Thursday, January 26, 2012

Jonathan: It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine!)

Books about the end of the world are hot. Movies, too. And comics, and video games, and TV shows, and…

Well, there seems to be a trend-- or, perhaps a fascination—with the coming apocalypse. Or even the thought that there might be an apocalypse looming.

Adults are hooked, and in recent years teens have been devouring anything related to the end of days.

Viewed from a distance this looks like evidence of a serious psychological and emotional downturn. A cultural cry for Prozac. It looks defeatist and nihilistic and sad.

But looks can be deceiving.

There’s actually a healthy and even optimistic lining to this cloud.

So, let’s poke a stick at it and see what flies out.

In terms of pure genre, there are actually four separate aspects to the genre. They are pre-Apocalyptic, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian. Over the last six years I’ve written variations of all four. And I’m a happy guy. I don’t shovel down anti-depressants and writing this stuff isn’t a cry for help.

PRE-APOCALYPTIC novels are often thrillers built around a race to prevent something very big and very bad from happening. That could be anything from an outbreak of a killer plague, the rise of a dark supernatural force, or something equally destructive. Even when these stories are violent and have high body-counts, they don’t revel in the destruction. That isn’t the point (though, admittedly, some Hollywood apocalyptic films do seem to be geared toward the ‘how cool is this!’ aspect of mass devastation). Pre-apocalyptic are about how things can get worse (or go straight into the toilet) if the hero/heroine doesn’t cowboy-up and stop it. These stories are about people –often quite ordinary people—rising to take a stand against the Big Bad, and by doing so they often prevent the end of everything they hold dear.

This speaks to a question I’m often asked: “Why do you write about monsters?” My answer is in harmony with the theme of the better pre-apocalyptic novels. I tell them: “I don’t write about monsters. I write about the people who fight monsters.” Big difference; and that difference is an aggressive optimism, a belief that there are some things worth fighting for. And that by taking a stand against evil, corruption (or whatever the metaphorical Big Bad stands for) we can effect positive change.

Some pre-apocalyptic novels to explore are The Maximum Ride series by James Patterson, the Alex Rider novels by Anthony Horowitz, the Young Bond series by Charlie Higson, the Cherub series by Robert Muchamore, and others.

APOCALYPTIC novels are a bit different. They’re about enduring the unendurable. They’re about discovering how courageous and resourceful we can be in a time of great crisis. And, sure, they’re metaphors as well. In an apocalyptic story the world is actually crumbling around us. It’s happening right now and it’s a runaway train. Stopping it is no longer an option. These stories often start with a character trying to survive this catastrophe; and the openings are very personal. They almost appear selfish and even downbeat, because in the first flush of crisis the central character is frequently terrified (even cowardly), in shock, and clumsy in their attempts to get through the moment. But that isn’t the whole story. As an apocalyptic tale unfolds, the central character learns from his/her own survival. They become stronger from every experience –no matter how terrible—that they’ve had; even if they also experience deep and lasting hurt. We all have scars. Only fools ignore the lessons from how each scar occurred. These stories are about growth as an individual because the infrastructure of daily life has been forcibly torn away. No one is coming to help, and so the character earns the right to survive by the act of surviving. It’s rugged self-validation. Other characters may also rise, but some will not. Once the central character has his foot, he generally extends his protection to others. Sometimes it is the act of protecting another that reveals personal strength to the protagonist.

That’s a fact of crisis, and it’s the basis for all real drama. Storytellers generally don’t write novels about happy people having a good day. We tell stories about good people having a really bad day. The incidents of that day, the stresses and calamities, strip away our personal affect and reveal our true nature and qualities. A bold captain of industry may be truly weak and ineffectual when it comes to a catastrophe; but the minimum-wage gal in the steno pool might have what it takes to save the day. Without crisis moments we have no opportunity to discover who we really are, and apocalyptic fiction lets writers and readers explore that.

Some of my favorites in this genre include Apocalyptic: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Stand by Stephen King, Swan Song by Robert McCammon, Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling

POST-APOCALYPTIC fiction takes us a few more steps down the road. Once the immediate crisis is at hand, the characters have to learn to remain strong, to continue to be smart and resourceful, to work together for the common good. Post-apoc stories are often about the value of human life and the benefits of civilized behavior. In these stories we explore the question of how far each of us is from the brute, the primitive. In times of crisis do we collapse, do we become predators who prey on the weakness of others, do we become leaders, or are we parts of a collective whose goal is to re-establish the best of what was lost? Sometimes we are a bit of all of these. These stories allow for us to explore the nature of ‘hard choices’, sacrifice, and what it means to do ‘what’s necessary for the common good’. We see old traits –from compassion to greed—reemerge once the immediate threat is over, and that brings up its own set of questions. Will we be better than we were? Worse? Or just the same? More very tough questions.

