Headline News or Headline Blues?

Guest Blogger: Jon McGoran

This past May, millions of people around the world joined together to protest how genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are being silently forced upon them. In June, there were headlines about GMO wheat mysteriously appearing in a field in Oregon, and super fast-growing GMO salmon breeding with trout to produce hybrid offspring that grow even faster (no word on what the grand-fish will be like). In July, my book DRIFT comes out, a thriller about GMO foods and the blurring line between food and pharmaceuticals.

I first became interested in writing fiction about GMOs from reading and writing nonfiction about GMOs. The more I learned about the issue, the more I thought, “Holy crap, this reads like fiction.” I also thought, “Holy Crap, this stuff has hardly been tested at all. We need to at least label it.” So I got involved, as well, working with groups like Just Label It and Food & Water Watch, to get GMOs labeled. Because I knew I wasn’t just writing about GMOs, I was probably eating them as well.

Writing a thriller about something so current can be tricky. In the case of GMOs, there are pluses and minuses. On the plus side, a lot of what has already come to pass reads like a thriller — secretive and powerful corporations using money and political power to squelch research and opposition while they release inadequately tested new organisms into the environment. On the one hand, you’ve got a great back story (although it can feel at times like you’re starting out with a sequel). On the other hand, it can be a challenge coming up with twists and turns that haven’t already played out in the newspapers (although generally deep inside the newspapers, with tiny little headlines). Luckily there are plenty of angles still to be explored. (DEADOUT, the sequel to DRIFT, focuses on possible links between GMOs and Colony Collapse Disorder, which is decimating bee populations around the world.)

The timing can be tricky as well. A compelling but obscure story can become headline news — or old news — while you’re still in the middle of your second draft. As DRIFT’s publication date approaches, I’m as nervous as any author would be, but maybe a little more so, because the topic is so timely the book could capture the moment, or miss it entirely. Unfortunately, it looks like the controversy over GMO foods is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, which, while bad news for anyone who eats food in this country, means there is plenty left to explore. Then again, as more and more people become aware of GMOs, and vocal about labeling them, it’s entirely possible that the government will listen to them and do something about it. But if it does, hopefully, DRIFT will do just fine as a good story with compelling characters. And at least I’ll feel better about the food I’m eating.

I’d love to hear other writers’ experiences — good and bad — writing fiction about topical issues or current affairs.

JON McGORANis the author of DRIFT, an ecological thriller about genetically engineered food and the blurring line between food and pharmaceuticals. He has been writing about food and sustainability for twenty years, as communication director at Weavers Way Co-op and editor of THE SHUTTLE newspaper, and now as editor at GRID magazine. Writing as D. H. Dublin, he is the author of BODY TRACE, BLOOD POISON, and FREEZER BURN. He is a founding member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, a group of published authors dedicated to promotion, networking, and service work. In DRIFT, he combines his interest in the increasingly bizarre world of food today with his love of the thriller.

The Seam Between Fiction and History

Guest Blogger: D.B. Jackson

My newest novel, THIEVES’ QUARRY, the second book in my Thieftaker Chronicles, is to be released today, July 2.  Like the first book in the series, THIEFTAKER, this latest installment is a historical urban fantasy set in Colonial Boston, against the backdrop of actual historical events leading to the American Revolution.

I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History.  Writing under a different name (David B. Coe) I have published a dozen fantasy novels.  With the Thieftaker books, I am trying to reconcile two seemingly disparate threads in my professional life.  On the one hand, as a confirmed history geek, I have what some might consider an obsessive need to get my facts right, to keep the historical elements of my story as accurate as possible.  At the same time, though, I am a fantasist.  Making stuff up is what I do.  Moreover, as a fiction author, I have to be most concerned with telling a good story and entertaining my readers. And so in the end my work is fated to be inaccurate.

The Thieftaker series is a case in point.  I will be happy to discuss at length all the work I do to ensure a certain level of historical authenticity in these books.  But I need to begin by pointing out the historical conceits, because they are significant.  My lead character, Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker — the eighteenth century equivalent of a private detective.  He is also a conjurer.  The thing is, there were no thieftakers in the New World in the 1760s and 1770s, when my books take place.  There were thieftakers in London and some other European cities at this time, and the profession would make a brief historical cameo in the United States in the early 1800s, but the fact remains that Ethan’s job, and his rivalry with fellow thieftaker Sephira Pryce is a gross anachronism. And Ethan’s access to magic is pure fantasy.

