Friday, April 30, 2010

y i write

So, it's not like I'm necessarily trying to spread the bad smell around to my friends who write, but I have been having one of those why-did-I-ever-want-to-be-a-writer weeks. I even mentioned this to a couple writer friends, and they were, like, yeah... I get those, too.

So here goes:

Look, I know there are plenty of people out there who've been pouring their lives into trying to get their work into the hands of an appreciative agent or editor. And... then, after that... actually seeing your book in the hands of a reader, on the shelf of a bookstore or library... well, it just doesn't get much better than that.

I mean, that's the dream, right?

Yes. It is.

But, there are other things that go along with the dream that you never think about when you're trying so hard to write your best stuff, just so a qualified, proven agent or top-notch editor will give you a nod and let your foot in the door. Not that knowing those things up front would ever have changed my mind about what I was doing... because I was -- and am -- immature and dumb.

So I wrote this long piece today about why I was having one of those why-did-I-ever-want-to-be-a-writer weeks, but I just deleted the whole thing. I'm keeping my mouth shut.

I am never satisfied with what I do. So I keep trying to write something that -- to me alone -- is perfect: something that can neither be stripped-down nor added to without ruining it.

That's why I have these why-did-I-ever-want-to-be-a-writer weeks.

The thing is kind of like trying to run to the horizon. You never get there. It's kind of like what the kids in Marbury find out, too (without being a spoiler).

Henry Miller said something about writing "one perfect page," in a novel. That one page was enough. A lot of novels I've read (or stopped reading) don't even have that one page. But one page isn't enough for me.

So I was kind of beating myself up this week -- what Nick would call a crisis of dissatisfaction -- and swearing I was never going to write another word (and here I am in the middle of yet another novel, looking for those perfect pages).

And then, like a miracle, out of the blue, an email comes in. A reader in Texas received an advance copy of The Marbury Lens from a librarian [Side note: Thank you, Ksenia, for giving out my ARCs at TLA], and took the time to send me a note about enjoying the book.

I might not ever get the perfect page, but things like that, I guess, are reason enough to keep after it.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

tweet tweet

I forgot to mention that, while at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I had several life-changing experiences.

Actually, that's a kind of dumb concept, when you think about it. Because if you're, say, sitting down here, and then you decide to get up and go into the living room, you just changed your life, right? In fact, every time you inhale, as opposed to, say, deciding not to...

Well. Not to lessen the degree to which my life has changed, and to get back on topic: one of my panelmates was Allen Zadoff, who wrote Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have. I met Allen last November when we were speaking at Books Inc. in San Francisco. Great guy. Really funny. He's like one of those guys you immediately feel comfortable with and want to sit down and talk about things like how deeply disappointing your childhood was.

Because I am the Colossus of Have a Shitty Day.

Anyway. So, we were standing there, and the MC of our event pulled out his BlackBerry (I know... I am so judgmental of non-iPhone users, and I really ought to try to overcome this personality flaw. Don't even get me started on Droid users. Sheesh.), and he asks us, "What's your Twitter handle?"

You know, it's kind of funny... but, back in the day, "handles" were nicknames that hairy, pill-popping truck drivers used on their CB radios.


So, Allen and I start talking about Twitter. How we both suck at it. I told him that I try to tweet about once every sixty days, that I get Tweeter's Block, so can only come up with around two characters per day, so it takes me 2 months sometimes to come up with a coherent stream of babble.

Then, Allen changed my life.

He said he tries to tweet every Tuesday.

Genius, I says to myself. Sheer genius.

Allen Zadoff has a Twitter Strategy.

I need a Twitter Strategy.

Why didn't I think of that?

Because I am dumb, that is why.

Allen Zadoff: It is Tuesday, and I am coming into the light.

Now, I am off to cast my first intentional Tuesday Tweet.

(my "handle" is fallingobjects)

Monday, April 26, 2010

note to self

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Mr. Smith said he was posting a note to himself, that today he should just sit on his hands.

I thought that was a weird thing to say. He said he didn't want to write anything because he wants to lay into some people, "And, Nick," he said, "Nothing gets better when you do that, anyway."

I've never really seen Mr. Smith lay into anyone, because I don't think the guy can even get mad, so if he's decided to "sit on his hands" today, it might be a good thing.

Personally, I can't sit on my hands. I have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which was caused by Twittering too much. Oh, don't look for me on Twitter. I'm in a 12-step program to get me off it. You really know you've let yourself go when you accidentally drop your smartphone in a toilet while tweeting.

Enough said on that.

Maybe he's mad at me for not cleaning up his office yet.

-- Nick S.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

boys will be

Yesterday's wasn't my first Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, but it was probably the best one I've been to. And it's still going on today, so if you live in SoCal and you're complaining about having nothing to do -- or your kids are -- go there.

One reason why this year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was better was that they finally built a special section for YA, thanks to the hard work of author Cecil Castellucci, who also moderated the panel I was on (more on this in a bit). And, judging by the turnout of crowds who came to hear YA authors speak (not an empty seat in the house), the YA section has assured its permanence at the festival.

And maybe from now on, we YA folks will no longer be ghettoized into the Children's area and have to do book signings next to clowns who make giraffes out of balloons. One downer: they did put that talking goat robot who made his debut at BEA a few years ago in Los Angeles near the YA area. All I can say is if I ever saw something like that in my yard in the middle of the night, well... I'd have to shoot it (count: one dead animal in the blog. Well, it's not really an animal, because it was a robot, and a goat. A very, very creepy goat. Who talked. LA Times folk: move that crap next year.)

So the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books folk are finally getting it -- when not a lot of people around the world are -- that YA doesn't fit in at all with "Children's Lit." If you'd heard the selections read from some of the authors' books yesterday, you'd know why.

