Monday, July 29, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Peter Rubie

Peter Rubie specializes in a broad range of high-quality fiction and non-fiction. In non-fiction he specializes in narrative non-fiction, popular science, spirituality, history, biography, pop culture, business and technology, parenting, health, self help, music, and food. He is a “sucker” for outstanding writing.
In fiction he represents literate thrillers, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, military fiction and literary fiction, middle grade and some boy oriented young adult fiction.

Rubie is a former BBC Radio and Fleet Street journalist and for several years was the director of the publishing section of the New York University Summer Publishing Institute. He was a member of the NYU faculty for 10 years, and taught the only university-level course in the country on how to become a literary agent.

Prior to becoming an agent he was a publishing house editor for nearly six years, whose authors won prizes and critical acclaim. He has also been the editor-in-chief of a Manhattan local newspaper, and a freelance editor and book doctor for major publishers. He was a regular reviewer for the international trade magazine Publishers Weekly, and is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction. He is a member of AAR, and regularly lectures and writes on publishing and the craft of writing, and was once a professional jazz musician.

For more information, check out my friends Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's wonderful blog, Literary Rambles.

And now Peter Rubie faces the 7 Questions: 

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?
Well, it's really so hard to choose given all the books I've read over the years, but the ones that stick in my mind are, in no order of preference, James Clavell's Shogun, Robert Goddard's In Pale Battalions, and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as Young Man. But there are A LOT of also rans that at different times might well take their place particularly Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, and Warhorse and Seabiscuit.

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

Ah, guilty pleasures.  Again, in no order of preference, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and while it was running, Fringe, I think.  But Games of Thrones, The Shield and The Sopranos would be up there as well.
And my favorite movie for pure craft as well as entertainment is likely a toss up between The Fugitive and Unforgiven.

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

A terrific wordsmith, and someone who is ready and eager to work in partnership editorially and in business with me.  It's his or her career, of course, but the whole point of having me available is to define the potential problems coming down the pike, and come up with elegant solutions to them we can both put into operation on his or her behalf. 

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

Look at the books and TV shows. My taste is pretty eclectic.  I do crime novels, thrillers, strong fantasy and SF, middle grade for boys in particular, long for strong narrative nonfiction.

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

My favorite thing I think, is taking a writer and not only setting them on the path to success, but helping to craft that success so they get the most out of a really frustrating business.  My least favorite thing is dealing with the ultra conservative mindset of mainstream publishers these days, and the great frustrations that pop up from all angles unexpectedly.

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)

Writing is two things: it is a craft you have to practice and master, and that can take a long time because however talented you are it's NOT easy to do well; but it is also a business.  And these days, that means among other things being marketing savvy, knowing how to use social media effectively, and realizing despite what you have achieved previously, you're only as good as your last published book.

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

Oh this is just unfair!   Who to choose?  The writers I know, particularly the ones who are successful, are by and large all entertaining, smart, witty people made more so by the social oiling of good food, good company and good drink.  Charles Dickens perhaps, but also Carl Sagan, and perhaps Samuel Becket, though I suspect he would do more listening than talking.  And perhaps Wilfred Owen, Shakespeare or Chaucer, and/or Lord Byron.  Nothing like a supremely talented bad boy for an entertaining meal companion.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

7 Questions For: Author Susan Kaye Quinn

Susan Kaye Quinn is the author of the bestselling young adult SF Mindjack Trilogy. The just-released Debt Collector series is her more grown-up SF, meant for ages 17+. 

Susan grew up in California, got a bunch of engineering degrees (B.S. Aerospace Engineering, M.S. Mechanical Engineering, Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering) and worked everywhere from NASA to NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research). She designed aircraft engines, studied global warming, and held elected office (as a school board member). Now that she writes novels, her business card says "Author and Rocket Scientist," but she mostly sits around in her pajamas in awe that she gets paid to make stuff up.

All her engineering skills come in handy when dreaming up dangerous mindpowers, future dystopic worlds, and slightly plausible steampunk inventions. For her stories, of course. Just ignore that stuff in the basement.

Susan writes from the Chicago suburbs with her three boys, two cats, and one husband. Which, it turns out, is exactly as much as she can handle.

And now Susan Kaye Quinn faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

At the moment, Hugh Howey’s Half Way Home has invaded my brain and taken up residence. I listened to it on audio, and it was just beautiful, brilliant, and moving. I have a new target to aspire to, in terms of authorly awesome. I used to want to write a book as awesome as Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, or Holly Black’s White Cat, or Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games, all for their brilliantly inventive storytelling and fantastic voice. But Hugh is my new benchmark for his ability to combine beautiful words with heart-wrenchingly moving stories. 

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

As much as I possibly can, often to the detriment of sleeping, personal care, and domestic duties. At least I haven’t started drinking scotch or smoking cigars—aren’t those supposed to be the proper vices for writers? In all seriousness, I’m trying to transform my writing addiction into something that resembles writing efficiency, and I’m reclaiming more time for my passion for reading.

