Friday, March 12, 2021

An Afterword for BANNEKER BONES AND THE CYBORG CONSPIRACY

Esteemed Reader, if you haven't read the Banneker Bones books yet, that's cool. This is mostly going to be a post about writing that anyone could read as I'll avoid any major spoilers.

But seriously, when you get time, read those books:) I'll give you the first one free.

This afterword will probably mean more to those of you who have read the books and if I'm honest, you Esteemed Readers mean mean a little more to me:) I love every book I've published (written is a different story), but I love the Banneker Bones books the most.

For all that love, these have been my hardest books to write, and this third and final(ish) Banneker Bones story was the most difficult book I've ever written. That's not entirely its fault. When I started working on this book, neither the book nor I knew we'd be working together during 2020.

And that is how I think of my relationship with my books. It's never just me and my input in a story. You wouldn't want to read it if it was. Each story has its own demands that must be met and its own tone with which it must be told. 

Because Banneker Bones and the Alligator People ended on a major cliffhanger, a lot of the early chapters in this third book had to devote their time not only to resolving the events of the previous books, but exploring their ramifications. Even in a mostly fun adventure story, I have to treat grief seriously. To do less would be to cheat Esteemed Reader. Though I tried not to dwell on it.

Is Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy the end of The And Then Story? Not a chance. Banneker Bones and Ellicott Skullworth have plenty of adventures ahead of them.

Am I actually going to write them? That remains to be seen. I'd like to and on a long-enough time line, I probably will. But after a long break. Again, for all the fun I've had with our heroes and their villains, these books are super challenging to write.

Whatever Banneker book ends up being the last one I write, it will end on a cliffhanger. This is The And Then Story, as in, And Then something else happened. Always. 

But this wouldn't be a bad last book. A trilogy is perfectly respectable for a series and I like where everybody ends up at its conclusion. If I never write Banneker Bones 4, I'd still feel like I'd done right by my characters and told enough of their story to imply the rest.

On the other hand, there certainly is room for more story. And the nice thing about being this far along in a series is I feel I have a little more liberty than usual--not much, but some. For instance, this third book is the longest yet, and the second book was already getting a little long for middle grade. But I figure returning readers might like a little more book and a series has a way of getting more complicated and requiring more story as it goes.

This book also features chapters written from an adult's perspective. There's not many of them (8 out of 77), and they're mostly very short, but I wouldn't pull that sort of move in a standalone middle grade book. One chapter (27), not one of the short ones, is backstory we arguably don't need to understand the present story. It's indulgent in an already long book, but it fully realizes my character, compliments my theme, and deepens the story. I figure if Esteemed Reader is back for thirds, they also want a deeper story, so I'm giving them my Snyder Cut.

Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy was always meant to read like a waking nightmare for our heroes. That fact that its author happened to be living through the actual nightmare of 2020 enhanced this. But the inherent darker aspects of the story were in early drafts planned as far back as 2009 (there was always going to be a chapter titled "virtual school" even before I lived it).

Banneker Bones and the Alligator People was a pretty dark story, especially toward the end, but I believe the third act is where our heroes should be MOST tested. I've got an inkling for a fourth adventure, but I didn't hold anything back for it. I wanted to throw everything there was at the boys to see if they could be broken.

Unlike the first two adventures where the boys discovered new "monsters" and spent many a delightful chapter being chased by and doing battle with them, this third story is different. I wanted Banneker and Ellicott to face an enemy so powerful, they couldn't beat it. And I wanted this enemy to go after them specifically in a very personal way. And I wanted it to hurt them worse than they've been hurt before (and I've already spent two books hurting them). I wanted to see how'd they'd do when pushed to their point of breaking.

The first draft was too mean and played too rough. There was a lot of blood in that draft and far more violence than in the final version. This is where I thank God for my critique partners Shannon Alexander, Laura Martin, August Mugele, and Ed Cho, who reminded me that although this is a series intended for everyone, a lot of children read it:)

Without spoiling, I let this new(ish) monster really, really hurt the boys. I'm not writing Hunger Games here, but after two books, I wanted to raise the stakes. I made the boys' injuries so central to the plot that I couldn't chicken out and remove them later. I get messages from children who've read the first two books, some as young as eight (a bit younger than I would've imagined) and I know they're looking forward to this third installment. I read these books to my son, who's seven. 

I'm aware I'm pushing a boundary in this third book that will make some ADULT readers uncomfortable.

There's nothing so dark in this story that I think it will be harmful for a young reader or I wouldn't have published it. I think a lot of my younger (but every bit as esteemed) readers will love this book more because of the particular scene in question. The violence is implied rather than shown and is actually less violent than something that happens at the end of the previous book, which all of the readers in question will have presumably finished.