I mean, not mine... not mine... I just read a creepy part about bugs from The Marbury Lens, but I did take some degree of pleasure looking out through my dark glasses (nobody could tell I was watching them) at the uncomfortable shifting-in-the-seats of more than a few moms and dads who kept their heads fixed straight forward so they wouldn't accidentally make eye contact with their teenage kids during some of the very funny, and, um... kind of embarrassing passages read by Ben Esch (Sophomore Undercover) and Blake Nelson (Destroy All Cars).

And, let me tell you, it was quite a treat to be on a panel with those "guys," and also with Allen Zadoff, who also read a very funny passage from his Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have, that didn't seem to have a similar butt-squirm-rigor-mortis-neck reaction from the parents present.

Which now brings me to my panel discussion. See... I knew this was going to happen. It happens to me every single time I ever show up on a panel and they ask us to read. This time, I had been told ahead of time that we would be asked to read exactly one page. But what happens, see, is other authors start reading their stuff, and it's, like, really funny and awkward and contains boner jokes and stuff (I did make a mental calculation of "boner" references yesterday. I even announced it on stage after the tenth reference... but I digress)... and then I have to go.

And I am, like, the colossal downer.

Because my books don't contain any of that whimsical boner stuff.

So, before the panel began, I was, like, Cecil, put me last. Cecil, put me last. I am the Colossus of Have-a-Shitty-Day.

And Cecil was, like, "I know."

Or something.

So, at least everyone knew where I was coming from. And I got to read first, so I probably had a significant bum-out effect on the very funny guys who followed my very un-funny reading from The Marbury Lens.

Afterward, the panel had a terrific discussion on writing for boys and boy readership, and how boys are stigmatized by an environment that expects them to not want to read. So, naturally, I had a lot to say on the topic, but you've read it all here before.

And the other guys definitely get it, too. It was a real honor to be on a panel with them, and Cecil asked some terrific questions that, I think, opened more than a few minds in the audience about setting our sights on providing more substance to boys who really do want to read books.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

the arc of the coveted

Okay, so I am going to UCLA today, to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books where I will be speaking on a panel (1 p.m., YA Stage) about guys who write YA, and -- the best part is -- I get to read a bit from one of my books. Well, not just one of my books, the book I really want to read from: The Marbury Lens.

But that isn't even the best part, really. The best part is that this copy that I'm going to be reading from is the first ARC that was sent to me. I've carried it around with me every day, everywhere I've gone (Like to New York), since it arrived on my doorstep. It is the only Advance Reader Copy of the book I have.

And the reason that's the best part is that I'm going to find someone at random at the festival and give this ARC away.

Get rid of every last one of them once and for all so I can stop being tormented by them.

This book wants to kill me.

So, with apologies to all my friends, family members, librarians, reviewers, and everyone else around the country who are guilting me with the but-you-gave-me-an-ARC-of-your-last-book-so-why-won't-you-give-me-an-ARC-of-this-one requests that are making me feel completely HORRIBLE, I no longer have a single copy of the book I wrote.

Not even one for me.

And I will be glad once I'm rid of it.

Because this book wants to kill me.

I have no trouble speaking in front of large groups. I've done dozens of readings, all over the country. But, to be honest, there are a couple things making me nervous about the UCLA gig today. There are going to be young people -- well, not so young -- in the audience that I've known since they were just out of diapers. One is about to become a medical doctor, attending UCLA's med school, one is a filmmaker with some incredible credits, who'll be attending with his pregnant wife, and one is in UCLA's law school. Yeah, I know some pretty smart people who apparently find some perverse element of fascination in observing public displays of self immolation.

And I hope my 15-year-old son wakes up in time to go with me. Not so he can drive home, but because I want to show him the campus of UCLA (despite his age, he'll be applying to colleges in the coming school year). Because I want him to go to UCLA. Don't worry, UC Regents -- you can skip poring over the application. He's got the grades and the ranking.

He just hasn't made up his mind yet.

Friday, April 23, 2010

the ludovico technique

To carry on with a few thoughts Nick (welcome back, and you can straighten out my office today, but just don't lose anything) had about being forced to read something because it was good for him, I think one of the recurring themes I've seen in comments from librarians and teachers who "get it" is choice. We all know that boys are more likely to act out in a negative way when they're uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable because they have no choice in their reading material can really turn boys off to reading.

On the other hand, it's not necessarily fair to presume that boys as a population prefer nonfiction to fiction (I see a lot of librarians who immediately assume they should go get the books on volcanoes or bugs whenever a boy walks into their world). That may be anecdotally correct, but studies show that boys have no higher a level of preference for nonfiction than do girls. The journal The Reading Teacher published a study in November, 2009, that showed the characteristics of books that boys like to read. I've listed them before, but, for a quick run-down: boys like books that look cool (the cover is the first attractor for boys, and it also turns them away from books they might otherwise be engaged in), and they like series books, so they can stick with a particular character for a long time. But there are also some very important environmental considerations regarding the boys-and-reading dilemma.

First of all, it's unfair to label boys -- as a gender -- as being "reluctant." The stigma of doing so is a double edge sword: it communicates to boys that it's okay and within their boyish nature to veer away from reading, and, sadly, it prejudices teachers and librarians when it comes time to making choices about literacy programs and selection of reading materials. I know too many teachers who automatically label boys as bad or difficult readers, just because they're boys.

Among comments I've read on this topic that I find to be interesting and useful are those from teachers and librarians dealing with younger boys (grades 4 and under). As a literacy advocate, I see plenty of evidence that shows that when boys begin to enter the age where gender roles become increasingly important elements of identity, that a prevailing lack of male role-models who actually spend time reading (at home, in school, in the community) can cause an association in the minds of many boys that reading, writing, and Language Arts in general are essentially feminine pursuits. We know that having a positive male role model who reads at home is one of the biggest unifying characteristics of boys who are considered to be avid readers, and the evidence in support of gender-segregated classes shows the attainment of dramatic gains (for all-boy, as well as all-girl classes).

