Sunday, August 11, 2013

Size Matters Not

The 800 year old Jedi Master once uttered the words, "Size matters not." As a fantasy writer that prefers epic fantasy (as a reader and a writer) these words are normally not in my vocabulary. I think epically in everything that I write. Lots of earth shaking action and consequences with unreasonably large casts of thousands. (I blogged about this in one of my tropes of the week entry, an element to my blog that is going to make a return, maybe on a monthly basis instead of weekly.) As a young adult writer, I've sort of learned to rein in my word counts while keeping the "size" of my story the same. My trunk novel THE FALLING DARK, a traditional epic fantasy, topped out somewhere around 180k, short by many epic fantasy standards but long for a first fumbling at novel writing. My two SEASONS books came in at around 130k each (interestingly enough each was close to the books that I remember reading in my youth that I sort of compared them to: the DRAGONLANCE books, which my reread/analysis will be continuing this week) and SISTERS OF KHODA came in at about 115k. Not as big as say the 300k of A GAME OF THRONES or 305k of THE EYE OF THE WORLD, but big for Young Adult.

As I toiled on these for months and months at a time, I always found the appeal of something shorter, not quite short stories (my epically wired brain struggles in that confined place) but things like novellas and novelettes intrigued me. But there's no market for them, right? So, I concentrated on writing books. But that appeal was always there. But then some things happened that changed my thinking.

First, I read the very brilliant Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. Before I read them, I read the four novellas that she and her publisher released for 99 cents each before they released the book. You didn't need to read them to understand the book, but I decided to read them...and they were terrific. But I still wasn't sure what I could do and how I could do it. It came in a conversation I had with my agent about my own worlds. Why not write my own prequels for my books as a way to get people talking about me? As my agent is apt to do, he nudged me in the directions of some things to read as "research" for the project and let me do my thing. (That promised post about research is coming!) It took me about a month to write the 30k novella prequel to SEASONS OF DESTINY. (The title is in flux right now or I'd tell you.) I sent it to betas, who pounded it out in good time. I did a rewrite and sent it off to my agent, who has in turn returned it to me to do another rewrite.

Now, the plan is to release this novella on my own for a buck or two and get people talking about me, but something happened along the way....I fell in love with the format. I can't explain it. I'm a big guy. I like big things and big stories, but there's something about this method of writing that I love. And I've become a little addicted. I wrote down multiple ideas in my writer's notebook in two of my worlds: another prequel novella to SEASONS, a "sidequel" novella to WINTER'S DISCORD involving a melee team (it makes sense in context) and novelette in the SISTER'S world.

I know what some of you are thinking, why would I spend my time writing something where there so little return?

There are a lot of reasons. I'm an unknown commodity right now. I want to get people talking about it and, more importantly, me. I like writing them. It's not as constricting as a short story and it's not as sprawling as an full blown fantasy novel. It's a great way to build depth for your world. Yes, worldbuilding, the ugly stepbrother to plot, character and theme, is made clearer and deeper with a good novella. Finally, it's practice. Writing is a muscle and it needs to be worked out. Just like working out, you do big compound movements like benches and deadlifts, but you also do things like shoulder presses and rows to build up the support muscles too. That's what novellas and novelettes are.

In this day and age of being able to put something out on your own, why not? Is there a better method of self promotion than offering your writing up on the cheap/for free? I think not. 

So, keep your eyes out in the coming months as I start slowly writing and releasing some of these for your enjoyment.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Paid Hobbyist

Since all the cool kids are doing it and I'm one to fall in line with the zeitgeist, I'm going to respond to this blog post by an author I've never heard of. (And why does that ALWAYS seem to be the case when it comes to stuff like this?) According to Ms. Morton, if you don't score an 80 or better on this little quiz, you aren't a professional author, shouldn't ever consider yourself a professional author and that you are just wasting your time on trying to be a professional author.

Now, before we get the the quiz, I need to put up this qualifier: I am an as yet published author still struggling to make a name for himself. So on to the quiz, here are Ms. Morton's questions:

1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?

