Thursday, May 30, 2013

7 Questions For: Author Chris Rylander

Chris Rylander is the author of The Fourth Stall, The Fourth Stall Part II, and The Fourth Stall Part III. He was born and raised in North Dakota and currently lives near the center of North America with his wife Amanda. They have one dog and one cat. He swears he's never participated in any organized crime. (Just don't ask how he got his house.) He's a fan of strawberry jam and one-armed cowboys.  

Click here to read my review of The Fourth Stall.

And now Chris Rylander faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

However, I would also have added books by M.T. Anderson and George Saunders if I were able to choose just one. 


Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?
 
Writing time can vary so much.  It's not consistent at all for me.  If I have an approaching deadline, then likely 80 hours a week writing or more.  But some weeks I don't do any writing at all.  As for reading, I wish I spent more time reading!  I would say when I'm home, an hour a week on average which isn't nearly as much as I used to spend reading.  Though when I travel, which is fairly frequently, then I read much closer to a 10-15 hours per week pace on average.  


Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?
 
For me it was to always keep pushing.  It took me three manuscripts before I finally got published, but I wrote them all in under a year.  I was incredibly driven, motivated by how easy it was to get my foot in the door (a simple query letter.)  I thought that was just the coolest thing: That a simple email to an agent was all it took to get your fair shot.  

Eventually I queried an agent who connected with my writing (after over 150 rejections), and that was that.  There is a whole lot more to the story, of course, but to tell the whole thing I'd have write at least a novella, if not more.  I'll just say that, ultimately, I was just lucky to have finally queried the right agent for me at the right time.    


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

I think both can be true.  Some are born with a natural gift.  Others have to work harder to get better, to improve enough to finally get over that hump.  But I do believe that all writers need at least a little of both, natural talent and hard work.  And the very best writers have tons of talent and also work the hardest.  Which I think is the same way it works in sports, visual arts, and even other industries.  I think for me, I have a lot of natural ability.  I must, since I've never taken any writing classes past 10th grade.  That said, I read a ton as a kid and I think that helped me immensely.  Also, I truly believe my love of movies, TV, and video games, (of stories in general) has also helped me become a better writer, even as counter-intuitive as that may seem.



Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing
 
My favorite thing is the emails I get from kids.  There's no substitute for what that feels like.  Knowing that your book, something you just completely made up, had any kind of impact on a kid's (or adult's) life.  It's awesome.  Similarly, I have a blast doing school visits. 

My least favorite part is having too many ideas to ever get down on paper.  There's too much to write and not enough time to do it!  It drives me crazy.

 
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)

It's to keep going.  Stay motivated, don't be afraid to let go of one manuscript and start another. Be your own worst critic.  The people who are the hardest on themselves, the ones who AREN'T convinced they've written the next Harry Potter, are typically the writers who end up making it.  


Also, I know this is a cliche, but I really mean it: Don't let rejections get to you.  I never did. And I will never understand why so many writers let rejections crush them.  Reading is such an objective thing, we all know that.  Everyone has books they love and books they hate.  So why would your book be any different?  Some people will like it, others won't.  Even to this day, bad reviews never get me down.  I mean, what I am going to do?  Walk around with a knife and threaten people until they like my book? You just can't force people to like anything.  So simply write the best book you can and don't worry about stuff you can't control.  Wow, that was a rant.  I'm sorry.  But, seriously, I don't carry around knives. My nickname is not Steak Knife. I swear.


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

WARNING: This will be a very dark answer.  

Probably John Kennedy Toole.  I'd try to cheer him up if I could. Tell him the future. Convince him to stay with us so we'd get to read more of his amazing, hilarious writing. 

Also, I've always wanted to pick George's Saunders brain.  Literally, I mean.  I want to see if his brain, is, you know, different from other brains.  I bet it's a bright color at least.  Like bright orange maybe.  That'd be cool.  Bright orange brains seem like they'd make for genius writers.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

NINJA BOOK CLUB: Chapter 14 THE UNFORGIVABLE CURSES

First Paragraph: The next two days passed without great incident, unless you counted Neville melting his sixth cauldron in Potions. Professor Snape, who seemed to have attained new levels of vindictiveness over the summer, gave Neville detention, and Neville returned from it in a state of nervous collapse, having been made to disembowel a barrel full of horned toads

Howdy, Esteemed Reader! I sure hope you're enjoying these weekly discussions of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I've enjoyed writing them and though I'll likely take a break when we finish, I think we'll have to find another great book and do this whole Book Club thing again. 

