Books I’ve Read Recently

Aloha!

I read a lot of Middle Grade speculative fiction. This is not because I have difficulty with big words, mind you, but rather because I happen to write Middle Grade speculative fiction and it’s always good to keep an eye on what the competition is doing.

Right now I’m reading Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers.

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This is the guy who wrote The Mysterious Benedict Society, which is a great book and you should read it but we’re not talking about it so I won’t even link to it.  The Secret Keepers tells the tale of a young boy who climbs up a wall and discovers something. That something sends him on an adventure filled with mystery, danger, backstories, legends, and municipality corruption–if that’s a term.

Stewart wrote four Benedict Society books, and so this is a nice shift into a new world for him. It’s written in a style of hyper-reality, where things almost feel like they could be happening in our world, but something is just a little bit… off. I love those kinds of worlds, and in fact both Dr. Fell and this August’s Beyond the Doors (have you pre-ordered your copy yet?) live in hyper-reality worlds of their own.

The book has kept me interested and guessing and involved, which is to say I haven’t given up on it and shoved it aside (which I do more and more these days). So at the moment (I’m about 2/3 of the way through) I would recommend it.

Before Secret Keepers, I dug my claws into Peter Lerangis’s Seven Wonders series. I read the first book,  The Colossus Rises, and was working on the second, Lost in Bablyon, when I ran out of steam.

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The basic idea behind the series is that a kid discovers he is a long lost descendant of Atlantis. Because of this, he has a strange gene in his body which, when he turns 13, gives him superpowers. However, when he turns 14, the gene will kill him. The only way to stop this is to go out with three other 13-year-old Atlantis descendants and find 7 Magic Thingies. For whatever reason, before Atlantis was destroyed, the Atlanteans took the 7 Magic Thingies and used them to create the Seven Wonders of the World. Even though only one of those (the Great Pyramid of Giza) remains standing, the team of super 13-year-olds must find all seven. One per book.

It’s a solid idea. It has Atlantis, which is always fun. It has super powers, which are always cool. It has the Seven Wonders of the World, which are great to be able to name because it impresses people a ton when I recite all seven. I liked the first book enough to race out to the bookstore to buy the second while I was on Christmas vacation. But somewhere along the way in the middle of the second book I found myself drifting. The plot just sort of goes all over the place, and really took the series (in book 2, no less) into a totally different world. It didn’t have as much of the magic that made the first one really good, so I gave up. Too many books to read to spend time on one I’m not absolutely enamored with.

That said, I don’t want this to sound negative. I really did enjoy the first book. And for all I know, the other books in the series recapture what I liked about the series. So I would recommend the first one and if you dig it and dive into the second, you may well end up reading a seven book series that you really like.

Got a good Middle Grade speculative fiction book you think I should read? Let me know! I’ll pick it up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Adaptations Can Be Better Than the Book

Yesterday, it was announced the Nickelodeon has started production on a new TV movie based on Chris Grabenstien’s best-selling MG book, Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

I congratulated Chris (a prince of an author who deserves all the success he can get his grubby little hands on and more), and managed to do so even with flames of jealousy shooting out of my eyes and ears. If you haven’t read Escape.. or it’s sequel, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, you must. Go now. Order them from Amazon or purchase them from your local bookstore. They are fun and clever and intelligent and cool. That Nickelodeon chose to adapt the first one into a TV movie is not a shocker as it is eminently filmable. It will quite probably be a great film and I will set my DVR to record it when it airs.

It won’t be as good as the book.

It is a tried and true cliche that the movie is never as good as the book. This is true even when the movies are great, such as most of the Harry Potter movies. They are genuinely fantastic movies. The books are better.

But once in a blue moon a movie comes around that’s better than the book. I know that sounds sacrilegious, but it’s true. In my experience, there’s generally one of two reasons for this:

  • The movie cut the fat out of the story.