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

A delightful question! Wish I had a simple answer for that. For my first novel (Life, Liberty, and Pursuit, a YA romance), a small-press publisher came to me: an early beta-reader had joined their team, and she was in love with the story. I never actually planned on publishing that one, but I decided it would be a great learning experience. And it was! 

I queried a couple other novels before deciding to self-publish Open Minds, the first in my YA SF Mindjack Trilogy. The time ever since has been a head-long, dead-run of writing, publishing, rinse, repeat. Now, I’m a firm believer in indie publishing. I’ve had some interest from other publishers, and I won’t rule out releasing a book through a publisher in the future, but it will have to be the right offer for the right book. Generally speaking, I’m concentrating on writing the books I want to write first, then figuring out the right publication path for them second.  

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

Writers simply are—born into the world with a unique perspective, molded by their experiences, and intentionally brought into being by a dedication to learning the craft. Writing is thinking; writing well is clear thinking. Everyone is capable of doing this, but not everyone devotes the time to learning the craft to do it well. 

I came to writing fiction as a career later in life (taking turns as an engineer, scientist, and politician first), but I was always thinking, consuming the world, and using words to describe my perspective on it. I’m self-taught in the craft of fiction writing, believing that my Ph.D. in engineering entitles me to opt out of the classroom and design self-study programs in things I want to learn. (Which is not to say that some writing workshops aren’t worthwhile – I’m attending two this fall given by masters in the craft). 

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

Writing has allowed me to become whole, integrating all the sides of me: analytical, adventurous, emotional, intellectual. I love that it’s opened up this whole other side of me, giving me a passion I plan to follow the rest of my days. 

My least favorite thing is that it taps into all my fears simultaneously. I understand (now) that fear is part of the process, but why couldn’t free martinis be part of the process? Or extra shiny hair? Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? #gratiutousIndianaJonesReference

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 hold back: be merciless to your characters and to yourself. Dive into what scares and frightens and excites you. Dare to be your truly authentic self—in the creativity business, that uniqueness is your main asset. Don’t fear it; treasure it. And hunt it down with a knife.

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

I’d have lunch with Hugh Howey. I’ve already had dinner with him, so lunch would be a nice variation. I’m sure there’s more I can learn from him about the craft and business, and I was able to control my fangirling (mostly) the first time. If he’s booked, I’d love to chat up Scott Westerfeld, just so I could listen to his wild creativity in person. He enthralled me the one time I heard him speak, and I’m sure he has more for me to soak up.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


First Paragraph: Harry got up on Sunday morning and dressed so inattentively that it was a while before he realized he was trying to pull his hat onto his foot instead of his sock. When he’d finally got all his clothes on the right parts of his body, he hurried off to find Hermione, locating her at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall, where she was eating breakfast with Ginny. Feeling too queasy to eat, Harry waited until Hermione had swallowed her last spoonful of porridge, then dragged her out onto the grounds. There, he told her all about the dragons, and about everything Sirius had said, while they took another long walk around the lake.

Sorry to have missed you last week, Esteemed Reader. I found myself jolted with a story inspiration and decided to pursue it rather than write for this blog. Not to worry. I promise every Esteemed Reader here a full refund on their subscription fee:)

I love blogging, but I consider myself a fiction writer who happens to blog, rather than a blogger who happens to write fiction. Which is to say, from time to time, my fiction will come first, and since we had Hugh Howey here last week, I figured we could take a little break from Harry Potter. But I'm back this week and ready for more if you are, Esteemed Reader.

As you know, we've been looking at some indie authors just recently and I plan to keep it up intermittently. We're still going to talk with traditionally published authors, of course, but I find the indie author revolution fascinating. I can't help speculating how Harry Potter might do if it were self-published now. At the time the first book came out, ebooks were not as viable an option as they are currently, so it would have to be now, or better yet, a few years from now once more first generation ereaders have been handed down to kids.

Some might argue that Robert Galbraith didn't do as well without the Rowling name, but I don't think that's a fair basis for comparison. I'm very much enjoying The Cuckoo's Calling and I found The Casual Vacancy to be dry and preachy, but still worth reading. However, neither of those books are Harry Potter. As there's no way to ever prove an argument one way or another, I don't suppose it much matters, but I think Harry Potter would have still found readers, whatever manner it was published. 

Maybe I'm naive, but I believe nothing succeeds like a great story, well told. Indie publishing likely would've taken Rowling longer to find readers and no doubt the book would've suffered without the insights of editor Cheryl Klein, but Howey's Wool was edited by his mother and it's an unqualified success on it's way to the science fiction hall of fame. Granted, that book has a major publishing house behind it now, which I'm sure is helping, but that's not why that book's a tremendous success. The movies and theme park attractions came after Rowlling crafted a great story, well told that found readers, not before.  

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is also a great story, well told, and Chapter 20 is one of the high points of the series. Harry does battle with a dragon at long last, wins the first task in the Triwizard Tournament, and makes friends with Ron again. I'm not going to reproduce those passages, as wonderful as they are. I'm assuming, since you're here, you've read the book, and you know how awesome those moments are. But those are the firework explosions in the sky meant to dazzle readers and we're viewing this book on the ground as writers watching how Rowling lights the fuses. 

