Monday, June 27, 2016

NINJA STUFF: On Using Naughty Words In Fiction

I have a confession to make, Esteemed Reader: I sometimes have a potty mouth. But don't look so smug. You do too. Sometimes we all do. And if you're insisting you really, actually don't have a potty mouth, then you're repressing yourself and would probably be better off saying a few bad words now and again to let out some steam (you can whisper them into your pillow after your nightly prayers).

I've just published the first chapter in my serial horror novel for adults, The Book of David (it's FREE to download!!!), and it's filled with filthy language. There are four more chapters to be published in the coming months and all of them contain multiple F-bombs (and many other offensive things) because The Book of David is just that kind of story.

Bad words are one of the most brilliant inventions of mankind and an essential component of human society. We all have to compromise to live together peacefully, which means we're all engaging in some form of internal repression at any given time.

For example: You tell me you accidentally broke my vintage Jack Nicholson Joker action figure motorcycle from the 1990 Toybiz line, so rare my mother had to send away for it when I was a child and I've kept it in mint condition on a shelf in my office ever since (how could you, Esteemed Reader, when I trusted you!?!). You offer a sincere apology. I repress the urge to do you bodily harm, even though it would be well-deserved Batman-style justice, and I even agree not to hold a grudge... eventually.

This is our social contract. To my face, you don't tell me how unbelievably childish it is for a grown man (and somebody's father, for Pete's sake) to put so much value in a purple piece of plastic. To your face, I don't tell you I think you're a destroyer of everything good in the world. If you value my friendship, you hop on ebay and raid some other man-child's collection to find me a replacement ASAP (can they deliver by drone!?!). And in time, the incident will be behind us and our friendship can continue more or less uninterrupted (stay away from my Joker Van, or sleep with one eye open the rest of your short life!).

All of this is made far easier by the fact that at any given time either of us can rattle off some harsh-sounding nonsense and diffuse the tension. These naughty words can be muttered or shouted, possibly at each other, and they can be moaned as I cradle the bits of my broken Joker motorcycle and my Bob-the-Goon sidecar and my dreams and wail to the heavens about the cruel futility of existence.

The nice thing about even the nastiest swear word is that it is just a word, not a stick or a stone, and I'll take someone swearing at me rather than throwing a stone any day (and would, naturally, prefer neither). The more repressive our lifestyle, the more we need forbidden words to step briefly away from the social contract. Some of the the foulest mouths I've heard have belonged to teachers and school librarians after hours as they have to keep their language stringently clean all day at school.They need those naughty words at the end of a long day.

Having "forbidden" words is essential to society. As writers, who craft entirely through words, the forbidden ones have to interest us and we cannot master language if we're afraid of any part of it.

Here is the most controversial thing I'll say this post: A writer who does not use so-called foul language, even though he wants to and his story or his characters demand it and it is crucial to the story's truthful telling, out of a fear of reader response and/or reader rejection is a coward and his words are not worth reading.

My, what a bold and uncompromising declaration that is, completely lacking in any nuance:) So let's unpack it a bit, shall we?

I believe a writer's primary function is to entertain. First, engage me as a reader and take me briefly out of myself and away from my problems. A writer's secondary and nearly-as-important function is to tell The Truth. If your story is entertaining me and I'm engaged, mission accomplished. But your story will resonate with me and make a far greater impression if you reveal to me a vision of the world that is true and changes the way I see things, if only even slightly. This is a writer's highest calling: tell The Truth.

For example, in my favorite middle grade novel, The Witches, Roald Dahl first entertains us by placing compelling characters (who have emotionally-manipulative backstories) in an incredibly tense and frightening situation. I have never been more terrified by any story I've read since as Dahl got to me young. I was a child reading my first true horror novel. I also laughed and cried and was by any definition suitably entertained and was therefore open and willing to hear The Truth Dahl also conveys: some adults are out to get you, child, and it might not end well. You are not safe, and you'd better be on your guard. There are other truths Dahl reveals, but that one's the biggie, and if you don't believe me, here's my full review of the text to convince you.

