Wednesday, January 1, 2020

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Six (2019)

The headline of 2019's Author Year-in-Review post is this: the Banneker Bones trilogy is finally coming to a close. I've still got some work ahead of me, but Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy will be available May 15, 2020.

I can't reveal many details as saying much of anything about this third story will spoil bits of the first two. But I can reveal Steven Novak's glorious third cover and I can say that I can't wait for you to read this final-ish adventure (there will hopefully someday be a fourth, fifth, and sixth book, but not for a while, and this third book is an ending for the series).

Happy New Year, Esteemed Reader! I know I've done more podcasting than blogging in 2019, and truthfully, I anticipate more of the same in 2020. Every episode of the Middle Grade Ninja podcast feels like I won a contest to chat with someone I admire. I frequently sound awkward and dorky on the show, which isn't really a surpriseI AM awkward and dorky, on and off the air. Even so, I appear to be getting away with this thing so far and I'm having fun. Traffic numbers tell me Esteemed Audience is getting something out of the show as well.

If you haven't heard the podcast yet, the archives await you, friend. If you've read this blog ever, you're into writing and reading and you'll probably enjoy listening to writers and publishing professionals chat with me about writing and reading. The most recent clip show is a good place to start. The previous one was excellent as well.

The podcast sucks up most of the time I used to devote to blogging (and more), so I've been posting less frequently. But I look forward to these author year-in-review posts as they require me to read the previous ones and evaluate my performance. In 2019, I feel I did some things better than I ever have, I could improve on some things for 2020, and I did one colossally stupid thing I'm still beating myself up over as I'm getting a little old to have made such a childish mistake. But I'm also old enough to know that mistakes are part of life and I certainly took a lifelong lesson away from the experience. That mistake (neveryoumind the details) and a funeral aside, 2019 was a mostly excellent year.

As in previous years, I'll spend the first half of this post rambling about the things other people made in 2019 that I loved. I won't even attempt to sum up the decade, although Middle Grade Ninja is ten years old this year. In the second half of the post, I'll ramble about the things I made, some lessons I learned, and my plans for the future.


You regular Esteemed Readers know I never list my favorite books for the year because 1. I'm too slow a reader to have kept up with the whole market, so I can never know for sure. 2. I like having writer friends:) 3. Each book is its own unique experience I'm almost always happy to have had regardless of other experiences.

That said, in a world where old-time favorites frequently let us down, two books that were amazing were The Institute and The Testaments. They weren't necessarily my favorite books of the year, but they were each rich and rewarding reading experiences. It's inspiring to see two literary giants who've been at the top of their game for decades knock it out of the park yet again, despite the probability of their later work crumbling against the weight of fan expectations. King and Atwood are two of the best around and a reminder that a writer's career can be a long one. An author's best work isn't behind them until they decide it's so and I'll put their senior works toe-to-toe with their freshman efforts any day.


El Camino was something truly special that Mrs. Ninja and I loved together and made us yearn for more Better Call Saul. This year's superhero movies I loved alone. It goes without saying that Marvel killed it with Avengers: Endgame and Spider-man: Far From Home, and Captain Marvel was mostly charming, with points off for Nick Fury's unsatisfying eye-patch origin. Shazam did DC proud by being an absolute charm factory. Joker was... I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

2019 was quite the year for horror. Brightburn had me smiling from start to finish. My favorite movie of 2019 should be Us (any other year, it would be). Us is a well-crafted thing of beauty. From the performances to the cinematography to the music, this is a superior horror film that makes me want to buy an opening ticket for every Jordan Peele movie that's ever going to be made (he also got the biggest laugh in Toy Story 4). I can't remember the last time a movie so terrified me that I had nightmares for a week afterward. Get Out was amazing, but I like Us even more. And I still occasionally glance at my driveway expecting to see me and Mrs. Ninja at the end of it.

I loved Us so, so much, but there's another movie I love even more: Crawl, my favorite movie of the year, and one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life. This flick understood exactly what I wanted from it and over delivered. For me, it's a dream movie, a wish my heart made, about folks getting chased by alligators.

It's masterfully plotted and terrifying with characters you care about who are properly tortured. For every time I've been let down by a supposedly scary movie, Crawl reminds me why I keep coming back to this genre. It's the rare gold I've been mining for. I'll watch another 20 not-so-good horror flicks because every so often you get a Crawl that makes the search worth while.

I saw Crawl twice in the theaters, once when I bought my digital copy, and again this very week. That last viewing was a post Christmas afternoon with my in-laws who hadn't seen it before. They were both on the edge of their seat and shouting at all the best parts, so the movie was fun in a whole new way.


Often better than the movies these days are the TV series, and there were several extraordinary seasons of television in 2019. My favorite series of the year is a three-way HBO-driven tie between Chernobyl, season two of Big Little Lies (has Meryl Streep ever been better?) and Watchmen, with an unfair advantage for Watchmen. 

