Monday, February 25, 2008

What Age Are You Really?

Over the last few days I’ve finished reading several fantasy novels. Some of them—like “Elantris”—I read by myself. Others—like “Nightmare Academy” and “Dragon Slippers”—I read with my two sons, ages seven and ten. One of the things that I noticed as I compared the different novels was the apparent age group for which the books were written.

Nightmare Academy has a very middle grade feel to it. Lots of jokes and a silly style of writing. The main character was thirteen I think, but my youngest son loved that book the best. I think my favorite scene was the “trout of truth.” Silly yes, but so funny me and my boys just about died with laughter. I also like the comedic side-kick, Theodore, who tells Marcus that his fists are machines of destruction that he can’t always control.

Dragon Slippers was really a little too old for my seven-year-old son. He liked the dragons but wanted more action and humor. My ten-year-old liked it just fine. It also had humor, but it wasn’t quite as silly. It was more the kind of humor that you chuckled at. No rolling on the floor.

I didn’t even bother trying Elantris on my boys. It was Robert Jordon type fantasy. Interaction of religion and science, plotting was slower, and the action dragged quite a bit at times. But it was very good and very deep. I enjoyed it a lot. As I did all of the books.

Some books are tougher to quantify. Is Harry Potter middle grade, YA, or adult? Depending on the book and section, it can be all three. I almost didn’t read the whole series after book one. But the fourth book is one of my all time favorites. Clearly all three types of books can be read by more than one age group, depending on the style you like, but you should go in with different expectations.

With that in mind, I have launched a new poll. I’ll post the final results of the old poll and my take on them tomorrow. Good reading!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Dashner Dude


My good friend and fellow author, James Dashner, is doing a charity drive in conjunction with the release of his new "13th Reality" YA/Middle Grade fantasy series. If you buy his book (it comes out March 1st) or preorder it, and post to his blog about what you bought, he will donate his royalties to The One Foundation. So if you are planning on buying his book, this is a great way to give back, and if you are not, this is a good reason to do so. More information is avaialable at jamesdashner.blogspot.com


I just preordered two copies at Amazon for just over $12 bucks each and free shipping. What a deal!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tools of the Trade

Nothing super new and cool on the book front this morning. I did make a slight modification to the very ending. (Thanks Kerry for your sound advice!) And I also discovered I had a minor character with almost the identical name as a main character for a popular fantasy novel I hadn’t yet read but started this week. Which is really a strange coincidence. What are the odds that two people on their own naming characters Raodin and Raoden? Anyway, that has also been changed. Oh, and I also gave my editor a list of scenes that I thought would make great inside illustrations. But more on that in a later blog.

Instead of talking about the book today, I’d like to talk about writing. In particular three tools of the trade I use a lot. So if writing isn’t your thing, and you don’t like to peek behind the curtain of what goes on in the creation of a book, you may want to Google “real estate investing” or “Brittney’s babies” or something. That will keep you busy for at least the rest of the day—maybe the rest of the year.

In Stephen King’s great book, “On Writing,” he describes a toolbox every good writer should carry. You may not need every tool every time you write, but it’s great to have them when you need them. Some tools you use more than others. For me, my Phillips screwdriver, pliers, and hammer are isolation, disorientation, and misdirection.

These are the tools I break out when I want to raise the tension in one of my novels. They are often the key components of a thriller, but as you’ll see, they are just as important in other genres as well.

First of all, let’s take a look at how these tools fit into the toolbox as a whole. In any story with a plot (so really anything other than hardcore literary fiction, which according to Scott Card is just another genre) your main character must have a goal. Preferably a noble goal, so the readers will root for them, but that is not a hard and fast requirement. Second, your reader must care about your protagonist. Third, there must be some kind of negative consequence if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal.

Pretty basic stuff right? In order to save the townspeople, Sir Coughalot must duel the dragon, find the cup, and return it to the palace before the plague of bad breath is complete. I’m not sure how much we’d like a hero named Sir Coughalot. And his quest seems a little boring. But it’ll work for an example.

The problem is, Sir Coughalot is a knight, and we all know knights slay dragons every day. Also, he probably has a squire and bunch of friends with swords and shields. So we lay down the book with a yawn and say, “Ho hum. Maybe there’s something good on TV.” That is an author’s nightmare. I can’t have you laying down my book to run off and see who makes it to the next round of American Idol. Even if the cute kid with the weird hair sings just like Freddie Mercury.

In order to keep you hooked, I need to raise the stakes a little. I need to pull you into my web of fiction. (Wow, that sounded kind of cool. We need an author superhero who catches guys in his web of fiction. “Stand back, evil nemesis. I have a historical romance and I know how to use it.”)

