Thursday, October 27, 2011

WOW Books

As a writer, English teacher and bibliophile, I love talking about books. Some books excite me more than others. Obviously if I hear someone even whisper the name George R.R. Martin, I butt into said conversation in a heartbeat. The TV show had even more people talking about it, which would send me into a Matt Foley-esque tirade about the awesomeness of beheadings, infanticide and something called (SPOILER ALERT) the Red Wedding. There was a creepy moment earlier this school year when talking about what happened (allegedly) to Prince Aegon during the Sack of King’s Landing with a fan of the TV show with an ear to ear grin that made one of my colleagues look at me very, very differently. While GRRM and “A Song of Ice and Fire” have had a major influence in my life and my writing, there are other books that blew me away and made me say “WOW!”

A book that makes you say “WOW” is special. It not only blows your mind away, but it causes a physical reaction. A reaction that can be as subtle as having to put the book down, to hurling the book across the room out of frustration, anger or shock, to feeling as if someone has just hit you in the face with one of those cartoon sized mallets. Now, I’m not going to carry on and on about “A Song of Ice and Fire,” I’ll do enough of that over the course of my career/this blog as time goes on. For now, I want to talk about some recent books that have completely blown me away.

In no particular order:

1. “Ship Breaker” Paolo Bacigalupi

From the opening pages of this book, I was hooked on the story and the further I read, the more I wanted to read. Nailer and his friends lived in a scary, alarming, almost hopeless but all too real feeling world that I was completely drawn into. Every moment of that book had my heart racing and my eyes twirling as I tried to keep up with the story and absorb everything that was happening to Nailer. Really a remarkable and amazing book that is easily among my top 10.

2. “The Hunger Games”/ “Catching Fire” Suzanne Collins

Now, I loved the Gregor books. Thought they were brilliantly fun and exciting (something I think is lacking in YA fantasy right now….but that’s another blog entry). I was hesitant to read “The Hunger Games” because of my disdain for 1st person POV (that’s yet another blog entry), but I got a copy of it with my SFBC membership, so I picked it up one day and started reading it. And read. And read. I was drawn in and couldn’t stop reading. It was such an amazing story. I bought “Catching Fire” and put it on the TBR pile, choosing it for last year’s vacation. I read it on the red eye home from Vegas. The whole thing. At the end, I was sick. I was not ready for the ending and felt as if I’d been punched in the face. I stared at the people next to me on the plane who had no idea why I was gaping. The book has left such a scar on me, I still haven’t read “Mockingjay.” I’m not emotionally ready for it.

3. “The Lies of Locke Lamora” Scott Lynch

Scheming priests of a scheming god in a eldritch, alien city. Nice. You’ll notice a certain love that I have for world building (yet ANOTHER blog entry) and there hasn’t been a world that wowed me the way Camorr did. Lynch’s storytelling, the use of flashbacks intermixed with what they characters were going through, is one of my favorite’s I’ve seen in a long time. And while Locke is the main character of the story, it gave me one of my most favorite characters in a long time: Jean Tannen. I’m a big guy. I like big guy characters, what can I say.

4. “The Hunchback Assignments” Arthur Slade

The steampunk adventures of a teenaged, hunchbacked, shapeshifting spy in Victorian England. Why didn’t I think of that? Really? I found this book by accident and hunted local bookstores for it. I found it at my now deceased Borders and LOVED it. Such a simple concept, one that I feel I could come up with, and executed perfectly. All the hangups of being a teenager with the lack of realization of just how badass he really is, Modo is a character I can sympathize with…not just because of my own crooked spine!

5. “Aurelia” Anne Osterlund

Pretty sure I’m not the target audience for this book, but since “Winter’s Discord” and my “Seasons of Destiny” books have a lot to do with courtly intrigue and I’m aiming for a YA audience, I thought I’d give it a try. It was perfect for those purposes. The character Robert helped mold a character I really liked but was becoming less important to the plot into something that was very crucial to the plot.

I’ve included links on all of them and encourage you to try them out. They are books that have really helped me as a writer and books I think that are just AWESOME!