What makes these fictions work is that while they are inaccurate, they happen to fit in nicely with real historical circumstances.  There may have been no conjurers in Colonial Boston, but there were witch scares. By making my magic system resemble in certain ways eighteenth century beliefs about how witchcraft worked, and by making fear of magic synonymous with fear of witches, I give some real world context to my fiction and make it seem that Ethan’s spells belong in this version of 1760s Boston.

Similarly, while Boston had no thieftakers in the 1760s, conditions in the city make it easy to imagine that some form of private law enforcement could thrive.  Boston had a sheriff — a formidable man named Stephen Greenleaf — but he had no constabulary at his disposal.  Many men of Boston’s night watch were incompetent, and the rest were as likely to break the law as to enforce it.  In other words, I have been able to take advantage of Boston’s lawlessness and lack of an established police force to make the existence of thieftakers in my fictional Boston appear plausible.

If I can convince my readers to believe that thieftakers and conjurers belong in my version of Boston, the rest of my job as a writer of historical fiction becomes much easier.  Introducing the fictional plotlines for my books demands of my readers far shorter leaps of faith.  For instance, THIEVES’ QUARRY begins in late September of 1768, with Boston on the verge of being occupied by British troops.  A small fleet of British warships lays anchored in Boston Harbor, bearing a thousand regulars who had been stationed at Halifax.  This is all true — the fleet’s deployment and the occupation of the city happened just as I describe in the book.  Except that I add one ship to the fleet — the HMS Graystone.  And then I use a powerful conjuring to kill every man aboard the ship and leave it to Ethan to figure out what has happened and who is responsible.

The historical details I use are as accurate as I can make them.  Again, in part this is a function of my own geekish need to get this stuff right.  But it is also part of my narrative strategy.  The verisimilitude that I get from those details serve as cover, in a way, for the fictional elements. If my descriptions of historical figures and events ring true, and if all the stuff I make up blends in well with the history, then the seams between what’s accurate and what’s imagined become too subtle to see.

And that, of course, is the point.  My readers don’t necessarily need or want to know which details are real and which are not.  They want to be transported to another time and place.  They want to be presented with a tale that entertains and coheres and satisfies.  The first time Ethan casts a spell, they’re going to figure out that this is not the 1760s Boston they know from history books.  But so long as they believe this is a Boston that could have been, a Boston they want to visit for a time, I’m fine with that.

What do you look for in historical fiction?  Is it fair for an author to play with certain “facts” so long as she or he makes a concerted effort to get most things right?


D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasy, THIEFTAKER, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, came out in 2012 and is now available in paperback. The second volume, THIEVES’ QUARRY, has just been released by Tor Books. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.

When Does Your Writing Project Become a Novel?

Guest Blogger: Joshua Isard

I began my novel, CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS, while sitting in a cafe and writing a short story which I’d had no intention to write. It just came out. A few weeks later it was accepted for publication in the excellent journal, PRESS 1, and I rather thought that was the end of it. What a nice, quick process. Writing almost never works that way.

Then I started writing a story about characters remarkably similar to those from the first story, one which could very easily take place directly after it. This too was accepted for publication in a speedy manner.

When I started writing a third story with similar characters, I had to admit that, yes, they were the same characters in all three, but I wasn’t writing a novel, just riding a wave of stories about people that editors seemed to like.

I took these stories to my writing group. Eventually, the other group members started referring to it as my novel, and while at this point I knew they were right, I didn’t want to admit it. I referred to each piece as one in my “linear group of semi-autonomous short stories.”

I started calling it a novel about ¾ of the way through my first draft because I had an ending. I was writing towards something. Before that, I could have theoretically written the lives of my main characters, and branched out to everyone they knew until I stopped wanting to explore them anymore or the stories got bad. But once I saw the end, I knew what I had, and was willing to say so myself.

No writer necessarily needs to know they’re writing a novel when they start out. In fact, starting with a blank page and deciding to write a novel could lead to something affected. I’m a proponent of letting stories become what they may, be it a short story, novella, novel, or epic trilogy. Not every writer works this way, and it’s not a good strategy for everyone, but I do think there are plenty of writers, like myself, who don’t have an outline before starting, who seem to be, as E.L. Doctorow said, driving in the dark of the story and can only see as far as their headlights. And to them I say: that’s OK. You really can make the trip that way. And it might be better, because you go where the story takes you even if you can only see the next few pages of it at a time. The result is often organic, fluid, as any good piece of writing should be, and as I hope my novel is.

