Monday, December 29, 2014

My Spastic and Poorly Organized Looking Back at 2014 Post

You want to know what's crazy? Me and my year. Or is that "My year and I"? Whatever.

I've had a certifiably insane year. So much so that it's time for a list:

Crazy Things That Have Happened to Me:

1) I sold a book.

2) I got a really cool editor (because I have a really cool agent who knew how to sell it).

3) I took awesome trips to New York, Michigan, and Iowa.

4) I finished LIFE IN BOOLEAN VARIABLES and started two other books of drastically different themes and tones. Maybe they'll have a race to see which finishes first?

5) I taught fourth grade for my second year after previously teaching fifth. I'm starting to feel the ground beneath my feet. I'm sure it will disappear again soon.

6) I ate a whole lot of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I'm serious. We're talking epic amounts. My wife is thoroughly grossed out.

7) I got ARCs of I AM DRUMS in the mail. Read about how that went here.

8) People are actually reading the ARCs and that is flat out insane to think about.

9) I worked really hard at being a good father. I failed most of the time, but remain proud of the times I succeeded.

10) I had the privilege of... wait, I kind of forgot what this one was going to be.

Anyway, that's my looking back post for 2014. It's not very organized. There are others out there that are much better, but it's honest and it's wonderful to me.

2015 is going to be insane. I'm thoroughly excited and worried, but I'll save that for another post when I have my wits about me.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Funny Reactions to Book Deal News

One of the fun things you get to do when you sell your debut novel is deliver the news to friends and family. It's big news to share, so reactions are understandably extreme. Most often this is a positive thing, but you do end up getting a few reactions that swing the other direction, and they can be pretty entertaining.
Below are some of those reactions, posted for entertainment purposes only. They haven't all happened to me, but I know they do all happen, and are best met with good humor.
1) The Supportive Opportunist:
"I'm so happy you're publishing a book! I can't wait for you to give me seven-hundred free copies!"
2) Disappointed:
"What do you mean it's not out for another year and a half?! Why can't you release it sooner?"
3) Condescending:
"Oh, you wrote that kind of book? I was hoping you'd written something legitimate."
4) Relieved:
"Whew! It's so great to hear you succeeded at something. I was always worried you'd end up in jail."
5) Skeptical:
"Are you sure Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is a real publisher? Lots of people are out to rip you off, you know."
6) The Marketing Guru:
"If I were you, I'd get on the Today Show and Oprah's reading list. Why haven't you done that yet?"
7) Unimpressed:
"So what if you got a book deal? Anyone can publish a book nowadays."
8) Me, Too:
"I've always felt I have one good book in me. Maybe I should finally write it. I mean, if you can do it..."
9) Impractical:
"I guess you'll be quitting your day job now, what with that huge advance!"
10) Full of Bad Suggestions:
"Your next book should be about a talking animal that's dead the entire time and wakes up at the end to find out it was all just a dream!"

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Finally.... the I AM DRUMS cover reveal!

It's official. It's set in stone. And I can totally share it with you!

It's the cover for I AM DRUMS, and the wonderful people at Kid Literati are hosting by cover reveal this morning, along with a chance to win a signed ARC!

Check out the cover and enter the giveaway:

A huge thanks to Kid Literati!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

How my ARCs showed up at my apartment

The only person more tired than Dad this week is Son. So it is no surprise on Monday, December 1st, when Dad arrives at Son's daycare to find him still asleep in his cot. Son sees Dad and smiles, because he is happy to see him, but pulls covers over his head, determined not to leave until his beauty rest is complete.

Dad gets Son out of his cot and holds him in the air while he puts on his coat, hat, and gloves. Son digs his head into Dad's shoulder and falls back to sleep.

They both head home, listening to music, because Son is a musical child in every way possible.

They arrive at their building, but Son refuses to walk. He is tired, and Dad is tired, but like paper beats rock Son's tiredness beats Dad's. Dad carries Son up to the building, his face smushed into his coat.

Dad sees something inside the common area. Right under the mail slots.

It is a box.

It's a cube, actually, and very heavy. It has dad's name on it, but dad doesn't recognize the return address. Mom has probably purchased something, and since it's addressed to Dad it might be a present he's not supposed to open, lest he sleep on the couch for the rest of the holiday season.

So with one hand holding his heavy three-year-old who should be able to walk himself up the stairs, and the other hand holding a package that is rapidly ripping his bicep in half, Dad trudges up the stairs, angry that Mom has bought him something so heavy.

I mean, it's not like he needs anything that big. Mom should get herself something nice instead -- preferably something light.

Son wakes up just as they enter the apartment. Dad sighs and sets Son and box (oops, I mean cube) on the living room floor. Son runs in circles until Mom gets home. Dad ignores box, because he is angry at it for being heavy and he has to stop Son from destroying their apartment.

Mom gets home and says, "What's that?"

Dad says, "It's something you ordered for me, isn't it?"

"I didn't order anything. Especially not something for you!" (She didn't really say this last part because she is nice, but isn't it a funny line?)

"Whatever it is, I'll look at it later. We have dinner to prepare and a little guy to entertain."

Dad, Mom, and Son eat dinner. They tell each other about their day and laugh a lot. Boy gets into lots of trouble, because he's three and that's what three-year-old people do.

After dinner, while cleaning up, Mom notices two things: "We are out of pull-ups, and that box is from New York. I think you need to open it."