What are some of your “WOW” books? I’d love to hear about them.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My Blog's Name

Seems that I'm getting some traffic...and that makes me happy! That being said, I'm realizing that my blog's title might be a little off-putting to those in the YA/MG world, so let me explain.

First off, I need to tell y'all a little about me. I am a big boy. Always have been. I've been six foot tall since 6th grade. I'm presently, as the joke goes, between 6 foot and 6 foot 2 depending on which convenience store I'm walking out of. I weigh well past the 300 mark and am built like an out of shape football player. Kind of like a John Goodman. I've reached the point where trying on pants makes me nervous. We're talking sweaty nervous. (This actually happened at my mother's house a few weeks back.) Anyway, I've reached the Constanza level where I really would rather just be able to walk around in sweatpants or athletic shorts all the time. But society says I can't because that isn't part of my school's dress code for classroom teachers. So I am forced to wear pants.

I told you that story to tell you this one: a few weeks back one of my favorite people I've met via Twitter, Myke Cole tweeted this:

"Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America Industry Reception tonight! My first as a pro. I will wear pants."

I responded accordingly;

" See my ultimate goal as a writer is to never have to wear pants again."

Seems Mr. Cole and I have a kinship in that and he said so later. Anyway, that conversation inspired my blog title, because really, all this writing is about one thing: me not having to wear pants ever again.

Off to sleep.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Pay It Forward Blogfest

So, it seems that some nice folks have decided to get some people reading other people's blog and I am all for it. So here are some blogs about writing (and other stuff) that I follow fairly religiously:

1. Beanstalks and Bookends
Mike Winchell and I went to high school together....but didn't know one another. (You go to a school with 3,000 kids and see if you know everyone you went to school with!) We wound up getting together via Query Tracker about a year or so ago and became fast "Internet" friends, though at some point he and I have to get a beer together, hopefully to celebrate our first publishing victory!

2. University of Fantasy
Eleanor and I have known one another for a long time. We were both neophytes at writing, but she was 15 and I was 20 something. She from that funny little island England, me from the States. I've watched her come a long way as a writer and it's interesting to see the evolution. The Internet is a beautiful thing.

3. TK42One
Perhaps my most trusted beta and friend on the Internet. Has kept my head above water many, many times over the years.

4. Hoover's Corner
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a brash, opinionated scifi/dark fantasy writer.

5. Rene Sears, Slush Reader/Editor/E-Book Guru
Pyr Books editor and slush reader and one of my favorite Twitter conversationalists about all things bookish and geekish!

Give these wonderful folks a chance, will ya?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Dance With Dragons

So, it is well known that I am an unabashed George RR Martin fan/sycophant/apologist and I will be until it is known that Samwell Tarly is the Prince Who Was Promised and he rules the Seven Kingdoms atop the Iron Throne with Danaerys at his side as his queen along with his seven little princelings because his seed is that strong. (This is merely my own theory and can be debunked by a thousand other members over at Ran’s board!) Because of George, I am the writer I am today…well partially, it’s not his fault I am yet undiscovered as a talent. This last summer was a very exciting one for me and many other fans of the classic series, as we were allowed to return to the world of Westeros and catch up on some fan favorites (Dany, Jon Snow and Tyrion most notably), while having some supreme questions answered and getting perhaps my most favorite POV character in the entire series: Barristan Selmy. Now some complained it was dragged out and it took too long for anything to happen, but I disagree completely and the book jolted me into a realization about my own writing, Winter’s Discord and the other books of Seasons of Destiny especially, that I needed to address immediately. Namely, back story.

Series, especially fantasy, need back story. Think about it. Can you name any fantasy series that doesn’t have a complex and deep back story? Tolkein, Brooks, Eddings, Martin, Jordan, etc. All of them have intense and layered back stories involved in them and they are completely necessary.

