Tuesday, January 10, 2017

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Three (2016)

photo by Jessica Holman
Esteemed Reader, the state of our ninja is strong:) I don't know how you feel about these yearly posts chronicling my journey as an author, but I like them. I liked reading last year's post moments ago and reflecting on the time that's passed (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast). There are plenty of incredible interviews and amazing guest posts available if you'd prefer to read something more interesting written by and about people who aren't me:)

But alas, this online repository of insights by superior writers and publishing professionals doubles as my author blog, so occasionally you're stuck with me: Robert Kent, the guy who promotes and celebrates middle grade fiction while publishing nasty horror novels filled with all sorts of foul language and violence and blasphemy of the sort my own dear mother would not have let me read back when she could still stop me.

When I gave Momma Ninja a verbal synopsis of The Book of David, she shook her head sadly and said, "Oh my." To the best of my knowledge, she hasn't read it (I surely would've gotten a late night phone call), and that's probably for the best. I've caused her enough worry over my lifetime:)

A lot happened in 2016 and there will no doubt be endless posts elsewhere about all the celebrity deaths, the media released (God bless you Batman V. Superman and Uncharted 4), and the craziest presidential election I've ever seen that has me wondering just how much longer we're going to continue to run our country using this outdated political model desperately in need of an upgrade. But I have outrage fatigue, I honestly didn't see that many movies (I'll get around to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2017, I promise), and most of the books I read or listened to were published in previous years.

As for the deaths of famous people, they've all hurt, partly because of the way media holds such a pervasive and intimate role in our lives that hasn't been true for any earlier era (there are people alive now who remember when you couldn't watch movie stars in bed). Carrie Fisher wasn't just an actress I never met, she was among my first loves. Carrie Fisher was a lot of people's first love, and a lot of other people loved her for reasons far beyond Star Wars. Also, if someone as famous and important as her can die, any of us can die, holy crap, we're gonna get old and die. I just saw Return of the Jedi for the first time how many years ago... oh no. Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast.

Richard Adams' death struck me particularly hard. Unlike the many other celebrities we've lost, I interacted with him. He was a very kind man who was gracious with his time and generous with his praise and I'll always be grateful for the incredible kindness he showed me. 

If I want to make myself misty-eyed, I have only to remember that first time I read his blurb for Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, as it was more meaningful to me than any other milestone in my author career could be. If I ever get down on writing or blogging (happens to us all), or if somebody says something mean about one of my books (jerks!), I have only to remember that Richard Adams didn't think I sucked, and if that doesn't cheer me up or make me feel like I have as much right to participate in our shared literature as anyone else, nothing ever will.  And when some other author asks me for a blurb or to appear on this blog or for some other favor, I remember the kindness Richard Adams showed me and frequently feel obliged to pay it forward.

What I mostly did in 2016 was a lot of dad-ing. I bought a blow-up pool this summer marked down to 20 bucks from 60 and even though the pool sprung a leak by September, it's still one of the best things I ever bought. Little Ninja and I lounged in our pool and splashed each other in the backyard and laughed like loons over several long summer afternoons. If there's one thing I want to remember about 2016 in future years, that's the one:)

Little Ninja dressed as Prince for Halloween. After a decade of our clearance-special, Charlie Brown Christmas tree, Mrs. Ninja and I sprang for a brand new six-foot beauty that Little Ninja knocked over after it had been up a week. I changed a lot of diapers, attempted some potty training that's still a work in progress for 2017, worked with some wonderful child care specialists, and spent a fair amount of time worrying about some things that were out of my control (always a waste of time I'm rarely capable of avoiding). I also lifted a lot of weights and am now extremely proficient at picking up heavy things. While not transforming me into a Ben Afleck hunk, the exercise has helped me maintain a sense of calm-ish-ness.

(here it is again)

But this is a post about my being an author, not a dad (or a Batfleck), and some pretty cool stuff happened in 2016, like my being on that panel in the photo above. I'm the guy in white, talking about my books while sitting next to more talented authors. No, seriously. That's our old friends Skila Brown, author of Caminar, to my right, Sarah J. Schmitt, author of It's a Wonderful Death to my left, and John David Anderson, author of Ms. Bixby's Last Day on the end. A panel filled with that much talent and the guy who wrote Pizza Delivery is the one doing the talking? Are you freaking kidding me!?!

I'm elated that people are asking me to teach classes on writing and to speak on panels. I'm thrilled when really talented authors ask to appear on this blog or want to interact with me in other ways. I'm pumped to be swapping critiques with Laura Martin, whose series about dinosaurs in a post-apocalyptic Indiana has rocked my world. Is that Susan Kaye Quinn or Darby Karchut or Barbara Dee or any number of other amazing writers casually chatting with me on Facebook? You bet. One evening earlier this year I got an email from Andy Weir and while I was reading it my inbox chimed to let me know I had a new email from Hugh Howey, cause that's how the Ninja rolls, son. Whoo! Book life!!!