Remember that old John Grisham movie, The Client? It starred Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones and was about a kid who witnessed something and then learned a secret that everybody wanted to know–FBI, Mafia, the neighborhood ice cream man, everybody. The entire book hinges on whether the kid will tell the secret to the good guys. You know he will, there’s no possible way he doesn’t. And you go through hundreds of pages of the kid waffling back and forth and getting in and out of jams on his way to finally do what he could have done in the first few chapters.

The movie told pretty much the same story, except that since it’s a two-hour movie, there isn’t time to have the kid agonize over his decision. So he pretty much makes the right choice right away and we race into the climax. It’s much tighter and doesn’t make the kid out to be the wishy-washy dork he is in the book. It’s better.

  • The movie was nothing like the book.

How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie. I’m a fan of the book, as well. But for my money, the movie’s better. It’s also wildly different. If you’ve only seen the movie, then you know Toothless as the sleek, black, powerful dragon who Hiccup finds and manages to tame and ride. In the books, Toothless is a tiny, whiny, dragon that rides around in Hiccup’s shirt and complains a lot. I saw the movie before reading the book, so when I met Toothless in the book, I was utterly stunned.

Of course, in these cases, the comparable quality of the two isn’t always a consensus. There are some people who will hold a dagger to your throat until you agree with them that the The Shining was a better movie than book, and others who would shove that dagger into their own throat before ever agreeing to such a travesty of a statement.

Now I will admit that in my book (so to speak), this is rare. The book usually IS better than the movie, if only because books allow you to go deeper into the characters and world than you ever can in the 90 minutes you generally get in a film. But usually is not never. It can happen.

I doubt it’ll happen with the Lemoncello film, because the book is awesome (no fat) and I doubt they’re going to suddenly decide Mr. Lemoncello should be a talking penguin or the library needs to eat the kids (Ooo! Love that idea!). I expect it will be a more or less faithful adaptation, will make for a pretty good film, and hopefully convince viewers to go and pick up the book–which is still better.

 

In a World…

(For best results, you should hear the title read in a deep, resonating, Don Lafontaine-ish voice in your head)

I’m big on worlds. Creating them, exploring them, trying to figure them out, discovering all the little nooks and crannies they contain. When a writer creates a good world, he or she gives us a place to plant our feet and get comfortable. When he or she fails at this task, the story is generally a lost cause.

The first rule of writing (besides not talking about writing–because it bores people) is that there are no rules. You want to write a story about a lip-reading cat that chews gum and shoots lasers from its ears? Go right ahead. That sounds awesome. Just know that once you’ve set the rules of your world, you need to stick to them. If the cat shoots lasers from its ears for the entire book, and then once shoots lasers from the tip of its tail for no particular reason, you’re cheating. And the reader knows.

My favorite example of this in movies is with the original 1989 Batman movie with Micheal Keaton and Jack Nicholson. There’s a scene in the build-up to the end where Batman comes flying down the street in the heavily-armored Batplane shooting everything is sight. He is nigh-invulnerable. Then Joker steps into the middle of the street. Batman fires his high-tech, multi-pulse, computer-targeted cannons at the guy standing still in the middle of the street and misses. Then the Joker pulls a handgun out of his pants, fires once, and brings down the Batplane.

Lame!

The rules of the movie were pretty simple. Batman has a ton of high-tech gadgets that blow everything away. The Batplane should not have been brought down by anything less than an anti-aircraft missile. Joker was caught in the cross-hairs. He should be dead. End of story. We can all go home about 15 minutes early.

My rant against 1989’s Batman (which overall is a pretty fun movie) aside, my point is you build your world, you stick with it. So make it good.

I take a lot of time in my writing building my world. I want it to resonate, be interesting, yet also work for the story. If I need a cat to shoot lasers out of his tail at the end, then I mention up front that she has that ability, but chooses to use her ears because her tail is sensitive.

