Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Conversation with Lance Rubin

A couple of months back I posted a review of Lance Rubin's excellent DENTON LITTLE'S DEATHDATE.  Since then, we've talked a couple of times and it turns out he's a great guy, as well.  Here's an interview I did with him over the course of the last couple of weeks.  Read this, see how great he is, then go order his novel.

Me: Okay, Lance, so you're here because of DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE, but first things first--who the hell are you?  You get fifty words max to tell us your life story.  Go!

Lance: 50 words? Yipes! But, okay. I wanted to be an actor since seeing Back to the Future at age six. And I was one for a long while: theater, comedy, some TV/film. But then my acting career started to feel frustrating and disempowering. Now I'm a writer. I love it.

Me: And really, there's nothing more empowering than playing god with a bunch of fictional characters lives, right?  You pretty much went to the opposite end of the power spectrum really.  What lessons and tricks from being an actor helped you in writing DLDD?

Lance: Ha, yes, it is the ultimate in empowerment. Choosing when and where to write and not having to wait for permission to start (as opposed to acting, where most of the time you can't do it until someone gives you a part) is wonderfully empowering, too. But I've been delighted to discover there's tons of creative overlap between acting and writing. So much of acting is getting inside a character's head, knowing how he/she will respond in any given situation, which, it turns out, is also a big part of writing a first-person protagonist. (And all the other characters, for that matter.) My comedy training came in handy, too: years of sketch writing informed all of the book's comedic dialogue, and years of doing improv gave me the confidence to run with crazy ideas, knowing that you can often make them work if you keep them grounded in the truth of the situation.

Me:  See, I think that's where the novel really succeeds--you begin with a premise that most writers would take the maudlin route, writing a lot of self-reflective, oh-I'm-going-to-die-young-and-life-isn't-fair moments, and instead you chose to write what is essentially The Hangover with a kid who's going to die in twenty-four hours, but is spending most of that time getting laid, getting in fights, and trying to piece together what happened last night, right?  The novel is highly comedic, with, yes, some reflective moments, but it all rings true.  Was there any discussion of you going too far into comedy or not enough into the more serious aspects of Denton's situation?  Was this always a comedic novel in your mind or was it initially something else?

Lance: You're the first person to ever compare my book to The Hangover, and I love that. (As long as you don't compare it to one of the sequels, we're good.) This was totally always going to be a comedic novel. In fact, I was inspired to write it after reading The Hunger Games, which I really loved. I thought, "What if there was a YA novel that was just as fast-paced and dealt with just as heightened a situation, but could also make you laugh?" (Because The Hunger Games series is many things, but funny is not one of them.) I can't think of any moment during the book's journey when I was told to pull back from the book's comedy, which I'm so grateful for, but when I did a big rewrite with my agent Mollie Glick before the book was sold, she encouraged me to go deeper into the emotional moments in the last 100 pages or so of the book, as Denton got closer and closer to dying. That was great advice.

Me:  Speaking of advice, let's play Best Writing Advice You've Received.  Give me the top three.

Lance: Ooh, fun. I'm going to do one better and name the three writing books that have been (and continue to be) absolutely invaluable to me and my writing career: 

1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I return to her chapter on "shitty first drafts" all the time, as I constantly need a reminder to break out of my perfectionist paralysis and start writing something bad that I can make better later. 

2. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. It's impossible not to be motivated by this book. It's about the powerful Resistance we all feel in trying to create things, that the only way to combat it is to just do the work every day. Don't wait for inspiration to strike, don't worry about whether or not your writing is good. Just punch in, do the work, punch out. (I'm actually in a phase of completely failing to take this advice, and it's horrible. I should go read it again right now.) 

3. On Writing, by Stephen King. I have this book to thank for the idea of writing to meet a daily word count as opposed to just sitting down to write for a few hours. I now know that writing for word count is a fairly common practice that King definitely did not invent, but at the time I read it, I needed guidance and this was so helpful.

Me:  So you wrote, "Don't wait for inspiration to strike, don't worry about whether or not your writing is good. Just punch in, do the work, punch out" and how you're currently failing at that.    Let's play therapist's couch:  Are you struggles related to a post-DLDD hangover?  Pressure of writing a follow-up?  What?  How have you been dealing with this?  (Mostly, I'm hoping you give me some trick so I can get back to writing without whining about it.)