As Dad is opening the box, it dons on him what is inside before he even sees the cover of his book plastered over ARC copies. This is the first time he has seen it in physical form, typeset and beautiful.

"Whoa," Dad says, because he is channeling Bill and Ted. "This is really cool, but we still need pull-ups."

Dad gets back in the car with Son, which is much easier this time because Son is willing to walk. Together, they go to the store and get pull-ups, but the entire time Dad is thinking about the box of books. He has waited a long time to see them. It is a very wonderful moment, and totally worth lugging them up the stairs with a heavy dude in his arms.

Dad gets home and sleeps with one of the books under his pillow, because he really is that weird sometimes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Which I Lose Faith in My WIP While Home Sick

I was home sick with my son today, sniffling and grumbling and playing silly games, when something amazing happened. He took a nap.

"I wrote I AM DRUMS during naptime!" I thought. "Time to crank out some words for NANOWRIMO!"

Then a problem came up -- I started writing in first person without even realizing it. This is not unusual for me, as I've written lots of middle grade fiction in first person. Only this time, I started writing first person without realizing it, for multiple paragraphs, in the middle of a third person narrative. That was part of my NANOWRIMO self-challenge -- the whole trying something different for fun approach.

You see, LUNCH BOX is a bizarre little thing. It's sort of genre-ish (I think), inspired by my students who leave their lunch boxes behind when they leave for the day (and what I joke might one day happen to their rotting food). It's also told in third person, past tense. I chose these things because they turn the story into a noble experiment that takes me out of my recent comfort zone. I churned out tons of stuff like this in the past, but recently I've been so glued to contemporary realistic middle grade first person present tense that I was beginning to wonder if I had what it takes to break out of it.

So that's why I started writing LUNCH BOX this way. And the sudden compulsive switch to first person went on for several paragraphs before I even realized I was making a mistake. And now I don't even know if it was a mistake. Maybe my brain is trying to tell me something? This whole forcing the story to be a certain way never works.

Then again, this is an experiment, and experiments need parameters if they are to be valid.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

LUNCH BOX, my Nanowrimo experiment

Here's a short list of things currently causing me to panic:

1) Report cards.
2) PT Conferences.
3) PT Conference with my child's teacher(s).
4) Something I can't talk about yet.
5) LIFE IN BOOLEAN VARIABLES, an intensely personal book that almost killed me (not literally), is in the hands of beta-readers, and I already see millions of things I wish I'd fixed before sending it out.
6) Something will pop into my head five minutes from now, and I will worry about it even though there is nothing to worry about.
7) I want to hold an ARC of I AM DRUMS in my hands (this will happen in the next few months, so I should chill out about this, too. Fat chance!).
8) I am taking over the spelling bee at school, because I'm just not busy enough (and I'm secretly a spelling nerd who never had a spelling bee at his elementary school).
9) I just thought of something that fits #6 perfectly. AAAAAAAH!

Now, on top of all of that, I've jumped into NANOWRIMO for the first time. Why am I doing this? I have no time. I'll be lucky if I hit 20k by November 30th, much less the goal of 50k. I'm setting myself up to fail, which is exactly what modern educational pedagogy tells me not to do.

But I'm doing it anyway. Because I said so, and I'm an adult. I can eat ice cream three meals a day if I want, and there's nothing you can do about it. I've earned the right to try NANOWRIMO for my first time and fail at it if I feel so inclined.

And I will fail. I'm okay with laying it out there ahead of time, because it's true and there's no sense pretending otherwise. This is not pessimism because it is certain -- I have a 0% chance of winning NANOWRIMO. It's the exact opposite of pessimism, in fact, because I'm giving myself permission to fail, and appreciating the material I will create on my road to failure. Oddly enough, this is a theme that surfaced late in my first draft of LIBV while listening to the well of ideas inside my head.

It's a little book (or maybe a big book. How should I know?) called LUNCH BOX. It's very different from my last two finished novels, even though it's middle grade and very much me at the writing wheel. It's a bit sillier than I AM DRUMS and LIBV, but it also might end up -- dare I say it -- scarier. It has a Calvin and Hobbes meets Wayside School thing going on, and I'm not sure if that's a recipe for success or a recipe for going back to the drawing board on December first. But it has promise, I think.

I'll settle for it being fun. I'm at 5,400 words as of the moment I'm writing this, and at this rate, I will finish 50k sometime between the hare's second and third nap. But at least I'll finish.

I joined NANOWRIMO this year because I win either way. Take that, procrastination! You always were kind of a punk.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Signed on with a SF/F Agency

I've gotten this question more times than you might expect. I'm not entirely surprised -- I'm publishing a contemporary middle grade novel, and my next few projects fall under the same category. How exactly did I end up working with one of the leading science fiction and fantasy agencies in the business?

It was actually pretty simple. I queried them, and I caught their interest. I'd queried them four times before, and two of the times gotten them to nibble a little bit. The two projects that had briefly caught their interest in the past were fantasy novels (one high, one urban). I'd written fantasy and science fiction (mostly awful material in the latter category) in the past, and I might again down the road. But that's still not the reason I signed on.

Because think about it. Contemporary middle grade? With an agency known for repping genre heavyweights like Brandon Sanderson and Charlaine Harris? What in the name of fruit salad was I thinking?

My first phone conversation with them was brutally honest.

