Friday, August 12, 2016

On Lights Out, mental illness, and the power of assumptions.

Last night I went to a drive-in movie for the first time in my life to see Suicide Squad (which was way better than has been advertised, I might add). The theater was offering it as a double feature paired with Lights Out, a movie I hadn't really heard much about but saw has good numbers on Rotten Tomatoes. It clocks in at eighty minutes long, and I enjoyed it like crazy for seventy-five of those minutes. But then, in the last five minutes, something happened that changed my opinion of the movie fairly drastically.


Proceed at your own risk.


Before I start analyzing the movie's choices and how those reflect some serious issues writers of all media and genre face, let me make sure you know a little about the movie. First, here's the synopsis from iMDb:

When her little brother, Martin, experiences the same events that once tested her sanity, Rebecca works to unlock the truth behind the terror, which brings her face to face with an entity that has an attachment to their mother, Sophie.
Okay, so just from that synopsis you get the idea that this movie will have psychological elements to it, thanks to some key-words: "Sanity," "Terror," "Attachment." And the ever Freudian go-to topic, "Mother." I kid a little here, after all, those words could be found in a myriad of other horror movie synopsis, but for this particular movie, they actually do foretell a story that will involve a great deal of issues regarding mental illness. And the way mental illness is handled in this movie reveals a lot about our society and the troubling way we, to this day, view people who struggle with their own emotional and mental health.

Sophie, the mother in this story, struggles with depression. This is stated from the beginning of the movie. There are also a couple of mentions that she has manic episodes. If these are to be taken as intentional character developing points, then Sophie most likely has bipolar disorder. And at the start of the movie, it's established that she has stopped taking her prescribed medication. It's because of this that a shadowy creature named Diana has begun to visit their home and terrorize Martin.

I'll pause here to say that the message of the story as presented at the beginning is clear, maybe even too clear (but not M. Night Shyamalan status, so at least it isn't preachy): Mental illness affects the whole family, and when we don't take care of ourselves, we are really hurting those around us. And there isn't anything wrong with that message, or even with having a message at all. The problem arises, however, as it does so often when we write primarily to communicate a theme or message over conveying a story. And this problem is so incredibly important that I'm going to give it its own, single line paragraph.

When you leave character development to assumption, you harm your story, your characters, and your readers.

Let me explain what I mean. In Lights Out, we are told that Sophie suffers from depression (and, as I said, possibly bipolar disorder). That is the extend of her character development. Every decision she makes throughout the story is based not on the well-crafted layers of character development, but rather on the assumptions that the writers and the viewers have (or are expected to have) about people with mental illness. She isn't a character that has depression, she is depression, and that's all.

The reason this is such an issue is because assumptions are the weakest of elements on which to base a character. Assumptions are unproven, unchallenged, unquestioned. They are silent and dormant, and they crumble when brought into the light. Hence, when a character is based on an assumption (ie. "she has mental illness, and this is how people with mental illness act," or "he's gay, and this is how gay people act," or "he's a preacher, and this is how preachers act," etc.) they are going to be unmemorable at best and the very reason a story falls apart at worst.

And that is what happens in Lights Out. As the movie progresses, we learn that Diana always comes when Sophie's mental condition becomes unstable. Diana and Sophie first became "friends" in a mental institution. Diana is the reason Sophie lost both of her husbands. And now Diana is trying to kill Sophie's children.

It is Sophie's responsibility, then, to get rid of Diana. And how does she do this? Exactly as many people assume a person who is off their meds, particularly if they are bipolar, would. She puts a bullet in her brain.

And the worst of it all is, it actually works.

Sophie's family has been tormented because of her depression for years and now, as an act of sacrifice to free them from the burden, she commits suicide. In the final scene of the movie, her children sit in an ambulance, relieved and ready to finally move on with their lives and be happy. Now that they just witnessed their mother commit suicide.

