Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012: The year of patience


It's been a REALLY long time since I posted. Apologies to all.

And yet, it seems fitting for this post to come after some delay. After all, this year has been a twelve month long lesson in patience. Both in my personal and professional life.

I've learned patience through the world of publishing that takes FOREVER to get anything accomplished. Especially when little inconveniences like hurricanes knock the biz on its butt.

I've learned patience in writing three complete manuscripts, only one of which was worth presenting to anyone besides my agent.

I've learned patience in finally completing a degree program I started fourteen years ago. (Yay me)

I've learned patience in reconciling with a family member I hadn't spoken to in six years.

I've learned patience in becoming a caregiver for my mother-in-law, who was diagnosed with colon cancer in July.

Through it all, I've been learning patience.

Now, for 2013, I wonder what other Fruit of the Spirit I'll be learning? I'm voting for "Travel Etiquette." It's in there. Seriously. Right?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Five Reasons Why Creative People Self Destruct: The Untold Stresses of the Creative Mind

Have you heard this before? "Oh, I wish I could do what you do all day. Sitting around, writing stories/writing music/painting/whatever. No stress, no worries, just the fun of being creative."

Now, don't get me wrong, being creative is fun. Most of the time. Maybe about 60% of the time. But, being creative is power-packed with stress that is unique to itself. So, just for all you creative beings to have something to show those people who don't understand you, here's a list of some of the more stressful parts of being creative:

  1. Being an outsider: Very early on in the creative life, you realize that you're different from everybody else. When you tell stories that are filled with embellishments and extra goodies, when you are tapping out rhythms on everything your hands are near and being labelled "annoying", when you've drawn on all your clothes and books and people think you're weird, you realize you aren't going to be accepted by the social world you're a part of. Then, as the favorite words used to describe creative people are applied to you, words like "eccentric" and "in her own little world", you understand that, no matter what people tell you, you truly are alone in a crowd. Of course you get used to it, looking at the world through your own tinted glasses and knowing there's another dimension you can only share through your art, but it still creates stress.
  2. The extra time tasks take: When other's attack a pile of laundry, it's a to-do list item. They get in, get out, and move on. When you attack a pile of laundry, you're transported to a hillside in Austria, where you're washing clothes in the river while avoiding Nazi soldiers. Oh no, there's one now, peeking through the bushes. Must hide, must get away. Wait, do they have my father? Oh, crap, that was a white shirt, wasn't it? Dang it, I got distracted again.
  3. Rejection: The biggest reason most people don't try to create is because they're afraid of how people will react. Creative people are afraid of that too, but we create anyway. Then, the fear of people's rejection that kept so many from even trying makes us neurotic. What will people think? What if they don't like it? Will they notice that flaw? That's why we annoy our friends with questions about our art. We're afraid and stressed that it wasn't very good.
  4. The ever demanding muse: A 9-5 would be nice. Leave your work at the office, yeah, that'd be great. Being creative means you can't ever stop working. Even when you're playing with your kids, they say something cute and you don't want to forget it. So you run the line in your head a thousand times, re-working it, creating a character to say it, and before you know it, play time is over. You don't see a flower as a flower, you see a flower as your next subject to paint, or compose about, or write about. There's no rest for your troubled mind.
  5. The suddenly silent muse: Our biggest fear, the one thing that terrifies us the most, is that day when we wake up and we're normal. Our creative juices aren't flowing any more. There's no stories, no music, no art. The world is boring. And we wonder if it will ever come back. And it kills us, because so many people have wished we would just take a vacation, but the vacation is worse than the job.
So, the next time someone goes on a tirade about another creative person who lost their mind, gently remind them, "At least they had a mind to lose."


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Bit of a Poem

Here we are,
lit by a star,
filled with signs
and wonders,
we wonder
at the signs
that fill our eyes.

We question why.

Why aren't we much
on the road that took us
than we ever
we'd ever get to

Why must the speed of light
be set so slow?

God only knows.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Do I Write?

Writing is hard.

Don't believe me? You try not showering because you're too busy transcribing the activities of your imaginary friends who infuriate you with their stubborn insistence on doing it "their way." And don't even get me started on wrangling with serial commas, the many iterations of the word "lie", and remembering when to put the apostrophe in "it's".

And, let's not forget all the rejections, from agents and publishers. Oh, and negative feedback regarding your naked heart on paper. It's painful, frustrating, exasperating, and in many ways very unrewarding.

So, why do we do it? More importantly, why do I do it?