"You do this and that really well, but when it comes to (mentions seven-thousand things), you're pretty terrible."

I'm paraphrasing and exaggerating, but that was the general gist. They were interested, but only sort of. They thought I had potential. But I had work to do before they jumped on board.

They were right about what was terrible, of course. They rep a lot of genre fiction, but they understood what made MG tick in the invisibly intricate way that adult authors just don't get. Every suggestion was sensible, and was likely to improve my manuscript. Why say no to an agency that knew exactly what I needed to do to make my book the best it could be?

I made my book a lot better, and I signed on with a heavy duty SF/F agency to sell my contemporary middle grade novel. I'd do it again if given the choice, even if an agent with a huge middle grade list offered to take me on.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why I Stopped Caring Who Was a Bestseller

So you may have heard of this little book series called HARRY POTTER. Its explosion of popularity was followed by the voices of  writers angry that you had to write about boy wizards to be successful in the publishing industry. Why can't there be room for their unique masterwork?

Then Dan Brown arrived (or was he before Harry? I can't remember), and his explosion of popularity was followed by the voices of writers angry that you had to write conspiratorial mysteries to be successful in the publishing industry. Why can't there be room for their unique masterwork?

Then TWILIGHT happened, and its explosion of... oh, whatever, you get the point. After TWILIGHT came HUNGER GAMES, and then 50 SHADES OF GREY, and so on. I'm missing plenty of hits, of course, but the general pattern is there.

Those are all very different books. Yes, you can make loose connections, like "love triangles" and your subjective opinions about each author's writing style, but they remain their own reading experiences with their own unique audience.

I'm not writing to tell you those books are good, bad, under or overrated. Who am I to make that decision? Read them yourself and form your own opinion. I'm just here to suggest that maybe reacting to those books and authors with anger is the wrong response.

I hit a huge turning point when I made the conscious decision to stop being mad about not being published. And no, I'm not saying I hate or hated any of the above writers - they're just common targets of literary shaming.

Submitting your work out into the world is a grueling and often self-destructive experience. You suffer intense feelings of worthlessness about your work. Your self-confidence crumbles and reassemble itself all the time. Why add hatred for other writers onto a plate already full of negative feelings? So I stopped being upset about other writers, especially the ones making huge amounts of money. And when I stopped being upset and saw the industry from a distance, I realized how silly I was being in the first place.

Let's first identify a huge fallacy echoed by many prospective writers, including myself at one point in time:


Agents and publishers get really sick of tropes, just like you do. More than you do, actually, because they spend long hours wading through slush piles full of boy wizards and sparkly vampires and sexy business men with fetishes and whatever other book everyone is trying to recreate instead of finding their own literary voice.

When TWILIGHT was at its peak, very few literary agents were accepting submissions for vampire novels. Most said flat out in their submission guidelines that if it was anything like TWILIGHT, or even read a tiny bit like it, to go somewhere else or be form rejected.

The reason why is because the next big thing in publishing is rarely a copy of its recent predecessor. Look at my original list if you don't believe me. DA VINCI CODE was nothing like HARRY POTTER. 50 SHADES was nothing like HUNGER GAMES. Agents and editors are not looking for the next version of anything. The next big blockbuster book is usually something nobody was expecting.

Let's tackle another fallacy:


Yes, it's easy to cast stones at a writer making bundles of cash. Stephen King has written two-million books, so at least a few of them won't be up to your standards. Why celebrate mediocrity (a subjective statement, considering every author is considered mediocre by somebody) when there are so many unpublished writers with masterpieces waiting to be read?

There's one huge problem with that mindset. Nothing any of those bestselling writers releases has the slightest effect on your ability to publish or sell books. In fact, I would argue that big blockbuster bestsellers create a healthier industry with more money to spend on new authors who present a risk. And when you finally do land a book deal, do you really think your book's success will have anything to do with what Stephenie Meyer is working on? She doesn't care what you're writing, and you shouldn't care what she's writing (unless you're a fan, in which case I hope you enjoy her next book).

I don't mean any of this to be smug. I also know it's easy for me to stand on Book Deal Mountain and preach to everyone still fighting the good fight to get their book a proper home. I don't mean to be that way, and please know I took this stance many years ago, long before the first sentences of I AM DRUMS were written.

There's nothing healthy about creating a fictional idea (see what I did there?) of an industry that is intentionally locking you out. That's not what's happening. If you truly love this whole making words thing and understand it's not a get-rich-quick scheme, you could break in just as easily as the next guy. Bestselling authors shouldn't make you feel left out.

Besides, hating other writers is baggage. Let it go, and I promise you'll immediately feel better.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'm Not Too Old to Headbang..... AKA Why I Still Love Helmet

Leave it to the beginning of the school year to turn me into a blogging slacker....

I've wanted to write this post ever since I saw Helmet play a loud, intense freaking show at Reggie's about a week and a half ago. It was an odd time to see them, because it was only a few days before a new school year started.

I essentially got to leave a big part of my modern personality behind for a few hours and go back to a side of myself that was born sometime around sixth grade and lived until early college -- and if you really want to know the truth, a piece of it is still alive now. Why else would I be in my thirties and writing a post with the word "headbang" in it?