I wouldn't begin to automatically assume what a kid should read simply after sizing up and deciding that boy-equals-Rick Riordan or girl-equals-Laurie Halse Anderson, but I do know that there are specific strategies we can employ to encourage higher literacy in boys as well as girls. I believe most librarians (and sadly, fewer teachers) around the country are doing exactly those things. But, the fact that, as a population, boys' literacy scores have been declining in America in the past 20 years shows those of us in education that some of the things we've bought into have actually inflicted damage to our male students, and it's time to rethink our strategies -- to make them more adaptable to kids, rather than expect kids (and, by this, I mean "boys") to adapt to our preconceived notions of what's good for them.

Now, back to "research" work for me.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

trash day

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I figured that if it was okay for Mr. Smith to do it, that, since I was left in charge of the blog while he goes off on some research thing (which, by the way, I believe involves bars), I thought I would say what I think about books and boys.

After all, it's trash day, and when I was wheeling out Mr. Smith's trash can to the street (don't worry, I had surgical gloves and a mask on), I noticed some printouts of emails he'd received from people who had some pretty interesting points of view about things. Not that you can't be interesting and wrong, all at the same time.

I'm going to give you a digested version of one of them. It was from a person who said that males live in their own closed-off universe, and that if boys didn't want to read books with girl protagonists, that it was a form of sexism, and we needed to force boys to read those kinds of books (with girl main characters) for their own good.

The reeducation camps will be fully operational by this time tomorrow.

Look. I'm a boy, and if I don't want to read a book and then someone forces me to because it's for my own good, not only am I not going to read that book, I'm going to not read it and hate it at the same time. That's just how boys are.

When a boy doesn't want to read a book because it's about girls, that is not a form of sexism. I'm just a kid, but I always thought that sexism involved taking actions that discriminate against or inflict some kind of disadvantage to a particular gender. When teachers try to force things down our throats "because it's good for us," it makes us act all Neanderthally.

It's kind of like if someone forced me to listen to hours of Peruvian pan flute music because, after all, it's music, and I should appreciate it, and it's good for me.

Well, I have this deep irrational phobia of pan flutes. It's hard for me to even write the words. I am not going to like pan flute music or appreciate pan flautists if you make me listen to it.

Anyway, those kinds of attitudes about making boys read what is good for them (based on judgments of the so-called experts who know what's good for us) is one of the reasons why some boys hate to read. Because we're not given choices, or because the things that some boys really want to read are labeled as somehow less-evolved or unworthy.

And that's just aesthetic snobbery.

It's "literatism."

The thing is, when you read, even if you happen to only like books where the protagonists are males, the act of reading still opens your mind to things that you may have never considered before. And that is "good for you."

But what do I know?

All I can say is I am pretty sure that even if I had an idea that I wanted to read a certain book and then some authoritarian grown-up said it was "chosen" as "mandatory" reading because it was "good for me," I probably would change my mind about ever wanting to open it in the first place.

-- Nick S.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

the daily churro

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11 (who turned 17 on April 12)

Yes. I am back. I did what the hippies talked me into doing -- got in touch with my seventies self -- and I realized that I didn't like living in the 1970s nearly as much as I like living in the final 32 months before the end of the Mayan calendar.

Mr. Smith said he didn't feel like blogging any more, and, anyway, he's off doing research for something new he's writing, so he asked me if I wouldn't mind posting something today, and I am more than happy to be back as a guest once again at the Smith compound -- what he calls El Rancho de Drew, for whatever reasons.

I was wondering about this research stuff he does. Why do you ever have to research fiction? Isn't it made up, anyway? He keeps telling me no, and quoting that Hemingway saying about it being truer than if it really happened, which, Mr. Smith says, is why he has to leave home so much and get out and watch things.

I mean, I guess I can understand all the reading he does when he writes about stuff like literacy rates and reading trends, but I'm still not sure about the whole researching fiction idea.

Oh well.

I guess you're wondering about my choice for the title of my return to the blog. It's an award the hippies used to give when I was roadtripping with them: the daily churro.

Sometimes, it wasn't actually a churro, but just some random thing that looked like a churro, which, surprisingly, there are lots of things that look like churros, and most of them are completely disgusting and you wouldn't want to eat them, anyway, which is entirely how I feel about churros in the first place.

Well, in all honesty, I've never had a churro. But, then again, I have a very delicate digestive tract. I suppose I could manage to keep one down if it was slightly curried and made with tofu, in which case you'd probably call it a tofurro, and then nobody would ever put something with a name like that in their mouths, anyway.

I've been having a hard time trying to decide who to give the first daily churro award to, because it's a close call for me.

On the one hand, I'm inclined to give it to my mom for making me run away from home in the first place, as a result of her preoccupation with my going to Prom with a girl who I don't even know. I'm convinced that moms who get obsessive over their kids going to Prom have a pessimistic view of the likelihood of their genes being passed along to future generations, which, in my mom's case, would be a haploidal chance in hell, since I was a test tube baby from an "anonymous" sperm donor.

Which brings me to my second contender for the daily churro: the kid (I'm assuming he was a kid) who said that "All of publishing is geared toward girls and women. Because girls and women buy books. It's not just YA." Well, of course, that comment really ticked me off, and I think it's why Mr. Smith told me to come back, and that he didn't feel like blogging any more. One thing I've learned from him being my writing coach is that, he said, "Nick, whenever someone starts a statement with a word like Everyone or All, you know you're dealing with a kid."

To paraphrase: All people who say things like "All of publishing is geared toward girls and women," are kids. Which is funny, because I started that sentence with "all," and I'm a kid.

The hippies would tell me to be giving, and break the churro in half. But I'm not going to do that, especially since I have refuted my "Seventies Self."

Mom, I'm sure there will be another chance at a churro in your future.

The genes, I'm not so sure about.

It's nice to be back.

-- Nick S.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

to tell the truth

I went ahead and got back to work again this week. So now I can say for certain that this was it -- I took four months off after completing my last book (finished at the end of December) and just let things happen for a while.

So here we go again.