Does anyone else write with doubts about what exactly you’re working on while you’re working on it?

Joshua Isard grew up in the Philadelphia area, earned his BA in English at Temple University, and then went on to study creative writing at the University of Edinburgh and literature at University College London. He is the author of the novel CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS (Cinco Puntos Press 2013), and his short stories have recently appeared in THE BROADKILL REVIEW, PRESS 1, STORYCHORD, and NORTHWIND. He is currently the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He lives outside Philadelphia with his wife, two cats, and baby daughter.

Do You Believe?

Guest Blogger: Georgia McBride

PRAEFATIO is a story about actions, reactions and consequences. There are so many lies being told and so much backstabbing and duplicitous behavior, Grace wonders who she can trust. And the pain that Grace experiences as a result of these lies never really goes away. It wears on her confidence, her ability to make decisions and her growth as a person. Her sense of trust is destroyed. Her familial bonds are obliterated and Grace begins to question if her reality is in fact real. How can one 17-year-old survive something as traumatic as what Grace has been through?

At the core of Grace’s being, she is a believer. She knows in her gut that her truth is real. And yet, despite declaring herself to be an angel in chapter 1, Grace has no proof. She can’t fly, she has no wings and no powers. She is a plain as you and I, and perhaps even more so considering how defeated she is when the police find her.

But it’s Grace’s growth that is the true inspiration in PRAEFATIO, not her cool clothes, ability to change hair color or even her combat skills — though impressive. It’s Grace’s constant challenge of herself to improve and take charge of her own life, despite those who would seek to use her for their own personal gain. Grace refuses to be a pawn, refuses to be manipulated. She begins taking her power back and manipulating the manipulators.

Ultimately the reader understands the nature of Grace’s true power. It isn’t flying or mind reading or even defeating demons, but the power to believe herself, even if others doubt her. Even if she can’t trust anyone. Even if she has no proof of who or what she is. And sometimes, when life kicks us, or people we love disappoint us, all we have is our belief in ourselves. We have our belief that things will get better, that we will be OK, even if it takes a while.

Georgia McBride was born and raised in NYC but has been living in NC since 2006. When not writing or running Month9Books or Swoon Romance or the non-profit literary organization YALITCHAT.ORG, which she founded, Georgia visits schools and talks to kids about writing books!

Georgia writes speculative fiction for teens and tweens and even has an adult non-fiction book brewing in that overactive brain of hers. In her spare time she can be found rounding up 2 kids, 1 German Shepard, 3 Chihuahuas, and 1 parrot. She loves music of all kinds, wine and movies, and is addicted to coffee and bacon. Some of her favorite creators are George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams and Ridley Scott. She would cut off her right (or left) arm to work with any of the above.

She supports adoption (people and dogs), music appreciation, reading/literacy, animal rescue, cultural exchange, eco-friendly activities, equal rights for everyone and believes that we must achieve world peace.


Why We YA and You Should Too

Guest Bloggers:  Stephanie Wardrop, Kelly Hashway & Rachel Schieffelbein 





It’s summer, which means that visions of spending days basking in sunlight, reading a great book by the pool, and freedom from homework are dancing around in the heads of many. But summer also brings one more delight; Swoon Romance’s YA Summer of Love blog tour. Young adult authors Rachel Schieffelbein (author of SECONDARY CHARACTERS), Stephanie Wardrop (author of CHARM AND CONSEQUENCE), and Kelly Hashway (author of ADVANTAGE: HEARTBREAK) are celebrating the release of their newest novels, all out on 5/28/13, and enjoying their book blog tour. Though all three authors are in fact, adults, they all have a passion for young adult literature.

