Tuesday, June 27, 2017

GUEST POST: "The Big Five No-nos to Querying a Literary Agent" by Mark Gottlieb

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter…  

Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:

5)   FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.

4)   DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.

3)   PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author?  It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.

2)   READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.

1)   THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.

Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College and was President of its Publishing Club, establishing the Wilde Press. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was EA to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories. http://www.tridentmediagroup.com/agents/mark-gottlieb


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

NINJA STUFF: Funeral For A Friend (in which I discuss my failed novel)

It's a somber occasion, Esteemed Reader, so I hope you're wearing a black tie. Today I say goodbye to a book I once loved and still have some feelings for, even if I'm the only one. Actually, my critique partners and Mrs. Ninja also have strong feelings for the book, but not positive ones:)

I have a whole bookcase full of old manuscripts and screenplays, but most of them I promise myself can eventually be developed into better books. And why not? Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees took five years of revision before it was published and Pizza Delivery took 13. I have other stories that aren't ready for a readership yet, but may be revisited, even my 300-page screenplay about Batman. I've got a western that I would totally rework and publish if I could just get myself to change its inappropriate title (won't do it), an erotic horror novella that will never see the light of day, a story about a dying hooker that was good for me to write at the time and that no one should have to read, and some other stories that are actually pretty good that I hope to one day rewrite and make available.

But Straw Houses, my first epic adult horror novel about victims of alien abduction, has been picked over for parts and its ashes have been spread over my other works. All Together Now: A Zombie Story stole part of its ending, Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees stole some of its characters (Grandma Juanita was the only character in Straw Houses I genuinely liked, and I transported her to Banneker's world as an apology for first putting her in such a terrible novel), and now The Book Of David has stolen its best scenes and ideas. In fact, that last book is very much Straw Houses 2.0, and if I've finally written a decent long horror story involving UFO lore, it's only because I first devoted a couple years of my life learning how NOT to write a long horror story involving UFO lore. 

So what went wrong? Like an athlete watching old games or comedians listening to past routines, I think authors should revisit their own works from time to time to assess their weaknesses and strategize for future victory. So this post will be a useful exercise for me and possibly interesting to you writers out there as well. And if it's not, next week we'll be back to interviews with authors, publishing professionals, and guest posts by the same. Plenty of useful archives for you to read if me mourning my dead book doesn't interest you:)

Here are the issues with Straw Houses as I see now them on this side of seven years past two years' writing and revising and rewriting and revising:

1. I didn't have a plan going in. Every writer has to decide where they sit on the spectrum between diligent, plodding plotter and fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pantser, free-spirited, I-just-write-it-as-it-comes-to-me-man-cause-its-my-art-man dirty hippie:) Through trial and error, I've learned I do better if I know the ending up front (or at least have a good idea what it might be). I leave open the possibility that the characters will change the ending, and they frequently do, but not by much.

With Straw Houses, I had a lot of passion because I was nine years younger, not yet married or a father, and more of a UFO enthusiast. I was evangelical in my suspicions of conspiracy. I've since mellowed and backed off, having learned the hard way that it pays to be cautious with overly-interesting theories:) But in my enthusiasm, I decided to take an interesting situation: a small town Indiana couple, interracial like Betty and Barney Hill, comes to in their car, parked on a country road, with no memory of the five hours that have just passed. Meanwhile, another man in town is menaced by a UFO late at night that appears in his backyard and speaks to him. The two stories converge because the men are coworkers who confess their separate incidents after a UFO appears above the Harrington courthouse and one of them snaps a picture of it that becomes world-famous.

It's a good set up for a novel. Even now, knowing how it turned out, I still feel the opening was pretty swell. It's got plenty of intrigue and I may yet write at least a short story in which a UFO shows up over the courthouse of a small Indiana town because that is just pure fun. Aside from a few other issues we'll come to, I think the first 100-150 pages of Straw Houses is one of my most gripping openings. Unfortunately, the book went on for another 700 pages and I had no clue what happened next:) I just assumed I'd figure it out as I went. I didn't.

2. The characters weren't likable or, worse, interesting. The main character, Charles Cavanaugh, was a jerk who whined a lot, treated his wife poorly, and didn't have a goal other than to stop being abducted by aliens. That's motivation enough for the protagonist of a short story (Brock Clouser's main motivation in Pizza Delivery is not to get murdered) but not a stupid-long novel.