And Chapter 20 is all about lighting a long fuse. From the start of the chapter, Harry and Hermione are preparing for the dragon battle:

They walked three times around the lake, trying all the way to think of a simple spell that would subdue a dragon. Nothing whatsoever occurred to them, so they retired to the library instead. Here, Harry pulled down every book he could find on dragons, and both of them set to work searching through the large pile.

“‘Talon-clipping by charms . . . treating scale-rot . . .’ This is no good, this is for nutters like Hagrid who want to keep them healthy. . . .”

No matter what else happens this chapter, the anticipation of Harry's battle royal looms large in every scene:

He therefore had to endure over an hour of Professor Trelawney, who spent half the lesson telling everyone that the position of Mars with relation to Saturn at that moment meant that people born in July were in great danger of sudden, violent deaths. 

“Well, that’s good,” said Harry loudly, his temper getting the better of him, “just as long as it’s not drawn-out. I don’t want to suffer.” 
Ron looked for a moment as though he was going to laugh; he certainly caught Harry’s eye for the first time in days, but Harry was still feeling too resentful toward Ron to care

I especially like that passage as it not only builds anticipation for Harry's impending doom, but re-establishes Harry's need for Ron and Ron's love for Harry. When Harry and Ron are finally reunited at the end of this chapter, the happiness we'll feel then is in direct correlation to the sense of loss we feel here and in other passages from previous chapters. Such moments are never won in the moment, they're earned in all the scenes leading up to them.

And so it is with this dragon fight. We talked on this in Chapter 19 and I don't want to belabor the point, but the reason Rowling's action sequence is so exciting is not the sequence itself. Granted, after so much build up, the scene has to deliver and it does. Harry zooms about on his broomstick and out flies the dragon. But without the anticipation built before the scene, it would be just another quidditch match.

Here's a passage everyone who's ever had to face something unpleasant, which is to say, everyone, will be able to relate to:

Harry felt oddly separate from everyone around him, whether they were wishing him good luck or hissing “We’ll have a box of tissues ready, Potter” as he passed. It was a state of nervousness so advanced that he wondered whether he mightn’t just lose his head when they tried to lead him out to his dragon, and start trying to curse everyone in sight. Time was behaving in a more peculiar fashion than ever, rushing past in great dollops, so that one moment he seemed to be sitting down in his first lesson, History of Magic, and the next, walking into lunch . . . and then (where had the morning gone? the last of the dragon-free hours?), Professor McGonagall was hurrying over to him in the Great Hall. Lots of people were watching.

The best scene for me in this chapter is not Harry actually fighting the dragon, although, again, it is very cool. I prefer the scene before the big fight in which Harry waits his turn while listening to the other champions battle their dragons. I think it may be the best scene in the whole book:

It was worse than Harry could ever have imagined, sitting there and listening. The crowd screamed . . . yelled . . . gasped like a single many-headed entity, as Cedric did whatever he was doing to get past the Swedish Short-Snout. Krum was still staring at the ground. Fleur had now taken to retracing Cedric’s steps, around and around the tent. And Bagman’s commentary made everything much, much worse. . . . Horrible pictures formed in Harry’s mind as he heard: “Oooh, narrow miss there, very narrow” . . . “He’s taking risks, this one!” . . . “Clever move — pity it didn’t work!”

When Harry's turn comes and he exits the tent to face the dragon, the reader is so pumped full of anticipation, Rowling's work is done for her. She has to deliver an exciting battle, but the hard part is done. The reader is primed to respond to whatever action she decides to write. She has to deliver on our expectations, but that's the easy part. Getting the reader to cry when a character dies is not a matter of writing a sad death, but of building a character worth crying for in all the scenes that lead up to his demise. And so it is with suspense. 

I've got two more thoughts for you and then we'll have to call it a day. First, note that just because this chapter is all about the dragon battle, Rowling still makes time to drop in clues for readers trying to solve the overarching mystery surrounding Mad-Eye Moody:

“What’s that?” Harry asked, pointing at the squiggly golden aerial. 
“Secrecy Sensor. Vibrates when it detects concealment and lies . . . no use here, of course, too much interference — students in every direction lying about why they haven’t done their homework. Been humming ever since I got here. I had to disable my Sneakoscope because it wouldn’t stop whistling. It’s extra-sensitive, picks up stuff about a mile around. Of course, it could be picking up more than kid stuff,” he added in a growl.

Second, Rowling shows us in Chapter 20 how to impart morality to young readers without preaching. In later scenes and books, she's not always so subtle, but in Chapter 20 she shows us Harry doing a moral act:

“Hi,” said Cedric, picking up a copy of A Guide to Advanced Transfiguration that was now splattered with ink. “My bag just split . . . brand-new and all . . .” 

“Cedric,” said Harry, “the first task is dragons.” 
“What?” said Cedric, looking up. 
“Dragons,” said Harry, speaking quickly, in case Professor Flitwick came out to see where Cedric had got to. “They’ve got four, one for each of us, and we’ve got to get past them.” 
Cedric stared at him. Harry saw some of the panic he’d been feeling since Saturday night flickering in Cedric’s gray eyes.

