Dealing With Ghosts

I recently finished Claire Legrand’s The Year of Shadows, and it got me thinking about ghosts.

yearofshadows

The book deals with a little girl who meets a bunch of ghosts (obviously) who live in an old symphony hall. There’s quite a bit more to it than that, of course, and I recommend the book for MG readers looking for a nice, moody, atmospheric chill.

Legrand’s ghosts are very interesting. They don’t really have shape, but sort of form themselves into shape when they concentrate. They have a smattering of their memories from life, but not much. They are individual characters, with individual personalities.

As opposed to the Shades, which are sort of Legrand’s boogie-men and behave more like what some would call a poltergeist.

The ghost story is one of the foundations of horror, of course, and ghosts have been depicted as all sorts of things from creepy forms lurking in the night to foppish, jovial, nearly-headless buffoons (I’m looking at you, Nick). Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they can move physical objects, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they are full characters, other times a ghastly prop.

Yet they’re all ghosts.

Authors use ghosts all the time, but whenever they use them as more than a brief mention, there’s this need too explain the rules. “Sure, you know what ghosts are, but this is what MY ghosts are like.”

It’s fascinating. Authors don’t generally need to do that with other creatures. You see a vampire walking down the street, you know it’s going to suck blood, shy away from the sun, and have very pale eyes. There can be minor variations, such as if they fly or not or… well.. they sparkle (whatever), but by and large a vampire is a vampire is a vampire. It became a vampire by getting bit by another vampire, and they make fresh new vampires by biting non-vampires.

Not ghosts. Why is that? At the heart of it all, ghosts are supposedly spirits of people who used to be alive. But how they became ghosts is always up in the air. As I have mentioned before, one of my current favorite MG ghost series of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. (I recently devoured the fourth and latest volume, The Creeping ShadowIn the Lockwood books, ghosts are the danger, but generally without personality or character. They are the symptom of the evil for the most part, and much of the series is being spent trying to uncover the true evil. But one touch from a ghost and you die. Not so in The Year of Shadows, in which the little girl is touched by ghosts all the time, or in Harry Potter, where the ghosts tend to walk through Harry when he’s not looking.

All of this is to say that if you’re planning on using ghosts, be prepared to explain them. Readers have been inundated with all sort of different ghostly rules that no two people will have the same idea of what and who your ghost is unless you tell them. So be warned.

Just don’t make them all sparkly.

Also By…

This week marked another milestone for me; the ARCs (Advance Reader’s Copy) for my next book, Beyond the Doors, arrived on my doorstep!

I’ve been so heavily focused on spreading the word about Dr. Fell, that I completely forgot these were coming. I’m actually not allowed to share images of them with the public yet (that’ll come in early December), so you’ll have to take my word that they’re real.

About a year ago I received the ARCs for Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom. Opening the box and seeing my work come to life for the first time was a huge moment for me. This week was no different, even though it’s my second book. I opened the box, and suddenly the book was real.

The world is so digital these days. I write my story on my computer. I email or share files with readers. I edit on my computer, sometimes working on files that folks have commented upon electronically. Eventually, I send it to my Awesome Agent over email, who reads it electronically and sends it on to Excellent Editor as a word file or a pdf or whatever secret proprietary digital format agents and editors use. From there it is read, reread, sent back to me for edits, returned, reread, sent to different departments, reread, reedited, spellchecked, and so on. All digitally.

It’s not until this moment, when the box of physical copies arrive at my door, that it becomes a physical thing to me.

And you want to know the best part? The part that brought a true smile to my lips?

The “Also by David Neilsen” page.

True, there is only one book listed on that page, but just having an “Also by…” page is remarkable. Exciting. It gives me a warm glow in my lower intestine (I’m quoting Matilda).

I’m very excited about Beyond the Doors, and can’t wait to share the cover image and other art with you, and then, on August 1, 2017, share with you all the tragic, wondrous, crazy world of the Rothbaum children.