Rachel writes YA because, “It’s such an exciting time in a person’s life. Things are fun and easy, crazy and difficult all at the same time.” For Kelly, her love of young adult fiction stems from the fact that, “My teen years are the ones I remember best. They were so full of emotion, both good and bad, and I love tapping into that again through my writing.” Stephanie has similar feelings. She says, “The short, snarky [of why I write YA] answer is that I am a classic case of arrested development; an adolescent brain trapped in an adult body, but that’s only partly true.  I’m just fascinated by that period in our lives, adolescence, when there’s so much wonder and horror, beauty and heartache, bliss and devastation—sometimes all on the same day. I just heard an interview with a neuroscientist who was talking about the brain and the concept of time. She said that no matter how old a person is, the period of their lives that they remember most vividly, with most detail, is the years between ages 15-25. I think that’s my answer.”

In the long run, though some adults aren’t interested in reading books created for young adults, Stephanie doesn’t feel like young adult literature is much different than other adult titles.  When asked what sets YA books apart from others, she said, “Not much, really, when you get right down to it.  Good YA writing has all the elements of good writing. Period. Except that it is told from the point of view of an adolescent, not someone looking back at their adolescence.  But it can be funny, beautiful, eloquent, fantastical, brutally realistic—all of the stuff of any good book. And it’s not about the level of complexity of vocabulary or ideas, either. Libba Bray, John Green, Phillip Pullman, and a whole host of others can be so much more challenging than a lot of the “grownup” books out there.” Rachel feels that YA books are, “…more honest. I think teens can spot BS better than a lot of adults!” For Kelly, she feels that, “YA appeals to so many age groups, not just teens. I think it’s a way for adults to connect to teens and remember what life was like at that age. And have I mentioned the emotion in YA?”

For those who are looking to get their hands on more young adult reads, don’t hesitate to pick up the three books of the YA Summer of Love blog tour by the Rachel, Stephanie, and Kelly. If you’re looking to learn more about writing YA, these three recommend hanging around teens (not in a creepy way of course), reading a ton of YA novels, and checking out sites like YA Highway and YALitChat.

More about Advantage Heartbreak:

Seventeen-year-old Meg Flannigan thought she’d made up her mind about love. But with two guys still vying for her attention, she wonders if she made the right decision. Ash is everything she’s ever wanted in a boyfriend: loyal, loving, and totally hot. But then there’s Noah: fun, sexy, and the more he sticks around, the more Meg wants him there.

What’s a girl to do?

Make up her mind, before it’s too late. Gorgeous freshman Liz has set her sights on Ash, and Noah is beginning to remind Meg of her last boyfriend—the one who broke her heart. Can she figure things out before she ruins not one, but two relationships? Or is she doomed to serve up heartbreak?

More About Secondary Characters:

When Mabel’s best friend, Amber, drags her along on a double date she finds herself falling for Lance, the obnoxious class clown whom she swore she’d have no interest in. The only problem is, she’s not sure if she’s really the girl Lance is into, or if, like every other guy she knows, it’s really Amber he’s after. One thing is clear, if Mabel wants to be the lead in her own love story, she needs to start acting like it.

More About Charm and Consequence:

One superior smirk from Michael Endicott convinces sixteen-year-old Georgia Barrett that the Devil wears Polo. His family may have founded the postcard-perfect New England town they live in, but Georgia’s not impressed. Even if he is smart, good looking, and can return Georgia’s barbs as deftly as he returns serves on his family’s tennis courts. After all, if Michael actually thinks she refuses to participate in lab dissections just to mess with his grade, he’s a little too sure that he’s the center of the universe. Could there be more to Michael Endicott than smirks and sarcasm? If Georgia can cut the snark long enough, she just might find out.



What to Do When You’re Stuck (Or How Scorpion Deception Almost Didn’t Get Created)

Guest Blogger: Andrew Kaplan

You know you’re in trouble when you’ve got a contract to write the next book in a popular series (OK, not top of the NY TIMES bestseller list popular, but Bookscan and Amazon top 20 popular), a looming deadline, and you don’t have an idea in your head. Not a clue. For those of you who haven’t read any of my past books, or any of the books in the Scorpion series, then you need to know is that what sets them apart in the spy thriller genre is that they are not simple slam-bang “take-no-prisoners” action entertainments for guys or girl in jeopardy defusing a bomb with a nail file for the ladies. Nothing wrong with those if you like them, but Scorpion books, while hopefully suspenseful, action-filled, and all the rest, are not that. Except by that point, I was ready to embrace any idea, even slam-bang. If you had told me then that I was about to write my most timely and important book, I’d have suggested you have a long talk with your doctor.