It was an intense show. It was blisteringly loud, and for the first time in over ten years I found myself inside a mosh pit that I graciously sidestepped, as I don't have enough faith in my bones anymore and it would have been weird to meet my new students with a black eye or broken arm. The backup band was different, and as much as I sorely missed John Stanier's drumming (now a part of Tomahawk and Battles, the latter of which you've heard if you've played the original Little Big Planet), the players on stage were all rock solid.

Helmet is a strange beast. They don't sound strange upon first listen, but there's an interesting combination of sounds behind them. Page Hamilton, other than being a genuinely nice and honest guy, is a trained jazz guitarist. If you've seen a jazz guitarist live, you know the skill they possess causes pathological insanity. You cannot play that many chords, that fast, without losing your mind. So why then does he end up making his name by starting a band that rips open drop-D power chords that make you want to smash things?

I'll give you an example. Listen to this:

After you're done putting your fist through your bedroom wall and waiting for your ears to stop ringing, listen to this:


Be honest -- if the YouTube clip hadn't been labeled, would you have any idea they were the same musicians? I don't think most people would.

Now go back to the first video, and tell me what those guys look like. Normal guys, right? Nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, I think it's excellent, especially considering that Nirvana and Pearl Jam were on a roll when that video first hit MTV's Headbanger's Ball. A lot of metal-heads' first reactions were "What's the tennis team doing with electric guitars?"

For the purposes of focusing this post, I will talk about the album Meantime. I bought it and listened to it on repeat, realizing that almost every song was about channeling anger and the poisonous nature of not being yourself. Young metal-head me needed to hear that. I needed some sort of reassurance that being angry and unhappy is okay sometimes, and there are ways to get it out other than punching the guy who asks why you don't button up your flannel.

I am now a nice, clean-cut teacher and childrens' author (when I go out in public, at least), but I grew up a long-haired drum and guitar fanatic. I suppose underneath the glasses and goofiness a part of me still is just that. And it's nice to let a little bit of that loose at the end of summer, when I need to expel all of my frustration and stock up on patience for the new kids heading my way, who deserve every ounce of effort I can give them.

Helmet is, in a way, a really excellent piece of how I grew up musically, and how I learned to deal with "darkness", whatever form it may take. I don't think what they accomplish is immediately apparent, and I think we rush too quickly to judge kids who are into darker or absurd stuff, not realizing that the art they cling to provides them with a lot of positivity, even if everyone else's eyes and ears don't see anything beautiful at all.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Post Book Deal Writing and the Six Week Wait

LIFE IN BOOLEAN VARIABLES is done. The first draft, at least. Any writer, published or aspiring, will tell you first drafts do not really equal "done", but it feels good to use that word right now. I have a complete manuscript and an official follow-up to I AM DRUMS.

It feels especially good because LIBV gave me a lot of trouble. I almost abandoned it for another project multiple times. I thankfully discovered through my fellow debut authors at Fearless Fifteeners that the second book (or, in most cases, the first book post book deal) is usually a terrible process. Expectations are all over the place. You want to assure everyone who has invested in you that you are not a one trick pony. This is all ridiculous thinking, but try telling that to me several months ago.

Some articles by fellow writers have helped me feel less insane about the whole thing:

N.K. Traver wrote an excellent blog post called "Second Book Syndrome". She discusses this whole thing with better words than I am using in this post.

Robin LaFevers wrote an article, The Crushing Weight of Expectations, which covers almost every fear I've experienced since the book deal went through.

In reality, the worst thing you can do is worry -- all it does is freeze you in place and make you question the authenticity of your writing when what you should really be doing is WRITING WRITING WRITING and seeing what comes out. I've never benefited from expectations, genre-chasing, or questioning my literary credentials. I've benefited from putting my ass in a chair and writing.

Now that LIFE IN BOOLEAN VARIABLES is done, I have set a date on my calendar exactly six weeks from the moment I finished. That is the minimum amount of time I must wait before reading through and spotting all the silly grammatical and plotting mistakes I've made. It provides distance from your role as writer and helps you to see your work through an objective reader's lens. Last time I used this model, I ended up with a book that was bought by a real publisher. It probably won't hurt to do that again.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Visiting New York, Part Four

This is the fourth part in a series of posts about my long-in-development trip to New York with my wife.
Here's Part One.
Here's Part Two.
Here's Part Three.

Our last full day in New York started out with a quick deli breakfast and coffee. After that, we headed straight to Central Park, where we knew we would spend at least four hours.

We had a plan to rent bikes, but that went south the second we realized how many places we wanted to see that weren't accessible from the bike path. So we went on foot, following paths in all different directions, stopping at the Central Park Zoo and making our through beautiful trees and ponds.

The big thing about Central Park, for me, is that my closest comparison is something like Grant or Millenium Park. One look on Google Earth showed me how silly a comparison that was. Central Park is huge -- it's a giant rectangle full of smaller sites I could explore for days.

We took a lot of paths, and ended up at Strawberry Fields. I still don't understand the appeal of lying on the IMAGINE circle and taking smiley photos, but maybe I'm just dramatic.

We took a different path out of Central Park, and swung southeast to drop in at FAO Schwartz. It was a cool store, but I left a little disappointed in the "foot piano" from BIG. I did, however, have to tear myself away from the remote-controlled helicopters after seeing them in action.

We ate a place Anna remembered from her previous visit called Ruby Foos. It was right at the end of the block where we were staying, so it was a nice, easy dinner. I still have yet to enjoy a cup of sake, however.