David Sandberg, the director of Lights Out, has addressed this issue and stated that he had a different ending in mind but the test audiences didn't appreciate it. They were much happier to see a mother sacrifice herself to save her children. An outcome they probably wouldn't have had if Sophie was a more complex character based on more than just an assumption. But since, to the audience, Sophie was the personification of depression or bipolar disorder, of course they wanted the fix to be simple and the ending to be easy. We all want there to be a simple, easy end to mental illness. We want people to find a way to "snap out of it." And if people refuse to take their meds, then they aren't doing their part to help themselves and they should be blamed for the pain they inflict on their families. Therefore, whether we want to admit it or not, the progression of those assumptions is that suicide is a justifiable, honorable way to deal with mental illness. Provided it works.

None of these issues would have been issues if only they would have made Sophie into a human being, fully developed and multi layered. But they didn't.

Hopefully, in your writing, you will.


(BTW, don't forget to preorder my book, AbrakaPOW, in which I challenge as many assumptions from the WW2 era as possible!)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Introducing AbrakaPOW!

Hey guys!!!

So if you follow me on twitter/tumblr/facebook, you know that the cover for my next book, AbrakaPOW, was released recently, and that it's now available for preorder. For the sake of all of you, here's the cover:

Isn't it pertiful? It was drawn by Dave Perillo and I'm so thankful for his work.

Here's the pub description:

Based on a true World War II story, Isaiah Campbell tells a charming mystery about a mishap at a magic show at a POW camp—featuring magic how-to diagrams throughout. 
Try as she might, cheeky middle schooler Maxine Larousse (you may call her Max “La Roo” or The Amazing Max, if you’d like) has yet to learn the one magic trick she needs the most: how to reappear in New York City. That is where she used to live with her parents before her father, Major Larousse, was put in charge of a Nazi POW camp in Abilene, Texas. At least in this desolate wasteland she’ll have plenty of time to practice her illusions, even if the only audience member is her ferret Houdini. 
When she’s tasked with entertaining the Nazi prisoners with a magic show, the pressure may be too much. But with the help of some classmates and an unexpected magic expert, the performance is a hit—until twelve Nazis escape during her final act. Will she be able to track them down before her reputation as a magician is destroyed forever?
So, yeah, that's the book. It comes out this November (on election day if all goes as planned), and I'm super excited for lots of reasons:

1. It's set in an area where I grew up. I actually grew up in Sweetwater, Texas, which is about forty-five minutes away from Abilene. So I'm pretty familiar with the area.

2. It's set in a time period that I (and most everybody) love to hear about, the World War II era. But it's about a story (a true story, mind you, except for the bits I made up) that you don't hear about very much: The Nazi POWs that were held in camps on American soil. (Not to mention the fact that the escape in this story ACTUALLY HAPPENED!!!!!! Yeah, for real.)

3. It examines a question that I love asking: What makes a person evil? What makes a person good? Max, the hero of my story, is Jewish (her mom's maiden name was Schauder), and throughout the book, she and the other characters hear veiled rumors about the atrocities the Nazis are committing against the Jews in Europe. And yet she is encountering Nazis, daily, who seem like normal, everyday people. Is the monster really a man? Is the man really a monster?

4. I'm excited because, for better or worse, Max is probably my favorite character I've ever written. (I mean, I love Johnny Cannon, and his Troubles and Struggles are so fun, and his voice will always be a part of me, but dang, this girl...) If Kimmy Schmidt hadn't already taken it, this would totally be Max's theme song:

5. Finally, I'm excited because this book will have guides to the magic tricks Max uses in the story. Which is just so exactly what I would have looked for in a book when I was a kid, I can't get over it.

So, yeah, I hope you guys like this story. I hope you pre-order. And I hope you remember during this year, which is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the US entering WWII, all the sacrifices and acts of heroism so many people around the world, from the soldiers down to the kids, made to usher in a new era globally.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Struggles of Johnny Cannon: Reviews!

Since I'm not a big fan of tooting my own horn and I also don't like spamming my social media with all these sorts of things, here are the reviews so far for the latest in the Johnny Cannon series (The Struggles of Johnny Cannon). I'll give a blurb and a link to the whole, when possible:

"Fans of action-adventure and mid-century history will enjoy Johnny’s vernacular first-person narrative." School Library Journal.