Charles was a financial consultant at Mitchell and Reynolds Investments because I always thought it was funny that a straight-edge banker be abducted by aliens, which is why David Walters works at the same branch in The Book of David and meets many of the characters from Straw Houses, which is interesting only to me and the handful of other people who read my first attempt:) Charles' wife, Christine, is even worse, and the two of them together were deplorable. They were always fighting.

The couple wasn't fighting because I was ticked at Mrs. Ninja and looking for a place to put it, but because conflict drives stories and I hadn't given the Cavanaughs an actionable conflict, so they turned on each other to keep pages turning:) And, okay, I was contemplating getting married and chose to create a worst-case scenario marriage. Ultimately, the Cavanaughs fought so much I convinced myself and my few readers their relationship was doomed, so there wasn't anything at stake. The other characters were a little better, but not much because...

3. I never established a clear concept or overarching conflict to drive the novel. Whoops:) The number one thing I learned about writing my first long horror story about UFOs is that "realistic" aliens make lousy villains. Fictional aliens to which I can assign a motive and make clear their plan would probably be bang-up antagonists, and I'm sure I'll write about some eventually. But I wanted to incorporate as many details from modern UFO sightings and abductions as possible, and if you've done that research (here's a place to start), you'll notice there is no consensus about where flying saucers come from and what their motives are.

That's fine for an hour-long program of talking heads on the History Channel, but it's not's fine for a long novel. I had the same problem as the film Twister in that my villains weren't worthy villains with a goal that brings them into conflict with the "hero" in a credible way ("You've never seen a tornado miss this house and miss that house and come after you!").

About 300 pages in, after multiple UFO encounters and detailed flashbacks to suppressed memories of alien abduction, my characters began to suspect that the aliens were actually demons. The problem then is the demonic aliens still didn't have a clear plan or motivation other than to mess with our heroes, apparently by convincing one of them that she had alien babies being raised on another planet. Worse, the heroes could now pray the aliens away, which is not an exciting finale to a long novel.

My attempted solution was to hold off revealing that the aliens were demons until the end of the novel after Charles Cavanaugh attempted multiple means of fighting them off. But this just exacerbated the original problem of the villains being without a clear motive, leaving our hero without a real goal until page 750 or so. Even my mother isn't going to read a story like that.

4. I molded the story to serve its theme rather than allowing the theme to emerge from the story. In my mind, Straw Houses was destined to be literature read and studied for ages to come. What a fool I was. Only The Book of David and my other super important and impressive volumes of literature will be studied by future generations:)

About the same time I decided the aliens were demons, which is to say way too far along in the novel to reconsider, I decided they must be the big bad wolf. Oh my God, put on your tweed jacket with the leather patches and light your pipe, I've got myself a metaphor! I had two households being antagonized by a big bad wolf. If I had a third,  he could metaphorically huff and puff and blow two houses down, but then also the third, because in the end don't we all live in Straw Houses (Get it? Get it? I hate you, me from the past).

So I added a third house and a fourth major character about 300 pages in for the soul purpose of later killing him and showing that his metaphorical house wasn't built so good after all. At one point the demonic aliens called him on the phone and were all like, "Are you scared? We know your phone number!!!" And this happened because he wasn't tied into the main plot that was already going.

5. I ended a very long book with a total downer ending. This goes hand in hand with my previous mistake as missteps build on each other to lead a writer way off path.

I've always been suspicious of that third little pig in the brick house. Why's he so happy at the end of the story? Both his brothers got ate up and he's all alone. I mean, he's safe, so long as he never goes outside again. I realize I'm reading too much into an allegory, but I maintain that third pig is not a happy fellow.

So, after 800 some-odd pages of UFOs torturing our three households (or huffing and puffing) one character kills himself, one gets shot by a woman who is herself possessed by an alien demon, one character is killed when she attempts to flee the ritual suicide of a UFO cult, and our main character, Charles Cavanaugh, is left all alone to mourn his dead homies and never be happy again. Here's the actual ending:

     Only Charles remained. He was the smart pig who built his house of brick, the wise man who built his house upon the stone. The rains came down and the winds came up, and the wolf huffed and puffed, but he couldn’t get old Charles’s house down. Charles Cavanaugh was the wise man living on the rock. Charles Cavanaugh was the clever pig in the brick house and he was doing just fine, thank you very much.
     Charles filled his glass to the brim with whiskey and a dash of Sprite. He listened to the roar of the surf outside the kitchen window and the quiet stillness all around him. There were no voices, no other sounds of any kind. There was no one else here, only him.
     Charles raised the glass to his lips and began to drink.