We went on a Circle Line Harbor Lights cruise after dinner. This was a really beautiful way to see the city. So many of the buildings we walked by, including the Freedom Tower and Empire State Building, look amazing from the water. And for someone who has no interest in climbing the Statue of Liberty, this was a great way to experience it without having to set aside specific time for a visit.

Here are some photos.....

As I was saying, I kind of like seeing the Statue of Liberty from this angle better. It was also surprising to discover that almost half of her height is the base she stands upon. Ghostbusters 2 made me think otherwise. :)

We finished our night exploring a few more neighborhoods and jumping on a few more trains until we ended up back by the Comedy Cellar. We hoped and wished they would have room in their 10:30 PM show, but this was not the case. As a result, the Comedy Cellar became the one thing I really wanted to experience that didn't work out. Such is life.

The good news was we were less than a block from a place Eddie suggested we try. He warned me that Artichoke Pizza was not true New York pizza, by any means, but it was delicious if we found ourselves wanting something different. We did, and it totally paid off because Artichoke Pizza was balls to the wall excellent, and I don't even like artichoke. The moral of the story is, "Listen to your agent, especially when he suggests a pizza place." Anyone want to invent a clever way to ship a few slices to Chicago?

That was our third and final full day in New York. Tomorrow I'll cover our final day and post some final thoughts/reflections about the trip.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Visiting New York, Part Three

This is the third part in a series of posts about my long-in-development trip to New York with my wife.
Here's Part One.
Here's Part Two.

As mentioned in the previous post, I've Deathly Hallows(ed) my second day in NYC and split it into two posts.

This one begins at about 5:30 PM, with me heading back to the offices of JABberwocky in preparation to head to The Museum of the Moving Image with Joshua and Krystyna. It is oh-so-nice when city natives take the reigns on subway traveling. I just relax and follow the leader, knowing the less I'm involved the less likely I am to get lost.

The museum is in Astoria, a very cool neighborhood. Word is it was not always so, but after spending a day and a half in Manhattan it was nice to see a toned down, quieter version of New York. Joshua showed me Kaufman Studios, right by the museum, where they film Sesame Street. I kept my eyes out for Bob and Gordon, but they were nowhere to be found. Yeah, I'm silly like that.

We saw the opening for WHAT'S UP DOC?. a Chuck Jones exhibit. Taking familiar characters and diving into concept art, storyboards, and scripts is pretty fascinating. It prompted some cool conversations with Krystyna about Calvin and Hobbes and an excellent documentary about voice over work -- this one is different from IN A WORLD. The title escapes me at the moment, but it's going to the top of my to-watch list as soon as I remember the name!

My favorite part of the exhibit? The eight rules for Roadrunner cartoons. Seriously, these are spot on, hilarious, and as far I know, were never broken, not even once. The rules were things like (and I do paraphrase here), "The Roadrunner may only harm the Coyote by saying the words, 'BEEP BEEP'" and "The Coyote could stop any time he liked, if he were not a fanatic."

Joshua asked me at the end what else I would like to do. I had nothing.

"You're the guest of honor!" he said.

"But I'm not used to being important!" I said.

I ended up asking him to take me to a good NY pizza place in Queens. He took me to Sunnyside Pizza, where his personal preference was. It was really good -- it reminded me of Bacci back home, but with a much better sauce. I definitely see the appeal of New York pizza, but I'm still biased towards Chicago's, and I'm talking thin crust as well as deep dish (despite what most people think, Chicagoans  eat way more thin crust than deep dish or stuffed. I know... that's crazy).

After that, I got to learn something interesting about Joshua. He knows every building in the city, including what it was used for twenty years ago. The man is a wealth of information, and can answer most any question you have, and correct any inaccuracy you previously believed. I'm pretty sure he could give me a tour of Chicago. That's how much he knows.

He also showed me an excellent view of Manhattan from the other side of the river, a place where you can look right between the buildings and see all the way to New Jersey, and took me on a "movie theater graveyard tour", where I basically learned where all the old movie theaters used to be.

It was a pretty excellent night. As if I needed more reminders of how lucky I am that Eddie pulled me out of the slush.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Visiting New York, Part Two

This is the second part in a series of posts about my long-in-development trip to New York with my wife.
Here's Part One.

Our second day in New York started with my discovery of the New York deli. We stopped by EZ Deli, across the street from the humongous Conan O'Brien billboard for "Sharktopus VS Pteracuda", which Conan continues to play straight as can be. I probably could have eaten three meals a day here and not gotten sick of the numerous things they had, but an egg sandwich and coffee was fine for this particular morning.

We jumped on the train and headed over for the 9/11 Museum in the financial district. It really was a surprising experience. I expected it to be an emotional exhibit, but it was quite a bit more than that. We had planned to spend an hour there before heading to lunch with my agent and editor, and we ended up spending twice that time seeing the sheer amount of material on display. We could have spent even longer. Anyone planning on going to the 9/11 Museum would be wise to purchase tickets in advance (we were thankful we did) and set aside 2-3 hours to spend there.

There is one particular exhibit with a warning to let visitors know that the material within is intended to show the true violence of that day. They weren't kidding -- they don't shy away from the dark and depressing stuff. There's raw news footage, flames, and New Yorkers with faces covered in dust and debris. Walls and timelines are lined with quotes that are as brutally honest as they are emotionally moving. I'm glad I went, but it's a solemn moment that visitors should be ready for.