Okay, so I've been thinking about this Los Angeles Times Festival of Books panel that I'm speaking on this coming Saturday. If you remember from yesterday, the topic is Boys Will Be Boys: Guys Talk YA. So I started worrying about what "guys" are going to say about YA.

What if I say something -- you know -- like the truth?

If so, that could be pretty ugly. I'm afraid the moderator may scowl at me. That would frighten me.

What if I say that a lot of YA dumbs-down and marginalizes young people (girls and boys) and is written from out-of-touch, condescending perspectives by writers who project their own shallow, two-dimensional, obsessive preoccupations into characters that make me want to throw books against walls (which I have done, at times)?

What if I say that a lot of teachers and librarians "get it" -- that YA endorses an anti-male mindset, advanced by many authors, publishers, and booksellers -- that the "culture of YA" is blueprinted to turn boys away from literacy?

Maybe since the panel is "guys," and we're talking about YA, we should just stick to the basics and tell fart jokes.

I think I should just go back to work.

Monday, April 19, 2010


So it is official. Yesterday's issue of the Los Angeles Times included a special supplemental section with information on next weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, to be held on the campus of UCLA.

I'll be on a panel discussion called Boys Will Be Boys: Guys Talk YA with fellow authors Blake Nelson, Ben Esch, and Allen Zadoff, which will take place on the YA Stage on Saturday, April 24, at 1:00 p.m.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

tomato day

April 18 is supposed to be tomato day where I live. That means that it's officially not supposed to freeze or snow any more and you can safely plant tomatoes.

Days like this in California make you believe that it's going to be summer from now on, but we're supposed to get three days of storms coming up in the week, too.

So I did my grasshopper and the ant routine today. As much as I begrudge stacking firewood on days like today, it is a necessary thing (since it's the only way we keep our home heated) when the weather forecast calls for storms ahead.

Even if it is, supposedly, tomato day.

I have to say, too, that the coolest part about yesterday's talk about having a career as a writer was that my presentation was attended by just as many teenage boys as girls. And they had their parents with them, too, asking some really good questions about schooling and what kinds of things their kids should focus on if they were really serious about becoming writers.

So yesterday was kind of like tomato day for kids who want to be writers one day.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

thoughts on record store day and stuff

Today I'll be speaking to kids at College of the Canyons in Valencia, California (at noon) about what it's like to be a professional (whatever) writer.

You can come if you want.

I show them a presentation with pictures and hold up blank pieces of paper and stuff like that. Now I'm sitting here, thinking how I should show them my messy desk, too. I don't know how it always ends up like this.

Wait. Yes I do.

Anyway, I'm speaking for an hour -- which is not that hard to do, considering I'm all "professional" and stuff. And as soon as it's over, I am heading down to Amoeba Music in Hollywood with my kids, to celebrate Record Store Day.

Record Store Day is a day for us all to pause and reflect (even though I hate reflecting) on the importance of independent music stores: how they are staffed by people who love what they do, and how they give us such a wide access to artists who defy the corporate, sales-oriented, predictable sausage-meat most people listen to.

Kind of like independent booksellers, in that regard.

And we can't afford to lose either one: indie record shops or indie booksellers.

The thing about music, though, is that it kind of naturally adapts itself to being symbiotic with technology. Music, like technology, doesn't just sit there quietly on the shelf by your bed. Even still, vinyl is more popular now -- in this age of downloadable catalogs -- than it has been in 20 years. I have a feeling vinyl will be around longer than the CD will.

And it wasn't replaced by cassettes or 8-tracks, now was it?

Books, on the other hand, do not really naturally evolve as a result of technology. People expect books to sit there and be quiet -- just like I expect anyone who's going to chime in about "enhanced books" with embedded video clips, games, and interactive touch-screen wizards, flailing their arms and wringing their hands, with their evangelistic soylent-green wails of, "BOOKS ARE DEAD TREES! BOOKS ARE DEAD TREES!" to sit there and be quiet when they read this rant.

Those are not books.

I have a feeling that paper is going to be around longer than most of us.

But, then again, I like my vinyl.

See you at the record store.

(my apologies for so blatantly baiting my friend Michael Grant to come on and tell me I'm stupid)

Friday, April 16, 2010

the kneebone boy

I recently finished reading Ellen Potter's The Kneebone Boy, a quirky Middle-Grade novel that will be released in September.

A while back, I predicted that 2010 would be a year for great books for boys, and The Kneebone Boy is definitely going to be on my next list of those books.

The Hardscrabble siblings -- chuffy Lucia, brilliant Max, and the silent Otto, who speaks with his hands -- trapped in what they think is an ordinary life (even though their mother is missing and locals believe Otto strangled her, and their father is an artist who paints portraits of deposed monarchs), get stranded in London and wind up in a bizarre seaside village where they find a polydactyl cat named Chester whose tail makes a constant question mark. They also discover that their lives are anything but ordinary.

It's brilliantly funny and fast-paced, a terrific read-aloud book. It's narrated by one of the children, too, but you're not supposed to know who it is that's telling the story, even though Potter "outs" the narrator with here-and-there confessional rantings. You'll have to figure that out for yourselves, though.

I don't make a habit of reading Middle Grade novels, but this one grabbed me right away. I found myself wishing it was about 400 pages longer.

It's a great book for boys (and girls), and don't assume that you -- or your kids -- are too old for it, just because you'll find it in the MG section of the bookshelves. Brilliantly done.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

ooh. a contest

There are not many advance copies of The Marbury Lens going around. I'm sure some might get out at BEA in New York next month. And there will be a signing at ALA in Washington DC in June.

But lots of people want one. So, if you're one of the few people who've gotten your hands on one, all I can say is: do not loan it out. Or, you can be like this guy, and taunt your friends with it.

But... if you really really want one, Goodreads is having a contest for two Advance Reader Copies of The Marbury Lens. I think they're signed, too. And, of course, they have that killer Rich Deas cover.

The contest is open to folks from the US, UK, and Canada, and the winners will be drawn on September 9 -- a full two months before The Marbury Lens appears in bookstores.