First, let me clear the air: It's not for the money. Making money of any sort with writing is slightly more unlikely than finding a diamond in your box of Wheaties. Sure there are those amazing success stories out there, but those are like the commercials that show the woman answering her front door to a check from Publisher's Clearinghouse. It's a rarity.

Besides that, though, I honestly don't care about the money. I didn't start writing in hopes of getting paid, I don't choose my topics with dollar signs in mind, and I sure don't sit around and try to pick out what the next big trend will be. Getting rich, or even making a living, off of writing hasn't ever really been on my radar. Sure, there are times I dream big. Who doesn't? But, at the end of the day, I don't care about sales or how much money my books make. If God wants me rich/famous/prolific, He'll make me rich/famous/prolific.

My job is to write.

And that's really why I do it. I write because, ultimately, it's what I'm supposed to do. It's part of my DNA.

That's also why I write for students. I feel like, in the grand scheme of the universe, my purpose is to tell stories that will encourage, challenge, and support kids as they make their journey through life. I need to be the voice in their heads that tells them, no matter how crappy their families or friends or schools might be, that they are valuable and they can be somebody. I want to be there for them on their journey, making them laugh, helping them cry, and pointing them towards someone bigger than themselves.

(For the record, I don't write Christian Fiction for similar reasons. Maybe I'll explain THAT decision in another blog post.)

So, it's not about fame, or money, or praise, or anything else like that. It's not even about the satisfaction of getting the story from my head onto paper and into someone else's heart.

I write to change kids' lives.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

This Post Not Approved For Adults


Hey, tweenager. What's up? (Yeah, I know "tweenager" is a lame word. I have to throw stuff like that in so the "adults" will think I'm relevant.)

My name's Isaiah. I'm 31, live in a trailer park, and eat broiled goat heads for breakfast on Tuesdays.

Ok, that's not true. But I wanted to say something weird about myself so that when you get to really know me, you won't think I'm actually all that weird at all.

See, you never stop fearing the weird labels. And by that, I don't mean labels that are weird, like Mr. Snooglepop or Captain Conundroid. No, I mean being labelled "weird."

But I've got a secret for you. Are you ready for this?

They only call you weird until you've left them behind and risen to another level. Then they call you a success. And, the truth is, nobody that society views as a success got to that level by being "normal."

So, go ahead. Sit by yourself in the lunchroom and read a book. Let them call you a nerd now, someday when you're a best-selling writer, they'll be jealous.

Go ahead and hide in a corner and draw pictures of zombies eating your friends. They may call you  a freak now, but they'll call you an artist someday.

Go ahead and pray before your meal, or carry a Bible to school. They might humiliate you or ostracize you now, but when you are able to face life's tragedies with a peace in your heart, they'll come asking you for advice.

Go ahead. Be the outsider. Be different. Be weird.

Do you know what popularity and normalcy get you? Prom king. Homecoming Queen. Most likely to succeed.

Do you know what weirdness gets you?

It get's you things those other fools can only dream of.

So, do it. Screw the bullies, and the mean girls, and the people who point and stare cause they're too afraid to be the target of the crowds.

You don't want to be in the crowd.

The crowd wants to be you.

They just don't know it yet.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Blessed Be The Gatekeepers

I know, I know, non-published authors really hate the gatekeepers. All those blasted agents, editors, booksellers, and book reviewers who meticulously scruitinize every single manuscript that attempts to make it into the world of publishing. It's like they are the guards posted on the watchtowers to fend off those starving travelers attempting to enter Shangri-La. Why, oh why, can't they just be a little more merciful? Why must they make it so hard to get published?

That doesn't just apply to those going the route of traditional publishing, either. Even self-published authors have a barrier between themselves and financial success, book reviewers and distributors. No matter what, there is somebody out there you have to get around or get through if you want to see your work succeed.

And the thing is, I'm actually glad about it.

Oh sure, there are times my inner artist yells and screams about the first amendment and about censorship. There are times I groan and moan about how freaking hard it is to get anywhere in this publishing world. There are times I stare at my phone, just waiting for my agent to call and tell me that I finally can move my gamepiece one square closer to GO.

But there are a few other me's inside me that are oh-so-grateful for the gatekeepers.

1. The dad in me. I have three beautiful kids, and I am thankful that there are editors, publishers, and book reviewers out there who wade through the crap so my kids don't have to read it. I'm glad that Publishers Weekly classified Colbert's book as Non-Fiction instead of Children's Fiction. Why? Because I read it, and it's hilarious, but it isn't for kids. Thank goodness one of the guardians in their tower was awake to catch that.