Now, if I were Esteemed Reader, after dutifully acknowledging that I'd clearly just read the next Adventures of Huckleberry Finn penned by a modern master of the craft whose every brilliant sentence allows me to believe in a brighter tomorrow, I might be ticked to have read so much story only for all the characters to die or otherwise be miserable and no resolution to be had for any of them. I know all my critique partners were angry:)

Metaphorically, it's true that every character in the story had demonstrated the weakness that led to their undoing, but that just makes readers want to know about the characters who didn't screw up their lives and my 800-page tome would've been better off including some (even if it messed up the three-little pigs motif, which is better left to James Patterson).

So, from this experience, I learned that as a rule, downer endings are more acceptable at the end of shorter works. Readers are generally more forgiving if they've invested less time with the doomed protagonists. Better yet is the downer ending that's still somewhat happy for at least one or two major characters. Conversely, a happy ending is better tempered with at least a little darkness.

One mistake I made with Straw Houses that is no longer a mistake was the length. The plot problems would've still been an issue had it been a shorter book, though I might've got away with a narrative poem:)  I like long horror novels and am convinced there is still a market for them. And there's a very good reason some of my most favorite horror novels have been long.

The most astute critique I ever heard of Stephen King came from a fellow Burger King employee many, many years ago when the Ninja was a teenager. We both agreed King's stories were amazing, and by far the scariest, but he remarked, "Doesn't it seem like if you shook hands with that dude at a party, you'd have to chew through your wrist to get away?" I have thought about that criticism ever since every time I reread King's works but also when I read other long books.

I've talked at length about my undying love for Stephen King, but my coworker did have a point. There have been a few Stephen King novels when I've wondered if the editor just didn't feel comfortable asking Mr. King to please not review other writer's books in the middle of the book Constant Reader paid for (get a blog, man). And yet most of King's novels are white-hot reading experiences demanding to be read as quickly as possible that are still popular decades after they were written, despite large word counts. So either Stephen King is just super lucky every book (and no doubt, some luck was involved), or there's a method to his madness.

Many of Stephen King's books thrive on details. They have to. He's asked Constant Reader to suspend their disbelief by quite a lot on numerous occasions.

The Shining has a cast of four major characters in a straightforward horror story that can be boiled down to a few sentences or endless 2-5 minute animated parodies. King took 160,000 words to tell his version and it worked and continues to work. King is a master salesman who convinces Constant Reader that his characters are real people because Constant Reader will know everything that's relevant about them. King convinces Constant Reader that the situation those real characters are in is real as well.

Even if it takes King 444,000 words, Constant Reader will believe there is a killer clown in the sewers capable of transforming into their worst fear and Constant Reader will believe because every detail about that fantasy will add up to an argument convincing enough until the lights come on again.

Straw Houses at its longest draft was 182,000 words. A literary agent literally laughed in my face when I told her. Nobody was going to traditionally publish a novel that long by a debut author, she said, and she was right. That's not the same as saying there aren't readers looking for long horror stories. If they've read King (and what kind of jerk loves horror and doesn't read King?), they know those seemingly mundane details add up, like the passes of a hypnotist's golden watch, to convince the reader the story is real and that they should be terrified.

The compilation of all five volumes of The Book of David is 276,000 words. I knew going in it would be a long story because it asks the reader to suspend their disbelief about a whole lot of stuff, the least of which is that flying saucers and alien abductions are real and a practical concern for everyday people:) But I learned my lesson from previous mistakes and published this very long story as five books, which allows for marketing considerations. 

Because I only get paid for the fifth book if Esteemed Reader made it through the first four, this insured that I would be forced to keep the narrative focused with built in cliffhangers.

I did a few other things differently in writing The Book of David that I knew to do only because I'd first written Straw Houses:

1. I absolutely had a plan going in. I knew what the last chapter would be before I wrote the first one, while keeping the plot flexible enough to allow the characters to dictate their own actions (sometimes). I didn't have a full outline, but I did have a list of planned events to help me determine where each chapter needed to start and stop to get where I wanted to go.

2. I had a clear concept going in: The Walters family has bought a haunted house. From the first line of Chapter One to the last line of Chapter Five, this is a haunted house story. There are aliens and flying saucers, but the reader is told in Chapter One as well as in the book's description that those aliens may actually be demons. There's an alien with demonic horns on the cover. My cards are pretty much on the table from the start. And the aliens are prominently featured without ever bearing the responsibility of being the primary antagonist. This is a haunted house story with aliens in it, not an alien story with a haunted house in it. 

