Monday, June 22, 2009

My First - Annoyingly Autobiographical - Blog

Karen Syed, who runs Echelon Press, just offered to publish my first book, a young adult novel called Killer Cows. Echelon is a smaller company than, say, Scholastic, and I am expected to do my part in promoting the book . She suggested starting my own blog. Thank God our first contact was via a phone call. That way she couldn’t see me wince as though I’d inhaled a whiff of someone else’s fart.

A blog? I don’t write blogs. I write stories. I’ll never stoop that low.

Blogs are for people who assume others care about what you have to say, even if you are totally clueless about it. You don’t need to be an expert. All you need is a computer, a lot of spare time and the assumption folks you don’t know are dying to read your rants. I used to write movie reviews for a DVD website, fancying myself the next Roger Ebert. Blogs killed that. Now there’s hundreds of thousands of Eberts out there. Some of them are good writers. Most aren’t. Some possess a wealth of actual movie smarts. Most don’t.

Too bad. It’s a lot of fun writing about films. Yet, at the same time, a writer writes to be read. It’s a self-congratulatory thing, I guess, craving feedback from those who share your views, or better yet, those whose opinions differ. A writer wants their words to matter to someone.

But when thousands and thousands of people are able to do the same thing, simply because they own a computer, what’s the point? So you’ve got a blog site. Well, so does your neighbor, who displays no knowledge of the difference between there, their and they’re.

So, a few years ago, I returned to my first love...writing stories, something which requires at least a working knowledge of written English.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I fancied myself to be the next Stephen King, cranking out bestsellers, scaring the crap out of readers and basking in celebrity as each of my books were adapted into movies. Of course, that never happened, otherwise you’d have heard of me, and you wouldn’t be reading this, because I’d be sitting high atop a hill in my mansion, counting cash while my wife, Angelina Jolie, pesters me to spend more time with her.

Writing horror is hard bloody work, because it’s all been done before...all you can hope to do is put a new spin on an old idea. I managed to do it a few times in the 90s, placing a few stories in some small press magazines, most of which don’t exist anymore. But with hindsight, it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was mostly work, and what I got for my efforts were a few mixed reviews, lots of sample copies and a check for thirty bucks. Maybe the world didn’t need another Stephen King. Or if it did, it wasn’t going to be me.

In the meantime, I became an English teacher. And yeah, I’ve heard that old saying, "Those who can’t...teach." I always hated that saying. It should be more like, "Hey, you’ve got a wife and kids to support, and writing is what you know best, even though you ain’t sitting atop a hill in a mansion with Angelina Jolie as your wife, suck it up and make the best of it."

And I like teaching. I’d like it even more if I didn’t have to deal with parents who think they know my job better I do, but it’s fun working with kids. I enjoy helping them develop the writing skills I take for granted, and grudgingly leading them through a few young adult novels we read in class.

Someone, I don’t remember who, once even suggested I try my hand at writing a YA story.

Yeah, right...writing for kids. What self-respecting "serious" writer would subject themselves to that?

Young adult novels. They were beneath me...heavy-handed kid’s stories written to teach some sort of moral or lesson. Teaching them was part of the job (that’s why they call it work) and I was given Jerry Spinelli’s Crash to read with them. Yuck...a book about 7th graders, written for 7th graders.

But you know what? Crash was actually pretty good. Really good, in fact, even though I personally had issues with grammatical liberties Spinelli took with his narrative. I sought out some of his other books - Stargirl, Wringer, etc. - to read on my own, which led me to works by Gordon Korman (who, in my opinion, is the best YA author out there). Then there was Give a Boy a Gun, which, though written for teens, remains one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read.

At the same time, J.K. Rawling and others totally blurred the line between adult and young adult fiction (which Stephanie Meyer later erased altogether). Suddenly, there were people, kids and adults alike, lining up at midnight at local bookstores to be the first to get copies of Breaking Dawn or the latest Harry Potter installment. Not even my literary Yoda, Stephen King, could make that claim. Grown ups weren’t lining up for hours (even days) to pick up the newest John Grisham novel, do they?

Young adult fiction isn’t just writing for is writing about them. A lot of you already know that, but for me at the time, it was a revelation. And contrary to what most believe, a lot of kids are voracious, even obsessive, readers once they find something that piques their interest.

So, after a decade since my last actual published sale, I decided to give a shot at writing for young adults. But it was different then when I was trying to be Stephen King II.. Sure, fame and fortune would be great, but in the end, I think most writers would agree that what you really want is for your work to be read and enjoyed. But you also want to enjoy the process of writing it. As a teacher, I enjoyed entertaining my students, loved seeing them with books in their hands, and thought maybe I could do least as good as Spinelli or Korman. I also had to admit I enjoyed writing for that same audience.

Killer Cows sprang from two different ideas I had when I was younger. The first, which came to me as a kid, was a ‘what-if’ scenario...what if a kid had his own flying saucer? What would he do with it? The second sprang from a raunchy - almost pornographic - story I wrote as a teen to amuse my friends, who gobbled it up simply because, not only was one of their own writing for the sheer joy of writing, but because no one else my age was writing anything that nasty. The story itself was awful, but I loved the title..."Killer Cows." I loved it so much it stayed with me.
And, as I finally set down to write the novel, I constructed the story around that title. Whether or not the book is successful, or even any good, you gotta admit it’s a great title.

Look at me...blogging like this! And I hate blogging! It’s beneath me.