This week we're talking Chapter 14, which is essentially an extension of last week's Chapter 13. We've seen Mad-Eye Moody out of the classroom and now we're seeing him in the classroom. Rowling builds excitement in the reader for what is going to be a long exposition dump by demonstrating the excitement of her characters:

The Gryffindor fourth years were looking forward to Moody’s first lesson so much that they arrived early on Thursday after lunchtime and queued up outside his classroom before the bell had even rung. The only person missing was Hermione, who turned up just in time for the lesson. 
“Been in the —” 
“Library.” Harry finished her sentence for her. “C’mon, quick, or we won’t get decent seats.”

Suppose there's anything to Hermione spending so much time in the library? Of course there is! Right now it's important to note only how Rowling builds reader suspicion by mentioning Hermione being in the library both here and later in the chapter as well as at least once in the previous chapter. Since Hermione spends a lot of time in the library anyway, Rowling has to draw attention to the fact that she's spending extra time in the library to arouse the reader's interest. 

The bulk of Chapter 14 is a long lesson taught by Mad-Eye Moody. There are three unforgivable curses the reader is going to need to know for not just the ending of this book, but for the next three books that follow. This exposition is important enough that Rowling gave it it's own separate chapter. But first, she has to establish a credible reason why Harry and his classmates are learning about them now:

I say, the sooner you know what you’re up against, the better. How are you supposed to defend yourself against something you’ve never seen? A wizard who’s about to put an illegal curse on you isn’t going to tell you what he’s about to do. He’s not going to do it nice and polite to your face. You need to be prepared. You need to be alert and watchful. You need to put that away, Miss Brown, when I’m talking.” 
Lavender jumped and blushed. She had been showing Parvati her completed horoscope under the desk. Apparently Moody’s magical eye could see through solid wood, as well as out of the back of his head.

What a masterful character Mad-Eye Moody is! I've mentioned before he's my favorite in the series, just barely edging out Dumbledore. I like that whatever else he may be, whoever else he may be, Mad-Eye Moody is a good teacher. I imagine it would be amazing to be in a class taught by him on any subject, let alone a subject as interesting as unforgivable curses.

Moody has prepared stunning visuals to illustrate his lesson and a less skilled writer would've left it there, but Rowling knows better. In the end, the information of how bad guy spells work is not of practical use to the reader. The magic doesn't exist. We can't take what we learn here and apply it elsewhere. 

The unforgivable curses are not genuinely interesting to the reader until they're impacting our characters in some way, which of course, they later will. There's a reason this information is presented in the context of a story and not a fantasy text book--yes, I know Rowling wrote two such Harry Potter themed text books as well as a fairy tale collection. But none of those works have approached the popularity of the main tale. 

The thing to take away from Chapter 14 is not the information about the curses or even Moody's presentation skills beyond how they add to his character. The thing to take away is how Rowling ties the information to character, using it to shape her characters as well as making the information relevant. 

She does this first humerously utilizing Ron's fear of spiders the reader will remember well from The Chamber of Secrets. And to be fair, if giant spiders had surrounded my car and threatened to eat me and my friend, I'd have a bit of a hang up about spiders as well.

Moody got heavily to his mismatched feet, opened his desk drawer, and took out a glass jar. Three large black spiders were scuttling around inside it. Harry felt Ron recoil slightly next to him — Ron hated spiders.
Moody reached into the jar, caught one of the spiders, and held it in the palm of his hand so that they could all see it. He then pointed his wand at it and muttered, “Imperio!” 
The spider leapt from Moody’s hand on a fine thread of silk and began to swing backward and forward as though on a trapeze. It stretched out its legs rigidly, then did a back flip, breaking the thread and landing on the desk, where it began to cartwheel in circles. Moody jerked his wand, and the spider rose onto two of its hind legs and went into what was unmistakably a tap dance. 
Everyone was laughing — everyone except Moody. 
“Think it’s funny, do you?” he growled. “You’d like it, would you, if I did it to you?” 
The laughter died away almost instantly. 
“Total control,” said Moody quietly as the spider balled itself up and began to roll over and over. “I could make it jump out of the window, drown itself, throw itself down one of your throats . . .” 
Ron gave an involuntary shudder.

