Sunday, January 31, 2010

slush pups (5)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I am completely stuck.

Mr. Smith makes it sound so easy, but I am totally jammed and everything I try to write sounds completely boring and pointless.

I guess this is what people call Writer's Block, but Mr. Smith insists that it doesn't exist. He should be inside my empty head, then he'd change his mind.

And I know that, technically, my mom told me I couldn't go up there, especially after what happened to her Volvo, but we still have a perfectly good Infinity, so I drove up to the mountains yesterday to try to track Mr. Smith down, even though I knew I shouldn't be bothering him while he is unwriting. But I couldn't think of any possible way to solve my problem.

And even driving up there in the daytime, like, totally creeps me out. Where Mr. Smith lives is kind of like a more paranoid version of where those kids got killed in Blair Witch Project. I even took out my 3GS iPhone and filmed a closeup of my face as I drove Mom's G37 on the mountain road, saying "I'm so scared," but then I wasn't paying attention to the curves and almost hit a homeless guy. Well, he might have been homeless, or he might have been one of the Druids from last week. Everyone who lives up where Mr. Smith does looks homeless, anyway.

When I got to his house, it was all quiet, but I had a feeling Mr. Smith was there. So I let myself in through his gate and walked around the back of his property. His horses lined up at their fence. They looked like they wanted to eat me; blow more snot on me at the very least. But I was not about to get close to them. Sweater. Cashmere blend. Not going to happen.

It turned out Mr. Smith was unwriting by reading, sitting in a sauna house below his home. I found this out when he cracked open the door and said I was lucky it was daytime because he almost shot me.

I wondered if it was safe to keep firearms inside a sauna.

I sat outside, though, and talked to him through the door while clouds of steam leaked out around it.

Mr. Smith said that sitting in a sauna is a good way to clear your head and think about what you're writing. He said it was almost hallucinogenic, which is why the Native Americans built sweat lodges, only they knew how to do it without actually murdering people.

But I wasn't about to get in any sauna. I have unusually small pores, and if I sweat it makes me faint.

So, while he sat in there, Mr. Smith gave me some of his ideas about Writer's Block, and what I could do if I was suffering from this "imaginary affliction."

And I'm going to write about those ideas on my next post.

-- Nick S.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

slush pups (4)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Yesterday, Mr. Smith told us about what happens to him when he has to revise something he's written. He said everyone who writes will revise their work, and that we'd even still want to revise it, even after it's too late.

Mr. Smith said that a lot of writers beat themselves (or anyone they can get their hands on) up when it comes to revising, but that he really likes that part of the work. Maybe he was just trying to make us feel good about ourselves, even though I've known him for a few weeks now and he doesn't seem like the kind of person who would ever say something untrue just to make you feel good.

And, anyway, I was feeling kind of down because after the things he told us on the first couple days, there were already kids submitting stuff to him to look over -- kids who didn't think they'd be able to write anything at all, but said that after the way Mr. Smith told us how to approach the beginning of a story, they just couldn't stop themselves from writing.

So Mr. Smith told us about this psychologist named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who has this five-step process for coming to terms with death. Mr. Smith said that getting a revision letter from your editor is kind of like dealing with death: you can always count on it coming, but knowing that doesn't make it any easier. Kubler-Ross's five steps of dealing with death are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Mr. Smith wrote a paper for other writers about the "Five Steps of Revising," but he said he'd have to tone it down for us, because he used swear words in it for grown-ups, and you know how Mr. Smith feels about swear words.

So, I wrote down what he listed as his Five Steps of Revising, even though, like I said, he talks really fast and he scatters his thoughts all over the place before finding his way back to the point. But here's what I got:

Stage One: "Skimming"

Skimming is the first thing that happens when a writer receives revision comments. Mr. Smith says that, at first, we'll refuse to sit down and actually read the entirety of the comments and questions, because we're going to convince ourselves ahead of time that he's going to say "this is perfect. You are a god." Mr. Smith said skimming is a form of denial.

Stage Two: "Somebody is stupid, and it isn't me"

Mr. Smith said stage 2 happens when we actually read what is written to us. It's the same as Kubler-Ross's "Anger," because we'll probably think he just doesn't "get it" and he's totally stupid. Mr. Smith said he doesn't mind if we think bad thoughts about him at this point, and that a lot of writers give up at stage 2, but he knew we wouldn't because he already told us this was normal and we'd get through it.

Side note about Mr. Smith: I don't think he ever gets mad about anything.

Stage Three: "Postponing"

Mr. Smith said that it's normal for writers to try postponing their deadlines, and that he knows some pretty ridiculous ways writers have pulled off getting extensions in the past. But, he swore that he had never in his life run up to a deadline, and that there was no way for us to get around his deadlines for us. This makes me nervous, because he wants something from me by next Friday, the 5th of February. Anyway, Mr. Smith said, this is the same as the "Bargaining" stage in Kubler-Ross's model.

Stage Four: "Depression"

Yes, this stage is the same as stage 4 in accepting death. Mr. Smith said that when we finally get down to work on our revisions, it's going to be because we realize that the thing isn't going to write itself and we promised ourselves that we would work through this process with him. Then, he said, once we start working, we will usually get stuck on the first sentence for hours or days, and keep flipping through the back pages, wondering how we will ever be able to put it all together.

Stage Five: "The Revelation"

Mr. Smith told us it all boils down to this: at stage 5, we will realize that we have done something far better than we could have done in isolation, and if we keep in mind that this is the reward at the end, it will make it easier for us to get through the first four, painful, steps in the process.

After that, because it was Friday, Mr. Smith dismissed us so he could say swear words in private.

-- Nick S.

Friday, January 29, 2010

slush pups (3)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Yesterday, we talked about getting started on things.

A lot of the kids knew they really wanted to write, but didn't have any idea what to write about. That's because we were too used to writing about things we are required to write about.

Mr. Smith said that's one of the ways schools makes you hate writing. That's especially true for boys, he said, because boys need to make their own choices in most things or they'll fight you.

For the boys who were stuck, Mr. Smith told us to just think about something very general -- an atmosphere, a mood, or even a memory that was really vivid -- that we may want to tell a story about. Then he read us some opening sentences that he thought were particularly good, and he said to us: "What kinds of questions come into your mind about the rest of this story? How do you think this story will play out?"

He even read us the first sentences of his next book, The Marbury Lens, and asked us to tell him the rest of the story -- from just these two sentences:

I guess in the old days, in other places, boys like me usually ended up twisting and kicking in the empty air beneath gallows. It’s no wonder I became a monster, too.

We all had guesses, and he thought they were terrific stories, but they were all wrong, too.

So Mr. Smith told us to spend some time thinking about that atmosphere thing and then let an opening sentence or two come to us. Then he said that he would ask us questions that he'd like us to answer if he was a reader.

He told us to not stress about it, but that we should relax and let things sit in our heads for a while. Mr. Smith says that a lot of writing is letting things sit in your head until they're ready to come out, and the trick is not to stress about it.

This is the way that writing evolves, he said, and it's the way that the writer grows. He said the big difference between school writing and what he calls "real writing" is that when you're in school, there is no growth in the writer or the work -- you do it, hand it in, get a grade, and move on. But in "real writing," the writer, his work, and his coach all work together and things change and grow along the way.

It's kind of a weird concept for me to grasp after eleven years of school writing, but I'm going to let it happen and see what I can get from it.

At least I feel like giving it a shot.

-- Nick S.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

slush pups (2)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

On the first day, Mr. Smith told us that we had to forget everything anyone told us that we must always or never do as writers.

He said there were only four things we had to do:

1. Spelling.

2. Grammar.

3. Have a killer first line.

4. Get over ourselves.

I understood what he meant by the first three things, especially because Mr. Smith read us some of his favorite opening lines from all kinds of different pieces of literature. A lot of them were really short and punchy, but some of them were long and sounded like poetry, but I think we all got what he was trying to show us about the first line, especially because all of the stuff we're going to be doing is pretty short, anyway.

But it made me think about how some writers must really spend a lot of time thinking about the exact words they want to use.

The last part, though, the "getting over ourselves" rule confused most of us, so Mr. Smith had to explain.

He said that the only time when something you write is part of you is before anybody else reads it. Mr. Smith said, once you write something and hand it over to someone else, it's like the umbilical cord has been cut and the thing has to either get up and travel with the herd or be torn apart by predators.

He said if we can face cutting the cord, then we can help what we write get legs and move forward.

