Writing

Fanboy Goes to Hollywood

So, yeah — I’m happy to announce that Fanboy has been optioned as one of them fancy moving pictures. A talkie, even!

Director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon, other stuff, too) and his production company (Tinroof Pictures) have picked up the option to the book. This has been a long process for everyone involved, and I want to thank Jeremiah for sticking with it, my agent Kathy Anderson for negotiating the deal, and her lawyer, Eric Feig, for handling the nitty-gritty. I also want to thank Liz Dubelman at VidLit for giving Jeremiah a copy of the book in the first place!

Now, you should know a few things: This deal is for an option. That means that Jeremiah now has eighteen months to figure out how to put together the financing for the movie and then buy the rights from me. The option is basically a contractual way of saying, “I really want the rights to make this book into a movie, but I’m not ready yet. Here’s a little money as a good faith gesture and in return, you agree not to let anyone else buy the rights for the next year or so.”

If, within that option time, Jeremiah is still interested and is able to get his ducks in a row, he then comes back to my agent and says, “OK, here’s the money we agreed upon for the rights. Now I’m going to make the movie.”

So basically, he’s bought the rights to buy the rights at some point down the road. And if a year and a half goes by, he can renew that option and get another eighteen months. So it could be years before we ever see a glimmer of a Fanboy movie.

Or, it could happen tomorrow.

Or, it could never happen. He could lose interest or not find the financing. Or just keep renewing the option until kingdom come.

This is par for the course. Hollywood deals are Byzantine and take a lot of time, I’ve learned. Movie interest in the book began as early as January 2006, nine months before the book even came out. That seemed (and still seems) odd to me, since no one had even seen the book yet! But who am to complain about some pre-pub buzz, right?

As spring came, some of the buzz began to solidify. One director called me and spent about an hour telling me how he would make the movie. He sent me a pre-release DVD of his latest movie so that I could see his style. I enjoyed the talk a lot and here’s the thing: I realized, as I hung up, that I wasn’t really bouncing off the walls at the idea of a movie being made from the book. What I was bouncing off the walls about was this: A complete stranger had read my book and loved it enough to call me and tell me that. Wow. That was huge to me, especially considering that we were still months away from the book hitting stores.

When the book did hit stores, the Hollywood interest picked up a little bit, with the occasional e-mail from production company folks. Fortunately, I had read Brian Michael Bendis’s absolutely brilliant Fortune & Glory, perhaps the ultimate primer on Hollywood. (Yeah, I know other folks have written Hollywood primers, but they’ve all done so from the inside. Bendis wrote F&G while still an outsider, to a degree. Plus, it’s just the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time!) I knew that Hollywood moved slowly and capriciously, so I just put movie stuff out of my mind and let Kathy handle it.

And then I got the call from Jeremiah.

Now, I knew that the call was coming, so right beforehand, I rectified a long-lived, shameful oversight — I ran out to the video store and rented Benny & Joon.

God, what a brilliant movie! The man who made this movie, I knew, could make my book come alive on screen.

I spent about an hour or so on the phone with him. He told me what he liked about the book, how he saw it developing into a film. We talked at length about traps to avoid — and we both agreed on what those traps were!

Later that day, Jeremiah wrote to my agent to officially begin the process of negotiating for the option.

That was about a year ago. Like I said before — Hollywood stuff takes time.

But hey — it’s the first step. And just like I felt a year ago, talking to that first director, I’m still excited. Not by the idea that there might someday be a movie of my book. No, by the idea that someone liked it enough to want to make a movie in the first place. Everything else is gravy.

G’day! (Fanboy Goes Aussie)

Well, it’s official, I guess — I’m now an “internationally published author.”

Just yesterday, my friendly neighborhood mail delivery person dropped off a beaten-all-to-hell box on my doorstep. This box looked like it had been through a war. Either that, or it had traveled from the other side of the planet.

Guess which it was?

Since it wasn’t the special Baghdad version of Fanboy, there’s only one other possibility: It was my comp copies of my Australian edition! Whoo-hoo!

I can only assume that this means that the book will be on store shelves in Australia very soon. I expect an influx of Australian IP addresses to this site any minute now. Don’t disappoint me, Australia.

Other than the fact that it’s in paperback and slightly smaller than the American edition, there’s not much that immediately tips you off that this is a foreign edition. Then you start to notice little things — like the single quotation marks on the cover blurbs. The new publisher name/logo. Even the spine is slightly different. (It has my full name, not just my last name.)

Inside, there are almost no differences, as I’m told the book was reproduced directly from the American files. A typo I found in the American hardcover has been corrected. (Huzzah!) The indicia page has been replaced entirely with a new Australian indicia page. (Which means that the dedication originally on the American edition is now gone, alas.) And there are some ads in the back for some other Pan MacMillan titles, including a little something called The Book Thief.