Note how Ron's reactions build upon each other, climaxing at the demonstration of the final curse for maximum comedic effect. But laughter is not the only emotional response Rowling seeks to illicit. Returning readers will remember that Neville Longbottom's parents were tortured to death by the very spell Moody is demonstrating. See how it changes the tone of the exposition and invests it with greater weight:

“The Cruciatus Curse,” said Moody. “Needs to be a bit bigger for you to get the idea,” he said, pointing his wand at the spider. “Engorgio!” 
The spider swelled. It was now larger than a tarantula. Abandoning all pretense, Ron pushed his chair backward, as far away from Moody’s desk as possible. 
Moody raised his wand again, pointed it at the spider, and muttered, “Crucio!” 
At once, the spider’s legs bent in upon its body; it rolled over and began to twitch horribly, rocking from side to side. No sound came from it, but Harry was sure that if it could have given voice, it would have been screaming. Moody did not remove his wand, and the spider started to shudder and jerk more violently —
“Stop it!” Hermione said shrilly. 
Harry looked around at her. She was looking, not at the spider, but at Neville, and Harry, following her gaze, saw that Neville’s hands were clenched upon the desk in front of him, his knuckles white, his eyes wide and horrified. 
Moody raised his wand. The spider’s legs relaxed, but it continued to twitch.

And finally, Rowling brings us back to Harry, whose emotional journey is the subject of seven books. I especially want to point out Rowling's use of the word "thrill" in this next passage. It's the right word, of course, and it lends a certain perspective to Harry. But contrast Harry's reaction to the spell that killed his parents versus the reaction of Neville to the same: 

Moody raised his wand, and Harry felt a sudden thrill of foreboding. 
“Avada Kedavra!” Moody roared. 
There was a flash of blinding green light and a rushing sound, as though a vast, invisible something was soaring through the air — instantaneously the spider rolled over onto its back, unmarked, but unmistakably dead. Several of the students stifled cries; Ron had thrown himself backward and almost toppled off his seat as the spider skidded toward him.

Oh Ron, don't ever change:) All of this exposition and emotional investment is more than enough work for one chapter, but witness how Rowling uses this lesson to pull off one essential final coup:

“You all right, Neville?” Harry asked him. 
“Oh yes,” said Neville, “I’m fine, thanks. Just reading this book Professor Moody lent me. . . .” 
He held up the book: Magical Water Plants of the Mediterranean
“Apparently, Professor Sprout told Professor Moody I’m really good at Herbology,” Neville said. There was a faint note of pride in his voice that Harry had rarely heard there before. “He thought I’d like this.”
Telling Neville what Professor Sprout had said, Harry thought, had been a very tactful way of cheering Neville up, for Neville very rarely heard that he was good at anything. It was the sort of thing Professor Lupin would have done.

Comparing Mad-Eye Moody to the beloved Professor Lupin is a master stroke. Rowling is all but telling the reader that Mad-Eye Moody is one of the good guys, but she never actually says this. She has Harry think it.

This combined with his attack on Malfoy last chapter all but certifies Mad-Eye Moody, despite the reasons Rowling gave us to distrust him. Taking the time to endear Moody to the reader not by telling us about him, but by showing us his kindness to poor Neville sets us up perfectly for the book's big surprise many chapters and many weeks from now.

I'm out of time, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Rowling does tell us the reason Hermione's spent so much time in the library recently. She's been researching the history of house-elves and formulating a plan to create a political party in their favor. We'll be talking about that more in later chapters, but another event coming up in the novel is Hermione dating a boy other than Ron! 

Poor Ron! He looses his best friend and his girl thoughout the course of this novel, but see how Rowling plants the seeds. Suppose this conversation has anything to do with Hermione's later fancying someone other than Ron:

“I’ve been researching it thoroughly in the library. Elf enslavement goes back centuries. I can’t believe no one’s done anything about it before now.” 
“Hermione — open your ears,” said Ron loudly. “They. Like. It. They like being enslaved!” “
Our short-term aims,” said Hermione, speaking even more loudly than Ron, and acting as though she hadn’t heard a word, “are to secure house-elves fair wages and working conditions. Our long-term aims include changing the law about non-wand use, and trying to get an elf into the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, because they’re shockingly underrepresented.”

And that's it. Meet me here next week for a discussion of Chapter 15. 

Last Paragraph: He heard Ron come up into the dormitory a short while later, but did not speak to him. For a long time, Harry lay staring up at the dark canopy of his bed. The dormitory was completely silent, and, had he been less preoccupied, Harry would have realized that the absence of Neville’s usual snores meant that he was not the only one lying awake.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book of the Week: THE FOURTH STALL by Chris Rylander

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061994979/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=211189&creative=373489&creativeASIN=0061994979&link_code=as3&tag=midgranin-20
First Paragraph(s): You need something? 
I can get it for you. 
You have a problem? 
I can solve it. 
That’s why they come to me. By “they” I mean every kid in the school. First graders up to eighth graders. Everyone comes to me for help, and most of the time I’m happy to provide it. For a small fee of course. 
My office is located in the East Wing boys’ bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. My office hours are during early recess, lunch, and afternoon recess.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. I hope you enjoyed the holiday. I spent my long weekend being one of the very first people anywhere to read the third Ashfall book by Mike Mullin. It's everything fans are hoping it will be and more, or at least it will be once I give Mike my critique notes:) I can't talk about that book other than to say how amazed I was to learn the entire trilogy was a dream Alex had:)

Today, instead, we're going to discuss a book I can talk about and for once it's not Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, though we'll be talking about that one tomorrow. And Thursday author Chris Rylander will be here to face the 7 Questions. It's going to be a great week.