My previous books had all come from ideas I’d been thinking about, “percolating” to use an old-fashioned word, for a long time before I actually wrote them. But I had run out. There wasn’t anything on a back shelf I could reach for. If I had time to come up with one, I was sure I could, but the clock was ticking. I did have one dusty old idea. About a spy (a mole) who had suddenly gone silent. What interested me was not the fact that he had gone silent or what the handlers tried to do about it, but why the silence. All very well, except it wasn’t a Scorpion book. That story wasn’t about the ex-CIA agent code-named “Scorpion” on a mission, it was the mole’s story. And it began in childhood. Although surprisingly, that’s often what Scorpion books are ultimately about. For example, SCORPION BETRAYAL was at its core about two Palestinian children and an unspeakable tragedy. SCORPION WINTER too is about something that occurs in childhood, although to tell you what or who would be giving too much away.

I had to use the idea about the spy because it was the only idea I had. But the structure wouldn’t work. Then I had an idea. The only way to tell the story would be not to tell it. Like Hemingway, keep what’s important submerged. It’s like the movie CASABLANCA. Even though you never see soldiers or a battle, it’s World War Two that gives it resonance. Without the backdrop of the War, CASABLANCA is just a Warner’s B-movie backlot romance. With it, (and the Epstein brothers’ sparkling dialogue) it’s one of the greatest movies of all time. I would have to leave my spy story untold and twist the rest like a pretzel to make it work as a Scorpion book, but I could do that. The rest is writing. The result is my latest book, SCORPION DECEPTION.

My publisher, HarperCollins, asked me to describe my thoughts about SCORPION DECEPTION for their publicity release. Here’s what I wrote:

“With Syria in the news and the U.S. contemplating military action against Iran that could escalate into war, I can’t think of a book that will give readers greater insight into what’s happening today in the undercover world of espionage and more importantly, what’s going on inside Iran, posht-e pardeh “behind the curtain”, than SCORPION DECEPTION. All this in an incredibly suspenseful story about love – Scorpion’s most passionate love ever – and deception that rockets from the refugee camps of Africa and across Europe to Tehran’s ruling inner circles. This is by far, the most timely and important book I’ve ever written.”

I’ve told you about my book, now I’m hoping you can tell me, because I’m always looking: What’s the best and most important book you’ve read in the past year or so?

Andrew Kaplan is the internationally known author of the NY TIMES bestselling Scorpion spy thriller series, including his latest, SCORPION DECEPTION. A former journalist and war correspondent, he covered events around the world and served in both the U.S. Army and the Israeli Army. His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into twenty languages. His film writing career includes the James Bond classic, GOLDENEYE. He is the author of the highly-anticipated, HOMELAND: CARRIE’S RUN from William Morrow; an original prequel novel based on the award-winning hit television series, HOMELAND.



On Writing YA and Adult Thrillers

Guest Blogger: James Phelan

SURVIVOR is the second installment in my ALONE trilogy for Young Adults.  It follows a 16-year-old protagonist, Jesse, in a post-apocalyptic setting in NYC.

The trilogy started because I’d already written 3 adults thrillers and was contracted for 3 more, and needed a different writing challenge.  I also wanted to address some issue and themes about identity and loss, and about what it meets to be and feel “alone” as a teenager.  The post apocalyptic storyline came by way as an analogy of the GFC.  Indeed, book one, CHASERS, formed the backbone of my PhD in Literature which looked at Allegory, Symbology, and Meaning in Young Adult fiction – but I won’t bore you too much with that here.

I will say that young readers are brilliant, and so much better at enjoying a story than us boring adults.  They like the story and get the characters.  ALONE is sold into over a hundred countries and I’m always getting fan-mail and talking at schools all over the world, and the feedback from teens is great.  Adults, on the other hand, seem to enjoy the pace and set-pieces and premise but want to know more, eg who did this attack on NYC (which is never definitively answered across the 3 novels).  The “who” to me is not only unimportant, it’s ridiculous.  I’d worry more about who did the anthrax attacks in 2001, who was doing secret deals in Wall Street to set off the GFC.  That’s worth worrying about.  This is a story, and if you’re after gratification it’s there in spades.  As a general sort of rule, kids seem to read it as an adventure; adults get nightmares.