Lance: Ah, thank you for giving me the opportunity to use this interview as a therapist's couch! I could really use it this week. Post-DLDD hangover is exactly right. (It keeps coming back to The Hangover, doesn't it?) It's not unlike the let-down couples often feel after their wedding, when they've looked forward to this amazing life milestone for over a year, and then it happens, and it's great, but they realize they never thought that hard about what would happen after that. And I'd say I've been dealing with it very poorly. In the spirit of full candor, after a couple of weeks of feeling straight-up stuck--like unable to focus enough to get back to work on my third novel or even write a blog post--I had an emotional breakdown yesterday, where I realized I'm experiencing all kinds of feelings--both good and bad--that I haven't really taken a moment to examine. My book came out in mid-April, followed by a series of events around the country, all exciting and surreal and great and overwhelming, which overlapped with me doing a final rewrite on the second DENTON book. And all of that was overlapping with me trying to be a present, engaged dad to my 16-month-old son/husband to my wife Katie whenever I was home. So it's been like a train that hasn't actually stopped or allowed me to resume my regular everyday writing routine. (At least that's how it was for me; I'm quite sure other writers probably handle this much more gracefully than I've just described.) And now that all my events are done and the rewrite has been handed in and the dust has settled, I'm like, "Oh, right, so... I guess I need to sit and work on something new again." And man, that's been so hard. Which is why I need to re-read The War of Art. And get the hell off the internet. And probably start seeing an actual therapist again. (I bet you're glad you asked me that question.) (And by glad I mean mortified.)

Me:  Thanks for your honesty.  I think this is something all authors go through though.  I know I've struggled with it lately, too.  Once DGC sold I looked at how long it took from first draft to sale and the work it took, and shut down like a computer freezing up when you try to run too big a program.  Lately it's just been the refrain of B.I.C (Butt in Chair) and reading Chuck Wendig's blog posts on just shutting up and writing that have helped some.  But yeah, trying to juggle life, work, family, and writing?  It can drive you crazy if you let it.

So let's stick our heads back in the sand for a minute and go to a happier place--List for me your top three promotional experiences with DLDD.

Lance: Ha, I like the redirect. Skillfully done. I want to preface my answer with a completely genuine statement that all the events and school visits and festivals I've done have been lovely in one way or another. Just the fact that people have invited me places to talk about this thing I wrote hasn't stopped being astounding. That said, here's three that stick out in my mind: 

1. My launch party at Books of Wonder. I was so moved by all the friends and family that showed up, people from all different times in my life. To be able to finally share this book with them that I'd been working on for four years was pretty magical. 

2. The San Antonio Book Festival. This happened the weekend before Denton came out, so it was my first-ever book festival appearance, and everything felt exciting and new. I spent a fair amount of time walking around with a stupid grin on my face, thinking, "I'm here as an AUTHOR. What the hell?" I also met a lot of delightful people, did my first-ever signing of actual copies of the book, and got to compete in a Literary Death Match, reading from my book to a drunken audience of authors I respect. Highly memorable weekend. 

3. This interview. I'm really enjoying this.

Me:  Nice suck up on #3, but I'll take a warm fuzzy when I can get it. But wait, four years?  Is that from first draft to publication?  What journey did DLDD go on from your initial idea to it's publication?

Lance: Yeah, I was totally sucking up/finding a fun way to wrap up that answer, but I am having a genuinely great time with this back and forth. And yes, four years! In fact, crazily enough, I realized recently it was almost exactly four years from the day I first put any words down--April 15th, 2011--to the day it came out--April 14th, 2015. But I'd actually had the initial idea, both premise and title, sometime in 2009. I'd conceived of it as an idea for a screenplay, and the characters would be in their twenties. I never wrote it, though, so a couple years later, when I decided I might want to write a YA novel, it occurred to me that idea I'd been sitting on could work well if I made the characters teenagers. A year and a couple months later, I had a first draft. Then over the next year, based on notes from close people in my life who read it--including my wife Katie and my best friend since age 3, Zack Wagman, who's a brilliant editor currently at Ecco--I did several rewrites. In August 2013, I was lucky to have Zack connect me to agent Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media, who responded to the book and signed me. She guided me through one last big rewrite before submitting to various publishing houses, and in November 2013, Denton was sold to Knopf Books for Young Readers. That's the quick version of the journey, anyway.