2. The man of faith in me. Because of my faith, I have some standards of what I want to read and what I don't. 50 Shades of Gray falls decidedly on the list of what I don't want to read. Yet, without book reviewers, I wouldn't have known that this book was erotica. It's a best seller, for crying out loud. Thankfully, one of the guardians had there gun cocked and loaded (puns intended) and caught that before I read it.

3. The intellectual in me. Let's face it, a lot of the books that don't get picked up are drivel. Not all, definitely not all, but a lot. In fact, if you peruse some of the lesser respected self-published books, you'll see just how bad they really are. That's not a jab at self published authors, we ALL write drivel. They have the courage to put their drivel out for everyone to see. Good for them.

And thank God there are gatekeepers, so I don't have to read it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Day I Lost My Pants: A VLOG

Here it is, everybody. My very first VLOG. (I apologize for the background noise. I forgot to silence my AC.)

I hope you enjoyed this embarrassing story. There's plenty more where that came from.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Do the right thing.

One of my favorite lines ever written is from Spiderman. "With great power comes great responsibility." (ok, it's probably a Voltaire quote, but still)

That's similarly stated in the Bible, "When someone has been given much, much will be required in return." (Luke 12:48)

Basically, the people who have something should help out the people who have nothing. Because I believe this wholeheartedly, I decided to add a "Do Something" tab to my website. I've got a few of the charitable organizations I've been involved with that I can personally vouch are effectively working to bring social justice to our world. 

Unfortunately, that list is rather shallow right now (mainly because of a dearth of memory, not a dearth of integrity filled charities.) So, if you know of any other awesome charities, leave them in the comments. Since I'm only going to put charities I can personally vouch for on my website officially, I can't guarantee that the charity you post will make it there, but this is still a great way to highlight a group that you are involved in. And it will give me a chance to look into more ways of helping out our world.


Monday, April 30, 2012

Hey, Writers! Let's Live For Today!

 Let's start with this:

Now, this song is awesome for a few reasons. One is because the guitarist for the Grass Roots was Creed Bratton. You know, the most amazing character on The Office now that Michael is gone.
Creed Bratton
But it's also an awesome song because of the message. Oh sure, at first glance, it's a hippie anthem and a teenaged fantasy. Live for today! Live for today! And all the older folks and businessmen say, "Cut your hair, get a job, live for tomorrow!"

But there's a lot of truth to this song's message. When I was younger, I was always told that I needed to see the big picture, start making plans, start setting life goals. I was told to make a One Year Plan, a Five Year Plan, and a Ten Year Plan. And, most frighteningly, I was always asked by adults, "What do you want to be remembered for? What will be your legacy?"

Maybe that's because I was raised in an Evangelical youth group, I don't know. What I do know, though, is that I quickly lost the ability to enjoy Today. I began to always look to the future, look to what's next. The scary part was, at some point the farther down the road you look, the only thing you can see is death.

As writers, we're always looking at the next big thing. I've got to get this book written so I can query agents. I've got to get an agent so I can get a publisher. I've got to get a publisher so I can be published. I need to publish multiple books so I can actually start living off my royalties. I need to get movie deals. I want to win a Pulitzer. Someday people will teach with my books in literature classes.

Oh my stars and garters.

I've decided to stop. I've decided to live more for today.

Oh, and if you also have been raised with that Evangelical guilt trip about future thinking, remember this verse:
"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." Matthew 6:34.

So, yeah, don't cut your hair. But, maybe you should at least try to get a job. After you've smelled the flowers. And been my loving woman, and I've been your loving man. So to speak.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Writer's Code of Ethics

Rachelle Gardner posted recently asking the question, “Are writers responsible for what their characters say?” You should go read it, and perhaps the comments that follow if you have the time.

In my opinion, the question isn’t really “Are writers responsible?” It’s not like writers become possessed when writing and wake up six months later shocked by what’s on their page. Writers make decisions constantly about what to write and include in their manuscripts. When a writer includes a reprehensible character in their book, he is responsible for what that character says and does. The writer is the reason those actions and that dialogue is included in the story.

The question, instead, is “Are writers ethically obligated to censor their characters and stories so as not to offend the audience?” Which really begs the bigger question, “What is the code of ethics for writers?”

While I don’t profess that this code of ethics will be for everyone, this is my code of ethics as a writer:

1. As a writer, I should be skilled. My writing should not seem amateur or clunky. It should be honed by reading literature and by submitting my own works to critique from peers. I have an ethical obligation to revise and edit my work so that it is the most skilled presentation it can be.

