A Writing Biography, Volume I, Part 5: Ambivalence Toward YA Fiction by a YA

I’m now a teacher of young adults. As part of being a teacher, I try to get kids active with reading. I’ve even taken it upon myself to collect some books in my own room for their reading interest. As part of this effort, I’ve acquired more than a few books with the “YA” (Young Adult) stickers on their spines, and they now are part of my improvised library.

If I were building a library from scratch, however, it probably wouldn’t include many YA books. This was the case even when I was a YA myself.

In my memory, which can probably tell tall tales as well as anything, the label of YA fiction started sometime in earnest around the late 1960’s and continued on since then. That always made sense to me, because the youth market was so big in those days due to the baby boom generation of my parents.

I missed out on the megahit YA genre series that have come to dominate the market in the 21st century, like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent, and The 5th Wave, among others. (Personally, I enjoyed Potter, was so-so on the Hunger Games, never thought Divergent made sense, and The 5th Wave was over the top, but had promise.)

Back during my childhood, there were a lot of kids that looked like me in towns that looked like mine dealing with teenage dramas that even then seemed irrelevant. I wanted to jump right into the big adult novels, like 1984 and Stephen King’s work. (It’s going to take another blog post to discuss my ongoing obsession for King’s work, and maybe more than one post.) I had made the amazing discovery that fiction that touched on the adult themes that kept kids of my time out of R-rated movies was far more accessible in book format than in theaters or television. That’s not the only reason I read those books, but it was admittedly one of them.

Despite my wariness about YA titles, I couldn’t help but pay attention to some authors that I couldn’t help admiring after I’d had the chance to read them. Paul Zindel and Chris Crutcher were two of them – I dug their offbeat young characters and attempts to find their own identities in hostile environments that I couldn’t imagine growing up in. 

It was when I read The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson that a YA novel really caught my attention. Kids forced to immediately grow up – in this case, because your parents want you dead? Kids having to run into the forest to avoid sharpshooting teachers? Kids falling in love while on the run? What wouldn’t a 13-year-old me not like about it?

There were some flaws about it, however – some of the adults seemed to be too silly to believe and the kids seemed to have things too together at times. But 13-year-old me saw a great story about kids having to grow up unexpectedly. That’s the type of story that never grows old (pun somewhat intended).

In the end, I came to realize that it didn’t matter whether a book was classified as YA or not, just like it didn’t matter whether it was called sci-fi, horror, romance, literary, or unclassifyable. If a book had a story and characters I related to and fired my imagination, labels didn’t matter. 

I didn’t usually read YA, and I still don’t. But sometimes one of them does spark the imagination. 

Writing Journal, 8/20/2017

Well, I started in-service work this week, and… the production dropped a little bit. Not a massive amount, for sure, but at least a little amount. I think if I had a better Saturday of writing (by which I mean that I should have actually written), the total would be better. I got distracted yesterday, but I think I can manage it easier now.

So, the totals.

No words reviewed, (this means that I looked over the words for possible revision, adding/cutting/changing material).

2,277 words written.

Days writing: 5 out of 7 days writing fiction.

So, that’s it for now. Back at it today.

A Writing Biography, Volume I, Part 4: Falling in and Out of Love With Technothrillers

Normally I always include some sort of image on these stories, even if it’s one of the those boring landscape images of eastern Iowa or those shots of my writing desk. 🙂

Oftentimes, if I’m talking about a particular author I like, I’ll usually take a photo of the book cover of an author I’ve read to illustrate a post. I tend to want to avoid copyright issues – although I think I’m covered by fair use rules. Today, however, I wasn’t able to do that. There’s a story behind that, and part of this section of the writing biography.

As a kid, I was obsessed over reading about the military and about military equipment. When my family and I had a chance to travel to Washington DC, the one place I had to visit was the National Air and Space Museum. It absolutely dovetailed with my existing interests in science fiction and space travel (the sci-fi obsession I’ve touched on before, although I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post). Anyway, all of these interests in cool vehicles that made things go boom, the technologies that made them possible and their sci-fi possibilities, and the strategies and tactics that involved their use, all converged in a big obsession tornado in my pre-adolescent mind.

It was right around this time that The Hunt for Red October hit the shelves. I don’t recall when I first read it, but it had to be sometime after it came out in paperback because I read it in the paperback format.

The minute I started to read it, it hooked me in. Why? Like I said, I was a military tech faddist back then, and Tom Clancy knew his stuff. Not just the amount of detail about the American military and its technology, but what he knew about how the Soviet Union and its military and navy worked. A few years later, I was amazed to learn that Clancy had never even served in the military, and the book was a result of something like five years of research while he worked at an insurance agency.