That last was something Mrs. Ninja and I enjoyed together and discussed at length between episodes. I loved those conversations about Watchmen as much as the show. I'm guilty of binging the occasional series and it can be fun, but the weekly release of episodes gave us time to speculate about the many mysteries and read about the history referenced in the show, as well as go back and reread Alan Moore's almost-but-not-quite-as-good-as-The-Dark-Knight-Returns masterpiece.

Other series I really loved in 2019 were The Boys, Veep (going to miss it), Mindhunter, BoJack Horseman (realizing Todd was performing Brokeback Mountain with sock puppets for a two-year-old might be the hardest I laughed all year), and F is for Family. And the first five episodes of Rick and Morty's 4th season were better than entire series runs of other shows.


2019 was a slow year for video games, or it may just be that I've been too busy to play many of them. I loved the final season of Telltale's The Walking Dead. It was a satisfying ending to Clementine's journey and one of the better zombie stories I've enjoyed across any medium.

The remaster of the Ghostbusters game made my day. I played the original, of course, but I lost my copy in a robbery. All these years later, I was thrilled to play it again. That game is the fulfillment of the childhood wish of most 80's children, and even though Nintendo has since improved its game play in their Luigi's Haunted Copycat series, nothing tops being a recruit with the actual guys. An experience like that is something only a videogame can deliver.

And then a miracle happened. Mrs. Ninja gave me a Switch Lite for Christmas. Few things have brought me so much joy. I've finally experienced Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8, and the beginning of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (I'll probably still be playing that massive game this time next year), because I took time off to relive another childhood favorite: Zelda: Link's Awakening.

If all's well that ends well, 2019 had a very happy ending indeed, so it must've been a good year:)


Despite my many hours spent watching television and playing videogames, I did a lot of reading in 2019, which you can hear me talking about in the 53 episodes of the podcast I produced. My writing wasn't quite as steady as I would've liked in 2019 (it never is), but I published a book and got another most of the way toward publication. The Banneker books never come easy, and as much I love that world, I'm glad to be stepping away from the series for a while, probably for years, until I hear the Song of the Turtle calling me back to The Dark Tower.

I led three six-week fiction workshops in 2019, which kept me busy critiquing student work, and I taught at a bunch of one-off courses. I was even invited to speak at the Indiana Comic Convention, which was an enormously enjoyable experience, and I addressed a bunch of wonderful audiences. I love meeting writers, so I'll keep speaking at events for them so long as I keep receiving invitations.

Banneker Bones and the Alligator People has been extremely well received by readers (the ones I've heard from), which makes me so, so happy. I love that book. My life is better for having written it.

Going into 2020, I'm as in love with writing as I've ever been, though the relationship has matured.


I had some incredible experiences in 2019, many of which I recorded so you can enjoy them as well. Talking to former National Teacher of the Year Sharon M. Draper, in addition to being an absolute once-in-a-lifetime thrill, convinced me I needed to spend more time around young people. So I signed up to be a substitute teacher.

I've been interacting with middle grade readers on a regular basis and it turns out most teachers have prep periods that can be used as extra writing time. It's the perfect job that works around my kid's schedule and helps improve my school visits and my writing.

As an example of the things I'm learning, one day I was teaching fifth graders and a boy wore a t-shirt with Jason and Freddy fighting on it with a bunch of blood, so I gave him my honest opinion: "cool shirt." And it was. But later, when the class was lining up in the hall, he went up to another teacher and proudly proclaimed, "See, Mr. Kent likes my shirt." And so she reminded him and me that no, that shirt was not appropriate for the fifth grade, and I had to be all, oh yeah, right, right. Whoops:)

I usually don't mention my writing to the students when I'm teaching because that's not why I'm there.  I do ask all of the kids what books they're reading and which are their favorites. On one occasion, however, a child observed me putting away my new book and asked about it and I was all like, I Am An Author, spoken as though admitting to being an Avenger.

The child then threw a barrage of questions at me that boiled down to, "How rich and famous are you and why are you at my school?" I then explained that though I love every reader I have, I'm not especially rich or even all that internet-famous:) The vast majority of writers aren't either, even the ones I imagined would be before I met them. The child looked at me skeptically and asked, "are you really an author?"

That interaction bummed me out for a day, but then I had a thought that's kept me smiling ever since. Being rich and famous for writing 1. Probably has as much downside as upside and won't, by itself, make anyone forever happy and content 2. Is a child's idea of what it means to be an author.

And so I said to myself, Ninja, do you love your life? Mostly, I do. I love my family and my Nintendo and I've gotten to chat with a lot of my heroes and I've written some books that might yet change the world, but have certainly changed mine. So if you love your life and you're happy, why are you letting a child's idea of what your author life should be bum you out? 

I'm not saying I couldn't stand to be richer, though I'm about as famous as I want to be, and I don't want to fall so deeply into contentment that I lose my drive to keep expanding my talent and my audience... but, honestly, life is pretty great just the way it is.