I'm not just bragging to be bragging, I have a point: somewhere in there while I was busy working so hard to become an author, I became one. I've got a whole bunch of writer friends and people are paying money to read my stories (as well as to see me in person) and it's awesome. What's the point of these year-in review posts if I don't acknowledge my successes? Some cool stuff happened this year to let me know that that thing I always wanted to do... I did it.

I could be doing some things better, and we'll get to some of my mistakes, but I'm no longer embarrassed to introduce myself at parties as a writer (I hand out a business card or sign a book). I'm not talking about something I'm going to do some day, I'm talking about something I have done and am actively doing. I'm still going to get old (maybe) and die (you too, Esteemed Reader, you too), but I honestly feel like I'm doing some stuff that's worth doing with the life I have while I can do it (Pizza Delivery is going to change the world!).

I've got three things left to share: a rant, a mistake, a personal insight, and then I'll tell you what's coming in 2017 and we'll call it a post.

First, a rant: I've been pleasantly surprised by how gratifying it is to publish my own books and by how many readers don't care one bit how a story gets to them so long as the pizza delivered is scary. Many authors who've been in the business long enough to have gotten a good look at how publishing actually works (not the imaginary way we hope it works when we're reading our first Writer's Market) are curious to know more about self publishing. Several editors and other publishing professionals who've been downsized or fear a layoff is coming have been curious to know how they can get in touch with other writers who are self publishing and in need of their services.

But some people are a-holes:)

It doesn't happen nearly as frequently as I feared it would when I first self published, but every so often someone will make a snide comment in my direction about self published authors not being real authors (real authors give up control of their work and settle for less money, apparently). I believe I've lost at least one friend due to my decision to self publish. Other well-meaning authors have said some fairly pedantic things in my direction.

In my third year of being an author, I can say I mostly don't care (I'm not made of stone). But, honestly, I'm having too much fun to worry what some sourpusses may think about it. When I decided to marry a black woman, some other white people advised against it, and when I decided to publish my own books, some other writers advised against that as well and I have yet to regret choosing what makes me happy. Boom! How you gonna refute my point when I brought racism into it!?!? Game, set, and match:)

Again, most of my fellow writers have been very kind. As for the handful of jerks, I recognize myself in them. The worst offenders are typically the authors who have published their first book, but aren't getting anywhere on the second, or who have been sending out queries for a long time. I've been there, brothers and sisters, and I used to say some mean things about self published authors myself; then I read some self-published books that were as good as, and in many cases, better, than what traditional publishers are offering and I quit being a snob. As for those of my brethren finding success with traditional publishing: Play on players. Get it how you live.

And it's not like traditionally published authors don't have to deal with jerks. I've got a traditionally published friend who assured me that an author famous for one book (still working on that follow up more than a decade later) treated him badly because he was simply a 'genre writer.' No matter how you publish, somebody somewhere is going to try to make you feel bad for daring to express yourself creatively. Life is short, haters gonna hate, so brush that dirt off your shoulder.

Second, a mistake: Ye Esteemed Readers without sin may cast the first stone. I'll be talking a lot about The Book of David the first part of 2017 when I put up one of my so-smug-as-to-practically-be-unreadable afterwords and some other book-related posts as soon as the fifth and final installment of my serial horror novel is published (it's coming as quick as I can get it to you, I promise).

But Ninja, you ask, didn't you publish the first four parts of your continuing series last year, making your readers have to wait an unreasonable amount of time for the climax to the story they already forked over good money to read? Shut up, Esteemed Reader:)

Alas, it is true. I'm never going to be as fast at writing as I think I should be (or as good as I think I am). I honestly thought writing a serial novel would be like writing one book broken up into five parts. Instead, it's been like writing five novels about one story. The last three installments each have a higher word count than All Together Now without so much as a single zombie in their pages.

I'm trying to grow as an artist and I'm so proud of The Book of David. It's my most ambitious project to date and honestly, I didn't think the series would have so many readers so fast. Aside from this blog, I've done almost nothing to promote it, and yet readers have found it and enthusiastically embraced it. Actually, some readers might've thought it sucked, but all the Esteemed Readers who've taken the time to write me and tell me how much the story scared them and has them hooked, wanting to know the ending, have delighted me to no end as that's what I most hoped would happen when I wrote those first four chapters.

Unfortunately, most of the Esteemed Readers who've written me to tell me nice things about my story were also writing to ask where they could pick up Chapter Five, and I've had to be all like, "well, it's funny you bring that up, because you can totally find it... nowhere except in my head."