I think you’re going to like it.

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?

Win Free Copies of Dr. Fell!

Did you know you had not one, but TWO chances to win a free copy of my book, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom? It’s true!

Fandom Monthly Magazine  and YA Books Central are each hosting giveaways on their sites–literally giving my book away!

My advice to you is to take advantage of their foolishness before they realize what they’re doing. Hurry! They’re bound to find out eventually.

In other news, I’m trying to decide what to write next. Do I write something new or go back into one of my preexisting worlds? I sway back and forth in my mind, with a number of different projects vying for attention. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Something New

Pro: I love new things. Exploring a new universe. Meeting new characters. Creating new adventures.

Con: I’ve put a lot of work into the worlds of Dr. Fell, Beyond the Doors, and Book Three. Now I’m gonna go and do it all over again?

Pro: My imagination gets to run wild. What interests me today? A forest of rotting trees? Schools filled with slime? THE Dr. Edward Virgil Ignatius Lance?

Con: Each new book is one more book between a current title and its sequel. What if people lose interest in Dr. Fell or one of my other titles before I get around to a sequel?

Return to One of My Preexisting Worlds

Pro: A return to an old friend. I love my characters, I’m excited to play with them again.

Con: What if I write a sequel, then learn the publisher isn’t interested in a sequel? Is that time and work wasted?

Pro: Dr. Fell has more adventures in him. Book Three is specifically set up for sequels. Strike while the iron is hot!

Con: The danger of unconsciously writing the same book over again. It worked once, what if I end up creating the same thing and fooling myself into thinking it’s different?

Not the world’s biggest dilemma, I know. But it’s where my mind’s at.

Thought you’d want to know.

New Title for Book Two!

So a couple of months ago I announced the title of my second MG book (due out next August). It was… Doors!

Except now it’s not. The new-and-improved, pretty-much-official, title of the book is now:

Beyond the Doors

The adventure of the Rothbaum children begins August 1, 2017!

I’ve seen some of the preliminary art for the book and it is fantastic.When I’m given the OK, I’ll share some of it with everyone.

In other news, Awesome Agent just gave his thumbs-up to my next book, which is now moving on to the next step of the creative process–sending it to Excellent Editor and crossing our fingers. I’m very excited about Book Three–which, unlike Beyond the Doors, has a ready-made title attached to it that shall be revealed in due time. As it is early in the process, there is very little I can say about it.

But I will say it involves a young girl, horrific mayhem, random, localized wind events, and a giant eyeball.

That out of the way, I want to mention a few really great books I’ve been reading. First up is The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands.

Set in 1665 London, this fantastic mystery follows a young apothecary’s apprentice into a world of mystery, clues, codes, and danger. I highly, highly recommend it. I was actually very excited because I finished it and thought to myself,  “I wonder if there’s a sequel? I hope there’s a sequel. There must be a sequel!” So I looked. There’s a sequel. It was published three days ago, on September 6th.

Kismet!

Next up is a really fun story set in 1892 New England. Jackaby, by William Ritter.

A young woman, scandalously on her own, begins working for R.F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained. Ritter builds a great cast of characters and a fun world in which to settle in and enjoy. There are two others in the series, so I’ll be getting those soon.

The third book I finished recently is R.L. Lafevers’ Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos.

This one is set in 1906 London and follows young Theodosia, who has basically grown up in the museum where both of her parents work, specifically in the Ancient Egyptian wing. She can ‘see’ curses on all the artifacts her mother brings back from various digs and does what she can to dis-spell them along with her cat, Isis. Then, of course, she falls into a massive plot that could destroy the world and she, and she alone, can save us all. This was published in 2008, so there are a number of addition adventures of Theodosia which I shall need to explore.