From a plot perspective, it's important Cedric be aligned with Harry because later he'll help him solve the mystery of the golden egg and later still he'll help Harry "win" the tournament. Also, remember that thing I said about building a character worth crying for when he dies? 

But one of the reasons we read stories at all is to learn how to live. In telling a story, the writer inevitably reveals her morality, and the right way to do this is through the actions of the protagonist. Harry tells Cedric about the dragons because it's the right thing to do, not because he knows he'll later need Cedric's help. Harry does the right thing because that's who he is as a character. More, because Harry does the right thing, he's later rewarded for it.

Rowling doesn't slow the story down to explain this or preach and she doesn't have to. The reader picks it up automatically: Harry Potter = good guy. Harry Potter is fair and does the right thing =  that is what a good guy does. Helping Cedric helps Harry = being fair and doing the right thing comes with rewards.

And that's going to do it for week 20 of our never-ending discussion of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. See you next week for chapter 21 and every week until this post series is done, and then I'm not going to look at another Harry Potter book for a long time--unless Robert Galbraith writes a new one:)

Last Paragraph(s): It was Rita Skeeter. She was wearing acid-green robes today; the Quick-Quotes Quill in her hand blended perfectly against them. 

“Congratulations, Harry!” she said, beaming at him. “I wonder if you could give me a quick word? How you felt facing that dragon? How you feel now, about the fairness of the scoring?” 
“Yeah, you can have a word,” said Harry savagely. “Good-bye.” 
And he set off back to the castle with Ron.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book of the Week: OPEN MINDS by Susan Kaye Quinn

WARNING: This book is actually YA and contains some adult language and content. I wouldn't go so far as to call it an 'R,' but maybe a strong 'PG,' if not edging toward 'PG-13.'

First Paragraph (s): A zero like me shouldn’t take public transportation. 
The hunched driver wrinkled a frown before I even got on the bus. Her attempt to read my mind would get her nothing but the quiet of the street corner where I stood. I kept my face neutral. Nobody trusted a zero to begin with, but scowling back would only make the driver more suspicious. I gripped my backpack and gym bag tighter and climbed the grime-coated steps. The driver’s mental command whooshed the door closed behind me.

..., Esteemed Reader. What's that? You couldn't hear me? That's odd. I was thinking my thought right at you. Wait, you can't read minds either!?! Well, shoot. I guess we'll have to stick to traditional written communication for the rest of the review. Yawn.

I'm so excited about this week's book, Esteemed Reader, and I can't wait for you to read it. Open Minds is frequently available for free on Amazon, and depending on when you're reading this, you might be able to go download it for free right now. Or pay some money. Either way, get your hands on this book anyway you can and while you're at it you may as well pick up Closed Hearts and Free Souls (love those titles), because you're going to want to read the whole Mindjack trilogy. 

In the interest of full disclosure, author Susan Kaye Quinn is an old friend. I've mentioned this before, but I knew Susan back when she was writing mostly middle grade. The book I was working on at the time was a science fiction story, and I can't think of a better critique partner (sorry Mike Mullin) than a rocket scientist and engineer. Susan's a lot smarter than I am and a heck of a lot braver. That's cool. One of my life strategies has always been to hang around people who are smarter than I am.

We're going to talk about the book, I promise, but Susan was maybe the first or second Esteemed Reader ever to introduce herself when this blog began. She professed a love of Ayn Rand, but I've tried not to hold that against her. I remember I was interested in her because her blog was better than mine. It still is, and you could be reading it instead of this right now:) In no time, Susan and I were swapping critiques and tales of submission woes, which is what writers talk about until later in their careers when they talk about money. I held out until I got an agent, Susan went indie, and when I think of indie authors, it will always be Susan Kaye Quinn I think of. 

Because I told her not to do it. 

No, Susan, I said, don't publish an amazing trilogy that will be beloved by readers around the world. No, Susan, don't produce a product far superior to the majority of traditionally published books. No, Susan, don't promote your books more effectively than most traditionally published authors and build a huge fan base. No, Susan, don't become such a huge success I'm left eating my words watching you boldly go where I was too cowardly to follow:)

Susan Kaye Quinn, here, in front of the internets, I formally apologize. You were right and I was wrong. What I didn't know and you did was that you're a force of nature who was always going to be a success no matter what path you chose. By watching you, I learned to be a better blogger, and now I'm watching you to learn how to be a better author. 

Enough with that. Let's talk about Open Minds. Movie Preview Voice: In a world where everyone can read minds, the only crime, is not being able to, but being able to jack into other people's minds is also a crime, because, well, Kira can also do that, and, um. Oh heck, I'm going to let Susan explain the premise. She's better at that than I am too:

Long ago, everyone used to be zeros. When those first reader kids hit puberty and discovered they could read minds, the world didn’t know what to make of it. That first wave of Reader Freaks grew up to have more Reader Freaks. 
Now the only freaks were the few people who never changed. Like me.