If you focus too much on telling The Truth, you run the risk of preaching a sermon and boring poor Esteemed Reader. On the other hand, it's impossible not to convey some meaning in the telling of your story (the act itself has meaning). So you should strive to reveal to your readers The Truth of the world as you see it. And you're going to have a harder time revealing that truth if you start by watching your language and presenting a false version of yourself as a storyteller and/or your characters.

On the other, other hand, we present different versions of ourselves to the different people in our lives, don't we? I don't swear around Little Ninja or other children just as I don't coo or sing baby songs when I'm talking with my adult critique partners (YA authors have horrific potty mouths). I never swear on this blog because its focus is kinda/sorta middle grade fiction, so I write posts here with the assumption that my audience will be mostly adults with the occasional young person.

Imposing the restraint on myself of not being allowed to swear forces me to be more creative in my expression. The so-called "f-bomb" can be a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective, and any other conceivable part of speech. Using it regularly is fun, but too easy. It's possible to use this one word for everything, and if you're not a wordsmith, feel free to wallow in such banality. But we writers need a firm command of more than one word.

There are no inappropriate words in Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees as that is a story written primarily for a middle grade audience. I have since read portions of it aloud to audiences of children and their parents. I'm writing the sequel with those same audiences in mind. I made the decision early on that in Banneker's world, swear words as we know them don't exist, therefore none of the characters are repressed in their expression. They wouldn't say words they don't know.

The Banneker books are middle grade, of course, but I also write for adults. My horror novella marketed explicitly to older readers with a warning on its front, Pizza Delivery, is a story I would argue could not work without its swear words (I attempted such a draft just to be sure). That story is about an angst-ridden teenager in a very tense and violent situation and if he doesn't react accordingly, the reader will believe in neither him nor his tense situation, and the whole thing crumbles house-of-cards style, scaring no one and selling no copies of my more expensive books:)

So consider first your audience and the purpose of your story. If you're writing for children, including profanity in your prose is an odd choice and you'll need to justify its inclusion. I'm a fan of Mrs. Weasley swearing in the seventh Harry Potter novel as I think it's a wholly satisfying moment made more so by the six previous novels of characters not swearing.

But someone, somewhere was no doubt scandalized by an expletive placed in a story marketed to children. Presumably, Rowling, her editor(s), and whoever else would've been involved in the decision, weighed the costs of some readers' outrage against the immense satisfaction likely to be felt by other readers. Making such a decision is a writer's duty and if you're hoping to always make everyone who ever reads your fiction happy, you're not being realistic about the costs of artistic expression.

I like to think that so often choosing not to include profanity in my writing makes it clearer to Esteemed Reader that when I do include it, it's absolutely a considered choice intentionally made to evoke a calculated reaction.

My newest, The Book of David, has a clear warning in its description and on its first page and is being marketed toward adults. The characters in the novel have extremely filthy mouths and I can't convey The Truth of who they are if I censor their speech. It is also thematically important that the tone of the narration have a casual irrelevance to it, which is sometimes best achieved with foul language. Because the profanity is pervasive (positively profusely pervasive!), I made it my business to work in a couple f-bombs in chapter one so that the Esteemed Reader who ignored my warning on page one and in the book's description would know right away what she was getting herself into while she still had time to stop (her loss).

I don't think it's any coincidence that I've written this foul-mouthed serial at the same time Little Ninja has begun speaking and repeating everything I say. I've had to clean up my real life language, so my fiction language has had to bear that weight until my boy gets old enough to read some of the bad words I wrote at which point I'll admit that profanity is just another set of sounds he can make if he really wants to, but at home, not at school or at grandma's or anywhere his cursing might get ME in trouble:)

Swearing doesn't just put me at ease in writing, but also in reading. If I'm chatting with a friend and they casually swear it sends a signal that they trust me with their candor and are letting their hair down. The same can be said of well-used profanity in fiction as swearing can be soothing:) When Parker, the narrator of Cracked Up To Be, swears excessively, it reveals a core of her character and her approach to the world. I wouldn't believe her if she didn't swear.