2. As a writer, I should be honest. That is not to say I can’t write fiction, or write fantasy. Rather, I am ethically obligated to presenting an honest depiction of the invisible elements of humanity and the universe. I should avoid stereotyping characters or social groups, avoid sugarcoating the foibles and frailties of humanity, and avoid deceiving my readers about my own fears and shortcomings.

3. As a writer, I should be magical. I should seek to write stories glowing with extrahuman power. By my count, my stories should share the magical powers of nature:
a.       Wind: The power to move others. My stories should inspire movement in the reader, and I have an ethical obligation to know what I am moving them toward and to make that destination beneficial.
b.      Water: The power to refresh and give life. My stories should be new and exciting, reading them should feel like you’ve quenched a long standing thirst. I have an ethical obligation to know where people are thirsty and try to refresh and revive them.
c.       Earth: The power to grow, feed, and flavor. My stories should inspire growth of thought and of character, and they should add spice and flavor to the lives of my readers. I have an ethical obligation to see where growth is needed and inspire development in that area.
d.      Light: The power to illuminate. My stories should shine a light onto people’s lives and hearts, and also onto those who have been hidden and forgotten in society.
e.      Fire: The power of change and destruction. My stories should tear down and destroy those things which need to be destroyed. Destruction is volatile and harsh, and I have an ethical obligation to be brave enough to bring the change about.

          4. As a writer, I should be persistent. I should realize that writing is not just a self-serving exercise and I should never give up on storytelling, no matter what sort of discouragement or disappointment comes my way.

      So, there you have it, my code of ethics as it were. If you have something to add, just put it in the comments. I'm always open to suggestions!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Elephant or a Dormouse: Is the wait worth it?

Sometimes the gestation period for a book seems to take forever.

No, really, FOREVER.

You wait for the ideas to come, you wait on yourself while you write, and you wait around while you revise.

Patience, patience.

Then you wait to hear back from agents about your query letters. Wait even longer to hear back from partials and fulls.

And it doesn't end there! You have to wait and wait and wait when you finally go to submissions while editors and publishers actually read your work. Some will pass it to another editor, who passes it to another, and they all have to take their time to read.

Through all that waiting, you will see others who seem to have their dreams come true overnight. And it's frustrating.

When I begin to feel that way, I remember the Elephant and the Dormouse.

When Ella Elephant and Dora Dormouse find out they're pregnant, they both get excited. They go shopping together, they dream of baby names together. They're co-pregnant. It's a beautiful thing.

Three weeks later, Dora has her babies. Four of them.

Ella's not even close to done.

Ella has to wait another twenty-one months after Dora before she sees her baby. Singular.

And I'm sure that, to Ella, that might seem frustrating. And unfair.

But that's when you have to do the math.

Sure, Dora had four kids in three weeks. But those kids will only live to be five years old before they die. Dora won't even get to see much of their lives, cause she'll be dead very soon.

Meanwhile, the baby elephant will live twelve times as long, all the way to sixty or older. And Ella will get to be with her child for a very long time.

What about size? When the dormice are fully grown, they'll be between two to seven inches long and weigh about a half of an ounce.

The elephant, on the other hand, will be eighteen times taller and 160,000 times heavier, coming in at eleven feet tall and weighing two and a half tons.

So, if you're ever feeling antsy while waiting, remember: It's better to be an Elephant than a Dormouse.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Peek At My World-building

As I've mentioned before, I love writing historical fiction for kids. I love the challenge of conveying a time period to a group that hasn't experienced many time periods on its own. It's part of my belief that exposure to unfamiliar cultures is essential to building proper perspectives on life and society.

One of the key dynamics of conveying cultures in writing is world-building. World-building gets a lot of press in regards to Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but it is essential to every genre of writing. The task of world-building in historical fiction can be exceptionally daunting, because it's less "world-building" and more "world-acquiring."

Take the example of James Cameron in making Titanic. Not only did he have to amass as many historical facts and figures as he could, he also had to recreate the culture and character traits common in 1912. To do this, he immersed himself and his cast and crew into the world. They had videos playing in every dressing room portraying life in 1912, music of the era playing everywhere, and brought in as many experts on the culture of the day as they did on the sinking of the ship. And those efforts paid off in a big way.

