Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Guest Post: "Chronology V. Plot: Dawn of New Years" by D. A. Winsor

The Calendar Is Ending! We Are All Doomed!

My middle-grade fantasy, Finders Keepers, turns partly on the struggle to avert a disaster that will occur when the calendar changes to the year 4000. As the story approaches New Year's Eve, 3999, a plague kills many people, earthquakes swallow buildings, and floods threaten to drown the city. All will be lost unless the book's 12-year-old hero, Cade, is willing to risk his own well-being to save everyone else.

I got the idea for the plot while I was drafting this book in 2012. The internet was abuzz with speculation over what might happen on 12/21/12, the last date on an ancient Mayan calendar. Speculation that the world would end was so common that NASA put up an information page thatexplained why it wouldn't.

The furor reminded me of similar fears when the calendar rolled over to the year 2000, and we endured the so-called Y2K panic. Even some rational people feared civilization would collapse because of computer problems caused by the date change. Given how dependent we are on computers, it was hard to say people had no reason to worry, but a portion of the population entered into the panic with gusto, buying guns and stocking up on food and fuel. They generalized from a computer glitch to a gigantic social meltdown and possibly the end of the world.

Why do people put so much weight on the change from one page of the calendar to the next? After all, dates are created by humans and are somewhat arbitrary. So why do we lend them such significance?

I think it's because we human beings want to understand the unknown. We want cause and effect.  We want meaning. Psychologists say our brains are wired to find patterns, to connect one thing to another even though there's no necessary connection. So in a primal way, the link between the end of a calendar and the end of the world makes sense.

Given this need, fiction is satisfying partly because a plot shapes events into a pattern. If something happens, experienced readers expect it to matter. If an event has no consequences, we're likely to be annoyed, or at least wonder why the editor didn't insist the scene should be cut.

Events that matter and form a pattern create the difference between plot (one thing causes another) and chronology (one thing simply comes after another). My life has chronology, but not much of a plot. What I'm doing now probably has little connection to what I'll do this afternoon. On the other hand, my character Cade's life has a plot. Everything matters. That's one reason fiction often feels richer and more satisfying than daily life.

Of course, Cade's plot causes him a lot of problems and pain. I was happy to still be around to give an open house on January 1, 2000. I'm contented to stick with my chronology and enjoy my plots  in fiction.

D. A. Winsor spent years as a technical communications professor, studying the writing of engineers, before discovering that writing YA and MG fantasy was much more fun. Finders Keepers is Winsor's first novel, though if you look closely, you can probably find a literal million words of Winsor's Tolkien fanfiction posted somewhere. Winsor lives in Iowa. 

A summary of Finders Keepers on twitter would read: Boy senses presence of heart stones. Girl recruits him to steal some. World ends at New Year if they fail. Boy also rescues mother. Tricky.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Book Review: MADE YOU UP by Francesca Zappia

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and it is filled with adult content. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

First Paragraph(s): If I was good at the grocery store, I got a Yoo-hoo. If I was really good, I got to see the lobsters. 
Today, I was really good. 
My mother left me at the lobster tank in the middle of the main aisle while she went to get Dad’s pork chops from the deli counter. Lobsters fascinated me. Everything from their name to their claws to their magnificent red had me hooked. 
My hair was that red, the kind of red that looks okay on everything but people, because a person’s hair is not supposed to be red. Orange, yes. Auburn, sure. 
But not lobster red. 
I took my pigtails, pressed them against the glass, and stared the nearest lobster straight in the eye. 
Dad said my hair was lobster red. My mother said it was Communist red. I didn’t know what a Communist was, but it didn’t sound good. Even pressing my hair flat against the glass, I couldn’t tell if my dad was right. Part of me didn’t want either of them to be right.
“Let me out,” said the lobster.

Hi there, Esteemed Reader! I hope this post finds you well and set to have a Merry Christmas (or whatever holiday you prefer) and a Happy New Year. Next week we'll have a guest post and then I'm signing off until 2016. The blog has been a little slow here recently as I'm devoting most of my energy into preparing a massive horror serial novel for adults (details coming in my first post of 2016). But I couldn't finish the year without telling you about Francesca Zappia's wonderful novel.

I had the good fortune to meet Francesca earlier this year. We did an author panel with our old friends Shannon Alexander and Barbara Shoup. We were asked what made Indiana a great place for writers, or something to that effect. I don't remember what I said (something about how Hoosiers rock!!!), but I remember Francesca said that Indiana is Gothic and creepy, a good place for stories. At that moment, I knew she was a kindred spirit and that I wanted to read her novel as I'm endlessly fascinated by how my fellow Hoosiers craft Indiana tales. 

