Archive: June 2011
Five Things I Learned at ALA

After a brief and incredibly productive hiatus, I’m back in blogger mode!1  This last week was an exciting one, as it officially marked the debut of Peter Nimble. Well, pre debut.

Every year the American Library Association holds an annual conference wherein a million librarians descend on an unsuspecting town.2  A post about ALA is basically a post about hanging out with amazing authors, librarians, editors, and illustrators.  Instead of name-checking all the swell people I spent time with (save that for Twitter), I’ve decided to write a post about the five things I learned from my time at ALA:

1)  Always Wear a Name Tag

For many years, I have considered myself too cool for name tags.  In the same way that I refuse to run across busy streets (why run when you can walk slow and scowl?), I also refused to wear name tags.  This changed at ALA.  As I was about to pocket my name tag, a woman beside me saw it and exclaimed “You’re taller than I thought you’d be!”3  This woman was author Jo Whittemore, and she promptly introduced me to the Texas Sweethearts author clan.  Within seconds, I was on my way to lunch with a half-dozen YA novelists who had plenty of good advice for a nervous newbie.  That never would have happened without the name tag.

I also noticed that wearing a name tag seems to improve conversation.  I forgot to wear it to a few events, and those were the same events where small talk stayed small — never really moving beyond “Where are you from?” and “Oh, the humidity!”   I realize now that the purpose of a name tag isn’t to help identify yourself on a handshake, but to help five minutes after the handshake.  It allows the person talking to you to casually glance down and remind themselves who you are … and the less time they spend thinking “What’s his name again?” the more time they can spend actually having a real conversation.

 

2)  Ugly Ducklings Abound

I had a chance to to talk with a number of authors and illustrators about how their careers started.  More than a few of them had published in obscurity for years before hitting it big.  Some were trapped on the midlist.  Others had their aquiring editors change jobs, leaving their books orphaned at the house.   A few were even dropped outright.  This really hit home when I heard Brian Selznick talking with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton.  He alluded to a frustrating period during which he could only get hired to draw biographies of dead presidents.  From that dark period came Hugo Cabret — a book that changed both his career and (arguably) children’s literature.  This was but one of probably a dozen stories I heard with the same trajectory.

This is a good reminder for me as I’m about to send a book I love out into the world.  This industry can be a real crap shoot.  Sometimes great books can fall through the cracks.  Sometimes terrible books are huge hits.  The key thing for a writer is to keep believing that the greatest story they will ever tell has yet to be written.

3)  Stay Humble

Related to the above lesson, I noticed how much of an impression it makes when a successful author hasn’t  lost sight of the fact that they were once merely aspiring.  This lesson was perfectly illustrated when I had the privilege of eating dinner with Abrams authors Tom Angleberger and Jeff Kinney.4  Jeff is a HUGE author.  He’s pretty much ruled the publishing industry for the last few years.  When he met both Tom and I, he asked us the same question:  ”What was it like when you got the call saying you were going to be published?”  It was clearly a go-to question for him, and one that speaks to his character.  For him to ask other authors about “the call” not only graciously indicates that he considers us his peers, but also acts as a reminder that all the Wimpy Kid success he’s enjoyed is actually just gravy.  The dream-come-true part of his life has nothing to do with bestseller lists, merchandising, or feature films … it is simply that he got to be published at all.

4) Don’t Tell Lauren Myracle Anything

One night at a party, a woman with whom I had been chatting mentioned that she thought I resembled Seth Rogen — not the most flattering comparison I’ve ever gotten.5   Even worse, my wife hates Seth Rogen, and she often uses his name as a sort of shorthand to describe all that is wrong with mankind.  I mentioned this unfortunate comparison to YA author Lauren Myracle at the Newbery Banquet.  Lauren is not one to pass up this sort of information (by “this sort of information,” I mean information that will allow her to mock you), and she promptly brought it up to the whole table — at which point I was forced to sit through a serious debate over whether or not the comparison was apt.  Then she started bringing other people into the mix.  For the rest of the night, I had strangers coming up to tell me I looked like this actor.  The highlight was when an older librarian tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was “Steph Rogaine” …

I have a henceforth enacted a “Don’t tell Lauren Myracle anything” policy;  I would advise you all to do the same.

5) Librarians Love Free Crap

This weekend marked my first ever Peter Nimble signing event!  Before the big night,  a few experienced authors warned me that signings for debut authors can be humbling — nobody knows you, so why would they want to wait in a line to talk? This is probably true, but none of these authors knew that my publisher had armed me with a secret weapon:  free crap!

The above picture is of the special eyeball tote that Abrams was giving away with copies of Peter Nimble.  Within about thirty seconds of the doors opening, I had a line around the corner  – all eager to get a bag.  Here is a picture of my first ever signature for librarian and blogger @Jenbigheart:

The second day was even better, and we ran out of ARCs after 20 minutes!  Even after the books were gone, people were running up to the booth asking about the eyeball bags.

 

Never again will I doubt the power of SWAG.  Speaking of, for those of you who missed out on scoring a free copy of the book, know that I will be doing a ton of Peter Nimble giveaways this month, so stay posted!