I've frequently reminisced about my joy in reading The Witches by Roald Dahl as a child. Much of my joy in that book came from the fact that the witches were actually scary, not just pretend, play-it-safe-for-baby scary, as evidenced by the way they actually harmed their victims rather than merely scare them. Also, the story's blatant sexism and other problematic elements didn't bother me as a child since I didn't pick up on them until my adult years (you try growing up white and male in a small Indiana town in the 1980s surrounded by that culture, on a diet of that media, and then determine true north your first at-bat).

Anyway, we were discussing a book I wrote:) For a third book in a series, I feel it's important to raise the stakes. For this reason alone, Esteemed Reader should hope I don't write a fourth book. Who knows what I might do to our heroes next?

I want Esteemed Reader as nervous for our heroes as I was for the boy in the back of the hotel's grand hall surrounded by all those witches. Dahl didn't hurt that boy, the witches did. I didn't hurt our heroes. the (spoiler) did. However, Dahl showed me he meant business. He wasn't going to patronize me just because I was reading "a kid's book." He took his story, and more importantly, his reader, seriously. And I so appreciated it, I was a loyal reader then and I defend him now (read around the sexism and racism, or use them as a point of discussion).

Speaking of sexism, I got an email from a woman who was reading Banneker 2 each night with her son telling me how excited she was to encounter "the queen of the alligator people." I adore messages from readers, but I particularly enjoyed this one as introducing strong female characters is something I've been consciously doing since the first book, and not just heroes.

The first book is very boy centric. I started with two boys forming a friendship because that's the sort of friendship I had and remember fondly from my own youth. I always wanted the villain to be a rich white man ala Lex Luthor and Kingpin because those sorts of villains actually exist. Reggie was nearly a girl, but Reggie's main plot function for two books is to be in need of rescuing, and I didn't think it was fair to saddle the lone girl character with that. 

So I settled for working in strong female characters in everywhere I could. Both the boys' mothers are admirable in different ways, Grandma Juanita's my favorite, and Ling always makes me smile. In Book 2, I added in more strong female characters and continued that through Book 3. If there is a book 4, I expect Padma Perkins to play a much larger role and I think Marianna Morales will continue to rise in status as Latimer City's number one reporter as Chip Lieberman fades into obscurity. 

One regret, however, is that I should've made the President in Book 1 a woman. The reason I didn't is because he started out as an actual President and then got revised to a fictional one (definitely the right call, thanks Uwe Stender for the suggestion). Still, it's been bugging me since that book was published, enough so that there's a tiny subplot around the election of a new President in this third book. Not to descend into politics, I feel Elizabeth Warren was the best candidate for President we've ever had (if you feel differently, I don't care, it's fine, my Indiana vote didn't count in any primaries anyway). I hate the way the media treated her and the manner in which I frequently heard so brilliant a leader unfairly disparaged. 

My main motivation is always to tell a good story I think Esteemed Reader will enjoy, but fiction is political even if it tries not to be. I've made no secret of the fact that one of my secondary motivations for writing Banneker was to normalize adventures about an interracial family without directly addressing issues of race--who has time to worry about that stuff when giant robot bugs keep attacking:) But while I'm at it, I also wanted to normalize women in positions of power and neurodiversity and, perhaps most urgently, alligator people (among other concerns).

One other reason for me to consider stepping away from this series permanently is that technology moves almost faster than I can imagine and write. When I wrote the very first draft of Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, Ellicott's beloved Jukebook was a tablet that could hold any book. Thassit. That was the miraculous device I yearned to own in a futuristic world... and then a Kindle released in November of that year and I had to think of more advanced things for the Jukebook to do.

Between virtual reality and augmented reality, I suspect the lovely videogames my characters play on their holocoputer will seem quant within my lifetime (fine with me, gimme them games). Robots are advancing in ways I did not foresee, and I suspect I'm wrong about a whole lot of other stuff. That's okay, we had fun. 

So, it's at least possible the ending of this third book is my stop, where I'll get off and you'll continue on without me. This most recent cliffhanger ending opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, doesn't it? If I come back for more, I'll not lack for opportunities for new adventures.

But maybe it's better if you do it, Esteemed Reader. Why not? You've been half the team all along.

That's how this works. Me writing things down doesn't do any good unless you imagine them with me and create Banneker's world in your mind. All the pieces of that world we created together are still there. What do you think happens next, Esteemed Reader? I bet that story is at least as interesting as anything I could come up with and probably more so.

Here, I'll start you off: And then...

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