Yes, but not for that reason.

My home and work places are messy because I'm lazy and I don't like cleaning, not because I'm too busy writing. I spent a good part of today actually attempting to clean up my house a bit(and failing miserably at it). My classroom is usually disorganized because I'm busy during my free periods grading or planning or making copies or attending meetings, so there's that.

2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?

Uhm, no....sort of.

I don't have friends.

Okay, that's harsh. I have friends, it's just that, generally speaking, I don't LIKE going out as much as I used to. I'm sure that there's some psychological reason for this self imposed exile. It could be that I just love being around my kids a lot too. And I often rue the time I spent screwing around when I was younger going out. But this makes me think of Patrick Rothfuss's quote about writing: "Sitting at home all the time reading and writing is not awful, but go hiking, have disastrous relationships, go to the sort of parties that people end up kissing each other.. Because you know, those are useful experiences. They will lead to you being a more experienced human being, and the more you experience in life, the more you have to draw from in your writing."

But even now, I won't turn down some time with friends just to get some writing done...that may change when I get a real deadline.

3. Do you turn off the television in order to write?


I keep the TV on almost all the time when I write. I'm a background noise kind of guy, so it's usually something inane. I've written hundreds of pages with The Food Network on in the background. Seriously, there is something about The Food Network and writing that just go together. If not The Food Network, there is probably a game on in that background. The few times when I do turn the tv off, music's playing. 

4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?


Here would be my place to rant about people who really don't want to hear what is wrong with their writing....but I don't want to do that today.

5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)?


Vacations are vacations. Get aways. That doesn't mean that I won't work during one. I bring my writer's notebook everywhere. My last major vacation was to Disney World a few years ago and I had my notebook with me. I was still unagented at the time and was thinking about scrapping the project to prep another MS for seeking out an agent. I was in line to take the safari at Animal Kingdom when my phone buzzed with an email. It was from my present agent asking if I'd done an outline he requested. I went home from the park that night and scribbled in my writers notebook like a maniac to get moving, but it wasn't part of a writing opportunity.

I've always wanted to attend a con, but it's not in my immediate future. I'd rather spend time with my family.

6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend?

No, sort of. (See the post about friends above.)

A lot of my friends are writers and teachers, so we naturally talk about writing all the time. I'm sort of the "writer guy" at school, so I'm always talking about writing.

But quite frankly, I'd rather talk to my friends about other things: something we read, saw on TV, a big game, something we ate, etc.

7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write?


Providing for my family is my number one priority, bar none. I'm a teacher with a pretty stable job that I won't be leaving for "my writing." I make other sacrifices for my writing (sleep mostly). Providing for my family is a non-negotiable. Natalie, Cooper and Kim are more important than my writing.

8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career?

What? I'm not sure what she means by this question. Does she work for the people that write out state assessments?

If seems like she's repeating question 7...and you know my answer to moving on.

9. Have you done all these things for at least five years?

Another terrible question, since I answered no to so many of those, then my answer here is no.

But I've been writing as long as I can remember.

10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless?


What kind of a writer is she? This question makes no sense. At all. In the least. Is she asking me if I'm ever going to give up my dream? Again, I'm convinced she has a day job with Pearson writing state exams.

I write. I am a writer. I will always be a writer. My ambition is for my books to be as big as George RR Martin. Am I ever going to achieve that level? Highly, highly doubtful. Doesn't mean I'm going to stop writing. So I guess my answer is yes.

So, I wasn't even close. Now, to be fair other authors fared worse than I did. Neil Gaiman pretty much said he was 0 for 10. Awesome.

I'm not quite sure what was the purpose of Ms. Morton's post. Many others have written extensively on this and I'm not going to rehash what they've written, but I have some questions. Was it some sense of superiority to writers that do any of the things on the list above? What lesson is to be learned? I'm going to be honest, if that's the life of a writer that Ms. Morton lives (and from what I can tell she's maybe slightly successful which makes her considerably more successful than me right now), then I don't know if that's the life I want to live. Seriously. Her life sounds incredibly dull. Sorry.