I am very excited about the world I’ve created in Beyond the Doors. I kinda think it’s something new (though really, nothing is new anymore, right? How many actors have played Batman now?). I did a lot of crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s. Really trying to make the world a singular experience that does all I need and allows for many more adventures should the need or desire arrive.

Book Three also has a cool world, and one that, quite honestly, I’m chomping at the bit to return to. There are so many wonderful stories to tell!

Right now I’m reading the fourth book in a series set in one of the best worlds I’ve seen created. Jonathan Stroud’s The Creeping Shadow, Book Four of the Lockwood & Co. series.

I have loved every one of these Lockwood & Co. novels, and find myself racing through the book, marveling at the intricate world Stroud created. Frankly, I’m jealous. It’s just so ridiculously cool. The basic concept is that it is modern day England, except that at some point about 50 years ago or so, ghosts started coming out of the woodwork. Their touch can kill. But only children can see them. So teams of children are hired to rid haunted places of their ghosts. What’s not to love?

Dr. Fell Art Preview!

In addition to the sweet cover drawing seen here-

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-the amazing artist Will Terry is supplying Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom with a number of full-page, black & white illustrations, one for every other chapter. Below is a sneak peek at the illustration for Chapter 1.

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In all, there are 14 or 15 illustrations (I forget the exact number), each one bringing a specific moment of the story to life. I love Mr. Terry’s work, and think he has done a fantastic job capturing the chilling joy of the story.

Seeing someone else interpret my work in this way has been an absolute thrill. When I saw the first pencil sketch of the Dr. Fell cover, I nearly cried. It was perfect. It was obvious at first glance that the artist had not only taken the time to read the book, but that he got it, that he understood it, and that he was ready to play in the same world. There are background elements on the cover that you don’t even notice but that are directly taken from the story. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Last week, I was shown an early pencil sketch of a cover design for Doors and had a similar reaction. Sort of like ‘Wow, this is real!’ Again, the artist (a different artist, and one whose identity I will disclose at a later date when I know I’m allowed) captured the feel of the story and brought a pivotal moment to life. I’m equally excited to see what the artist does with the remainder of the story (although truth be told, I have not specifically been told that Doors will feature internal illustrations the way Dr. Fell does. I’m only assuming because I’ve also not been told it won’t. Does that make any sense?).

I’m not an artist, at least not in the ‘I draw things that look good’ sort of way. My drawings are generally stick figures. And space ships, I always tend to draw space ships for some reason. But people? Living things? Forget it. I can’t even make a tree look good. My blades of grass leave a lot to be desired, as well. So when I see characters I created depicted on the page in two-dimensions (haven’t yet gotten anyone to make hologram of one) I am in awe.

And Now I Do a Little Dance

Huzzah!!!

I have finished the first draft of Book 3! Which, if you’re keeping score at home, is actually Book 4 since my debut novel Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom–you’ve all pre-ordered it, right– was actually the second book I wrote. The third book I wrote, which is officially Book 2 (name to be revealed shortly) is the second book in the 2-book deal, so this one, Official Book 3 is as yet unsold. As is Official Book Zero.

If you think it’s confusing now, wait til I start writing sequels. All four books are stand-alone novels. Yet two of them (Books 3 and Zero) are written specifically to be series and the other two could easily have sequels if there is a need. Then I’ll have Book 2 of Book 3 Series and Book 4 of Book Zero series and the second Book 2 and…

…and then my head falls off.

But today I am rejoicing finishing a book! It is such a great feeling to get to the end. As always, the closer I got to the end, the more I wanted to ignore everybody and everything and lock myself away to write. Family? Food? Going to the bathroom? Bah! Don’t bother me, I’m ALMOST DONE!

When all was said and done, I sat back and smiled. And grinned. And giggled. There’s a little euphoria that settles in when I finish, suddenly everything is alright in the world. The birds sing sweetly. Flowers bloom. People smile. Life is good.

Then came time to edit and life is bad again.