"A sprawling, good-hearted adventure—pure fun." - Kirkus Reviews

"Johnny’s ... good intentions and heart steadily endear him to the reader." - BookList

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In between Troubles and Struggles.

Hello to all!

Since Johnny's next adventure, THE STRUGGLES OF JOHNNY CANNON, comes out in just a few short months (three months and a couple weeks, to be exact), I thought I might give you some insight as to what happened in between the two books.

So, Troubles ended on June 1st, 1961 (which just so happens to be my birthday, twenty years before I was actually born). Struggles picks up three months(ish) later on August 27th. During that time, talks between Kennedy (The US President) and Khrushchev (The Russian Chairman) grew more and more tense, in large part because of JFK's perceived weakness thanks to the Bay of Pigs invasion (remember that?). Because of the tension, Kennedy encouraged Americans to build fallout shelters in case Russia decided to drop nukes. Eventually, just a few days before STRUGGLES picks up the story, Khrushchev ordered a wall to be built that would become the symbol for the separation between America and Russia, the Berlin Wall.

Meanwhile, on July 21, Gus Grissom became the second American to go into space. On August 6, Gherman Titov was the second human to orbit the earth. And, in other uncharted territory news, on June 23, the Antarctic Treaty between the US, the USSR, and several other countries took effect. It was, by a lot of standards, a very exciting time to be alive.

But what about in Cullman, Alabama? Well, during those months between the books, quite a lot of things happen. For instance, Bob Gorman, still irate about what happened over in Colony and how his son responded, has been looking for ways to "tighten up the law" in the area, particularly in the way the Sheriff has been handling the black community. Eddie, on the other hand, has been keeping to himself. Summer has always been time for him and his mom to travel, but they did a lot more than usual over these couple of months, and even Eddie's closest friends (does he have close friend?) haven't really been talking to him at all.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thomassen, Pa, and Carlos have been doing their own thing. Now that Mr. Thomassen has his money back, he's moved on to a new personal goal. He believes the cause of most of the problems back in Cuba was the power held by the mafia and their corruption. And now he sees it taking hold in America. So he has hired Carlos and Pa to do something about it. What exactly? You'll have to read STRUGGLES to find that one out, but they call themselves the Three Caballeros.

But what about our hero and his own little trio? Johnny, Willie, and now Martha have spent the summer doing what kids do best, having fun and making memories. Although, for Johnny, he might not have made the memories he wanted to make, especially when it comes to Martha. But what exactly does that mean? I'll give you one hint as to where you can find that answer.

I hope you'll pick up THE STRUGGLES OF JOHNNY CANNON when it comes out on October 13! Don't forget to pre-order! 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Troubles of Writing The Troubles of Johnny Cannon, Part 2: Willie Parkins

This is a continuation of a series I'm writing giving some special features and behind the scenes looks at the process I took to write The Troubles of Johnny Cannon. Part 1 was about discovering Johnny Cannon.

One of my favorite characters in the book (and, from what I've heard, a lot of people's favorite character) is Willie Parkins, the preacher's kid and Johnny's best friend. And now, thanks to the magic that is the cover to the sequel, The Struggles of Johnny Cannon, (now available for pre-order, by the way) I can give you his picture!

Willie Parkins, everybody!

Okay, as you might remember from Part 1 of this series, the story that became The Troubles of Johnny Cannon went through a LOT of revisions and rewrites. One of the many aspects that was added in the later versions that was an obvious improvement was Willie and his family, because Willie wasn't in the original story. He was missing.

Yeah, I wasn't the smartest writer at the beginning.
See, originally Johnny went off to Washington, DC to become a member of the top secret super-kid organization. So I didn't spend a lot of time fleshing out the people in Cullman. However, based on feedback I got from some people, I eventually added more to the story. And one thing I added was the idea that Johnny was banned from the Cullman Little League team. And so I had him get recruited by the preacher's kid to join the black team instead. And, since the kid needed a name, I named him Willie Parkins.
I did a word search. Willie was in this version of the story a total of six times.
So in this version, Willie served one real purpose, and that was to get Johnny to the baseball game, which was when he would get called to go to Washington.