Yes, Esteemed Reader, swearing is fun and should absolutely be used in fiction, but one last word of caution: profane words are spicy words, and like any spice, they can be overused. This comes back to the writer's judgement (and the council of editors they trust) as to when too much of a good thing is bad. Overused profanity not only runs the risk of diminishing impact, it can be a signal of weak writing. It's usually not the only signal, but it is easy to spot.

Intentional profanity used as one tool from the box to demonstrate the author's total command of language will always earn my respect.  If it's called for, go for it, if it feels good, do it, but be judicious, know your audience (know also that profanity use narrows that audience), and be wary of it becoming a crutch for lazy writing (and speech). 

I've said my piece (in my usual puritanically pure prose reserved for this blog), so I'll conclude with a personal anecdote: There is no swearing in my book All Together Now: A Zombie Story because: 1. It's YA, and I'm already really pushing at boundaries with the amount of violence and potentially offensive ideas within the story without giving detractors bad words as an easy target. 2. The story is told from the fixed perspective of one character who makes it clear he's editing out the story's swearing. 3. The novel is about conformity (and zombies, cause I love me some zombies), so it makes thematic sense that the language conforms.

However, when I wrote All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story, which is set in the same universe, but told from two third-person adult perspectives, it was much harder not to include the swearing I would expect to accompany an apocalypse. Since All Right Now was a novella, I was able to navigate around profanity--but it was tricky and if the story had gone on longer than it did, my efforts to not allow any characters to swear would've no doubt become obvious and tiresome. I have a bang-up idea for another zombie story, but I keep going back and fourth on whether or not I should finish it primarily because I'm not sure the story can properly be told without profanity.

I'll figure it out. Or I won't:) Either way, you should buy all my books. Good luck with your own writing, Esteemed Reader, and may your own use of language reflect your unique gift of craft.

Monday, June 20, 2016

GUEST POST: "Visions Of Ore" by Cam Baity and Benny Zelkowicz

When we set out to write our trilogy, THE BOOKS OF ORE, we ambitiously (and quite naively) attempted to build an entirely new world from scratch. Why hold ourselves to the familiar fantasy building blocks of medieval Europe, or magic, or talking animals? Our experience as animators taught us that every cliché could be challenged, so that even basic assumptions of what makes a tree and how the planets move could be turned on their ears. 

It sounded like a great idea at the time––if only we had taken a moment to look around at the massive hole we had dug ourselves into!

So we labored to invent and envision every detail of two worlds: Albright City, a “Deco-punk” metropolis of streamlined retro futurism, and Mehk, a mysterious realm of living metal and organic machines.

That meant that we first had to communicate these concepts to one another to ensure that we were on the same page. In this process, we found that drawing was an invaluable tool in unifying our vision, and over the course of writing the trilogy, we have produced hundreds of sketches, maps, and schematics.

Here are three illustrations that stood out from our years of development, images that say something unique about our worlds and the nature of our story:

1) PHOEBE FACES OFF (Art by Cam Baity)

When our heroes, Phoebe and Micah, go on a daring rescue mission, they find themselves stranded in Mehk. There they learn that all of the machinery and technology of their world is not invented, but rather poached from the living mehkan creatures. This illustration is one of our earliest, back when we were just starting to brainstorm the possibilities of Phoebe’s epic journey. It captures the threat of a young girl facing off against a titanic, unfathomable being. There is a suggestion of the mechanized biology that defines mehkans and of the immense danger that an unprepared human child would face.

