Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bookanista Review: THE HATE LIST


Hate ListColumbine.  That's where you have to start, for the premise is all too real: a high school outcast, bullied for far too long, bursts into the hallways shooting everyone who pissed him off.
The protagonist of THE HATE LIST is Valerie Leftman, whose boyfriend Nick killed six Garvin High classmates.  Valerie never shot anyone herself but she and Nick kept a detailed list of all the kids she hated and wished dead.  Nick went after them first.
Columbine high school was the scene of every parent's worst nightmare, as more than a dozen people were gunned down.  But this didn't just happen at Columbine.  It happened in other schools, other colleges, other crowded places.  It almost happened in many more.
No matter where it happens, things forever change.  Violence, even the fear of violence, changes everything.  And that's the point of THE HATE LIST.  For Valerie, it meant a stay at the psychiatric ward, months on suicide watch and as a criminal suspect, years of therapy, and a family blown apart.  For Valerie's surviving classmates, it meant post-traumatic stress, various procedures to fix broken limbs--and for one student, plastic surgery to fix a shattered face.  Oh, and endless hatred towards Valerie, for it was Valerie, after all, who made the list.
What makes this book so important is that Jennifer Brown reminds readers that the people who commit these heinous crimes aren't inherently evil, and the shooters' friends aren't necessarily to blame.  Valerie isn't a monster, though her dad isn't quite sure.  And Nick, for all his anger, was a kid who needed help, a kid who was bullied beyond belief, a kid who got high one morning and simply lost his mind.
THE HATE LIST isn't just a story of destruction; it's a story of survival--Valerie's survival, her parents' attempt to save their marriage, Valerie's classmates trying to go on with their lives.  It's a frightening story because of the horrific murder that happened that one fateful morning, but it's even more frightening because it's real.  This really happens.
But never has this story been told from the shooter's (and his girlfriend's) perspective.  Jennifer Brown has written a beautifully layered story with grace and honesty.  Go read this book, then lend it to every teen you know.

The writing community lost a star yesterday, as Lisa Wolson passed away. Wolson, who published under the name L.K. Madigan, will be sorely missed.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to her family.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

I Love Your Guts: Part 3


I found another homie.  He was more cooperative than the first one.  Better company.  Made me smile, and laugh.  He was a YA novel about a teen with OCD and the friend who tutors him in the art of playing it cool.  I called him A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE.  He was good to me.  Never hurt me.  Sold quickly.
(My homie is male because I’m male and the protagonist is male, and at the time I wasn’t yet engaged or married and knew pretty much nothing about women, but feel free to assign whichever gender you please to your homie.)
He made life easier for a bit.  Helped me buy a ring.  Made teaching more fun.  Made a few students think I was O.D. cool (an overdose of cool).  Gave me something to talk about:
Me: “I’m getting a book published.”
Casual Friend: “Wow, that’s awesome!  Congratulations! What kind of book?”
M: “Young adult.”
CF: “You mean, like, for teenagers?”
M: “Yup.”
CF: “Oooh, you could teach it to your kids.  Oooh, maybe it’ll be another Harry Potter.  Ooooh, or Twilight!  I just bought, like, twenty copies of Twilight for my nephews and nieces.  I love Twilight—well, I don’t really love Twilight, but I had to see what everyone was talking about.  I bought the whole set and read them all in, like, a day!  I didn’t even get up—didn’t even pee—until I finished, like, two books.  Then I peed, but I didn’t eat until I finished the whole series.  Yeah, I rock.  I did the same thing for Harry Potter.  Ooooh, is your book about magic?”
M: “Nope.”
CF: “Vampires?”
M: “Nope.”
CF: “Oh . . . will your book will be a bestseller?  You should have it showcased in, like, every Barnes & Noble store in America.  Will it be?  Is Oprah gonna put it on her book club?  OMG! I’m so excited and I just can’t hide it and—oh, you should get on the Today Show with Matt Lauer. Your name’s Matt so it shouldn’t be a problem.  Plus you have the same haircut, LOL.  I heard Twilight sold in like a catrillion countries.  When’s your first book signing in Greenland?”
To people outside of publishing, it’s all or nothing: bestseller or bust.
We all know there are plenty of outrageously talented writers with books that sell reasonably well, but rock stars are few and far-between and, as Haterade guzzlers know, they all smell like bowling shoes and have buckteeth and nose hairs the length of a fire hose—except for Bookanistas because they're kind and friendly and some live in Utah, where everyone seems peachy and peaceful. Actually, anyone outside of New York City seems about as non-threatening as Mr. Met.
The point is that it can be intimidating to tell people about your book because, to some, at least those who be drinkin’ the Haterade, unless you’re on Oprah you’re a failure, which doesn’t make you want to tell anyone about your book but you have to because if you don’t tell anyone then nobody will buy it and you’ll go back to square one: you and your worst fears.