Yeah, that’s right — Markus Zusak rides on my coattails. You heard it here first, people.

All in all, it’s a nice package, and it’s very cool to see my very first foreign edition! Thanks to Anna and the rest of the crew Down Under for making this happen.

I’m on iTunes

My obsessive admiration for Steven P. Jobs and his crack squad of wunderkinder at Apple is well-known by anyone who has spoken to me for more than five minutes. (Um, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for this, too…)

So yeah, I know that this may be a little thing, but still… I can’t help but feel a little thrill when I visit iTunes and type in my name and…

Fanboy on iTunesThere I am. Well, my audiobook, at least.

I don’t know why it hits me so strongly. It’s just One of Those Things, I guess. You never think about it or anticipate it and then it just hits you. In fact, I didn’t think about it until five minutes ago, and my audiobook came out six weeks ago! But I thought about it just now and I checked and there it was.

I think it’s similar to the thrill authors feel the first time they see their books on the shelves of their local bookstores. You just get this moment of reality colliding with the fantasy in your mind as that fantasy becomes true.

In this case, it’s a virtual bookshelf, but it’s one stocked by the guy who oversaw and micromanaged into existence all the cool computer toys I play with.

So, y’know, it’s me and Steve and my hero, Bruce Springsteen, and…

Oh, shut up and let me dream!

Fanboy Goes to College

One of the most interesting (and certainly unexpected) aspects of my Texas Tour back in January was meeting Bill Monroe, a professor at the University of Houston. Bill actually uses The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl in his class on Literature and Alienation! That was pretty wild to learn. Even wilder was that my schedule allowed me time to visit Bill’s class, where I got to sit in on (and participate in!) a discussion of my own book. That was an incredible experience!

Bill answered a few questions about how and why he chose the book for the class, and even supplied a couple of response papers from students. You can see it all over on the Fanboy site.

Issues with Issues

Over on her blog, Robin has some thoughts about “issue” books. Go read it and also be sure to read the comments, which are terrific, especially Molly’s comment about the power of the “survivor” in issue fiction and memoir.

There’s a lot to say here and I won’t say it all, but still — this is gonna be a long one, folks. And inevitably some people are going to misinterpret it, which made me think twice about posting it in the first place, but, well, here goes.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, an “issue book” is typically a book identified primarily by its association with some controversial issue, as opposed to its quality. The term is often used pejoratively in many circles, which is how it’s pretty much used below. Why? Well, because while there are certainly good issue books, the fact of the matter is, we rarely call them such. We usually just call them “good books.”

Which is part of my point.

Robin says in her post, “…there are a lot of books out there that take on an issue, it seems, just for the sake of being scandalous.”

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about.

This is a tough…issue (heh) for me because I could come across sounding hypocritical once Boy Toy hits. There are going to be a lot of people who call it an “issue” book. (They’re wrong, but that won’t stop them.)

It’s also tough to talk about because, inevitably, someone is going to think I’m talking about his or her book. Let me say this: I’m not talking about your book. I’m going to try to make my examples as ridiculously narrow as possible so that it’s impossible to assign them to any one book, but let’s face it — someone’s gonna take offense. Try not to. Honest to God, I’m talking about the concept and the overall notion of “issue” books, not your book in particular! There are many fine “issue” books out there, but there are also many that are problematic. (In particular, since Robin’s post was touched off by discussion of Patty McCormick’s Sold, people will assume I’m talking about that book. I’m not.)

Here’s what bothers me about “issue” books — they tend to muddy the waters of what the book is actually about. Sometimes that’s because the book is only about the issue at hand, with the issue overwhelming the actual story-telling. My feeling is that, no matter how passionately you feel about the issue, guess what? You’re a writer. Your job is to tell me a story. That’s the most important thing. It needs to be an interesting, compellingstory, not a screed.

That’s a fine line to walk. It can be crossed very easily, especially when you’re very close to the subject or have done a lot of research and want to show the world how much you know. I’ll poke fun at myself here: A few years ago, I wrote an odd sort of historical fantasy novel (quite unpublished, thank you). The novel starred an actual historical person (a pretty famous one, actually) and I did a hell of a lot of research into his life. I used that research in the book, to the point that it was strangling the story. But I didn’t care — I just loved this person and I was going to show the world why. My early readers finally had to perform an intervention: “I know you know everything there is to know about this guy,” said one. “But I don’t care. I care about the story.”

There’s an old saying: A story is not everything that happened. It is every important thing that happened. When you’re caught up emotionally in an issue, you sometimes forget that, and the story suffers as a result.

I mean, if you want to write about, say, the plight of impoverished albino children raised by wolverines, then that’s fine. But if that’s all you want to write about and you have no interest in investing your story with character development and plot twists and so on because you’re just so damn focused on those poor, poor kids and their wolverine parents, then guess what? Maybe you should write an op-ed piece or script a documentary or pen a non-fiction book or produce a segment of Dateline. But don’t use fiction as a cloak and a crutch because fiction has certain demands and requirements.