Mr. Smith said that a lot of people who write won't let their "babies" try to grow up on their own. He said people like that can't get over themselves, because when they work with editors who try to help them make their work stronger, they take everything that's being said as some kind of personal attack -- like calling your baby ugly or something.

That's what he meant by "getting over ourselves." He said for a lot of people, this is hard to do because everything most people think they "learn" about writing happens at school, where letter grades tell you whether or not your baby is ugly, and there's almost no chance for your work, or you as a student, to evolve.

This is really different, but I think I like the way he looks at things.

-- Nick S.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

slush pups

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Mr. Smith told me to take over the blog, along with his assistant, Drew, for a few days while Mr. Smith unwrites his brain.

He said he wanted me to do this so I could talk about, and maybe keep a running journal on, this new plan of his.

He started this Young Writers' Group with high school kids to help them learn how to be writers. Except we don't have to get up at 3 A.M., and we don't have to go to his house, either, which is okay with me because I am totally afraid of his horses and neighbors, and, besides, I am not allowed to go there by my mom any more.

Mr. Smith says that high school doesn't really teach kids anything about writing. I tried to write down what he said, but he talks so fast and he rambles, and he laughs at his own jokes, too. But he said something like high school only teaches kids how to "fit in, regurgitate, and crank out Jane Shaffer chunks of poop that don't mean anything."

He said that schools make kids hate to write.

So he's going to let us write anything we want to.


So, I'm eager to try this group out because I think I would like to swear. I've never done it before, but the thought kind of excites me.

Mr. Smith's idea has a couple of purposes. First, as a well-known advocate of what schools have done to turn boys away from reading and writing, he says he's trying to get about ten boys from high school to join the young writers' group. Looks like he's got a few more than that, but that's okay with him.

Second, Mr. Smith is teaching kids about what being a writer is all about. It's NOTHING like what they have us do in school, he says -- formulaic, meaningless, chunk paragraph nonsense. Mr. Smith is teaching kids about working with an editor; and editors in real life do not grade, correct, and change things... they are more like coaches. We work back and forth, together, with Mr. Smith asking questions and having us writers consider what a reader would want from our work... and as a team, we come up with our best work. That's what editors do in real life, according to Mr. Smith.

When he's finished, he's going to make all us boys enter a writing contest. Oh... he's helping girls, too. Mr. Smith said that, unlike education in general, he would never discriminate unfairly on the basis of gender. He also promised that he would give a prize, personally, to every kid who sticks with the program all the way through from first draft through final revisions and submissions.

So, I'm along for the ride, and I'll keep updating the progress of the group, who's in it, and what we're working on.

And I plan on winning this writing contest, too.

--Nick S.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

the turnover

I'm going to be turning the blog over to Drew and Nick Sweeney, the kid who job-shadowed me, for a few days as I delve deeper into the process of unwriting.

A couple years ago, I read this book that I thought was absolutely brilliant -- a masterpiece on so many levels -- that was roundly bashed by many critics. In it, there is a character named Marianne, a sculptor, who has this belief that she has all these hearts in her, and that every time she creates a sculpture, she gives it one of her hearts. And when her last heart is gone... well... you know what happens to Marianne.

I feel like writing rips something out of me, too. But, unlike Marianne, I can put it back. Or, at least, I hope I can, by unwriting. If my theory is wrong, then I probably only have about one more book and a couple irate and drunken Facebook posts before I implode and die. So let's hope this works and that Nick and Drew don't drive my readership away.

And, speaking of reading things a couple years ago... Back in, I think, 2007, I received a package of galleys -- Advance Reader Copies -- of books that were coming out the following spring. Among them was S.A. Bodeen's The Compound. My son zeroed in, swooped down, and stole it. Just like that.

And he walked around, reading it nonstop, for the next 24 hours. He even audibly gasped when he got near the end of the book.

Well, back in November, I asked for an Advance Copy of Bodeen's next YA novel, The Gardener, but this time, I was prepared for the boy. I knew I couldn't read (I don't allow myself to read when I'm writing, and I was working on my latest "sculpture" -- ripping my heart out), so I hid the book in my garage.

I took The Gardener out of the garage on Sunday afternoon and finished reading it yesterday morning.

I want to use a bad word.

I want to use an exclamation point. But I have done neither on my blog since the beginning of 2010.

So let me just say wow.

What a (I also no longer use the word awesome) great book for fans of tight, suspenseful YA -- especially boy readers. Yes... I'd give this one a very high rating for boys age 11 and up.

The Gardener is a creepy sci-fi in the best tradition of The Twilight Zone, or maybe a little more grown-up, edgier Goosebumps. What I liked is that it's so fresh and original: a sci-fi without robots, space travel, or evil machines that take over the planet. And it's slick, suspenseful, and such a fun ride that keeps you hanging on until the end -- which has some interesting surprises.

Oh... and the other thing, The Gardener ambles into the subject of man's imprint on the environment, on the idea that once choices are made, we're stuck with them and might have to ride out a negative tide of consequences.

But, guess what?

The Gardener is. not. preachy.

It leaves a lot of questions in the mind of the reader, not a lot of moralistic condemnations of the species Homo Sapiens.

Nice and refreshing, for a change.

I like this book. A lot.

It comes out in June. A great book for kids on summer vacation.

Monday, January 25, 2010

begins the week

Monday is like a prologue.

I'm told that many people, when reading a book, will skip anything that's labeled "prologue" and just dive right into the log part. Is this true? Seems like a crackpot approach to reading a book, if you ask me.

I think I've put a prologue on just about every novel I've written. In Ghost Medicine and Winger, it even says prologue before them. In The Marbury Lens and in the path of falling objects -- and even in the book I just finished writing whose title I will not yet reveal, there are prologues that are not labeled as such, but there are bits of text preceding the opening chapters of those books. You can call that element whatever you'd like -- call those passages "Mondays" if you're inclined -- but just like the day in the week, you can't skip it, or you'll miss out on one-seventh of your life.

Anyway, the prevailing "conventional wisdom" out there (you know, the people who say show, don't tell and you have to have a thick skin) seems to be opposed to the inclusion of prologues in the modern novel.

And I just wonder about this.

I mention this because yesterday I picked up S.A. Bodeen's forthcoming The Gardener, which has one hell of a gripping prologue. I'm about halfway into the novel right now, so I'm not going to say anything else about the book until I finish reading it today.

But you know me... I would never so much as hint at titles and authors on this blog unless I like the book.

Happy prologue day.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

truth and dare

One of the reasons I prefer good fiction to nonfiction is this: I believe that all truths can be found in fiction, but that nonfiction contains a lot of camouflaged lies.

With fiction, you know what you're getting, and you know you're going to have to work at peeling away the author's embellishments and biases, but nonfiction tends to lull you into the complacency of acceptance. And, unless you're a book reviewer, working on a school assignment, or a talk show host, most people wouldn't ever pick up a work of nonfiction written by an author they believe is a fraud -- so there's already a preexisting acceptance of what's being told among a large part of the audience.

Which reminds me of another comment I received a few weeks back, from author Tabitha Suzuma. I had written how many authors, when giving advice to aspiring writers, repeat without thinking this meaningless, self-contradictory mantra: You have to have a thick skin to be a writer. Tabitha brought up another, probably one of the most over-repeated bits of writerly advice: Show, don't tell.

But, if you ask a writer what they mean by that, um... they, like... drift off into the kingdom of the clueless. It's hard to put into exact words the distinction between "showing" and "telling," because, after all, we're using written words as our medium of conveyance, and written words can only tell, unless you're describing font styles or something.

I think the definition of the "show, don't tell" admonition is kind of like the definition of porn: you know it when you see it (in which case it's showing you that it's telling and not showing). Which is all very confusing, and Zen-like at the same time.

Oh, but let me tell you: I have found the BEST novel that I use when I teach young writers the difference between telling and showing, because this novel is clearly tell, tell, tell -- truly a masterpiece of what NOT to do as a writer (unless your goal is to show how crappy you are). And it's selling very well, by the way (a 2009 release that I laughed my way through... unfortunately, wasn't supposed to be funny).

Eh. Shrug.

Oh well... I am taking the time to enjoy my phase of unwriting at the moment, which means I finally GET TO READ again. Today, I am starting right in to a book that's soon to be released, The Gardener, by S.A. Bodeen.