I met Chris at a recent SCBWI conference. We didn't get much time to talk, unfortunately, as I had to get to a session taught by Kathi Appelt. As she knows my name, I didn't want to walk in late and be called out. But I'll definitively be looking out for Chris at another conference, as anyone who writes a book as enjoyable as The Fourth Stall is someone I want to get to know better. Also, anyone who drops casual references to both Quantum Leap (one of the Ninja's all-time favorites) and MacGyver in his fiction is definitely in my cool book.

Chris Rylander wants to make you an offer you can't refuse: read the first chapter of The Fourth Stall, and you won't be able to resist devouring the whole book and rushing back to get Parts II and III. Would-be-middle-grade-writers, which is most of you Esteemed Readers, take note: as The Fourth Stall is a crime saga, there is apparently no genre for adults that cannot be adopted to a story for children. I haven't read the middle grade Naked Lunch yet, but I'll find it one day and when I do I'll review it here.

Meet our hero:

My real name is Christian Barrett, but everyone calls me Mac. Mac is short for MacGyver. This eighth grader, Billy Benson, called me that once, and it stuck. Now it’s just Mac, because people are lazy.

If this story had a Godfather or a Don, Mac is he. If a student has a problem they need taken care or, they can go see Mac in the fourth stall and request his extra legal assistance with said issue. Mac and his friends perform the service for a fee, and from time to time, they may call upon you for a favor. But don't worry, parents. Mac isn't handling actual crime, he's focused strictly on kid issues:

Anyways, I mostly handle easy stuff, like getting kids test answers, or forged hall passes and doctor’s notes, or video games that their parents won’t let them play, but every once in a while something tough comes my way. Like my last client on this particular Monday. His was one of the most difficult problems I ever faced.

Despite being a sixth grade gangster, Mac has his limits:

“I’m, well, I’ve been told that you could help me with anything, anything at all, right?” 
“Of course, as long as it doesn’t involve, like, killing a raccoon and then barbecuing it in the alley behind your house or something like that,” I said.

A little crime in a youngster's life is a good thing. Keep in mind, the Ninja is not officially a parent until later this year, but speaking as a former child, I had a run-in with organized crime at a young age. This blog isn't my confessional (besides, I'm saving the story for a book), but know I'm not proud of the part I played. That's not to say I'm not grateful for the lesson. 

By falling in briefly with the wrong crowd and having to worry which of them was going to rat me out, I inoculated myself against any future criminal activity. I don't commit crime, despite it's rewards, because I learned early on that the lifestyle of a criminal isn't one I want. I'm not always crazy about my day job, but it sure beats the nervous, fretful life of a person operating outside the law.

Rylander opens his crime story the way every crime story should open: by honestly demonstrating that crime does have it's short-term rewards. Mac and his best friend Vince have a life-long dream of seeing the Cubs play in the world series and thanks to their criminal organization, they almost have enough money for tickets. More than that, Mac is respected by his classmates and seems to always gain the upper hand in any situation. What kid wouldn't want to be Mac? 

But there's a new criminal in town: 

His age always varied from story to story, but it was generally agreed that he was now between fourteen and twenty. Some kids claimed that he could do forty pull-ups with two seventh graders dangling from each leg. Others said he could pop a tetherball with a single punch. He also supposedly ran a mile in under six minutes and was smarter than Albert Einstein and Hermione Granger combined. 
According to the legends, Staples had an intricate web of connections that spread throughout almost every high school, elementary school, and middle school in the city. He was even rumored to have people in the police department. He was untouchable. 
They say he used his network to operate an illegal gambling ring. He’d take bets for pro sporting events like football and baseball games, but he mostly took them for local middle school and high school sports games. He also fixed the games. That is, he paid kids to lose on purpose. To miss free throws and easy layups in basketball and fumble the ball in football games and stuff like that.

Worse yet, Staples doesn't share Mac's scruples and moral code:

one time Staples even threatened to kill this kid’s dog

In no time, Mac is forced to hire out bullies to "whack" a guy, which in this case, means beating him up and embarrassing him. From there, things only escalate. All sorts of misfortune befalls Mac and Vince as they learn what it is to tango with a true criminal element. As there are two sequels, I suppose they don't learn their lesson that well:) But being nearly intentionally run over by a red sports car while riding your bike home has to at least give a sixth grade mafioso pause. 

