Friday, April 5, 2019

Four Things I Will Do This Spring, in Chronological Order

I'm not doing a lot of book stuff this spring, which is good, because there will be mushrooms in the woods that need picking, and yard work to do, and a novel to finish. Here's what I've got:

April 6—Minnesota Book Awards
Most state book awards draw from a national pool, but Minnesota is one of the few states with so much talent that we have a high-profile literary award for only “our” authors. This year the Minnesota Book Awards recognize nine categories, including three(!!!) books for younger readers categories: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Children’s Literature. I especially like that Middle Grade books get their own category—possibly because my novel Otherwood is a finalist. Mary and I will be attending the ceremony on Saturday. I’ve won four previous MBAs, and I think Kate DiCamillo has a bunch, so it’s probably Jacqueline West’s or Pat Schmatz’s turn to win. However it pans out, I’ll be applauding.

April 23—Paperback Release of Slider
With a cool new cover design! This middle grade novel explores autism, eating contests, middle-child syndrome, Darth Vader, and Wonder Woman. Not really, but those subjects come up. It’s mostly a funny book containing (I am told) Important Life Lessons that somehow got in there without me knowing it. No events on the schedule, but there will be copies at the Red Balloon event (see below).

April 25—The Edgar Awards
The Mystery Writers of America’s annual Edgar Allan Poe awards will be in New York, and we are going! I get to wear my tuxedo for only the fourth time ever. Otherwoodis a finalist in the Juvenile (aka middle grade) category, and I could not be more delighted. Funny thing though—I never thought of this book as a “mystery,” but I guess it is.

May 14—Road Tripped Launch at The Red Balloon Bookshop
Yes, I wrote another YA novel. Possibly my last, as I’m more interested in Middle Grade these days. This will be a multi-author event. Jacqueline West (Last Things) and Kirsten Cronn-Mills (Wreck) also have new YA titles coming out, and Bryan Bliss will be there to celebrate the new paperback edition of his National Book Award finalist We’ll Fly Away. I haven’t yet read Jacqueline’s book , but Kirsten’s is a powerful gut-punch, and Bryan’s book is killer, literally. The event is at 6:30 p.m.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Returning to Pippi and Her Ilk

In honor of International Women's Day, I am reposting this item from six years ago. It is the first of five posts I wrote about strong young women in film and literature, including Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm), Scarlett O'Hara, Emma Bovary, Becky Sharp, Emma Jean Lazarus, Veronica Mars, and, of course, Buffy.

MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2013

Strong Young Women Part 1: Pippi Longstocking

It started for me back in the third grade, with Astrid Lindgren’s 1950 novel, Pippi Longstocking: I love spunky, tough, resourceful young women. 

That’s one of the reasons I loved The Hunger Games. But I have to say, Pippi could kick Katniss from District 13 to Villa Villekulla and back again. Could Katniss lift a horse? No. But Pippi could do it with one hand.

We writer/librarian/teacher/reader types pride ourselves in our literary broadmindedness. With tens of thousands (give or take) of new titles being published every year, we like to think that we are living in a golden age of Anything Goes. That is partly true…and partly not. Would Pippi Longstocking be published today? I mean, other than as a self-published ebook?

Pippi owns a number of handguns, which she fires into the ceiling for fun and gives them freely to her friends. She uses the kitchen floor to roll out cookie dough, and eats raw eggs. She is impudent and disrespectful to adults, and has no respect for any rules or laws. She physically attacks policemen, and suffers no consequences for her actions. She has no math skills. She is functionally illiterate, and has no interest in reading. She is a heavy coffee drinker, and lives on (mostly) cookies and caramels.

Send a manuscript like that to Random Penguin, and see how fast they reject it.

Of course, many of today’s kids’ books contain elements that would have made them unpublishable fifty years ago. LGBT characters, references to certain body parts, and anti-government sentiments, for example. But let’s not pat ourselves on the back for our “open-mindedness” just yet. The only reason Pippi Longstocking is still in print is because she has been grandmothered in as a “classic.”

Today, we require certain approved behaviors in our heroines. Some of my own female characters have been criticized for being bitchy (Sweetblood and The Big Crunch), unrepentant and unpunished (How to Steal a Car), physically violent (What Boys Really Want), and dishonest (all of the above). It is true, and I hold Pippi Longstocking and her ilk to blame.

Next up: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Some Unsolicited Thoughts on Self-Publishing

For about twenty years now I’ve been watching and (mostly) staying out of the debates concerning the viability of self-published books, and the way they are received by reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers. There is a lot of anger out there in the self-published community, and there has been a lot of dismissive elitism on the part of traditional publishers and their authors. Conflict happens.

