Friday, March 14, 2014

Where In the World is Shaun?

I'm move (again!) so I've been a little busy.  About a year and a half ago, I quit my job of 7 years, and Matt and I picked up and moved to Fort Lauderdale.  I started a new job, Matt transferred within his company, and we thought we'd give it a go.

Turns out we're not Fort Lauderdale people.  Our first apartment was so horrible that we began counting the days until we could leave before we'd even been there a month.  Constant invasions of millipedes, leaky patio roofs, cats pooping in the yard, neighbors who sang all night, neighbors with a baby that quite literally cried until after midnight every day.  The traffic was terrible, the people were rude, it was so crowded.  After our lease was up, we moved a little farther west to a beautiful new high rise.  We love the building and the apartment, but still can't stand the people.  Just yesterday, a guy making an illegal U-turn nearly crashed into my car as I was making a right hand turn, and then proceeded to chase me into the turn lane, pull up beside me and call me a lot of names I'd rather not repeat.  I wish I could say that kind of thing is uncommon.  It's gotten to the point where I get home Friday, park my car, and refuse to leave the apartment for the entire weekend.

So when Matt got the chance to take a promotion back in our old town, we jumped at the chance.  I wasn't happy about leaving my job, but I was in danger of becoming a shut in.  Luckily, when I tried to resign, my wonderful boss offered to let me work from home.  I'd still have to go into the office a couple of times a month, but my IT work is mostly project oriented.  Plus, I'd have more freedom to work on my writing projects because I wouldn't be so tied to an 8-5 schedule.  Frankly, it's the best of all possible outcomes.  I'm feeling very blessed to have such a wonderful boss.

So the last couple of weeks has been house-hunting, packing, and trying to get everything in order. I don't plan to move for a long, long time.

In other happenings, GRIM came out.  Readers seem to really be enjoying my take on The Pied Piper, which I'm absolutely thrilled about.  I was so intimidated to be in an anthology with so many amazing writers.  Retelling a fairytale isn't easy, especially after I decided to do a sci-fi retelling.  I wanted to keep the spirit of the story but really play with it.  Based on the reactions, I succeed, which just makes me over-the-moon happy.

March is already half-over!  But as great as 2014 has been, I can't wait for 2015.  The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley is less than a year away!  I got to see the cover, and I have to tell you that it is absolutely brilliant.  Regina Flath is the genius behind the design, and she deserves major kudos for coming up with a design that absolutely captures the spirit of the book.  I can't wait to be able to show you.

The writing has been going better.  I had a spell of creative confusion, but I seem to have gotten over it finally and have lots of projects in various states of writing.  When things are happening, they seem to take so very long, but when they arrive, it seems like they happened quickly.  Take the Veronica Mars movie that released today.  I was a backer, and proud to be on.  When I signed up for the Kickstarter, I thought the movie would never come out.  Today, as I watched it, it seemed like only yesterday that I'd backed it.  It was wonderful, by the way.  Exactly what I wanted from a VMars movie.  I couldn't have asked for more.

Okay, well, back to packing, back to writing, back to getting out of this hellhole called Fort Lauderdale and returning to a place where it doesn't take 45 minutes to drive 10 miles.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

GRIM - Blog Tour and Trailer

*Bad Blogger's Note:  So, I had this post set up to auto-post last week and I somehow managed to screw that up, so my apologies.

As you may recall, I talked about a short story I wrote for an anthology of fairy tale retellings.  I remember when Christine Johnson, the editor of the anthology, first approached me about contributing a story.  She told me it would be dark and twisted, and I didn't hesitate to sign up.  Well, that anthology, Grim, is officially out on February 25th from Harlequin Teen.  It features some of the best fairy tale retellings I've ever read.  I feel honored to have my science fiction story Better, a reimagining of The Pied Piper, included.

To celebrate, Christine Johnson is kicking off the blog tour over at Harlequin Teen's Paranormal Romance blog.  There are giveaways and reviews and lots more, so be sure to check it out.

You should also check out the beautiful trailer Harlequin Teen put together for the Grim launch.  I'm not usually a fan of trailers, but this one is really quite cool.  I've embedded it below.

And next week, I'll talk about the process of trying to reimagine a fairytale for a modern age.

Pre-order Grim at:  Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Powells | iTunes | Amazon

Friday, February 21, 2014

Casual Sexism and Homophobia Has No Place in Books

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I put down a book because I was turned off by the content.  The writing was good, if a bit purple for my taste, and the plot had potential, even though it was a bit derivative.  No, what put me off was how it treated women and one specific anti-gay remark uttered by the narrator.