The Fourth Stall is tightly paced and a lot of fun. I recommend it for readers of all ages. Rylander maybe stretches the truth a bit about what misbehaving sixth graders can actually get away with, but the story never feels implausible. The characters and their struggle are real and the story is just realistic enough to feel like it might be happening in the next school over. 

Rylander tells a responsible story about how crime is both alluring and dangerous. As his young readers will sooner or later enter older grades and be faced with all sorts of temptations--they were there when I went and we didn't even have the internet--it's a good idea to prepare kids through the medium of a good story that packs some suspense and a lot of laughs. 

And crime doesn't pay (mostly) is not the only opinion Rylander is sneaking in. He also arranges for a little social commentary, including multiple references to the unfairness of the American class system, which is to be expected in a story about criminals. He's also got some thoughts on school board priorities:

Dickerson never ordered a new toilet because the process of doing so would just bring unwanted attention to the whole embarrassing ordeal. That, and the school had spent most of its money that year buying these cool Nike uniforms and tracksuits for all the sports teams.

And my personal favorite, a warning to all readers of the importance of nutrition: 

I heard a few years ago that he once kidnapped two cops and then made them eat three whole cases of doughnuts and two gallons of coffee and now they both have diabetes and no feet!

Goodness, me. I see we are out of review already. In closing, The Fourth Stall is a wonderful middle grade read and I have no doubt it is destined to be a classic in any genre. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“Christian, think of it this way: It’s kind of like at the fair when you order a funnel cake and it’s all warm and greasy and covered in powdered sugar, and oh man, it’s so good. And then you eat it all and lick the sugar and grease off your fingers and it’s just delicious.” 
“What? How is it like that at all?” I said. 
“It’s not. I just really want a funnel cake right now,” he said, rubbing his stomach.

He was an eighth grader, the biggest kid at our school; he towered over the other students like an NBA player at a midget convention.

The recognition hit me like a medicine ball chest pass from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As soon as he lunged forward, I jumped from the middle of the teeter-totter onto the seat behind me. The other end fired up like a Chuck Norris roundhouse. I didn’t actually see what happened, because I was too busy making sure I landed on my feet, but I heard a crack that sounded like a baseball being crushed out of its skin by a wooden baseball bat.

Staples smiled. It was the sort of smile that a hyena might give a rotting zebra carcass.




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, May 22, 2013

NINJA BOOK CLUB: Chapter 13 MAD-EYE MOODY

First Paragraph: The storm had blown itself out by the following morning, though the ceiling in the Great Hall was still gloomy; heavy clouds of pewter gray swirled overhead as Harry, Ron, and Hermione examined their new course schedules at breakfast. A few seats along, Fred, George, and Lee Jordan were discussing magical methods of aging themselves and bluffing their way into the Triwizard Tournament.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader. Sorry to have had to leave you hanging last week. We were moving and as I've mentioned previously, there's a little ninja on the way. Mrs. Ninja may be eating for two, but I was moving for two, and it kept me from my Harry Potter duties. 

To be honest, my life is about to change in a whole bunch of ways I can't foresee. In the meantime, I'm trying to remain calm and write. As I type these words, I'm staring out my new office window at a lovely forest and a river with wildlife scurrying about. With such an amazing view to inspire me, I have no doubt I'll still be spending as much time as I can right here concocting stories and blog posts for you. How much time that will be exactly I can't say as I've never lived with a baby before. We're taking morning sickness and hormones and all the rest of it one day at a time at the Kent home. And that's how it will be here, Esteemed Reader. I'll do my best to get up a few posts a week, but we're going to have to take this one day at a time.

Enough. We're here to discuss Chapter 13 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and discuss it we will. This chapter is primarily about two things: establishing routine at Hogwarts as well as the now adolescent age of our characters, as well as building Mad-Eye Moody as a character (that's why this chapter is called "Mad-Eye Moody") and giving us clues as to how he will impact the story. And what could better signal our character's shift to adolescence than a herbology lesson about bubotubers:

Squeezing the bubotubers was disgusting, but oddly satisfying. As each swelling was popped, a large amount of thick yellowish-green liquid burst forth, which smelled strongly of petrol. They caught it in the bottles as Professor Sprout had indicated, and by the end of the lesson had collected several pints.