Ahhhh.... unwriting.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

the (un)reliable narrator (part 1)

One of the things I hear most frequently from readers is a comment that goes something like this: It's really hard to figure out if you're telling the truth or not.

I never specifically answer that comment beyond shrugging and saying something like, "All you have to go on are the words."

So I've been meaning to write for a while on the reliability of narrators, and, maybe a little bit about why I prefer fiction to nonfiction, both as a reader and a writer. Here goes.

I've turned in six (six!) completed novels to my editor since she first received Ghost Medicine, in, I think, 2005 (maybe 2006 -- I'm not good with dates), and every one has some element of the memoir to it. That is to say that every book I write always contains some real stories from my own life.

I even 'fess up to that in the acknowledgments of in the path of falling objects. But I am not the least bit interested in writing a memoir for a lot of reasons, the top of the list being that I simply don't want to tell everything about myself and the people I have known.

Okay. So along come my next two novels, both of which are told by narrators who will raise some suspicions, I think. In a little over a month, we'll be seeing advance reader copies of The Marbury Lens, a huge departure for me in the way the novel blends in elements of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, overlapping a contemporary story arc rooted in the here and now. The thing about this book is that its narrator, Jack Whitmore, is what we would call "unreliable," but since he's the one telling the story, you're going to have to come to some conclusions on your own (All you have to go on are the words). Because there is a distinct possibility that Jack is insane -- damaged by events in his past -- and that none of the things he "sees" are actually real.

I have every confidence readers will figure it out, though.

I will warn you, too, this is not your 8th-grade teacher's oh-I've-found-this-charming-young-adult-novel-about-a-teen-who-falls-in-love-with-a-ballerina-over-summer-vacation book. You'll see why.

And, next down the road, I have Winger, a funny and dark story about fitting in and the consequences of being an outcast. This one, also, has an unreliable narrator in fourteen-year-old Ryan Dean West, who has an excessively expansive imagination and sees hidden supernatural elements in most of life's occurrences. Again, since he's the one in charge of telling the story, all you can do is take his word for it that these things are actually evident. Not as challenging a task as figuring out Jack from The Marbury Lens, because Ryan Dean West frequently backtracks his story and admits when he's just making things up. In any event, though, Ryan Dean leaves enough "wiggle room" in his story to make you think that maybe there is actually something supernatural propelling the events he is witness to.

So, I like making people wonder about things like this, making them work for the truth when all they have to go on are the words of the narrative. And I will talk more about reliability, the truth, and finding it in fiction in upcoming posts.

Friday, January 22, 2010

the unwrite-cure


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Post-Observation Reflections

Subject/Occupation: Andrew Smith, Young Adult Novelist

Mr. Smith told me that his idea for unwriting was inspired by a twisted short story written by Hector Hugh Munro, called The Unrest-Cure. I haven't read the story myself. In fact, I've never heard of this Munro guy, but if Mr. Smith says I should read him, I guess I will.

I will add more on Mr. Smith's philosophy regarding unwriting.

I managed to salvage the memory card from my digital camera from being totally ruined by the seawater, and was able to extract only two photographs that I'd taken inside Mr. Smith's office.

I think they speak for themselves.

-- Nick S.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

the shadow assignment (part 5)


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Hours 7 - 36

Subject/Occupation: Andrew Smith, Young Adult Novelist

My mom is going to kill me.

What started out as my final four hours job-shadowing Young Adult Novelist Andrew Smith as he showed me how to unwrite has turned into a slow overnight trip through every ring of hell, and some that Dante didn't even know about.

I am sooooo going to be busted.

But I am not even going to detail everything that happened to me. I'm only going to list the things I learned in the last 26 -- yes twenty-six -- hours I spent with Mr. Smith as he began to, in his words, "re-create my soul after the destruction that writing a novel can do to it."

Here's what I learned:

1. You should never transport a live, free-range monkey inside your mom's brand-new Volvo.

2. All those cop shows on TV where they give you one free phone call after you get arrested are lying.

3. GPS systems do not function under water. Do not believe anyone who tells you about a government conspiracy to hide submarine highways to Atlantis.

4. Getting a tattoo doesn't hurt as much as most people say it does.

5. Gucci slacks do not make "bitchin'" cutoffs, even if you did tear the knee.

6. There is no official month known as "Manuary," and anyone who tells you there is is just trying to make you do stupid things.

7. Unwriting is the coolest part of writing.

8. I have never been more certain in my life that I want to be a writer.

9. But my mom is still going to kill me when I get home.

10. Isn't there a train station, or something, in Tijuana?

--Nick Sweeney

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

the shadow assignment (part 4)


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Hours 5 - 6

Subject/Occupation: Andrew Smith, Young Adult Novelist

7:15 AM -- My time with Mr. Smith was nearly half over, and he had been "writing," which, to him, included a bunch of other things that weren't actually producing words, for the entire time.

I always thought that being a writer meant that you just sat down and wrote, but Mr. Smith told me that being an author had a lot more "subtle requirements" as a profession.

7:45 AM -- When I started feeling a little sleepy, I put my earbuds in and turned on my iPod. I found out that Mr. Smith is not a big fan of iPods.

He said, "Nick, if you want Apple Computer, Incorporated to plug up every hole in your head, you'll never be a writer. Writers need their holes. Holes let things in. You know what doesn't have holes? Maggots."

Then he went back to his index-finger typing.

All I knew was that my nicest trousers had holes in them from trying to "jog" with Mr. Smith, I had dried horse snot on my left sleeve, and I was seriously considering a future in, maybe, the nursing profession. As long as I didn't have to touch anyone without gloves on.

Mr. Smith told me if I wanted to listen to music in his house, that I'd have to listen to it alongside another human being.

That kind of scared me, because I'd never done that before.

8:15 AM -- Mr. Smith told me I was there at a very fortunate time, because he was just, at that moment, finishing up two major projects.

The first, he explained, was a submission of all the things he questioned about the typeset pages of his novel that will be coming out later this year.

"I never know if these things are big deals or not. My obsessive attention to inconsequential details, like white space on a page, is, I think, an obstacle to me at times."

Like many of the things he said to me about writing, I didn't understand what he was talking about.

The second project he finished, while I sat there, was his sixth novel, which he refused to tell me the title of. He said he finished it days before, but kept agonizing over whether or not to include the final pages.

Ultimately, he decided to cut the last pages from the book.

I asked him what the pages were about, if I could read them, and he said, "Nick, I never let anybody read anything of mine before my agent or my editor. Not ever. You know why? Because it would make me crazy, that's why."

I puzzled over that last statement -- about making him crazy.

8:45 AM -- I watched as Mr. Smith uploaded and sent his latest novel to his agent via email. Then, he sent it to his editor.

He said, "Usually, the first thing I'll do when I send off a novel is I'll have a shot of whiskey, Nick. But, it's too early in the morning for that."

I was greatly relieved.

Then he said, "I'll wait until nine."

9:00 AM -- Mr. Smith told me that one of the most essential processes in being a writer was what he called unwriting, which, he said, was something that he absolutely had to do every time he finished writing a novel, but hadn't been able to do properly since he finished novel number four.

So, he told me, he had to do a double unwriting session, and I'd get to observe what that was like for the last four hours of my job shadow assignment.

In my fifth and sixth hours of observing Mr. Smith at work, I learned that writing and writers are scary, that people shouldn't plug up their holes with machinery, and that something called unwriting was probably going to get me in a lot of trouble.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

the shadow assignment (part 3)


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Hour 4

Subject/Occupation: Andrew Smith, Young Adult Novelist

6:15 AM -- Mr. Smith paused and looked up from his keyboard. I had been watching him "writing" for three hours, and it dawned on me that he only types with his index fingers. I asked him about it, and he said that when he was a kid and worked for newspapers, editors would never hire you if you were a male and typed with anything other than just your index fingers.

He said men who touch-typed back in the old days were kind of like men today who drink coffee with whipped cream and sprinkles, and multi-syllabic names that end in anything like the suffix "uh-cheeno."

He told me that back in the old days, he once knew a beat reporter who had lost one arm in Korea, and that writer only typed with just one finger on his left hand, and he still managed to produce fifty clean words of copy per minute.

Mr. Smith said, "Being a writer is a lot like being in Boot Camp, Nick. Except in Boot Camp, there are people who care about you if you die."

At last the sun was coming up. I had observed Mr. Smith now for four hours, and I found his occupation to be interesting, but, at the same time different (more repulsive) than I had imagined.

