Wednesday, October 24, 2012

“Where do you get your ideas?” HOW TO STEAL A CAR

I love it when I am asked where I got the idea for How To Steal a Car, because for once I can answer the question easily.

A few years ago I was talking with a group of teen readers, and I asked them what sort of books they liked to read. I got the usual spread of responses:

“I like fantasies with dragons and stuff.”
“I like cheesy romances.”
“I like books about sports.”
“I like really spooky paranormal.”
“I like books with horses.”

Then one girl said something I’d never heard before:

“I’m like, fourteen, and like my life is really boring, and I’d like to read a book about a girl just like me who, like, goes out and steals a car.”

The next day I started writing a book about a girl who goes out and steals a car. She steals several cars.

Why would a teenage girl do such a thing? Good question! When I started the book I did not have the answer. But by the time Kelleigh Monahan stole her last car, I understood.

Some of my novels spring from a particular character concept (Invisible). Others come out of an imagined external event (Hole in the Sky), a plot concept (Blank Confession), or an imagined world (Rash). How To Steal a Car was different. It is essentially a journey of discovery, of character building. It is a reverse mystery—instead of peeling back layers to reveal a secret center, layers are added to create a vessel. This was why I used the very long novel Moby-Dick as an anchoring metaphor for this very short novel. 

This is the fourth in a series of posts answering the ever-popular question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Recommended Reading

Back in the late 1960s, Thomas M. Disch published a weirdly prescient little short story called "Displaying the Flag. The story has been mostly forgotten, although it recently received some small attention when it appeared on David Foster Wallace's "required reading list."

The story is about a closeted leather queen named Leonard Dworkin, who undergoes hypnosis therapy to rid himself of his inconvenient "aberration."

The therapy is successful, but is soon replaced by another even more aberrant  behavior: he becomes a wing nut, of the conservative variety. The story is funny and scary, in equal doses.

When the story was first published it was read as broad satire. Today, it seems all too real.

Disch, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2008, was one of our finest writers of science fiction, horror, and social satire. A few of his books are still in print, notably his remarkable six part novel, 334

"Displaying the Flag" is collected in Getting Into Death and Other Stories. The book is out-of-print, but easily available at secondhand booksellers. The collection also contains the stunning novelette "The Asian Shore."

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What I Do

During my Skype visits with teens this month, many of the questions that keep cropping up have to do with physical process, as in, "What do you do? Do you write every day? Do you write in the morning or at night? Do you write in a notebook by hand, or on a computer?"

I write most days. I write at various times of day, but mostly in the morning. I usually write on a Macintosh, using Microsoft Word. This is what my screen looks like when I am writing:
Click for bigger.
I'm currently working on the third book in The Klaatu Diskos, a time-travel trilogy. That's the outline on the left, color coded for different time periods. On the right side is the timeline.  The working manuscript is in the center. I am now on the third revision of the novel. Once I finish this revision, I hope to submit it to my editor, who will no doubt ask me to revise it again.

This is my life. I love it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Where Do You Get Your Ideas?" RASH

"In the year 2074, french fries are illegal,
football has been banned, and running
 isn't just for your health anymore"
Rash, set in the year 2074, is the story of a teen growing up in the USSA (the United Safer States of America). Football and French fries have been outlawed. People wear walking helmets. Verbal abuse is a serious crime. Sharpened pencils have been banned in schools. Canada has been annexed to protect our northern border. In short, it is a world no more different from today than today is from fifty years ago.

The story features an animated AI that takes the form of a talking monkey, a prison complex run by McDonalds and dedicated to manufacturing frozen pizzas, polar bears, and a crotchety old grandpa born in 1990. It’s a cautionary tale about what might happen when personal safety trumps personal freedom. Here’s how I got there:

Back in 2002, I read an article about a mysterious, contagious skin rash that had invaded a middle school in Virginia. Students were plagued by sudden, unexplained rashes on their arms, necks, and faces. Medical professionals descended upon the school, parents pulled their kids out of classes, and a host of theories was put forth: chemical pollution, exotic bacteria or viruses, allergens spread through the ventilation system, a bad batch of soap in the locker rooms, anthrax, bioterrorism, and so forth. Despite extensive testing, no biological or chemical antigens were discovered.

The plague quickly spread, not just in Virginia, but at dozens of other elementary and middle schools across the United States. No outside cause was proven at any of the schools involved.