And that is just disgusting. Given her love of the gross out, giant spiders, snakes, and other monsters, I would love to read a J.K. Rowling horror story. But in chapter 13 she's establishing the routine of life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There are Blast-Ended Skrewts to contend with in Hagrid's class and charts to be filled out in Divination. And for some reason, Rowling can't resist a joke that's older than the ninja: 

“Oh Professor, look! I think I’ve got an unaspected planet! Oooh, which one’s that, Professor?” 
“It is Uranus, my dear,” said Professor Trelawney, peering down at the chart. 
“Can I have a look at Uranus too, Lavender?” said Ron.

Popping pimples and thinking awkward, vaguely sexual thoughts are the hallmarks of adolescence. Hormones run amuck and Ron has become increasingly moody, which Rowling demonstrates by explicitly stating it to the reader: 

“Miserable old bat,” said Ron bitterly (yucky adverb that tells us nothing we can't deduce from the scene--MGN) as they joined the crowds descending the staircases back to the Great Hall and dinner. “That’ll take all weekend, that will. . . .” 
“Lots of homework?” said Hermione brightly, catching up with them. “Professor Vector didn’t give us any at all!” 
“Well, bully for Professor Vector,” said Ron moodily. ("said Ron" beats "said Ron moodily" every time--MGN)

As always, when I'm about to pick on Rowling, I must acknowledge that she has more craft and creativity in her little toe than yours truly has in his whole body. In a writing contest between me and J.K. Rowling, I'm not even considered a competitor  But I like bearing witness to the hideous adverbs in speech attribution that add nothing littered throughout the Harry Potter books. I enjoy finding these things as it assures me Rowling actually wrote a story from nothing and wasn't taking divine dictation.

Chapter 13 isn't just about adolescence and homework. It's called Mad-Eye Moody because this is the chapter in which Rowling better establishes the character of the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. She's got to make us like Mad-Eye Moody and as he's my favorite character in the series, even if (spoiler) he's not really him, I'd say she's a success. But she's also got to play fair and give the reader a chance to solve the mystery before it's revealed. 

The second half of Chapter 13 is absolutely brilliant, hideous adverbs or no. Rowling wants to emphasize to us that there were strange going-ons at Mad-Eye Moody's place. In Chapter 11, Rowling told us a version of these invents, using Amos Diggory's burning head and toast as a distraction. In Chapter 13 she gives us more details about this event the reader has to be aware of in order for the end of the story to make sense. In Chapter 11, Rowling also gave us reason to hate Draco Malfoy. Granted, returning readers will hate Malfoy from previous books, but Rowling never relies on that. 

Witness how Rowling again delivers important exposition, this time using Malfoy as a distraction. She does this while further fueling our hatred for Malfoy and even introducing tabloid journalist Rita Skiter pages upon pages before her first actual appearance in the story:

“Listen to this! 

FURTHER MISTAKES AT THE MINISTRY OF MAGIC 
It seems as though the Ministry of Magic’s troubles are not yet at an end, writes Rita Skeeter, Special Correspondent. Recently under fire for its poor crowd control at the Quidditch World Cup, and still unable to account for the disappearance of one of its witches, the Ministry was plunged into fresh embarrassment yesterday by the antics of Arnold Weasley, of the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office.”

Malfoy looked up. 
“Imagine them not even getting his name right, Weasley. It’s almost as though he’s a complete nonentity, isn’t it?” he crowed. 
Everyone in the entrance hall was listening now. Malfoy straightened the paper with a flourish and read on: 

Arnold Weasley, who was charged with possession of a flying car two years ago, was yesterday involved in a tussle with several Muggle law-keepers (“policemen”) over a number of highly aggressive dustbins. Mr. Weasley appears to have rushed to the aid of “Mad-Eye” Moody, the aged ex-Auror who retired from the Ministry when no longer able to tell the difference between a handshake and attempted murder. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Weasley found, upon arrival at Mr. Moody’s heavily guarded house, that Mr. Moody had once again raised a false alarm. Mr. Weasley was forced to modify several memories before he could escape from the policemen, but refused to answer Daily Prophet questions about why he had involved the Ministry in such an undignified and potentially embarrassing scene. 

“And there’s a picture, Weasley!” said Malfoy, flipping the paper over and holding it up. “A picture of your parents outside their house — if you can call it a house! Your mother could do with losing a bit of weight, couldn’t she?” Ron was shaking with fury. Everyone was staring at him.

We could not hate Malfoy more at this moment and as a suitable punishment is about to befall him, that's as it should be. But see also how Rowling has built reader sympathy for Ron without needing to tell us he's reacting "moodily." Ron's subplot is a thread we've been following for chapters now and it's fascinating to see how Rowling builds a case for Ron's perspective before the reader knows why we need to consider Ron's view of things. The big argument between Ron and Harry later will be all the more poignant because we'll understand where Ron's coming from. 