Now, the perils of writing a series are pretty self-evident. But that seems to be what publishers are looking for and from a business perspective that makes sense. Stand alones make money one time; series can make money multiple times over. So most of us that choose to write in the speculative area realize that we very much need to write series in order to entice publishers (and agents) to our work and we write series. But we have to write that first book and almost frame it as if it is a stand alone (a paradox of the publishing industry). Now, Jon Sprunk had a great article about the difficulty of working on a series and I was faced with that recently when an agent made a subtle request for an outline of the series.

I don’t like to be unprepared, but the only outline I had was a very vague outline of “Parts” of the following three books with the POV characters who had something to say in that section in my writer’s notebook. Actually, they were literally cut from the loose leaf paper they had been written on and PASTED into the notebook. The outline for book 2 was missing. (Damn my organizational skills) So now I’m piecing it together bit by bit, but it’s a painstaking process. Why? It’s a complex story with a lot of back story necessary for me to know in order to write what happens next. Now, I told you this story to talk about back story and A Dance With Dragons.

Dance is loaded with back story. Important back story that is necessary for what happens in the last third of the novel to make sense. (I’m not going to spoiler anything, so put the “NO SPOILERS” signs away!) Reading it inspired me to actually plot out what happens BEFORE Winter’s Discord in a sort of narrative outline of a prequel trilogy. (How’s that for being arrogant, I’m planning the prequel before I finish planning the series I am trying to sell!) But it was a practical endeavor because, unlike George, I cannot keep everything in my head. It is impossible. I forget where I put my car keys and wallet more often than I should ever admit in a public forum, how am I going to remember the significant events of something like Robert’s Rebellion or the War of the Ninepenny Kings? So after I finished Sisters of Khoda, I set about doing what I was calling a “macroplan” for the entire series. I was going to plot out the “prequels” (complete with titles and tentatively titled The Prince’s Folly) and then transition into Seasons of Destiny. Then school started and the overwhelming of life began.

I’ve been peeking at what I wrote already and doing some rudimentary outlining of the next book of Seasons, Spring’s Tempest, but I’m still working at it. The odd thing about Spring is that I wrote it once already. Really. But it’s a completely different book now and very little of what is in that draft is even part of what’s going on in this book. The interesting thing is that there are parts of Spring Draft 1 that may actually work for book 3. It’s crazy, but some tweaking and a lot of that book might already be written. I’m going to try and hit some of it tonight. It’s another big book and very different than the first version of it I wrote 4 years ago. So for the second time, George RR Martin has moved me forward in my writing. Currahee!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Greetings and Salutations

Welcome, friends old and new. Some may know me as John Zeleznik, some may know me as Ebenstone and others still will know me by the Chooch or Pepperoni or a hundred other silly handles I’ve gone buy but you all know me one way or another, either in real life or via the electronic Intraweb. Anyway, this here is my writing website. My intent is for this blog to stay in the realm of my writing. Sure there may be an occasional comment about my work as an English teacher, something going on in my personal life or the occasional post where I get political, but for the most part I intend to use this medium as a place to talk about my writing. I’ll talk about everything from inspiration to process.

So, who am I?

Well, I am a father, a husband and a high school English teacher from Syracuse, NY. Oh, I am also a writer. Kind of like how Henry Hill always knew he wanted to be a gangster, I knew I wanted to be a writer. As I sit here thinking about writing and my history, I tried to think back to my childhood and all of my reading habits.

I know that I was an obsessive reader of nonfiction picture books about everything from nature to the military. But the first fiction I can honestly remember influencing me were Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Glass Elevator. To this day, they are still two of my favorites. They are probably two of the things that pushed me towards speculative fiction. Roald Dahl is a genius and the work he does is amazing. And reading more and more about him, the more I realize that he was an early inspiration to me as a writer.

It was that and a love of certain independent film called “Star Wars” that my first attempts at writing and storytelling began. I created the adventures for our action figures (or sometimes ourselves), continuing the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie. Those same skills served the purpose of creating special missions for our GI Joes growing up, always following what the file cards said to the letter. It was my earliest lessons at characterization and canon.

The first of the books that were “top of the head” influences on me as a writer had to be The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Shocker!) I don’t think I need to go into a long speech about this. I’ve read them numerous times in my life…the first time as a sixth grader…and they truly are the great granddaddy to all the fantasy writing that is being done today.