Me:  Four years is quite a commitment!  There's a sequel, too, right?  Since I'm guessing you were under more of a deadline, how did your process change between Book 1 and Book 2?

Lance: Yeah, with Book 1 no one had asked me to write it, so I could take my sweet-ass time. With Book 2, there was a definitive deadline, which was simultaneously terrifying and helpful, as I work much better when there's a deadline to light a fire under me. But in general, Book 2 was much harder to write. The overall process of writing and rewriting it was roughly half as long as Book 1's process, which meant my neuroses more concentrated and intense. And by the time I was writing the first draft of the second book, Book 1 was in such good shape, and I kind of forgot about all the rewriting it took to get there. So I wanted Book 2's first draft to flow out in just as good shape as the 8th draft of Book 1, which is hilariously unrealistic. It's kind of like how women who've had a child forget how intense and painful giving birth is, which allows them to make the decision to have another kid. (I'm trying to squeeze as many life-milestone-analogies into this interview as possible.) In writing my second book, I conveniently erased from my memory all the blood, sweat, and tears involved in writing my first book and then was surprised when I was having such a hard time. One thing I'm learning is that writing is always hard. You start to learn your own process better, so maybe you learn to be kinder to yourself when it's not going well, but it's always hard.

Me:  Eight drafts, anxiety about the next book, trying to get it right the first time...yeah, you and I have a lot in common.  When starting my next book, I made the mistake of going back and looking back at all of the old drafts just to see how far I'd come.  Instead of being motivating though, it had the opposite effect, sort of like driving the marathon route the night before to see what it's like, but then realizing, shit, I can't run that far!

Back to you though--heh--writers say that finishing a novel teaches them so much.  So what are three lessons did you learn about writing that you're carrying over to the next one?

Lance: I love that marathon analogy. And I love that you're saying stuff about yourself, too. Just another reminder that so many of the struggles writers experience are universal. It's hard to remember that sometimes, both because the day-to-day business of writing is so solitary and because social media will always help support the illusion that everyone in the world is having an easier time than you. 

But as far as three lessons go, I'd say the first one relates directly to your marathon analogy: 

1. Be in the stage of the process you are in. And trust that stage of the process. The perfectionist in me can't help but want to type out a first draft that is so good that it can be the finished book. But that's insanity. First drafting is supposed to be bad. You're still in the process of finding and understanding what your story is, how could that possibly be your final draft? And second and third and fourth drafting should have permission to be bad, too. (Not fifth drafts. Those better be AWESOME.) (That was a joke. Don't cry, Fifth-Draft Writer.) Really, you should always trust that rewriting can be the safety net in your future that will catch you if you fall. That's the only way you're going to feel liberated enough to take risks and truly discover the story you're trying to tell. Don't worry; Future You has your back. 

2. When good ideas for your book come from minds that are not yours, TAKE THEM. Before writing my first novel, I had this misconception that every line, every chapter break, every punctuation mark would come from me. But the thing is, once that first draft is done, and you're getting feedback from people--be it your wife, your husband, your close friend, your sibling, your agent, your editor, your copy-editor--then the book is no longer solely yours. Other brains will see things about your book and come up with ideas for your book that you never could have, and you can TAKE THESE IDEAS. Really. It's not cheating, I promise. This lesson is, I guess, fairly obvious as far as the relationships with your editor and agent go, so I'll give a general example involving feedback from someone else: My wife Katie would read a new scene I'd written and she'd come up with a funnier line for one of the characters than the one I came up with. And I'd feel like, "Well, I can't use that. That's your line. And this is my book." And she'd say, "Don't be stupid. I wouldn't have been able to come up with that line if you hadn't created this whole world and these characters. That's how this works." And I'd say, "Ohhhh. Um. Well. Okay. I'll use that line." It's been a completely valuable lesson, to be able to put aside my ego in that way and embrace the collaborative aspects of novel-writing. And ideally, as a writer, you'll feel so grateful to have help that you'll want to pay it forward to others. In the case of my wife, she's been writing a novel over the past couple years that I've read many drafts of and had sometimes-helpful ideas about. So, I have firsthand experience that the karmic circle of creativity spins on. Embrace that. 