  1. While I cannot promise that I will never take breaks from blogging, I can promise that I will only take breaks in order to write new books for you to read — as was the case this month.
  2. I think the actual number was something under 30,000.  But still, that’s a lot of ladies in glasses.  For a video-look at the weekend, check out Travis Jonker’s post here.
  3. I get this a lot.  Apparently I look short in my headshot.
  4. Tom’s kindness to me on this trip cannot be understated — he is truly a Gentleman among men.
  5. For the record, the most flattering comparison I’ve gotten is “they guy who plays Darth Maul” … which I’ve gotten repeatedly.
Pashminas and Pipes …

The above picture is a mulberry tree I drew for my cousin Sarah’s wedding invitations.  The wedding itself was a wonderful, magical event — unlike any I had ever attended.  All those who plan on inviting me a wedding in the future, please take careful notes:

- They fed us barbecue cooked over an old chuck wagon

- They filled the grounds with tiny fire pits and dusty wingback chairs

- The Ring-bearer came down on a zip-line, wearing a Jedi robe

Even better were the gifts for guests.  Women were all given pashmina shawls to keep warm into the night.  Men were each given a handmade tobacco pouch and new pipe.  Being a master of the Pretentious Arts, I was asked to draw instructions on how to pack and light a pipe:

Congratulations, Sarah and Jake.  You kids deserve every happiness.


Harry, Neo, and Prophecy Stories


Well, I’m supposed to be furiously working on a new script right now … but I hated the idea of not following up on this particular topic.  Last week I wrote a piece that compared rolling the dice in a board game with authorial intervention in a plot.  The comments that followed were lively and engaging.  One early remark (by friend and K-Blogger Robosoyo) went off on an interesting tangent:

I’ll be honest: this is why I was disappointed by the last two, and especially the very last Harry Potter book.  Because by book 4, Harry’s luck should have run out, and his own skill/inventiveness/wit should have been the thing saving him.  Instead, Who He Was got him all the way to defeating Voldemort, rather than What He Learned.  The end of book 7 and the git still only knew about five spells, two of which were “Authorio Intrusio” (accio and apparating).1

He makes some good points (“authorio intrusio” is truly inspired), and several commenters voiced their support.  I get it; everyone hates lazy prophecies.  However, I cringe to think that just because a story contains a prophecy it must be obligated to subvert it.  Rowling is a smart writer, and she went out of her way to make it clear that Harry Potter would never be the most skilled/smart/witty of his friends … I have to think that that was intentional.  Maybe it even has something to do with the point of the whole series?

This question sparked an off-blog conversation about “prophecy stories.”  As I see it, prophecy stories contain unexceptional protagonists who have been selected as The One.  Why have they been selected as The One?  Well, that’s sort of the point:  they’ve done nothing to deserve the title; it is thrust upon them and the central question of the story is “Will they live up to it?”  In our current world, which places great emphasis on personal merit and individual choice, this concept may seem completely unrealistic — but remember that for thousands of years people lived in a world where a baby could become a king by virtue of bloodline, and another baby could be born into slavery for similarly arbitrary reasons.  In that older world, the idea of being The One might actually speak very directly to the human experience.

In fact, I would argue that “older world” is a key distinction here.  Prophecy stories almost all take place in ancient worlds (even high tech sci-fi stories Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica occurred long ago in galaxies far away).  This is different from our current age.  Nowadays we crave stories about characters who shape their own destiny.  We want to believe that individual choice and personal merit are the most important determinants of success.2  While true to an extent, it is occasionally very untrue.  Just ask the victims of a natural disaster.

The world is a big place, and there is plenty of room for both kinds of stories.   The problems start when authors try to have it both ways.  That’s usually the point when readers start to revolt.  Any time I see a story about a hero with superpowers (personal merit) who also was predicted by The Ancients (destiny), I start to get nervous.  It means that no matter how the story ends, it will betray one of its central metaphors.3

What happens when authors betray their metaphor?  Well, consider the Matrix trilogy.  Everyone loved the first movie and hated its sequils.  Why?  some people claimed they were too confusing, but so was the original.  Some claim it had too many pointless special effects, to which I ask Why did they feel pointless? Looking back over what happened in that series, I suspect that one of the central problems is that the story transitioned from one of choice to one of destiny.  The first movie is all about Neo choosing to become a hero (as exemplified by the red-pill/blue-pill scene).  The later installments, however, take pains to reveal that Neo has never really been in control of his own destiny — that everything he’s ever done has been part of a plan.  This is a literal slap in the face for the audience, as it’s telling us that we (along with Neo) were fools for ever caring about which pill he chose.  Ha ha.  Joke’s on us.

So how does this tie back to Harry Potter?  Well, I would argue that just as The Matrix began with the premise of choice, the Harry Potter books built their foundation on prophecy.  Baby Harry defeated Voldemort not by his actions, but simply by being The One.   In the end, [SPOILER ALERT] he defeats Voldemort in the very same way — and, to me, any other outcome wouldn’t have felt half so magical.


  1. This is actually an abridged version of a much more in-depth rant Rob published a few years back on his own blog, which is worth a read provided you can accept the premise that Tolkein is a great writer.
  2. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect this storytelling sea-change has something to do with the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and Shakespeare.
  3. This idea has been stolen directly from Matt Bird’s excellent blog post on the subject.