Sunday, January 9, 2011

What's so great about happy endings?

If there’s one thing that bothers me more than a really sad ending, it’s a spoiler. Unfortunately, this blog entry’s going to contain a both; however, please bear with me I think it’s going to be worth it.

Just recently, Megan Messina Bostic, a delightful YA author I met via the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) posted a comment on her Facebook about happy endings in young adult novels. Her inspiration came from a post on the Young Adult section of the ABNA site from the mother of an eighth grader who was disturbed by a teacher who assigned a book with a very unhappy ending.

The book’s entitled “A Soldier’s Heart” by three-time Newberry award, ALAN award, and Margaret A Edwards award winning author Gary Paulson. The tale takes the shocker from my YA days, “The Red Badge of Courage” and goes quite a bit further.

Synopsis paraphrased: Charlie Goddard is fifteen when he enlists in the Union Army believing like many young idealistic men that war’s a great adventure. He quickly discovers the realities as his comrades are killed and he himself is left with lasting injuries. Like many others, he takes the battlefield home with him and is aged beyond his twenty years after the war. The book ends with Charlie taking his own life.

The Mom complaining wanted a happy or at least a hopeful ending. Real life isn’t like that. Soldiers go to war, they get hurt, they die – and many who cannot live with what they have seen and did take their own lives.

The teacher in question followed the reading of the book with a discussion. That’s an excellent idea for any book and particularly this one. I have several reasons for thinking so.

The issues in “A Soldier’s Heart” are very pertinent today. While the US doesn’t condone child soldiers, the practice happens in too many countries around the world.

In addition, far too many of our young men and women have come home from the recent conflicts damaged. PTSD and suicide are on the rise among their ranks. It’s possible that some of those young readers know a returned soldier undergoing this type of stress. Reading the book might help them understand.
Further, kids in eighth grade and younger are watching films and playing video games with just as strong a violent element. You doubt me, just look at some of the trailers for HALO or World of Warcraft. Reading the book will help them understand what the real effects of violence are.

Finally, teen suicide is also on the rise. What better way to illustrate the tragedy of suicide than to have the kids come to like a protagonist and have him take his own life? If it hurts to read about it in a book, how much more so in real life?

I’ll get back to the question Megan addressed. Does a YA novel have to have a happy or at best hopeful ending? I think they need to have REAL characters with REAL lives that engender REAL consequences.

Young adults are already facing a lot more trauma than we ever did. I grew up in the seventies with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. School violence was the occasional fight, knifing, or a brick thrown through the car window. The past has upped the ante on everything, especially violence. I've lost count of how many shootings have occurred in schools just this year. Literature can help prepare them for some of it. They’re looking for help, for characters who’re making similar journeys to their own, or perhaps ones they anticipate making.

What books do I remember from those years? George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984.” Fielding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and finally, “Go Ask Alice.” I took away lessons from each of these books that I will never forget.

I suspect in the years that come many of these students are going to be citing “A Soldier’s Heart” as one of the most memorable books they have ever read—and they’ll be remembering what they learned from the book as well.

Yes, I have "A Soldier's Heart" on order and I'll be reading and reviewing it in this space later on this year. If you're interested in reading the book, or seeing more reviews about it, here's the link:

Friday, January 7, 2011

COMMENTARY: Updated version or censorship?

This week, Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben announced a new version of “Huckleberry Finn.” This is essentially Twain’s text with the 219 instances of the word nigger changed to slave. The edition is 7500 so far. The book’s publisher, New South Publications, states the book was produced because many school districts are removing “Huckleberry Finn” from their reading lists because of the objectionable language.

I first read “Huckleberry Finn” in fifth grade at the direction of my teacher, Mrs. Mary Cowden. (Wherever she is, bless her) The language shocked me. My Mom had talked to me about the n-word and taught me to refer to Black people as colored long before that.