(This was a great inspiration for me to see that you could write intelligently about anything, regardless of your life experience, as long as you did your research. For years I had wanted to write a novel about soccer, but I believed that I didn’t have enough life experience or background knowledge to write about it and not sound stupid. A few years of reading about the history and business of soccer and intense soccer fandom, and I’ve finally gotten started on that project.)

The pace and the structure of the novel was also highly influential to me, as well. I’d often heard of unfilmable books and books that were not able to translate into a visual format. But when I read October, I read a book that could have been assembled on a Hollywood film storyboard. Clancy was telling a large story with a lot of moving parts, different characters, and different locations. The way he shifted perspectives and moved where the action was fascinated me, took me along for the ride. In years since, I’ve often talked with writing students about how deciding to move to a new paragraph or section works in the same way as a film director deciding to change a camera angle or location. Reading October and seeing how Clancy did this was the first time I really started to “see” how that worked. (I learned from Andrew Vachss about how you can keep chapters as short or as long as you wanted to, but that’s another tale.)

As with most obsessions, this one expanded. By my count, I’ve read at least a dozen of the novels that he has put out, and maybe a few of those that were put out by Zombie Tom Clancy, when other authors write books under Clancy’s name. (Entertainment Weekly had a good article on the practice here; I just wonder how these guys manage to get the gig. It sounds like easy money to be honest.) At some point, I had as many as four of his books in my personal collection, and some by a couple of other authors with similar styles, like Vince Flynn.

Now, however, my shelves are bare of Clancy, Flynn, or any of their like. (That’s why I needed the Internet to find my art today.) What happened? Essentially, I got tired of the guy’s politics. (I try to avoid politics on this page – I’d probably consider myself a socialist if I had to define myself – but since it fits in with how I feel about a writer, I think I needed to get into it.)

More and more as he wrote later in his career, all of this stupid conservative beliefs started bleeding out into his books. There was his blind faith in the military and military leaders, little acknowledgement that government needs to act transparently, an outdated view of women and reproductive issues, and a blind faith in market and libertarian solutions to problems. There were just a lot of ideas that were both wrong and gross to me. It started getting bad around Executive Orders and just kept getting worse from there.

All I wanted to do is read the action, but all I could see in those later books were stupid political ideas. For the first time, how I felt about the way the world should work clashed directly with authors I enjoyed. I’ve heard many say that they can separate the author from their personal views. I can’t however. There’s simply too many authors out there that I can read and that have reasonable political or personal views that I don’t believe I have to compromise myself in that way.

The truth is, how you feel about society and personal opinions does affect what you write. For example, the main characters in books by Clancy, Flynn, and others were alpha males for whom finding the right guy and guilty party was easy and the way to solve almost any geopolitical problem involved bullets and explosives. I never saw Jack Ryan or Mitch Rapp from Flynn’s series catch the wrong guy and kill or torture them, or see them accidentally kill a whole flock of civilians. But that does happen, because I see that happen every day. Since those authors were so fascinated by the military or military solutions, it eventually eroded their credibility to me as a reader. I’ve always said that ideology is how you wish the world would work if only humans weren’t the way that they were. If someone has an ideology that’s too stupid for me to buy into, I have no interest and taking a tour of that author’s head by reading a book.

So, Tom Clancy became a teacher for me as both how to and how not to write books. He is nowhere near the last one of those I have run into as a reader. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can learn something from both the great writers and the terrible writers.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m starting to tag and headline these writing biography posts as either Volume I or Volume II. Volume I are biographical reading and writing posts about things I first encountered as a kid or young adult. Volume II will touch on stories taking place in my adulthood since then. Hope you enjoy both, because I believe I will start doing both Volume I and Volume II stories simultaneously as we go along. I’ve also retroactively re-titled those previous Bio posts to reflect those changes, but that won’t affect their URLs.

Writing Journal, 8/13/2017

The last full week of vacation before starting with in-service for my school. I think this week was certainly an improvement over the last one, but as I keep going back to (and I probably will use it for blog fodder later), trying to maintain a writing schedule during the school year will be my greatest challenge, one I did not stick to in years past.

Week of 8/6-12/2017:

No numbers taken on words reviewed, although I will likely do some of that this week (this means that I looked over the words for possible revision, adding/cutting/changing material).

3,202 words written.

Days writing: 5 out of 7 days writing fiction*.
* = Does not include blogging work

Again, I call it a general improvement over the past week. I’ve also decided to keep the weekly totals on my writing journal to help keep track of how the numbers look over a longer period of time.

A Scheduling Matter

Starting this Sunday, I will be going back onto school time. I’m always going to know it’s getting to be the start of the school year when the Premier League starts up.

