Monday, October 31, 2016

NINJA STUFF: An Open Letter to Stephen King



Dear Mr. King,

Thank you for sharing your gift with the world. We've never met, but your work has forever changed me for the better and had a profound impact on the course of my life.

Describing you as my favorite author doesn't quite cover it. Mentor would be a better term, though perhaps disrespectful to the writers who've worked with me in person. Imaginary friend feels too trite (and unfavorable to me), so I think I'll settle for describing you as my Heroic Writer Mental Construct, the voice of the other who whispers to our protagonist, usually in italics, the way Pennywise whispers to Henry Bowers in It while simultaneously being the moon (I slept with my curtains shut for months!). Like so many of your characters, I hear voices, and strongest among them is yours.

Young boys need heroes (so do grown men), and writers specialize in creating imaginary people. I've often imagined you sitting behind me as I write so that when I got stuck in a story and didn't know what Miriam Walters should do next, I could turn to you and hear you say, "What did Wendy Torrance do in this situation?" When the Heroic Writer Mental Construct did it and did it right, how did he do it? What would Stephen King do (WWSKD)?

For this reason, my extremely long serial horror novel containing copious swearing, incremental repetition of creepy phrases, mental voices whispering in italics, a writer as a protagonist, and themes of dark Christianity, The Book of David,  feels like my final exam in a course I've been enrolled in since I was in the sixth grade and read my first Stephen King novel. Have I used what you taught me to create Stephen King fan fiction that's somewhere in the neighborhood of emulating your style without straight up copying it? Does The Book of David (the next-to final Chapter releases today!!!) come even close to delivering the combination of strong character/strong situation tension and philosophical humor I always loved about your stories, that unique reading experience I've never been able to get anywhere else?

Probably not. But if a writer isn't going to give his all and aim to be the best, why's he bothering?

This is the curse of knowing there exists in this world a writer like Stephen King: though I'm devoting so much of my life to writing, I will never write anything as incredible as The Dark Tower. The greatness of The Stand is beyond my reach. I have to wonder why I've bothered writing not one, but two zombie stories in a world where Home Delivery already exists. Sorry vampire writers of the world, we have Salem's Lot, so we don't need any more vampire stories, thank you, and for sure don't even attempt a scary clown. The competition is closed, we have our best horror story in every category and they all happen to have been written by the same dude.

Trying to out write Stephen King is like trying to win a fight against Superman. I tell myself, "It's all good and well that you like to write scary stories, little buddy, but you can't beat that guy. No one can. It isn't possible. So don't waste time feeling bad that you're not smarter than Einstein. Learn from him as much as it's possible to understand with your less-gifted brain and do the best you can to be scary in your own never-going-to-be-quite-as-good way."

For years I've been referring to readers of this blog as Esteemed Reader, which is absolutely my version of Constant Reader. "Constant" is an assumption it's fair to make when you're a writer of your talent, Mr. King, but if you're little ole Robert Kent, you're just happy somebody showed up, so "Esteemed" it is:)

I've read every one of your stories and novels, Mr. King, most of them twice, with the exception of The Tommyknockers, which I can never quite bring myself to finish no matter how many times I try. But hey, if you need to write the occasional The Tommyknockers to also write The Mist or The Body, then I'll take that trade all day everyday.

The purpose of the previous paragraph is not just to be a dick, but also to illustrate that I'm not entirely in the bag for you all the time, every time; just mostly:) As much as I love your writing, it's not a blind love. I am paying close attention and learning with every word. As prolific as you've been, not all of it can be perfect, but oh my dear God in Heaven, when you got hold of a good story, no one has ever done what you could do and I don't know that anyone ever will.

When I met the future Mrs. Ninja, I wasn't sure about a small town white boy coupling with a black girl from the city. But when we discussed our mutual love of The Dark Tower, I knew it was meant to be. And did we make nerd jokes about our being Eddie Dean and Detta Walker (Mrs. Ninja likes Susannah, but loves Detta) while calling our cat Oy? No comment. But Mrs. Ninja did write her graduate thesis on a contextual analysis of the multiple published versions of The Gunslinger, which is why I know and find it hilarious that over the years you changed Roland's line "how's it hanging" to "how are they hanging" (much better, I guess?) to "Long days and pleasant nights."

We're excited about the movie and think Idris Elba will make an amazing Roland, even if he's a little young (I wanted Michael Keaton). I don't suppose the movie Roland and Detta will have the same wonderfully suspenseful racial tension as it exists in the book (if they cast a white actress, my wife may drive to Hollywood to slap someone), which makes me sad.