Even more critically, I felt sensitive to the usage because this was the first year our school was integrated. Prior to this, the only non-White student in my classes was the Hispanic son of a prominent physician. Now, each day busses came from across town to deliver Black kids of all socioeconomic types and temperaments, including one of the most talented artists in our school.

Mrs. Cowden used the reading assignment as not just an exploration of some of our nation’s finest literature, but a perspective on our country’s history. At that time, Southerners legally owned slaves and the n-word was the socially acceptable reference for them.

After reading literature from many time periods, I’ve come to realize that the ‘talk of the times’ helps to enrich and enlighten readers. What would Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” by without their ribald usage? Or Raymond Chandler's noir patter? I'm sure you can think of more.

And frankly, just reviewing “Huckleberry Finn” quickly, I don’t think you can resolve the issue of the current day pejorative with a word-processed replace all solution. That greatly devalues Twain’s genius and the characterization in the works.

And if you think Huck was putting down Jim when he was using the references, you clearly have not read the book. For example, of their journeys: “We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.” (Chapter 12) And, finally, of Jim himself: “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n.” (Chapter 23) And, the most telling: “I knowed he was white inside.”

An even greater fear of mine is the deliberate politically motivated expurgation of our history, particularly slavery and the Jim Crow era. “Patriot History” is a notable example of current historical releases doing just that. I recall one of my favorite quotes: “A culture that forgets its past is doomed to repeat it” – Santayana. Are we deliberately devaluating our country’s previous racism in order to eventually attempt to reduce civil rights? In Twain’s own words: “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” (Chapter 33)

We’ve come a long way, baby, but nowhere near far enough to do that. Just look at crime and education statistics and you can see that.

Another Twain scholar, Dr. Stephen Raillon of the University of Virginia, has a version of “Huckleberry Finn” coming out sometime later this year. In this case, the text is intact; however, the book includes commentary about the times and racism

Meanwhile, if you want the REAL “Huckleberry Finn” in all its richness, make sure to get the Mark Twain version.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

INTERVIEW: Jeffrey Getzin -- Author

Jeffrey Getzin’s one of the many friends I have made via the ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards) contest. Aside from being an excellent fantasy author, he’s a talented martial artist, father to seven feline furkids and fiancĂ©e to a lovely lady named Kate. It’s my pleasure to interview him about his writing.

BEX: When did you decide you wanted to be an author?

JG: I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I’d occasionally submit something to a publisher, but only because that seemed to be what you were supposed to do once you had written something.

After I had written my first novel, I began to take the idea more seriously. I had spent years writing and rewriting the thing and it just seemed I ought to do something with that enormous bundle of pages.

However, an extremely unflattering (and alas, on target) review convinced me to abandon that idea…
… or so I thought. Then came "Prince of Bryanae."

The idea for Prince of Bryanae came upon me gradually, but once I began telling the story, I realized I had something special here. I felt that this story had resonance and that others would enjoy it. I may never write another good thing in my life ---I’m not very prolific --- but that doesn’t bother me. I have written two novels, and one of them was even good. I’m satisfied with that.

Of course, if another idea came to me, that would lovely…

BEX: Were there any particular books/ authors who inspired you?

JG: I’ve always been attracted to big emotions and lean prose.

In case of the former, the operatic masterpiece that is Clavell’s "Shogun" has always resonated with me. It’s such a sweeping story, with such captivating characters possessing larger than life feelings.

In the case of the latter, I’ve long admired the Fletch and Spenser series for their wit and snappy dialog.

BEX: What led you to writing epic fantasy?

JG: As with many fantasy writers, it was the old faithful Dungeons and Dragons that got me thinking of the stories. You spend so much time in the skins of other characters, participating in fantastic adventures that you develop a real love for the genre.

In particular, I owe a tremendous debt to Baen Books author Ryk Spoor, who ran a terrific game back when he and I were graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh. Many of the characters in Prince of Bryanae have their roots in those games.

BEX: Is "Prince of Bryanae" your first book? If there are others, tell us a bit about them.

JG: POB is my second novel. My first was a related novel called "King of Bryanae."