Much of the disdain heaped upon self-published books has to do with poor or nonexistent editing. Yes, most authors who self-publish have the good sense to hire an editor. There are many heavily advertised editorial services available. Some are good, some not so good. But even the best freelance editor might not be enough.

My experience as a reader has been that most self-published works need not just editorial advice, but editorial interventionas well.

Most writers, when they start out, have no idea what an editor does. I certainly didn’t. I did not expect, for example, that the editor of my novel The Mortal Nutswould suggest taking a minor character and making him the protagonist. I did not expect that he would tell me to make my second book “funnier.” I did not expect another editor to ask me to add 100 pages to a 200 page novel.

My first editor, Bob Asahina, once said to me, after listening to me argue against one of his editorial suggestions, “Well, you can do what you want, Pete. It’ll matter a lot more to you than it will to me.” I took his suggestion.

For my recent young adult novel Eden West—my twenty-eighth published novel—the first editorial letter I received from editor Deb Noyes was twenty-nine pages long. It took me three months to revise the manuscript. Her second letter was much shorter and I was able to address her concerns in a few weeks. I think the book turned out pretty good.

But suppose I had decided to self-publish Eden West. I could have hired an editor—maybe one as talented as Deb Noyes. But that editor’s job description would have been very, very different. For one thing, she would have a different employer: she would be working for me. That alters the author/editor dynamic in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle. A freelance editor working directly for an author has a vastly different mindset.

You can see this dynamic even in the world of traditional publishing. When an author becomes so famous and sells so many books that he or she has a significant impact on a publisher’s bottom line, the relationship between author and editor changes, subtly at first, then dramatically. 

A midlist or emerging author who sells a book through traditional channels usually regards his editor with some combination of awe, fear, and desperation. The editor (as perceived by the author) controls the purse strings, and has the power to make or break a book by means of cover quality, catalog positioning, marketing budget, and the semi-existent whisper line,* aka “buzz.” This spills over onto the art part of the deal—when editors suggest changes to a manuscript, they speak with a big stick in hand. This is largely a matter of the author’s perception, of course. The reality is that the editor is at the mercy of corporate and marketing forces, and while she can help a book, her power is not so great as it seems.

No matter what the reality, for most midlist authors in a traditional author/editor relationship, the editor’s word carries tremendous weight. For the superstars, not so much. Have you ever noticed how many superstar authors’ early novels are shorter, more powerful, and more elegantly constructed? And how their later work is often bloated, sloppy, and self-indulgent? I could provide many examples,** but I’m sure you’ll have no problem supplying your own.

Why is this? I believe the change in the author/editor dynamic is largely responsible. The editor-of-a-superstar has a little demon on her shoulder saying, “This guy is a genius! His numbers are fantastic! Don’t screw it up! If something doesn’t seem quite right, well, keep him happy or he’ll jump to Harper or Knopf. If he wants to go on a tangent for thirty pages on one of his pet topics, let him. The book is going to sell regardless.”

That same editor, working with an emerging author, will go butt ass to make that book the best book it can be. She or he will argue for and sometimes insist on changes—often big changes: Make the villain the hero. Cut four hundred pages. Write it over in third person. Make the main character younger, older, funnier, smarter, stronger, more likeable…you name it. And then, once the author makes those changes, there will be another round of edits, and another, and possibly even more. And that’s long before a copyeditor sees the manuscript.

How does this relate to self-published authors? Well, even a hard working, well-intentioned writer who digs into his savings and pays big bucks for an editor, and a copyeditor, and a proofreader, and a book designer, and a cover artist (You need all of them. Really, you do.), he will be working with folks whose mission is to make the customer happy. And who is the customer? The author.

It’s a minefield, and relatively few self-published authors—even those with decent writing chops and a great idea—have the time, the funds, the experience, or the disposition to negotiate it. Those few who do have my admiration and respect. Unfortunately, the vastmajority of self-pubbed books are a severely flawed, and that makes booksellers, reviewers, librarians, and end market readers chary of shelling out their time and/or money to look at them.

I have read dozens of self-published books, most them by friends or associates, or because the book dealt with some niche topic that caught my interest. I have enjoyed many of them, but in every case I encountered scads of wince-inducing moments that shrieked for editorial intervention.

That’s kind of sad. Because I know there are a lot of good books that need a little help, or a lot of help, but for whatever reason the author couldn’t—or chose not to—break into the business through traditional publishing.

Does this mean that self-publishing is not viable? Not at all. But the challenges faced by the self-published go far beyond marketing and distribution. Those who want to make a good book and publish it themselves should be aware of how much the editorial relationship matters.

*A little joke for you sci-fi geeks.