But real talk: it doesn't matter as there isn't a movie studio in the world with the courage to put Detta Walker out there in all her glory (for the uninitiated, she's the psychotic projection of an otherwise mild mannered black woman intentionally embodying racist stereotypes) as too few artists are as oh-my-God-are-you-watching-this-guy nuts as you. I cherish your recording of The Drawing of the Three audiobook (hard to find, but so worth it) in which you with your white skin do your version of a Detta Walker voice, and to hell with all the angry letters I'm sure you were already getting for dropping N-bombs in Carrie and The Shining and It and wherever else you needed them because you're fearless in a way every author should yearn to be and you never let social convention get in the way of telling The Truth.

Mr. King, when you get hold of a good tale, it's like hearing notes composed by Mozart. Your story reads like no other story could. When I read and reread and reread and listen to you and William Hurt read Hearts in Atlantis, it works every time (the only book I've read more is It, but only just barely). Hearts in Atlantis is perfect, it's always perfect, because that's how great literature reads when it's done right, and I cry at Bobby Garfield's tale every time because you've earned those tears through your craftsmanship and Bobby's story is more real to me than so many life events I've witnessed firsthand.

To displace a single paragraph of Hearts in Atlantis would mean diminishment. To know so perfect a novel can exist, can be brought forth from that ethereal realm where fiction exists before its written is like having discovered proof of God. A great novel is a religious experience and the shelves in my office where I keep your books form a sacred temple.

When I was a teenager, I was assured by multiple adults that:

1. Your writing was cheap trash.
2. It was rotting my brain.
3. I was probably going to Hell for reading it.

You could not have asked for a better combination to make me a loyal Constant Reader:) I'll never forget the way the adults who taught my Sunday School classes looked at me when I brought Pet Semmetary on a week-long missions trip, and those disapproving looks from the people so often telling me what to think and how to act were part of what made your books such a pleasure to read, like getting an earring or a tattoo. Pet Semmetary scared me then, but I reread it last year, and now that I'm a father, I found it almost too scary to finish.

It was the first book for adults I ever read. The experience expanded my mind and is one of the clear markers in retrospect of my transition from childhood. I wanted to read It because a couple of the more popular boys were reading it, and they almost never read anything. A teacher yelled at them because that book was "not appropriate for school," which blew my mind, because all they ever want you to do at school is read books. Even then, teachers were convinced that literature was dead, but I saw that kids would read if you let them get their hands on something interesting to them. And to the great annoyance of the other teachers, the cute Language Arts teacher I yearned to marry some day was also reading It.

I had read sections of certain adult books prior to It--"the good scenes," as it were, recommended to me by kids in the know--but I had never sat down to read an adult book. And what an adult book! At 1,138 pages, the hardback called me a chump for even daring to glance at it. Getting through the whole thing was its own right of passage, or ritual of chud, so that I could say that yes, I, Robert Kent, am capable of reading a book it strained my wrists just to hold. Today's kids with their e-readers don't know how good they got it:)

But reading It never felt like work, partly because it had all manner of good stuff inside from copious amounts of "forbidden language," to frank depictions of sex, to violence worse than anything I'd ever seen on cable. That book has everything my mother didn't and still doesn't want me to read, like all the Grand Theft Auto games put in the written form:) If that had been all the book contained, I likely would've moved on upon growing up and wouldn't be writing this letter, but it must be acknowledged that the naughtiness of your books is surely part of what's made them so popular. I wasn't the only kid reading for the "good scenes."

But my relationships with so many of your books are not tawdry flings. If I live another decade, I'm for sure going to reread Memoirs of a Geisha, The Cider House Rules, Watership Down, Jurassic Park (and will curse the stupidity of the characters engaging in the raptor nest climax for the 20th time), The Exorcist, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; the list goes on at considerable length, but some books must be cherished and loving them is a commitment. Half your books are on that list and if I live another two decades, I'll probably reread the other half. I just reread It again last month, so I'm good for a couple years, and I'm currently listening to Frank Muller's incredible recording of Wizard and Glass, and I've got a candy craving to reread Needful Things again soon.