Anyway, back to raising the stakes. One of the easiest ways to make you care about my character is by taking away his or her supports. In our story about Sir Coughalot, I need to get him away from his co-knights, and maybe even his squire. It’s used a ton, but there is a reason so many fantasy novels start with an orphaned child. What is more vulnerable than a baby left on a doorstep? Of course it works even better if the baby is left on the doorstep of a family that is mean to him and makes him sleep under the stairs while his mean older cousin gets two rooms to himself.

There are books which do not use this tool. For example my friend James Dashner has a novel called “The 13th Reality coming out next month in which the boy goes on his adventure with his father.” But even then, James uses the tool. He makes sure the dad is more like a big kid. Dad does not step in and save the day at every turn. So what we really have is more like a sidekick than a true parent figure. In Lord of the Rings Samwise stays with Frodo, but the rest of the fellowship can not come. It’s handled very skillfully, but in truth it’s just a tool to further isolate the protagonist. (Of course the first isolation is when Gandalf leaves.)

Okay so in our story, we could have everyone else be afraid of the dragon. But that’s pretty cliché (like the rest of the story isn’t, right?) So instead let’s say that the cup is rumored to turn anyone who sees it into a stick of gum. That should scare away all the other knights. The squire stays on, but he’s never been all that bright. And besides, he likes gum. We have now used isolation to up the ante.

Our next tool is disorientation. Let’s go back to our hypothetical misfit living under the stairs with a mean family and a bully cousin. His life is pretty miserable, and he certainly doesn’t have any friends, but at least he is used to it. In order to really create some interest on the part of the reader, we need to raise the stakes again. We need our readers to not only like our protagonist, but to actually begin the process of putting themselves in his place. A cool way to do that is to put the protagonist into a world he is unfamiliar with. And so much the better if the reader is unfamiliar with the world as well.

Because this is a blog for a fantasy novel, let me point out that when I say world, I am not specifically referring to another planet. It could be the world of high finance. It could be the country mouse going to the city. It could be that 99.9% of everyone on Earth dies. All it requires is that the protagonist finds herself in a place that throws her off balance. This is why Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts. It’s why Frodo leaves the Shire. It’s why Prince Raoden is thrown into Elantris. It’s why Luke Skywalker ends up in a swamp with a little green Muppet.

Let me use another example from a movie my younger readers may not be as familiar with. In the movie Jaws, the protagonist must stop a great white shark from munching its way through an entire town of tourists. We isolate him by turning the townspeople against him. Then we disorient him but making him afraid of what? Water, of course! Then we put him out on a boat with a crazy captain.

The other great thing about putting our protagonist into a new world is that we, the readers, get to discover the world right along with him—wondering over the flying brooms and laughing at the missing stair riser. Of course when they get to their new world, they might start making friends again, lessening the isolation. But there are plenty of ways to turn the people in the new world against them as well, right? So let’s send our knight to a land where dragons live in peaceful villages and knights are the ones that attack and terrify. And just for fun, let’s make the dragons people size and the bad knights huge terrifying creatures. That puts our little knight right in the thick of it.

Last but not least is misdirection. Going back to Harry, I mean our hypothetical misfit, how do we make sure the reader doesn’t guess who Voldemort is? This is a slight problem because the obvious choice would be the new teacher right? (Yes this is a spoiler, but if you haven’t even read the first HP book, what are you doing on a fantasy blog in the first place?) Okay, so we need the reader to completely discount Professor Quirrell. How do we pull it off? Misdirection. Get the reader to make an assumption which will keep them looking the wrong way.

In this case, JK Rowling introduces Professor Quirrell early in the story as a nervous little man who is overcome with wonder at meeting the great Harry Potter. This does two things. First, it makes the reader create a mental image of Quirrell as someone so non-threatening we can’t even consider him as a suspect. Second, she makes the introduction just as we are entering the world of magic. She distracts us with all the cool other things so we don’t have time to consider why she took all that time to introduce a character of such little importance so completely.

Of course the second part of misdirection is giving the reader an alternate target to focus on. If only JK Rowling could have come up with a slimy, mean, back stabbing type of character that skulks around the school. Someone who surely has it in for Harry. Oh wait. She did! Snape was the target she wanted us to focus on while Quirrell worked quietly in the background. Of course it turns out that Snape was even more misdirection for future novels.

To wrap up our story of Sir Coughalot, we could have the squire actually be a bad guy all along. He could be just waiting for his chance to turn our poor knight into a package of Hubba Bubba and steal the cup for himself.