Made You Up is a fascinating read and absolutely an Indiana story:

Hannibal’s Rest. Home. 
Here’s the thing about Hannibal’s Rest, Indiana: It is astoundingly small. So small I’m sure it wouldn’t show up on a GPS. You’d pass right through without realizing you were anywhere different. It’s just like the rest of central Indiana: hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and the only way to know the weather other times of the year is to walk outside. You drive west to get to Hillpark and east to get to East Shoal, but nobody from either school can tell you the name of a single person who goes to the other, and they all hate one another. 
My parents didn’t grow up here or anything. They chose to live in this nowhere town.

Meet Alex, named for Alexander the Great. She's transferring to a new high school her senior year after some trouble at her previous school that led to her being "chased out." Her father is somewhere in Africa and her mother is a strange person, homeschooling Alex's little sister to be a future strange person. Reading about the family made me wonder who the crazy person really was (spoiler, it's Alex).

You'll recall the first paragraph featured a talking lobster, which is always a wonderful way to begin a novel. In the next chapter, Zappia hits us with the first of many twists and surprises:

For two years after that fateful day in the supermarket, I thought I’d really set the lobsters free. I thought they’d crawled away and found the sea and lived happily ever after. When I turned ten, my mother found out that I thought that I was some kind of lobster savior. 
She also found out all lobsters looked bright red to me. 
First she told me that I hadn’t set any lobsters free. I’d gotten my arm into the tank before she’d appeared to pull me away, embarrassed. Then she explained that lobsters only turn bright red after they’re boiled. I didn’t believe her, because to me they had never been any other color. She never mentioned Blue Eyes, and I didn’t need to ask. My first-ever friend was a hallucination: a sparkling entry on my new resume as a crazy person. 
Then my mother had taken me to see a child therapist, and I’d gotten my first real introduction to the word insane.
Schizophrenia isn’t supposed to manifest until a person’s late teens, at the earliest, but I’d gotten a shot of it at just seven years old. I was diagnosed at thirteen. Paranoid got tacked on about a year later, after I verbally attacked a librarian for trying to hand me propaganda pamphlets for an underground Communist force operating out of the basement of the public library. (She’d always been a very suspect type of librarian—I refuse to believe donning rubber gloves to handle books is a normal and accepted practice, and I don’t care what anyone says.

As you know, I'm not a mental health professional and thus far, I have no diagnosed mental disorders (but if you've read my books, you've got to wonder). So I can't vouch for how accurate Zappia's portrayal of schiziophrenia may be, which I realize is a point of controversy elsewhere, but it's a fantastic story device. Alex may be the most unreliable narrator I've ever come across and it's not her fault.

But the reader can't trust her and in a first person narrative, we never know which things are actually happening in a scene and which are in Alex's, not because she's hiding information from us or intentionally making things up, but because she doesn't know what's real:

The doctors were oodles of help, but I developed my own system for figuring out what was real and what wasn’t. I took pictures. Over time, the real remained in the photo while the hallucinations faded away. I discovered what sorts of things my mind liked to make up. Like billboards whose occupants wore gas masks and reminded passersby that poison gas from Hitler’s Nazi Germany was still a very real threat. 
I didn’t have the luxury of taking reality for granted. And I wouldn’t say I hated people who did, because that’s just about everyone. I didn’t hate them. They didn’t live in my world. 
But that never stopped me from wishing I lived in theirs.

One of my many rules of writing is that the more extraordinary a situation, the more normal the characters should be and vice versa. Since Alex is such an extraordinary character, her situation is mostly normal and it's compelling stuff. She wants to fit in and be normal. What teenager couldn't relate to that goal?

When she meets Miles, an equally interesting boy with a love of obscure history and a touch of autism, the narrative takes a turn of the familiar. Sure, he makes money by carrying out revenge pranks, but he's mostly friendly and he and Alex spar like Bennedict and Bernice in Much Ado About Nothing--me thinks they're might be something there.

The only issue, and it's a small thing, but Alex is concerned Miles might not actually be real. He might be an updated version of the same boy with blues eyes Alex remembers from the day she freed the lobsters:

He laughed and disappeared into the kitchen. 
Was that Blue Eyes? 
I grabbed the Magic 8 Ball and rubbed the scuff mark as I looked down into its round window. 
Better not tell you now. 
Evasive little b#@ch.