So when reviewers have compared my writing to yours, I've both flushed with delighted pride as that's the finest compliment I could hope for, and taken issue as a Stephen King fan. Sir, I have read Stephen King, and Mr. Pizza Delivery is no Stephen King.  Still, I have devoted more hours of my life to reading your work than any other author's, so there's no question in my mind that your influence has shaped my prose on levels I'm not even aware of. And not just when I'm writing horror. When I write middle grade books, I'll spy the occasional sentence I know to be a Stephen King sentence, because it's the right sort of sentence the Heroic Writer Mental Construct would write. And it's no coincidence that there's a chapter in Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees titled "The Long Walk."

I have a degree in literature and you can't get one of those without consuming a fair amount of books and listening to a fair number of blowhards with entrenched views spouting the virtues of James Joyce (do you want a story, or do you want an obnoxious puzzle for insiders that calls itself a novel?) and crying out against the evils of modern fiction. I took a lot of guff for comparing classics to your work (several professors gave me embarrassed looks as though I had publicly defecated). I didn't know much, but I knew people pretended to have read The Scarlet Letter and actually read Misery.

It made me angry that these professors with good jobs, relatively speaking, wouldn't acknowledge that there was a difference between poorly written genre fiction and your stuff. I resented their beliefs that they were smarter than you and your readers, and that the books they liked were somehow better than the books enjoyed by "common people" with less cushy jobs. I have never stopped being offended that so many of them admitted to me, proudly, that they had never read your work. Imagine it: professors of literature neglecting to read the world's bestselling novelist and arguably the most popular writer on Earth at the time they were living.

I learned that snobs can still teach you a lot about great works provided their authors are long dead:) One day their descendants will be teaching your works and railing against future upstart crows. I am grateful, however, as they convinced me that if I was going to be a writer, I wanted to be the sort people would want to read even if no one was making them.

This letter is long, and so I'll say what I came here to say and be done with it: Stephen King, I love you, man. Your work has meant more to me than I could ever express if I wrote a hundred letters. You deserve every penny you've made and all the praise you've garnered and much more than we Constant Readers are able to give you who have given us so much.

Thank you, Stephen King, for making my life brighter and for showing me what fiction writing should be when it's done right.



Your Eternal Fan and Constant Reader,

Robert Kent

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

GUEST POST: "Sailing Takes Me Away To Where I've Always Written It Could Be" by Tom McCarthy

I think of myself as a sailor, though I do far less actual sailing than I’d like. Some of my favorite sailing trips include sailing on the Indian Ocean, right near where the Runnymeade crashed. Luckily we encountered no terrible weather or man-eating islanders.

I’ve also sailed near Hong Kong in the South China Sea and around the tip of Cape Cod on the other side of the world. I’ve sailed along the same route off Wiscasset, Maine, that Daniel Collins and his crewmates followed on their fateful trip to the Caribbean.

Sailing gives me a taste for nautical history that books don’t. Tasting the salt in the air, feeling the sun on my face, glimpsing the stars in the night sky when the clouds part after a tense rainfall—these are the same sights and sounds and tastes that Daniel Collins and the doomed crew of the Betsey experienced in the 1800s. 

That heavy, humid, tangy air in the Indian Ocean? That’s exactly what the crew and passengers of the Runnymeade had to contend with for weeks before they shipwrecked.

It’s details like these that make writing this series of books so much fun. I get to relive my times at sea and inject the scenes with those details, even though the events I’m writing about took place long before I was even born!

And the fear and uncertainty my characters felt when faced with deadly consequences—I’ve had my share of that too. Nothing quite so brutal, because now we have GPS and the Coast Guard and other useful modern inventions. But there was a time I went sailing on Lake Eerie and the afternoon did not go as planned. You’d think the open ocean would be the water to beat me, but it was on the lake that our boat lost its rudder. Have you ever tried sailing a boat with a lost rudder? Remember when Captain Doutty realized the Runnymeade had lost its rudder? “Losing the rudder meant that whatever weak control Captain Doutty had managed to hold on to was gone.” Yup. That was me. Stuck on the lake without a rudder.

The situation turned out more embarrassing than dangerous. We got a tow back to land. No capsizing on an island and having to defend ourselves from cannibals. Phew!

One thing writers know is that everything is material. And my sailing experiences are certainly material. I used them extensively when writing Pirates and Shipwrecks, and I’m sure they’ll come into play in more books.




Tom McCarthy has been an award-winning writer and editor for more than twenty-five years. As an editor and ghostwriter for various publishers in New York City, Maine, and Connecticut, he developed and edited titles that have won such awards as Harvard University's Goldsmith Award for Book of the Year; Readers Digest Top Five Summer Books; Sports Illustrated's Top Books of the Year; and Esquire's The Year's Five Best Reads, among others. As the series editor for several best-selling collections, including Incredible Pirate Tales, Ghost Pirates, and Incredible Tales of the Sea, he has developed a knack for finding great stories for readers of all ages. He lives in Guilford, Connecticut.