Now, I'm not on the front lines of these sorts of things.  I get that when you're writing about adolescents, especially adolescent boys, that shit comes out.  They call each other fags, pussy, wuss. They challenge each other's masculinity.  And I'm willing to give books leeway to explore those issues honestly.  The best example I can think of is Andrew Smith's The Marbury Lens.  In the complex relationship between Jack and Con, Conner often uses gay slurs as a way to mask his confused feelings toward Jack.  We don't condone Conner's language, but we understand that it doesn't come from a hateful place.  Smith offers an even better examination of the complex nature of relationships between two boys when love and friendship and sex blur the lines in Grasshopper Jungle.  But that's not the kind of casual homophobia and sexism I'm referring to.

I'm referring to stories (science fiction and dystopian especially), where women continue to be portrayed as the weaker, less competent sex; where masculinity is revered; where men who don't exemplify that masculine ideal are denigrated; and where gay slurs are considered acceptable.

The Hunger Games, in my opinion, is the best example of a dystopian/sci-fi story that got it totally right.  Girls and boys thrown into the ring are treated equally.  Traits that other books might consider "feminine" (Rue's ability to hide, Katniss' skill with a bow) are valued as highly (if not moreso) than traditionally masculine qualities of strength and swordplay.  Furthermore, "feminine" and "masculine" traits are switched up.  Peeta's greatest skill is his ability to decorate cakes, which translates into camouflage, and Katniss' greatest strength is her boldness, a trait that would usually be held by the lead male.

The equality continues in the arena where the children massacre each other regardless of sex.  They treat each other as equal threats, and kill without bias.  There is violence galore in the series, but the threat of sexual violence is never used against the female contestants.  In fact, only one person suffers any form of sexual violence, and it's a male who is blackmailed and prostituted by the Capitol.  If you've read the books, you know who I mean.  If not, I don't want to spoil it.

Collins manages to weave strength into the character of Katniss without robbing her of her softness.  She can deliberately and cunningly drop a nest of fatal tracker jackers on her foes, and still care for and mourn Rue, who reminds her of her younger sister.  Collins offered us a horrible future in The Hunger Games, but one that was equally horrible for both sexes.

And that's why I find it so deplorable when dystopian/sci-fi books, which try to capitalize on the success of The Hunger Games so thoroughly miss the point.  They paint a far-flung future where women are still treated and described as delicate flowers only suited to easy work, and men are the beasts who fight and work hard and lead revolutions.  Where the concepts of masculinity and femininity are still treated as completely antithetical to each other. Why in the world are we still leaning on these tired old notions of how men and women are supposed to act?  YA is supposed to be forward-looking, and books that speculate about the future should be even more forward-looking.  Insulting a character by insinuating that they're gay because they act more feminine than is considered "normal" is ludicrous in a book that's supposed to be looking toward the future.

Sexism, sexual violence, and homophobia that's used casually and without consequence has zero place in modern books.  Obviously there's a line, and that line is going to be different for different people.  For me, it's one of those instances of "I'll know it when I see it."  But as far as I'm concerned, if a book emulating The Hunger Games is going to lean on such tired, antiquated, and silly conventions, I'd rather save my money and just re-read The Hunger Games.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle - A Review

Every time I read a book by Andrew Smith, I inevitably throw my hands in the air and shout, "Oh,
fuck this, I will never write anything this good."  He is the kind of writer who challenges you as a reader, as a writer, and as a human being.  His narrators are hardly perfect, which is why we inevitably love them.

I finished reading Andrew's newest book, Grasshopper Jungle, over the weekend.  As with all of his books, I'm going to need to read it again before I fully comprehend everything that happened.  Andrew's books are like that.  Multilayered and thoughtful.  I don't imagine there's a single word on any page bearing his name that he doesn't agonize over.  It probably makes writing grocery lists difficult.

Grasshopper Jungle isn't about anything, it's about everything. It is a history of the end of the world, it is a coming of age story, it is a love story, it is a history of the Szerba family, it is a book about important people's balls and shitting habits, it is a book about Austin, Robbie, and Shann, it is a book about eating and fucking.

Austin Szerba is kind of an asshole.  You should know that up front.  I think that's what makes him so real and relatable.  I think if you're honest with yourself you'll realize that we're all kind of assholes at one point or another.  It's what makes us human.  But Austin is also confused.  He's in love with his girlfriend Shann and in love with his best friend Robbie.  For me, this is the strongest part of the narrative.  It feels more urgent than the giant insects that are trying to take over the world, which is how everything feels at that age.  Sometimes I see adults review YA books and complain about the single-mindedness and selfishness of the teenage protagonists, and I always wonder if they've honestly forgotten just how immediate and important everything felt when they were teenagers or if they just want to forget how big of an asshole they were at that age.