So, ask yourself, if you're writing a Harry Potter story (you will be sued), and you've got to immediately get the reader to like Mad-Eye Moody while at the same time providing reason to suspect him beyond the fact that he's the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and already a prime suspect, what's the best way to do it? If you picked having him attack Draco Malfoy and punish him appropriately for how he's menaced our heroes, you've read this book before:) Still, is there anything that could make readers prepared to love Moody more than his turning Malfoy into a ferret:

“LEAVE IT!” Moody shouted. 
“Leave — what?” Harry said, bewildered. 
“Not you — him!” Moody growled, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at Crabbe, who had just frozen, about to pick up the white ferret. It seemed that Moody’s rolling eye was magical and could see out of the back of his head. 
Moody started to limp toward Crabbe, Goyle, and the ferret, which gave a terrified squeak and took off, streaking toward the dungeons. 
“I don’t think so!” roared Moody, pointing his wand at the ferret again — it flew ten feet into the air, fell with a smack to the floor, and then bounced upward once more. 
“I don’t like people who attack when their opponent’s back’s turned,” growled Moody as the ferret bounced higher and higher, squealing in pain. “Stinking, cowardly, scummy thing to do. . . .” 
The ferret flew through the air, its legs and tail flailing helplessly. 
“Never — do — that — again —” said Moody, speaking each word as the ferret hit the stone floor and bounced upward again.

How could we not love Mad-Eye Moody? The story doesn't end here and we'll be talking more about Mad-Eye in later chapters, but this is without a doubt one of my most favorite moments in the series. I see we've run long, so I'm going to call it a day. But it's a pleasure to be back with you, Esteemed Reader. 

Join me next week as I've got some great interviews to share with you and, God willing, we'll be discussing Chapter 14 from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. 

Last Paragraph(s): “Moody!” he said. “How cool is he?” 
“Beyond cool,” said George, sitting down opposite Fred. 
“Supercool,” said the twins’ best friend, Lee Jordan, sliding into the seat beside George. “We had him this afternoon,” he told Harry and Ron.
“What was it like?” said Harry eagerly. 
Fred, George, and Lee exchanged looks full of meaning. 
“Never had a lesson like it,” said Fred. 
“He knows, man,” said Lee. 
“Knows what?” said Ron, leaning forward. 
“Knows what it’s like to be out there doing it,” said George impressively. 
“Doing what?” said Harry. 
“Fighting the Dark Arts,” said Fred. 
“He’s seen it all,” said George. 
“’Mazing,” said Lee. Ron dived into his bag for his schedule. 
“We haven’t got him till Thursday!” he said in a disappointed voice.

Monday, May 20, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Gemma Cooper


Gemma Cooper represents authors who write for children, from 5+ to young adult. Here she is in her own words:

Before joining The Bent Agency, I worked as a literary agent at Bright Literary Agency, representing a wide range of authors and author/illustrators, from picture books to YA. As an agent, I get to be the first fan of an unpublished book and then champion this book - nothing beats being able to talk up your passions to other book fanatics.

Originally from London, I started my publishing career while living in NYC for three years. I have since moved back to the UK, and I work with UK and US authors.

My client list is typified by character lead stories, with voice being the biggest thing I look for. I love younger fiction, and have a soft spot for funny books aimed at 7+ with series potential. With MG, I'd love to see a good mystery, but really any MG with strong voice will get my attention whatever the subject matter. For YA, I'm a sucker for boy POV, a good contemporary romance or thriller. Author/illustrators writing MG or chapter books would get my immediate attention!

And now Gemma Cooper faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I’ll cheat a little and give you my top three MG books, because this is almost an impossible question if you are including adult, YA, 7+ and picture books!

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – I adore this book so much; the voice, the mystery, the setting, the characters, the...everything!

Once by Morris Gleitzman – I use the opening of this book in a ‘voice and engaging writing’ workshop I run as I think it’s one of the best examples of a character jumping out of a book, sitting down next to you and telling you his story. The sequel Then is still a book I can’t even talk about it without crying.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo – Another choice based on an authentic voice and the fact I love a soppy dog story.

And I’ll cheat again to say I recently read The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate and absolutely adored it. I want to give it time to see if it’s got the re-readability of the above, but I’m pretty sure it will end up on future favourite lists. Makes my heart sing just thinking about it.


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

Movies
Hot Fuzz
Heathers
Groundhog Day

TV
Red Dwarf
Dexter
Buffy the Vampire Slayer


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

A great writer, of course! But also someone who is fun to work with and who I can connect with on a personal level. I talk to my clients a lot – via Skype, phone, long rambling emails – and I want to get on with them on more levels that just the writing. I also want people who are responsive, hardworking and social media-savvy – and not in the sense of being a whiz on Twitter or writing a great blog, but being savvy enough to know what they can and can’t discuss online. I can’t watch everything that goes online and I need to trust my clients to make sound judgments about what they talk about.