3. Because I knew the ending, I knew some of what the themes were likely to be and allowed them to emerge from the story rather than bending the story to serve the themes. If you read the whole story from start to finish and don't pick up that this is a story in part about addiction and in part about parenting, you won't be bothered because the plot moves right along without your needing to pick the themes up. If you don't think it's thematically relevant that every volume starts with "Do you believe? Do you have faith?" then maybe it isn't. I'm okay with The Book of David being thematically misunderstood so long as Esteemed Reader is entertained and kept in suspense. This is a for fun story, not homework.

4. David and Miriam Walters are both flawed characters, but they're also likeable and they have actionable goals. I know because I used critique partners' and beta readers' feedback to rewrite my characters until I knew they were likeable and I wrote out fact sheets about them to keep them consistent through five volumes of story. I know all kinds of details about them that aren't relevant enough to be in the book. It thrilled my heart when one Esteemed Reader wrote in a review, "The main character David is down to earth and likable which is a good part of what makes this book so enjoyable to read." I couldn't have paid someone to write a better compliment than that, assuring me the book was doing what I wanted it to do.

5. The ending is satisfying, whatever the author's opinion of it does for you:) I didn't write 279,000 words just to tell you the ending on my free blog, but I do feel it's my best ending of all my stories so far published. It makes me smile to think of how I hope Esteemed Reader will feel when they reach it.

There were many other mistakes made in Straw Houses, some of which I'm probably still making because I don't yet know they were mistakes:) But every story I've told since Straw Houses has been better because I wrote that ill-fated novel destined to sit on my shelf of manuscripts not good enough. Straw Houses taught me the lessons I needed to know to write the manuscripts that are.

That shelf of old manuscripts isn't a graveyard of failed dreams. It's a monument to the heroic efforts made by the stories who went first so future stories could resonate with Esteemed Reader. 

"The Lord has appointed you to a special duty in these last days and given your life a unique purpose. Will you turn away from the myriad temptations of this wicked world and answer His righteous calling?"

The Walters family has just purchased the perfect home if only it weren't located in the small hick town of Harrington, Indiana, and if only it weren't haunted. David Walters is an atheist now, but his minister father taught him from a young age that Satan would one day deceive all mankind by pretending his demons were extraterrestrials. The day the Walters family moves in, they spot a flying saucer outside their new home. Things only get stranger from there. David Walters is about to learn what it means to be truly haunted, forcing him to confront his past, fight for his family, his soul, and his sanity.


This horror story is intended for a mature audience. It's filled with adult language, situations, and themes. It's in no way appropriate for the easily offended or younger readers of BANNEKER BONES AND THE GIANT ROBOT BEES.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin

When Alyssa Eisner Henkin became an editorial assistant in 1999 she was just happy to have coworkers who loved Anne of Green Gables as much as she did. Little did she know, over the next decade children's publishing would become the fastest-growing genre in reading and entertainment.

Alyssa candidly admits that she did not foresee the magnitude of this when she became an agent. "I joined Trident because I wanted to be an entrepreneur, to have a more direct impact on authors' careers, and to use both my creative and business acumen". While at Trident, Alyssa has been able to take advantage of changing formats and venues for her clients. "Most companies consider the international market to be secondary," says Alyssa, "but at Trident, we view foreign as a 'must' market, and my clients are pleased to find their books selling around the world."
"Through all of the growth and change", Alyssa emphasizes, "there is no doubt that the key elements of storytelling have remained the same. The book that cannot be put down will continue to hold value, whether as a groundbreaking app, or as a beloved and tattered paperback that still reigns your bookshelf." Alyssa considers it a great privilege to represent books that readers cannot put down.

She is actively seeking new clients and represents all forms of literature for young people. Query letters should be submitted via email to ahenkin@tridentmediagroup.com. The first five pages of text for a longer work, or the full manuscript for a picture book text should be submitted below the query letter in the text body of the email, not as an attachment. Art samples or dummy texts should be inserted as links in the body of the query letter.

In middle grade and young adult fiction and memoir, Alyssa craves tight plotting, lyrical prose, rich regional flavors, and unexpected conclusions. She especially enjoys mysteries, period pieces, contemporary school-settings, issues of social justice, family sagas, eerie magical realism, and retellings of classics.

In nonfiction, history and STEM/STEAM themes are always intriguing. Alyssa would also love to find a series with the interactive spirit of a trivia game.

Above all, Alyssa digs deep when she sees potential, from editing, to title brainstorming, to securing the best publisher, to devising new marketing ideas and making ancillary sales across all forms of media. "There's no greater professional joy than championing a book that you believe in and watching the world delight in it."