So there you have it. Isolation, disorientation, and misdirection. Fun tools. Powerful tools. But use them carefully. You wouldn’t want to put out an eye.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Question About Questions


I’ll post more on LTUE in the next couple of days as I have quite a few notes to put together. But I thought I’d take a minute tonight and update you on the latest thing I’ve been doing for Farworld.

One of the interesting things that Shadow Mountain has done with their YA fantasies is to have the author write discussion questions to put in the back of the books. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that done with hardbacks before. I’ve seen it in paperbacks, and often as a website download or separate insert. I’m sure it’s been done and I just haven’t noticed, but I was a little surprised when they asked me to put together a few questions for the novel (and presumably the ARCs as well.)

At first I sent them a bunch of questions like, “If Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Master Therapass fought in a locked, steel cage death match, who would win?” And, “If you could turn one of your friends into a fish for a few hours who would it be and what kind of fish would you choose?”

Turns out that those weren’t exactly the kind of questions they were looking for. I actually had to find themes and deeper meanings in my books. Let me just pause for a moment to warn aspiring writers, do not start with a theme or deeper meaning and try to come up with a story to illustrate it. In one of his presentations at LTUE, Scott Card said something to the effect of, “If you are trying to make a statement with your story, it will be transparent to the reader and your story will fall flat. Tell the best story you can, the best way you know how, and your inner values will come through.” Except I’m sure he said it more eloquently.

So, I was actually a little nervous to go back through my book and see if I did indeed actually have any values. That would kind of stink huh? To go through your story and say, “Wow, I’m apparently a real jerk!” I also was a little afraid that kids might see the questions in the back of the book and think, “Hey this is homework in disguise.” The goal of any story I write is first and foremost enjoyment for the reader. For a few minutes, or hours or days, I want you to get lost in the world I’ve created. If I can make you laugh here and there, get nervous or a little scared, stay up too late, and especially care about the characters, I feel I’ve succeeded.

That being said, if your characters don’t have values, why should anyone care about them? Do you know what I’m saying? The characters I like the best in books struggle to do what’s right. Sometimes they make bad decisions, but they try to correct them, and in the end they lay everything on the line for what they feel is right. If the main character in a book I’m reading doesn’t have some kind of noble goal, I find it really hard to root for them. And I want to root for the main character/s.

Fortunately I was able to come up with some questions I think will work. I tried to avoid what I call kindergarten questions—where the answers are so obvious as to be really lame. I also tried to avoid questions with simple yes or no answers. Thanks to the advice of a good friend and reading teacher named LuAnn Staheli, I also tried to divide my questions so half of them were questions about what the reader has experienced or would do in a certain situation, and half were more open questions that could be discussed in general.

Here’s an example of one of my questions. Marcus feels different from the other boys in his school because of his disabilities and because of the way he can grow dim and sense things before they happen. Kyja feels different because she can’t do magic. Has there ever been a time when you felt different? Does being different have to be a bad thing? How can being different be good?

One side of me is a little nervous about having the questions. But another side of me thinks it would be interesting if some of my favorite authors had put these kinds of questions in the back of their books as well.

So my question for you is this. Are you in favor of discussion questions in the back of a YA fantasy book? Or do you think they are better left for a web site or insert?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

LTUE

Just a quick update as I am exhausted after three days of convention. I had a ball. Got to be on two panels with Scott Card and chat with him for about 45 minutes after one of the panels. He is a great guy. Very, very, nice but just as brilliant as you would expect from his books. Then my wife and I ran into him and his family at a restaurant after the con. Very cool. I also was on a panel with Brandon Sanderson who is doing the last "Wheel of Time" book. He is also great. Gail Carson Levine was a huge hit. Very funny and insightful. Just a few others: Mettie Ivie Harrison, who is actually the little sister of a close friend of mine, Jessica Day George who is very funny, and my good friends James Dashner and Julie Wright. A very fun couple of days. But now I'm ready to crash. Oh, and Brian, Ishkabiddles are small fuzzy creatures that cling to the bottom of cattle grates. Which is why you have to honk your horn before driving over them :)

More on Sunday or Monday. Have a great rest of the weekend.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hooks

At some point in your writing career you are going to have to come up with a hook. Strike that. At some point in your life you are going to have to come up with a hook. What is a hook? Basically it’s a sales pitch. And everybody sells something. You sell yourself when you interview for a job. You sell your report when you try to get a good grade. You sell your car, your house, and your ideas. So basically a hook is telling someone else why they should buy what you are selling.

If you’ve been in the writing business for very long, you understand how many people you need to sell before the first book even leaves the shelf of a store. If not, let me share a diagram I use in one of my writing classes.