When I write, I attempt to do the same. Besides studying the historical events and facts, I also immerse myself in the culture of the time period I'm writing. My playlist is filled with music of the day, my TV watching is imbued with period appropriate shows, my desktop background is a rotating gallery of art popular at the time. I try to eat food my characters might eat, talk as they might have talked, and even occasionally dress like them, if I can get away with it. (Thankfully, I have a wife who will reign me back in if things start going overboard)

For instance, when I was writing and editing my book, Johnny Cannon and the Bay of Guinea Pigs, I had to be in 1961. One of the first things I did was make a playlist of songs from '61 and '62, and I listened to those songs through every step of the process. Now, for your viewing and listening pleasure, here are the first ten songs that were on that list of over 100. (I may post more on another date)

Artist Track
Ben E. King  Stand By Me 
Patsy Cline  Crazy 
Dion  The Wanderer 
Dion  Runaround Sue 
Roy Orbison  Crying 
Ray Charles  Hit The Road Jack 
Del Shannon  Runaway 
Gary "U.S." Bonds  Quarter to Three 
The Showmen  It Will Stand

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Future is That Way: 5 Tips for Independent Bookstores

If I read one more blog about the DOJ lawsuit and Amazon vs. Big 6, I'm going to puke in my mouth. 

Ok, that's not true. Actually, I've been really enjoying the voices of both sides. But there is one group that is a bit under-represented in the "back to the old drawing board" dynamic that has arisen as the dust has settled. Independent bookstores. What are they going to do as the world is moving to digital publishing? (PW reported just today that Bookstore sales declined 4.1% in February. I'm assuming that includes chain bookstores and independents. Take the chains out, the number might even be higher.)

Well, here it is! My not-so-expert opinion on what needs to be done to reverse the supposed tide of doom that’s impending on the independent bookstore industry.

Aren’t you excited? No? Too bad, cause I’m going to tell you anyway.

In order to stay competitive in the changing world, independent publishers and bookstores need to:
  1. Change the paradigm. The shift from print to digital formats is a scary one because, for publishing houses and bookstores, the business is the printed word. If the printed word becomes obsolete, then the business becomes obsolete as well. That’s why my suggestion is to change what the business is about. It’s not about printed books, it’s about literacy. Publishers aren’t printers, they’re purveyors of literacy. Bookstores aren’t booksellers, they’re custodians of literacy.
  2. Understand what e-books are replacing. E-books aren’t replacing all books. They’re replacing mass-market paperbacks. Don’t believe me? Look at the price expectations of consumers. Look at the buying habits and the reading habits for e-books. It’s almost identical to the mass-market craze of the pre-digital era. Beautifully crafted hardcovers and trade paperbacks that have high-quality paper and illustrations, neither of those are going away. In addition, book tie-in merchandise (toys, posters, confectionary items, etc) also can’t be replicated on e-books (outside of apps. But, really, unless your book is about agitated fowl or horticulture vs undead beings, I doubt you’ll see that big of a plus side.)
  3. Don’t just create or sell a book, create and sell an experience
    1. Become a world builder for books. Entice potential readers to engage in books by immersing them into the world of the books you are selling. Host Greek god parties for Rick Riordan's books, or have a lawyer costume party for a Grisham release (if that's your thing.)
    2. Reward inquisitive readers. Have Easter Eggs ready to hand out to attentive fans. Not actual Easter Eggs, but treats to reward those willing to hunt for them. Like a fake cheese in the middle of the floor for Wimpy Kid fans. Fake names for all the staff members for Pseudonymous Bosch fans.
  4. Don’t throw spaghetti at the wall. Instead of trying to stock all the big titles, or a lot of different genres, focus on what you're best at. If you narrow your focus, you're more likely to hit your target. Like they say in The Patriot, "Aim small, miss small."
  5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket either. Don't bet your money that you'll make a ton off the next big release. Remember, it's a good idea to have a few backup plans. Sure, plan for a big push, but plan for a few small pushes as well.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Up or Down?

Once upon a time there was a boy named Mark. He was thirteen when he died.

Yes, this will be a sad story.

After he died, Mark came to vestibule that said “Eternity: Up & Down.” Muttering to himself that this didn’t look anything like pearly gates, Mark entered.

A gruff man in a white suit, with a nametag that said “I’m Not St. Peter,” greeted Mark.

“Where you goin? Up or down?”

“Up.” Mark said, never more sure of a decision in his life.

Not-St.-Peter chuckled. “That’s what everyone says.” He handed Mark a clipboard. “Fill that out and we’ll see.”

Mark sighed, disappointed that piles of paperwork was one of the few things that made it into eternity. He began to fill out the form. Name, age at death, address. It was all the usual fields.