Some significant Post-Apoc novels include The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, The Pesthouse by Jim Crace, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

DYSTOPIAN fiction is a related category. In these stories the old world has fallen and a new society has been built on its bones. Unfortunately this new society is far from ideal and we enter the story through a proxy character who is about to confront the nature and constraints of this new society. Sometimes the character is one who was not aware of the destructive or oppressive nature of the society –such as in Ray Bradbury’s landmark Fahrenheit 451, William F. Nolan’s Logan’s Run, George Orwell’s 1984—and reaches a moment of epiphany that makes them want to escape it or change it. Sometimes the character has always been aware of it and bucks that system, which is the case in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. In any case, we follow this person as they take a stand against society gone awry. These books are often criticized as being politically subversive; some have even have been banned for that very reason. I say, ‘Bravo!’ Taking a stand against political oppression and corruption was how America was born. It’s in our nature to speak out and to work for positive social, economic, and political change. These books allow readers of all ages to explore how that process works, and both the dangers and benefits of such a struggle.

Some other recommendations for dystopian fiction: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, and many others.

End Notes

I’m actually encouraged by the popularity of apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction with young readers. It shows that they are smart enough to understand that the world in which they live is far from perfect and is, in many uncomfortable ways, broken; but they expect a future. They know that they are inheriting something that is deeply flawed but full of potential. They plan on surviving anything that comes –surviving and thriving. The more they read, the more they feed that dream.

As much as that makes me feel hopeful that they will, in fact, survive anything that comes –be it an apocalyptic event or a lot of minor calamities and crises—it also encourages people of my generation to cut them a break and maybe hand them a less deeply flawed world.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Karen Schreck and Katherine Grace Bond interview Leah Hultenschmidt of Sourcebooks

Karen and Katherine (speaking simultaneously): If there’s such a thing as book twins, we probably meet the definition. We’re both YA novelists, we share both an agent and an editor and both Karen’s WHILE HE WAS AWAY and Katherine’s THE SUMMER OF NO REGRETS release on May 1. Our names even start with the same letter! So we thought it would be fun to do a joint interview with our editor, Leah Hultenschmidt.

Picture us in matching outfits. Sometimes we switch places just to confuse our teachers.

Karen: When did you discover you wanted to be an editor, and how has your career evolved since you made that discovery?

I think I knew I wanted to be an editor when my fourth-grade teacher asked me to start helping classmates with essays. In college, I had a couple internships copyediting at newspapers—the Times Union in Albany and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel—but my heart was always in books.  I was lucky enough to be hired at a great house four days after I graduated college.

I started as an editorial assistant, moved over to marketing and publicity for a while, then jumped back to the editorial side for good in 2005.

My latest venture has been working on YA and bringing me to fabulous new authors, such as Katherine and yourself. It’s been absolutely fantastic.

Karen: I am very grateful for your editorial guidance on While He Was Away.  You were able to respect my voice and vision as a writer, but also share your objective perspective on exactly what the book needed to better reach its audience.  How do you do it?  How do you enter so seamlessly into other peoples’ writing processes and help them know how their books need to grow?

Magic.  But seriously, that’s one of the nicest compliments any editor can get.  Thank you.

Katherine: What were you reading when you were a teen? Were there particular books or authors that impacted your life?

I read just about everything I could get my hands on: Terry Brooks’ Shanarra series, David Eddings, Cynthia Voight, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Orson Scott Card, Christopher Pike, historical fiction from Philippa Gregory and Susan Kay Penman.
Sharon Kay wrote a book called PHANTOM, a retelling of Phantom of the Opera.  To this day, it’s one of my favorites and I’d love to get a YA version with a stronger Christine figure.  

Karen: Sourcebooks describes itself as a publisher of “independent vision,” who “publishes authors, not books.” How have you experienced this in your work as an editor? 

The “we publish authors not books” often comes down to career planning. When we sign an author, we want to work with her over a number of different books.  We want to launch her (or relaunch her) and build her audience.  Whenever I bring a project into an acquisitions meeting, one of the first questions I hear is, “What is the author planning after this book?  What comes next?” 

What I love about the “independent vision” is that we’re not afraid to experiment and work on building that audience in a non-traditional way.

Katherine: Both Karen’s and my books involve the traditionally controversial issues of politics and religion—the Iraq War in WHILE HE WAS AWAY, and a girl exploring different spiritual paths in THE SUMMER OF NO REGRETS. What made you willing to take on topics that may make another publisher nervous?

It’s a rare topic that makes me nervous in the YA space if I feel teens will be able to relate to it in some way.  With WHILE HE WAS AWAY, I was pretty amazed there weren’t many other books in the category that dealt with a girl whose boyfriend goes off to war…how it changes him, how it changes their relationship. And, really, it can apply to just about any long-distance relationship. 