2) CABLE BIKE ADVERTISEMENT (illustration by John Foster)

Phoebe and Micah’s home of Albright City is an amazing place, full of lightning-fast Auto-mobiles, glittering skyscrapers, and a never-ending parade of gadgets and gizmos that delight the eager citizens. Every machine and scrap of metal is produced by a powerful global corporation called The Foundry. One of their most popular products is the Cable-Bike, a thrilling means of transport that allows riders to shoot across the city suspended on a network of cables high above the ground. We wanted to create an image that would not only convey what the machine looks like, but that would also express some of the slick 1920’s design aesthetic that permeates the book.

3) UAXTU (Illustration by Cam Baity)

Another important part of our process was the development of the myriad mythologies, histories, and cultures of Mehk. We knew we wanted the world to be populated by numerous sentient species, which required us to think deeply about what they believe and why, and how those beliefs evolved over time. Among the legends that play an important role in the trilogy is the story of the Uaxtu, mythical necromancers who used amoral practices to cheat death. Mehkans fear these vengeful spirits that are said to wander the landscape in pursuit of living souls to consume. This image captures the dread that the mythic Uaxtu inspire, fogged by uncertainty and—like so many things in THE BOOKS OF ORE—it is not necessarily as it appears to be.

Cam was born during a nasty heat wave in Richardson, Texas. He has been drawing ever since he figured out how to use his hands, and in second grade he wrote his first book about an adventurous wombat in fluorescent high-top sneakers named "Mr. Cuzul." In fourth grade, he got his first taste of celluloid when he starred in an independent feature penned by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Tracy Letts. Fortunately for Cam, the film was never completed.

Attending the Arts Magnet High School in Dallas, he won accolades for his work including First Place in Painting at the 1996 Visual Arts Guild Exhibit. Cam's obsessions with art and story collided when he studied animation at The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan as well as Calarts. He made short films, which screened around the world at festivals like Cinequest, Anima Mundi, and the BBC British Short Film Festival. With fifteen years of experience in the film industry, his credits include major motion pictures such as TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE and popular television series like SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS and ROBOT CHICKEN for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation.

Born to professional musicians, BENNY bucked family tradition to pursue a sensible career in the hard sciences. While studying biopsychology at Oberlin College, he spent countless hours in the lab analyzing the tiny brains of the African knifefish.

By the time he graduated, he realized that his own brain was consumed not with his research, but with the film he was animating in his spare time. So Benny left the poor fish alone and earned an MFA in Experimental animation. He made an award-winning film, The ErlKing, animated entirely with sand, that screened all over the world. Benny also directed the kids' show "Lunar Jim" and provided the voice for the title character. Over the past thirteen years, Benny has worked on tons of commercials, music videos, feature films, and TV shows, and now, through some weird twist of fate, he's an author, too.

For Phoebe Plumm, life in affluent Meridian revolves around trading pranks with irksome servant Micah Tanner, and waiting for her world-renowned father, Dr. Jules Plumm, to return home. Chief engineer for The Foundry, a global corporation with an absolute monopoly on metal production and technology, Phoebe's father is often absent for months at a time. But when a sudden and unexpected reunion leads to father and daughter being abducted, Phoebe and would-be rescuer Micah find themselves stranded in a stunning yet volatile world of living metal-one that has been ruthlessly plundered by The Foundry for centuries and is the secret source of every comfort and innovation the two refugees have ever known.

Monday, June 13, 2016

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Caryn Wiseman

Caryn has been an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency since 2003, and she has sold over 325 books. She handles children's books only: young adult and middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, chapter books, and picture books (fiction and non-fiction). She represents NYT bestselling authors, award-winning authors, debut authors, and authors at every stage in between. No matter the genre, Caryn is looking for books with emotional depth and a strong voice; excellent writing in a tightly-plotted story; and characters that stick with her long after she has closed the book. In YA, she gravitates toward books that make her think and toward books that make her cry; in middle-grade and chapter books, laughter tends to be the common thread; in picture books, it's lyrical story-telling and heart. She loves books that are intellectually challenging and that take risks, but in a very logical way. 