3. Finish the damn thing! Even if you have to write a horrible ending as a place-holder. Endings are hard. With both of the novels I've written so far, it took me way longer to get to the end of the first draft than I was expecting. In fact, with the first draft of my second book, at a certain point I had to just wrap the thing up even though my ending made zero sense. But I knew I'd be able to crack it better once I could take some time away, read what I had, and start rewriting. Giving it a shitty non-ending felt really bad at the time, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed to move forward. So don't get precious during a first draft. Just end the damn thing. 

Me: All great pieces of advice.  I especially like #2 because the collaborative nature of writing is something everyone goes through, but so many writers won't acknowledge, almost as if they're afraid it means they're a fraud or not a serious [insert pinkie in corner of mouth] artist.  So thanks for bringing that up.

And wait, I just realized you performed your own audio book, too!  I'm insanely jealous!  Tell me what that experience was like!  How long did it take?  Ddi you find it difficult or did your comedy background help?  I'm sure you could hear your characters talking in your head, but was it difficult getting them right in "the real world"?  And finally, because this is what would happen to me, were there moment while you were reading aloud that you wanted to go back in time and edit how the line was written in the novel?  

Lance: The experience was really surreal and cool, this beautiful fusing of my old actor life with my new writer life. I've been doing voice-over work for years now, including being the audiobook narrator for the Berenstain Bears (random, but true), though I'd never narrated a full-length audiobook before. And it was a trip! It was recorded over three 10 am - 5 pmdays, which were exhilarating and exhausting. The first day was more of the former, me being like, "I can't believe I'm in this booth reading MY OWN book."  But the second day I remember showing up and feeling like, "I can't believe I'm about to sit here and read my book aloud for seven more hours. Deep breath. Here we go..." I give audiobook narrators SO MUCH credit. Yes, it's just sitting and reading, but it requires way more focus and energy than you might think.

My voiceover/comedy/acting background helped, but it was still so challenging to try and nail down distinct character voices, especially for the female characters. Like you said, I'd heard the voices in my head for so long, but then making my voice sound like what I heard was way harder than I thought. Like, "How do I distinguish two mom characters?" Luckily, I had a superb director, May Wuthrich, who was constantly catching me when my voices were going haywire. 

I also had a bizarrely hard time pronouncing words like "murdered" and "funeral." And yes, I would read some lines and cringe and think, "Oh shit, are we sure I can't make any more changes to this thing?" But ultimately, reading the whole book aloud like that was a nice way to get some personal closure before the book came out a few months later. 

Me:  Like I said, I'm crazed with jealousy that you had this experience.  I'm going to have to hunt down the audio version now, too, if for no other reason than to listen to your butcher the word "funeral."

To finish this up, I'm thinking a few rapid fire questions that you can answer quickly without a lot of explanation.  Just a sort of way to let people know a little about you as a person, or even make you more mysterious depending on your answers.  So to start with one connected to your novel:

Your deathdate, according to the scientists of AstroThanatosGenetics, is tomorrow.  (Bummer, dude.)  Assuming you know the time you'll die, what song do you want to have playing?

Me: One writer, one musician, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person (all living, of course) you'd like at your final dinner party?  (Yes, your family and friends will already be there.)

Lance: JK Rowling, Ben Folds, Michael J. Fox, and Pema Chodron

Me: The last movie you'd like to watch?

LanceBack to the Future

Me:  And finally, one mystery of the universe you want answered?

Lance: What's really going on with the Ouija board? That's just two people's collective subconscious moving the thing around, right? But if that is the case, can't we harness that power for some kind of greater good?

Me:  Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Lance.  You're a great, and clearly patient, guy.  I'll give you the last word.  The floor is yours.

Lance: The open-ended nature of that makes me feel like I should take this opportunity to say all kinds of crazy shit. But instead I will just say thank YOU, Kurt. I'm so glad you asked me to do this interview at this moment in time, as it's given me license to get introspective in the best way.