What you see is how many times your manuscript has to be sold. First, you send a query out to get an agent. Once you sell the agent, she has to sell an editor. The editor has to sell your book to the committee. The committee has to sell it to their sales force. The sales force sells it to the bookstores. The bookstores sell it to their employees. And finally the employee sells it to the consumer. Exhausting huh? Of course sometimes you may not go through every step, but most of the time you do. And it all starts with the reason any of these people should look at your manuscript in the first place.

So how do you get someone to look at your book? Obviously you tell them what it’s about. But that’s where the trouble starts. You may have the greatest story in the world, but can you convey how cool your story is to someone else. Take Harry Potter for example. Great story right? Action, mystery, intrigue, snogging. It’s got it all. But what did J. K. Rowling say the first time someone asked her what it was about? It got rejected many, many, times, so it might have gone something like this.

“Well there’s this boy with a strange scar on his forehead. He doesn’t know where he got the scar because he lives under the stairs of his mean uncle and aunt. Oh and his fat cousin, Dudley. They tell him his parents died in a car accident. Only he was really delivered to their door by giant who brought him to live with them when he was a baby. The giant rode in on a flying motorcycle. And there’s a woman who can turn into a cat. And a wizard with a thing that makes lights go out. And the boy goes to a school for wizards, where he is really famous. And he meets a boy and a girl. The girl is a muggle, which means her parents aren’t wizards. Of course there’s a bad guy named Lord Voldemort. Only people are afraid to say his name. The boy learns to ride a broom and plays a game like soccer, only not, and . . .”

See what I mean? How you tell people about your story is every bit as important as how good your story is. Your goal is to give a concise description that convinces people they must read your book or they will never forgive themselves. The hook is what goes into your query letter, and often it is used in one form or another by every person who hears about your book. “What’s that book about?” “It’s a great fantasy about a boy who discovers he is really a wizard and goes to a school where boys and girls learn witchcraft. There he finds out a dark wizard killed his parents and is trying to kill him so he can regain power.” Not perfect. But better than the rambling paragraph above.

So what does a good hook consist of? Four main points:

1) Who is the main character?
2) What are they trying to accomplish?
3) What stands in their way?
4) What will happen if they fail?

That’s it. You have to get to the point. But that can be easier said than done. Action is usually pretty easy. See if you recognize this story. “The sheriff of a small seaside resort town discovers a huge great white shark is killing swimmers. The mayor doesn't want the economy hurt. He must find and kill the shark before more people die and the tourist economy is ruined.”

Jaws. Is there more to the story? Much more. The sheriff is afraid of water. The mayor isn’t willing to keep the beaches closed. The sheriff joins forces with a marine biologist and a crusty old shark hunter to kill the great white. If you have room to add those, by all means do. But many time you must get your hook across in one or two paragraphs. And it’s nice to have a stinger. A single hook line like, “The boy who lived.”

It can be even harder if your book is more character driven. Like a romance for example. What is Twilight about? Well basically a girl falls in love with a vampire. Does that tell the whole story? Not at all. And while that one sentence may sell people who love vampire books, that wasn’t the target audience for that book. It takes work.

So enough about those other authors. Let’s get to selling my book. After all, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing at least a little with this blog. Actually the timing of this is pretty good, because just today my editor asked me to come up with a back of the book synopsis. I don’t feel like I’ve got it quite perfect yet. But I’ll show you what I have and maybe you can give me some advice.

I started with a synopsis of about 450 words. I was going for a different feel with the jumping from one character to the next, but I’m not sure it entirely worked. And it’s probably about twice as long as it should be. Here's the first draft.

Marcus Kanenas. A nobody from nowhere. Found as a baby at a monastery near the edge of the Sonoran desert, the doctors expected him to die from his injuries. Although he survived, he has only one healthy leg and arm and is confined to a wheelchair most of the time. He would be an easy target for bullies at the boys’ schools he is shuffled through if it wasn’t for his abilities. The way he can disappear at the most convenient times, and how he seems to sense danger before it happens. Sometimes he dreams of a land faraway and a friend named . . .

Kyja. An outcast. In a world where magic is as common as air, where farm animals tell jokes, and trees beg people to pick their fruit, Kyja is a mutant of the worst kind. Not only can she not cast so much as a single spell, she is actually immune to the effects of charms, potions, or anything magic at all. Her only friend is Riph Raph a small dragon-like creature called a skyte. She would probably have given in to despair long ago if it wasn’t for the promise that somewhere inside her is a magic more powerful than she can imagine; a promise given her by . . .