And it was hard not to see a bit of myself in Brigitta in THE SUMMER OF NO REGRETS.  I didn’t have a maybe-celeb living next door <g>, but what struck me was that fine line between girlhood and becoming adult, that line of when are you too old to keep playing make believe in the woods. 

Karen: You are the Senior Editor of both Teen Fire and Casablanca Romance at Sourcebooks.  How do you balance your dual roles?  How do they inform, challenge, and complement each other? 

Well, you definitely don’t want to get any love scenes mixed between the two!  Having a romance background makes me really tough on any relationship aspect in YA.  Obviously, I want it to be authentic from a teen’s point-of-view, which often differs drastically from adult romance.  But at the same time, editing romance has given me a ton of experience in knowing what relationships feel believable. 

Katherine: In an ideal world, what would you be publishing—if you didn’t have to be concerned about market at all?

It’d be hard to get much closer to the ideal than what I’m doing right now—especially with the YA world being so wide open. Just about anything is possible, and that’s a great space to be in.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Veera: My Toughest Critic

My debut middle grade novel, THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL, has landed. On pub day last week, I sort of tipped-toed around, wondering if I was doing or feeling what I was supposed to. The world did feel different for me, but did it for anyone else? So far I’ve thankfully had the pleasure of getting some great reviews, but I haven’t heard much about how my readers feel, meaning the middle graders I wrote this book for. That is something I’m truly looking forward to.

One thing I have been doing to keep focused on that young readership, is to read the book with my daughter. She’s eight and an avid reader. I hadn’t yet shared my book with her because when I started the novel years ago, she was much too young. But I knew when I sold my manuscript in 2010, she’d be ready for it when it came out. It’s been funny, though, how matter-of-fact she is about the whole thing. Since I’ve published several licensed-character picture books, she’s used to mommy presenting her with a brand new author copy. This one is very different, though, at least for me. For her, it’s just another book that her mother wrote. When I gave her the novel, right out of the box of author copies minutes after they came, I held my breath wondering what she would say. “I like the cover,” she said. I showed her my dedication, which is to her, her brother, and my husband. She nodded and smiled and then handed the book back to me to go play with her gerbils.

That night, I started reading the book to her. She could read it herself, but I wanted to share my writing process with her, and because of the father’s depression and disappearance in the book, I wanted to explain anything she had questions about. We read two chapters, and she was disappointed that we had to stop for bedtime. A good sign. I didn’t want to ask, though, what she thought so far. I didn’t want her to think she had to please me. I wanted to know, gulp, what she really thought.

We talked about how I came up with the characters, their names, even their hair color. We talked about why Sonia, a girl with a Jewish-American mom and an Indian dad, felt self-conscious about her background at her new school. We talked about how I felt back then coming from the same background as Sonia. She certainly was interested, and I noticed she became extra quiet and still when Sonia would reveal something truthful she felt about her parents or her friends. Maybe she was wondering how I could possibly know what a kid could really feel like, me being an adult and all, and not just any adult, but a mom.

Then one night, towards the end of the book as we closed it and turned out the light, she looked at me as I kissed her forehead and said, “Mom, I think your book is awesome.” My heart skipped a beat and I gave her a big hug. I’m really happy that Kirkus liked the book, but my most important critic has finally given it a thumbs up. Hopefully, my young readers out there will follow.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dori: Why do you write?

Because you seek fame and fortune?

Not likely if you’re writing for children.

Because you “can’t not write?” I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to not write. I can always read a book, catch up on e-mail, meet a friend for coffee, take my dog for a walk, teach my dog a new trick, go to a Zumba class (LOVE my Zumba!), play my mandolin, volunteer at the animal shelter, blog, go to a movie, play a game of Scrabble, do a load of laundry, grocery shop, clean, organize a closet or three (the closets in my house REALLY need organizing)...there are a million things I can do every day instead of write.

But most days I write.


To make sense of the world?

For a long time, I believed this was why I wrote. Writing really does help me make sense of the world. It helps me explore ideas and resolve issues (both real and fictional). Writing also helps me figure out who I am.

But do you know why I really write...what really gives me satisfaction as a writer?

I write because I want to turn non-readers into readers.

It sounds a little egotistical, doesn't it? In fact, it sounds so egotistical that I almost scrapped this blog entry (after all, this is my first post on the Crowe's Nest!) and started a new one.

But it's the truth. I DO write to turn non-readers into readers. That's what it's all about for me. I write for reluctant readers. I also write for beginning readers. There's no greater thrill for me than to receive a letter that begins, "I didn't like to read until I read your 'Do You Know the Monkey Man.'" Or to have a child come up to me during a school visit and say, "Your 'Case of the Lost Boy' was the first chapter book I read all by myself!" That's what keeps me going.

How about you? Why do you write?