And, thankfully, that version of the story didn't sit well with anybody.

Back to the old drawing board with the story, and also with this character that I could sense needed a bigger role overall. 

I rewrote the story again and added an extra scene at the end where Willie informed Johnny that they'd named the team after him and that the Colony Cannons had won the local baseball championship. And the whole time, I wished that I could figure out a bigger part for Willie to play.

And, thankfully, my agent informed me that this version of the book was even worse than the last.

So, my third time down at the drawing board, I wrote the first draft of the story that you've (hopefully) all read. As I was writing the first chapter, I needed to have Pa send Johnny to ask the neighbor if she'd mind cooking dinner. Now, my original plan was for it to be an old lady or something. But then, as I was typing, I absentmindedly had Pa ask Johnny to go fetch "Mrs. Parkins."

I stopped and stared at the screen.

THIS WAS IT!!! This was the bigger role for Willie Parkins! Willie was Johnny's neighbor. Of course he was. And Willie wouldn't be too happy with Johnny taking Mrs. Parkins away from their dinner to go cook for the Cannons.

As I wrote that chapter, everything clicked. The chemistry between Johnny and Willie on paper was too perfect. I literally felt like I had accidentally stumbled across a gold mine.

Later I wrote that he walked with a crutch, and that too felt like destiny.

Plus, as I wrote this final version of the story, I found a way to incorporate one of the characters from the earlier versions that I was the most sad about losing. Mercury, who had been a mysterious super-kid in Washington, now became a story that Willie was writing.

When I wrote the last line of the book, I couldn't believe there had ever been a version of the story that hadn't had Willie in it. In a lot of ways, The Troubles of Johnny Cannon is just as much about his story as it is Johnny's.

And, without giving any spoilers, I'm happy to say that The Struggles of Johnny Cannon is even MORE of that dynamic.

I can't wait for you to read it.

Go pre-order The Struggles of Johnny Cannon!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Debut Author Experience

Two years ago today (February 14) we announced that the world English rights to The Troubles of Johnny Cannon were acquired by David Gale at Simon & Schuster.

Obviously, this was a HUGE event for me. Not only was it a dream come true, but it also transitioned me (suddenly, I might add) from the "Aspiring Author" category to the "Debut Novelist" category. It was a very long path from selling the rights to the date of publication (February 14, 2013 to October 14, 2014), and many times along that journey (and, even more so in the months AFTER publication) I felt incredibly lost and unsure of what was happening (and this was WITH the ever present guidance from my amazing agent, editor, editors assistants, and many author friends online).

So I decided to help other authors who might be entering the same journey by giving you some observations I made about the process. And, since this is a bloggity blog, I'll do it in list form with awesome animated GIFs.

1. There is no normal debut author experience.
I have a few friends who were debut authors alongside of me, and I can attest from observation that none of us had the exact same journey. In fact, our journeys were barely even similar. 
Debut authors are the least identical twins ever.
Just picking from the litter, in the same year that The Troubles of Johnny Cannon debuted, so did these books:
Five authors, five books. And every single one of them had a different experience than I did. A couple of them were on shortlists for the Newbery Award. Some of them received rave reviews. The sales numbers varied widely. Every one of them was different. So, when you start your debut author journey, try as hard as you can to vow not to compare your journey with others. It will only cause you to self destruct. Seriously. (Trust me on this)

2. Your Publisher is as good at publishing as you are at writing. Probably better.
If you peruse a lot of the writing blogs online, you begin to get a general consensus that publishers are backwards thinking, archaic, clueless, and completely out of touch. If they actually understood the world today, they'd do X or Y, and authors can do a better job going on their own.
Tom Cruise didn't make it on his own. Think about that.
Are there examples where people found incredible success? Sure, but we all know those are the exceptions and not the rule. The reality is, having a publisher handling the publishing side of things really lets you know just how much you don't understand about sales or marketing, editing or design, and even how to set deadlines or how to deal with your own fragile ego. And the crazy thing is, you almost never hear publishing professionals talking about how they could make it on their own without authors. They get it. We don't.