I’m going to make a very long story short here: in all likelihood, the rashes were caused by rashes. One kid would complain of a rash—possibly a result of an allergy or other outside stimulus, and soon—often within the hour—his or her classmates would experience similar symptoms. This is an example of “psychogenic illness,” or what used to be referred to as “mass hysteria.” The rash spreads in the same way a yawn or a cough can ripple through a crowd.

In the case of rashes, the skin irritation is believed to be “spread” by students scratching, rubbing, or otherwise irritating an imagined itch. It is possible the rashes are, in some cases, purely psychogenic (erupting without physical stimulation), but that has not been proven. What seems certain is that the plague enters the body through the eyes and ears, is processed by the brain, and manifests in the dermis.

I saw in this a germ of an idea, and began “doodling” scenes about a contagious rash in a high school. As often happens, the germ grew legs and galloped off in a whole different direction. Rash became a story about a near-future dystopia. The psychogenic rash still has a place in the book, but it’s a minor plot point only loosely connected to the main theme of the story, which is, “What is the cost of personal safety?”

It’s no coincidence that I began writing Rash shortly after the signing of the Patriot Act and the rise of the Department of Homeland Security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) claims to be keeping us safe from terrorists, but they cannot prove they have foiled a single terrorist plot in the past eleven years. Cost of the TSA? $60,000,000,000 so far, and tens of millions of hours of delays for travelers. If you include the cost of the preemptive war on Iraq, you can toss in another $800 billion. Is it worth it? How much are we willing to pay in dollars, inconvenience and psychological stress for increased security? Frankly, I’m not sure, but that many billions seems a bit pricey.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were real. It was the single most economically devastating military action in history. From that ugly, tragic beginning, one might argue, a self-destructive “psychogenic illness” has beset us as a nation. Al-Qaeda has been effectively defeated as an organization, but we continue to scratch and claw at ourselves.

If you can't find Rash at your local bookstore, order online from: 
Indiebound  (lets you order from your favorite independent bookseller)
Barnes & Noble

Next week: How to Steal a Car

Saturday, October 13, 2012

“Where do you get your ideas?” NO LIMIT

Note: This is the second in a series of posts in which I discuss the “inspirations” behind my YA novels.

Back in the 1990s and the early 2000s, I played a lot of poker, mostly in casinos. My first few books (Drawing Dead, The Mortal Nuts, Short Money, etc.) were poker-themed adult novels. Poker, for me, was a hobby. I never won much, because I lack the discipline to play well on a consistent basis. According to my records, I earned about eighteen cents an hour, including driving time, gas money, and food purchased at the casino. Pretty pathetic, but better than losing, which is what most players do.

Casino poker makes for fascinating people-watching. You are sitting at a table with nine or ten strangers, sometimes for hours, while trying to take each other’s money. Poker is different from most other forms of casino gambling in that you are playing against the other players, not directly against the house. (The house earns money by taking a few dollars out of every pot.) I made some friends during my poker years, and learned some things about what drives people, and learned a lot about my own limitations.

One thing I learned was to recognize the signs of gambling addiction. You don’t have to look far. Take a stroll through the rows upon rows of slots and watch the glaze-eyed gamblers pumping money into the machines. See the haggard souls lining up at the ATM. Observe the red-faced, shouting men at the craps table, talking to the dice as if the little plastic cubes were sentient beings.

Gambling addicts can be found at the poker tables as well, chasing unplayable hands, raising on a hunch, throwing money at luck, fate, justice, and the wind. Most addicts are losers. But in poker, a game in which skill and discipline can produce consistently profitable results, there are gambling addicts who win more than they lose. This is analogous to being addicted to heroin and being paid for it. The more heroin you use, the more money you receive.

This was the core concept upon which I based the YA novel No Limit.* Denn Doyle is a teenager who finds out he is an amazing poker player. He starts raking in the cash, and becomes consumed by the game. He wins all the money, but is it worth the price of becoming obsessed and addicted? Heck if I know—that’s why I wrote a book about it.

I don’t play poker very often these days. I’m not talented enough to make it financially viable, and the social aspect of casino poker has become less interesting to me. But I still enjoy a casual game with friends—a few hours of stories and banter interrupted from time to time by a hand of hold’em. I almost always lose, but I love it.

*No Limit was originally published under the title Stone Cold. The title was changed at the publisher’s request. Long story—I may address it in another post sometime.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? Mr. Was

Last week in Minneapolis I participated in a fun “This is Teen” event with fellow Scholastic authors Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Boys), Eliot Schrefer (Endangered), and Anna Waggener (Grim). After the program, we took questions from the audience, and of course one of the questions was, “Where do you get your ideas?”