As I keep mentioning here, getting the scheduling right for my writing will be critical. I think that if I discipline myself, I can easily set aside one hour for writing a night during the week. I also believe (although this is not as critical), that I set aside two or so hours per week to keep up with this blog and my writing social media (Liegois Media on Facebook and Twitter). I am positive that I can manage at least two posts on the weekends here on this page and maybe one midweek post.

There are particular reasons why I want to pursue this strategy. By running this writing blog, I am trying to keep myself honest about the amount of writing I do and that I want to do. I want to finally take my writing seriously enough to do it consistently and with the eventual intent to publish.

More and more, I find the internal motivation to write because I’m getting invigorated by how I feel when I actually create something. I also am learning something critical about getting something done – if I’m getting bored by something I write, I start writing something that isn’t boring, and try to avoid writing the boring parts. You’d be amazed at how much you get written by avoiding writing stuff that bores you.

I’d write some more now, but it’s the kickoff special for the Premier League.

More later.

A Writing Biography, Volume I, Part 3: Comic Book Days.

I wound up buying a comic book today when I was in the Quad Cities running some errands. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a couple primers.) I realized today that this was the first comic book I’ve bought in about 20 years. It might even be 25, but it’s at least 20.

Before I get into why I purchased the particular comic book pictured, I have to tell you how comics were a major part of what I read when I was younger. In the choice between DC and Marvel, in the end I was a Marvel guy. I loved the tales of the X-Men in particular, this idea of people with superpowers representing outsiders and those feared by society. The comic book writers of the late 20th century got endless mileage out of that idea, almost like how the WWE got endless mileage for years from the conflict between labor (Stone Cold) and ownership (Vince McMahon). However, a biography piece on wrestling’s influence in my life is another bio entry for another time.

As I said, I was a Marvel guy in my heart (who may have even bought a Captain America comic once), but when I heard about The Dark Knight Returns I immediately had to go to the bookstore to thumb through it, then to the library to check it out. This was revolutionary stuff, and I became a disciple of Frank Miller’s writing. I immediately attempted to try and find more examples of comic book coolness, which included a couple of collections of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run and some other books.

You have to realize that as this comic book revolution that had started in the 70’s and ramped up in earnest during the 1980’s and 90’s was something that was more of a rumor to me than an actual fact. I grew up in Iowa during the 1980’s and 90’s. Comic book stores were exotic places that I went to once a year on visits to Iowa City and Davenport. The Internet and smartphones didn’t exist. When I eventually went to college, I was literally the last college student in America not to have email, which would have been very helpful in keeping in contact with my future wife.

So with all of that, I had to do some digging, going to libraries to find the cool collections of comics or histories of comic books. Later, I’d find the more hip bookstores of Iowa City would have plenty of “graphic novels,” and I really started to dig the stories I found there. I discovered Watchmen there well after the fact, and dug the idea of a superhero reimagining – as well as a history re-imagining. I read Maus for the first time and realized how the medium could affect how you told a story.

Over time, my tastes in comics changed. I boxed up the comic books I’d collected in a plastic container 20 years ago and they’ve stayed there ever since. There’s dozens of them there, but the entire box was barely worth about $20 worth when I had them appraised a few years ago. (I sold the one comic that was worth $10 and kept the rest.) I got away from continuing series and liked graphic novels that told extended stories yet eventually came to a conclusion. I also started developing a taste for independent comic books, like Love and Rockets, The Crow, and others.

Superhero stories were not what I was buying, although 10 years or so ago I saw a collection of the Starman series by James Robinson and Tony Harris that blew my mind, how it showed the growth of a new superhero in a city that became just as vital as Gotham or New York had been in previous comics. And I’ve been impressed by the film adaptations of the MCU and DC’s efforts. (Trust me, they make far better adaptations of comics than they did years ago.)

I still have a collection of these and some other great books I’ve collected, including the last volume of Strangers In Paradise. One of the happiest times in recent years was my daughter’s discovery of those books in one of my bookcases. She proceeded to liberate them from my shelves and they were in her room for the better part of the year.

Even though I’m not sure I’ll probably ever write in the graphic novel format, I do appreciate how the medium attracts creative people trying to expand what can be done with the idea of graphic stories in general and superhero stories in particular. I had heard about Black Mask Studios being this new publisher that was experimenting with new ideas, not just trying to tell the same stories over again with the same characters. And when I heard that they were doing a comic, Black, that told the story of a world where only black people had superpowers, bringing new life to the old ideas hinted at in X-Men – well, that got my attention.

Why shouldn’t I support that type of creativity? So, I got out and bought Chapter Six (the last one) of Book One of Black. Not that I’m collecting comics or anything. For one, it was only $5.99. Second, they didn’t have a graphic novel collection of it. But, I’d be interested in one whenever it comes out.

Getting Started on the Publishing Journey

Even as I am continuing on the new project, getting The Holy Fool into publication is now a priority. Given the story itself is set in 2008, it would make a lot of sense from a marketing and general interest standpoint to release the story on that 10-year anniversary.