Confession time–I actually finished the rough draft last week. I then spent the week reading through it and editing it. Cutting wherever I could. Cringing when I found typos. Reintroducing myself to the first few chapters (“Whoops! That character only has one eye. I’ll have to either give him his second eye here or go in and fix it everywhere else.”) is always fun. You can rediscover characters you’d forgotten about! Props! Entire themes!

“Oh, yeah! This is all an allegory depicting the evils of global climate change. I totally forgot about that!”

So I edited. I cut. I added. I cut some more. I altered. I argued with myself. I lost the argument and cut some more. And now I have a first draft! A little bundle of Middle Grade, horror/comedy joy ready to be loosed upon the world, or at least on an Army of Early Readers.

Letting go will be hard, and my Army of Early Readers will undoubtedly be cruel, if for no other reason than they can. But let go I must. I need other eyes to view the work before I send it to Awesome Agent.

So I send. And I wait. And I wait. And I constantly bother my Army of Early Readers .

“Have you read it yet?”

“No.”

“How about now?”

“No.”

“Now?”

“Give me a break! You sent it to me twenty minutes ago!”

“And you haven’t read it yet?”

“No!!”

“OK, OK. No need to shout.”

[two minutes later]

“Have you read it yet?”

It’s a wonder I have any friends left at all.

**

HEY KIDS (and adults)!

Wanna join my Army of Early Readers? You can! Just send me an email and once I’ve checked your references against my database of Truly Despicable People, I can send you a pdf and you’re on your way! All I ask is that a) you read the book and b) you write me and tell me what you thought. What you liked. Didn’t like. Hated. Loved. Didn’t understand. That sort of thing.

Join the Army! Be cool!

To Create a World

I am reading the second book in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Company series, The Whispering Skull. As you may remember from a previous blog post, I enjoyed the first book, The Screaming Staircase, but was incredibly disappointed when I figured out the twist ending 3/5 of the way through the book.

Still, it was a good world and well-written, so I grabbed the next book. I must assume that Mr. Stroud read my blog post, because thus far he has not made the same mistake in Skull that he made in Staircase. (The fact that my post was written a year and a half after Skull was published does not, in any way, diminish the possibility that he read my post. He may very well have read it, then gone back in time and fixed the sequel. These things happen all the time in the literary world.)

I’m very pleased that nothing has happened to make me displeased because I really, really, really like the world he’s created with this series. It is cool. It is slightly silly. It is chilling. It is exciting. It feels realistic. I want more (I’ve already ordered book 3 on Amazon). It got me thinking about the importance of the world we create in our writing. For me, the world of the story has always been the most interesting aspect of a book.

Give me a world fully-thought out and I’m yours. It’s what I try to do in my own writing. In many ways, the very distinct world of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (pre-order your copy today!) is what sold it to the publisher in the first place, and I take great pride in that fact. While writing it, I felt the world take shape, becoming a character all its own. I tell anyone who asks that the book really wrote itself. This is true, because I just woke up one day and my laptop was open and words were appearing on the screen while the cats floated upside down above the keyboard vomiting blood.

Not really.

But the strength of the world brought me back to the keyboard. I wanted to exist in the world I’d created. It made coming back to pound out the pages an easy, enjoyable task. The hard part was accepting when I’d finished it. I almost felt like my access to this wonderful world had been cut off, now I could do nothing but wait until the rest of you got to visit.

Or write a sequel. Which I’m itching to do. I’ve got the plot, the characters, the story all set up. Even written a few initial chapters. I just need the book to do well so the publisher wants a second. So it’s up to you. Buy it. Buy many copies of it. My fate rests in your hands. No pressure.

What are the elements of a good world? Well, I think it involves integration, for one thing. When I create a random character, I try to place them in the context of the main characters. When can I bring these random folk back onto the page? I want the reader to say:

“Hey! There’s Gilly Burbage again! She was on the playground talking about really liking fish, and now they see her at the fish restaurant! I know her! That’s so cool!”