Tales of survival are as old as humanity! In Survival: True Stories, readers discover accounts of survival that required innovation, a thirst for adventure, and even a bit of brutality. Whether it’s Shackleton on the frozen landscape of Antarctica or William Bligh and his loyal followers adrift in the Pacific after mutiny on the Bounty, survival is a fascinating topic for readers ages 9 to 12!

Each of the true tales told in Survival are paired with interesting facts about the setting, the industry, and the time period. A glossary and index provide the opportunity to practice using essential academic tools. These nonfiction narratives use clear, concise language with compelling plots that both avid and reluctant readers will be drawn to.

Monday, October 17, 2016

7 Questions For: Author Danica Davidson

Danica Davidson is the author of the Overworld Adventures book series for Minecrafters, with the books Escape from the OverworldAttack on the OverworldThe Rise of HerobrineDown into the Nether, a The Armies of Herobrine and the newly released Battle with the Wither. She is also the author of Manga Art for Beginners and  Barbie: Puppy Party


And now Danica Davidson faces the 7 Questions:



Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?



The Iliad, the Odyssey and Ovid’s Metamorphoses


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



As much as I can (and it still somehow feels like never enough). With my Minecrafter novels, I’ve gotten into the habit of getting the first draft completely done in a week, give or take a day. That’s a lot of writing! But my deadlines have usually given me about six weeks to write the book, so I’ve had to move fast. Then I take a little break from it before I go back and revise. 


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


I started seriously submitting my work to agents and editors when I was in middle school. I was writing novels at the time and all I’ve ever wanted to be was a professional author. Everyone tells you to be ready for rejections, but I never expected the sheer number of them on my way to selling my first book. When I was in my senior year of high school, I was in a situation where it was important I start making my own income, so I went to the local newspaper and asked for a job. I started out as a freelancer, covering dramatic, stop-the-press events like the local tractor pull (okay, it wasn’t dramatic).


I’d send my published articles to other places, trying to get in. I started writing for an anime magazine (I’m a big fan of anime and animation), and that helped open more doors. Eventually I was writing articles for MTV, CNN, The Onion, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and other publications. All the while I was still trying to sell my books and was stacking up rejection letters. More than a decade after I started submitting, I got an agent who was impressed with my writing and all my publications and wanted to represent me. Some months later, I’d sold my first book, Manga Art for Beginners.  



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


For me, it just came naturally, though I think we all need “teaching.” Since I was little, I made up stories. I used to dictate stories to my parents when I was three. I wrote my first chapter book when I was seven. I just wrote.


But it’s also important to learn how to edit, how to portray characters, etc. Some of that can be done from studying how other writers handle it. It also helps to find an editor who’s willing to look over what you have, because writers tend to be too close to their work, especially at the beginning. 


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


My favorite thing is the act of writing, especially when the words come as a rush and it feels as if you’re just taking dictation from your brain. Sometimes it’s harder to get the words to come, but when they do come in a rush, it’s the best.


My least favorite thing is more the business of publishing. For instance, getting an agent is agony and it took me years. Then you have to publicize your book, but a million other people also want to publicize their books, so everyone’s vying for attention. I just want to write and let the books sell themselves, but it usually doesn’t work that way. It’s very time-consuming and takes time away from actual writing, but it’s part of what you have to do to be a professional writer. 



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)


My best advice for writing is “to write.” I hear from people all the time who say they want to be a writer, though they’ve never written anything down. It’s like they’re scared to put something on paper in case it isn’t perfect. No rough draft is perfect, but getting the words down is important. 


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


Anaïs Nin, a French-American writer I discovered in high school. She writes for adults, not kids, so she has a very different audience than the ones I have with my Minecrafter, manga and Barbie books. She kept a diary her whole life and parts of it have been published, and some of it is the most real, authentic writing I’ve ever read. She describes things I’ve felt but never heard described before. That’s what all writers want to do.




Monday, October 10, 2016

GUEST POST: "Monster Mayhem" by Cynthia Reeg

Coming up with a new idea for a story can be intimidating. Usually my best ideas float into my brain when I least expect them. That’s what happened when I first started toying with the glimmer that would evolve into FROM THE GRAVE.