This common question I answer in many different ways, depending on the context, who’s asking, and my mood at the moment.  I might talk about one specific idea behind a particular title, or I might say, “I don’t know—they just come to me.” If I’m feeling snippy, I might say, “I steal them from other writers.” Which is sometimes the case.

The whole truth, of course, is too long and complicated to give at a book signing or other public appearance. For one thing, it’s different for every book. So in an effort to get myself to post more often, I’m going to answer the question in some detail for each of my Young Adult novels, starting with Mr. Was, my first YA novel.

I’ve always been a vivid and copious dreamer, and was beset by recurring dreams as a child. Some of those I do not talk about to this day. One dream—I must have had it hundreds of times—was about a small door in the back of a closet in my grandparents’ house.

The original hardcover jacket.
My grandparents’ house had several large walk-in closets filled with decades of fascinating junk. We grandkids were given the run of the house, and those closets were great for hiding in, snooping, and getting scared. They held all manner of treasures—parts of an old wooden mannequin, my grandmother’s religious paraphernalia, strange and brittle articles of clothing that no one had worn since long before I was born, secret codes scrawled on the walls by my father or uncles when they were kids, and an “Indian war club” made by my grandfather as a boy. (The club was a length of polished wood with a stone fastened to the end by a leather thong.) There was also a hidden slot—a piece of flooring that could be slid back into the wall, revealing a shallow hiding place large enough for a few coins. Often, we found a penny in there, which we were allowed to keep. My grandfather always replaced the coin for the next time the grandkids came to visit.

In my recurring dream, I would enter one of those scary/fascinating closets, and notice a small door at the back. Every time I would say to myself, “Oh! I forgot all about that door!” Behind the door, I would always find something different: an attic space filled with old toys, a winter garden with scary topiary, another house containing people who resembled (but were not) my grandparents, a secret entrance to my school, etc. Sometimes the dream became a nightmare, other times it was simply an adventure.

This is a common dream. I call it the Magic Door Dream. One can find many examples of it in literature, from The Chronicles of Narnia to Coraline. Clearly, I’m not the only author to dream of magic doors. But I felt I had to write about it because the dream was so powerful and emotionally resonant I knew it could sustain me through the course of writing the novel.

Every novel I write is driven by one or more nuggets of fascination—core ideas that, for whatever reason, provide a power source, a frisson, a sense of something both magical and solid. During the course of writing Mr. Was, when I found myself floundering, lost in the plot or the story, I could always get back on track by returning to my memories of those dreams to re-experience the gut-swirling sensation of facing that little door, the thrill of facing the unknown, of stepping into a secret world that was there just for me.

Mr. Was turned into a time-travel novel, which was not my original intention. It became a YA novel—also not my intention. (The time-traveling protagonist, Jack Lund, starts out as pre-teen, and ends up as an old man, but the bulk of his story takes place while he is a teenager.) Many other ideas came into play, and the story wandered off into areas that surprised me—but always I came back to the original sense of wonder I had experienced in those childhood dreams.

I’m now writing a time-travel trilogy called The Klaatu Diskos, which uses the core concepts of Mr. Was. In a way, Mr. Was is a prequel to The Klaatu Diskos—even though only one minor character appears in both works, the Magic Door Dream is still the engine driving the story.

One more thing: When my grandmother passed away, I bought her house. I hadn’t explored those closets in years, but the first thing I did, convinced that my dreams must have had some basis in reality, was to check every closet in the house, looking for that little door. I never found it.

Next week I’ll post about No Limit and All-In.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Antidisestablishmentarianism:* BBW Post #5

A new friend of mine, the YA author James Klise, was recently “disinvited” to a Skype visit at a middle school. He had been asked to speak about censorship to a group of eighth graders during Banned Books Week, but a few days later the school canceled his visit due to the subject matter of his book, Love Drugged. The book is about a gay teen who is given a drug to reverse his sexual preferences.

Jim wrote an article about his experience for the Chicago Tribune. (You may have to register to read it. It just takes a minute, and it’s free.)

Now, before you start tsk-tsking about the dreadful irony of an author being “banned” from speaking at a Banned Books Week event, let me say that the way this story played out made me feel pretty good, both about Jim and about the librarian with whom he was dealing. Jim is himself a librarian, specializing in children’s literature, and he understands the pressures under which school librarians work.

Being a school librarian ain’t easy. Librarians have to choose their battles carefully. They have limited funds, limited space, limited time, and limited clout. They must provide a selection of books that fairly and broadly represents both student tastes and academic imperatives, while at the same time not getting fired, lynched, or otherwise disempowered. I couldn’t hack it, but I am grateful that there are those who can.