Then there was one that caught him off guard.

“Excuse, mister. It asks if I’m gay or straight.” Mark said.

Not-St.-Peter nodded. “Yup. Easy one, huh?”

Mark stared at the two little boxes, both begging to be filled in.

“But I’ve never even had sex.”

“So? Answer the question.”

Mark didn’t want to answer the question.

“Look,” Mark said, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus, I even sing at church. Why do I have to fill out this form? I thought it was a sure thing.”

“Used to be.” Not-St.-Peter said. “Then Fallwell got up there and started raising a fuss. Now we have a form.”

Mark sighed. “I don’t know how to answer.”

Not-St.-Peter sighed back. “Do you like boys or girls?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ve always kind of liked boys more. Maybe both?”

Not-St.-Peter snatched the clipboard out of Mark’s hand, quickly checked the box marked “Gay,” and pushed Mark into the elevator.

“Going down.” He said.

The door closed before Mark could protest.

And down he went.

I warned you this was a sad story. Wait, why are you laughing?

Oh, you’re not. Sorry, that’s Fallwell. He loves this story.

(There's more to this post, but it's rife with my faith and specific to my church background. If you PROMISE to read it with an open mind, you can here.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

In which I exit my cave for a brief overview.

In ten days it will have been two months since I last blogged. It is not a good practice to leave a blog dormant. Or to feed them after midnight. But that's another issue.

I have disappeared because I have been writing.

I completed the book I was writing, 75,000 words if you're interested in that sort of thing, and now realize I need to shower.

After all, it has been two months. Minus ten days.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

MMGM: Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian (and Winners!!!!)

Hello again, gang! I've got a review of another great book coming up, but first the winner of Breadcrumbs is



If that's you, shoot me an email with your mailing info to isaiah [at] bushelsofgrace {dot} com.

Now for another great Middle Grade book, I read

Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian:

I wanted to read a graphic novel this time, and finding out that Michael Rex (author of Furious George Goes Bananas) had done one was just what the doctor ordered. Plus, he paid tribute to Conan the Barbarian, one of my favorite tales.

One of the reasons I wanted to review a graphic novel is because of my love for the medium, and Michael utilizes it very well. It's a single color graphic novel, which is a very clever, understated style. It's perfect for the story of Fangbone.

Fangbone is a young member of a barbarian clan that is in charge of protecting a disgusting severed toe, the final piece needed for the bad guys to resurrect the most powerful evil being in the universe. Fangbone takes the toe and travels through a portal to our world, where he gets integrated into a third grade class and becomes the school celebrity.

Besides the fact that the characters in this story are unique and relatable, Michael has woven a hilarious tale filled with inside jokes and deadpan one-liners. I would recommend this book to every 6-9 year old boy, as well as any other kid who loves comics, barbarians, or just really funny books.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

History is a Fractal, and why you should care.

February 15, 1898: The USS Maine explodes in the harbor of Havana, Cuba.

That event was the beginning of a story. It was the beginning of a history. And, like all other histories, this story functioned as a fractal.

You've heard of fractals, right? It's a mathematical idea that there are patterns that, no matter how closely you zoom in or how small you fracture it, it will always maintain the appearance of a full pattern. In other words, even the smallest piece is a complete unit as well as part of the whole.

How does the sinking of the Maine, and other historical events, function as a fractal? Let me illustrate.

There's the story of the people who manned the boat. Their lives were drastically affected that day. The length of their story, from explosion to end? Minutes, maybe hours at best.

There's the Spanish/American war that ensued because of the event, culminating in the Treaty of Paris. That story includes Teddy Roosevelt, Booker T Washington, a nation uniting for the first time since the Civil War, and the first time African Americans really gained national respect. Length of story: 5-6 months.

There's the story of Cuba and the symbiotic relationship that developed with America because of their liberation from Spanish rule. That story includes casinos, Cuban jazz, the mafia, Ricky Ricardo, and gross government corruption. Length of story: 50-60 Years.

There's the story of Cuba's quest for national independence, which eventually culminated in the rise of Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Length of story: 70 years+

There's the story of the Cuban people's thirst for freedom, which would eventually include countless exiles fleeing to America and defying corrupt regime after corrupt regime. That story includes Marco Rubio, Bill Clinton, Elian Gonzales, and even Barack Obama, as well as countless measures to either enable or inhibit refugees from Cuba. Length of story: 114 years+

Now, why should you care? If you are a writer, your job is to carefully craft your story so that every piece matters, no matter how small, and that everything fits into a bigger picture, no matter how large. Think of The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings. Think of the baby Harry Potter being dropped on a muggle doorstep and the larger war between Voldemort and the world. Think of a tea party between Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, and the entirety of Narnia awaiting Aslan's salvation.