By the time we finished up, we were on the verge of running late for our lunch with Eddie and Jordan. We checked out the trains heading to the neighborhood we needed to get to, but ended up jumping in a cab when we saw how long it would take. FDR Drive ended up saving us on this one. We thankfully made it on time, but discovered that the restaurant where we had a reservation had a front door that wouldn't open. The folks inside just kind of shrugged and said, "Sorry!"

The good thing about hanging out with people who know the city, of course, is you're HANGING OUT WITH PEOPLE WHO KNOW THE CITY. Within minutes Eddie came up with a great place, and we were walking a few blocks to an excellent Indian restaurant with great curry, a diverse buffet, and plenty of naan.

I'd met Eddie in person at ALA back in July 2013, but I'd only spoken to Jordan through emails and a few editorial calls. There is something to be said about the experience of face-to-face interaction in an industry where there often isn't much of that sort of thing (it generally isn't necessary, per se). I would recommend this kind of in-person interaction at least once to any debut writer considering the idea and in possession of the cheese to pay for it.

Next, we headed over to the Egmont office, where I got to meet a bunch of fine people and talk about anything and everything.

I should probably mention that the two coolest things about meeting publishing people are:

1) They're really nice people who care a lot about books.

2) They LOVE giving visiting authors free books.

Unless I've just been lucky with number one, and the other 95% of the industry is a cesspool of A-holes, number one is really true. And number two.... seriously, my to-read list is jam-packed now.

If I was hard pressed to list a third coolest thing, it would be THEY GIVE YOU COOKIES (thanks, Margaret!).

Next was our visit to the agency office. It's nice to put real faces to the real names I've heard so many times. And I finally got to meet the legendary Joshua Bilmes. You either know what I mean by legendary, or you're never going to understand what I mean anyway. Anna, Eddie, and I shared one of those black/white cookies that taste like a pancake with frosting and discussed lots of cool stuff about what's going to be happening between now and September 2015.

So I met a lot of excellent new people, and even though day two is only half over, this post is becoming rather long. I'm going to pull a Deathly Hallows and split my second day in New York into two posts. My trip to the Museum of the Moving Image and tour of Sunnyside with Joshua and Krystyna will not fit here.

Until tomorrow.....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Visiting New York, Part One

This is the first part in a series of posts about my long-in-development trip to New York with my wife.
Here's Part Two.

My wife, Anna, and I talked about visiting New York for ten years, maybe more. When I first signed on with Eddie Schneider at JABberwocky, Anna and I made a deal... it went something like this:

ANNA: When Eddie sells your book, we're going to start planning a trip to New York.

MIKE: IF Eddie sells my book.



ANNA: Positivity, Michael!

MIKE: *grunt*

And that was it. If/when I AM DRUMS finally sold to a real publisher, we would plan our long in development trip to New York. This week, we finally went, and had an amazing time.

It started a little odd, of course. It's hard to leave a two-year-old behind, but we'd already brought him with us on two free trips -- he would not be the happiest camper on this one. We left him with family and immediately started freaking out halfway to Midway Airport. That's normal, I know, and we did get over it eventually.

A friend of ours recommended prepaying for a shuttle from LaGuardia, which ended up taking almost as long as the flight itself. I'm planning to splurge on a cab or fight my way to public trans next time.

Hours later, when the shuttle finally dropped us off at our very slender hotel in Midtown ($126/night, not bad for that area from what I'd heard), we dropped off our things and spent the first 2-3 hours wandering the neighborhood and finding familiar things. We stopped by Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, and a few random stores. We stopped in at the flagship Nintendo Store, because Anna and I are not so secretly dorks. My trip would have been perfect had I found a THWOMP shirt, but no such luck.

At about 5:30 PM, we jumped on a train and headed for the Orpheum Theater. I have to apologize to my Chicago friends before saying this, but MTA really does put CTA to shame. I know there are complicated reasons why CTA cannot pull off in Chicago what is possible in NYC, and the media here already makes CTA workers feel like a lot of us teachers do lately. I happen to have a writer friend whose day job is spent working really freaking hard for CTA. But MTA is really fast and efficient in comparison -- the layout of the land is more conducive to public transportation, and I never found myself in a location where a viable train was not close by. Plenty of New York natives, of course, would love to tell me about some of their delay horror stories and thus spoil my immaculate view of their subway system.

The neighborhood around the Orpheum Theater reminded me of what Wicker Park used to be ten or so years ago. There was even a place called Bar Virage that reminded me a lot of Rodan, where I used to watch the guitarist from Tortoise play avant garde jazz on Thursday nights.

Then Anna and I actually got to see STOMP live. I'd seen STOMP OUT LOUD and a few television performances/clips, but the second you enter the room and see the big fat mic at the foot of the stage, you realize that this is the way it's supposed to be experienced. It's not as popular as it used to be, but it's still jam-packed with amazing percussionists, and the old ideas (brooms, garbage cans, basketballs) are mixed in with plenty of new tricks. The zippo bit was especially effective, even if I easily spotted that only two percussionists on each end had real zippos while the rest had tiny light bulbs.

We walked through the NYU neighborhood afterward and made our way to the Olive Tree, where we ate nachos and waited for the 11:30 show at the Comedy Cellar. Unfortunately, that was also the point at which Anna and I realized we were both exhausted. We had an agent and editor to meet for lunch the next day, and it would seem unprofessional if we fell asleep at the table. We cancelled our reservation for the Comedy Cellar and headed back to the hotel, where we enjoyed the sleep of two exhausted travelers.