Also, I'm going to share a quick anecdote. One of the events I did for Denton was a high school visit in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is a city I'd never been to before. So I land in Cincinnati at night (and learn that the city's airport is actually in Kentucky, which blows my mind), and once I check into my hotel at around 10 pm, I see I have a hilarious, lovely email from one Kurt Dinan--who I knew at that point only from some Twitter exchanges--about how much he liked Denton. So then the next morning we're emailing back and forth, and Kurt says he's friends with one of the teachers whose class I'll be speaking to that day. Which is kinda nuts. And then I see on his blog that he LIVES in Cincinnati, Ohio! And I'm like, "Oh man, I'm in your city! What're the chances? I'm only here for a day, otherwise we should have gotten coffee," and he's like, "Oh no problem, I couldn't do coffee anyway because my wife's in labor." And I'm like, "WHAAAA?" Kurt and his wife had their fourth child that day.

I don't really know what the point of me telling this story is, but the synchronicity of me being in Kurt's city of Cincinnati for the FIRST TIME EVER right during the brief window of time when a new human in his family is coming into existence is kind of astounding to me. But, I'm a sucker for coincidence stories like that. Anyway. This has been great, Kurt. Can't wait to read DON'T GET CAUGHT.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Miscellaneous List: The 5 Best and 5 Worst Songs with "Rock and/'n'/& Roll" in the Title

The Best
1.  "Rock 'n' Roll High School" by The Ramones
No explanation needed.  Almost drops a couple of spot since Alvin and Chipmunks were allowed to cover it, but Joey Ramone was dead when that happened, so I'll assume it was a money grab by a greedy relative.  But come one, if you don't want to go to a high school based solely on rock and roll, you're a loser.

True story - A friend of mine witnessed Joey Ramone blow his nose into a pair of sock in Kmart, then put them back on the shelf.
2. "Rock & Roll" by Velvet Underground
Go the 2:20 mark in this song and listen to that guitar.  That, my friend, is what I'm talking about.

Ignore the balloons.
3. "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" by Joan Jett
Not Joan Jett's song originally, but it might as well be.  All snarl and attitude.  Plus, you just know that even at 56 she can still kick all of our asses.

That look on Springsteen's face?  Fear.
4.  "Rock & Roll" by Led Zeppelin.
People love to rag on Led Zeppelin, but don't lie - the first time you heard this song you wanted to light a cigarette and get find someone to fight.  I mean that in the best way possible.

When I first this picture I thought it was Robert Pollard.
5.  "Rock and Roll Music" by Chuck Berry
It all starts with Chuck Berry so this should be #1, but it's hard for me to listen to him without thinking of an article I read in Spy Magazine back in the 90's.  There are just some urine-based stories you can't unread, unfortunately.

"You know that new sound you're looking for?"
And once again, a white man ends up receiving credit for a black man's creation.  Way to go Michael J. Fox.
Bonus great song:  "Old Time Rock and Roll" by Bob Seger 
Mock me all you want, but this is a great song, despite the unspoken law that it be played at every wedding.

The Worst
(Come on, admit it.  You've had this feeling before.)
1.  "God Gave Rock and Roll to You" by Argent, Kiss, Petra, etc.
How do put into words how terrible something is?  By saying that if there was a hell this would be on repeat?  By saying you'd rather never hear music again if it meant having to listen to this song once a day?  By saying you'd choose to let those earworms from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan burrow into your brain instead of hearing this song again?  Is that good enough?  Because this song is terrible in every respect, and it sure as hell isn't rock and roll.  If this is the rock and roll god chose to give us, I say, no thanks, dude.

I swear I thought Gene Simmons was taller.
2. "Rock 'n' Roll Band" by Boston
Maybe the most back-patting, self-congratulatory song I've ever heard.  "Hey, let's write a song about our band's history and how beloved we are!"  "Yeah, and let's only put ufo's on our album covers, too!"  "No, ufo's with guitar bodies!"  [High fives all around]

An ad or a threat or both?
3.  "Rock and Roll Part 2" by Gary Glitter
As if having written this ubiquitous, stadium-played crapfest isn't bad enough, Glitter's also a convicted slimeball and predator.  Seriously, don't go searching out why because you'll end up wanting to get deloused.  Take my word for it.

Glitter I can support.
4. "Rock and Roll All Night" by Kiss
A true rock star doesn't tell us he wants to do it, he just does it.  And does the fact that two of the songs on this list are performed by Kiss mean I don't like Kiss?  Yes.  Yes, it does.  But wait...Toad the Wet Sprocket, one of the least rock and roll bands ever, covered it?  I can't listen!  I mustn't listen!  That would be torture.  No, I must listen.  [After listening].  If I am ever kidnapped and forced to make a compilation video of animals being tortured and airliners crashing, this would be the perfect soundtrack.