I’ve been taking a look at some query possibilities, including both agents and publishers. Personally, it’s nice to see that many of them are accepting email queries now rather than expecting people to pay postage. Computer files take up a lot less space than reams of paper, as much as I’ve been a fan of paper in the past.

Right now, the first necessary step seems to be to put together a main query letter that I could use in most circumstances. Naturally, I’d modify it as need be to match the particular recipient. I think having the query ready to go would help speed up the process, especially as I plan to send out and keep track of multiple queries.

With a meeting of my writing group coming up, I’m seriously considering having the query letter reviewed by them to see how well I’m selling the book. A couple of them have already been published, so the advice would be useful, maybe more so than looking at my new manuscript.

Of course, if any reader of this blog happens to be an agent or publisher that might be interested in a journalism-based thriller, feel free to contact me as soon as possible.

Writing Journal: 8/6/2017

As I creep into August, time to total up the week’s work. Although my production this week has been acceptable, I am still interested in how I will stick with it once school starts.

Week of 7/30-8/5/2017:

9,452 words reviewed (this means that I looked over the words for possible revision, adding/cutting/changing material).

1,946 words written.

Days writing: 5 out of 7 days writing fiction*.
* = Does not include blogging work

There was a slight dip this week, but I do think I am making forward progress. Again, the real test will be in three weeks when classes start in earnest.

Coordinating Social Media and the Online Presence.

On my Twitter page, I remember that I was boasting recently that I’ve managed to integrate all of my social media platforms. The idea behind that is to make sure that I have an active stream of material on those sites, updated regularly, in a way that is relatively easy for me to maintain.

A bit of background is in order. I first joined Facebook about nine years ago and have been tooling around with my personal page ever since. I did not mess around with Twitter up until I got back into journalism and joined the staff of my local newspaper back in late 2013. I did that essentially to make sure I was able to communicate easier with sources, help break stories, etc.

Taking the advice of others that it might be more prudent to have separate work and private social media presences, I created a Facebook page, Liegois Media, and a Twitter handle by the same name in addition to my personal FB and Twitter accounts. I use the private Facebook account all the time; my personal Twitter, not so much. The media FB page and the media Twitter account got the amount of use I was expecting.

Once I left journalism again, I was left with two social media sites that no longer served their purposes. Instead of letting them die, I decided to repurpose them as pages that would concentrate on my interest in writing and writing-related articles and media. The use of these pages was sporadic, at best. Even as I began to pick up some steam with my writing, I didn’t really have a handle on how to make use of them that well.

To paraphrase the US Men’s National Team soccer coach Bruce Arena, sometimes you have to try stuff out. For me, this came in several steps:

  1. I discovered Hootsuite as a way to post on multiple platforms simultaneously. It was also the first time I had ever discovered the concept of scheduling posts ahead of time. Although it had potential, its limit on the number of platforms you could use simultaneously and keep it free, as well as other factors, limited its usefulness to me.
  2. After despairing of daily posts on my FB writing page of my talking about writing, I decided, why not do reposts of articles, images, and memes about writing that I had read and found interesting? I decided to do more of that, and my activity on that page rose.
  3. I eventually learned that I could schedule posts whenever I wanted, so I could look up a whole bunch of posts and schedule them days or weeks in advance. Right now, in fact, I have posts lined up for the Facebook page for at least the next two weeks. (I’d later start doing fun theme days as well.)
  4. I notices how many writers have their blogs to do longer-form writing, as opposed to just posting articles, quotes, random thoughts, and memes. That was the genesis for Liegois Media here on WordPress.
  5. Now I’ve started to figure out how to link media so that posts on one site can be linked on others. I’ve paid attention, for example, to how Wil Wheaton does his social media. From what I can tell, his Twitter page serves as a communications hub. He has his blog for the longer posts and think pieces, which then is fed to his Twitter page, and his Twitter page feeds into his Facebook page.
    Essentially, Blog -> Twitter -> Facebook.
    Since I’m a little more comfortable with the Facebook platform than Twitter, how I’ve linked it up is slightly different. My flow chart would look like this:
    Wordpress Blog -> Facebook ->Twitter.I’m not going to get into exactly how to get all of these linkups going. What I wound up doing was getting curious and looking up the help pages for Twitter and Facebook to make it happen. (It was pretty easy to get my WordPress blog to post other places.

    So, that’s how I made things a little easier for myself on the social media front. Oh, and today I just link my personal FB posts to go on my Twitter feed, so that place won’t be as dead as it usually is. Fun times.

    [EDIT: Apparently I can’t link my personal page to a Twitter page and a Facebook page under that same account with another Twitter page. If anyone can show me how this would work I would appreciate it.]