I’m blessed with a great bunch of clients who all fall into the ideal client category – they cheer for each other, they’ve formed their own little network and they’re all respectful of my time. I’m actually running a client retreat in June, so any new clients must be up for fun!


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

I have just signed up a fantastic author/illustrator with a MG project - it’s hard to find great fiction writers who also illustrate, so this was a massive coup for me. But I always want more! I’m the biggest Wimpy Kid fan, and I’d go crazy if something similar turned up in my submissions. Also, I’m known for my love of funny chapter books or younger MG series. I represent My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish, and I want to find something equally as funny with that super hook. There is a lot to be said for writers who can write a genuine nine-year-old voice. For MG, send me ALL of it – anything and everything. For YA, I prefer contemporary romance or thrillers with a strong voice. I will also look at dark and gritty YA.


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

I love being able to champion a book I’m passionate about. You know what it’s like: you finish an amazing book and want to run out and tell everyone about it. Well, I get to do that all the time! How lucky am I?!
My least favourite thing is looking at my to-do list and reading pile and realising there is never enough time to read all the things. I could take a month off and still not read everything I want to.


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)

The pace of publishing is odd. It can be very slow, then suddenly lots of things happen, and then it slows down again, and then...etc. Don’t think about publishing time as your typical cause-and-effect; think of it more as a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey...stuff, (three points for getting that reference). If you expect publishing to be in its own weird timezone, then you won’t be as surprised when it goes through stages of being crazy-manic and then deathly quiet. Be patient and go with it.

My other big bit of advice is make friends with other writers. The best writers have great critique partners. It’s hard to edit your own work, and a great CP will see things that you are just too close to see. Also, it’s great practice editing other people’s books, as you’ll learn tools to help edit your own work.


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

I’ll finish as I started by cheating a little with one living and one dead writer.

I’d love to have met Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of my comfort books. I read it a bunch of times as a teen, and now I have the audiobook, which I listen to if I’m struggling to sleep or if I need to get out of my head for a time. I also think his Dirk Gently novels are fantastic. It would have been great to sit down and have a natter with him about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

I always struggle when people ask for my favourite author, as it’s hard to pick, but the author I’ve read the most of is Robert Rankin – I must be up to 22 of his books now. They are a total mix of comic fantasy, sci-fi, the occult and urban legends, always with running gags, recurring characters and set in Brentford. They are also comfortable reading as you know what to expect...but you also don’t if that makes sense.The biographies at the front of Rankin’s books are fictional, so I’d love to actual find out something real about him and where his bonkers ideas and humour come from. I mean, you have to want to have a drink with anyone who came up with the book title The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse! (Which is an excellent book, FYI.)






Monday, May 13, 2013

7 Questions For: Editor Frances Gilbert


When not drinking tea and watching kitten videos, Frances Gilbert is the editorial director of Doubleday Books for Young Readers at Random House. (Confession: sometimes she does all these things at the same time.) 

Prior to moving to Random House in June 2012, Frances was at Sterling Publishing for twelve years, most recently as children’s publisher. Frances has been working in children’s books since she was fifteen. She began work in her town library’s children’s department as a teenager and continued to work in libraries though university, until she started her first publishing job at Scholastic Canada in Toronto in 1994. 

I had the good fortune to meet Frances at a conference and she is extremely kind, capable, and as impressive in person as her bio. Any author who gets the chance to work with her should consider themselves very, very lucky.

And now Frances Gilbert faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Bread and Jam for Frances is the book that made me a reader as a four year old; Catcher in the Rye is the book that made me a reader as a thirteen year old; and The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse is the book I read when the world needs to be set right.


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

Any TV drama from the BBC; and any film with bonnets and corsets. Oh, and Project Runway, which I never miss. 


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

Someone who believes in the value of every word they write and doesn't make me read a word that isn't necessary.


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

A middle grade novel featuring orphans. (I am partly kidding and partly deadly serious.)


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

All I ever wanted as a kid was to be left alone to read. That pretty much sums up my job as an editor, so I am thankful every day for a career that made my dreams come true. My least favorite thing about being an editor is creating copyright pages. It bores me to tears. Sometimes literally.


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

Read the first page of Saul Bellow's "Herzog" and the first chapter of Rick Moody's "Purple America" and bask in what perfect writing sounds like.


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

I've always felt Stephen Fry and I would be best friends. I'd love to have a drink with him at the Groucho Club in London.