"King of Bryanae" tells the story of Tamlevar’s mother Elidon, and her adventures with a roguish swordsman named D’Arbignal, who may be the missing King of Bryanae. It’s a comparatively simple story, full of action and excitement, but not a lot of depth.

A number of the characters from POB appeared in KOB, but with completely different roles. For instance, Willow is a minor villain in KOB, where as you know, she is the heroine of POB. Likewise, Suel was a major character in KOB, but only appears in three scenes in POB.

The two books are only loosely connected. I remember reading some advice somewhere – I believe it was from Orson Scott Card – who said that your second book should not be a sequel to your first book, or at least not a direct sequel, and it should feature new characters or old characters in different lights.

So that’s what got me thinking about Willow. She had such potential as a character. I’d find myself thinking about her at night. Who was she, really? What did she want from life? Why was she the way she was?

Meanwhile, I was running another Dungeons and Dragons game in which some of the elements of POB first appeared: the barbarian invaders, the kidnapped prince, and so on, and the story was really popular with the players and we all had a terrific time. So I spent a lot of time thinking about that, too…

Then one day, I crossed the streams of consciousness in my brain and Willow’s adventure began to take shape from the total protonic reversal.

BEX: All right, so what’s "Prince of Bryanae" about? Give me that elevator pitch for those who have not read it, please?

JG: Sure!

Willow is a driven elven soldier who has buried her traumatic childhood successfully until just the other day, when enemies from her past have invaded her new home, the Kingdom of Bryanae. These barbaric marauders kidnap the Prince before her very eyes while she trembles from the post-traumatic shock, marking her as a coward and possibly a traitor.

With her life falling to pieces around her, Willow decides to track these marauders back to their base, locate the Prince, and bring him back … single-handedly if necessary.

The novel’s partly an action/adventure story, partly a soul-searching character study, and partly a swashbuckling romance.

BEX: Most authors find it highly challenging to write a protagonist of the opposite sex. What led you to write a female protagonist?

JG: I’ve always been attracted to strong women characters, perhaps because they are such a rarity in literature and film. I’ve trained in the martial arts for over 25 years, and I’ve met many women in that time who could kick major butt. So why did all the women in popular fiction seem to be so useless? Statuesque blondes in chainmail bikinis who couldn’t spell sword let alone correctly wield one. It was infuriating.

So when the idea of Willow meshed with the idea of the kidnapped prince, I knew right away that she had to be the star of her own story. Here was a smart and formidable character. It would be tragic to let an opportunity like that go by.

BEX: Clearly, you admire and respect women. Who were your role models for Willow?

JG: Strangely enough, both my mother and her late mother were very helpful in getting a feel for the character of Willow. My mother is a scientist and a professor, and her mother was an English teacher. Neither of them is much like Willow at all, yet they share a certain kinship in the word “discipline.” Both my mother and grandmother taught me a lot about the discipline of critical thinking and problem solving. They are both very strong positive role models for women.

Likewise, the childhood misadventures of my lovely girlfriend Kate inspired some of Willow’s. Kate never beat up her fencing instructor, but she had her fair share of bizarre adventures in her life and the strength with which she dealt with those adventures (as well as the humor with which she later recounted them to me) helped me get a grasp of what Willow might have been like as a little girl.

Finally, I drew upon many of the strong female martial artists I’ve met over the years. It always amazed me how formidable some of these women were: they’d gladly spar with men twice their size and gave as good as they got.

BEX: Any moments where you had to ask women some really embarrassing questions for research?

JG: I really didn’t have to ask many questions for POB, though I was constantly running scenes by female readers to make sure I didn’t hit a wrong note. And believe me, I hit more than a few wrong notes along the way! (That’s the beauty of editing: if you get something wrong, you just change it in the next draft.)

That said, there was such an instance of an awkward question when I was writing my first book "King of Bryanae." I needed to write about one of my female characters having an orgasm and obviously, I have no clue what one feels like from the woman’s perspective. So yes, I had to ask, and yes, it was embarrassing!