During the fourth hour of my job shadow observation of Mr. Smith, I learned that writing requires lightning-fast index fingers, and is not an occupation for sissies.

Monday, January 18, 2010

the shadow assignment (part 2)


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Hours 2 - 3

Subject/Occupation: Andrew Smith, Young Adult Novelist

4:15 AM -- Mr. Smith wrote constantly from the moment we were settled in his office. He had a peculiar method of writing, though. He flipped back-and-forth between projects: he would write a few paragraphs on his novel, then read a few pages from his galley, switch over to blogging, and sometimes he would look up maps or images or read newspaper stories on the internet.

Sometimes he would stop and put on one of his sock puppets (he has a box full of them) and take a picture of it with his computer's built-in camera. He also laughed, at times, for no apparent reason.

I was most surprised that he didn't curse. He told me that he never swore. Only in his writing. Swearing made him feel uncomfortable.

But he wasn't uncomfortable in his manner of dress. I should have mentioned, too, that from the first moment I saw him, at the Druid ritual with a gun and cup of coffee, that Mr. Smith was not wearing any pants. He was dressed only in a T-shirt, glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts with skulls on them, and socks (not even shoes).

So he clarified to me that the only jobs worth having don't have dress codes.

Anyway, he told me that 4:15 was time to put on pants and go outside, and that this was part of being a writer.

4:45 AM -- I was not prepared to be expected to feed Mr. Smith's three horses. I am afraid of animals, and I was wearing my nicest shoes. One of the horses sneezed on me or something. I couldn't tell because it was too dark and I thought I would throw up if I saw horse snot on my favorite Express shirt.

Mr. Smith told me that punctuating your writing routine with outdoor activities was essential, and then he said, "I hope you don't mind a couple-mile jog down by the lake."

He explained that was part of writing, too.

5:15 AM -- There are no streetlights at all where Mr. Smith lives. The only way I got my bearings was from the glowing embers that still smoldered from the Druid sacrifice. So, in trying to keep up with Mr. Smith, I fell down twice and ripped the knee of my trousers. I started to cry, but it was too dark for Mr. Smith to see it.

6:00 AM -- We made it back to Mr. Smith's office. I was sweaty, my eyes were puffy, my pants were torn and dirty, and I had horse snot down my left sleeve.

Mr. Smith sat back down at his desk and continued working on two or three things at once. Sometimes, he would check his email. He rarely read any of them, he just machine-gunned through his inbox by hitting the delete key.

Then he said, "Where are my manners? I'd bet you'd like some breakfast, huh, Nick?"

I was starving.

He said, "I'll be right back," and he went downstairs.

When he came back up he brought me a large cup of black coffee.

That's what writers have for breakfast.

By the time I had shadowed Mr. Smith for three hours, I realized that writing is physically strenuous, black coffee makes my stomach feel agitated, and that if you're going to be a writer, you should limit your wardrobe.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

the shadow assignment


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Hour 1

Subject/Occupation: Andrew Smith, Young Adult Novelist

3:00 -- Mr. Smith told me that I had to arrive at his home at 3:00 AM if I wanted to observe him at work. He said that was the time his work day began, and it would be when I'd see him at his most productive state.

This meant I had to leave my house just after midnight, because Mr. Smith lives in such a remote part of the mountains, and the only way I'd be able to find his place was with the GPS on my mom's Volvo.

Luckily, I described my car to Mr. Smith, because the GPS wasn't entirely accurate and it mistook the address he'd given me for a vacant lot at the edge of the lake he lives on, where a group of people who were apparently completely naked were burning something really big and running around in circles chanting in a language I was unfamiliar with.

Mr. Smith came down when he saw my Volvo pass his house. He was carrying a cup of coffee and a rather large, black, semiautomatic handgun.

Later, he explained that all writers who were worth anything always worked with coffee in one hand and a gun in the other.

I wondered how he wrote.

He said, "Don't mind the Druids, Nick. That's normal for up here. You should see the really crazy people."

He escorted me up to his house.

3:30 -- Mr. Smith gave me some coffee, but he wouldn't let me put any milk or sugar in it. He said that would creep him out too much, and I respectfully declined the whiskey he offered to "flavor it up."

We went upstairs to his office. I took some pictures of the office (Mr. Smith refused to allow me to photograph him), which I will submit with my complete report. Photographs are the only way to capture the environment in which Mr. Smith works. There are too many unrelated objects for the human eye to entirely observe. Among them: a human skeleton, four sharpened samurai swords, several bottles of whiskey and tequila (these are actually sitting on his desk, along with stacks of manuscripts, books, and audio CDs), a Wonder Woman action figure, a stick pony, statues of the Hindu deity Ganesha, radio controlled helicopters, four guitars, a mandolin... you get the idea.

When Smith sat down to work at his desk, he realized there was no other seat in his rather large office. The sofa was completely taken over by cardboard boxes full of books and manuscript pages. He cleared some away so I could sit down.

He had his computer running. He explained that he was simultaneously working on a new novel and proofreading the typeset galley pages of a novel to be released this year.

I was interested in the pages. Mr. Smith threw them down on the floor of his office. "I've thought about killing myself several times over these pages," Mr. Smith said. "This typesetting... gah!"

I looked at the pages.

I didn't know what he was talking about.

In my first hour of shadowing Mr. Smith, I learned that being a novelist requires patience and an even disposition.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

groundhog day

On Groundhog Day, February 2, a national effort begins annually to have high school students "job-shadow" people in careers students are interested in pursuing.

I heard from a friend yesterday that a high school student wanted to shadow her (she's an author), and watch her "work" for ten hours as part of this project. (I won't identify her unless she pops up in the comments... and then no holds are barred.)

Of course, she was mortified by the prospect.

But I think it's cool. High school kids never think about shadowing novelists. They're more interested in the high-glamor careers: firefighting, medicine, law, realty, hair and nail salons, and boxboys.

Of course, I can understand the reasons why most authors would be a bit reticent at the thought of being WATCHED by a high school kid for ten hours while you "worked:"

1. Authors tend to be introverted, misanthropic, private people. Most authors hate the idea of having their space invaded by strangers looking over their shoulders. That's why I have the no-coming-upstairs-when-I-am-working rule at my house.

2. How exciting could it be, anyway, sitting there for ten hours and just WATCHING an author type at a keyboard (or write on a notepad if they're the retro-scribes who --ugh!-- use pencils and pens)?

Well, let me tell you: I am all about excitement when I work. And there's a lot of interactivity -- audience participation, if you will -- so you can't possibly be bored. Besides, after the tragic accident with the gun, I need some extra sock puppet actors to really do my job properly.

And, although I will admit that I have a high propensity toward introversion, misanthropy, and value my privacy to a ridiculous degree, I can get over all these shortcomings if it means bettering the future of a young person and perpetuating the culture of authordom for succeeding generations.

That's how I roll.

So, National Job Shadow Coalition, I am here to serve.

Just tell the kid my day starts at 3 A.M.

(more on this to come...)

Friday, January 15, 2010


It's Friday.

There is something liberating about Fridays, especially ones that precede three-day weekends.

And I have a lot of work to do this weekend, so you'll have to excuse me until later on this afternoon, but I will be back.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

the last pages

I realize I've been a little disordered lately. I forgot to add one thing to last week's posts: I hate writing, too.

There are lots of consequences involved in writing. You have to be isolated, not just from people, but pretty much from the rest of the world. I don't care what you say, writing really is not "fun."

"Fun" is like going to the beach.

Then there's this three in the morning thing. What's that about?

If you're determined to be a writer, you may very well end up like me: wandering around for days in a kind of "black hole" state of consciousness. This is where I've been for about five days now. I keep writing and rewriting the same pages over and over, and they're the last pages of my newest book.

The last pages.

And I'm kind of disappointed at what one of the characters does to himself, even though I knew it was going to happen when the book first came into my head. I've written a number of rather lengthy novels at this point, and I'm still not sure where they came from. They just show up by themselves and I put the words down. And, for the moralists out there, I am not excusing any transgressions by claiming "the stories write themselves," as a means to insulate myself from criticism that:

1. sometimes bad things happen to good people, and,

2. sometimes good people make weak decisions.

Normally, I take a break between writing books, but this time I haven't. I've cranked out two completely unrelated books without letting myself "unwrite" for a while. I didn't really have a choice (but I am not under the pressure of any external deadlines, either), and this is one of the things that makes writing not fun.

