Writing Advice #29: Money

This week, we’re going to talk about money. I get asked about money a lot — how much do authors make? What percentage of the book’s price comes back to the author? How do royalties work? Well, I’m going to try to de-mystify this voodoo a little bit. [Read more…]

Belated Travel Report: NYMBC 2009

Yes, yes — I am woefully and inexcusably late in reporting on my travels. Mea culpa.

So, I spent a few days in the lovely city of San Francisco, communing with its lovely people. Had a great time and did some cool stuff leading up to (and including) Not Your Mother’s Book Club’s Fall Bash 2009.

First up was a trip to Carlmont High School in Belmont, CA. I was there to speak to English teacher Gail Langkusch’s three (that’s right — THREE) Creative Writing classes. You know, at MY high school, we were lucky to have a single class in creative writing. Gail somehow managed convince her administration to have three of them. (She assures me there were no blackmail photos involved.)

And you know what? I believe her because the best part about these classes was that the kids in them clearly were serious about writing. I’ve seen creative writing classes where it’s obvious that the kids in question were just looking for something to do, a way to blow off an elective, something like that. But the kids in Gail’s classes were all attentive and they had some TERRIFIC questions. (Including one that I’ve never gotten before: “Are you ever worried that there will come a day when the age gap between you and teens is too wide for you to keep writing for them?” Fabulous question!)

I spoke for roughly half of each class, covering some of the territory in my Writing Advice series of blog entries, then took questions, tossing Goth Girl minimates to each kid who asked a question. (I literally tossed them, as the kids who were smacked in the face can attest. Minimates in their packages are not terribly aerodynamic, it turns out.)

The next day, I spoke to the Ravenous Readers, a book club at Wallenberg High School in San Francisco. This was a terrific event, one that both broke my heart and raised my spirits.

See, it turns out that — due to budget cuts — the librarian at Wallenberg was laid off last year. I hate to see that. Yeah, I know times are tough all over and it may seem that school librarians aren’t all that important to a student’s education, but man! Librarians don’t just sit around the library shushing kids, y’know. They maintain the library, keep the collection up-to-date (which is CRUCIAL, especially nowadays), and teach kids critical thinking skills when they’re doing research (things like, “Don’t just rely on Wikipedia!”).

So, it killed me to walk into this school and be told that the librarian wasn’t there (and wouldn’t be there, ever) and then to see the library, which was a lovely space that deserved some professional love.

Well, then I met the kids, the Ravenous Readers. And I learned that, in the absence of their librarian, they had taken it upon themselves to continue the book club on their own, holding meetings, coordinating author visits, etc. They had even taken over the library, doing their best to maintain it without a librarian.

I was really blown away, and then it got even BETTER because their former school librarian showed up! She took time out of her own day to come back to her previous job, just to support her kids! It was really terrific.

I had so much fun with the Ravenous Readers. They had all read my first book, so I read a little bit from Goth Girl Rising for them, then answered questions. Once again, the questions were terrific. I don’t know what they put in the school drinking fountains in the Bay Area, but all of the kids I met had wonderful questions.

That night, it was off to Books, Inc. for the NYMBC Fall Bash. This event has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, so I will point you to the blogs of Sara Zarr and Heidi R. Kling, as well as this piece in the Examiner for more information. I will mention, though, that usually when I read from Goth Girl Rising, I read one of the letters Kyra has written to Neil Gaiman. The night of NYMBC, though, I felt like trying something different, so I read the chapter titled “Boobs,” reminding the audience to imagine Kyra saying these things, not me.

And then, when I was finished, I learned that my reading had been broadcast throughout the entire store, including the coffee shop next door!

Oops. Hope y’all enjoyed Kyra’s rant on breasts!

Here are some pix from NYMBC (hover over them for details). A great time was had by all. Special thanks for Jenn Laughran of Books, Inc. for making it all possible, and to Mary Kole for taking the pictures!

 

Allen Zadoff, L.K. Madigan, Sara Zarr, me, Andrew Smith

 

Trying to make a point, maybe?
Reading from GGR

Belated Travel Report: AASL 2009

Wow, has it really been THREE WEEKS since I went to AASL 2009 in Charlotte, NC?

(*checks calendar, does math*)

Um, yes! Yes, it has been!

Oops.

I had a great time at AASL 2009. I was in town for — literally — a day. My plane touched down in Charlotte at 11:00 am on Friday, and at 11:00 am the following day, I was taxiing on the runway, headed back home.

But in those 24 hours, I had a lot of fun, including seeing some old friends like my buddy John Shableski (who handles marketing stuff for Diamond Book Distributors and was instrumental in getting me to the show), as well as meeting new friends like Carrie RyanMaggie Stiefvater, and Shani Petroff.