Two years ago I wrote about another disinvited YA author—a case in which the matter was resolved messily and tragically. It still makes me somewhat ill to think about it. So I was relieved to see that the librarian with whom James Klise was dealing was not pilloried, and I was delighted that Jim did not fly into a frothing-at-the-mouth public rage, as I might have. His article was well-reasoned, balanced, and achingly poignant.

It’s reassuring, particularly during these months of political rancor, to witness a civilized discourse. In the universe of censorship-related conflicts, this is a small thing. But the fact is, people have been hurt. Jim is hurting as an author, and as a human being—nobody likes rejection. The librarian is embarrassed and no doubt feeling impotent in the face of conservative factions of her community (she has since added the book to her collection). And a group of students has been deprived of the opportunity to interact with a smart, talented, knowledgeable author.

*For the record, this is my first ever legitimate use of the word antidisestablishmentarianism, the longest word I know how to spell.

Celebrate Banned Books Week by reading a book that makes you apoplectic.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Three Unrelated Memories: BBW Post #4

A few weeks after 9-11, I was at a casino playing Texas hold’em, and the guy next to me was reading something between poker hands. I peeked at what he was reading. It was a printout from The Teheran Times, Iran’s largest newspaper. I was surprised, because the guy appeared to be a sixty-something seed-cap-wearing good ol’ boy—I’d have pegged him for a Rush Limbaugh fan.

“How come you’re reading that?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, “It’s interesting. They have a different perspective on things.”

Later, he told me he didn’t read much. “I’m dyslexic, and I read really slow,” he said. “So when I do read I like to make it count.”


On my first day of kindergarten, my mother walked me to the bus stop and waited there with me until the bus came. When the bus dropped me off a few hours later, she was waiting for me. That was the last time my mother appeared at the bus stop with me. Same story for my six younger siblings.

Every so often, in grade school, some kid would show up at the bus stop accompanied by a parent. The other kids would tease him (or her) all the way to school for needing a “babysitter.” The bus stop was not for parents, it was for kids.


My parents never once told me what I could or couldn’t read. They weren’t always happy about my choices, however. I can still see my father rolling his eyes at my stacks of comic books. And when, at age twelve, I dove eagerly into the James Bond novels—Sex! Guns! Violence! Martinis!—I can hear my mother saying, “Can’t you find something better to read?” But they never took a book away, or told me I couldn’t read one.

Like every other reading kid in the 1960s, I went straight from “juveniles” (The Hardy Boys, The Yearling, Big Red, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) into novels written for an adult audience. By my recollection, an “appropriate” book was any book a kid was capable of reading. Back then, from seventh grade on up, it seemed normal for us to be reading adult literature. Transitional literature for teens—what we now call YA—was a miniscule fragment of the literary landscape. These days it has become a extensive, cloistered battleground.

It’s been many years since I was twelve, and I’m sure my memory has been degraded and rewritten, but one thing I know: if my parents had forbidden me to read any particular book, it would have gone to the top of my TBR list. Are teens today any different? I don’t think so.

Celebrate Banned Books Week by reading something that would make your mother blush.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Preemptive Censorship: BBW Post #3

Love this photo of librarian
Jessamyn West (from her blog)
Maybe a third of the authors I know who write for kids and teens have had their books banned, pulled from reading lists, defaced, burned, etc. Others have been “uninvited” to speak at a school after an administrator or parent hears that their book contains offensive language, or gay characters, or drugs, or unacceptable politics, or the wrong religion. It happens a lot. These overt examples of censorship are well-publicized, and they often result in healthy public debates with varying outcomes.

But a more pervasive, invisible form of censorship is not so easy to deal with. I call it preemptive censorship. Others have used the term stealth censorship.

Imagine this: A middle-school librarian has a budget that will allow him to purchase 100 new books for the school year. He looks through the reviews in School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, etc. He talks with teachers and other librarians, he reads as much as he can, he considers the academic needs of the school and the tastes of the students, and he comes up with a list. Some are replacement copies of old books that have been chewed on by dogs or left in the rain. Some are new titles by favorite authors. Some are new books by new authors. He buys several sports-themed books in hopes of enticing boy readers, and because he’s a guy. He buys multiple copies of wildly popular series books. He buys a few new manga titles. He buys the books with shiny gold and silver seals on the cover. Most of his decisions are easy, but he’s running out of money, and there are so many interesting books available.
It's not my real name!