What else can go wrong with “issue” books? Well, they can get attention they don’t deserve. And they’re invulnerable.

I mean, let’s say I write a book about a teen who’s only sexually aroused by goats. It’s not particularly well-written, but when it comes out it has all kinds of attendant press talking about the shame of kids who can only get it on with kids (heh) and how X percentage of high schoolers are zoophiles, but no one ever talks about this hidden underground sex practice among our teens, and so on and so forth. The book gets lots of attention and I am feted as being oh so daring for writing about it.

Here’s the problem, though: The book isn’t all that good. Maybe it doesn’t suck, but maybe it’s just…so-so. Still, it’s getting a lot of attention it doesn’t deserve. Meanwhile, another book that’s not nearly as controversial misses out, even though it’s better written and an overall better book. It’s about a guy with a pet goat who sees that goat as a substitute for his dead mother and has to deal with an upcoming move to the city that will take the goat away from him. It’s a really good book, but since the kid isn’t shtupping the goat, not as many people notice.

And I’ve made my own book bulletproof. Anyone who criticizes it can be shot down with, “Don’t you feel anything for those poor, secret zoophile teenagers, you heartless bastard?” Fiction shouldn’t be bulletproof. It needs to be open to criticism and discussion. If someone is afraid to criticize Kid on Kid because of the subject matter, then I’ve just cut off discussion of my book.

Am I saying that “issues” shouldn’t be tackled at all? God, no! I’m just saying that they can’t be the be-all and end-all of the story. The story needs to have a reason for existing beyond, “I really want to hammer home this controversial issue.”

Now, some people will say, “Barry, get over yourself. You’re being way too cynical. You’re assuming people only care about the flash, not the substance.”

To which I respond, “Jerry Springer. Anna Nicole Smith coverage. American Idol, for God’s sake.”

And some people will say, “Even if an issue book isn’t particularly well-written, the writer deserves kudos for bringing the issue up for public consumption.”

And I say, “No. A writer deserves kudos for telling a good story. If it’s a good story that also discusses a tough issue or changes the world by shedding some light on a topic, then that writer gets an extra heaping helping of kudos. But a good story comes first.”

Maybe that stance makes me a hard-ass. OK, so be it. The fact of the matter is, I make my living telling stories. I take it pretty seriously. Again — if you don’t want to write good fiction, go make a documentary. If it’s well-done, I’ll be first in line to watch it. I don’t quibble with people’s intentions or the necessity of exposing the evils of the world. But use the proper tools and use them properly.

Look, Boy Toy’s got child sexual abuse in it, OK? But when I talk about the book, I try to avoid talking about that because the book isn’t about child abuse. The abuse is a natural part of the story. It enhances the story and the story (hopefully) earns the rather raw and difficult images I bring to it. But the book is about a kid named Josh who’s trying to figure out how to move into the future when he can’t quite shake his past.

Looking for Alaska was a great grief book because it wasn’t about grief. It was about very specific kids dealing with grief in their own way. The Girl with the Silver Eyes was a great divorce story because it wasn’t about divorce — it was about how a specific character dealt with it. Wide Awake strikes a chord not because it stars young, gay political activists, but because it tells a timeless truth: stand up and be counted if you want to make a difference.

Robin’s own Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature is a great book not because it’s about evolution and fundamentalism, but rather because she’s crafted a credible, powerful character in Mena who strives to understand and to better herself. Quite frankly, the book could have been about Mena trying to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem as opposed to the Theory of Evolution and it would still be great because of Robin’s wit, devotion to her character, and attention to detail. When the book comes out, people will say, “It’s about evolution vs. intelligent design” because that’s a quick, sexy, controversial way to sum it up, but they’re wrong. Robin’s book is about a girl trying to reconcile her upbringing with what she feels (and fears!) may be the real truth of the world. The evolution stuff is window dressing. Gorgeous, well-crafted window dressing, to be sure, but what’s important is the window we’re looking through, not what surrounds it.

I’ve blathered on a lot here, and people are going to assume that I hate specific books and specific types of books, and nothing could be further from the truth. I just worry when I hear someone say, “Oh, Book X is so amazing! It’s about Controversial Subject #30, and I can’t believe Author Y was so courageous to write about it!” I immediately think, Yeah, but is it a good story?

Because, again, someone could probably get a lot of attention writing that Kid on Kid book (coming Fall 2009!). But fiction doesn’t exist just to bring “issues” to light. It has to have its own internal reason for “living.”

Again: a lot of blather. What it boils down to is this — The story is what matters. If the story tackles an issue, great. But don’t reward a bad story just because it touches on difficult subject matter. Save your kudos for those who touch a live wire and do it well.