If I had been born ninety years ago, I would have felt this way every day. Back then, it was the first readers who were different and paid the price for it. Grandma O’Donnell’s stories about the camps where the government held her dad and the other early readers still gave me the creeps. 
Only later did they find the pharmaceutical cocktail that had been brewing in the world’s drinking water supply. The mixture of drugs was everywhere, around the world, and by the time anyone understood what was happening, it had already started to activate the part of people’s brains that sensed thought waves. And it was too late to stop it.

Pretty cool, right? I once had a depressing dream I was the only X-man without a mutant power (self esteem issues much?). That's kind of what sixteen-year-old Kira Moore's life is like:

The longer I remained a zero, the more likely I would be that one-in-a-thousand who would never change. Zeros didn’t attend college—no one trusted them to do real work, so what did they need college for? I’d have to get some low-paying job where I wouldn’t have to mindtalk or be trusted. At least I didn’t live in a country where they sent zeros to asylums. In Chicago New Metro, I’d just be relegated some job that readers couldn’t stand, like guarding the demensward of a mental hospital.

If I didn’t change, boyfriends would be like college—an experience other people would have while I figured out my life as a zero. I pushed that thought from my mind.

The stage is set and wonderfully so. Kira's journey as a protagonist is clear. She has to fight to prove her worth in a society that cast her out. Whatever Susan writes for the rest of this book, she has to address this story issue, and it cannot be saved for books two or three. 

More, this is the universal appeal of Open Minds, certain to appeal to every teenager ever. Who hasn't felt separate, apart, and rejected by our peers, especially during the cruel social experiment that is high school? All psychic mumbo jumbo aside, this book is a mother assuring readers they're not alone in feeling awkward and there's hope that they'll find their place, as most of us do.

But the psychic mumbo jumbo is the best part! Kira isn't just a zero. She has super powers. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and in the world of mind readers, the girl who can control the thoughts of those around her is queen. In a twist worthy of The Twighlight Zone, Kira discovers she can "jack" the minds of others and control them as though using the imperius curse. And they don't know she's done it.

If that idea doesn't capture your imagination, nothing will. I lay awake a long time after reading Open Minds imagining what I might do with such an ability (I'd make people read books instead of watching Cheaters). And to Susan's credit, she demonstrates her teenagers using their powers for many likely activities, such as buying beer:

Simon’s command echoed through the attendant’s mind. We’re going to buy this.
 Well, sure you’re going to buy that. But you need some money, friend. 
From the tired sound of his thoughts, this wasn’t the first time Simon had jacked him to illegally sell beer. I nervously checked the parking lot. With my luck, one of my dad’s Navy buddies would stroll in to find his friend’s daughter buying alcohol. 
Simon handed the man two pieces of white plastic, both small and square. The attendant took the cards and held one up, examining it as if it wasn’t completely blank. In his mind, the card appeared to be a driver’s license with Simon’s picture.

All things considered, Kira and her friends show remarkable restraint with their jacking abilities. And I'm showing remarkable restraint in not sharing with you the many passages with uses of the verb "jacking" that made me giggle, because I'm forever twelve (hangs head). Kira has some fun learning to use her power, but just when things are getting a little too cozy, she's introduced to a secret society and a government conspiracy and a whole lot of action and intrigue, enough to fuel a full trilogy. 

And there's still time for spice:

He pulled me closer and his kiss was gentle, but the hot liquid feel of it still made my body sing.

Oh my goodness (fans self to cool down). Kira is, naturally, caught between two boys: her friend and the bad boy, both devastating handsome, naturally. If the plot and intriguing premise don't grab you, the love triangle will. Open Minds has something for everyone. 

It's a well written, well crafted novel, better than most traditionally published books I've read and a prime example of what I love about the indie market. Susan Kaye Quinn hasn't failed to produce a traditionally published novel, she's produced something better on her own terms that eager readers can't get anywhere else. Esteemed Reader, you owe it to yourself to read this book and to pay close attention to this author while she still has time for our emails because she's only going to get bigger and better from here. I doubted her once. I won't make that mistake again.

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

I had as much chance of passing his class as the chair I was sitting on.

All thoughts of telling Raf the truth flew away like birds scattering before an approaching cat.

I was the worst friend that had ever lived. All Raf got from me was lies and insults to his face. I resembled that sludge, the green stuff that forms a slimy coating on the outside of cheese that was so old it had become hazardous waste. That was me: toxic green ooze. There was nothing to do with cheese like that but throw it out.

Simon pulled into the entrance. The car’s beams sliced white blades through the ash trees lining the forest drive.

Gray metal warehouses lined up like ammo cases and caught the red glow of the setting sun. Jagged shadows made the ramshackle buildings seem ready to collapse.

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.

Monday, July 22, 2013

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Stephen Barr

Stephen Barr is an agent with Writers House, and holy crap does he like books - unexpected memoirs with itchy voices, narrative non-fiction that tackles hard-to-tackle issues, wry and rarely paranormal YA, laugh-until-you-squirt-milk-out-of-your-nose middle grade, sweet and wacky (but still logical!) picture books from author/illustrators, and rarest of all, fiction that rewards the reader line-by-line and that gets to know (at least) one character really, really well (will brake for Geoff Dyer, Aleksandar Hemon, J.M Coetzee, Stephen King, etc.) ... he's willing to be a sucker for smart, unconventional thrillers, mysteries that bend reality, ghost stories that blow reality to hell, and literary novels that are interested in why people do the things they do and why they feel the things they feel.