(My worst fear: A mountain of rejection letters piled so high on my desk that if I breath or cough or sigh with enough gusto the entire mountain will collapse on me like an avalanche and crush me and cover me in my own rejections and failures and nobody will hear me scream and I’ll die a slow and painful death, which newspapers will find fascinating and therefore report, on the front page in big bold lettering, “MAN DIES OF FAILURE; NOT HEART FAILURE, JUST FAILURE”—but since nobody reads newspapers anymore, nobody will hear about it until Comedy Central gets its hands on the story and Steven Colbert proclaims, with a wag of the finger, “Nation, I thought Bill O’Reilly was a loser, a real Loserasaurus [audience cheers]. . . I did, I really did, but then, Nation, [Colbert chuckles], but then I heard of Matt Blackstone,” as the audience, howling like hyenas, chants his name instead of mine: “Ste-ven. Ste-ven, Ste-ven . . .”)
I.  A Doggy Dog World
None of us start out writing YA books for the money (well, some of us, but nobody likes them very much).  We write them because we can—or think we can, which is a good enough start.  We write them because we have a message, an idea, an experience that’ll eat us alive if we don’t sit down and share it.  We write them because we’re bored, because American Idol ain’t what it used to be (Clay Aikens don’t just grow on trees you know) and there ain’t much to keep up with the Kardashians.   We write them because it’s a great excuse not to do clean the bathroom.  We write them because it’s hard, sometimes nearly impossible but not entirely impossible so we keep going and can’t stop because on good days we make ourselves laugh and smile and curse the day we were born and yell, “I LOVE YOUR GUTS” because we love and hate it so f—ing much.
But then there’s the business end, and if you’re anything like me, you majored in English and called the business school “The Evil Empire” and sang the Star Wars theme every time you passed it on campus (Dun, Dun, Dun, DunDuDun, DunDuDun)—and now you’re suddenly an entrepreneur, a traveling salesman, the CEO of your book, your brand, your name.  And though Blackstone only goes back two generations—my great uncle wanted to be an actor, liked the sound of Blackstone, and just went with it—it’s still my name and my wife’s name and I don’t want to muck it up quite yet.
The point is that we got into this for reasons other than money but, as my little cousin once said, “We live in a doggy, dog world.”  Book sales matter, and because they do, the questions come in rapid fire: “Do you have a marketing plan business cards platform radio television advertisements?  Do you have a short term long term term in the middle I guess you could call it a medium term marking plan rights contract e-book royalties kindle kindle kindle kindle kindle?”
Yes, you’ll want to kick and scream and long for the Star Wars song, the hippy days, the money-ain’t-a-thang mentality.  Yes, you’ll want shout in your best British accent: “This is rubbish!  We don’t ask marketing execs to write books!  Foncy that, though!  LOLing right now.  Absolutely lolling!”  And yes, you’ll want to throw a public tantrum so wildly ridiculous your toddlers will touch their chin and say, in unison, “Well that wasn’t very mature now, was it?  Are you finished yet, [Mr./Ms./Mrs.] Pouty Pants?”
You should be.
It’s in your best interest to sell copies, if not for the money than for the reasons you started writing in the first place—no, not the absence of Clay Aiken; you had a message, remember?  An idea, an experience that you wanted to share with the world.  If it wasn’t worth writing you wouldn’t have busted your ass to finish.
Seven months ago my wife brought me home two self-marketing books from the library.  Such a practical gift!  They made great pillows.  And lovely decoration.  Oh, and a perfect stepstool to reach the Red Hot Blues tortilla chips in the top drawer.
I tried to get into them—the books, I mean.  I think I even read a few pages.  I definitely drooled on page two.  I remember because I asked my wife, queen of stain removal, how to “erase the drool at the bottom of the page two.”
But I’ve changed.  Really, I have.  Since then, I’ve read the whole book.  Okay, half—but it’s O.D. long! It’s over 500 pages and reads like a textbook, but I’ll get there.  Really, I will.
We’ll all get there.  We may have different time zones and day jobs and differing levels of appreciation for Star Wars (truth be told, I like the theme song more than the movies).  We may have different schedules and styles and dorky whiney dances (and fake accents) when things don’t go our way.  But we’ll all get there.
Even if our first homie isn’t as agreeable as our second.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I Love Your Guts: Part 2


Nobody likes waiting.  Not at the grocery store or doctor’s office or subway platform or CVS pharmacy where it takes fifty-three minutes to reach the front and hear, “Sorry, sir, but your spouse isn’t covered under your plan; you’ll have to call your insurance provider,” who puts you on hold for thirty-seven minutes before you’re finally able to explain—and, on cue, the call is dropped.