I'm okay with her calling me a hobbyist, because, to be honest, that's what writing is. I often tell my wife this if she scoffs at me for "writing." At best, writing will more than likely be a part time career for me. (I know, I know, doesn't this become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy and I'm setting myself up to fail...but again, look back at my answer for question 7.) For many reasons, I can't imagine a day where I am not teaching. (Okay, that's a little bit of a stretch of the truth, because I could, but I genuinely do love teaching.) Could writing have been a full time career for me? I'm sure in some quantum universe I am a writer...actually in many of them I'm sure I am a full time writer. But in this universe, I am not.

For now, I just want to be a paid hobbyist, at least by Ms. Morton's standards.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Young Adult Property Wish List

I really wanted to write a blog post on research in writing and what that means, but I had another idea that uprooted that one this morning. I was hanging out with my son (he's five months old) and I decided to indulge on an activity I haven't honestly indulged on in some time: watching cartoons. Now with a five year old, I get my fill of cartoons between Disney and Nick Jr, but they aren't necessarily entertaining to me. Granted, there is a prolonged series of blog posts about Disney Junior's Sofia the First, but that's not this post. (Seriously, between the world building, succession drama and magic system there's plenty for an aspiring fantasy novelist to comment on.) This is about something else.

I watched a few different shows: Ben 10 Omniverse (I talked about Ben 10 in my Hugo post), Justice League Unlimited and Beware the Batman! It was the last show that got me thinking. It depicts a younger version of Batman figuring out his way fighting crime. It was okay, but I was left wanting. I'm not an expert on the canon of Batman, but it felt as if it were trying to hard to be "different" than any other version of Batman and that bothered me. It got me thinking (and I tweeted a little about this) about what existing properties in media today deserve a YA makeover/prequel. Here's my list:

I know that Beware the Batman is being billed as a "younger" Batman, but if there's a hero in the DC universe that deserves a YA version, it's Batsy. It has all the hallmarks of what's in YA right now: a dark loner orphan trying to fit in while trying to seek justice for his parent's murder. I know there was a "Gotham High" thing circulating around a few years ago and there's a very Smallville Bruce Wayne TV script out there too and both of those were attempts to make the Dark Knight YA-ish. There are a lot of different approaches one could make. One is a straight up, as close to the canon prequel with hints and clues about who would become what in the future. This would be your Smallville route. Another could be similar to "Gotham High," just completely de-age the villains and make them fit within the new setting that is created for the YA audience. A third way could be a straight up "younger" Batman facing the villains we know and love.

My Pitch: Bruce Wayne appears to be a spoiled rich kid with no parents and a Lamborghini in the student parking lot. What his classmates don't know is that Wayne is a vigilante in training even though he doesn't realize it yet, surrounding himself with allies like former NFL player and technology genius Lucius Fox, rookie cop Jim Gordon, quirky, Sherlock Holmes obsessed English teacher Maggie Adler and a mysterious martial arts master, all unknowingly teaching him everything he needs to know for his future career as the Batman.

NOTE ABOUT SUPERHEROES: I'm sure I could do several pitches for superhero themed YA concepts, but I won't. I'll give you the two that I think almost NEED any kind of quality project dedicated to them: Wonder Woman and Luke Cage. I'll say this as well: ENOUGH WOLVERINE ALREADY.

I know there are already YA Star Wars books, but those all seem to focus on EU characters and mostly are about the Jedi. Let's face it the Jedi are boring and the EU canon has gotten as convoluted as that of the Transformers or Godzilla. So why not focus on the original stories and the Holy Trinity of characters: Luke, Han and Leia. They are the more interesting than any of the Clones or Madalorians or whoever else is out there.