Writers House was founded in 1973 with a vision for a new kind of literary agency, one that would combine a passion for managing a writer's career with an integrated understanding of how storytelling works. With this two-pronged philosophy, Writers House has played a critical role in developing the careers of hundreds of novelists and non-fiction authors. We believe in offering our clients not only our expertise in negotiating contracts, but in contributing to all phases of the editorial and publishing processes. Our goal is to maximize the value of our clients' work by providing hands-on editorial and marketing advice, as well as leading the way in branding, licensing, and selling film/TV, foreign, audio, dramatic and serial rights.

For more information, check out my friends Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick's wonderful blog, Literary Rambles.

And now Stephen Barr faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books? 

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey has a pretty safe spot in the top three…I remember walking through the (now dearly departed) Borders on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles with my dad, about six or seven years ago, when he picked up a copy and told me that when he was in college, Sometimes a Great Notion was the only thing his entire dorm talked about for two whole years.  Not the only book, the only thing.  Out of all the things.  Maybe I decided that I had to love it, lest I be a lousy son, but I think I would have loved it even if I’d been going through my annoying rebellious phase.  It’s gorgeous line by line, of course, but what killed me about it was the way it talked about the total possibility of loving your own totally impossible family.  
P.S. Just to be clear, I love my family.        

The Fantastic Mr. Fox probably gets a spot, too, since there must have been some reason I read it 150 times as a kid, beyond how totally drool-inducing the drawings of roasts and ribs and ham hocks and barrels of cider were.  No one will ever be a better, cooler dad than Mr. Fox.

I guess Sentimental Education by Flaubert rounds out the top three, if only because it helped me figure out that I wasn’t actually in love with this one girl I thought I was hopelessly in love with (for years and years and years).  Phew.            

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

I know a couple of these probably bear some explanation, but I’m going to pretend that they don’t, and that they’re all totally obvious choices, and that you all totally agree with me.

The Fugitive

Home Alone

Habla Con Ella (Talk to Her)

Twin Peaks

The West Wing

Mad Men 

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

 Someone who’s so good at writing that I’m not bothered by their slightly mad-scientist-y desire to take over the world (with their books).  

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


A cookbook that’s actually a novel in disguise.  Seriously! 

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?
My favorite thing by far is being there at the slow genesis of an idea that my author and I can tell is going to be totally freaking incredible.  That and giving good news to a writer who worked his or her butt off.

My least favorite thing is that we don’t get badges like other kinds of agents.  That and giving bad news to a writer who worked his or her butt off.

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)

There are no shortcuts, and the long way has a much better view. 

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

Sloane Crosley, because lunch is always a good time to ask someone to marry you.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

7 Questions For: Author Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey spent eight years living on boats and working as a yacht captain for the rich and famous. His travels took him all over the islands of the Caribbean, up and down the East Coast, and through the Great Lakes. It wasn’t until the love of his life carried him away from these vagabond ways that he began to pursue literary adventures rather than literal ones. Whisked away to the mountains of North Carolina, he began a stint as the book editor for a popular review site and had reviews published in the New York Review of Science Fiction. Building on these experiences, Hugh wrote his first young-adult novel, MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE. The MOLLY FYDE series went on to win rave reviews and praise from readers. Hugh now lives in Jupiter, Florida, with his wife, Amber, and their dog, Bella. The dream is to return to the sea one day and complete the circumnavigation that has so far eluded him. Until then, he sticks with more literary adventures, and enjoys interacting with the readers he meets along the way.

Here's an article Hugh wrote about the benefits of self publishing.

And here's a hilarious response to Sue Grafton's recent comments about self-published authors.

Click here to read my review of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue.

Click here to read my second interview with Hugh Howey.

And now Hugh Howey faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

ENDER'S GAME by Orson Scott Card
and a new one: LEXICON by Max Barry

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

I spend 30 hours a week writing. And probably the same amount of time reading.

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

My first novel was picked up by a small publishing house. When I got the contract for the sequel, I thought long and hard and decided to self publish the book on my own. I've been self-publishing ever since. I have signed some contracts with major publishers when it made sense, however. WOOL is being published in over 30 territories. It's been a lot of fun working with editors and publishers to bring the story to more readers. 

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

I believe writers are made through reading. Absorbing a lot of stories prepares you for telling your own. That's been true for me, anyway.

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

My favorite thing about writing is the revising and editing. My least favorite thing is staring at a blinking cursor when I don't know what happens next!

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)

Stop comparing your rough draft to the finished products you read and enjoy. It's supposed to be rough. Leave it alone and keep writing to the end of your story, no matter what. Once you reach the end, you'll be able to go back and clean the work up. Push through! 

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

Mark Twain. And I'm sure I'd have a hard time keeping my drink from exiting my nose.