My bad, dudes. Chapter Five is written (mostly) and is in revision with the many editors I depend on to keep me from making a fool of myself. I could publish it now, but the only thing worse for me than disappointing Esteemed Reader by being late is rushing to publish a final installment that's not worthy of their time and money. The Book of David is the most humongous story I've ever had to tell and it's important to me that it be done right.

Still, it was reckless and irresponsible of me to publish the first three chapters while still working on the fourth and fifth. I honestly didn't realize just how much story I had to tell. To any Esteemed Readers who have been left hanging: I'm so sorry to have made you wait and I so appreciate your patience and your enthusiasm for my work.

I suck. I'll try not to do it again in the future.

Third, a personal insight: There was a day in 2016 working on the end of The Book of David that brought me to tears. I've put my whole heart into that story and when it's published, I can walk away from it and know that I left everything I had on the field. Should it become the story I'm known for, as much as I'll ever be known at all, (I'd prefer to be known as the Banneker Bones guy) I'll be happy to be identified as the guy who wrote the long horror story in which many mean and offensive things were said about religion, the government, and flying saucers. The Book of David, for better or worse, is the story I had to share with the world and if I were only ever able to have published the books I've published so far, I'd be glad The Book of David was among them (oh my God, you guys, I love it so much, and I don't care that some reader somewhere thinks I'm going to Hell for writing it).

Still, sometimes when in the throws of writing a thing, it's easy to forget why we writers are bothering at all. I identify with the title character, David Walters, in more ways than I'm completely comfortable admitting to in public, but in retrospect, it's his wife, Miriam Walters, I most identify with. She's not me and her crazy tale of living in a haunted house while being pestered by UFOs should in no way be interpreted as an autobiography by proxy. I made all that stuff up, honest.

That being said, of course I identify with my protagonists (yes, all of them). Each of my characters is typically reacting in a story the way a version of myself likely would were I to find myself in their circumstances (I hope I never do).

Miriam Walters is my only character to date who is a writer, a write of middle grade fiction no less, and she wants to take care of her family, find readers for her fiction, and to never be tempted to smoke another cigarette. I want all of those things myself and of all my characters in all my books, I think she and I might get along best at a lunch if she didn't hold a grudge for all the misery I put her through in service of the story (she's a writer, so she'd understand).

During one of the last chapters of her story which I won't spoil here (for those of you who've read it, this particular scene involves an open garage door) I realized that my character's emotional crux, for once, was my emotional crux. I was in tears by the time I finished the chapter because it dawned on me that I had written everything else that happened to my character to get her to that moment so I could forgive her and in doing so, forgive myself. 

The details don't really matter to anyone but me. What does matter is that in writing Miriam's story I was able to relieve myself of a deep-rooted emotional burden I'd been carrying for nearly two decades. Don't get it twisted: I wrote The Book of David to show Esteemed Reader a good time and maybe poke at their brain a little and that's it. If I made you laugh, scared you a bit, and made you consider an alternate point of view, than I did my job. I get your money and your attention, you get my story that hopefully justifies the expenditure of both, and that's it. We're square.

But once in a while there are moments that come to a writer that reward beyond what I have any right to expect to receive. Realizing I can hate myself a little less because I don't hate my character is a reward you can't put a price tag on. There are a lot of great things about writing that will keep me writing in 2017 (not discounting Esteemed Reader's money by any means), but that moment of realization when you at last understand why this particular story had to be told by this particular writer the way it was told make all the pain that goes along with writing totally worthwhile. You can't find catharsis like this at the bottom of a bottle or on a therapist's couch. 

One of the many reasons I write is to free myself. If that doesn't make sense to you, Esteemed Reader, that sucks for you, but I bet a lot of you writers know what I'm talking about:)

Here's what's coming up in 2017: I have promised my number-one middle grade fan that I would stop writing so much horror and finish Banneker Bones 2 in time for his birthday in July.  That means I'm slowly ramping up into middle grade mode once again. My sentences will be shorter and my prose will be tighter and I'll knock off all the cussing, but I wouldn't go so far as to promise complete politeness or what would even be the point? I'll also be focusing on reading more middle grade books instead of horror stories and I might even review a few books here (don't worry, we'll still have plenty of interviews and guest posts).

Little Ninja recently broke my and Mrs. Ninja's hearts by starting pre-school (Time, you wicked thing, you move too fast), which is freeing up a bit more time for me to write and one reason why this post is so long:) My number one writing resolution for 2017 is to focus on book promotion beyond this blog. Once Chapter Five is available, I'll finally have enough books out to justify spending money on promoting my stuff, so I'll be attempting various paid marketing venues and possibly be sharing some of my experiences here so you can learn from my screw ups:)

Here's hoping that 2017 is a very good year for both of us, Esteemed Reader. Author, Year Four, here I come!

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