You grind your teeth and check to see if they spelled her name right.
“We have her name as Janie,” the pharmacist says.  “J-A-N-I-E.”
“Her name’s Jamie!  Janie’s not even a name!”
“Well that’s what the doctor has here: Janie.  J-A-N-I-E.”
“But, the handwriting—”
“Sir, it was typed.”
“THE ‘N’ IS NEXT TO THE ‘M’ ON A KEYBOARD!”
“Sir, calm down.”
“I AM CALM!”
I.  The Wait
You get close to a manuscript.  It’s your blood and sweat and tears and time—all that time!—and if you’re lucky, you’ll finish a few drafts and become even closer.  You’ll become friends.  Not friends of friends or Facebook friends or John McCain’s “(my) friends,” but friends.  Real friends.  Friends as tight as family.  Homies—yup, you and your manuscript become homies.
You know deep down, really deep down (if you dug long enough to reach China) that your homie is only a Microsoft Word file, a stack of paper filled with words, words that make a book—not even a book, almost a book, but it’s your baby, your friend, your homie and though you don’t have a history of ascribing love and friendship to inanimate objects, you can’t help but feel sad and scared and apologetic when you mail it out because you’re tossing your baby into the wild, into the ocean, into a wild, oceanic mission all by himself and suddenly you understand why in Cast Away Tom Hanks screamed “I’M SORRY WILSON! I’M SORRY!  WILSON I’M SORRY!”  when the current carried his volleyball away.  You take back all the times you’ve mocked that scene when punting a basketball out of your little brother’s reach—“I’M SORRY SPALDING, I’M SO SORRY”—but you don’t feel bad for all the times you got that scene confused with Titanic, when Kate Winslet gasps for the rescue crew to “come back . . . come back . . .” because each and every time you send out your story, you want to quote both scenes and say to your precious characters, “I’m sorry, come back.  I’m sorry if they don’t like you as much as I do.  Come back, please.  I’m sorry, come back.”
And all that’s left is The Wait.  Worse than the DMV, for the line doesn’t end: it stretches down the aisles, into the streets, into your living room; it eats into your mornings, nibbles on your afternoons, swallows your evenings.  If you mailed your query letters, it’s an endless date with a mailbox that dumps you every afternoon.  If you emailed your materials, it’s a battle of self-control that you lose, lose, lose, because the more you hit refresh the worse you feel but you have to check because maybe this will be the day and you want your night to be a good one and the only way this will happen is if the email comes through but you won’t know if it came through unless you check, refresh, check, refresh, refresh.  You realize that refresh is a terrible word, a truly terrible word to describe what you’re going through because you feel a lot of things, but none of them are refreshment.
You hate yourself for throwing your characters into the wild.  (Refresh.)  You hate that they’re all alone and buried in a pile of slush.  (Refresh.)  You picture them slashed and bloody and shredded into a million little pieces.  (Refresh.)  You feel bad for James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, for getting spanked by Oprah on national television but you envy him now.  (Refresh.)  You hate the word "refresh" and hate that you’ve been a sucker for it all your life: soda, slurpies, Gatorade, frozen lemonade—all them tasty but none of them nearly as refreshing as a glass of water.  (Refresh).
But all you can do is wait, which feels like the cable company putting you on hold with Kenny G. for hours into days into weeks into months into years.  The baby who you’ve created and nurtured is all alone at sea and all you hear is Kenny G, which rhymes but isn’t the least bit soothing—because you, too, are all alone.  You can’t tell people your book is on submission because if it doesn’t sell then everyone knows about it.  Knows you put yourself out into the world and said, “Hey, world, it’s me, _____ (insert name) of _____ (insert home address), I’m here and I've got lots of good ideas and I want you to like me” to which the world said, “No.”  Or more specifically, “We’ve already decided who we’ll like in the upcoming year and you aren’t it” or “We don’t like you but who knows, someone with really bad taste might” or the very worst, which shakes you to your core: “How ironic! We liked someone similar to you last week!  Same ideas, same story—crazy, huh?  Good luck finding a home!”
II. Another Homie
This happened to me.  All of it.  I didn’t call my manuscript “Wilson,” but it was my buddy.  My homie.  My pride.  My joy.  Plus, it was about me:  You All in the Kool-Aid but You Don’t Know the Flavor was a memoir about my Teach for America experience, from the boot camp of summer Institute to the streets of West Baltimore; from political corruption ($50 million was stolen from the city budget) to crumbling schools (my principal at Frederick Douglass High School changed students’ grades, graduation was a fraud—things got so bad that HBO spent a year in our school filming Hard Times at Douglass High).