BEX: What was the hardest part about writing the novel? Any particular scene or type of writing that bogged you down?

JG: I have a lot of trouble with keeping the inner narrative moving. I’m good with dialog and I’m good with action scenes, but I have difficulty when I need to relate turmoil internal to a character. That’s another reason why I enjoyed writing Willow so much: because of her past, she tries very hard not to dwell too much on her emotional journey.

Another difficult aspect of the book was writing some of the horrible stuff that happens to some of the nicer characters. When I wrote short fiction, much of it was in the Horror genre, so I’m moderately inured to nasty things. However, in POB, I felt compelled to rev it up a notch or two in places, and at times, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I felt guilty writing some of the bad stuff, but I knew it to be necessary. Willow is such a stark, driven, and damaged person. I couldn’t trivialize her by writing some trite explanation for her, such as her daddy didn’t buy her the pony she wanted when she was twelve. No, obviously, some very bad things had to have happened to her to create the woman she is today. I felt nervous writing some of the parts, but they rang true to me and therefore, they had to stay.

BEX: Conversely, what was the easiest part of the novel?

JG: The easiest part by far was writing the various plot twists. I had the rough scaffolding of the story in my head long before I ever set pen to paper; or rather, finger to keyboard. Keeping them in my brain but not being able to commit the words to paper was torturous.

Many authors like to outline their novels, but that’s not for me. For me, getting to set those words down is the carrot that drives this particular horse. I learned the hard way that eating the carrot at the beginning saps my motivation to write. I end up with an outline and no urge whatsoever to write the book!

So these plot twists and turns, and the crucial points of the character arcs, those were easy. Those are the moments that I had dreamed off every night for months. It was, to be a little crass, the physical consummation of a long romance.

BEX: "Prince of Bryanae" is self-published. What made you decide to go that route with your first novel rather than running it through the transom?

JG: The main reason I chose to self-publish is that there really aren’t that many commercial players in my genre, and those that exist are very risk-adverse. We see a lot of “just like” books: a series of books just like Harry Potter, or a series of books just like the Sookie Stackhouse series, or what-have-you. And even when they do look for new talent, there are just so many incredibly good writers out there that the competition is fierce and the terms generally unfavorable to the author.

My decision came after entering ABNA this year. After all this work writing the book, trying to decipher their requirements, and then waiting for the winners to be announced, I discovered that my book had been rejected at the Pitch stage. That is, nobody even looked at a single sentence from my manuscript. They had rejected my book based on a 300-word summary.

It struck me as the primary problem with the publishing industry: there are so many manuscripts out there and so few people reading them, that it becomes an inordinately difficult process with hoops that a hopeful author has to jump through just to get read.

So after ABNA, I came to a realization: I don’t buy my books at the bookstore. I buy them online. Kate (my lovely girlfriend) does the same. So does nearly everybody I know. It seems to me that the days of the physical bookstore are numbered, and that online vendors such as or are becoming increasingly popular, especially when you factor in eBooks such as the Kindle and the Nook.

So what then is the value-add of the publisher?

Well, for one, they get your book onto physical shelves. But if we’re going online, my book will be on all shelves.
They help with the editing. That’s a lot of work, but it’s something I was able to do myself with the help of numerous talented friends (including yourself, I might add)!

They do the typesetting. That’s tedious and challenging, but I have experience with computer typesetting ever since grad-school, when I used TEX for my papers and manuscripts. So I was willing to do the grunt work there. (And believe me, it is hard work. It’s not just popping your document into word, running spell-check, and then printing it off. You have to worry about things like rivers, ligatures, kerning, and ensuring good line- and page-breaks. It’s a lot of work!)

Next, the publisher arranges for the cover design. I myself am not artistically talented, but I was able to find someone who was: Carol Phillips. She’s an incredibly gifted artist and she gave me a cover better than I could have hoped for.