And, man, I know I'm hard to live with when I do this, so I have to hand it to my wife, kids, and friends, because writing tends to spread its un-fun-ness like a bad smell out on the general population.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

the preacher

Economists refer to human beings as "rational maximizers," meaning they make the choices they do because the trade-offs involved provide them with more than what they're giving up.

Even insane people, whose behavior appears to be irrational, make cost-benefit calculations -- however skewed their reasoning may be -- before doing their crazy stuff.

This is what I don't like about "preachy" YA: the characters (usually the good guys, but frequently the bad guys, too) don't behave like human beings, and their motivations for doing the things they do -- whether altruistic or sinister, and frequently "selfless" -- simply do not fit into the category of rational human wants.

Read any preachy books lately? I sure have.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

the kid out there

Yesterday, Michael Grant commented that he thought at some point I should write a book on writing for kids. And, I think it's a great idea. As a matter of fact, I am going to be working in the next few months with a group of young writers in a workshop aimed at helping them to develop their technique and voice. I'll keep you all posted on how they do.

In the coming week, too, I'm going to put up some posts directly aimed at kids and writing, and some ideas for them, as well as for their coaches.

But, having spent the first weeks of the year concentrating on YA, I found myself thinking quite a bit about some of the comments that have been posted all over the blogosphere about the things I'd written; and, in particular, I kept recalling this questioner who sat in the audience at a San Francisco panel I was on with authors Barry Lyga, Sara Zarr, L.K. Madigan, and Allen Zadoff.

The YA in the audience asked a question that went something like this: Aren't you all just a little too old to be writing books about young people? Doesn't what you say end up coming off as a little out-of-touch, and a little too preachy?

Well, I'd written in previous posts about the value of experience... of living things firsthand, as opposed to watching them on a monitor. But also, I think that time and distance give you a better perspective, sometimes, to evaluate the gravity -- or sometimes the no-big-deal-ness -- of most situations.

Can YA come off as being condescending and preachy? Definitely. And those are the kinds of works I try to avoid reading, or, if I do, make fun of in very private conversations with only my closest friends.

More on preachy, condescending YA coming up.

Monday, January 11, 2010

ya wanna write? (5)

Fifth Bullet: What time is it?

Here in my special writing office, it's about 3:00.

In the morning.

In fact, that's when my days generally begin, and my days begin with writing. Every day.

Look, if you want to ever be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously and realize that doing anything well, whether it's building a house, cooking breakfast, or writing novels, requires some degree of discipline and planning. Novels don't write themselves, and the writing part is the job part.

So, anyone who's task-oriented and disciplined can write a book. Anyone. It probably won't be a good one, but it can be done. I see a lot of task-oriented, disciplined works being produced across all genres these days. Not particularly good ones, but they're books.

Because anyone can learn to be a decent writer, especially in terms of the mechanics and technique of writing, if you stick to it and apply yourself. Occasionally, rarely, some writers will come along who possess so much innate talent that they just do it. Kind of like what Michael Grant commented yesterday.

He has a kind of opposite view on the thick skin/thin skin debate, but I like having no-nonsense, straightforward friends like Michael who make cutting through all the B.S. seem so easy. So, thanks for your, as usual, brilliant and funny comment, Michael.

It made me cry, though.

I'm a thin-skinned wuss.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

ya wanna write? (4.1)

Okay. Back to the fourth bullet. But I'm still in a bad mood. The whole Arizona experience (minus the bookstore gig, which was great), coupled with the fact that Drew tends to overly personalize irate comments from insulated shut-ins with laptops, was a big letdown.

I know. Hard to imagine Arizona not living up to what one would expect. Hey... am I allowed to say that -- even if I confess that I have lots of family here? Will the entire State of Arizona leave comments on my blog?

You are stupid, and here's my website where you can buy Viagra -- signed, Sedona.

Not all YA is about vampires. You are stupid. I read a book, one time, about a boy and a dragon, and there weren't vampires in it. So there, dumb stupid dummy. -- signed, Flagstaff.

I'm goin' kick yo ass -- signed, The Grand Canyon.

But I will save it all. And one day, I will write about some of this in a story.

I told myself things like that a lot of times when I was growing up. I held onto things, and I knew that one day I could exact a cruel and scathing revenge by writing about them.

Like the time a sheriff's deputy got all up in my face, threatening to take me to jail, because I'd caught his son burglarizing a neighbor's house. Yep, if you're one of, like, the twelve people out there who's read Ghost Medicine, that confrontation between the deputy and Troy Stotts, the main character, was nearly a word-for-word replay of something that happened -- pretty much exactly like that -- to me.

And I always told myself I'd write a story about taking a road trip with a life-size tin statue of Don Quixote, too. Because I really did that, as well (that's from in the path of falling objects).

And I'm nowhere near purging my head of all these things I've been saving up, either. This should probably make some of the people who've known me cringe.

Like the three cowboy-hat-wearing-Bud-Lite-drinking-open-casting-call-for-Marlboro-Man-2010:-The-Movie dudes who were going to KILL Drew on Friday night.


In Arizona.

Drew gets me in trouble a lot.

One last thing that kind of digresses from the fourth bullet, kid, but it's a fitting addition to this series. I've said this on my blog before, too, but I figure there still might be three or four people out there who haven't gotten pissed off at me, yet... so I'm going to shoot the moon.

Yesterday, at the bookstore gig, they asked every author (um... except me. I get skipped over a lot. I think, at times, I do have invisibility powers, although the only way I've devised to test them would probably get me arrested. Not to worry. I'll write about it one day)... yeah, EVERY AUTHOR, except for Drew, to give advice to young people who aspired to write. One author, predictably enough (who was NOT named Drew, because Drew was the only author who wasn't asked) blabbered out something I hear writers say over and over and over again. They say it so much that I don't think a lot of them really know what it means. They say it like speaking in tongues, like it's an automatic reflex -- a sneeze, a burp, that all writers (except Drew, who was NOT ASKED) regurgitate autonomically. This is the saying:

You have to have a thick skin.

That's deeply creepy, in a Hannibal Lecteresque way.

It rubs the concrete on its skin.

And this is also a fitting conclusion to bullet four, considering the battering Drew's psyche has endured these past three days.


A thick skin is exactly the opposite of what you need to be a good writer. You NEED to feel everything, let it get inside you, swim around in your soul, eat you, tear at you, elevate you, and placate you -- or else everything you write about will be untrue, or just the black, scabby discs of flattened chewing gum you can pry off your concrete exoskeleton.

Coming up, the fifth bullet.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

ya wanna write? (4)

"Here are five bullets for the boys on the boat.

Here is one more for the saint."

Fourth Bullet: Don't listen. Hear.

And record.

Use your observations as a savings account you can withdraw from later on when you need to.

I think the "Don't listen. Hear." admonition is particularly appropriate for some of the comment posters on my YI H8 YA series, as well as on some of the other blog sites that have been running the Did you hear what this guy "Andrew Smith" said??? torrents.

Um... well, no, apparently they didn't hear what I was saying.

It's a bit distracting, and Drew desperately wants to be released from his cage.

So, I can't do this today.

Yeah... I'm a puss.

I'll be back with the fourth bullet, maybe tomorrow.

Friday, January 8, 2010

ya wanna write? (3)

Third Bullet: Work.

There's a lot to do with writing at work. To begin with, when you go out in the world looking for your first job, you're going to have to fill out an application. No big deal, right? But there's something there that most kids don't realize: writing is your face.

Your prospective employer is going to take that stack of job apps and make two piles: one where the applicants could write, and fill in the information requested, and the "other" pile.

Which pile contains the application of the kid who gets the job?

In this day and age, writing is your face -- more than ever before. You do so much communication with people via writing on the internet, social networking sites, email, texting, and much of the time, the person on the receiving end has no idea who you are as a person, what you look like, what your attitude is. So they have to size you up based on your writing. A lot of times, their conclusions about you are going to be wrong, kid, but whose fault is that?

As much as you may stamp your foot and stubbornly resist the idea, there is NO JOB in the world where the guy who can write well isn't going to have an advantage over the guy who can't.

So, work at writing, and when you do work, make your writing be your face.

When I was in college, and shortly after, I had a couple of gigs as a writer. I wrote for a small newspaper, and, after that, spent a few years writing for a radio station. These jobs really forced me to sharpen up on the technical aspects of writing, and there was no way you could hold onto these jobs if you couldn't write.