As my adult thrillers in my Lachlan Fox series follows an investigative reporter into real-world troubling and desperate international scenarios, I wanted to have my first foray into the YA world looking at similar material.  The starting point for me was reading a Ron Charles (book reviewer Washington Post) review of a terrible novel that had 9/11 as its backdrop, where he said that 9/11 made children of all of us.  That it re-awakened a vulnerability and wonder and astonishment in all of us in the face of things that are very big, through the lens of a child’s anxiety.  That struck a chord, and the ALONE storyline began.

My research consisted of two main components: re-reading my favourite books from when I was a teen, and looking into the events that shaped my story.  As each of my novels has dealt with allegorical material of some nature, I refined what to use for this down to three significant events: 9/11, the 2001 anthrax attacks, and the Global Financial Crisis. By having this triple-barrelled thematic backbone I was able to weave my story full of symbology.

The genius critic Harold Bloom says that books are born of books, and I agree.  These are the books that I re-read, and each shaped my trilogy in significant ways:

The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling.

My dad read this to me.  This book, closely followed by The Hobbit, Treasure Island, and The Little Prince, was the standout that started my love for reading. Kipling’s best (that’s Kim, up there with Huck Finn and Moby Dick), taught me that the magic is in the words, not in the man.  To me there will forever be something about Kipling’s writing that reveals an epiphany of parental love. I re-read it as a teen and loved it even more.

Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse.

This changed my life as a young man.  A story about identity, about finding one’s own meaning to life, about doing what you feel you have to do in order to find yourself.  Reading it the first time helped me find the courage to become a young novelist.  I reread it every year; with The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, this is an enduring favourite.  I learned that you can go into the unknown and take a chance, that you can work hard to chase your dreams, that there’s no guarantees.  But you know what?  The joy of it is chasing that dream and never giving up, all in the hope that enlightenment will come.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card.

I read this feverishly.  It taught me human lessons, beyond any non-fiction I’ve read, about war and violence.  As a writer it taught me that you shouldn’t compromise when creating a novel with young characters… and the power of a good ending.  Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy‘s best novel, his most brutal, had a similar affect on me for my thrillers.  Cormac gets that books are made of books.  Every line is honest, a slap in the face, a mirror for us all. Every teenage boy should read                                                            Enders Game.

The Catcher in the Rye,  J. D. Salinger.

Holden Caulfield at 16 is as wise a teenage character I’ve read – he pretty much did it all – yet he embodied the boy-ish naivety needed to make him appealing as a narrator. The setting and voice in the novel was an influence on my for all of my 20’s. Like Yann Martel’s “Pi” Patel (Life of Pi), Holden has left an indelible mark in my mind; it felt as though he was, for a period, a friend of mine… And believe me, I’d much rather have him as a friend than Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski (Ham on Rye).

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank.

I read this in school and several times since.  It showed me that no matter how alone you feel, you are never really alone.  The ideas I interpreted as ‘speaking to friends in a time of crisis’, and ‘who’s to say that when people die every bit of them has to go’, sparked my storytelling bug.  ALONE: Chasers, my sixth novel, was a response to Diary and others mentioned here: a story of survival and a broader discussion about today’s lack of understanding and empathy.  I owe it all to that beautiful girl, Anne                                                              Frank.

So, Book 3, QUARANTINE, is out this October. Before that, September sees the first in a new 13-book YA series titled THE LAST THIRTEEN, which is being published simultaneously around the world by Scholastic.  Book 2 then appears in December, when we’ll also see my 6th adult thriller, THE SPY, published by Hachette, and then 2014 sees the 11 remaining of the THIRTEEN series published, eg monthly from Feb.  And another adult thriller sometime 2014 too.

I love being busy as a writer — it suits me. It’s interesting, always living/being so near the conception and release of a project, not knowing how each is going to go.  To me it’s better being in that situation than where it’s always about the next thing and then not having anything in development.  And it’s been a good run since 2006 — with 25 books contracted, life’s good… but I steel myself that the music might stop some day.  I’ll always write, but will the publishers still be there?  Well, if they’re not, I’m sure we’ll figure something out, because readers will always be there, no matter what the mode of publication and production.  We write in interesting days…

Which reminds me — back to it.