Whether or not Miles or any other story element is real or a fantasy created by Alex's treacherous brain is not for me to say. You'll have to read Made You Up and see for yourself and you'll be glad you did. Zappia's finely turned prose and sense of humor shine in this debut and I'm looking forward to seeing what she does next and I hope we bump into each other again so I can tell her how much I enjoyed this fun and interesting novel that's not quite like anything else I've ever read.

You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll have a good time. Make your holidays happier by picking up a copy of this book. Should you need further convincing, I shall leave you as always with some of my favorite passages from Made You Up by Francesca Zappia: 

“You smell like lemons.” 
I felt a flurry of delirious joy because he’d said, “You smell like lemons” instead of “Your hair is red.” I knew my hair was red. Everyone could see my hair was red. I did not, however, know that I smelled like fruit. 
“You smell like fish,” I told him. 
He wilted, his freckled cheeks burning. “I know.”

It was ten-thirty, and the place was dead. And by dead, I mean it was like the entire possum population of suburban Indiana.

The first thing I noticed about East Shoal High School was that it didn’t have a bike rack. You know a school is run by stuck-up sons of b#@ches when it doesn’t even have a bike rack.

In AP Chemistry, Ms. Dalton seated us in alphabetical order and handed out lab notebooks, which look like notebooks on the outside but are filled with graph paper and make you want to kill yourself.

I turned to Art, a black kid who was a foot and a half taller than me and whose pecs were about to burst out of his shirt and eat someone. I gave him a two on the delusion detector. I didn’t trust those pecs.

Was there some kind of law about drop-kicking @#holes in the face? Probably. They always had laws against things that really needed to be done.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

7 Questions For: Author Francesca Zappia

Francesca Zappia lives in Indiana, majors in Computer Science at the University of Indianapolis, and still isn't sure exactly how that happened. She spends most of her time writing, reading, drawing, watching anime, and playing way too much Pokémon. Some of her stories have nice neat endings, and others don't have very neat endings at all.

You can find her on Twitter @ChessieZappia, Tumblr (, and on her website,

And now Francesca Zappia faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

1- The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
2- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
3- Fire by Kristin Cashore

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

I spend at least half an hour each day writing, but if I don’t have to work that day, I’ve been known to write from the minute I get up until I can’t hold my eyes open anymore. It really depends on the story I’m working on and what my schedule looks like. As for reading, I try to get in an hour of reading every day while I exercise, but if I really can’t put the book down, I’ll spend 4-6 hours finishing it in one day. (Definitely did that with Fire!)

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

I started writing when I was eight years old, but when I was fifteen I realized that publishers don’t just pick books off trees somewhere; writers have to send them in. I did some research, started looking for literary agents, and the summer after my freshman year of college, it all paid off. I got an agent, and six months later we’d sold my first book to HarperCollins. I did a lot of work over many years, but I also got very lucky, and I’m thankful every day for the happy circumstances that got me here.

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

A little of both, which I think is true for any skill. You can be born with an aptitude for anything, but if you never practice or try to improve your skill, you’re not going to go anywhere. On the flipside, maybe you don’t have an aptitude for a specific something, but if you practice it often, you can become much better at it. It also helps if you enjoy what you’re doing.

I can’t say whether or not I have an inborn aptitude for writing, but I know that I practice it a lot, I learn from reading, and I love doing it, so that’s enough for me!

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

Brainstorming! I LOVE coming up with ideas, especially for fantasy, sci-fi, and horror stories. Nothing beats the rush you get when a great idea hits you, then knowing that you can actually put it into a story.

I enjoy editing, too, which is weird because editing is also my least favorite part. It’s my least favorite because sometimes I just want a story to be right the first time around, sometimes because I don’t like it that much or because I have other books I want to work on, but when I figure out a way to fix the problems in the story and make it better, it all feels worth it.

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)

If you want to write books, write books. It’s difficult, and it takes a long time, but if you have the passion for it I promise you can do it. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or not. And don’t feel obligated to write “literary” or “highbrow” fiction unless that’s what you love. Write what you want, because when you enjoy it, you’ll do it more, and you’ll get better at it. 

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

J.K. Rowling. I’d probably be too star-struck to speak, though. Harry Potter was the reason I started writing in the first place, and it was my life from ages six through eighteen. I’d be grateful just to be in her presence.