I began the day signing copies of Wolverine: Worst Day Ever in the Baker & Taylor booth:

Then I migrated to signing Goth Girl Rising, with the able assistance of Seth Dellon:

But it wasn’t all signing! Oh, no. That night, Baker & Taylor sponsored a get together, to which I was invited. John promised “something fun.” Well, the something fun turned out to be an improv drawing routine, with Jimmy Gownley, the Fillbach Bros., Andy Runton, and yours truly.

There’s only one problem.

I can’t draw:

As you can see, art does not number upon my mad skillz. I gave it the ol’ college try, though, and happily signed each piece with the names of some of the REAL artists in attendance. So if you see someone auctioning a piece of Jimmy Gownley art DIRT CHEAP…think twice! It might be my lame-ass attempt at art.

After that exercise in humilation, I headed back to the hotel room, got up in the morning, and flew home. A quick trip, yes, but lots of fun!

 

Weird Publishing Goof

Ah, the vicissitudes of publishing! Sometimes everyone does their jobs just perfectly…and something still ends up being goofed up.

Last night, I was double-checking something in a finished copy of Goth Girl Rising when I noticed an odd error. I immediately looked back at the original page proofs to confirm that it had been correct there…and it was. Somehow, an error crept in after I’d approved the pages to go to press. And it’s a WEIRD one.

The very last page of the book (page 390) is the second page of the Acknowledgements. At the very top of that page, I’m in the midst of thanking Officer Stacey Gaegler of the Hampstead (MD) police department. (She answered some questions that helped me write the end of the book.) Notice how I just typed “Hampstead (MD)” there. That would be Hampstead, MARYLAND, right?

Here’s how it appeared on the page proofs:

MD = MD

And here’s how it appears in the final book:

MD = Medical Doctor

Yow! Somehow, mischievous elves sneaked into the compositing system and decided that “MD” meant “Medical Doctor.” (You’ll notice someone also expanded “Dept.” to “Department.” Hmm. Elves that hate abbreviations!)

This will be fixed in future editions, of course. In the meantime, I hope Officer Gaegler enjoys her stint as a doctor.

Writing Advice #28: Building Character(s) Pt. 2

Picking up from last week’ s discussion of character building and description… This week we’re going to eschew the superficial and dive into our characters’ CHARACTERS — their souls, their insides. In short: What makes them tick.

OK, look — this isn’t actually rocket science here. I’m going to give you a couple of shortcuts that will help you when you think about characters.

It’s important to remember that characters are not people. OK? People are those beings you see walking around all day. Some of them are interesting, some of them are boring. Some of them are goofy and some of them are serious, and that’s all well and good.

Characters, though, ALWAYS have to be interesting.

You can’t come up with a character who’s boring as hell and then say, “Well, I know people who are like that. I’m just reflecting reality.” Uh, no. See, the problem here is that no one wants to read about boring people.

So you have to make your characters interesting. But what IS interesting?

Unless you’re writing a thriller, you don’t need to make your characters ninjas or anything. I mean, yeah, ninjas are way cool and all that, but if you’re writing a story about, say, a kid who’s dealing with his dad’s death, a ninja is just going to confuse the issue. (Yes, yes, I know — unless you’re writing a story set in feudal Japan. Thank you, smart-ass.)

You just need characters who have some element, some quirk, some factor that makes them stand out. This is, in part, why we read — to “meet” interesting people.

So how do you do this? How do you make characters stand out?

First of all, think in terms of SURPRISE. Readers love it when they try to predict a character’s response or actions…and get it wrong. But ONLY when you have a good reason for it, ONLY when it grows naturally from the character. That’s very important — your characters can act contrary to their apparent interests or personalities, but only if you’ve cleverly figured out HOW. Readers don’t mind being wrong when they can step back and justify it. But if you decide that your sexist character is suddenly going to give his fortune to the Hillary Clinton campaign…well, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

One of my favorite characters was on the old TV show Twin Peaks. He was named Albert Rosenfield and he was an FBI agent, a specialist in forensics. He’s called to Twin Peaks to help investigate a murder and he immediately pisses off EVERYONE in town by belittling them, calling them yokels, mocking their small town, etc.

Well, Albert is so obnoxious that eventually Sheriff Truman just hauls off and punches him. It’s a tense moment. You figure Obnoxious Al is going to smack the Sheriff back, right?

Wrong. Albert does nothing. Instead, he delivers the following little soliloquy:

 

“While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and a hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and will gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject, absolutely, revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. I love you, Sheriff Truman.”

Whoa! That was TOTALLY unexpected! Albert is a pacifist?

Well, sure. After all, there’s no rule that says that a pacifist has to be a touchy-feely, let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-together kind of guy, right? Albert’s moral principles are apparently totally at odds with his abrasive personality, but the more you think about his character, the more you realize that while he may be a study in contradictions, he’s wholly consistent in and of himself. He’s a well-rounded, brilliantly developed character. He zigs when we think he should zag and — most important of all — he does so in a way that does NOT make the viewer think, “Ah, that’s bull! That would never happen!”