An Obsession with the Past

Guest Blogger: David Morrell

Novelists sometimes find themselves stuck with what John Barth calls “fill in the blank” writing. A character walks into an office, which needs to be described. If it’s an attorney’s office, there’ll probably be law books and photographs of the attorney’s family or maybe of powerful people with whom the attorney posed. Will the desk be neat or cluttered? Will the furniture be traditional or modern? Will the floor be carpeted or made of wood?  Choose from column A or column B. Fill in the blank. The same applies to describing people. Is the character male or female, tall or short, ample or lean, old or young, red-haired or . . . ? Choose from an appropriate column. Fill in the blank.

This is a necessary task for an author, but it can also be tedious. In our around-the-clock information age, everything has been photographed so much that it’s familiar, not only settings and descriptions but plots also. If you watch reality crime shows with titles like DEADLY WOMEN and  MURDER BEHIND MANSION WALLS, every night, hour after hour, you see situations that would once have been the topics of bestselling books but now feel commonplace. It’s no wonder that novels with similar themes and situations are increasingly being written. Everything is starting to feel a lot alike.

What’s an author to do? Is there a way to avoid fill-in-the-blank writing? Lately I decided that the present is a nice place to visit, but I don’t like staying here very long—at least not as a writer. I’ve always used history in my novels. Indeed some have suggested that my 1985 novel THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE set the template for the lost-secret-in-the-past-that-threatens-the-modern-world genre.  But except for a 1977 historical Western, LAST REVEILLE (about “Black Jack” Pershing’s hunt for the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa), I never dreamed that I’d become a historical novelist.

I’ve always been interested in Victorian England, but in 2010, that interest became an obsession.  I happened to overhear a reference to a nineteenth-century author named Thomas De Quincey. The reference suggested that De Quincey invented the concept of the subconscious and anticipated the theories of Freud by a half century. He might make an interesting character in a novel, I thought, unaware that I was about to slide down a rabbit hole.

De Quincey, it turned out, invented the true-crime genre in a blood-soaked essay called “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”  He was also the first author to write about drug addiction in CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER. He was also an expert in murder, particularly the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which rivaled Jack the Ripper’s for terrorizing London and all of England.

The more I learned about De Quincey, the more I wanted to continue learning. I started reading histories about the 1850s when De Quincey’s collected works appeared. I immersed myself so thoroughly in the period that, like a Method actor, I felt I was there.

I soon realized that by mentally journeying back to 1854 London, I had escaped the problem of fill-in-the-blank writing. Everything at that time was so weird to our modern eyes that I could describe just about anything to my heart’s content, and because of its strange nature, it would be intriguing.  Burial practices, for example. Back then, holes were dug so deeply that as many as twenty coffins could be stacked on top of one another. Gravediggers would jump up and down to compact the wood and the bones.

There’s no column A and column B here. It’s so exotically foreign that description becomes a pleasure. The novel required two years of joyous research. It’s called MURDER AS A FINE ART, echoing the title of De Quincey’s sensational essay, and if I satisfied my goal, you’ll believe that you’re in 1854 London, on vacation from the present.

David Morrell is the author of FIRST BLOOD, the award-winning novel in which Rambo was created. He holds a Ph. D. in American literature from Penn State and was a professor in the English department at the University of Iowa. His numerous NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers include the classic spy trilogy THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE (the basis for the only television mini-series to premier after a Super Bowl), THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, and THE LEAGUE OF NIGHT AND FOG. An Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity nominee, Morrell is the recipient of three Bram Stoker awards and the prestigious Thriller Master award from the International Thriller Writers organization. His writing book, THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST, discusses what he has learned in his four decades as an author. Please visit him at www.davidmorrell.net.


Seriously Funny

Guest Blogger:  Jill Wolfson

The four novels that I’ve written for the middle-reader and the young adult audience all deal with heavy topics – foster care, unemployment, depression, death, medical emergencies. In COLD HANDS, WARM HEART, I actually killed character – a likeable teenage girl – in the first chapter, and found myself crying while I was writing it.

My newest novel, FURIOUS, also doesn’t shy away from a heavy emotional load. It’s a contemporary re-telling of the Greek myth of the furies; the furies gave us the words fury and infuriated, so that gives you the gist of their personalities. In FURIOUS, the main characters – three high school girls with a lot to be angry about – deal with bullying, revenge and betrayal – gritty topics that would seem to indicate a serious, even gloomy reading experience.