"World Building" is the catch phrase, but it's more than just your setting. You have to develop the fractal plot of your world and know where your story plot fits into it.

That's how you make the sinking of the Maine matter.



Sunday, February 12, 2012

MMGM: Breadcrumbs (And a Giveaway!)

I was finally able to read Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (giveaway details below), and let me say, it lived up to all the hype.
Here's the description from Anne's website:

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it's up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's “The Snow Queen,” Breadcrumbs is a story of the struggle to hold on, and the things we leave behind.

I enjoyed this book immensely, for a lot of reasons. First, there was the nostalgic transportation back to fifth grade which I didn't expect. I usually expect to be reminded of life in my tweens when I read a MG book, but this one did more. It actually dropped me back into my size 8 shoes, and I relived my days as a bookish little guy who was more concerned with superheroes than fitting in. It was wonderful and painful, all together, and it was absolutely perfect.

Second, this book was an illustration of the art of our craft as writers. Anne is a master of the written word, and she meticulously painted a beautiful picture in this book. From the first page, her descriptions of a fresh snowfall immediately capture the reader, and she uses every tool in her writing tool belt to masterfully create her story.

Speaking of illustrations, Erin McGuire's illustrations are beautifully done, and they perfectly represent the story as Anne writes it. I know this is one of her first projects, and she has done a fantastic job.

So, there you have it. Breadcrumbs. What a book. And now, what a giveaway! All you have to do to win a copy of Breadcrumbs is follow this blog and comment on this post. I'll choose a commenter at random using one of the marvelous random number generators online, confirm that they follow this blog, and then BOOM! That commenter will magically win a copy of this fantastically written book. The deadline is 12:00 pm CST on Friday, Feb. 17.

What could be better?


ps. Special thanks to Shannon Messenger for starting the awesome MMGM Meme in the first place.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

5 Steps to Writing a Killer Historical Novel

I am a fan of historical novels, both writing them and reading them.

Actually, that's not an entirely true statement. I am a fan of good historical novels, both writing them and reading them. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of bad historicals that have put a bad taste in the mouth of many readers. I'm hoping to help you fix that with the same five steps I've used in writing historical novels.

1. Research. I'm guessing that, if you're interested in writing a historical novel, it is because of your immense love of history. However, I must warn you, loving history and a certain period or event in history isn't going to be enough for you to write a good historical novel. You have to know your history. And, much as I hate to say it, Wikipedia will only take you so far. You need to dig and dig and dig, like an archaeologist seeking to unearth an ancient civilization, trying to understand the period that you will be writing about. Read everything you can get your hands on, and read from every angle. Magazines, books, old newspaper clippings. Listen to the music of the times, collect the art, read other books from the same era. Immerse yourself into the world of the past and you will be able to successfully replicate it in your book. That brings us to the second step...

2. Build. Just like any other book you may write, world building is a very important prelude to actually writing your story. Don't let the fact that you will be writing in a real time and place, you are writing fiction and you'll be creating a world to put your characters in. It's important for you to establish the rules, know the mindset, and have the language in your back pocket. The greatest historical novels are ones where the author doesn't lecture the reader on the times, but (are you ready for this?) shows the reader the times through fantastic writing. Yeah, show don't tell. Who'd a thunk it would come up yet again.

3. Ask. In my opinion, every great novel begins with a question, and a historical is no different. In fact, historical novels may beg more questions than others. What would happen if the Lindbergh kidnapping was a meticulous cover-up? What if King Henry VIII was actually gay? What if a southern girl's father in the 1930s was forced to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman? (Yes, that's To Kill A Mockingbird, and I try to throw that in as often as possible.) You have to ask the right questions to get your story moving, and you have to ask the sort of questions that others may not have asked but will want to know the answer to.

4. Answer. I know there's always the argument of Pantsers vs Plotters, but I think that you have to have some element of plotting when you write a historical novel, simply because you don't have as much freedom to roam wherever you may please. You should probably know the end from the beginning and have a general idea of how to get there. I'm not saying you should necessarily do the snowflake method or anything (it works for some people, doesn't for others) but you should put some thought into it before you start.