And now Alyssa Eisner Henkin faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

The Group by Mary McCarthy
In The Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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

Steel Magnolias
Little Miss Sunshine

Television shows:
The Wonder Years
Mad Men
Downton Abbey

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

Someone who is diligent about revisions, who is innovative and dares to take chances in his or her work, who has the patience and confidence to stand by those daring choices, and who is most passionate about craft but willing to wear a savvy marketing hat or scarf from time to time.

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

I would love to see more fun nonfiction projects with series potential: I’m searching for The Magic School Bus for the smartphone-addicted kid generation. I’m looking for middle grade that has the plot nuance of The Mixed Up Files… with a diverse cast of characters and a setting  that oozes kid-appeal and lends itself  to innovative world-building .  Wolf Hollow is one I just fell in love with recently, so I’d love to see more period pieces with super high plot-stakes that feel truly relevant to today’s kids. Now that my sons are 7 and almost 3, I’m channeling them and actively seeking more illustrated work, things like The 13 Story Treehouse on down to smartly-packaged-picture books with interactive elements that prompt family bonding, like in Tickle Monster and The Elf on The Shelf.

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

I love learning little-known facts from submission that pop up in my inbox.

I love the thrill in an editor’s voice when he or she is hooked on a project as much as the sheer delight in a client’s voice when he or she decides on the perfect editor and or scores a place on the bestseller list or wins an award!

My biggest frustration is the glut of books that are published to copy trends rather than buck them. It reminds me of the first-graders on the soccer field when a dozen kids swarm around one ball and nobody scores a goal. I much prefer to dribble my books up the sidelines!

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)

It’s important to read a lot of frontlist titles so you understand the comp titles when editors describe what they are seeking to acquire. However, it’s also crucial to stay true to your own vision for your story and not try to fit a square peg into a round hole; it has to feel right.

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

It would have to be at tea party with Maud Hart Lovelace, L.M. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary and Sydney Taylor, and maybe I’d throw in Jackie Kennedy. The first 4 ladies are kind of the reasons I sought a career in children’s publishing.  As for Jackie, I’m a huge Kennedy buff and she was an editor after all!


Thursday, June 8, 2017

7 Questions For: Author Laura Martin

Laura Martin believes in chasing her dreams and she brought that philosophy to her classroom for six years as a seventh grade English teacher.  Edge of Extinction-The Ark Plan is Laura’s first novel—and a dream come true. When she isn’t writing stories about dinosaurs and underground civilizations, she can be found in the Indianapolis area with her dashing husband, Josh, her adorable kids, daughter London and son Lincoln, and two opinionated bulldogs.

Edge of Extinction-Code Name Flood is available now.

Click here to read my review of Edge of Extinction-The Ark Plan.

And now Laura Martin faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Harry Potter will always and forever have my heart, so I’m going to cheat and count the entire series as one book. The second would have to be The Song of the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Peirce. I devoured those books over and over as a kid. Pretty much everything she’s ever written has a permanent spot on my shelf and in my heart. And finally The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffennegger.  

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

Not enough? I have two little kiddos at home, so free time is something that I vaguely remember. I write after my kids go to bed at seven at night, and I keep writing until my eyes won’t stay open anymore. Sometimes that’s a few hours…sometimes that’s a few minutes. It all depends on the day and how much is left in the tank after a day of toddler wrangling. As far as reading goes, I do most of that through audiobooks. I always have one in rotation to listen to in the car or while I fold laundry, so the amount I listen to varies day to day.

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

Like a lot of life-long bookworms, I always dreamed about writing a book. While I was in the middle school trenches teaching seventh grade English, I set a goal to get published before I turned thirty. So, goal set, deadline approaching, I started writing a book. It was terrible, but it took over 150 rejections before that fact really sunk in. So I wrote another book, and that book ended up getting noticed by Alec Shane, who was working at Writer’s House as Jodi Reamer’s assistant at the time. He asked me to do a huge revision and rewrite on the book before he showed it to Jodi, with no promises or guarantees attached, and I jumped at the chance. (I’d submitted my book to Jodi in the same way one applies to Harvard…with a lot of prayers but not much hope.)  It took a year from the time Alec first noticed my book to the day that I got the phone call that Jodi was interested in representing me. My daughter was only two weeks old when she called, and I was a little worried that it was all one big sleep-deprived dream. The book, which at the time was just called The Ark Plan, sold to HarperCollins who asked me to turn it into a two book series.