Caryn is drawn to contemporary YA and middle-grade with a strong voice, multi-faceted characters, complex relationships, beautiful writing and a well-developed hook. Great world-building is essential, whether it's a real time and place that becomes almost a character in a book, or a light fantasy element in a unique story that's grounded in reality. Zombies, horror, and high fantasy will, most likely, never appeal. She would love to see a YA thriller with the pacing and twists of The Americans, and a YA Pitch Perfect, Downton Abbey, or Big Bang Theory

Caryn is particularly interested in books for children and teens that explore themes of diversity and social justice. She would be thrilled to see more books that deeply explore another culture, as well as books in which the ethnicity of the character is not the issue. She adores a swoon-worthy romance with an intelligent heroine who isn't simply swept off her feet by a hunky hero. A sweet, funny or poignant middle-grade novel, with a hook that makes it stand out from the crowd, would hold great appeal, and she's partial to lyrical, non-institutional picture book biographies and character-driven, not too sweet picture book fiction. The common denominator in Caryn's list, no matter the category, is "smart with heart." She is always open to terrific children's work that doesn't fit these categories as long as it makes her laugh, makes her cry, and keeps her awake at night, either reading the manuscript or thinking about it. She does not represent adult projects. Please do not query her regarding adult work. 

Caryn represents Tom Angleberger, author of the NY Times, USA Today, PW and national indie bestselling ORIGAMI YODA series (Amulet/Abrams), Cece Bell, author-illustrator of the Newbery Honor Award, Eisner Award and NYT bestselling graphic novel memoir EL DEAFO, Nate Evans, co-author of the NYT bestseller THE JELLYBEANS AND THE BIG DANCE and its sequels (Abrams), and Tamara Ireland Stone, author of the NYT bestseller EVERY LAST WORD. 

And now Caryn Wiseman faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L'Engle, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster, FEED by MT Anderson, and THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater (in addition to my own clients' books, of course).  Those are my favorite kids'/YA books, anyway.  

I would have to include TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Leon Uris' EXODUS, as those are books that I go back to and re-read, time and time again, ever since childhood.  More recent adult titles that I love include Colum McCann's LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, M.L. Stedman's  THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS and Ann Patchett's STATE OF WONDER

Okay, that was a lot more than three.

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

I adore THE AMERICANSSMASH was one of my favorites but, sadly, it's gone (I love musical theater!), so now I love NASHVILLE.  My kids and I watched all of the WEST WING re-runs, and I was amazed (once again) at the quality of the writing, the snappy dialgoue, and the relevance of this show years later.   I also love MODERN FAMILY and THE BIG BANG THEORY for making me laugh out loud. More than three again.  Oops! 

Movies are tougher to choose favorites - there are too many.  Many of my favorites are probably from the 1940's!

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

My ideal client is an incredibly talented writer who always strives to be even better; who isn't afraid to get his or her hands dirty and revise in a big way.  Someone who cares deeply about craft, but also understands the business of marketing his or her books.

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

A YA thriller with the intrigue and heart-stopping twists and turns of THE AMERICANS.  A middle-grade with heart that makes me laugh hysterically and sob uncontrollably.  Jewish/Muslim or Israeli/Palestinian themes with hope.  Diverse themes in any genre/category.  YA SF/F with the grand scale of an opera or family saga that doesn't feel like SF/F.

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

Favorite things:  

Falling in love with a new character or voice for the first time
Telling a debut author that I have an offer(s) for their manuscript
Walking into a bookstore and seeing a book that I helped get there (still!)

Least favorite thing:

When amazing books aren't discovered, despite heroic efforts of both the publisher and the author.  

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 all the books you can in the genre and category in which you aspire to write.   

Support your fellow authors.

Develop patience and a thick skin.