To enter, click here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

about time

I think most writers have a reclusive streak in them. I do know some writers who really love being around people all the time, but I still believe they slink away and withdraw when they're working. Maybe I'm wrong, and it's just me.

But, as a writer, I've always felt like an outsider among other authors. I don't belong to any organizations, I don't have a crit group, and I never attend writers' workshops. A lot of that can be attributed to the remoteness of the physical location of where I live, but most of it is just because that's how I am, too. They guy who gets ding-dong ditched in seedy Arizona bars and chased by irate cowboys who don't appreciate the distinct advantage Belgian beer has over Bud Lite.

(true story. I'll tell you about it some time when I get over the trauma.)

I also think I stay away from writers' groups because of the process by which I work. It's not very normal. I mention this because I think I'm just about ready to give up another piece of my guts, which means I am just about to start in on page one of the next book.

I know what I'm going to write, usually, for a few months before I start writing it. I know who all the characters are going to be, how they're connected, and what they want. Then I live with all this information inside my head for several months, and it becomes clearer and clearer until the first sentences and the first scene are dying to get out and onto the page.

My outline is there. It's just invisible to anyone but me.

That's about where I am now. Page one is coming any time now.

People often ask if I know how a book is going to end while I'm writing it, but I never do. I know where it's going, but I never know the actual concrete ending until the day I write that part of the book.

And, once I start, I stay on a pace so that I can predict -- usually within a few days -- very accurately, when I will be finished with the book.

I know. It's not the way people do things. It's why I stay out here where I am.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

coming up

Here's what I have coming up in the next couple months (and I'm sure more stuff will get squeezed in between):

  • April 17, 2010: “Discovering Careers Seminar,” at College of the Canyons in Valencia. Noon. I'll be talking to kids and adults about being a writer, and the other kinds of jobs people have in the production of books. Admission is free.
  • April 24-25, 2010: LA Times Festival of Books, at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. I will be on a panel called Boys Will Be Boys: Guys Talk YA (this is a working title that may be changed). Fellow panelists include Ben Esch, Blake Nelson, and Allen Zadoff, moderated by Cecil Castellucci. This 45-minute panel will take place on the Saturday, April 24th at 1:00 p.m. on the YA Stage. Book signing to follow. Watch for the special section of the Los Angeles Times, this Sunday, on April 18.
  • June 26 - 28, 2010: American Library Association Annual Conference, Washington DC. I’ll be speaking on a panel to librarians and participating in the “YA Authors Coffee Klatch.” Signing and giving away advance copies of The Marbury Lens.

Monday, April 12, 2010

getting back with my people

In taking it easy today, I'm going to post something here that I was asked to do for another blog. Unlike *some* writers I know, I'm always willing to hammer out a few quick responses to blog interviewers, without making them *ahem* get back with my people sometime in June because I should have a bit of free time then.

Just saying.

So, here are the four questions I was asked:

1. Did you always want to be an author? If not, at what age did you decide?

I always knew I wanted to be an author -- as far back as elementary school. Before elementary school, I didn't want to "be" anything, which is one of the best things about "being" a kid. I was editor of my high school newspaper, and my very first-ever actual paid job (I was a teen) was as a stringer (that's newspaper language for a valueless reporter) for a local newspaper. In those days, we got paid by the inch of copy, too. It was an embarrassingly low-paying job, but I learned how to stretch out my content and write convoluted run-on sentences just for the sake of an extra buck here and there. But, around this same time, when we had the predictable diner-table discussion about what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up, my parents both looked devastated and disappointed when I confessed that I wanted to be a writer, as opposed to, say, an engineer, which was what my dad was -- and not the cool kind who drives trains, the mathematical, slide-ruley kind who does things that I still have no clue about.

I put myself through college, though, and I planned on becoming a journalist. After a couple jobs, though, I realized that being a journalist wasn't really as cool as I thought it would be. So I became a bum and wandered around the world from job to job and place to place. I kept writing stuff, but I had no real plan to do anything with the stuff I wrote, which leads to the next question...

2. Why did you decide to become an author?

When my son was in elementary school, and just beginning to get the future-you pressure that we get in school, he told me that he wanted to be a writer when he grew up. He has always been a terrific reader, anyway. I figured that I did not want to give him the same response that my parents gave me, but I should set an example for him -- if I could. Coincidentally, at around the same time, an old friend from high school, who happens to be a very successful author, contacted me and said something like, "Why haven't you published any books yet?" And I thought, I don't know. So I put together something that I'd been working on -- something I thought my own son would like to read. Then I got an agent, and she sold that manuscript. Just like that. It was the first novel I ever tried to publish. When I took my family out to dinner to celebrate, my son, who was about 11 years old at the time, said, "Thanks, Dad, for being a role model."

I am totally not making that up, too. The kid really said that to me. Now he's 15. I don't know if he still wants to be a writer. I think he does.

3. Would you encourage your children (real or imaginary) to become writers?

If my kids (I have a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy) want to be writers, I would definitely encourage them to do it, as long as they promised to never use exclamation points in their prose. It's not easy, and "wanting" isn't nearly enough to get you there, but my kids are pretty sharp and I have confidence that they will be better at whatever they want to be than I am.

4. What three adjectives best describe yourself or most writers you know?

What the heck is an "adjective"?

Okay... okay... I'll do the "me" three, because if I described "most writers" I know, I would probably get beaten up:

obsessive, tense, hypersensitive.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I have a daughter who's going to be thirteen next month. She's a great reader, too. She is particularly a fan of Lisa Yee (she loved Absolutely Maybe), Yvonne Prinz (The Vinyl Princess was a favorite read this past year), and Julie Halpern (she read Get Well Soon and Into the Wild Nerd Yonder this year), but she draws from a wide shelf of YA (now that she's growing out of MG -- *sniff*) titles.