Master Therapass. An aged wizard. Able to shift between human and wolf form, he was once the most feared and respected wizard not only in Terra ne Staric, but in all of Westland. Now, after years of battling evil and defending right, he is an old man who walks with a limp and spends most of his time practicing magic and studying ancient scrolls. He is the only one that knows the secret about both Marcus and Kyja—a secret he has protected for thirteen years. Right up until he encourages Kyja to peer into the window of the soul called the aptura discerna and discovers that Marcus and Kyja have been found by . . .

The Dark Circle, a group determined to take control of Farworld and possibly Earth as well. Now it is up to Kyja and Marcus to defeat the Dark Circle. But to do that they will need the help of mystic creatures known as Elementals, the beings who are rumored to control the four bases of all magic: water, land, air, and fire. They must overcome Summoners who can call forth armies of the dead, Unmakers—invisible creatures that are the very opposite of reality, dark mages known as Thrathkin S’Bae, and the fact that no one has ever actually seen an Elemental and they are rumored to disdain all humans. And while Marcus and Kyja can travel to each other’s worlds they could die if they stay more than a few days.

I'm not entirely unhappy with it. It tells the story. But it's not quite snappy enough for me. And as I said. I need to make it shorter. Let's try this again, but in a more standard format. I'm going to shoot for between 200-300 words. Here goes.

Marcus Kanenas. Even his name means nobody. A thirteen-year-old boy trapped in a wheelchair since he was abandoned as a baby and shuffled from one boy’s school to the next. On a world far away, and as different from Marcus’s as could be imagined, lives a girl who is an outcast as well. But for a very different reason. In Farworld, magic is as common as air. Farm animals tell jokes and trees beg people to pick their fruit. But Kyja is not only incapable of performing the least magic spell, she is actually immune to it.

Two orphans living worlds apart. But a secret binds them together. A secret protected for the last thirteen years by an elderly wizard named Master Therpass who can change from human form to wolf. Now their secret has been discovered by the leader of a group of black magic wizards known as The Dark Circle. The Dark Circle is intent on controlling both Farworld and Earth, and the only thing standing in their way are Marcus and Kyja.

Join these two outcasts as they search for the Elementals—mythic creatures rumored to control the four bases of all magic: water, land, air, and fire. The only ones who can open a drift between Earth and Farworld.

To succeed they must overcome Summoners who can call forth armies of the dead, Unmakers—invisible creatures that are the very opposite of reality, and dark mages known as Thrathkin S’Bae. They must travel to each other’s worlds, though they could die if they stay more than a few days. And perhaps most important of all, they must discover that the powerful magic is not what spells you can cast, but what’s inside you.


Farworld—Water, Book One of the Farworld Series

I’m still not sure I’ve captured what I’m trying to get across. But I think it’s better. I’m thinking that my tagline will be . . . Can you guess? Find Your Magic.

What do you think? Would this make you want to read the series? How can I improve it?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Blurbs and Studly Authors

So here I am, about six months away from publication, two months or so away from ARCs, and waiting for final edits. Which puts me at right about . . . Happy Blurb Day.

Those of you who are authors know exactly what I’m talking about here. For those of you who are not authors, blurbs are those little quotes on the back of the book that say something like, “I laughed. I cried. I loved this book.” Or “A real page turner. You don’t want to miss this one.” Or my favorite by Dave Barry. “I never read this book.”

People debate back and forth on the value of blurbs. Does anyone really buy a book because Sue Grafton said it was good? Or because Stephen King says it kept him up at night? Most people would say, no. But at the same time, don’t we all pick up a book, check out the cover, flip it over and read the back? Maybe we don’t buy a book just because of the blurbs, but isn’t it possible it has some subliminal effect on us anyway when we see an author who writes in the same genre giving their stamp of approval?

I kind of view blurbs the same way I view music on a movie trailer. Nobody says, “Wow, that music was so good I’m going to go see the movie.” But without the music, we wouldn’t feel the same power. We might not even realize why, but we would be less impressed by the images we were watching. (Just an odd side note here. Every time I think about movie music I keep picturing Jack Black walking Kate Winslet down the aisle of Block Buster doing all of the movie themes in the movie “The Holiday.” A chick flick, but a good chick flick.)

So anyway, before you become an author, you just assume that a publisher takes care of getting those cool back of the cover quotes for you. I mean after all, they know other authors. They are a publisher. What author is going to tell a publisher, “No, don’t think so?” Well some might. But a publisher isn’t going to get their feelings hurt, curl up in a ball, and mutter, “Nobody like me. Nobody likes me,” to themselves over and over when they get turned down. As you might be able to surmise, the publisher does not get blurbs for you. You have to do it yourself. That’s the first thing you discover.