Click THIS at your own risk.
5. "Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo" by Rick Derringer
In Derringer's own words, the song is "a little corny."  Definitely an understatement.

Eeek, a spider!
Bonus terrible song: "I'm Just a Singer in a Rock & Roll Band" by the Moody Blues.
Dear Moody Blues, you are not rock.  Ever.  Sincerely, Me.

Feel free to argue with me on this, in the comment section below.   You'll lose, but feel free.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto #4 Addendum: A Sixth Rule for Revising--Weed Words

I'm officially coining a phrase here--"Weed words."  These are the words you find yourself using over and over again as you write.  Because it's easy to get into a habit, isn't it?  So you use a word or phrase once as you're writing, then suddenly you look up and, shit, you've used it a bunch, like it's...brace yourself...a weed infesting your novel.

My novel smothered by nod, know, and go grass.
Even the best writers do it.  I remember teaching Frankenstein and thinking, "Wow, Mary really loves the word "benevolent."  Someone else must've noticed too because there's a site that lists all 22 instances.

When I'm writing, I don't like to break momentum, so instead of revising as I go, I save it for the end.  As I write, I keep a list of changes I know I'll need to make--plot inconsistencies, characterization, etc.--and along with that I'll include weed words I'm aware of.  When I revise, cutting back on these words is the final step of the process for me.  Microsoft Word's Search in Document is my best friend when I do this.  In fact, when I spent Sunday and Monday de-weeding my novel.  Some of the heaviest work:

Nod - (BR (Before Revision)--32 times / AR (After Revision)--7)
Oh man, this is my go-to when I need a quick piece of exposition to break up a conversation, as in "Bill nods" or something like that.  Almost all of them could be, and were, cut.

Know - (BR--267 / AR--207)
I tend to use this when I'm writing in first person and am writing the narrator's thoughts.  It may look as if a lot of "know"s stayed, but they were in a different context, sort of.

Face - (BR--65 / AR--40)
Yeah, this is ugly.  I kept writing sentences like, "Ellie's face goes sour" or similar (meh) sentences.

Go - (BR--162 / AR--104)
This word, along with "goes" showed up a ton mostly because I got into the habit of writing sentences like the example above.

I expect...but instead (BR--8 / AR---2)
This was a weird one.  I kept using this sentence construction, writing things like, "I expect my parents to throw me out the window the moment the police lead them into the room, but instead..."

God - (BR--35 / AR--21)
Lots of sentences started with this.  Not as much anymore.

Dick (BR--15 / AR--8)
No, not the name, but the expletive.  I had a lot of characters using this word to describe other people, specifically one in general, but we all have our our slang terms for people we don't like, don't we?  So I made everyone's term specific to him or her.

Just (BR--315 / AR--?)
I was just reminded by my friend and writer Robin Reul (go to her blog HERE) about this weed word, and darn it, I realized I hadn't checked for it before turning in my revision.  315 times?!  Oh man, thank goodness for my forthcoming copy edit revision.  (And look, "just" showed up as the third word in this entry!  Ugh!)

What weed words do you find yourself over-using when you write?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Revision Submitted!

I submitted my revision to my torturer editor, Aubrey Poole, today.  How do I feel?

I only dream of being able to pull off the open shirt / gold necklace look as well as him. 
I still have line edits and copy edits to go, and yes, it's possible she reads my changes and asks for more, but for now...

If I did this with friends, someone would end up with a black eye.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Wait, I Didn't Mention This?

I'm such a moron.

I announced this elsewhere, but I guess not here.  The new title of my novel is DON'T GET CAUGHT.  I'll be honest, it took me a couple of days to come around--it was THE WATER TOWER 5 for two years, so can you imagine changing your kid's name after two years?--but now I love it.  DON'T GET CAUGHT has a directness and attitude that fits the novel perfectly.  So yay!

(But in hindsight, I never should have had the old title tattooed on my neck when I sold the novel.  Lesson learned.)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay, the author of the recently released A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS and I have a lot in common.  We're both teachers (in prisons), we're both tall (over 7 feet tall!), we're the same age (mid-60's), and we both don't like pickles, although I don't have the apparent phobia of them that Tremblay does.  Where Tremblay and I differ though--besides I'm clearly the handsomer of the two of us--is that--and it pains me to write this--he's clearly smarter than I am.  And I love that and hate that at the same time.