So I was invested.  I hunted down former students on Facebook.  I queried agents, lots of them, all of them, recycled enough rejection envelopes to stop global warming, got hooked and strung out on Gmail Refresh, and a few months later I signed with an agent.  In Like Flynn, right?  The Wait a thing of the past?  After three months of revision and three rounds of submission all I had to show for it was a note from my agent that said there was nothing more to do.
Cue the grieving process: the wish to rewind the clock and keep “Wilson” stored safe and sound in a filing cabinet.  The urge to never again compose another sentence.  To quit and hide and join a monastery or the traveling circus or the Blue Man Group.  To change identities: vote for the Tea Party, wear sweater vests, use the words “sublime” and “balmy,” wear a fake nose and mustache and glasses, drive a sublime sports car, cover my face in sunblock and carry an umbrella even in balmy weather.
Cue the prayer to eliminate Facebook.  The disappearance of Mark Zuckerberg.  The impulse to change my name to John Grisham or Stephanie Meyer or even Rudyard Kipling so that when students ask how the book is going I can say, as only a Mr. Foncy Ponts would, “Oh just marvelous, darling, just marvelous.  The Muse, though fickle, fancies me I suppose!”
Cue the hermit crab.  The cave dweller.  The mole.  Cue hypochondria. Aversions.  Phobias.  Fear of Barnes & Noble.  Fear of Katherine Barnes, Barney Gumble, Nobel Energy, all the noble men in history.
Cue denial.  Dreams of book signings.  Parties.  Schmoozing with Larry King.
Cue acceptance.  Longer conversations.  Crawling out of a cave.
Cue clarity: Kool-Aid made me a better writer.  A more confident one.  I can write 80,000 words. I know my butt, however sweaty it gets, can stay seated.  I know I can finish, whether others like the final product or not.
Cue forgiveness: other people have the right to their opinions but that doesn’t mean they’re right; maybe they're like the dopey pharmacists who can’t admit that Janie is a typo and not a name, but you won’t know unless you keep writing.  Keep creating.  Keep calm.  Keep telling your butt that you don’t care about its feelings.  Keep networking; they'll push you and guide you and be there at the finish line.  Keep avoiding beverages (and people) that aren’t refreshing.  Keep growing characters in your cave.
Keep lookin’ for your next homie.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bookanista Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You


There aren’t many books that display the quirks, temperament and history of all the central characters in its first two sentences: “The day my sister, Gillian, decided to pronounce her name with a hard G was, coincidentally, the same day my mother returned, early and alone, from her honeymoon.  Neither of these things surprised me.”
Then again, from the lengthy title—SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU—to the spare cover and equally spare prose, this book is anything but ordinary.  Ditto for James Sveck, an eighteen year old protagonist who refuses to report for his freshman year at Brown University.
Not defer, simply not go.
Instead, he plans to head out to Kansas, purchase a house on the cheap and live a quiet life.  (The more I think about it, as I stare at my rent check made out to a Manhattan landlord, James may be on to something.  Mental note: pack bags overnight, buy ten dozen bagels, tell wife we’re going on a road trip, tell school that I won the national Teacher-of-the-Year award and that President Obama wants to honor me at a state dinner in Kansas—a very long state dinner, with many courses—and maybe he’ll invite me to the White House to shoot hoops and tell him all about Bronx high schools and he’ll be so impressed that he’ll appoint me czar of education, czar of baseball, czar of book writing, czar of . . .)
We all have fantasies; some of them are clean, and some are twisted and dangerous—and funny.  Exhibit A: James explains that one of the plaques outside his dad Upper East Side apartment reads, “IN MEMORY OF HOWARD MORRIS SHULEVITZ, BLOCK PRESIDENT 1980-1993.  HE LOVED THIS BLOCK.  I thought about throwing myself out our living room window so that I would land the sidewalk in front of the tree well.  I would get my own plaque then, beside Howard’s: JAMES DUNFOUR SVECK, SECOND BLOCK PRESIDENT, 1985-1997.  HE LOVED THIS BLOCK TOO.”
Though everyone around James isn’t exactly centered, James is the furthest out there, teetering on the border between quirky and ill.  His shrink tries to bring him back from the periphery, but James is a worthy competitor, matching her every question with one of his own: Why doesn’t she keep any novels in her office?  Why does she keep saying “I see?”  Why does everyone think he’s having a breakdown?  What is his sexuality? Why does ordering pasta instead of steak makes him unmanly?  Why is it such a big deal to post fake profiles on male dating sites and then go meet up with them, people he knows from work, and in so many words yell, Surprise, colleague, it’s me, James—you know, from the art gallery!
Yes, James will make you squirm.  But you won’t be able to look away.  He’s a superbly drawn character in a brilliantly conceived book.  You’ll pity him, admire him, and want to befriend him.  You simply won’t be able to take your eyes off James Svek, which is a good thing because you’ll be seeing a whole lot of him.  The movie is due out this year.