3. You will be disappointed.
No, no, no, I'm not saying the entire experience will be a disappointment. (Although I suppose it could be. Like I said, everyone has their own experience) But what I am saying is that, at some point in the journey, something will happen that falls short of your unrealistic expectations. Because, trust me, you have VERY UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.
Trust me, if you're expecting Zooey Deschanel, you have unrealistic expectations.
Maybe you expected to get really chummy with your editor. Maybe you expected to be flown out for big conferences. Maybe you expected to have phone meetings with the marketing team.Maybe you expected to have more input on the cover design. Whatever it might be, you're probably not going to get everything you expected. And that's not just from the publisher, either. Here's a list of some of my (I now realize very unrealistic) expectations for Troubles:
  • I expected hundreds of people to pre-order the book. (I mean, I know a lot of people. Surely they all love me, right? Turns out love has nothing to do with it)
  • I expected at least one starred review. (This one stung a lot, not so much any more. Fact is, you can't please everybody, and your first novel especially will have trouble, because of the unfamiliarity between the author and the critics/reviewers)
  • I expected to be mentioned in awards talks. (Thankfully, I let that one go after I saw the reviews were starless)
  • I expected my first week POS sales [actual transactions at bookstores] to be at least 1,000 copies. (This was mainly because I had NO IDEA how the market works, especially for debut, non-celebrity authors)
  • I expected my book would fizzle out after the first three or four weeks. (In actuality, it wasn't until after a month or so that I finally started seeing some real action and buzz) (I'm actually glad this expectation wasn't met)
So, here's the deal, you have to focus on what you can control in the process. That's the only way you won't be disappointed too much. You have no control over the publishing process, or over sales, or over reviews. But you do have control over how you present yourself, and what you write next, and how you work to network. So put your time and energy into that.

4. Success isn't what you think it is.
This goes along with the previous point, but it's worth emphasizing. You think you know what it means to be considered successful. You're wrong.
Or you just live at peace, Harvey. What about that?
See, when you're dreaming about becoming a published author, you look at the "success stories" and put your name into them. That could be you on the NY Times Best Sellers List. That could be you that they call at 4:15 am for the Printz award. You could be the one who headlines at BEA. You could be the one that they talk about in those year end articles about standout new authors of the year.

But that stuff isn't success. Oh sure, it's awesome. And nobody is going  to say no to having those things happen to them. But those things are popularity and accolades, neither of which are necessarily part of being a successful published author.

So what does it mean to be a success? It's simple, really. You already are one. If you've sold the publishing rights to your book, you succeeded. That thing you wrote got published. Now, try to succeed again and get the next thing you write published. And the next. And the next.

So listen to your publisher and do what you can to make sure THEY succeed at selling your book to the public.

And, more than anything else, remember who you are.
It's always time for a Mufasa gif.
You're a writer. So write, whatever you can, whenever you can. Just so long as you keep getting better at it, and keep writing better and better things, you'll make it past your debut experience.

I hope. (All signs point to yes)


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

COVER REVEAL: The Struggles of Johnny Cannon

I didn't think I'd ever love a cover as much as I loved the cover to The Troubles of Johnny Cannon. It was definitely a dream come true!

And then I saw the cover to The Struggles of Johnny Cannon. And, if it's at all possible, I think I love it even more.

Here, I'll show it to you.

Look at it! Isn't it so cool? Sam Bosma really blew it out of the water with this one (as he does all the time). And Lucy Cummins, the art designer, holy cow, she is so amazing.

And there's so many little details from the story in there. And THERE'S WILLIE! And THERE'S MARTHA! And it's so perfect, it's like the best thing ever.

Oh, and if you want to, you can now pre-order The Struggles of Johnny Cannon on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

(BTW, if you haven't purchased The Troubles of Johnny Cannon yet, now's the perfect time to do it.)