I'm not sure if Austin is a reliable narrator or not. He believes he's a historian and that he's recording the truth of events as he sees them, but there are enough omissions, especially regarding Robbie, that make me question Austin's reliability.  Winston Churchill said, "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."  Since Austin is the writer of his own history, I'm forced to wonder how kind he was to himself as he recorded the events leading to the end of the world.

Speaking of the end of the world...I love the sci-fi aspect of this because it's got a glorious B Movie quality to it.  It manages not to take itself too seriously, which keeps it from overtaking everything else that's happening.

Outside of the relationship between Austin and Robbie, I love the weaving together of all the various characters and their histories.  That's another thing Andrew has always done well.  He roots the present in the stories of the past and shows us how we're all connected to the people who came before.

I'm being intentionally vague about the plot because it's  impossible to really explain and because I don't want to spoil a single thing.

The only thing I dislike about Grasshopper Jungle is that it's bound to be such a huge success that Andrew Smith won't be the underappreciated author all the cool kids read anymore.  It's going to be more difficult to find someone who hasn't read his books so that I can experience the joy of introducing them to his demented worlds.  Grasshopper Jungle proves once and for all that Andrew Smith is by far one of the best writers around.  He's practically unstoppable.

Monday, February 10, 2014

They're not Gatekeepers, They're Ass-Kickers.

In February 2010, I wrote a book I called The Walls.  Actually, I think I was calling it These Walls at that time.  Deathday hadn't been released yet, and I'd been struggling to write a followup.  I was actually supposed to be writing a road trip book that my agent-at-the-time was interested in and had told my editor-at-the-time about.  The road trip book wasn't going well.  The jokes were bad, the characters were insane, and I'd incorporated a show called Shock Till You Drop where contestants are allowed to shop in a mall, facing the threat of electrical shocks, until they couldn't go on.  It was terrible.

I sent These Walls to my agent, explained that I'd lost faith in the road trip book, and that this was the kind of story I wanted to write going forward.  He let me down easy.  Told me the writing had potential and that he might be able to sell it, but that it needed a ton of work, and he wasn't interested in representing it.

I was crushed.  I believed in the book.  But I also wanted to sell something else.  I refused to be one of those writers who faded away after a book or two, and I knew These Walls was THE BOOK.  I just felt like it was special.  We submitted another book that didn't pass muster, my editor brought me the idea for FML, and over the next year-and-a-half, I wrote what became FML.

During that time, I was secretly revising These Walls, which became The Walls (or The Hospital Book, as I sometimes referred to it).  Between May 2010 and November 2011, The Walls went through 6 revisions.  I combined characters, gave the comic book storyline greater prominence, introduced a couple of characters, cut others.  I begged friends to read it, had a brilliant freelance editor/friend read and edit it, and polished it until it gleamed.

In the middle of 2011, when I was knee-deep in fml, I parted ways with my agent.  I'd asked again about moving forward with The Walls and he wasn't interested.  I was scared that I was gambling my future on this manuscript, but I believed in it, and knew that if I made it perfect, someone else would believe in it too.

In 2011, I submitted a small round of queries for The Walls.  I sent out 5 queries, got five requests, and five rejections.  Every agent hated my ending.  I revised and tried again.  More rejections.  This time, the wonderful agent, Suzie Townsend, told me that Patient F, the comic book my narrator draws about, should actually have his own comic book in the story.

Between the end of 2011 and April 2012, I wrote the Patient F comic and interspersed it throughout the book.  I also did another revision to tighten the story.

In June, Amy Boggs at Donald Maass Literary Agency offered to represent me and The Walls.  She was and is a godsend.  We did another revision before sending it out on submission, now under the title The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley.

In March of 2013, Michael Strother from Simon Pulse, who published Deathday and FML, offered to acquire Five Stages.  It was clear to me from the first moment we spoke that he got the book.  They were going to have the Patient F comic drawn by a real artist, and felt that it really gave the novel something extra.

Between March and the end of the year, Michael and I did two more revisions—one a big picture revision and another smaller one.  In January of this year, I did the copyedits.

In the span of 4 years, I've revised and edited The Hospital Book somewhere between 10 and 15 times.  Each person who touched the book gave me insight into how to make it better.  The agents who rejected it and my first agent all gave me great advice for sharpening the book.  The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley wouldn't be the book it is without the input of all those people.  The things that make it special are all a direct result of the rejection-revision process the book went through.

And that's what scares me about self-publishing.  I believe self-publishing is going to be one of the biggest and best things to happen to books in my lifetime.  I believe self-publishing is a  valid route for writers to take to get their books published.  I believe there are great reasons to self-publish.  But if I had taken that manuscript after my first agent rejected it and self-published it, it wouldn't be anything like the book that's coming out next year.  It would contain all the potential but deliver of few of the promises.  And I wonder what other writers are missing out on by bypassing the system.  People badmouth the "gatekeepers," but every single rejection I got helped me make Five Stages into a sharper, more fully realized book.  Not one single person touched it who didn't inspire me to improve it.  And I think that's what we lose with self-publishing.