Every character needs to come alive. Every character needs to exist on their own, as opposed to just “Here’s a guy they meet on the street who tells them their boots are cursed. He’s served his purpose, we’ll never see him again.”

I take great pride in my secondary characters and locations, making sure each one has a personality and point of view. Often times they are as interesting as my main characters (I was going to say they are sometimes more interesting than my main characters, but I don’t think that’s a good thing for me to say).

But a world is more than the characters within it. It is also the set-up. In Stroud’s Lockwood & Company series, the set-up is that 50 years ago ghosts started coming up and bothering people. To combat this, child agents (children are the only ones who can sense the ghosts before it is too late) combat these ‘Visitors’ whenever they appear. It’s cool. Fun. Also relatively simple, which is a good thing. Stroud gives himself a narrow window through which to craft his world, and he takes advantage of the focus. Every minute detail has been thought out. Nothing is by chance. The man did his homework.

I am writing Book 3 with this in mind. It is a distinctive world, and I need to make sure every detail is important. That nothing is left to chance. I try to keep the geography of the book in mind as well. If I do my job well (fingers crossed), then the result should be a world readers will want to revisit again and again.

Becuase I’m pretty sure authors get more money for sequels. 🙂

The Art of Art

I just finished a very good book.

Being a Middle Grade author, I read a lot of Middle Grade fiction, and I just finished the MG adventure The Zodiac Legacy, Book One: Convergence by Stan Lee and Stuart Moore, with illustrations by Andie Tong. I enjoyed it, found myself driven to finish it (and I don’t finish every book these days–just too many books to read to waste time on something that doesn’t hold my interest).

The book comes with a ton of illustrations, and as you might guess from the name Stan Lee, they are very much illustrations in the ‘comic book super hero’ style of art. It’s good art, and the illustrator is obviously talented.

But the book would be better without them.

 

I have nothing against illustrations in a book. My own, forthcoming novel Doctor Fell and the Playground of Doom (have you pre-ordered your copy yet?) has over a dozen very cool illustrations within its pages, and plenty of great books have great art that adds to the overall experience.

The art in Zodiac, however, didn’t add anything. In fact, it detracted. There is a disconnect, for me, between the story and the art. And I think this falls into the larger issue of how and why you add illustrations to a book in the first place.

The first question to ask is, do you need illustrations? In the MG genre, they are quite common. You’re dealing with readers who haven’t been reading chapter books for all that long and you’re weening them from picture books to the wonderful world of text. Good art can really help the reader solidify the images he or she is creating in their head, particularly if there’s a visual picture the author/illustrator team is trying to convey.

Also, in this particular case, it’s Stan Lee. He’s kinda known for comic books. So you sort of expect there to be illustrations. But I question the art direction. Many of the images are chaotic, confused jumbles that make it difficult to place oneself in the story. Also, the themes played with in the book were much cooler in my head than they were in the pictures. In some ways, the illustration limited the scope of the adventure by showing me things I was imagining. A number of times my response to the art was:

“Oh. That’s what it looks like? Huh. I thought it was way cooler than that. Bummer.”

As a general rule, you should never have anything in your book that makes people think “Bummer” to themselves.

Also, I question the choice of which scenes to illustrate. There were a number of set pieces that sounded very cool and I would have liked to see them, but instead we’re given image after image of the characters fighting each other as if standing in an all-white studio with nothing around them. There’s little sense of place in many of the drawings, and for me, that’s important.

I don’t mean to bash on the book. As I said up front, I really liked it and would highly recommend it. And the artist is certainly talented. But they looked to be illustrating a comic book, not a novel. You could almost see thought bubbles above the characters’ heads.  In a comic book, the art is fluid, moving from one frame to the next to tell the story. You don’t need a single frame to capture a moment as much because it is only part of a sequence of images.

But in a book, we get snapshots of time. The single image has to convey a lot more, has a lot more responsibility. And as we all know, with great responsibility comes great… I screwed that up, didn’t I? Oh well.

Bummer.