2019 was another year of Oh-God-is-America-over-is-this-how-it-ends-and-if-so-does-anything-else-matter panic on a daily basis and it weighed on me as I'm sure it's weighed on you, Esteemed Reader. And it's not over. I don't expect it to be over for some time to come.

I wonder how wise it is for me to keep paying attention to national politics, honestly. Saturday Night Live did an especially poignant sketch I'm going to share below in case you missed it. In the sketch, three American families bitterly discuss politics at Christmas, and at the end, the snow person narrator informs us, "they live in states where their votes don't matter."

I watched the Mueller testimony live. I watched much of the impeachment hearings. And yet, I don't know that I'm accomplishing much by being so well informed. I've protested and voted and I'll keep voting, but why am I giving so much head space to events I can't impact? If the apocalypse is coming either way and I can't stop it, why am I wasting my last days thinking about Donald Trump?

As a teenager, I knew the names of all the producers and directors and screenwriters of my favorite films, but after deciding film school wasn't for me, I mostly stopped memorizing the resumes of famous people I don't know and am unlikely to work with. I feel like that portion of my mental capacity has been replaced with the names of politicians, and I don't know that the change is for the better or that the knowledge is in any way more usefulknowing the names of movie people at least helps me decide what movies to watch.

Red Dawn actually happened and if the good-ish guys are the ones who write history, we'll have to acknowledge that the Republican party has been infiltrated by Russia to a terrifying degree, the full extent of which we may never know, and some Democrats have surely been bought and compromised as well. All of that demands my attention...

On the other hand, I think about how angry I was and still am at the bankers who decimated our economy, took their bonuses, and crept away to their evil lairs to laugh at us and never be brought to justice. What difference did any of my anger make? Paul Ryan is laughing at us, and it's hard for me to believe he won't be joined by Mitch McConnell so they can high five and chuckle at how they brought America to its end, the bad guys win, credits.

I can't imagine Trump in jail, and certainly not all his enablers who belong there with him. And in the end, the Emperor-Palpatine-level villain I'm so furious with ends up looking like this:

I seriously doubt the billionaires of the world care that I think they shouldn't exist. The only person affected by my hatred of those evil bankers, in the end, has been me. And so it will probably be with evil politicians. Life is short and appearing shockingly shorter with every year that passes. How much of my energy should I waste on impotent hatred?

But lots of great stuff happened in 2019 and relative to most of human history, it was a great time to be alive. In 2020, I'm going to make a conscious effort to focus less on national politics and more on things happening in my community I can actually impact.


As I said, the biggest change in my author life in 2019 has been hosting and producing the Middle Grade Ninja podcast, which has had its ups and downs as I'm still learning on the job how to do it successfully. But it's been mostly ups, so I plan to record more podcasts in 2020.

Even if, for some reason, the whole thing comes to an end and I quit podcasting forever, I'll still feel the episodes produced thus far are an absolute good and I'll be forever grateful for every one of the conversations I've had and the many, many things I've learned.

I'm still figuring out a successful work/life balance to keep the podcast goingand that's a struggle I expect to continue. Fortunately, I've recorded a bunch of episodes so I'm taking most of January off to give myself a break before I burn out. I don't want to complain because talking with so many wonderful people and sharing those conversation is a privilege, and I don't want the huge amount of work involved to lead me to ever take it for granted.

That said, every episode takes hours of work before it's recorded, both in arranging the episode and researching for it ahead of time. And though I try not to do much editing of the actual conversation except when requestedwhich is why you hear all my ums and awkward transitionsthe editing of each episode into clips and a final product takes a lot of time as well. That's mostly good as listening to each episode a couple times 1. Ensures I absorb the advice of my guests (maybe Esteemed Reader learns something, but I definitely do) 2. Helps me improve as a host for the next interview.

Still, all that work is probably why I went off on a publicist who was extremely rude not long ago. I'm not proud of this, but this particular publicist emailed me once about potential dates for her client, never followed up for over a month, and then emailed me the week before demanding that I drop everything and conduct the interview over the holidays, blaming me for her failure as though I were out to hurt her author.

Check out my site, friend. I won't deny I've had some interactions with authors over the years that could've gone better (you try running this blog for a decade and do everything perfect every time), but I feel I've been pretty consistently helpful to the writing community on a mostly volunteer basis over the last ten years. This irritating publicist (not one of the fine and noble publicists who's appeared on the show) and a few other unpleasant interactions left me grumbling.

But the podcast is extremely popular in a way that has really surprised me. People all around the world are tuning in to the show every week and in rapidly growing numbers, though the audience was already horrifyingly huge. I'm aware they're tuning in more for the guests than for me, which makes perfect sense, but I take pride in so far not dissuading folks from listening to the show by appearing on it:)


In 2020, I anticipate writing more things that are not Banneker, parts of one thing that very much is, and hosting more podcasts. I'm going to do more public appearances and read new and interesting books and beat Breath of the Wild. This time next year I hope to have a whole bunch of great things to tell you about, so I'm going to get busy doing some great things now as to not let either of us down. I hope you have a great 2020 as well, Esteemed Reader.

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