Want more? Here's 7 MORE Questions For Hugh Howey.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book of the Week: MOLLY FYDE AND THE PARSONA RESCUE by Hugh Howey

WARNING: This book is actually YA and contains some adult language and content. I wouldn't go so far as to call it an 'R,' but maybe a strong 'PG,' if not edging toward 'PG-13.'

First Paragraph(s): Molly floated in the vacuum of space with no helmet on—with no protection at all. In the distance, a starship slowly drifted away. It was her parents’ ship, and they were leaving her behind. 
She swam in the nothingness, trying to keep them in view, but as always she spun around and faced the wrong direction. It was the only torment the old nightmare had left. After years of waking up—screaming, crying, soaked in her own sweat—she had whittled it down to this. 
She gave up fighting for one last glimpse and tried to relax, to find some breath of peace. They were out there, even if she couldn’t see them. And as long as she stayed asleep, suffocating and alone, her parents remained among the stars. Alive. 
“Molly.” A voice pierced the dream. Molly cracked her eyes and blinked at her surroundings. Beyond the carboglass cockpit loomed a scene similar to her nightmare, but filled with a fleet of Navy ships. The fire of their thrusters blended with the stars beyond, little twinkles of plasma across the stark black. 
“Gimme a sec,” she mumbled, rubbing her eyelids before snapping her visor shut.

Don't you just love that first sentence? It tells us right away what genre of story we're reading and hooks the reader with immediate danger. I doubt a traditional publisher would've allowed an opening containing a dream sequence, but an indie author can do what he pleases, and I think it's a great opening. 

Oh my, Esteemed Reader, have we got a treat in store this week! If you're one of those who hasn't yet discovered Hugh Howey, I envy you, because you have some amazing reading experiences ahead. No, not this review:(

Wool is the story getting all the attention because it was an indie publication that lead to huge sales and a movie deal, and you don't want to miss it. Hugh Howey is living the dream of every author, self published or not, and anytime we writers see someone's fiction making this sort of impact, we should read them. Readers around the world are sending a signal: "we like this."

I loved Wool. But I listened to the audio version, so I didn't highlight any passages, because I didn't know how much I was going to love it. I didn't further know that Hugh Howey would be willing to make time for us and answer the 7 Questions, which he totally is (check back Thursday, it's going to be epic). I did read and highlight I, Zombie (so awesome), but there's no way that book's appropriate for this blog. As I'm reading Howey's entire catalog anyway, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the first book in his wonderful YA series, The Bern Saga

The opening events of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue reminded me quite a bit of Ender's Game, and as that's my favorite science fiction novel after Stranger in a Strange Land, that's a very good thing. Orson Scott Card may be a terrible human being, and Robert Heinlein would probably have obnoxiously hit on your wife, sister, breathing female companion, but man can (could) they write:) Like Ender Wiggin, Molly Fyde begins as a cadet training for warfare in space through computer-generated virtual reality who might just be being manipulated by a vast conspiracy.

Minor spoiler: Howey does the very smart thing of not telling us we're reading the inconsequential events of a virtual reality simulation until it's over. In this way, he's able to open his novel with an exciting space battle every bit as awesome as the best moments of Battlestar Galatica and Star Wars. We get to see Molly in action, learning what a bada** (it's YA this week) she is by Howey showing, not telling us. We also get to meet the supporting players and see them get killed, but not really. 

This is a tricky business as opening with a virtual reality sequence is as potentially deadly to a story as opening with a dream sequence, yet Howey does both, deftly navigating around the pitfalls as though he's piloting the Parsona between asteroids. The key is he keeps the simulation sequence exciting and short. It's so much fun, afterward, I didn't care the star-ship battle was never real, and Howie tells us it's not real as soon as he's out of ships to blow up and cadets to kill. If he'd waited 50 pages to reveal all the deaths I'd just read didn't really happen, I would have been annoyed. Brevity is the soul of wit and surprise virtual reality sequences:)

Unfortunately, reality comes crashing back and we learn human society has taken a surprising step backward:

Women used to fight alongside men. They used to fly ancient atmospheric ships and go into combat. It was hard to determine the numbers from the history books, but it was common enough that people didn’t seem to notice. 
Something happened to change all that. Somewhere along the way, it was decided that women can be Presidents and CEOs and Galactic Chairs and work in the support side of the military, but they cannot fight.
What the history books wouldn’t tell her was why this had changed. And anyone she approached with the question, including Lucin, brushed her off or reprimanded her for being “too inquisitive” or “naive.” And she had been naive. Back then, the knowledge of what women used to do gave her the optimism needed to join the Navy. Now she saw it differently. The precedents set by history didn’t mean something was possible in the future. No. The fact that they were able to go away from this progress meant something far more sinister. And final.

That's right, ladies. Howey is writing about the future and it looks a lot like the 1980's:

So I ask you, given that Howey is writing about a future most readers have no hope of living to see unless the singularity happens sooner rather than later, why does he choose to write about a backward society? Why not set his story in Star Trek times where Klingons may blow us out of the sky, but people of all races, genders, and planetary origins are mostly treated equal?