In 7th grade I discovered a series that I’m sure many out there would agree probably had more to do with their love of fantasy than LOTR…The Dragonlance Trilogy. A classic that I reread numerous times in my early and mid-teens, which alongside The Icewind Dale Trilogy stand as beacons of late 80s fantasy adventure goodness. While trying to reread them recently I felt that they were too “gamey” for me. That doesn’t mean I still don’t love them, because I do. I think when we look back on “tie-in” literature; it’ll be compared to the pulp stories of the 20s, 30s and 40s!

My first fumblings at the written word were poorly veiled pastiches and imitations of these early books. I remember a planned ten book epic about a group of heroes questing for seven tablets to defeat a dark lord. I think there was a half-elf ranger as a hero for that one. I know there was one idea that involved my friends and I with our neighborhood adventures acting as the basis of a heroic quest. I’m almost kind of glad that one has gone away, buried in a landfill somewhere or incinerated into oblivion.

In high school and college I discovered “literature” and immersed myself into some pieces while violently resisting some. And in college I discovered the works of William Shakespeare and I’ve been hooked ever since.

I dropped out of college (the Dark Times) and was kind of listless in my reading. Then I discovered, based on a recommendation in the old Barnes and Nobles science fiction/ fantasy booklets they released every two months, a series called The Deathstalker Series, a rollicking space opera loaded with starships, swordsmen, disruptor rays, vicious AIs, rebellious clones and looming darkness at the edges of space. I own the second and third books of the latest series, but haven’t gotten to them yet. I loved the originals.

It wasn’t until I graduated from Oswego State that all things changed. It was a brutally cold afternoon on my last day on campus (December 2000) at the school before I graduated. I had some money in my pocket from selling textbooks, so I was going to get some pizza at Cam’s NY Style Pizzeria and decided I wanted to read something, so I went to The River’s End Bookstore a few doors down. I picked out a thicj mass market paperback with a long haired lad riding a horse with a massive castle in the background, surrounded by snow and trees. The book? A Game of Thrones. And that day my life changed. I ripped through the available books, devouring them with gusto. A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords became part of my personal canon and inspired my to finish my first novel. While not as great, but still very good, A Feast For Crows is necessary.

As I dove back into writing epic fantasy, in 2003 I was sent an offer for a free half of a new book called The Briar King by Greg Keyes and I was hooked. The funny thing is for all my “inspiration” because of ASOIAF, my first novel “sounds” more like Keyes than Martin. The entire Kingdoms of Bone and Thorn are all on my recommended list, even if the series fizzles at the end instead of rising to the occasion.

At this point, I’ll admit that GRRM spoiled me and I became very snobbish about what I read…that and I decided to go back to school and become a teacher. This meant the classics and now that I’m teaching, I’ve been introduced to a whole new view of books and the classics.

Now I haven’t abandoned my love for epic fantasy, I’m just very picky now. Too many favorites to pick out now, but if you look over at my Good Reads page (where you can friend me if you like), you can get a taste for what I like.

For now, I am a unagented author, focusing on fantasy, mostly young adult. At present, I have one book out on submission, Winter’s Discord. Winter began life as a “break” from what I thought was going to be my opus (don’t we all think that about our first complete novel) trunk novel. It turned into much more. It is the first book in a four book series called The Seasons of Destiny and the first piece I ever shopped. Presently, it is semi-trunked, though under submission with several agents and editors. I pitch it as “A Game of Thrones meets 90210.”

The summer of 2011, I finished a YA version of my trunked novel called The Sisters of Khoda. I’m very happy with it, but it needs a rewrite. I pitch it as a “boy” Graceling. (You will notice a motif in some posts about my passion to write more “boy-centered” books.)

I was working on a new project with the questionable title of The Point Guard and the Space Princess, a YA scifi book. I’ve pushed it back to November for NANOWRIMO and I think I’m going to work on some editing, planning and rewriting for the month of October.

So, welcome and enjoy the ride.