How do I know Tremblay's smarter than I am?  Because I've read almost everything he's published.  His intelligence is in his stories, his writing, and in the level of depth he puts into both.  I've always said the movies and books I appreciate the most are the ones I truly know I couldn't have written.  For example: I'm fairly certain I could have followed the beats to have written Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but I also know I couldn't have written something as tightly plotted but also minimalistic as Whiplash or Blue Ruin. (Go watch both if you haven't already.)  Let me put it to you this way--I know what I'm capable of and what I'm not capable of, and A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS is a novel I'm not capable of.  There's an insane amount of creativity, experimentation, and darkness here I couldn't begin to produce.  So that makes Paul Tremblay smarter than me.  (But if you're reading this, Tremblay, this only applies to writing.   I guarantee I'm smarter than you when it comes to things that are important, like children's TV trivia, so who's the real winner here?  That's right.  This guy.)

(It took me a long, sad minute to figure out what was going on in this picture.  Yet another reason Paul is smarter than I am.)
A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS tells the story of the alleged possession of Marjorie Barrett.  I say alleged because by having the narrator be her 8-year-old sister Merry, who's retelling the events to a woman writing a book of the events, Tremblay creates an unreliable narrator who must on her shaky memory and episodes of a reality TV show filming Marjorie's ordeal in order to make sense of what happened.  Add into the mix blog entries heavily analyzing the TV episodes, and we're left wonder if Marjorie was truly possessed by a demon or was manipulating her family and the production company for her own reasons.  I usually dislike ambiguity, but as it's a central theme in the novel and not just an author being vague for vague's sake or because he or she can't figure out how to end something, I'm fine with it here.  More than fine with it, actually, because it's these grey areas of the novel that I loved the most.

(My favorite exorcism movie?  Like you really need to ask.)
Because possession stories are similar, many of Marjorie's possession occurrences will seem familiar.  But the brilliance of this novel is that those possession cliches--vomitting, blasphemous rantings, sudden vicious attacks--are all incorporated into the question of whether or not Marjorie is truly possessed or just an astute follower of films involving exorcisms.  It all gets very meta, no more so than in the blog posts which are a film nerd's dream of frame-by-frame analysis for a show that doesn't even really exist.  It's all just very, very cool.  I loved every page.

And now, since I still haven't figured out how to end a review smoothly, I'll say this--go buy this novel.  It's unsettling, deeply creative, and (dammit) smart.  Add to that the fact that Paul Tremblay's one of the good guys you want to succeed, and buying this book is a no-brainer.  Pick it up now.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A New Favorite: Mystery Show Podcast

A good story should do one thing over all others, and that's force you to read/listen/watch until the end because you have to know how it will turn out.  Starlee Kline, of This American Life and Marketplace radio fame, has a new podcast, MYSTERY SHOW, that is some of the most compelling storytelling I've heard in a long time.

Please, I want this on a t-shirt!
The premise is beautiful in its simplicity--Each week, Starlee investigates a mystery that cannot be solved by the internet.  Like any seasoned detective, she goes into the field doing interviews, knocking on doors, and getting braced by thugs in alleyways.  (This last one isn't true.)

Fat Tony don't like you snooping' where you ain't supposed to, Starlee.
What's great about these mysteries is that they're not of the V.I. Warshawski/Veronica Mars/Maddie Hayes (yes, I can name a bunch of women detectives without Googling them, suckers) kind with guns and lives on the line, but the more of the common, everyday mysteries that happen to all of us that take root likes weeds in the back of our brains.  That Kline can make these seemingly mundane mysteries so compelling is a tribute to Kline's storytelling, personality, and interviewing skills.

So far she's investigated:
What happened to the video store that completely vanished the day after Starlee's "client" rented a video from there? - Episode #1

How did Brittany Spears end up with a copy of Starlee's client's novel that sold only a few copies? - Episode #2

Who is the owner of the awesomely cool belt buckle that was found in a gutter over twenty years ago? - Episode #3

Simple mysteries, right?  But man, all completely gripping.  Last week's episode about the belt buckle was the best yet, and I pretty much teared up near the end.  There's this perfect moment of absolute joy where someone gets choked up, and then dammit, I'm driving along and getting choked up, too.