So, I was cruising around YA book blog sites, like I sometimes do when I'm in the mood for looking at pink color themes, and I found one YA blog that I thought was kind of... well... interesting. Here's what hit me about the blog:

First, of course, it has a pink background. Screaming pink. Because, of course, pink equals YA in the universal calculus of color schemes. Second, the blog is maintained by seven YA authors. I have no problem that all seven of the authors are women, because, as you know, XX is the universal genetic code for YA authors. Third, the tagline for the blog goes like this: "YA Authors... discuss writing... and, of course, hot guys."

Because, as we all know, in the universal discussion guide for YA, I believe, on page one, there is a requirement for discussing hot guys.

Have I told you that there is something else I really hate about YA? That YA includes stuff like you'd find in those teen-boy-borderline-soft-porn type magazines as an integral component of the genre. And it's perfectly okay to objectify boys in YA. Try getting away with pulling that off on "girls," and you'll be labeled as some kind of creep.

Um... yeah... I know a lot of YA authors who also happen to be guys. Maybe we should start a blog and discuss hot chicks in YA -- and what makes them so "hot."

Kind of tasteless. Not worth my time as a writer.

Most of all, I'm happy that my daughter's taste in YA steers her away from the vapid and empty stories about scoring the clueless dumb boy (who happens to also be hot). And I've got some really cool books for her to read that will be coming out later this year, too.

I've written plenty about boys and reading, but I think I should make a comment or two (as a father of a teen girl) about the girls, too -- that books which objectify boys as serving no purpose beyond providing the soothing quality of hotness also do a disservice to girls, by making them equate their own value with their ability to score with one.

Good YA will always empower kids and expand their perspective.

That is all.

My daughter is away today, volunteering her time at a charity race. She's a great kid.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

the ppj

Okay. Well, this week, I've been reading ARCs of books that will be out later this year, and I sent a note to an author of one of them -- I'll write something about this book later -- about how totally cool this particular book is.

Part of the reason for sending the note was that the author told me that not many people at all have read the novel yet, and so was interested in my opinion of it. First of all, I'd never say anything to an author if I read a book of theirs and didn't like it -- silence, in the writing biz, is the sound of vomit through a megaphone.

So, anyway... yeah... this novel is totally freaking cool. And the author of it sent me something back, mentioning how it was a relief to hear it because, you know, we all get pre-publication jitters. That's where we doubt ourselves and our work, wonder why we ever set out to do this thing in the first place, get cranky and moody, and generally go crazy.

I guess every author goes through PPJ differently, but I am certain we all get it. For me, with The Marbury Lens, my PPJ has been particularly severe. And, as you can see by the countdown timer over there >>>>>, I have 212 days to go.

How do you deal with PPJ?

Friday, April 9, 2010

on knowing jack

Here's the iron guy they put up on top of the Flatiron Building.

Let's just call him Jack.

Attention -- All Flatiron Workers: That guy up there shall be named Jack from this moment forward. Don't ask how he got there. He has a hard time explaining how he pops around from place to place.

Yesterday, I got my first real response to The Marbury Lens from a real kid -- someone who won an advance copy of the book. I'm going to quote some of what he said here:

"Simply Amazing. I read the entire thing this last Saturday. I was at my grandparent's house and I actually got in trouble with my mom because, "[I] wasn't being social and was being a recluse on the couch with my book." And as much as I don't want to sound like some fanboy, I actually felt like Jack when I wasn't reading the book. As if I NEEDED to go back to keep reading, just as Jack has his urges to go to Marbury. So I really can't describe it, besides saying it was amazing, and congratulations for writing such an awesomely twisted/entertaining book."

There aren't many people who've gotten advance copies yet, but there does seem to be a common thread in the scattered responses I hear about being sucked away into the book -- which is a very good thing.

But it's a long time from now until November 9, when the book will be released.

I MAY devise some way for giving away an advance copy at the LA Times Festival of Books in two weeks. Maybe (ask around) to someone who shows up dressed like Henry Hewitt.

And, most definitely, there will be advance copies to sign and give away this June at the ALA Annual in Washington DC, where I will be fortunate enough to be speaking and coffee-klatching and signing galleys. We will run out, just like we did last time.

Just so you know.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

coming home

Let me start off by saying how much I love New York City. It is an amazing place. But I also have to admit that I am filled with wonder by more than a few things I noticed there.

First of all, horn-honking. Where I live, people don't use horns. Ever. I don't think I've heard the blast of a car horn up in the mountains in all the years I've lived here. Since I never hear horn-honking where I live, I think the constant sound of it evinced some kind of atavistic run-from-the-giant-flying-lizard stress response in me.

And this kind of goes along with street-crossing. People cross streets with their own style in New York. There is not even a traffic light within 20 miles of my home (this is the truth), but I'm sure there are tens of thousands of them on Manhattan, which isn't even 20 miles long. So, street-crossing, to me, evinced some kind of atavistic here-comes-a-stampeding-herd-of-hungry-velociraptors anxiety in me.

But I marveled at one particular type of street-crosser in New York. I saw this happen several times every day: the guy with the briefcase. Briefcase man waits for no light. He doesn't ever break into a run, either. He just holds his briefcase on the traffic-side of his lower body and stares directly at the speeding, oncoming windshield of a taxi cab. I think his eyes shoot out some kind of invisible beam. Sometimes cars will honk at him, but he never breaks stride and just keeps on walking.

I felt like if I had a briefcase, maybe I could get around town faster.

Okay. Then, down around the Flatiron District, we looked up while walking (or maybe waiting at a traffic light) on 5th Avenue, and we saw a man standing on the top of a building. Just standing there. Then we started to notice there were men standing on the rooftop edges of lots of buildings, just looking down at us. At first, I reasoned that they may have been some kind of guardians for all the briefcase men who walked out in front of speeding cars, but then we found out that it was one of the coolest outdoor art projects ever: dozens of life-size, iron men, who just stood there on the ledges of some of the tallest buildings, watching.

We don't have any life-size iron guys standing on the tops of roofs where I live, either.