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

Louisa May Alcott, because she was kind of a bad@$$.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

GUEST POST: "A Very Serious Disclaimer for 'HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES'" by Andrew Buckley

HAIR IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES is a new book from the slightly unhinged mind of Andrew Buckley. Be warned, it’s not a safe book; in fact it’s potentially quite dangerous. As described in the opening disclaimer:

First, a word of warning . . .

I don’t want to get too scientific here, but there are a few things you should know before you sink your teeth into this book. I’ve tried to keep it simple enough that anyone twelve and up could read and understand it. Werewolves were everywhere in Europe in the late sixteenth century. Go to a party, there would be a werewolf. Go to work, you’re probably working next to a werewolf. Bump into a stranger on the street—werewolf!

They were slowly killed off in Europe as the true nature of a werewolf is a terribly hard thing to control. Eventually you get that urge to eat someone. And let’s face it; eating people is just rude.

Now here’s the scary bit, the bit that concerns you. While werewolves ceased to be a part of the world, they didn’t necessarily leave it. On the contrary, humans evolved to repress the werewolf gene out of the fear they would be decapitated, shot with a silver bullet, burned alive, or a terrifying combination of all three. What this means is that every single human being is still carrying the werewolf gene. You, right now, sitting right where you are, have the werewolf gene swimming around somewhere inside of you.

Genes are strings of DNA. DNA makes you who you are. You have that werewolf gene inside you. It’s just not active. Not yet.

To fully activate that werewolf gene, you’d have to be bitten by another werewolf, someone who turns into a giant wolf-like creature when there’s a full moon. So fear not! As long as no one has bitten you recently, you’re likely okay.

So why this warning? You’re probably thinking there’s no chance I’ll turn into a werewolf because I haven’t been bitten. That is absolutely true. However, while it’s impossible to turn into a werewolf unless you’re bitten, it is very possible to awaken that sleeping werewolf gene by learning too much about them. This book will teach you a lot about those hairy creatures of the night, so I want you to be extra careful while reading it.

If you notice any of the following things, stop reading immediately:

  - You find yourself looking at other humans and thinking lunch.
  - You start to notice smells you never smelled before.
  - You growl at people instead of talking to them.
  - Your nails begin to grow at an alarming rate.
  - You scratch your head in public using your leg.
  - You greet your friends at the bus stop by sniffing their butts.
  - You begin to grow hair in all the wrong places.
You’ve been warned.

Did you read this and think that’s nothing but a bunch of ridiculous mumbo jumbo? Well, why not find out for yourself . . . pick up a copy and see how it affects you. I dare you! No, I double dare you!

Andrew Buckley attended the Vancouver Film School’s Writing for Film and Television program. After pitching and developing several screenplay projects for film and television, he worked in marketing and public relations, before becoming a professional copy and content writer. During this time Andrew began writing his first adult novel, DEATH, THE DEVIL AND THE GOLDFISH, followed closely by his second novel, STILTSKIN. He also writes a spy thriller series under the pen name ‘Jane D Everly’. 

Andrew also co-hosts a geek movie podcast, is working on several new novels, and has a stunning amount of other ideas. He now lives happily in the Okanagan Valley, BC with three kids, one cat, one needy dog, one beautiful wife, and a multitude of characters that live comfortably inside of his mind.

Andrew is represented by Mark Gottlieb at the Trident Media Group.

What has he done? What's happening to him? And what on Earth is that smell? For Colin Strauss, puberty stinks. Blackouts, hallucinations, and lapses in memory are the perils of growing up werewolf. Worse than that, Colin worries he might have had something to do with the recent attacks on the townspeople. He may have eaten a person. It doesn’t matter that it’s someone he doesn’t particularly like. What kind of boy goes around eating people? Foolishly, all Colin can think about is how Becca Emerson finally kissed him for the first time. Yep, hormones are afoot. Yikes! But girls will have to wait. Collin better get himself under control before someone else ends up hurt or worse . . . dead.