The second thing you discover is how many authors do not have an e-mail link on their web site. Personally, I was really surprised by that. Of course I understand that some authors are so popular that they may not have time to e-mail all of their fans. But you know what, Dean Koontz let’s you e-mail him directly, and that is a man with a lot of fans. So let me publicly commit here and now that I will always take e-mails—heck, I can’t imagine a world in which I am not thrilled with another e-mail from someone telling me they liked my book—or hated my book. Okay not quite as thrilled with that. But at least they read it.

The third thing is that many authors do not want to give blurbs. Actually this didn’t surprise me. I know that authors are busy people and the more successful they are the harder it becomes to keep up with every request. I also understand that people have had bad experiences with blurbs. (Another odd side note here. When authors say they had a bad experience, it is usually something like a pushy author who won’t take no for an answer or someone who doesn’t think your blurb was good enough for their book. But when an author tells me they had a bad experience with blurbs, I can’t help imagining something like, “I was walking through a seedy area of town when without any warning these three blurbs came out of nowhere. One of them roughed me up. Another called my mother vile names. And the last one told me my adverbs sucked rocks. Now I stay away from blurbs.”)





Here’s the thing that might have surprised me the most though. Two of my top choices said, “Yes,” as soon as I asked. You might be thinking, “He probably went to a couple of no-name authors who have nothing better do to.” You would be incorrect, my friend.


The first author to agree to do a blurb for me—or at least to consider doing a blurb for me, (He could read it and decide it’s the worst trash he’s ever read. Which would make a really lousy—although unique—blurb.)—is Mel Odom. How busy is he? Well let’s just say he has published over 140 books. That’s right. 140! Think he just sits around waiting for someone to ask him to blurb? Some of his fantasy series include The Forgotten Realm series, and the Rover series which is a great read for kids and adults.





The second author to agree to give me a blurb is Dean Lorey, author of Nightmare Academy, a great book my two younger sons and I read together and all loved. Dean has finished his second Nightmare Academy book, is working on his third, just finished the screenplay for the first book, and oh by the way, was the screen writer for lots of movies including Major Payne, and lots of TV series, including My Wife and Kids, and Arrested Development.

In addition, Orson Scott Card’s assistant and Terry Brooks assistant have asked me to send manuscripts as well, although they can’t guarantee they will be able to get to them. And you know how busy those guys are.

Let me just say, these guys are studs. With all the things going on in their lives, it would be easy to blow off a guy publishing his first YA fantasy series. But they remember what it was like getting started. Will their blurbs send my books flying off the shelves? Probably not by themselves. But if my ten-year-old’s response of “Dad, that is wicked cool,” is any indication, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

So thanks, guys! Hopefully I can return the favor to another fantasy author down the road.

By the way, if you want to read more about Mel and Dean, their websites are:

Mel
http://www.melodom.net/welcome.htm

Mel also has a great book review blog, http://bookhound.wordpress.com/

Dean
http://www.deanlorey.com/ (This is an incredible web site by the way. And he and I also share the fact that we both had our US cover art done by Brandon)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bringing the Magic to Life

A couple of weeks ago we bought the DVD of Stardust. On the Special Features section they interviewed Neil Gaiman, the author of Stardust, the novel. At one point in the interview, they asked Neil about the flying pirate ship. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, Robert De Niro plays the hilarious but rather odd captain of a flying pirate ship that rescues the two main characters when they become trapped on a cloud.

For the movie, they wanted to pirate ship to look very real. So they actually built all but the prow of the ship. It took nearly two months and the thing was so big it filled an entire sound stage.

In the interview, they ask Neil, “What was your first feeling when you walked onto the stage and saw the ship.”

Neil’s answer is so totally perfect I wanted to share it with every author in the world. “Honestly,” he says, with this look of complete wonderment, “Terrible guilt. For me it was like one paragraph. When I wrote it, it could have been anything, I just needed a way to get my characters out of the predicament I’d put them in. And here they had fifty men building this thing for two months at a cost of what had to have been well over a million dollars. I wanted to walk up to every one of those men and take their hands and say, ‘I am so sorry.’”

Can you imagine that? How many things do we as authors throw into our books just because they are cool? I need to get my characters a long distance away in a short time so I come up with a creature called a Mist Steed. I don’t want it to look like just a big fast horse, so I give it pale golden scales, a gossamer mane, and a beak filled with sharp teeth. I need my character to see into another world, so I create a magic stained glass window that crawls down off the wall, and I call it an aptura discerna.