Growing up, I always wanted to be a writer, but these first jobs woke me up to some pretty harsh realities that I didn't foresee in my romanticized dreams. They were boring. Sure, I was being a writer, and I can still remember how exciting it was the first time my name appeared on a byline on the AP Wire from a (very local) story I'd been covering about toxic waste.

But, generally, my job involved reporting on City Council meetings, writing copy for traffic reports (sometimes going on air), writing PSAs (those are "Public Service Announcements") and crafting boring Press Releases into modestly less-boring news stories.

It was all good practice, but it still wasn't the kind of writing I wanted to do, so I was unhappy. But I got pretty good at hammering clean copy out. And then, the day of my "big break" came at the radio station.

It was Christmas Eve (honestly), a long, long time ago.

Of course none of the "important" people in radio want to work on Christmas Day, so the "Big Boss" asked me if I wanted to do the morning shift. Live. On Air. Just me.

Well, just me and the creepy engineer guy who made sure nobody got electrocuted and that you could hear our station on the other side of the freakin' planet. But it was my "big break, kid," and I was like, yeah... cool.

Okay, well, I went home that afternoon, and I was kind of planning out in my mind the things I was going to do on the great big ME show, and the phone rang. It was one of my best friends. This, quite honestly, was how the conversation went (oh... keep in mind that I was very young and very single at the time):


ME: What?

FRIEND: Dude, let's go on a road trip tomorrow.

ME: Tomorrow? Tomorrow's Christmas.

FRIEND: I'm a Jew, dummy.

ME: I know that.


ME: Hmm... okay.

Then I called up the "Big Boss" and quit the radio station.

And I went on a road trip that started on Christmas with my buddy, a Jew. And I swore to myself that one of these days, I'm going to write about this in a novel...

Which, kind of, brings me up to the fourth bullet.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

ya wanna write? (2)

"Here are five bullets for the boys on the boat.

Here is one more for the saint."

Second Bullet: Study. I know that sounds unpleasant, but... study.

If you're going to be a chef, you probably need to know what food tastes like. If you want to be a writer, you're going to have to read.

I know this is ridiculous, but I've met an awful lot of people (young and "very adult") who want to be writers, but do not read. It's not even that they don't like reading... they just don't read anything.

I don't know. Maybe they have this image conjured up about how we writers live: you know... the nonstop partying, the wild book tours, and the groupies... God!, they're everywhere.

Well, all that's true, but you can't have those cherished perks unless you've got a solid background as a reader.

Text messages do not count as reading.

Neither do textbooks.

Hear that teachers and schools? Nothing turns kids off to reading like a nice fat textbook. I don't even know why they exist. Nobody reads them. Give a kid a textbook, and it's like saying, here kid, carry this around for the next nine months, it may increase your upper body strength, because, God knows, you're not going to read it.

You have to find your reading.

It's out there, kid, so don't be a wimp and give up on the hunt because it doesn't jump off the shelf and hit you in the face.

If you are very lucky, you might have a parent, a teacher, librarian, (usually independent) bookseller, or even a friend who knows this secret about reading (that you have to find it) and will be your hunting partner.

That's a pretty cool relationship to have with someone.

And, when you read, you have to really read. You have to pay attention to the details: what makes a paragraph, how the author uses punctuation, spelling, and grammar. There are lots of different techniques out there, and not one of them is absolutely, infallibly, correct.

But "Study" also means this: (and remember, you said you want to be a writer, and I'm just trying to make it easier for you) When you are in high school, you will need to find the person who is willing to look at your writing (even if it's just a paragraph response to an open-ended prompt -- it doesn't have to be anything fancy), who has the time for you, and the ability to do this, and make you work to improve your technique (Remember, the voice part comes later on in life). Hint: this person is not always an English teacher. Go ahead, English teachers out there... let me have it. I know this is a lame defense -- in fact, I'm not even trying to defend myself -- but I have an awful lot of friends who are English teachers. The truth is, a lot of them can't write. (A lot of them don't read, either, but don't tell anyone). But that person who can help you is there. Every high school usually has a few of them.

After high school, it means you're going to have to NOT AVOID taking classes where you must write with execution and technique. These types of courses cut across all disciplines, and they're usually going to be the ones your friends (you know, the guys you hang out with who can't understand why you like to read and write) will tell you to never take.

This first part of the journey -- like learning how to become a chef -- deals with the technical foundation of writing. It's nuts and bolts stuff, but it's really easy to steer yourself away from and still come out of high school with a record that gives some kind of false testimony to your scholarly achievements. And, more and more as we've dumbed down the masses to a collective blob of children that has "Not Been Left Behind" (and we can prove it because they can navigate through a TV Guide), high schools are willing to let you not get left behind and do exactly that.

So you're going to have to work a bit, kid. And that brings me up to the third bullet.

No one said it was going to be easy, kid, but if you can't swallow these first couple bullets, give up now.

This is the easy part.

[Author's Note: Tomorrow, I am catching a very early flight to Arizona for the weekend, where I will be appearing at "YAllapalooza" at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix with fellow authors Blake Nelson, Carol Snow, Cecil Castellucci, and Mark Williams. But I still have a few more bullets left for you, and I will not disappoint. Just the posting times may be a bit delayed]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

ya wanna write?

"Here are five bullets for the boys on the boat.

Here is one more for the saint."

Those are two of my favorite lines from the last book I wrote. I realize they don't make any sense just floating out there without contextual anchors, but I just really like the way they have a kind of rhythm and they also paint a vivid, if undefined, picture of something.

So. Here we go. I'm going to lay it on the line, kid. Five bullets. This is something I've been thinking about for a long time, and I may as well try to get it out.

I'm writing today, as I said before, to give an answer to all those great kids I've met in the past couple of years who've asked me to tell them what they need to do to become writers. So, these are my five bullets to being a writer.

One thing up front, though: If you are a (published) writer, and you're reading this, keep in mind that this is NOT about you. If you think I'm wrong and my advice sucks, that's fine with me. Go ahead and comment.

First Bullet: Be patient. There are two key ingredients to being a decent writer: the technical ability, and the voice. Young people can acquire technical ability if they work on it, but voice is usually something that comes with age and experience. Not always, but usually.

As far as the technical aspect is concerned, you simply must have a grasp of the basic fundamentals or nobody will ever take you seriously. Maybe it's that teachers have too many students nowadays, maybe the teachers themselves don't know (I do hear a LOT of math and science teachers whine, "But I'm NOT an English teacher." Um... yes you are, bonehead), but it's almost unbelievable to me how young people have lost their grasp of the distinction between words like your and you're; then and than -- ugh! the list is frustratingly long. When I went to school, we used to drill those things all the time. Kids were better technical writers then, too. Sigh. Today they make better collages, I think.

Also, kids, no, no NO... do not fool yourself into thinking that editors will fix those things. If something comes in to an editor's inbox and it is instantly clear that the writer can't make these basic technical distinctions, it will be shredded. Maybe even laughed at and THEN shredded.

That said, typos are typos. Everyone makes those. We know typos when we see thme.

I'm going to give some advice on acquiring the technical elements coming up in some of the later bullets.

Now, as far as the second essential element, voice: This is kind of my motto, my sales pitch for living life, I frequently give kids who want to write.

Turn your TV off, step away from your computer, take your earbuds out, get out of your home and start bumping into stuff.

And take your time doing it. This is why so many young people who want to write, and maybe even attempt to write their first novel at, say, fifteen, write fantasy. Because they don't have any real-world experiences that they've been able to process through... so it's easier to write about a big war, elves, wizards, and maybe a dragon or two.

Now, I'm not knocking fantasy as a genre, but, come on kids. Get out there and live a little. Then come back and tell me a story.

Now, every so often, a kid will just happen along and blow you away with his chops and maturity -- the distinction of his voice -- as well as his technical abilities.

Kind of like guitarist Johnny Lang, when he was fourteen. It's like, damn, that kid can play. But, generally, you won't have that combination of technique and voice (execution) until you've done some bumping into stuff.

Maybe that's why I'd waited so long, despite having acquired my technical basics by having worked as a journalist and copy writer, before actually taking myself at least a little bit seriously as a novelist. And, over those couple decades, I'd bumped into stuff like this (none of which is recommended): been on an airplane that caught fire, been in an active war zone with explosions going off around me, watched several people die, had friends who'd been murdered, drifted around the world by myself with nothing but a backpack full of dirty clothes, been kidnapped, crossed borders illegally, hmmm... I'll leave the really bad stuff out.