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

I believe writer’s are born, but it is the teaching they receive the books they encounter that determines whether or not they actually become a writer. I think to be a writer you have to first fall head over heels in love with books and the magic they hold between their pages. I fell in love with books via The Chronicles of Narnia in second grade, but I firmly believe that the real reason that I am a writer today is because I grew up listening to books, not reading them. I started training for cross country in middle schol, and I discovered that a six mile run was bearable if I was listening to Jim Dale narrate the Harry Potter series, and if you look the science behind what makes a writer, you will discover huge ties between listening to books and becoming a writer.

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

I love that it’s never felt like work. When I get to delve into a story I’m working on, it’s fun. And I guess it’s that simple. I’ve been able to make my passion into a paycheck, and even when I’m exhausted after a long day of keeping two small children alive and happy, writing is a soft place to land. My least favorite thing about writing is the sedentariness of it. I love to be up and moving, preferably while multi-tasking. Spending hours sitting in front of a computer screen starts to get to me after a while. Which is why I guess it’s lucky that I rarely get more than an hour or two after my kids go to bed for the night!  

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 first would be to write a book, and even though you are going to think it’s bestseller material, shove it under your bed and write another one. Always have something new and exciting in the pipeline so that as you are getting all those lovely rejection emails, you won’t lose hope. 

My second piece of advice would be to set a deadline on your dream. Mine was to get published before I turned thirty (I missed this goal by about nine months), but really, even if it had taken me until I was one hundred, it still would have been worth it. A lifetime spent pursuing a dream, even a dream that is never realized, is better than a life spent with regrets. Once you set a tangible deadline you will be forced to take the steps to make it happen. And lastly, turn off the internet when you write and move your phone to another room.

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

It’s a hard choice between Tamora Pierce and J.K. Rowling, but if push came to shove I’d have to say Tamora Pierce. I love everything about her writing, and if I could live in the worlds she creates, I’d pack my bags tomorrow. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book of the Week: EDGE OF EXTINCTION - THE ARK PLAN by Laura Martin

First Paragraph(s): I needed two minutes. Just enough time to get to the maildrop and back, but I had to time it perfectly. Dying wasn’t an option today, just like it hadn’t been an option the last ten times I’d done this. I’d thought it would get easier after the first time. It hadn’t. 
I gritted my teeth and scanned the holoscreen again. The mail was due to arrive in less than a minute, and although the forest above me looked harmless, I knew better. The shadows between the trees were too silent, too watchful. I hit the refresh button. The drill was simple—refresh the screen, scan for a full minute, refresh again and scan the opposite direction. I imagined it was similar to what parents used to teach their kids about crossing the street, back when there were still streets to cross and cars to drive on them.

Esteemed Reader, there is nothing quite so enjoyable as a middle grade action novel that's taut and exciting with characters you can care about and root for. Many have tried and failed, but Laura Martin succeeds on every level. In fact, I'll give Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan the highest compliment I have to give: I wish I had written it. Plucky middle grade characters with a handful of futuristic gadgets traveling across a post apocalyptic Indiana inhabited by dinosaurs in a story containing subtle Biblical overtones? Dude, I should've been all over that, but now I can't because Laura Martin got there first.

On the upside, I did get the experience of reading such a wonderful novel without any effort on my part. You can have that same experience and better because this first book in the series, while self contained, builds plenty of promise to be fulfilled in the second book, Code Name Flood, which just became available. You can read the whole saga now (you're going to want both books) and please do so we can convince Laura Martin to write a third Edge of Extinction novel, perhaps subtitled Two of Every Deadly Species or maybe Forty Days and Forty Nights of Blood. Should anyone at Harper Collins be reading this, help yourself to these subtitles free of charge:)

Also, there's a decent chance yours truly might get thanked in the back of a third volume just as Laura will be thanked in the back of Banneker Bones 2 (coming soon-ish). Laura wrote a guest post for us last year and anytime an author does that, I at least browse their book. Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan sucked me in at once and I knew I wanted to meet Laura because I respected her work and our brains clearly run on a similar track creatively (she also likes stories about fun conspiracy theories). Turns out she's a fellow Hoosier and a short drive from my house, and yadda, yadda, yadda, she's now a member of my beloved writing group, the YA Cannibals.