It reminds me of a scene I wrote in the first book I ever published, where a computer generated avatar speaks does a whole bunch of different accents and impressions. Not only do I have the avatar doing voices, but I also have in the room a Russian, an Asian, an amazed man, and a somewhat snooty woman. It wasn’t until I got my copy of the audio book that it dawned on me what a nightmare that must have been for the person who recorded the book. Fortunately he did an incredible job and got all the voices just right.

Of course most books won’t be made into movies. But what about the illustrations or covers? I’m supposed to be choosing what scenes I think would make good inside illustrations. There’s one part of me that’s going, “Definitely the part where the mimicker and the wolf battle each other. Or the part where the Summoner brings all the dead creatures back to life to fight Master Therapass.” But there’s another part of me that’s going, “Wait, Brandon is actually going to have to draw the scenes that I just imagined in my head. Maybe I should stick with the talking lock or the spitting flower.”

Fortunately Brandon is as excited to draw some of these cool things as I was to put them in the book. But even if you never have the ideas you come up with turned into illustrations, or movies, or have your dialog recorded for an audio book, the images still come to life. They take shape in your mind when you write them down, and they take shape again every time someone reads the words you wrote.

I think that’s part of the coolness being a writer. Regardless of if your work gets published or not, you can create anything with a few taps on your keyboard or a bunch of little lines and dots scrawled on a piece of paper. You dream up whatever you want, and the images begin to move and breathe as soon as someone else reads the words you wrote. Now that is real magic.

Of course I’m still glad I’m the writer and not the guy who has to actually build the thing. But you know a walking talking mountain would pretty cool.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I Have an Artist

There are a lot of things I’ve daydreamed about since signing my contract for my first fantasy series—having a book with a map in it, putting a glossary of terms in the back, the unimaginable possibility of seeing my books made into a movie. All the fun stuff you think about while waiting for the wheels of the publisher to finally click around to your project. But the one that I’ve thought about the most was who would do the artwork for the cover and the inside illustrations, and what they would look like.

Having four children ranging in age from seven to nineteen, and having purchased a ton of books for said children, I feel strongly that what the cover of a YA novel looks like can have a huge impact on the success of a book. Especially when the author is yet established in that genre. Let’s take a couple of examples.


The cover of The Candy Shop War, a novel by Brandon Mull, communicates several things. First of all, the characters on the cover are children--both boys and girls--that look to be somewhere between 10-12 years old. The setting is a typical looking small town, but with a clear twist that the children and candy are flying through the air.

Based on this book you can assume that it is probably aimed at middle grade readers. It is probably a fantasy of some sort, although not a typical mages and magic type novel. I know from personal experience that the cover works. My ten-year-old saw the book in a Barnes and Noble, and asked me to buy it for him.

Would an adult buy this book based solely on the cover? Maybe. But if they did, it would probably be because they were buying it for their kids, to read with their kids, or because they tend to like kids books.

Let's take a look at another cover.

This is probably one of the better known covers these days. It is for Twilight, the first book in Stephanie Meyer's vampire romance series.

What does this cover tell you? First off, the simplicity of the cover itself points to an older audience. My ten-year-old is not going to get hooked by this image. Nor is he intended to. This cover could appeal to any group from YA on up. But . . . there are a couple of clues here as to what audience they are going after. These look like a young woman's hands. We also have the whole forbidden fruit thing going on. Just from the cover I can assume that this is going to be a romantic type of book with a young woman as a protagonist. The interesting thing here is that, although this is billed as a YA novel, clearly the publisher was going for cross over to the adult market as well.


This crossover aspect is actually much more common than it used to be. Harry Potter is a great example of a "kids" book that ended up being just as popular with adults. So much so that in the UK, the series was actually published with two different covers. One for kids and one for adults. There are many reason for the success of Harry Potter and Twilight, but I believe a big part of it is that they are being read by adults and young adults both. In fact there is a saying in the movie business that you get a G or PG rating if you want sales. You get an R rating is you are going for awards. Produce a book or a movie that both adults and children enjoy and you've taken the first step in creating a top seller.

With this in mind, I've been hoping for an artist for my book who could do artwork that clearly says fantasy but whose art would appeal to adults as well as YA and middle grade readers. Because my series has a thirteen-year-old girl and boy as its protagonists, I can feel confident that I will get middle-grade readers. But will teenagers and adults give it a try as well? The cover and inside illustrations may very well decide that one way or the other. That's why I was so excited when Shadow Mountain told me my author would be Brandon Dorman.

For those of you who don't know Brandon, he is a rapidly rising star. His picture book, The Wizard, from the poem by Jack Prelutsky, hit number one in children's picture books. But he has also done a number of YA covers including Fablehaven, Nightmare Academy, The Wednesday Tales, and many, many others.