But I bumped into stuff, and I'm here to talk about it. Or write about it.

Okay. So, speaking of bumping into stuff, I met this kid who happened to like my first book, and I took a look at some of the stuff he's written. Here's a little bit:

He’s shy, she says and they nod and smile. Being shy can be cute when you’re a kid. Everyone likes a polite young man. You’ve raised him well, he’s come a long way. But I’m keys jangling on a key chain, I’m coins rattling in someone’s pocket.

Now, keep in mind that this is a kid -- a young adult -- in high school. He's already got both things going for him: technique (as far as I know this did not pass through a professional editor, and I can't find any mistakes. Well... I'd probably use a semicolon after the word "chain," as opposed to a comma, but what do I know?), and he definitely has a voice that we don't see often at all in samples from that particular age group.

This kid could be on his way, and get there a lot quicker than most of us do.

I'm not nearly finished. I've got four more bullets to go.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

yi <3 ya (2)

Let me tell you again how much I <3 YA.

Text to YA: 831

I know. Sometimes I make myself sick.

There is this great task that goes along with writing for young people, and writing about young people's lives. It's more than a responsibility, I think. Because people who write about the young adult experience -- and these books will invariably end up in the hands of "adults of all ages" (to quote my friend, Ellen Hopkins) -- get to pass down everything we know, everything we have witnessed and experienced as we've passed those same milestones on the journey to adulthood.

And all of those things range from experiences that approach holiness in their beauty to those which present the most difficult challenges and harshest images of reality. It's all part of the experience of becoming an adult, and it's also why I feel so strongly about confronting issues and having the freedom and guts to put it all out there.

That's why I love YA.

And when I read a really great YA novel -- I mean a really great one -- I know that author feels this same sense of satisfaction with, at least, attempting to fulfill that task.

There are lots of good YA novels out there -- and a few of them are really great. But I don't make "Best Of" lists, and I don't review the works of other authors. That's not my job. I said what my job was a few paragraphs ago.

I love my job.

I love waking up every day, getting a cup of coffee, and sitting down to work on my projects (I have two of them going on at the moment). I even love the feeling of not knowing whether I'm completely insane -- and writing stuff that is absolute crap.

But because I kind of fell into this non-genre of YA, over the past few years I've become unintentionally connected to schools and Young Adult librarians all over the country. And I really love that.

From the kids in Pennsylvania who made a podcast discussion of one of my books, and the kids in Wisconsin who enjoyed my latest novel during their Teen Read Week celebration, and the dozens of schools and thousands of students I've visited here in California, it's all been one of the most powerful and rewarding experiences I could ever imagine: it's about connection and communication with "Young Adults" who maybe see something of themselves, their friends, or their lives in the words YA authors give them.

That's why I love YA.

But, and I'll end this series on Why I Love YA with this, the number one reason why I love YA: It's when I hear from that one individual out there -- that isolated "Young Adult" -- who says something like, "Your book was the first book I ever read all the way through. When are you going to write another one?"; or kids who have the guts to sit down with me, one-on-one, and say "I really want to be a writer one day. What should I do when I get out of high school?"; and, especially the "Young Adult" readers out there who've sent me letters and emails about how much they loved my book, how it made them think about themselves, their friends, or their brothers, in a different way.

It doesn't get any better than that.

That's why I love YA.

This past year, I've had the opportunity to "get out there" more, and visit with readers, students, librarians, booksellers, and schools -- most likely because I'm a cheap date (I listed on Mrs. Nelson's forthcoming author directory that I would do a school visit for a T-shirt. Chino Hills High gave me a totally cool hat). Anyway, a lot of YAs have asked me for advice about writing.

I've posted "Advice for Writers" bits on here before, but tomorrow I'm going to give my honest, not-messing-around-with-your-heads, advice for kids... er, young adults, about what you should do if you want to become a writer.

Monday, January 4, 2010

yi <3 ya (1)

It is my job to say what I think.

Or plagiarize Voltaire.

It was Voltaire, I believe, who actually first penned the immortal line, "I love YA."

Well, I think he used the emoticon, <3.

Way ahead of his time.

And I know this is going to make a bunch of people crazy, especially those who got really really pissed off at me over the last three days, but today I will confess: I am in love.

I love YA.

Let me tell you why.

I got my first professional writing gig when I was a teenager. So, I've been writing for quite a long time... if you do the math. It wasn't until about six years ago or so, that a great friend of mine (an author whom I'd known since those teen years) talked me into trying to publish a novel. So, I'm, like, okay... I've actually got this novel called Ghost Medicine, that I think is pretty good. I'll give it a whack.

This is absolutely true. So, before I started looking for an agent (because I knew that I would need one if I was going to be successful), I described my novel to my friend. Here's what happened:

FRIEND: Oh. That sounds like YA.

ME: YA? WTF is YA?

Seriously. I'd never heard of YA. I just wrote a novel with young characters, but I wrote it with the idea that I would be the person who'd read it.

Okay. So, if you were going to make a diagram of what constitutes YA, then, quite obviously one of the unifying characteristics of the non-genre is that the works involve characters that are "young."

I love writing about young characters (therefore I <3 YA) for a few simple reasons.

First of all, "Young Adults" are new at the game of making grown-up decisions. So, they're going to make mistakes. As a reader, it's a lot easier to forgive a kid for making a mistake than it is to forgive a forty-year-old stockbroker. So there's a natural emotional buy-in for characters who have the freedom to do lots of different -- and crazy -- things, but still don't get written off as "losers."

I <3 writing YA because of that.

Now, back in October, during Teen Read Week, I had the opportunity to stealthily observe an author of YA fantasy speaking to a group of high school students. I know... my bad... the author had no idea there was another "YA" author present.


Anyway, this author actually had the audacity -- when talking to kids about writing -- to say that there are no new stories that can be told, so if you aspire to be a writer, you'd better craft something that will excite and attract your prospective buyer.

I'm not kidding. The author actually said that to kids. No new stories. When I looked through the author's book, I wasn't surprised to see it was a fantasy with a big war, elves, and wizards.

I'm not kidding about that, either.

But, whether or not this author's conviction that there are no new stories is valid (and I -- in the most self-esteem-preserving way possible -- think this author is a nut-job), "Young Adults" always tend to see themselves as being totally unique. Kids can't possibly believe that anyone else in the world is living a story exactly like their own.

Kids who embrace that idea have the right stuff to get started on the road to writing, and I love (<3) the thought of empowering kids to believe they can become authors.

And I believe that, too. Every kid, and therefore every valid YA character, has a story that is unique, and potentially worthy of being told and listened to.

That's another reason why I <3 YA.

Making you crazy?

I'm just getting started on this.

[Author's Note: My New Year's Resolutions did include the abstention from ever using exclamation points, the word "awesome," and emoticons. I apologize.]

Sunday, January 3, 2010

yi h8 ya (3)

Okay. Let me tell you how much I hate YA.

I'm letting all the big reasons out today, so hang on.

First, a little backstory. I was e-talking with Lia Keyes the other day, and she mentioned to me about another author who thought that YA as a category should be done away with. She thought it would be interesting -- fiery -- to have me participate in this debate.

And, I'm, like, what debate? I totally agree.

I hate YA.

Here are my three biggest reasons:

1. YA has no definition. You may just as well call it "fiction." And, because of this ill-defined super-categorization of what I believe to be a non-existent genre, people carry too many pre-conceived expectations about constraints on content and embedded curriculum (see point 2).

The thing is -- and why YA is a pointless label -- is that YA contains every genre of the broader category of fiction, from contemporary literary, to science fiction, paranormal romance, chick-lit, fantasy, humor, and so on. But the YA section in a bookstore is the vampire section.

It's kind of like putting all adult fiction in the "Dan Brown" section. Remember, "YA" didn't exist when Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or even when Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. I don't think there was such a category when Stephen King wrote Carrie or 'Salem's Lot, both of which would definitely be stamped with the big Y and A if they were published for the first time today.

All those titles up there (and I'm sure you could think of many others) were just novels.

Let's revisit the Venn Diagram from two days ago:

They're still "adults," right? Just "young" ones.

2. The Expectation and the Blues. (That's the title of a really great song from Corb Lund)

(The Blues)... best "back-at-ya" comment I received from someone on the "Part 1" installment:

"As a writer you can write for any age group you want, can’t you?