My Pitch Luke: Luke Skywalker lives on a moisture farm on the backwater planet of Tattooine where he stares at the stars waiting for his chance to leave the sandy rock and fulfill his imaginary destiny. Time whittles away slowly and Luke falls in with a group of racers and scamps trying to find the next challenging race in this "Fast and the Furious" meets "Buck Rogers" YA scifi adventure.  

My Pitch Han: Han Solo is a grease monkey building starships out of spare parts. After winning several sublight races between the various planets of the Corellian system, Han runs afoul with the local authorities and reluctantly agrees to take his skills to the Imperial Military Academy on Cadria. Han's cockiness and lack of respect of authority makes him a target for his commanders and fellow cadets. Everything changes when he is sent as part of a support crew for a mission to Kashyyyk and he meets a wookiee named Chewbacca.

My Pitch Leia: Princess Leia Organa is the youngest human to ever serve in the Imperial Senate and hates every moment of it. She can sense the rot in the place and is disgusted by it. With the help of her father, Bail Organa, she becomes a member of the Rebel Alliance and becomes a leader to the younger people of the galaxy with a message of hope in dark times. (Okay, that's the weakest of the three, but I'm imagining it as a very political/courtly drama kind of thing.)

Okay, this one might be a stretch, but the more I thought about this one, the more I liked it. Who doesn't like a decent gangster story? And has there been a better gangster story than The Sopranos? It's soap opera like situations are perfect for a YA story.

According to Wikipedia, Tony Soprano was born in 1959, meaning he'd be a teen in the late 70s. Perfect. You could play in the wilderness that is the late 70s in NYC/NJ and maybe pull some adults in with a nostalgia for that time period. Plus, how great an adult foil would Tony's mother make?

My Pitch: Anthony Soprano worships his father, renown gangster Johnny Boy Soprano. So it only makes sense that Tony pretty much runs his high school the same way his father runs northern New Jersey with his friends Silvio, Ralph and Jackie. Desperate to be noticed, Tony cooks up a scheme that is as crazy as it is dangerous: rob a card game being run by one of the most dangerous men in northern New Jersey: Feetch LaManna.

I know that Disney is sort of covering this for a younger audience with Sofia the First and that the source material they mine for their stories are the same ones that a lot of YA authors are also mining but the Disney Princesses are iconic and there's some room to play with some of the more contemporary ones. I'm thinking of Belle for the most part. My daughter adores her and there's lots of room for something to be done with her. You could go an adventure route or a prequel route, focusing on either Belle or Prince Adam/The Beast. But again, the problem with this one is that the "rewritten fairy tale" niche is really, really crowded.

My Pitch: The people of her village consider her eccentric but Belle could care less. She seeks adventure and excitement where most girls her age jockey for position for the attention of Gaston. The problem is that Gaston is in love with Belle. The woods that surround the village are filled with dangerous creatures and the only two people in the village that seem to notice are Belle and Gaston, who have different methods of dealing with them: Belle with compassion, Gaston with the end of a musket.

NOTE ABOUT DISNEY PRINCESSES: There are a lot of different combinations. A Snow White sequel with Snow White and the dwarves becoming witch hunters is another. An aged up Sofia the First in some kind of succession conflict/war would be harsh but interesting to me. But again, the problem comes with a crowded market.

Nick has sort of tried this already a few years ago and they haven't done anything with it since, but an adventure series focusing on her adventures could be very interesting if done right. Now, I'm not going to write a pitch, instead I'm going to let you watch this video:

There's plenty of other ones that I'm leaving out. Sherlock Holmes and James Bond almost instantly come to mind, but they've been done are being done. I contemplated a pitch for Conan, but decided not to, as appealing as he is, I wonder if he'd work as a YA character. Superman was done, and done well in Smallville, so despite the popularity of the character, I think it's still too soon for there to be a rehash of his character.

Are there any other characters for pop culture, television, comics, movies, etc that deserve a YA makeover?