That was my first night in NYC. Days two and three (and maybe four) are still to come!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Sometimes I wonder if it's the storyteller, rather than the stories themselves, that create meaning within the world around us. How many times have you heard about your odd old Uncle Theodore? And how different does he seem, based on who is telling the story this time?

Those are my initial thoughts as I begin a review of THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER, by the talented debut author, Jessica Lawson.

BECKY THATCHER takes an interesting middle road. It pays tribute to Twain’s work while greatly altering the characters in surprising ways and remaining definitively its own. Tom Sawyer might have told a story about two girls fighting over his love, but Becky Thatcher makes it clear Amy Lawrence was her partner in mischief. And Becky might have gotten along with Tom Sawyer if he’d stop being such a taddle tale and grow a backbone one of these days.

Those are just a few of the creative choices Lawson plays with. Without spoiling too much, I can say that most likely every character you remember has a place in BECKY THATCHER’s version of the story. Sometimes it’s the role you expect. Other times… well, let’s just say those are the moments that I enjoyed the most. It’s hard to break a famous character apart and reassemble them in a way that makes perfect sense.

That’s why BECKY THATCHER works. Because stories change based on who is telling the tale.

Jessica Lawson’s THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL TALES OF BECKY THATCHER hits shelves on July 1st.

Preorder it at Indiebound, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.
Follow Jessica on Twitter: @JS_Lawson

Visit her website:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

It's Really Hard to Push SEND

Talking to other debut authors gives one the sense that your first almighty "edit letter" is something of a written panic attack. It can be, but not in the sense I was expecting.

Granted, I had a pretty good idea what to expect, and this certainly wasn't the first time I'd received revision requests. I've genuinely enjoyed going back into I AM DRUMS and making it a stronger story. The edit letter, however, is a different ballgame. Everything wrong with the story is broken into tiny little pieces, dissected, and rearranged so that you can see it from a fresh angle. That's the editor's job, and I like hearing what they have to say. If you don't like your baby being put under a microscope, there are plenty of writing groups that love back slapping and don't require rhino skin to participate.

I'm really proud of the revisions I've made, so it seems weird that I started panicking the first time I considered hitting the SEND button to send my revisions to my editor. There's an odd fear of disappointment -- the same I felt when my agent asked me to make revisions before officially "signing on." What you send says a lot about your ability to be the writer the recipient is counting on you to be. Maybe that's obsessive thinking, but I know I'm not the only one who's thought this.

I solved my dilemma by setting myself a deadline. Tomorrow afternoon, I hit SEND. No matter what. It's different than the one my editor set, but I'm setting it anyway. It's not the deadline that helps me put myself in the writer's chair so much as the challenge of beating a deadline. I'm going to beat this one tomorrow.

Monday, May 19, 2014

My Book as a Read Aloud? GASP!

If I am to be completely honest, I was a bit terrified to begin I AM DRUMS as a read aloud. My students were excited, to be sure, and I had the permission of my editor, my principal, and the district office. So why exactly was I so apprehensive about sharing a huge accomplishment with my kids? I'm supposed to be setting an example for them -- why not be a role model of where writing can take you?

The truth is I had no idea what they'd think. We're a little over halfway through, and I'm still searching their faces a little too much, trying to figure out what they are enjoying the most. The first thing I noticed after the first read aloud session, where we covered the first two chapters of the book, was the kids were a little speechless. I AM DRUMS was not turning out to be the book they thought I'd written. It was about a girl, first and foremost, and the kids described her that first day as "not really someone who fits in" and as a "girl who acts like a boy because she wears a baseball cap." Interesting.

Thankfully, my biggest fear (that they'd hate the book) was proven silly. I not only had their attention, but possibly the largest participation in discussions than any other read aloud all year. And they had interesting things to say -- about who Sam was, and whether she was doing the right thing, and can it be okay to do the wrong thing if your heart is in the right place at the time. It has been kind of amazing.

Another surprise -- Pete, the music teacher, is a big hit. I always worried I wrote him as too rough and tough, but the kids so far find him oddly hilarious. One student said, in response to the chapter that introduces him into the story, "That sounds like something you'd write." Then quickly added, "I meant that in a good way." :)

One quick confession -- I pulled a few moments of mild questionable language. And yes, I do feel a bit cowardly, especially since I am (for the most part) philosophically on the side of letting kids read what interests them over removing the opportunity to read something potentially mature for their age. On the other hand, I have to respect my role as teacher while those kids are in my hands, and I think, given the context, it was the right decision for this particular age group.

There's still plenty more book to go. The kids have made a lot of predictions, and it will be interesting to see how they react as Sam's story plays out.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I AM DRUMS on Goodreads

Consider me surprised, though not in a bad way, to discover that I AM DRUMS is suddenly on Goodreads.

It looks like the description was pulled directly from the Publisher's Weekly blurb, and there are already some readers who've added it to their TO READ list. Now I'm blushing....

Anyways, please add it to your own reading list if you are on Goodreads and want an extra reminder when it hits shelves in Fall 2015.

In the meantime, I'm adding more to the site, which is now officially It's not where I want it to be just yet, but as Bob said, "Baby steps to the hallway....."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Is There An "I Got Into Publisher's Weekly Dance"?