5. Write the darn thing. Yeah, you have to put in a lot of work before hand, but it will pay off, I promise you. Just dig in and take all the foundations you've laid, and make a phenomenal piece of literature we can all be proud of. Easy right?


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy 200th to Dickens and Me!

Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens! (A day late, but whatever.)
Happy 200th Blog Post, Isaiah J. Campbell!

It has been a while since I last posted, perhaps because I wanted to make the 200th post something extra special. At least, that's what I'd like you to believe. Rather, it has been due to an increased workload of writing, which bodes better for me than for you.

It has also been due to a great amount of soul searching about my purpose as a writer, the sort of brand I want to establish, and the sort of impact I want to have. I would recommend every writer take some time to ponder these topics as well.

I've realized that I write Middle Grade books in historical settings, and I do so to inspire kids young and old to study history and embrace the less told stories from our past. I do so because I believe there are some things that ought not be forgotten.

Because of that, I want to partner with those who passionately work to remind us of what we so easily forget. Teachers, Librarians, Scholars, Journalists, I want to be your advocate and ally in the quest to help our future leaders check their rear-view mirrors.

This is who I am, this is what I do.

(Oh, and on the less serious, more parenthetical side of things, I'm on pinterest now, posting images from my historical research for future stories. And also of superheroes. Because I can.)


Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Challenging History

Choosing what to write is always a challenging experiment. Usually there will be several ideas that, for whatever reason, garnered my attention and inspired a "that'd be cool" when I first thought of them. Selecting which one to devote my attention to is a bit like a beauty pageant, only the most attractive, Passion inspiring contestant will ultimately win out. And what, pray tell, has given my current WIP the edge?

It's simple. Out of all the options I had, this story seemed to be the most challenging one to write. How so?

Well, for one, it is an illustrated novel. That means that I am pulling my longtime hobby of drawing cartoons out of the closet and opening it up to professional criticism.

Also, it is about 50% inspired by my own life. That means that there are a lot of memories from my Middle School days, like the loneliness of homeschooling or the pain of being a nerd, that are being fleshed out. And, as it turns out, many of the painful memories are still just as painful today, twenty years later.

Another challenge is that the other 50% or so of inspiration comes from one of my best friend's life, and a time of family crisis I was with him during. My best friend is African American, and the unique family dynamics and cultural roles he experienced during this time helped craft such a wonderful, unique story, I wanted to retell it (with his permission) so that others can experience it as well. As such, my main character and his family are African American, and that presents another set of unique challenges for me as a caucasian writer. (hopefully someday I will wrote a blog post on the importance of writing stories about non-white people that aren't centered around race or racism. If we ever want to overcome racism and stereotypes, we have to paint the world with a broader brush and a more inclusive palette. But I digress.)

It was these challenges and others that made my current WIP, The Power of Zucchini, rise above the others. I think it is immensely important that writers, no matter where they are in their writing life, be on the lookout for the most challenging project. When you have set as your goal to overcome challenges, your success rides on your own shoulders. Even if you're never agented, published, or profitable, if you are willing to take on the challenges, you've exemplified courage and character.

And that, to me, is the measure of success.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is that all you've got?

I watched a documentary on Harper Lee and the legacy of To Kill A Mockingbird recently. One of the topics discussed was the singularity of the novel, as Lee never again released another work of fiction. They speculated of reasons for this, whether it was the pressure of a debut novel winning the Pulitzer and attracting the attention of Hollywood, or perhaps this was evidence of a different author of the novel (some speculate Truman Capote, a longtime friend of Lee and the inspiration for the character Dill). The reigning belief was that Harper simply never wanted to be a public figure, a celebrity, and thus wished to retreat from the fame she had begrudgingly won.

In the back of my mind, this discussion raised a question that I had been avoiding for some time. How many good books do I have inside of me that I can write?

Granted, I currently have one book with an agent, another being written, and a folder on my computer with five or six more embryos working steadily toward maturation. I also have a notebook of scribbled loglines, some good,some not-so-good, that haven't been fully conceived yet, which give me a measure of hope.

But what after that? I want to be a career writer, and that inevitably means writing more books than I have ideas for at this point, at least I hope that's what it means. How will I maintain creative integrity, avoid recycling plots and characters, and still generate appealing stories that are worth telling? Should I even be worried about that right now?

The answer is, no, I shouldn't be. Even with only one book to her name, Harper Lee is still one of the most successful writers in recent history. More than that, she was happy with what she had done. Truly, at every stage of the writer's life, that is all that matters.

Be happy with where you are right now, and let the future take care of itself.