There are a lot of reasons and the story provides some, but for my money, I think Howey did it to give his protagonist more opposition to encounter. I know that racism and sexism in America are over, but if you can harken back to a time long ago when those things did exist, I'm sure modern readers might just relate to Molly's struggle to overcome the prejudice of those around her. More, a protagonists is only as interesting as the antagonism she faces, and by stacking the deck against her before he even introduces an actual antagonist, Howey invests us in Molly. Here's one of my most favorite passages:

As soon as she returned to the barracks, Molly could tell something bad had happened. Her arrival in a towel invariably led to whistles and catcalls from the male cadets. These were usually followed with bouts of derisive laughter, assuring Molly the flattery was a joke. 
Five years ago, Molly saw these taunts as signs of fear. An androgynous eleven-year-old stick of a girl had entered their ranks and could out fly every single one of them. Later, as she grew into a young woman, she sensed they were hiding a different brand of fear. Despite the Navy’s poor excuse for food, her thin body had filled out. Workouts and womanhood had wrapped long, lean curves over her tall frame. The narrow face that had once made her look like a gangly boy produced high cheeks, a straight nose, and a tapered chin. She was beautiful. She knew it. And she hated that everyone took her less seriously because of it.

Lest we forget, Esteemed Reader, The Parsona Rescue is the first in The Bern Saga, and Howie has more books to sell us. Therefore, it is essential that he takes time to establish Molly Fyde as a character we want to read more about and often. And he does. I'm already enjoying Molly Fyde and the Land of Light. I'll follow Ms. Fyde through her many adventures because Howie has shown us a character worth investing our time in.

He does this in broad strokes with the over-arching plot, of course, but also in a million small ways:

From her meeting with Lucin to her arrival on Earth’s Orbital Station, it felt more like a month than a week. Especially with all the lazy scheduling teachers do prior to spring break at Avalon. She tried to concoct busywork for herself, doing all the problems her teachers said to skip, but it barely dented her anticipation.

Molly Fyde is the sort of character who works harder than the other students and cadets because she has to. Plus she's beautiful and as I mentioned, a bada**. What follows is another passage to the same effect as the previous, but with a reckless breaking of a sacred rule I want to talk about a paragraph from now:

A visitor? Molly couldn’t think of anyone who knew her outside of the school and the Academy. And nobody from the latter would be caught dead here. Vaguely intrigued, she ambled toward the door thinking of Jim’s problems with the corn harvest, unaware of how profoundly her life was about to change. 
Mrs. Stintson watched her prized student file out before sliding Molly’s test out from the bottom of the pile, placing it on top.

Did you see it? Did you witness Howey hoping from one character's perspective to another without even batting an eye? This is what the indie author revolution looks like: opening with dream sequences and shifting perspectives in a mostly third-person fixed narrative. There's ink running in the streets! Viva la revolucion!

As with all the rules he breaks, Howie does so for a reason. First, know that the passage in question is the end of section, so the break in perspective is less intrusive. By putting us briefly in Mrs. Sintson's head, we learn information about Molly we wouldn't otherwise know. Is it absolutely necessary for Howie to break perspective to accomplish this? No, but it works and nobody gets hurt, so why shouldn't he do it?

Great Caesar's ghost! We're out of review! Sorry, Esteemed Reader. I haven't done one of these Book of the Week posts in a while and we've run long. And after all that brevity/soul talk:( 

Let me wrap up by saying Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue is an amazing read and Hugh Howey has joined the pantheon of great science fiction writers in my mind. Except he's cooler than Orson Scott Card, who hasn't agreed to face the 7 Questions despite frequent, stalker-ish requests:) 

There's a whole lot more to this book and to this series, but I'll let you discover the wonders ahead for yourself. Does Molly have a strong attraction to her handsome partner? Does she encounter strange alien worlds and get locked up in their prisons? Does she take on a wonderfully vile alien sidekick? Does she ever get to fly her father's ship, the Parsona, and does she ever unravel the mystery of what happened to her parents? Esteemed Reader, you'll just have to read this wonderful book and find out--and you totally should. Hugh Howie is an author worth setting a PlayStation controller aside for:)

As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue:

She was living on borrowed time, which made suicidal risks suddenly worth calculating.

It wasn’t supposed to be a scoreboard, or taken as a game, but that’s how the students saw it. All but one of them were boys. Comparing anything measurable was their favorite pastime.

Molly frowned at her pilot and pulled the reader out of its pouch. She resented not being able to fly, but she had a hard time taking it out on Cole. Partly because he had earned his position, but mostly because she considered him a friend. And in the male-dominated galaxy in which she lived and operated, those were as rare as habitable worlds.

They were pressing toward a cacophony of clanging and yelling—poverty’s soundtrack. This was a tune Molly recognized from her childhood on a frontier planet. It was a chorus of competitive complaining, a group with very little yet wanting much.

Molly suddenly realized they were in a bunker disguised as an office. A room meant to take the worst kind of pounding and survive. For some reason, walls so thick made her feel less safe. Like she had moved to the center of a bull’s-eye. 

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.