Okay, full disclosures out of the way, let's talk about this book. I imagine if I made a pie chart of all the elements of books I've discussed in these reviews over the years, the largest wedge by far would go to my admiration for a great opening. In my mind, chapter one is the most important in the book as it either hooks me and interests me in the story or it doesn't and I imagine it to be the same for my readers. I've read great books with lousy openings I was glad I stuck with, but more often, a lousy opening promises more of the same, and if I'm still struggling to care about what I'm reading two chapters in and I haven't promised to review the book here, I'm usually looking for a new book. I imagine younger readers to be even more impatient.

We're about to meet eleven-soon-to-be-twelve-year-old Sky Mudy, her best friend Shawn Reilly, and later, my personal favorite character, the nearly feral Todd. We're going to learn their backstories, the rules that govern their world, and their motivations for the adventures they're about to have. In chapter two we'll learn Sky has gray eyes and curly red hair (that's how you know she's a middle grade character). But we don't care about that in chapter one.

The first 100 pages or so of Michael Crichton's classic--you know the one I mean and so does Harper Collins, which is why it's mentioned heavily in Edge of Extinction's marketing--are devoted to a mystery of strange animals appearing in Costa Ricca, which is its own brilliant opening as the reader has convinced himself of the reality of dinosaurs having returned from extinction before they arrive in the story to find the reader's disbelief already suspended. That's all good and well for a book targeting older readers, but middle grade readers want to know that they're going to get dinosaur action and plenty of it. Laura Martin gives it to them straight away, promises more, and delivers:

Turning on my heel, I sprinted for the compound entrance. I spotted the disturbance to my left when I was still fifty yards from safety. The ground began to tremble under my feet, and I willed myself not to panic. Panicking could happen later, when I was safely underground with two feet of concrete above my head. 
I spotted the first one out of the corner of my eye as it burst from the trees. Bloodred scales winked in the dawn light as its opaque eyes focused on me. It was just over ten feet and moved with the quick, sharp movements of a striking snake.
My stomach lurched sickeningly as I recognized the sharp, arrow-shaped head, powerful hindquarters, and massive back claw of this particular dinosaur. It was a deinonychus. Those monsters hunted in packs. Sure enough, I heard a screech to my left, but I didn’t bother to look. Looking took time I didn’t have. I hit the twenty-yard mark with my heart trying to claw its way up my throat. The deinonychus was gaining on me

Laura hints at backstory and supplies the most necessary of details to involve us in the action, but what she cares about is what the reader cares about: people are going to get chased by dinosaurs in this story. Count on it. By the end of the chapter, she's established the broad strokes of what sort of novel we're going to read and the tone has been set:

One of the deinonychus’s nails screeched across the metal hatch that separated their world from mine, forcing me to clap my hands over my ears. The creatures were still scrabbling and roaring, furious at their lost meal. And I wished, for the millionth time, that I could feed them the idiot scientists who had brought them out of extinction in the first place. Although being ripped to pieces might be too kind for the people who had almost wiped out the entire human race.

Speaking of Michael Crichton, this novel leans in on the inevitable comparisons and pays homage up front, which I think is smart and a thing I usually do myself. It's hard to imagine readers sitting back with arms crossed, scoffing that Laura is just trying to tell a Jurassic Park-type story when the author herself acknowledges the similarity and takes the contention off the table, as if to say "yes, this is a dinosaur action story, yes you've read one or two of these before, but this one's also darn good, and do you want another dinosaur story or don't you?" It's not unlike naming the beverage that causes my The Walking Dead-esque zombie apocalypse Kirkman Soda:)

“All right, Miss Mundy,” Professor Lloyd said, glancing down at the port screen in front of him. “If you wouldn’t mind giving the class an explanation of the similarities between the events that transpired in Michael Crichton’s ancient classic Jurassic Park and the events that have taken place in our own history.” 
“Similarities?” I asked, swallowing hard. I’d just finished reading the novel the night before, so I knew the answer, but I hated speaking in public. Facing the herd of deinonychus again would have been preferable. I wasn’t sure what that said about me. 
“Yes,” Professor Lloyd said, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice. “Quickly, please. We are wasting time that I’m sure your classmates would appreciate having to work on their analyses.”
“Well,” I said, keeping my eyes on my desk. “In Mr. Crichton’s book, the dinosaurs were also brought out of extinction.” I glanced up to see Professor Lloyd staring at me pointedly. He wasn’t going to let me get away with just that. Clenching sweaty hands, I plowed ahead. “The scientists in the book used dinosaur DNA, just like our scientists did a hundred and fifty years ago. And just like in the book, our ancestors initially thought dinosaurs were amazing. So once they had mastered the technology involved, they started bringing back as many species as they could get their hands on.”