The thing that impresses me so much about Brandon is the way he combines both fantasy and reality in a way that pulls in readers of all ages. Here are just a couple of examples of his art from his web site http://www.brandondorman.com/.

What I love most about this image is the 3-D aspect.
In Farworld Water, I introduce a character named Tankum, who is a two sword-wielding warrior. This picture gives me goosebumps.
Anyway, I'm excited as heck to have Brandon doing the artwork for my book. When I e-mailed him to ask for permission to link to a couple of his images, he wrote back the following message.
"I just finished FARWORLD. Great stuff! You have the master's touch."

Right back at you, Brandon!

To see more of Brandon's work, you can visit his web site or his blog, or just go to Amazon and search for Brandon Dorman.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Living the Fantasy

Ever since I was little I have loved fantasy. Tolkien. Stephen R. Donaldson. Terry Brooks. And later, Robert Jordan. A Wrinkle in Time. The Hobbit. Dragons, swords, elves, and anything magic. I loved them all. I played Dungeons and Dragons with all my geeky friends as soon as I heard of it. I solved every Ultima computer game that ever came out—even though the last few were often played with a son or daughter on my knee. I watched “The Never Ending Story” over and over, even though Falcor looked kind of like a giant Muppet. I was even nearly arrested for leading a large and somewhat rowdy group of high school friends through the neighborhood after midnight on a search for, “The Golden Banana”—for which I was grounded for most of my teenage life.

So it would seem natural that the first book I would write and publish would be fantasy. My youngest brother, Mark, certainly has pushed me to write a fantasy series. But somehow it wasn’t until last year that I finally saw the light. I think there are two reasons for my hesitance. The first is that I really wasn’t sure I could do it. Somehow, the thought of creating new worlds, and populating them with believable cultures, rules of nature and magic, histories, and everything that goes along with it seemed both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Much more intimidating than writing a thriller or mystery—which I also enjoy.

The second reason is a little harder to explain. You write a mystery and you are done. People read it. They solve it or they don’t. And hopefully they go away happy. The same with a thriller. But, for me at least, a fantasy is more than that. Especially a fantasy series. I want depth and meaning. I want to stand up to Lord Foul. I want to guess whether Snape is good or evil, with all the associated significance of each. I want to see worlds rotating around the Talisman. I want to struggle with giving up the ring. I want to get so lost in the new world that I feel slightly disoriented when I close the novel. There is nothing I love more than opening the first page of a fantasy novel that I know absolutely nothing about and exploring a new world. How can you take creating something like that lightly?

So I waited.

Then, a little over eighteen months ago, I spoke on the phone with a wonderfully goofball author by the name of James Dashner. He told me about a publisher he had signed with by the name of Shadow Mountain publishing, and all the success they’d had with two other fantasy series. Of course I had also the usual author emotions—excitement, jealousy, envy, murderous blood-curdling rage. But still, how could I have a problem with his success? I don’t write fantasy. Except . . . let me take you back about two years before that day.

As I mentioned earlier, my brother Mark has always wanted me to write a fantasy. He has been positive it would be great. Mostly to appease him, I came up with a story idea. The concept revolved around two children. A boy and a girl. Both of them are outcasts. The boy because he is badly disabled and requires a wheelchair to get around in. The girl because she lives in a world that eats, breathes, and sweats magic. And she can’t even use so much as a potion. But somehow these two rejects come together and find they have to save each other’s worlds.

Almost every time I talked to my brother, he would ask about the story. I actually even wrote a first chapter once where a wizard and a warrior are on their way to a small border village where a child is rumored to have been born with special significance. Only by the time they get there, the entire city is destroyed. But honestly I didn’t ever plan on doing any more with it. It was just one of those chapters that sits around until your hard drive finally crashes or you clean out your desk.

Until James planted the crazy idea into my head by telling me about this publisher. Somehow I couldn’t get the story of Marcus and Kyja out of my head. It got so bad that at about two in the morning, I finally climbed out of bed and opened up my laptop just to prove to myself that I couldn’t write the story—hoping that would exorcise the demon in my skull. Four hours and five thousand words later, I realized the demon wasn’t going anywhere but into paper.

So here I am about 105,000 words and eighteen months later with a contract, an advance, and even an artist that I’ll blog about tomorrow. I’m definitely excited. But I am also scared to death. I want Farworld to be something that crosses over from children to adults the way Harry Potter did. I want the characters to seem so real you feel like you knew them in another life. When you close the first book, I want you to immediately start searching for on the internet for any word of book two. But mostly I want a young reader to feel the same sense of wonderment I felt when I read my first fantasy. And hopefully they’ll find their own magic the way I found mine.