If you hated being a teenager why write for and about an age that made you unhappy?

Okay. Now, I am definitely NOT speaking on behalf of all authors here, so don't give me any superpowers I don't already possess.

First, question one: I don't write for an age group. Not ever. Nope. Totally wrong assumption. I write to tell a story. The only target in my mind is a story, NOT a demographic.

As far as question two goes: ouch. huh?

What a downer.

So, the expectation part: See, when people pre-suppose a work of fiction is only for a particular age group (and that age group happens to be... let's say, high school kids), then they frequently get all caught up in the thought that what you write must contain some kind of curriculum geared toward the elevation or the insulation of the fragile "young adult" soul.

It's pretty much what I've been railing against for two days now. And for those people who want to put the cart up front of the horse, and pre-plan a target demographic and constraints on content, that's all totally fine with me.

Do you hear me? It's fine with me.

Just don't expect me to do it.

I just write stories. If people want to get all caught up in the debate about a writer's lack of responsibility for including certain content elements, then they can't possibly be talking about books for "adults," whether they're young, old, or anything else.

My readers are adults. Young ones and old ones. It's a disservice, in my opinion, to treat them like children.

3. Back to Taxonomy: (And I know this will likely tick off a lot of my author friends, so, for that, let me apologize in advance)

Take a look at the Venn Diagram above, one more time. Now, where it says "People," imagine the word "Literature."

One of the things I've struggled with most -- and, given that I've NEVER set out to aim anything I've written at a particular demographic sector -- is that everywhere you go, YA literature and YA writers are constrained within the "Children's Literature" circle.

How can this be? How can you be a writer for "adults," and produce work that has the big Y and the equally big A on it and also, simultaneously, be considered a county within the kingdom of KidLit?

It makes me crazy. I don't have any answer for it, either.

But it's a big reason why I hate YA.

If you don't get this, don't try. Don't get all bent out of shape thinking I don't LOVE reading great books by writers I totally admire, love, and respect -- who also happen to be burdened with the evil brand of YA.

We wear it proudly. But I hate it.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

yi h8 ya (2)

I still hate YA.

You remember all those times your mom told you the old if-all-your-friends-jumped-off-a-cliff-would-you-do-it-too line? You know what I told my mom when she tried that one on me?

Um... no. I'd go down to the bottom and start looking for wallets and jewelry.

So, there's this assumption that "young adults" make some kind of moral and ethical connection between choices made by fictional characters they empathize with and the REAL-WORLD decisions and actions they assume themselves.

Again, I'm not making this up, this comes straight from the Thought-Police sites of the Wonder(bread)blog I mentioned yesterday.

I think we've all known some particularly dumb kid at one point in our lives who jumped off his roof wearing a red blanket clothespinned to his neck after he watched an episode of Superman.

Yeah... broken femurs are actually pretty damned funny sometimes.

Everyone loves observing idiocy from a safe distance, but give kids... er... Young Adults credit that their B.S. filters are functional. For those whose filters are a little "glitchy," like the red blanket boy mentioned above, we have one great hope: please do not attempt to breed.

One more bit about why I hate YA. I've been accused -- multiple times, and by different "adults" -- of being a bad father, because of what I write about.

First, allow me to fully confess and lay it all on the table: My first two books, Ghost Medicine, and in the path of falling objects have the words "damn" and "hell" in them (this is a hint that my next book, The Marbury Lens has quite an "expanded" vocabulary). They also include on- and off-screen references to underage sex, drinking, smoking, getting tattoos, chewing tobacco, suicide, driving without a license, and marijuana use.

So I'm a bad father. I made those things happen in my teenage kids' world, didn't I? I should have shielded their eyes and ears from such goings-on, and hope and pray that they remain untainted by reality, so they can live with me and their mother until well into their forties. As untattooed virgins.

Shoot me now.

You see, the clean-YA bloggers insist that you should never write anything if the prospect of your own kids reading it makes you feel "uncomfortable."

Sometimes, dealing with things with your kids that make you feel a little uncomfortable is a preferential strategy to burying their heads in the sand and hoping they don't catch passing glimpses of what the rest of the world is like.

So, yeah... I honestly do not feel uncomfortable at the thought of my fifteen-year-old son or my soon-to-be-thirteen daughter reading my stuff, because I know who they are, and I am there to talk about things with them (my son was devastated by something that a character did in Ghost Medicine, which he read at thirteen).

Sometimes kids do have to make tough choices, and we can always count on the fact that fledgling, "Young" adults are definitely going to make mistakes -- and, unlike red-blanket-boy, hopefully learn from them.

The bottom line, though, is that when we do let our "Young Adults" out into the world (as we do every single day -- at school, at malls, hanging out with their buddies) and they get confronted with difficult choices, the voice in their head that tells them which course to take is not going to be that of a character in the most recent book they enjoyed.

If you're worried about that, you better round up and hide all your red blankets, clothespins, and step-ladders.

Coming up tomorrow: My BIGGEST reasons why I hate YA.

Friday, January 1, 2010

yi h8 ya

I hate YA.

Let me explain.

I hate YA for many of the same reasons I hated being a teenager: there are all these external expectations on who you are "supposed" to be, and, simultaneously, you're trying to figure that out on your own.

Okay. Try this experiment. Close your eyes.

Wait. First, get someone to read this to you aloud. Or else, just pretend to close your eyes.

Now, let's make a Venn diagram (I know... Venn Diagrams are the new black). The paper the diagram is on is "People." Now, draw a circle for "Children," and another for "Adults."

Unless you're a moron, those circles won't be touching at all.

Now, draw a circle for "Young Adults."

Again... moron test: that circle should be entirely enclosed within "Adults."

If you're a writer, you have to realize that there are certain mile markers we pass in order to become adult. It doesn't necessarily happen at a predetermined chronological age, either. But it does happen. Bam! You're an adult.

Young adults are inexperienced (because -- duh! they're "young") at dealing with certain things, so they make mistakes. It's forgivable in most cases.

Okay, now here's a reason why I hate YA: A lot of people have this notion that YA literature should steer away from certain "adult" concepts. Those people wouldn't pass the moron test described above.

I'll confess that I read a certain "book blogger" who really emphasizes cleanliness as being an overarching responsibility in YA. I read that particular blogger because the person is actually a fairly decent writer, as opposed to so many illiterate dimwits who blog about YA. And, I'm not going to ID the blogger for two reasons: 1) I don't want to get into a pissing match, and 2) I don't want to increase the traffic on that particular blog... because it's wrong.

A couple points this blogger makes about YA (and, by the way, I am an author who has two teens at home -- one of each gender):

1. We, as authors, have a duty to raise strong, responsible adults who make strong, responsible decisions.

2. If there's underage sex in a book, you are acting irresponsibly if you allow a teen to read it. Allowing a teen to read such a book is equivalent to endorsing irresponsible sexual behavior.

Okay, that's the gist of this particular blogger's theory on YA and the duty of authors and parents.

As to the first point, I agree that parents do have a responsibility to raise their kids to make ethical decisions. But it doesn't always happen, and a great deal of what we learn as we pass those milestones toward "adulthood" comes at the expense of making mistakes. (A great line from Elvis Costello: "Some people can't be told, you know, they have to learn the hard way.")

Where I depart from the first point is that as an author, I feel a responsibility to tell as much as I can about WHAT IT IS REALLY LIKE OUT THERE... without necessarily condoning anything.

As far as point 2 goes (and -- seriously -- I am not making this up about this particular blogger), I suppose the blogger believes there is some magical moment, like the age of eighteen, when sex becomes okay. Now... a couple points. First, I realize I grew up in what truly was "The Greatest Generation," and, no, it wasn't WW2 (as I talked about with my friends Wendel and Yvonne a few weeks ago), it was the "Generation that used up the next 100 years' worth of fun."

And, really, I don't think I knew anyone from that particular generation who waited for a specific number to show up on their driver's license before having sex -- whether underage or not.

Furthermore, in my own experience, and having seen a lot of the world, if we really could make people wait until they were sufficiently responsible, ethical, and psychologically strong before allowing them to so much as read about sex, then half the world would never be "of age," and the other half would probably have to wait until their thirties.

You try enforcing that one.

And lighten up. I think your pants are a little too tight.

[Author's Note: Don't worry, "they" will be back... eventually. This is the first installment of a short series on WHY I HATE YA]