I was on a long car ride, bored, tired and battling my usual motion sickness. Maybe an upset stomach is what helped a quirky idea pop into my head. I quickly grabbed some paper and started jotting down notes.

MONSTERS

Monsters are monsters, right? Filling out a Character Chart on them is simple.

Appearance: Frightening
Behavior: Scary
Favorite Activity: Frightening and scaring people
Favorite Holiday: Halloween

But what if there were more to monsters than this?
What if our stereotyped version of them was excluding a very important—and extremely intriguing—group of creatures?

MISFIT MONSTERS

What would make a monster a misfit? I needed a new Character Chart.

Appearance: Not frightening
Behavior: Not scary
Favorite Activity: Not frightening and scaring people
Favorite Holiday: Halloween (Hey, even misfits LOVE Halloween)

So then I started brainstorming based on a few conventional monsters. It seemed to me that people’s vision of monsters was pretty much set in stone.

Examples:

A green, hulking Frankenstein—but what he if wasn’t green but a pale baby blue and he didn’t like to hulk?

A creepy, stalking mummy—but what if he didn’t like to stay wrapped up and would rather read than stalk?

A fire breathing dragon—but what if the dragon gushes only water and enjoys giving rides to her friends?

And what if there were a number of these young mutant monsters? What if they were excluded and lumped into an Odd Monsters Out class in an extremely structured monster world where they had to reform—or face exile? For if these misfits couldn’t or wouldn’t change their appearance and behavior, they were worthless. Monster or Die!

Thus began my creation of Uggarland, a parallel monster world, where rules are paramount.  Monster Rule #1: Follow the rules, or else! Where differences are not acceptable. Monster Rule #5: A monster is judged by his actions, so act up! Where questioning the status quo can lead to exile. Monster Rule #913: A well-educated monster knows not to ask any questions. Secrets and shenanigans began piling up with each new character I tossed into the bubbling cauldron. Monster Rule #19: When the truth compromises monstering, it’s best to lie.

At first, I thought my goofy monster story would work for the second to third grade chapter book crowd. But quickly I saw the potential to use this fantasy world for exploring our own world. I could entertain with plenty of adventure and intrigue, but I could also challenge older middle grade readers with a more involved plot and in-depth characters. By highlighting bullying and prejudice in a creepy, sometimes crazy, environment, I could invite the readers to comparisons in their own lives.

With the over-the-top creatures in FROM THE GRAVE, I could insert ample humor and plenty of heart. Even my gruesome troll antagonist Malcolm could battle his inner demons and help students see both sides of a dilemma. Isn’t this what Robert Louis Stevenson did with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? For it’s true that each of us has a dark side—a bit of monster. And, I believe, each of us is a bit of a misfit as well. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves all of us not to talk about the rest of us.”

We all have our quirks. Or as Maya Angelou has said, “…we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Monster Wisdom

Here’s the take-away I hope readers will discover in FROM THE GRAVE:

  • There is a great need for acceptance and inclusion in society.
  • The benefits of welcoming diversity are priceless.
  • By encouraging each one’s special talents, we all succeed.

In FROM THE GRAVE, I learned that all monsters do love to monster—just each in their own way.


So I say, “Monster on!”


I’m a curious librarian who ventured from behind the stacks to become a children’s author. Now I contend with monsters, mayhem, and odd assortments of characters—both real and imagined—on a daily basis. As an advocate for children’s literacy and supreme defender of reluctant readers everywhere, I manipulate words into wondrous kid-friendly creations to be enjoyed over and over again. As one of my poems attests, I’m always reaching for the stars. For more information, visit www.cynthiareeg.com.




Monster is as monster does, but Frankenstein Frightface Gordon is totally the wrong shade of ghastly green—pale, baby blue, in fact—and he's more concerned with keeping his pants neat and tidy than scaring the pants off his victims. But when a new law is passed to rid Uggarland of misfits such as Frank, he must decide if he will become the monster his parents can be proud of or be the monster he can be proud of.
Trusting the most monsterly monster he knows, Frank looks to the grave and his dead grandmother to make his choice, entering into an adventure that most likely will seal his doom.
“There are lots of great themes and lessons here, particularly about how our society treats people (or monsters) who are outside of the norm, but they are drenched in monster pus and roars and hysterically funny things." —Wendy McLeod MacKnight, author of It's a Mystery, Pig Face!

“Young readers will laugh out loud, root for Frank, boo Malcolm), and wait with bated breath for these characters’ next adventure." —Victoria Coe, author Fenway and Hattie