Looking back at these three, all of which I enjoyed, I am struck by the fact that they are all historical fiction. I never would have thought that I was attracted to historical fiction, and I did not set out to find such, but I have really enjoyed entering these past worlds. Perhaps I’ll find a time period in which to write a book of my own someday. A few come to mind. I mean nasty things have happened all through history, right? Which should I confine the horror to our own modern day?

What Makes a Book Middle Grade?

In less than 3 months (August 9, to be exact), my debut novel, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (currently the number 3,603,655th best-selling book on Amazon.com!) will be published. It will be published as a Middle Grade novel, or MG as they say in the industry.

Next year, my follow up book, Doors, will be released. Also as an MG title.

So that makes me an MG author. Wooo!!!

Who are the MG readers? Well, supposedly, they are children ages 8-12 or grades 3-6 who are beyond simple chapter books but aren’t yet ready to read about how the world has come to an end because the sparkly vampire and the innocent teenage girl can’t find love during the zombie apocalypse.

Does that mean that if you’re not between the ages of 8-12 you can’t read an MG novel? No, of course not. Anyone can read them. The first few Harry Potter books are considered MG titles. But then he grows up and likes girls and the books turn into 900-page YA novels.

Over time, I have unearthed what I thought were some of the unwritten rules on what makes an MG novel.

  1. The main characters are generally between 10-12 years old.
  2. There is no love story. No girlfriends or boyfriends. Basically, no puberty.
  3. No swearing. That should be obvious.
  4. If there is any sort of violence it is not graphic or gratuitous in any way.
  5. Good guys should win, or at least not lose (bad guys can survive/get away to help set-up sequels).

There are other rules for the basic sub-genres, but these have long guided my steps into the MG world. But now I have a dilemma.

I have a book. It is a good book. It was my first novel and it got me my Awesome Agent. Awesome Agent loved it and sent it around and got positive feedback. But nobody bought it. We couldn’t exactly figure out why until one publisher clued us in, saying in essence:

“We don’t know if this is Middle Grade or YA and we’re not sure how we’d market it.”

I took a look back at my list of five rules, and yeah, the book does break two of them. Specifically, the main characters were more like 14 years old and there is a minor love interest, though nothing that is ever truly explored.

So OK, maybe the book is meant to be YA. Except, well, no. Here are, near as I can tell, some rules for YA novels.

  1. Characters should be in High School.
  2. There should be unrequited love stirring the heart strings and quite possibly results in inappropriate behavior.
  3. Bad things can happen to everyone, including having important characters die.
  4. You can swear a little bit. The minor stuff. Not the biggies.
  5. The book should be set in a dystopian future where animals have evolved to feed on human flesh.

Aside from the evolving animals (which I think is more of a guideline than a rule), my book sort of fits. Except I don’t really swear. And my book doesn’t have a teenage girl pining over either a vampire, werewolf, or zombie. So it’s not really, YA.

It’s in between.

Now realize that the entire MG category was created to give publishers somewhere to stash the books that landed in between Children’s and YA. So where do you put the books that squeeze in between YA and MG?

As it so happens, there is an excellent example of exactly this sort of book. The Percy Jackson series. He starts out in High School. There is no real love interest. There is no swearing. There is no graphic or gratuitous violence. To be honest, the entire Rick Riorden cannon is made up of Middle Grade books starring High School kids. Which shouldn’t be possible.

So where do you stick him? Because wherever you stick him, that’s where my beloved first book resides. See, I tried to re-write it for Middle Grade, but when the characters get that young, the events of the story just don’t make sense. It is not believable that a 10 year-old would have the adventure my main character enjoys. So if the characters need to be in high school, does that mean I need to adjust the book to make it YA? By adding a stronger love story? More violence? More angst? If I do that, the book loses a lot of what makes it fun in the first place.

You see my dilemma. If anyone out there has any ideas, I’m all ears.

 

 

Dr. Fell Art Preview!

In addition to the sweet cover drawing seen here-

drfellcovercredit

-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.

drfell-1 Chapter

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.