Damn allergies.

Kline's one of those people you really just wish you knew.  She makes connections with people, sometimes detouring the mystery for awhile by getting to know the people she's interviewing, and sometimes even helping them.  Just try not to love her after listening to her talk with the guy at Ticketmaster in Episode #2.  It's great radio, and what makes MYSTERY SHOW one of my favorite discoveries of the summer.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Piecemeal Manifesto #4 - My 5 Rules for Revising

Allegedly there are writers out there who can draft a story or novel, do a polish, then send it off to their agent who then has no trouble selling it.  If these writers do exist, there's only one appropriate way to respond to them:

And that's me sinking into revision quicksand.
Because man, revising is work.  Like hard work.  But it's also the writing I like doing the most, so that's weird, right?   I've written elsewhere on here that I hate drafting.  But if I can get a shitty first draft down, I then have something to work with.  Generally my first readable draft is like a weird, unwieldy, smoke-spewing machine leaking oil that's held together by duct tape and gum.  It's a machine that does what I want it to, but it doesn't do it well.  So the goal of revising is to get the machine to run beautifully.  Here are my personal rules:

1. It's all about plot.
Because I think most readers are reading for plot, I attack the story first, checking for plot logic, inconsistencies, and pacing.  If I can't put "therefore" or "but" between scenes, I have a problem.  And in a you-probably-don't-want-to-see-how-the-sausage-is-made moment:  If the characters are doing things inconsistent to who they are, I either have to change the scene or gerry rig the character to make their actions make sense.  In DON'T GET CAUGHT, I needed a character to be able to do a certain action at the end of the book.  The only way I could make it work was by changing her job in the second draft to include this ability.  Other writers may have the foresight to do this on the first draft, but I sure don't.  And oh man, make sure your main character is, you know, actually important.

Sorry, did I just ruin your childhood with this?

2.  Tighten, tighten, tighten!
I don't like books that waste my time with extraneous scenes, chapters, description, subplots, etc.  So if a scene isn't essential to the plot, I cut it.  If I'm not sure if I should keep a sentence, I cut it.  If I can cut a chapter by adding a paragraph to in another one, I do it.  I believe in the 'late in, early out' approach when it comes to scenes and chapters, but my stuff doesn't read like that early on.  My first draft usually runs long, then gets smaller with each subsequent revision.  My first readable draft of DGC was 94K.  The version that got me signed with an agent was 81K.  The version we sold to Sourcebooks was 74K.  And the first revision of that draft that I finished this morning is at 68K.  There's not a lot of fat in the novel, just the way I like it.

3.  Trust your instincts.
If you have a feeling something's wrong, there is.  Fix it.  Always assume your readers will spot plot gaps, bad logic, and inconsistencies.  Because they will, and you'll look sloppy.

Yes, George, we did spot that stormtrooper bonking his head, duh.
4.  Line edits last.
I get the plot and characterization finished first--this can take a bunch of drafts--before I worry about the writing.  I barf it all out on the page, terrible sentence by terrible sentence, in order to get the story to work.  I tidy it all up, making it read as smoothly as I can, last.  Generally, I read a page until I find something clunky, fix it, start again at the top of the page, read until I find another problem, fix, and begin again, repeating until I can read the whole page without stopping.  It takes some time, but is worth it.

5.  Don't over-carve the pumpkin.
I picked up this gem from Daryl Gregory.  Because we've all done that, right?  Thought, "I'll just do this one final cut on the pumpkin" and then it's ruined?  Or if you're anti-Halloween, made the disastrous decision to cut your own hair, which always starts okay, but at some point you go too far and then:

Maybe if I smile pretty, no one will notice.

Because, man, it's easy to revise forever and not let anyone see it.  It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite movies, Searching for Bobby Fischer:  "It's unsettling, isn't it?  When you realize there are only so many things you can teach a child.  And finally, they are who they are."  That's your novel.  At some point, you have to let it out into the world.  You can only hope when you release it, some agent, publisher, reader, etc., doesn't

Seriously, go watch this movie.  You'll hear Ben Kingsley whispering, "Don't move till you see it" for weeks.