Self-published writers talk about maintaining the rights to their work, higher royalties, etc, and those are all important things.  I think traditional publishing is going to have to bend in some of those areas to stay competitive, but my goal is and always will be to put the best book possible into the hands of readers, and I just don't think I could do that alone.  Maybe that's a personal failing.  But next time you read a really good self-published book, ask yourself how much better if could have been.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The World Isn't One Color

How do you write about minority characters without drawing attention to their status as a minority?  The world isn't just made up of heterosexual, good-looking, Christian, white boys and girls.  The world is so varied, and there are so many kinds of people in it.

These days, it's becoming less acceptable to be openly homophobic, so haters have begun to cloak their ignorance in acceptance. They argue that they don't care what people do in private so long as no one shoves it in their face.  They argue that if gays want to be treated like everyone else, they should stop drawing attention to themselves.  It's an argument I've heard often over the years.  Two men holding hands in public or two women kissing in a restaurant is them throwing their sexuality in other people's faces.  But it's a silly argument because they're not the ones drawing attention to themselves.  When I see a straight couple making out in a movie theater, I don't feel personally offended.  I don't imagine that they're trying to throw their heterosexuality in my face.  I simply giggle and ignore them.  I doubt they even notice I exist.

In fml, Simon's best friends are a couple—Ben and Coop.  They have a fun subplot involving their quest to find a condom so they can get it on for the first time.  Their story isn't about their sexuality, it's about sexuality, full stop.  In fact, the word "gay" is used a total of 13 times, most of those not even in reference to Ben and Coop.  To contrast, I used the word "fuck" 74 times.  Ben and Coop's subplot isn't about them "being gay."  It's about them trying to get busy, and they just happen to be gay.

I didn't do anything to intentionally draw attention to Ben and Coop's gayness.  I didn't write them as gay because I wanted to put a spotlight on gay people.  I wrote Ben and Coop because I thought they were awesome, and I know a lot of gay people. What reason would I have not to make them gay?  Their sexuality isn't a statement anymore than Coop's musical talent or Ben's Asian background.  Every single thing Ben and Coop did in fml would have been done by a heterosexual couple.

In my upcoming book THE FIVE STAGES OF ANDREW BRAWLEY, I wrote a story about a young man dealing with grief.  I wrote a story about bullying and living life and superheroes and wheelchair hockey and best friends and merkins and beauty queens.  The one thing I didn't do was write a story about being gay.  Yet, my narrator and the boy he falls in love with are both gay.  However, IN FIVE STAGES, the word "gay" is used 9 times.  In a story with a gay main character and a gay love interest, the word "gay" makes up  just .01% of the total words.  In comparison, "bacon" shows up 13 times, so make of that what you will.  The point is that the story is about nearly everything except being gay, but because the characters happen to be gay, people will glom onto that and claim gay is being shoved in their faces.

I don't want to throw my sexuality in anyone's face.  I don't want to write gay stories or transgender stories or boy stories or Jewish stories.  I just want to write stories.  Stories about people who happen to be gay or transgender or female or Jewish.  Stories about human beings.  Because, being human is the one thing we all have in common, it's the only real default.

So I guess that if writing about people who are different is drawing attention to them, then there's really no way to write about minorities without drawing attention to their minority status, and I guess that's really okay. Because until we thinking about anyone who's different as a minority, we've got a long way to go.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Harry Potter No Longer Belongs to J.K. Rowling

So, apparently some people played football last night.  Stuff happened.  I don't know.  The big drama of my weekend was reading people's take on J.K. Rowling commenting that she made a mistake putting Ron and Hermione together at the end of the Harry Potter books.

My personal opinion is that the pairing was perfect.  I think the epilogue could have been cut so that we didn't know whether they stayed together after Hogwarts, but I think that Ron's growth into a more responsible, compassionate person, and Hermione's growth into a more easy-going person made their pairing natural and earned.

But here's the thing:  the books are written.  It doesn't matter what you think, what I think, or what J.K. Rowling thinks.  Ron and Hermione are together, they'll be together forever.  Once a book is published, it ceases to belong to the creator.  That's difficult to live with sometimes.  There's a part in Deathday I wish I could change, but I can't, so I don't discuss it.  The book isn't mine anymore.  That's just how it is.

It's no use getting upset about what Rowling wishes she'd done.  She can't undo it.  If she really wants Hermione and Harry to get together, she'll just have to write fan fiction like everyone else.