What about this new book with the provocative title (I am making this up.) Satan’s Lover? It got starred reviews from all the magazines, and it’s not really about Satan the spooky devil guy, it’s about an orphaned cat named Lover who is adopted by an armadillo named Satan.

Curious, the librarian borrows a copy and reads it. He likes it! But then he remembers a few years back when a small group of parents— one of whom still sits on the school board—freaked out over the Harry Potter books because the books contain non-biblical magic. And the time they demanded that The Giver be removed because…well, he never did quite understand why that one got them riled up. And, OMG, the flap over And Tango Makes Three that put his elementary school librarian friend on Ativan!

So he says to himself, if I buy Satan’s Lover, the title alone guarantees that I’ll have a fight on my hands. Plus, I won’t have enough money left to replace my worn out copy of Flowers for Algernon, and the school board might cut my budget even further. I might even lose my job—library staffs are being cut in schools across the country. Do I need the grief? Is it worth it?

Often, the answer is no. Is this censorship? Not in a strict sense. It’s normal, perfectly reasonable professional triage, the sort of thing we all do make our lives bearable. But in the larger picture, it is censorship, because the reason the librarian backed into his decision was because a small activist group of fearful, conservative parents managed to get inside his head and influence his behavior.

Happily, there are many librarians who love a good fight. These are the librarians who created Banned Books Week, the librarians and teachers who continue to promote edgy books, the educators who understand that when a book makes people uncomfortable, there is a very good chance that book is saying something important.
Check this out!

Celebrate Banned Books Week by asking a librarian to recommend a book that will challenge your world view.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Make an Author Go Ballistic

Want to know what really pisses-off an author?

The list is long, I admit it. Bad reviews, puny advances, MS Word, Goodreads, cat hair, hipster bookstore clerks, people who boast that they buy only used books…I could go on.* 

But the one thing that REALLY sends an author into the vein-popping bourbon-swigging spouse-beating nether regions of self-destructive fury is this: His (or her) book gets banned by people WHO HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK.

It happens a lot. And not just in the world of children’s literature. Do you think that the bluenoses in the U.K. and U.S. who banned James Joyce’s Ulysses back in the 1920s read the book? Nah. They just read the sexy bits of Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy—just enough to get their puritanical juices flowing through alarmingly intimate and unfamiliar channels—and they screeched “Obscenity!”

Authors like to talk about context. For example, if a YA author uses the word fuck, she wants the reader to understand why she did so. And if a parent at a school board meeting stands up waving a copy of her book and shouts, “This book contains the f-word!” the author feels that some allowance should be made for the fact that 50,000 non-f-words surrounded it, and that no other word was available to effectively replace it.

I say, “That’s f-worded up.” The problem is not that the parent in question did not read the whole book. Context doesn’t mean a rat’s ass to such people. Context won’t change the mind of someone who is mortified by a particular word, or by the sexual orientation of a character, or by a disagreeable religious or political position, or by the mention of a dog’s scrotum. The problem is that some people feel their personal sense of outrage can and should be imposed upon their extended community.

Me, I am easily offended. I go through life in a constant state of sputtering outrage. When my neighbors erect a “wrong” political lawn sign, I feel rage, sorrow, pity, disdain—the whole self-righteous package. But I don’t tear down the sign. Okay, I did, when I was eight years old, on Halloween, knock down a few Nixon signs—but only when they gave me Circus Peanuts.

Ahem. Back to my original topic: the outrage felt by authors whose books have been challenged by people who have not read them. (Here comes the questionable metaphor.) Imagine you are a chef who has prepared, at great expense and effort, a seven course tasting menu. You have worked on it for months, and it’s only $16.99** (wine pairing not included). You present your lovingly designed menu and some guy looks ahead at the third course and says, “Foie gras! I do not eat foie gras! Foie gras is evil, and the chef should be banned from serving such food.” Whereupon he storms out of the restaurant, organizes a picket line, and leaves the other diners picking disconsolately at their first course, which happens to be locally sourced beet root carpaccio, to which no one objects.

Okay, the foie gras hater*** has the right to express his opinion, and the other diners have a right to become uncomfortable in the face of his moral outrage. But the chef?

THE CHEF IS FURIOUS. And he has a cleaver.

 * Actually, I did go on, but I shortened the list for this post.
** Coincidentally, that’s what my latest  novel goes for.
*** And the geese.

I'm going to try to post something every day for Banned Books Week. Celebrate by reading something that makes you unreasonably angry.