**Michael Korda’s memoir Another Life provides a fascinating look inside the editor/superstar relationship—particularly the section on working with Harold Robbins.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Edgars

Otherwood is a finalist for the Edgar Alan Poe Award in the “juvenile” category. The other finalists are Denis Ever After by Tony Abbott, Zap! by Martha Freeman, Ra the Mighty: Cat Detective by A.B. Greenfield, Winterhouse by Ben Guterson, Charlie & Frog: A Mystery by Karen Kane, and Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon.

Mary and Pete at the Edgar Awards, 1991
I have a long history with the Edgar Awards. I joined the Mystery Writers of America back in 1990 after making my first short story sale to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I attended the annual Edgar Awards banquet that year with Mary Logue, who was a judge in the Best Novel category (Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke won). I had never been in the company of so many published writers. It was a magical evening. I was fanboying to the max.

A really good book!
Six years later I was at the banquet again, this time as a finalist in the YA category for Mr. Was, and as a judge in the Juvenile category (Looking for Jamie Bridger by Nancy Springer won). That was fun too, even though Mr. Was did not win.

My next Edgar banquet was in 2007, when Snatched, a middle grade novel I wrote with Mary Logue, was nominated in the Juvenile category. That was the year Stephen King stepped on Mary’s dress, a moment she will always treasure. We didn't win, but we got a bobblehead.

This year I probably won’t be attending the banquet. I mean, unless somebody else wants to pay for my flight and hotel. Otherwood probably won’t win, but you never know. I haven’t read the other finalists yet. If they all suck, I have a chance, but I very much doubt that is the case. Either way, I’m honored and delighted to have Otherwood included on the list.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why “Creep” isn’t on the ROAD TRIPPED Playlist

“Creep,” Radiohead’s first single, was the song that inspired me to begin the novel that became Road Tripped.

Released in 1992, “Creep” was a huge hit, and was consequently grossly overplayed. For casual listeners, it defined Radiohead. Musically, it is not as interesting and complex as their later work, and for many years they refused to perform it. Nevertheless, it is a seminal work, and will remain forever in my top twenty-five pop tunes. Maybe even in my top ten. The lyrics are brilliant and perfect—they speak to every young person who has felt shy, awkward, unattractive, and worthless—in short, nearly all adolescents and, at times, most adults.

When Thom Yorke sings, “I want you to notice, when I’m not around,” you hear a character who is so unsure of himself he can’t even imagine saying, “I want you to miss me.” He can hardly imagine a reality in which she, the object of his fascination, knows he exists.

Back in August of 2013, I began work on a novel about a stalker—a teen boy who becomes obsessed by an ex-girlfriend. The working title was “Creep.” I was thinking about the Radiohead song, and about Scott Spencer’s novel Endless Love, a book that made a big impression on me when I read it thirty-odd years ago. But as often happens, the story I set out to tell was not the one I ended up telling.

Stiggy Gabel, my “stalker,” began as a rather one-dimensional character. As his backstory grew and sent out tendrils, he became less monomaniacal, more complex, more sympathetic, more human. The story became less about his obsession and more about depression, loss, the grieving process, and things we think and do to stay sane when the world feels broken. The stalking element almost disappeared. The title changed from “Creep” to “Crock,” and finally to “Road Tripped.”

Road Tripped has a playlist from Stiggy’s recently deceased father’s iPod, which he carries with him on his solo road trip. The songs I selected relate to Stiggy’s journey, and I was strongly tempted to include “Creep” among them, since it was important to the genesis of the story. But other songs by, Concrete Blond, Pixies, Amy Winehouse, and others seemed to me deeper and less “mono.” Radiohead didn’t make the cut.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Writing with Music

I often listen to a particular playlist while writing a novel. I don’t listen while I’m actively writing; I listen between sessions, while imagining what comes next. Usually a collection of songs that feel right for the story. Sometimes it’s a particular album. Side One of Miles Davis’s “Jack Johnson” got me through How to Steal a Car. Sometimes it’s just one song, over and over—when I wrote Rag Man back in 1999, I listened to K.D. Lang’s “Infinite and Unforseen” hundreds of times. It kept me focused on the moody ending I was pursuing.
Click for Playlist

In the novel Road Tripped, Stiggy Gabel leaves home with only his late father’s iPod for company. His dad, he discovers, had peculiar taste in music, ranging from Bach to Babymetal, from Snoop Dogg to Tammy Wynette. Some of the song titles serve as chapter headings. I assembled a bunch of them on Spotify. Here’s a link.

About half of the songs came off my own iPod. Stiggy’s dad is solely responsible for the rest. Spotify refused to load a few of them—not sure why. I’m new to Spotify. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the time the book is released (May 14).