And finally, the publisher takes care of promotional work.
I’m … uh … still working on that bit …

BEX: I noticed that Michael Stackpole made the same comments about publishing on his Facebook page this very day. What do you posit the future of the book and the bookstore to be?

JG: It’s really hard to say. The industry appears to be in so much flux. Clearly, eBooks are becoming very popular, but I have a hard time imagining them completely replacing the physical book: there’s just something so immediate and satisfying about the printed page. That and the fact that the current generation of eBook readers (the Kindle, et al) are still very primitive in terms of their formatting capabilities. I know that the Kindle at least utilizes a very primitive version of HTML: advanced typography is well beyond the ability of this generation, and I see no signs heralding the next wave of devices … yet.

But what of the traditional bookstore and the traditional publisher? It’s tough to predict. Clearly, print-on-demand publishers such as CreateSpace and Lulu have lowered the barrier to admission to publication. Literally anybody can get his manuscript published, and without laying out a single penny up front.

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, extremely talented writers who just couldn’t get through the door are now able publish without all the hoops. On the other hand, it means that any manuscript, no matter how bad, can be published.
But you asked me for a prediction and I’m prevaricating.
Ok, I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess. I’m guessing that the role of established publishers is going to change. No longer will they be publishing books per se, but will instead be endorsing them.

In other words, you and I go off and publish our books through, say, CreateSpace. Penguin or Baen or whoever will in the future spend their time sifting through our publications trying to find the worthy items and will add some kind of “good housekeeping seal” to the books in return for a cut of the profits.

So, your book might have an “Approved by Penguin” sticker on it, which lets potential buyers know that it was good enough for Penguin to stake a bit of its reputation on it. And in return for risking its reputation to help your sales, Penguin would take a cut of the sales, and perhaps even help market your book.

My guess is that the big publishing houses would do this in addition to putting out their own books. But it all comes down to the bottom line.

It costs them nothing for you to write your book. It costs them nothing for you to edit it, format it, typeset, arrange for a cover, and so on. All it costs for them to put their seal on it would be to have a reader look it over and give it a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. Compared to maintaining editing staff, legal staff, grooming talent, arranging book tours, printing costs, shipping costs, and the like, merely reading a book and adding a colorful sticker is dirt cheap.

Anyway, it’s a wild guess, but that’s my bet. Do I win a prize if it comes to pass? ;-)

BEX: Absolutely! You said you were working on your marketing plan? What ideas do you have?

JG: Not a lot, to be honest. The reviews for Prince of Bryanae have been extremely positive, but it’s hard to gain any kind of traction in the marketplace. With so many books available, it’s hard to get the word-of-mouth necessary to get my book any attention.

BEX: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? Or conversely, anything you’d suggest they avoid?

JG: I know every writer says this, but it’s true: to be a good writer, you need to read a lot. Reading good books helps you learn to distinguish good writing from bad, and it exposes you to the many kinds of writing styles and voices that are available to you. It also gives you an idea of what kind of stories can pull you in and what stories can leave you cold.
Even the bad writing out there can be helpful. If a particular piece doesn’t move you, why doesn’t it move you? Where did that author go wrong? And if that author is successful despite that bad writing, then what did that author do right to get published anyway?

I think we also need to recognize that there is a difference between good writing and commercially viable writing. The two are not synonymous. It is possible to write excellent prose that will never sell a copy, and it’s possible to write execrable prose that will become a blockbuster success.

An aspiring writer must decide in what proportions are these two qualities necessary. Do you want to be a brilliant albeit unacknowledged master of the craft? Or do you want to sell out your ideals and crank out books in the same dull series that once excited you before they became popular? Because there must be a trade-off in there somewhere. Writing is a passion, but publishing is a business. You can bring some passion to your business and you can bring some business to your passion, but they’ll never be the same.

BEX: What would you like to tell readers in particular about your book? Anything you’d like to call out to them?

JG: I’m particularly proud of some of the “throw-away” details in the book. For instance, at one point, a character says something that might look like a typo to a casual observer. In fact, it’s a revealing slip on the character’s part, not mine.