I love movies, especially high-concept movies where the title pretty much gives away what it’s about. Kids love movies, too, and I kept that in-mind when writing Killer Cows. Yes, it is YA fiction, but also an homage to the cheesy sci-fi movies I loved as a kid (and still do!). And my favorite books, both as a kid and adult, read like movies in which the reader is the director, visualizing each character, each scene, each special effect.

It took me roughly nine months to complete the first draft. I high-fived myself, slapping my own back for finally following through on the promise I once made to myself to sit down and write a novel.

Now what?

To me, the natural next step was feedback, to let someone else read it. The feedback part was a quandary. I don’t personally know any writers, and everyone else would likely tell me what I wanted to hear: "Good job, Dave!"... "Way to chase your dream!", etc. Which is exactly what I got from friends and/or colleagues who admired what I accomplished more than what I actually wrote. My own daughter, 13 at the time and in awe of Stephanie Meyer, had little to say but "Hey, when you get it published can I have my own computer?"

I even gave the book to one of my students to read, asking for honest feedback, and a month later, she handed it back to me, simply saying, "It’s great Mr. Anderson." With hindsight, she probably would have said that even if I’d just vomited on paper, simply because I was her teacher.

But those comments were all I needed to start blindly submitting Killer Cows to all kinds of agents and publishers, giddy at the thought of waltzing into my neighborhood Barnes and Noble to happily sign books. Reality soon set in rejection after rejection. Most were the standard form rejections; some stated they didn’t think they were the right person to handle the book, and on rare occasion, a few offered real feedback, the most common critique being that I need to tell less, show more.

Show less, tell more. It’s so clear to me now, but back then, it was like being told everything I thought I knew about writing was wrong. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe I wasn’t the writer I thought I was, because I personally didn’t see anything wrong about how I wrote Killer Cows. All the I's were dotted, the T's crossed, and it was grammitcally correct.

In the meantime, I wrote my second YA novel, Shaken, a disaster story about three teens from different backgrounds surviving the worst earthquake in American history. Shorter, darker and much faster moving than Cows - like an action movie with words - I subconsciously did a lot more showing than telling. The nature of the story forced me to. The result was, in my opinion, a better story written in half the time.

For feedback, I skipped all my relatives and colleagues and went right to a student, one least likely to kiss my butt, and asked for the same honest critique I wanted before. He the book in one night, and offered surprisingly mature insight on what worked and what didn’t. Then I gave it to another student. She also read it all in one night. Neither of them had to. What these two kids did for me was more valuable than any advice an agent or editor could offer, because the book was written for people at least half an agent's age. That didn’t keep the rejections from pouring in for Shaken, but as a teacher, I felt like I had better insight on the kind of stories young adults want to read.

With that in mind, I revisited Killer Cows. Having not looked at it in several months, I was amazed at how right those first editors and agents were. The book wasn’t badly written, but there were lots of passages were I was indeed guilty of verbal diarrhea...telling the reader what was going on rather than simply showing them. I eventually trimmed the book of over 10,000 redundant words without any significant changes to the story.

Still, Shaken was my main priority, and if I was gonna have a YA novel published at all, I was convinced this one would be the first, especially after reading countless testimonials on writers’ forums - by folks much more successful than me - that most first novels almost never see the light of day. By this time, I was thick-skinned enough to lay Killer Cows to rest, content that it would simply be a decent first try.

Then Echelon Press contacted me about Killer Cows. I won’t go into any detail, since that would make an amusing blog entry of its own -

- what this? I’ve gone from having nothing to say on my blog to already planning my next entry? -

They liked the book and offered a contract, and being that I’d already written off Killer Cows as nothing more than a noble first attempt, I signed the contract the next day. Echelon is a small independent publisher. Maybe no Scholastic, arguably the brass ring for any would-be YA author, but a small company who wanted my very first attempt at a YA novel. It went against everything I’d read on all those forums.

Though I still think Shaken is the better book, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Killer Cows and its characters, my very first novel, and if a tiny publisher is willing to take a chance on me, why not take a chance on them? It’s a story I had brewing in the back of my mind for decades. To have it see the light of day, no matter what format, is gratifying indeed. I hope the audience it is intended for feels the same way.


  1. Actually, Dave, Echelon isn't a "tiny" publisher. It's an independent press for sure, but its list of authors and books is larger and longer than most indie presses here in the states. The very fact that it has three imprints -- Echelon, Quake, and Erotique -- puts it in the upper echelon (yeah, I know -- bad pun)of American indie presses. What sets Echelon apart from many indies is the level of support its authors receive re promoting and selling their books. I covered the indie press scene for years for Mystery Scene Magazine, and I can name only one or two other indie publishers who commit as much time and support to their authors as Echelon does. This is probably why Echelon has stayed in business as long as it has.

  2. DM,
    Congratulations on your first blog, well done.
    Margot Justes
    A Hotel in Paris

  3. What an interesting post, Dave. Way to go. If your daughter gets a computer can you get me a new one too?

    You certainly have a way with words!

    Karen Syed...the publisher in question

  4. Cheesey sci-fi and an interesting title? Sounds good to me! Good luck!

    Chris Verstraete
    Searching For A Starry Night, A Miniature Art Mystery

  5. Can't wait to read it!!! :)


  6. I am interested to read what you've written! Thank God for kids who tell the truth about your writing, too. From the mouths of babes and all that...