This scene goes on a bit longer, but I can really only reproduce so much of this book on my free blog before I get a letter from Harper Collins' legal department:) Her due diligence done, and quite cleverly at that, Laura unfolds the details of Sky's life in an underground compound. She's a social outcast because her father ran off some time back and took some supplies with him, making him an enemy of the compound. But I wouldn't worry about the details too much. There aren't any dinosaurs underground, so you know our characters are going topside to be chased before too many chapters have passed:)

Sure enough, on Sky's twelfth birthday, a secret message is discovered in the compass her father gave her before he left. Yadda, yadda, yadda, he's still alive, she needs to find him, Shawn's coming with her, and the story is off and running... from dinosaurs. Turns out that a life spent underground has not equipped Sky and Shawn for the world above and after a few close calls with a T-Rex and other not-so-friendly dinos, they meet Todd, a surface-dwelling boy whose proficient at navigating among the beasts and even has his own pet dinosaur. 

I smiled. I thought that I might like Todd. He had a spark to him, as though he was so full of life that it slipped out of his pores. I wondered if I’d be like that too, if I’d been raised in the sunlight and fresh air.

We meet Todd's family who live in a village composed of tree houses placed well above biting range. Laura keeps us there just long enough to learn some crucial plot details as well as some interesting insights as to how surface dwellers manage to cohabitate an environment overrun with prehistoric monsters. But safe from dinos is no place to keep our character in an action novel like this one and soon enough, they're on the run once again, being chased by both dinos and humans. There's some food for thought along the way and some pilosophical musings, but the majority of Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan is devoted to what we all came to read:

The creature was gaining on me. Teeth snapped together only inches from the back of my head, and I knew that this was how I would die. There was movement off to my right, and I realized that the dinosaur might be part of a pack. I prayed that it would be quick, that the creature would break my neck and not rip me to shreds while I was still alive.

There's no graphic violence as this is a middle grade novel, but young readers will be thrilled to discover that's not the same as no violence. There' good times to be had throughout:) I know you'll love this book as much as I did, Esteemed Reader. I can't go into a great deal more detail without spoiling things that shouldn't be spoiled, so I'll share a tidbit I learned from this book because I've been chatting with its author.

While critiquing one of Laura's future novels that I've read and you can't because my life is awesome and involves awesome things, I suggested she not use forms of speech attribution other than 'said' as well as cut down on the adverbs accompanying them. This is sage advice I learned from Elmore Leonard and countless other writers and have tried to employ in my own work. Back in my day, this was surefire advice passed from many a writing instructor onto me like a sacred law never to be broken, but the Ninja is getting older and the world is moving on, as it does.

Laura asked me why I hadn't complained about employment of adverbs such as 'she huffed,' 'she breathed,' 'she complained warily,' and so on in this book. I admitted that I noticed their usage, but I rarely offer critique notes on a book that's already on shelves as they're of little use by then. Turns out Laura was encouraged by those in the know to use varying forms of speech attribution. An editor had even marked uses of 'said' and requested they be livened up. Another critique partner told me her daughter's class had held a funeral for the word 'said' and they were all being encouraged to use more creative words in their writing.

It's a brave new world, Esteemed Reader, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. As for me, I like 'said' as I still feel its nearly invisible on the page, but I'm become less rigid about it. I share this detail with you in the hopes of improving your own writing.

Edge of Extinction - The Ark Plan is a good story well told. You're going to love it. Trust me.  As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“You are going to get killed.” He frowned. “And all for some stupid hunch.” 
“I won’t.” I huffed into my still-wet bangs in exasperation, wishing that I’d chosen a best friend who wasn’t so nosy.

He had the greasy, unwashed appearance of a kid whose parents didn’t keep track of how often he bathed, and a hollow look that I’d seen in the mirror a bit too often.

Shawn cried out as the man scrambled for the hatch on his hands and knees. He made it inside, but part of his right leg did not

“You compound moles don’t have much of a sense of humor, do you?” Todd said. 
“I’m actually hilarious.” Shawn grunted. “Just not when I’m hanging thirty feet above angry dinosaurs

“I did mention Sky was incredibly stubborn. Right?” Shawn asked, a crooked grin on his face. 
“I prefer the word determined,” 

I was snapped from my musings by the staircase Ivan was climbing. It seemed to disappear into the floor, and I stared at it in confusion. 
“Escalator,” he called from above us. “An old-fashioned transportation device to bring people from one floor to the next. Our ancestors were lazy. And probably fat.”

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn't happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.