Also, any publishers/owners of the above characters that like my pitches, please contact my agent Bob Mecoy. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Short Life of A Dead Project

There's been a lot going on at the Z Compound the last few weeks and I'm trying to sort it all out. We got back from a mini-vacation to the Dutch Wonderland amusement park in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We had a great time, but this isn't going to be a John's family vacation post, it's going to be a writing post. It's a story really.

I finished my novella prequel idea back in June and was struggling with a new project, sort of. I had a decent idea but it wasn't coming together for me. It started as another medieval-esque fantasy about a scheming princess and her scheming suitors with a savage enemy threatening to destroy their way of life way back in January, but I couldn't get moving on it. It wasn't for a lack of trying.

I did some quick world building and even did an outline. It was going to be a big project. Multiple POVs including what I was calling interlude POVs peppered through the story. I was happy. But it didn't catch. It wasn't working for me. My good friend, Mike Winchell, loved the project and kept urging me to write it, even making the suggestion that I make it scifi. I didn't completely agree with him and decided to keep it fantasy but I decided I didn't want to do magic. I was kind of magicked out and didn't want to create another magic system. (Let's be honest, my magic systems are all kind of the same.) So I decided I was going to meet Mike part of the way.

I was up late one night and the movie The Great Race was on. What a great movie and it inspired me. What if my story took place in a world where the tech level was late 19th/early 20th century (trains, steamships, airships, telegraphs, etc.) but without gunpowder. Newspapers would be reporting on the competition between the suitors and I could play with genre a bit a la Sharon Draper's Tears of a Tiger But I was adamant  After a series of email exchanges with my agent, I was left with a pretty solid idea for a story and a decent explanation of WHY there were no guns (a secret society) and a solid threat for the heroes that necessitates the competition. But it still wasn't working for me, so I stalled and stalled. My agent suggested working on some short stuff. And I did. I'd created the framework for a really good world, but it didn't fit the story I was trying to tell. I finally listened to Mike's advice. Why not try scifi?

It started very space opera-y but that didn't feel right. It felt to fantasy-ish. I mean Star Wars is really just epic fantasy with space ships. I decided I needed to go in a different direction. I gave it a Firefly/ Battlestar:Galactica feel. Modern "look" but with star drives. I developed a "world" for these stories that was a direct reflection of those two works with a very rudimentary history that I could figure out as I wrote the story. It was going to be a commentary on reality competition shows (like MTV's The Challenge) and the celebrity news cycle. (Don't judge me, I happen to like MTV's The Challenge.) I pared down what the massive collection of POVs and plot threads, boiling it down to three main characters and a love triangle (Yes, I like playing with tropes too!). I could play with genres too with interlude chapters along the way (news scripts, interviews, government releases, gossip rag articles, etc).  I was excited.

I started writing, deciding I was going to try and pants the novel a bit to see what I could do with it. But I was still struggling to get my feet under the project. I couldn't get into the project. It wasn't grabbing me. And if it's not grabbing me right now. Maybe not having a plan was hurting me and having that much freedom was a problem. Whatever it was, I wasn't making progress in what I was calling A TOURNAMENT OF PRINCES. I was at a crossroads for the project. A crossroads I'd been at several times in my life. Was it time to stop writing a project? The answer, unfortunately, was yes. But I'm not abandoning it quite yet. I need to study (tomorrow's blog post). 

I wanted to write a novel this summer, but I didn't. So far. For now I'm trying something new: a contemporary YA called THE SEVEN LABORS OF... I've got one of two titles I'm messing with and I'm not saying until I decide on which one yet.  Yes, it's a play on Heracles's Twelve Labors but it's only an allusion to mythology, it's very contemporary otherwise. I've done some planning on it and have a good idea where I'm going with it. It's a departure for me in many ways. I'm going to write in 1st person (I far prefer 3rd) and I'm going to write the first draft (I'm calling it Draft Zero) longhand in an old fashioned composition notebook. See, here's your picture.

So for now A TOURNAMENT OF PRINCES is mothballed. I'll return to it at some point, it's still in the official writing queue, but for now, the month of August is going to be dedicated to Draft Zero of THE SEVEN LABORS.