Also, I spent a fair bit of time choreographing the fight sequences. Every combatant has his or her fighting style, and I tried hard to maintain a sense of realism. Moves don’t always work, and sometimes, your opponent does something unexpected. I tried to stage each fight as if I were shooting a film and the preliminary reviews seem to suggest I was successful in this regard.

BEX: How would you like "Prince of Bryanae" to be remembered by readers?

JG: I’d like "Prince of Bryanae" to be remembered as a book that succeeds on a number of levels instead of just being a typical genre entry. At its simplest level, it’s one hell of an adventure, with magic, and romance, and fighting, and intrigue. But no less important is the story of redemption: Willow’s journey into her past to make herself whole is a critical element of the story. I think that’s what separates this book from much of the genre: there are many kinds of conflicts in my book, and only some of them can be resolved through combat and wizardry. Some conflicts require plunging into one’s soul to overcome one’s inner demons.

BEX: What are you planning for the future? Will there be sequels to "Prince of Bryanae" or is there another different book waiting to be written?

JG: I have no concrete plans. I’ve been thinking of reworking my first novel "King of Bryanae" and perhaps making it ready for publication. I also have an untitled novella featuring D’Arbignal in an early adventure. The thought has crossed my mind that I could release both the novel and the novella under the same cover.

Other than that, no big project looms on the horizon. I’m not a prolific writer, and now, I have no new “next big idea.” Instead of writing something just for the sake of writing, I’m going to wait until I have something else worth saying.

BEX: Now that you’re done writing, do you have any reading planned? Whose books have you put off reading while you were getting the writing done?

JG: My queue of books to read has grown very long indeed. At the head of the queue are books by fellow ABNAers, such as Gae Polisner’s "The Pull of Gravity" and James King’s "Bill Warrington’s Last Chance."

I’ve also recently discovered Dennis LeHane’s books, and Kate and I are devouring them rapidly.

I’m also looking forward to seeing what the ABNA contest turns out this year. I found a number of excellent books from prior years, such as Steffan Piper’s "Greyhound" and Harry Dolan’s "Bad Things Happen." I can only imagine what treats are yet to come this year.

BEX: For those of you who are interested in purchasing Jeff’s book, "Prince of Bryanae," here’s the link:

2011 Resolutions

Okay, after an emergency midnight run to the vet clinic and waking up still feeling rotten, 2011 is looking like a petulant copraphagous child who's celebrated New Years by writing their thoughts on a clean wall in the infamous "brown crayon."

My only resort is to work hard at making the year better. To that end, I am publicly declaring my goals for 2011.

To quote one of my favorite authors (and simultaneously steal that quote from a good friend who posted it on FB):

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual -Mark Twain

• Read 75 books
• Lose 70 pounds
• Walk/ride 1024 miles
• Meditate 20 minutes a day
• Get one book finished and submitted (or self-published)
• Enter a short story anthology at least once a month
• Blog at least twice a month

The good news is I am off to a great start. One book down and 74 to go. And this counts as my second blog entry for January.

I'll add to this list the act of mindfulness. I'm going to be reporting periodically on how I am doing with all of my resolutions. I'm still holding out for 2011 to grow up to be a responsible creative adult.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

2011 came in with a bang. First, from fireworks, then from firearms, and finally thunder. Auspicious? To paraphrase a blessing from author Laura Anne Gilman: "May the best day of 2010 be the worst of 2011." It's definitely time for some changes.

At one point, my resolution was not to make any resolutions. Last year, I decided I wasn't going to accomplish anything if I didn't set some goals.

Here they were followed by my comments in parenthesis:

• Read 75 books (81)
• Get down four sizes (1 down and I'll set a different goal this year regarding weight and health)
• Get three books done and submitted (I edited Blood twice and won at NaNo, plus I have a magazine article and three short stories accepted this year. Not quite what I had planned, but I am well pleased)

So, what are my goals for this year? I'm still formulating based on what I managed to do last year.

Stay tuned.