Instead, it makes the viewer think, “Holy crap! I didn’t see THAT coming!” We realize that Albert can think Sheriff Truman is a yokel and a putz, but still love him as a fellow human being.

If Albert had come to town threatening people with violence instead of just belittling them, then his claim to being a pacifist wouldn’t ring true. Instead, we get a pacifist character who is utterly unlike every other touchy-feely pacifist character we’ve ever seen.

So, that’s one way of making your characters interesting. Think of reversals. Think of ways your characters can act contrary to the expectations of your reader…but (and this is SO important!) in a manner that is still consistent with WHO THEY ARE!

Let me give you an example from real life.

I had a friend I worked with for many, many years. We enjoyed talking politics. He was a registered Republican and pretty conservative.

But one day he told me something that surprised me: He had voted for Bill Clinton!

“What? I don’t get it. Why?”

“Because,” he told me, “I believe that space exploration is the most important facet of our government. It’s the area of study that’s going to change the world the most, and Bill Clinton has done more to support NASA than any other president since John F. Kennedy.”

That blew my mind. But, again, it was wholly in keeping with my friend’s character. It’s just that I expected him to hate Bill Clinton because of the many philosophical differences they had. But he surprised me because I never stopped to think that there might be one issue that my friend AND Bill Clinton both cared about enough that it would obviate all the others.

If you wanted to make this an equation, you might write it out: x=e+s, where x is “interesting character,” e is expectation, and s is surprise.

Let’s add another element to that equation: Obsession.

(Yes, I’m listening to Animotion as I write this. Get off my back.)

We all have things we’re obsessed about: football, Star Wars, Justin Timberlake, the Bible, cats, pottery, knitting, whatever.

To a degree, our obsessions color the way we see the world. If you’re REALLY into Star Wars, then you’re going to noticeStar Wars in the culture around you. When someone jokes about “turning to the Dark Side,” it’s not just a comment to you — it has a provenance that you are intimately aware of. Similarly, if you LOVE pottery, then you’re going to take notice of the vase at the hotel you’re staying at on vacation. Me? I’m not into pottery — I’ll be lucky even to notice that the vase EXISTS. But you will have an entirely different experience in that exact same hotel room.

When I wrote my first book, I decided early on that Fanboy would be a comic book fan. As I wrote the book, that informed just about everything he did or said. When Fanboy was scared, he didn’t think, “Hey, this is scary.” No, he thought, “It’s like Batman going into Arkham Asylum, alone, unarmed, and needing to pee really bad.”

More to the point, Fanboy wasn’t just a comic book fan — he was also a budding comic book CREATOR. So his thoughts would take a certain turn at times, as he would think about artwork and story, and how the two are crafted, and how they can combine together to form a great comic book.

This made him different from other outcast, misunderstood teen boys. I mean, sure — he’s still an outcast, misunderstood teen boy. But he had a perspective and a way of thinking about the world that distinguished him.

In Boy Toy, I went a different way. Josh, I decided, was a math genius who was also an incredible baseball player. So his narration is stuffed full with facts about baseball, obscure calculations, and metaphors from the diamond.

Now, you can go too far with this. You can ALWAYS go too far with stuff like this. If every other sentence in Boy Toy had been something like, “I deflected her question like Ted Williams deflecting a bunt,” my readers would have gotten sick and tired of Josh REAL quick.

It’s important that your character’s obsession be organic to the story AND to the character. For Fanboy, his love of comics had multiple roles in the story: It was partly responsible for his isolation from his peers, it gave him a safe haven when he retreated into his imagination (and his bedroom) to work on his comic, and it propelled his growth as he sought to show his comic book to Bendis.

For Josh, baseball was an escape from his own tortured past. It was the one facet of his life under his control, and he loved it for that reason. The cold statistics of baseball made it possible for Josh to evaluate his life and his status, without ever confronting what had been done to him as a child. It was obsession-as-distraction. And on a plot level, it propelled his story in many ways — Josh’s love of baseball and confidence in his own skills leads him to lose a bet with Rachel, which forces him to reveal his darkest secrets. And his skills on the field put him in direct conflict with his asshole baseball coach, who wants to exploit Josh for his own reasons.

So don’t decide that your character loves Mayan architecture just because you think Mayan architecture is neat and you want something for your character to talk about. In real life, it’s all well and good for people to have interests and obsessions that don’t directly impact or feed into the “narrative” of their lives, but in storytelling, that’s a no-no. It confuses the point of the story and takes up a lot of time and space for something that — in the end — will have absolutely zero impact on the story…or the reader.

Look for an obsession that you can weave into the overarching story. It doesn’t have to be that way right away — it doesn’t even have to be obvious. But if you do it skillfully, you’ll really please your readers by the end of the story, when they come to realize how full and rounded your characters are.

OK, that’s it for this week! If you feel like it, comment below and tell me about a time when a character surprised you.