There were a couple down on the ground, too, and we took pictures of them (I'll post after I unpack stuff). But I just really liked those rusty iron guys standing around Manhattan's rooftops.

I hope they're still there next time I go to New York.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

the fall catalog

Yesterday, I got a sneak peek at the new fall 2010 catalog from Feiwel and Friends (my publisher), and was pretty much floored by how it looked. I'll post some pictures of it after I get back to California.

One really nice thing is that the entire back cover of the catalog is a text-free print of the cover for The Marbury Lens. And I found out some pretty cool stuff about how that photograph was taken and who the boy model on the cover is. Anyway, even after having the cover "sink in" for a couple months now, I still think it's one of the best cover designs I've ever seen.

So, that means, naturally, that the catalog is also one of the coolest catalogs you'll ever see, too. And what's inside is even better. Not only is the fall list really exciting (I just finished reading The Haunting of Charles Dickens, by Lewis Buzbee; and had a chance to speak with my publisher, Jean Feiwel, and editor, Liz Szabla about some of the other titles from the list I'll be reading next), but inside the first page is a very flattering message about The Marbury Lens written by Jean Feiwel.

Then, on a couple of other pages in the catalog, are glimpses of the paperback version of Ghost Medicine, which is also being released this fall.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

where books come from

It's not as insanely sunny in New York this morning, but it is still early.

Today, I am paying a visit on the folks at Feiwel and Friends, in the building you see pictured here. If books are like babies, this is the hospital that delivers them.

Monday, April 5, 2010

hunting for hunter

Okay. Hello this morning from wonderful, spectacular New York City.

Dare I say, I think they got rid of the recent spate of foul weather just for our arrival.

But, speaking of weather, last Wednesday we had an unusually brisk cold snap. It even snowed a bit at my house. It's not completely uncommon for a bit of snow at the beginning of April, but the nice thing about it was that it was probably one of my last opportunities for a while to light a blazing fire and sit beside it, reading a book.

And the book I read was The Haunting of Charles Dickens, by my friend, Lewis Buzbee, which is about as perfect a fireside book as you can get. I mean, what could possibly be better than reading Dickens, sitting by a fire, while snow is falling on the other side of your window?

And the book is so much like reading Dickens, too, in the quirkiness of situation and character, the distinct rhythm and pattern of the voice. It made me remember how much I loved reading Dickens when I was young.

But it kind of made me sad, too. Kids just do not read Charles Dickens in school these days. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that so few teachers (especially newer teachers) had ever been required -- or expected -- to read Dickens during their schooling.

And that's a sad thing.

And the book is all things Dickensian: it is funny and sad, it has a whacking good adventure with mysterious and unpredictable turns, and, naturally, disguises. It is the story of Meg Pickel as she attempts to unravel the mystery of her fifteen-year-old brother's abduction with the assistance of Charles Dickens, a family friend who is also on a hunt of his own.

In the same way that Lewis's Steinbeck's Ghost created opportunities for young readers to discover and connect with John Steinbeck, The Haunting of Charles Dickens accomplishes these same objectives... but -- allow me to say -- even better than Lewis's preceding MG/YA novel did. So, this is really something else.

Congratulations, Lewis.

So, here's my plan (and I will remind you all of this in about six months, because The Haunting of Charles Dickens will be released during the chilly month of November):

Dads and Moms: start a fire in the fireplace. Ask your children to sit nearby. Then, read aloud to them from Charles Dickens. It might be the right time of year to read A Christmas Carol, but, as Meg Pickel would likely agree, Great Expectations would be possibly better. Or, maybe you should consider reading them The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee.

I'll just bet they'll want to hear something else from the Great Man if you do.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

tense and tension

It seems that in the past week or so, I've noticed a number of author blogs that speak on the topic of tense in writing: past or present.

I would imagine there's not too much out there that's written in future tense. That is going to be be pretty annoying (you will eventually think about this statement).

Oh... and a good example of a great novel that 1) kills a LOT of animals, and 2) is written in both past and present tenses: Moby Dick.

I think readers aren't supposed to really notice what tense a novel is written in -- or if the tense is too obtrusive, then maybe there's something wrong. But there does seem to be a trend in recent years, and especially in YA novels, to write in present tense. Again, it doesn't bother me, unless it's clunky, and it is an effective way to create tension and bring the reader into the moment, which is something you generally want to do in YA.

I like to mess around with tense and POV, both as a means of changing the tone of certain passages. I did it in In the Path of Falling Objects, in which the story completely pops around in multiple points of view voiced in differing tenses.

But there are also short little blasts of tense change in The Marbury Lens, too. Sometimes, when Jack gets really scared, when he knows something horrible is about to happen, he pops into present tense. At one point, when he blasts out of this other world called Marbury, just when something terrifying is about to happen and he wants to stay put, he finds himself, for no explainable reason, stranded in the Green Park subway station in London, wet, dressed in someone else's clothing:

A platform.

The Underground.


I'm alone.

The train rushes forward out of the yawning blackness beneath a tunnel arch and hisses to a stop. Doors sigh open with the suction of so many hungry mouths.

Welcome home, Jack.

I stagger back and fall against the dingy tile wall. The surface is damply warm, feels like every hot breath in the city adheres to it, makes me nauseous.

And then there's the anger part, too. Jack is an angry teenager. But, I think, one of the reasons why he's not annoyingly angry like some YA protagonists turn out to be, is that his anger is not directed outward at humanity in general; most of his anger is turned inward toward himself. In fact, Jack likes people, but he can't get over feeling disappointed and angry with himself, at times, and he blames himself for things that really aren't in his power to change.

When he feels this way, he talks about himself (as the narrator of the book) in third person -- as though he's detaching himself from the Jack who's let him down.

It's fun to play around with tense and POV. And I'm going to stick to my guns and insist that every story has not already been written.

Off to New York today. Blogging from Manhattan for the next few days.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

everything is supposed to be perfect

And, so while I'm on the subject of reviewing things, I did manage to find a typo in the galley of The Marbury Lens.

