. I love quirky middle grade. And I love STRONG young adult. A lot of young adult that I am seeing right now is so watered down. It's like that scene in Fight Club when Edward Norton says, "Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy."

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

I love my clients. They are starting to become like this little built in family. I have so much fun working with them. I love continually learning about the industry. I love being surrounded by talent. I love reading ALL the time. My 8-year-old nephew can't believe that I get to read all day for my job. My new least favorite thing about this job is when I am super stoked for a manuscript based on its query and then within the first 10 pages I can tell I was duped. It is so disappointing when manuscripts don't live up to how cool their queries are. And of course I hate having to reject writers.

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)

No one says it better than my client Kate Grace. If an aspiring writer can learn to handle rejection like a champ, they will be golden.

My own little piece of advice: If you don't love your story like your child, how do you expect me/editors to love it? Make sure your manuscript is exactly as you want it before you start submitting. Although you will feel eager to get it out in the world as soon as you type that last word, you will regret it later if it's not "your baby" yet.

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

Chuck Klosterman. I love him I love him I love him. His ideas on pop culture are simply profound. Just to be around him for 30 minutes. Chills. I've gained so much from his writings, I can't even imagine what I would gain from being able to actually ask him questions and have a conversation with him.

...and Allen Ginsberg. Oh and Geoff Johns...because he's sexy AND a comic book genius. Sorry sorry, I know! Cheater.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

7 Questions For: Author Susan Runholt

Award-winning Susan Runholt, author of the Kari and Lucas mystery series (click for my review), shares her teenage heroines' love of art and travel and commitment to feminism. She has traveled extensively in Europe, Asia and Africa, and lived in Amsterdam and Paris, working as a bank clerk and an au pair. She's also been a waitress, a maid, a motel desk clerk, a laundress, a caterer, and director of programming for South Dakota Public Television.

For the past two decades she has lived in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she serves as a fundraising consultant for social service and arts organizations. She was named runner-up for the Debut Dagger Award by the Crime Writers' Association of Great Britain for The Mystery of the Third Lucretia (Kari + Lucas Mystery).

And now Susan Runholt faces the 7 Questions:

Question One: What are your top three favorite books?

Okay, everybody cheats. We know this. But if I'm going to cheat, I need plenty of scope. So I'm going to make a list by age range, cheating as I go.

My favorites in, say, fourth and fifth grades: the Nancy Drews, Trixie Beldens and Betsy Tacy books. Oh, and The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows.

By sixth and seventh grades: Some of the earlier favorites plus Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. Oh, and that's when I discovered Mary Stewart and Sherlock Holmes.

What I keep re-reading now: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Mary Stewart, the Rumpole stories and, when I need comforting, Miss Read. Oh, and mysteries by Marsh, Caudwell, Beaton, Leon, Allingham, Francis, Brett, and on and on and on.

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

I probably spend 15 to 20 hours per week actually writing, and about that same amount of time on the business of being an author: appearances, maintaining a web presence, doing research,corresponding with fans, attending my writers' group, etc. I also have a day job and -- and this is more relevant than one might think -- I'm single. So I have to go to the bank and the grocery store, take out the garbage, walk the dog, pay the bills...

I'm reading more these days because I've discovered that if I'm going to stay healthy, I have to take time to relax. I try to read for at least a half hour before going to bed, and I usually get in six or seven hours on Sundays. That's not counting the audio books I consume by the dozens as I drive, clean my house, walk the dog and deal with almost anything that has to do with finances.

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

I had been writing for 18 years when I learned about the Debut Dagger Awards given by the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. Our CWA bestows Edgars, their equivalent is the Dagger. And the Debut Dagger is a category the Crime Writers of America don't have: manuscripts by previously unpublished authors. It's open to anyone who meets their qualification for unpublished, writing in the crime genre in the English language anywhere in the world.

I submitted The Mystery of the Third Lucretia, which emerged as Highly Commended -- essentially second place, but it is only awarded when they believe the field of submissions is particularly strong. I'm not certain, but I think mine was the first manuscript for young readers ever honored by the Debut Dagger committee.

As it happens, one of the judges was an agent for ICM, which at that time had an office in London. She referred me to Tina Wexler (click for an interview) , her colleague in the New York office, who reviewed and accepted my manuscript. Tina managed to get a mini-bidding war going, and the book was finally placed with Viking.

An interesting side note. My manuscript was highly commended by the Debut Dagger committee in 2005. In 2008, a manuscript by the wonderfully talented Charlie Rethwich (pen name C.J. Harper), another member of my writers' group, earned the same honor. Same honor, same writers' group, Twin Cities, Minnesota, USA -- what are the odds?

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

I believe a writer is born with the ability to create a story, just as a composer is born with the ability to write music. One indication is the perennial fan question: "Where do you get your ideas?" This question tends to leave many writers speechless. The answer seems so obvious. Of course we get our ideas from our imagination.

(Interesting that I don't get this question from the young people I meet. Kids are still close enough to their imagination not to have to ask.)

I also believe that writers need to be taught, and, if they are to succeed, must learn to take criticism and become a better writer because of it.

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

I love getting lost in the story. I love it when my characters come alive and start behaving in ways I couldn't have predicted. I love fan mail. But the single best thing is traveling to do research in the places I write about. London, Paris, Amsterdam, Scotland, Kenya -- what's not to like?

My least favorite thing, hands down, is working with voice activated software, which I have to do because of repetitive stress issues. Imagine having to write an entire manuscript this way:

Open quote Lucas all caps that exclamation point close quote I screamed period open quote look out exclamation point close quote new paragraph the cap jaguar missed her by inches period

In print this would look like:

"LUCAS!" I screamed. "Look out!"

The Jaguar missed her by inches.

That's not even including the problem of the mistakes the program makes. And as wonderful as Dragon NaturallySpeaking is, it still makes lots of mistakes.

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)

To succeed as a writer you need to do five things.

1) Read everything you can, preferably including Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible.

2) Write. Preferably every day, whether you think you have it in you or not.

3) Finish your projects. You'll never get anything published if you don't get anything finished.

4) Take criticism. (See above.)

5) Persevere. Even when it's a drag.

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

Jane Austen. I want to find out how on earth she managed to write such incredibly wonderful books with only the barest minimum of plot. Frankly, the thought of so much talent makes me tired.