But I think my books are pretty funny, and most readers and reviewers agree. This is definitely a reflection of my personality and the way that I view the world. Underlying all the sadness and unfairness, deep in the heart of our human experience, I happen to hear a belly laugh. I can’t help it; when things look dark, I see a cosmic joke in it.

That’s why I like writing stories that are “seriously funny” – that make you think, feel and laugh at the same time, that hold up a mirror to the uncomfortable situations that we humans frequently find ourselves in (or put ourselves in).

It’s a tricky process to write the humor in challenging life experiences, such as bullying. For me, it comes down to creating a character who reflects my own “belly laugh” sense of the world, but then changing the externals to suit the plot. In FURIOUS, the character closest to me is actually the character that least resembles me from the outside. Raymond is a gay teenage boy with an outsized, irritating personality, a genius for music and languages. He can speak Pig Latin in Latin. I’m a middle-aged mom, kind of quiet, who can’t carry a tune or speak anything other than English.

But still, in the middle of epic chaos with goddesses, Raymond has the ability to step outside of himself – a writer’s skill – to find the humor in every situation. As his closest friend, Meg, says: “He’s by far the youngest, smartest, most accomplished person in our class, but also kind of an idiot…His most recent form of self-amusement is saying things like: What I lack in maturity, I make up for in infantile behavior.”

And yes, that kind of idiotic self-amusement certainly describes the writer in me.

Thanks so much to Janice for hosting this post.

Now, I want to put out a question for all of you. Some of my favorite “seriously funny” middle-grade/YA writers include Libba Bray, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Sherman Alexie and Jack Gantos. How about you? What writers make you think about deep subjects, but in a way that makes you laugh?

Jill Wolfson is the author of award-winning novels for young readers, including WHAT I CALL LIFE; HOME, AND OTHER BIG, FAT LIES; COLD HANDS, WARM HEART; and the newly released, FURIOUS, all published by Henry Holt. She is also a long-time volunteer in a writing program for incarcerated teenagers. Jill lives with her family in a Northern California beach town (where FURIOUS is set). In addition to her website, you can find Jill at her blog or on Twitter.



When did you first make Miss Dickinson’s Acquaintance?

Guest Blogger: Michaela MacColl

I have to admit that poetry has never been my thing. I’m a prose girl. I like plot and character development. All too often when I read poetry I feel as though the writer is scoring points off me – I’m just not as clever as she is. Or when I hear it read aloud, I wonder if the reader is just imbuing the words with more significance than the text warrants. Can you tell I’m a little defensive about this topic?

However, I take it all back when it comes to Emily Dickinson. Emily, I get. I always have.  I first found her when I was about 12.  Her poem “This is my letter to the world; that never wrote to me.”  Wow. That spoke to a 12 year girl who often felt misunderstood or lonely.  Or “Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Double Wow. Just reading those words made me happier. When I read Emily’s poem I often felt that frisson, that flash of recognition – she and I see things the same way.  I’m considerably older now and I still find Emily’s words speak to my daily life.

Emily’s poems, despite being a century and a half old, still feel fresh and modern. That’s part of their appeal. And let’s face it, her legend as a recluse, a lady in white, attracts readers as well. We love the idea of this woman locked in the bedroom of her childhood home, penning poem after poem and then hiding them away. After Emily’s death, her closest confidant, her sister Lavinia, was shocked to discover over 1500 poems in a locked chest in the maid’s room. Emily was a lady with secrets and that fascinated me.

I wanted to introduce young readers to this enigmatic poet. As a fifteen year old, bored with chores and good behavior, how would the budding poet react to an encounter with a mysterious (and good-looking) stranger? Might her powers of observation and her botanical skills come in handy? Because I wanted to tie the story to Emily’s work, the plot was inspired by one of her most famous poems, “I’m Nobody, Who are You? Are you Nobody too?”  The result was NOBODY’S SECRET which comes out at the end of April from Chronicle Books.

Thank you Janice for letting me visit with your readers. And I would love to know when they first met the mysterious Emily Dickinson?

Michaela MacColl attended Vassar College and Yale University. She earned degrees in multi-disciplinary history. Unfortunately, it took her 20 years before she realized she was learning how to write historical fiction. Her favorite stories are the ones she finds about the childhood experiences of famous people. What happened that helped them to be great? Michaela has two daughters so she’s hoping to identify those moments firsthand. She and her family live in Connecticut, but she will travel at the drop of hat to do local research.