...because if there isn't, I'm creating one. And it will likely include backflips. Here's the small to many (but not small to me in my very new writing career) blurb next to my big silly face:

My book deal was announced on the same web page as Mike Lupica? Yes, I'll take that with a side of Happiness Pancakes!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Counting Up Rejections

I spent some extra free time today during my son's nap doing something that felt amazing.

I counted my rejection letters.

It took a while. In the twenty-first century, counting rejection letters for me meant combing through old emails, searching for all sorts of keywords like "query" and "submission" and "not the right fit for us". It also meant opening up an old shoebox that's been collecting snail mail rejections since 2007. Most of them say something along the lines of "thank you, but no". But a few of them had personalized rejections, or "please send us the first fifty pages" next to another envelope with "Thank you for sending us the first fifty pages, but no."

It was pretty gratifying, actually, to see how many places I've sent things. I totally forgot, for instance, that I'd sent several stories to Cemetery Dance once upon a time. It was also nice to revisit old works of fiction, both long and short, that I can look at now with a knowing eye for what was wrong with my writing at the time.

The coolest part of all was calculating how many rejections I've amassed in all. I have an ESTIMATED final count of.... drumroll, please.......

.... 425 rejection letters.

It breaks down in a very internet-influenced way. 376 of them are E-rejections, while only 49 are snail mail rejections. The numbers also show that I gravitate more towards writing novels than short stories, as 300+ are queries to agents rathen than submissions to literary magazines.

It's also worth noting that the actual number of rejections I've received might be higher. For instance, it doesn't include anything before 2007, which was when I truly started writing and submitting my work regularly and collecting snail mail rejections in a little shoebox. This wouldn't add on much, but it would add something.

All of this makes me think that rejection letters, as hurtful as they are at the time, really are a good sign. If you're getting them, it means you haven't given up. You're taking an extra step that the majority of people who care about words enough to make some of their own are afraid to do. If your response to a rejection letter is, "Better get started on the next one," then you're not really losing out at all.

I've long forgotten who gave me the advice that "every rejection letter you receive is one rejection closer to yes", but I do feel I owe them a big thank you, or at least a really big cookie.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

I AM DRUMS on shelves Fall 2015

It's official. I AM DRUMS has been purchased by Egmont, USA, and will be released sometime in Fall of 2015! That feels like a long time from now, but at least I know it will definitely happen.

The news came yesterday. A few phone calls, exchanges of emails, and suddenly the news started spreading amongst my family, friends, and various social media. My Facebook account, in particular, exploded with friends congratulating me and saying how they couldn't wait to read it. It felt nice -- it's one of those moments you dream about during the many years you spend submitting your work and collecting rejection letters and wondering if any of this insanity will ever pay off.

But, as my agent told me over the phone, "the fun has just begun." It's a long way to Fall 2015, and during that time there will be quite a lot to complete. There will be more revision notes. There will be waiting to see what the cover will look like. There will be my trip with my wife to New York in July, which we've wanted to do for almost eight years but never had a good excuse to follow through. Then there will be the moment when I actually get to hold a copy of I AM DRUMS in my hand. Yeah, that will be something, all right.

I've learned a lot of lessons this year. I can't even begin to fathom them all, but I'll be doing a lot of thinking and, of course, a lot of working. The next book isn't going to finish itself.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Almost There

It's time to blog again for three reasons:

1) I haven't in a while, and it's about time.

2) It's 1:38 AM and I can't sleep.

3) Most importantly, I AM DRUMS is almost there.

By "almost there" I mean that an offer to buy the book has been put on the table. My agent has made it clear that there is some negotiating to be done, but it's good to know that if I really wanted to, I could reach my hand out this second and cross something off my bucket list.

Little by little the news that I may become a published author next year is leaking out amongst friends and coworkers. And it's better, really, that it's out there. I need to get used to feeling comfortable talking about this as a real thing, and stop thinking that I'll jinx it the second I open my mouth.

My next blog will hopefully be the official news that a book deal has been set in stone. I''ll be looking forward to writing it (and continuing to miss out on sleep) until that happens.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Editorial Phone Calls and the 50 Book Pledge

It's been three months since I've posted anything. Not my best time for blogging.

The good side of this is I've been productive in nearly every capacity. The new book is slowly coming along, and I had an excellent phone call with an editor about I AM DRUMS. The editor was definitely interested in the book, but her editorial team needs a few more revisions before they can jump on the bandwagon. Very reasonable revisions, thankfully, and my agent confirmed that they seemed very sensible (he added that he's seen editors ask for pretty weird things). If I was to give advice to other writers about this part of the process, it would be the importance of listening.

I took a few days to stew over the phone conversation and got right to work. Within two to three weeks I had a revised manuscript that I was pretty sure covered everything the editor asked for. Now it's back to the waiting game!

On another separate note, I felt my reading habits slipping in late 2013, mostly due to the stress of work. That's unacceptable no matter the reason, so I joined the 50 Book Pledge for 2014, if only to keep myself on pace and/or catch myself if I'm letting life get in the way of reading regularly. For those of you who've never heard of it, the 50 Book Pledge is an oath to read AT LEAST 50 books by the end of the year. I'm hoping for more.

I've read ten books so far this year (almost finished my eleventh), which has me on pace for 53 books. I'd really like to be on pace for 60, but maybe I have to chill out about that for now.