I know it was a typo, because in my insane attachment to such things, I compared the text of the galley with my final manuscript.

A friend of mine once said to me, "Oh, I am reading a galley right now and it has dozens of errors in it. Isn't that what galleys are supposed to be like?"

And I said, no, galleys are supposed to be perfect.

I hate typos.

[in the head of a typesetter]Let's see now... he has this sentence that begins, "The Easter bunny, determined to make children happy, foolishly made its way out into the crush of the roaring intersection, only to be..."

[Side note: Does that count as one animal killing per blog post? But, I digress, to continue inside the mind of the typesetter:]

... shouldn't it be 'made it's way??? hmmm... I think I will save the day and insert my apostrophe!!! Splendid!!!

For me, as sensitive as I am about such things as exclamation points and blaspheming coffee with flavored creamers, there is one thing that trumps all -- the misuse of the apostrophe.

Apostrophes (note: there is no apostrophe on apostrophes) are kind of like Spartacus: enslaved by dumb people.

Not that there is an apostrophic error in my galley of The Marbury Lens. I just needed to vent about typos.

And, speaking of galleys and reviews, I did just finish reading the galley of The Haunting of Charles Dickens by my friend, Lewis Buzbee. And I have a few things I plan on saying about this book.


Tomorrow, I leave for New York City. I will try to keep Drew away from the blog posts, but you never know what might happen when I'm away.

Friday, April 2, 2010

the great big giant me

And speaking of having a downer of a day, I frequently marvel at the people on Facebook who continually post status updates about how miserable and depressed they are, or how horrible their lives are. Because, I mean, what are you supposed to do when someone posts something like I just don't think I can endure any more of this agonizing, endless sadness and despair -- give it the "Thumbs Up"?

Nick has vanished. I got a cryptic and eerie message from him the other day. Then he unfriended me on Facebook. Poof. Just like that. I'll write about his final message later this week, or next week from New York. I have a feeling I'll see him again.

Now, for the real topic of today: reviews. Well, sort-of reviews. There are only a handful of reviews that I will ever read. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I'm a great big giant snob, but I never never never read reviews posted on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You know why? Because they're so depressing. But yesterday, I decided to activate an account at Goodreads. I know... I know... I'm an idiot. But I'll tell you why: I did it because of the crafty and brilliant author Carol Snow, that's why.

So, anyway, there I was, making a really cool author page on Goodreads and pimping my pro pic, as we say in the social networking biz, when I did it... I randomly looked at a recent review a Goodreads person had written about In the Path of Falling Objects. [Side note: not that the overall review scores on my books are bad, as you can see from the very bottom widgets in the lower right on this blog...] But I went right to a three-star score, which, to me, is like a "C," a grade that, if my children ever brought home on a report card would result in their not being fed. And this random reviewer had the following line about my book:

"I limit authors to one animal killing per book (not three)...."

And, I'm, like, wow. A regular Gandhi. I guess the reviewer would never have made it through Moby Dick with a limit like that. And then I was, like, trying to count how many animals actually die in In the Path of Falling Objects, and I figured that the reviewer didn't count scorpions that get stomped on as animals, and probably didn't count the mentions of things like the innocent kids who got killed in Vietnam, either.

Well, the reviewer did go on to say:

I was shocked when I made the connection that this is the same author as GHOST MEDICINE. This book is very different! There are some great lessons of brotherhood in this book, but I was just too stressed on this bumpy ride.


Exclamation point.

Just sayin'.

Gah. I get so depressed whenever I read reviews on boards like this. I just can't do it any more. [Maybe that should be my Facebook status update...] We'll see how long I let this account remain active.

I wish Nick would come back.

The great big giant me is pretty pathetic.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

stranger than

First off, let me tell you how much I admire Lewis Buzbee, both as an author and a friend.

A lot.

There's this weird, almost unexplainable thing that connects us, too. Except for the fact that he's a Giants fan and I like the Dodgers. [Side note: For some reason, saying that I like the Dodgers inspires more mean comments than saying I like Octavio Paz, or that first drafts are final drafts when I write. *Shrug*]

The same month that my debut novel, Ghost Medicine came out, Lewis's Steinbeck's Ghost came out. So, it was kind of weird that we both had "ghost" novels coming out the same month, and that both of them had strong connections to California.

And this year, we both have novels coming out in the same month again: November. I'll have The Marbury Lens, and Lewis has The Haunting of Charles Dickens.

Okay. Enough backstory. We both received advance copies of our books. Lewis read mine, and I am currently just about finished with his [I plan on writing about the book later in the coming week]. So, I got this very nice email from my friend, and, in it, he said: "When you get around to Dickens, see if you can spot the two serendipities between our two new books. One is big, one is small."

By that, I guess, he meant coincidental connections, or something. But, I have to say that I was totally blown away by these weird -- very weird -- coincidences between our two books. Oh, they have nothing significant to do with the plots, there are just some really creepy, weird similarities -- patterns -- in certain small elements.

Maybe they're only something that writers would notice. I mean, after all, we are both so intimately aware of the words we wrote. But there is something else there, too, and I think it all goes back to this idea of some kind of collective unconscious -- that we were both tapping in to some weird, unspoken message that was out there when we were writing our books. We certainly never talked about them to one another during the process, but these "little things," to me, are really... well... creepy.

And Lewis, there are lots more than two. It's kind of like the Kennedy-Lincoln coincidences between us, except Lewis and I are both alive, and I think that Kennedy and Lincoln were both loyal Dodger fans.

But there is something weird out there, and I'm convinced of it.

All I can say is you should read both books this November, and maybe Lewis and I will conduct some kind of see-how-many-weird-coincidences-you-can-spot contest.

Eh. Who knows? Maybe it's just me. Maybe I am crazy.

And speaking of writers whom I admire, you may want to check out S.A. Bodeen's blog about The Marbury Lens, "Mind the Gap".

I am very flattered, and, thank you.