Friday, March 29, 2013

It's a Real Book!

TTIJTC! I got to sign loads of copies at the Scholastic store at 557 Broadway...

 ...and then caught my first glimpse of my book out in the wild, on the shelves at Books of Wonder at 18 W. 18th St. in NYC! 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Blog Tour!

This week is the Blog Tour for That Time I Joined the Circus

Tour schedule:

Tour Dates: March 27 – April 10
3/27: Blog Tour Kick Off – Through the Looking Glass
3/28: Literary Exploration: Book Review
3/29: The Book Cellar: Author Favorites List
3/30: Nick’s Book Blog: Guest Post – Top Five YA’s and Top Five TBR
3/31: The Hollow Cupboards: Guest Post – Authors/Stories that Inspired Me the Most
4/1: Forever 17 Books: Top Ten Guilty Pleasures
4/2: Emilie’s Book World: Favorite Circus Attractions
4/3: Novel Sounds: Author Playlist
4/4: Nawanda Files: Author Interview
4/5: Hobbitsies: Advice for Teen Writers
4/6: Through the Looking Glass: Book Review
4/7: The Book Vortex: Guest Post – Seven Random Facts about JJ Howard
4/8: Stalking the Bookshelves: A Day in the Life of JJ Howard
4/9: Word Spelunking: Author Interview
4/10:The Busy Bibliophile: Top Seven Things I Would Like to Collect
4/11: Through the Looking Glass – Wrap Up Post

I hope you'll stop by these blogs to visit me this week!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I’ll Buy That

I remember the time I was sitting on my back porch, thinking about Mark, the cute boy in my geometry class, and a time portal opened up—right beside my dad’s garden shed. A handsome boy (impossibly handsome, if you want to know the truth) stepped through the shaft of blinding blue light and he said just three words: “Come with me.”

When did I lose you? On time portal, probably. Maybe a select few were with me until the boy was impossibly handsome. And yet, he almost always is. When book boys have blue eyes, they are intensely blue. When they smile, angels weep, etc. Also, in a lot of books written for teens, these outlandishly gorgeous boys are part of a plot that’s even more outlandish.

Here, in no particular order, a sample list of plots I’ve read or read about in the past couple of years:                

Alien pod people
Genie in the hallway at school!
Time travel
Automaton-ized family members
Everyone dies at either 21 or 25
Love-removal operation (though I wish it were a love-removal machine, because that’s a great song by The Cult)
Boy turns into worm-creature
Fairies are real
...and so on. The best part about the thriving world of teen paranormal romance/fantasy/steampunk is the fact that the passionate following that many of these books and series have amassed is a testament to the fact that kids can still get lost in a story. Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief is alive and well.

But how far is too far? Can a premise be too outlandish, or can a writer “sell” any story if they are passionate enough about the world they create, if the characters who live in that world feel real, and if the rules of that world are consistent?

I think maybe writers can sell almost any idea, but I also think we have a lucky trick in our toolbox. A story about angels or demons or fairies or genies appeals to our collective unconscious (sometimes even the writer doesn’t plan it) and resonates on some level we may not even realize.

Maybe that’s why so many alterna-worlds are set in either the present or the sort-of-past. The future usually ends up being all about Science. And it’s hard to avoid at least a hint of cheese when dealing with anything robot-related. If you’ve ever watched Doctor Who, you know: as scary as the idea of being converted into one is, those Cybermen—just, ugh.  
The thing is, the real world is usually sort of boring. Stories are a safe way (well, as long as you keep the book budget under control) of living in a different, non-boring world.
A world in which a majority of boys are heart-stoppingly handsome=bonus.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Buffy: Sixteen Years Later

Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on March 10, 1997 and ran until May 20, 2003. I still remember the first episode I caught—“The Pack” from season 1. It was summer, I’d just moved to Florida, and the WB was rerunning the first two seasons on Monday and Tuesday nights. It wasn’t long before I realized I was watching what would become my favorite show, ever. Later on, I fell pretty hard for Firefly, but since it never really got to become a series, Buffy still holds the top spot for me. More than that, I’m going to claim it changed all of our lives. 

How, you ask? Here are five reasons. Feel free to add more in the comments ;)

5. @$%-Kicking Heroines

Yes, there are fighting female characters who predate her: Ripley from Alien, Xena, and Sarah Connor. But Buffy stands out because for a couple of reasons. First, she’s young—just a high school sophomore, facing down demons and saving the world. Second, she dusts vamps, then goes home to change into a cute outfit for a night out at the Bronze with her friends. She doesn’t give up her femininity to fight. Throughout the series, Buffy struggles to balance a “real” life with her calling. But it’s not incidental that she does: one of Whedon’s main themes as the series progresses is that Buffy’s friendships, her ties to the world, are what set her apart from the slayers who came before her.

4. Genre Mashing

Today, you can go to the bookstore and buy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or rent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. We don’t think too much about mixing our genres. But when Buffy premiered in 1997, its mix of horror, comedy, and teen angst was still pretty new. The teens on the show didn’t dress or talk like mini-adults. Just a few years before the epitome of teen shows was Beverly Hills, 90210. On that show, their idea of comic timing was an occasional lame pun. And the very special episodes felt forced. When Buffy was funny, it was hysterical (see: Buffy and Spike’s “engagement” in season 4’s Something Blue). And when it was “vey special” it was heartbreaking. I’m still not over the end of season 2.

3. Great writing on teen television

...and not just on gritty, "serious" dramas. Again, the teen shows of the nineties (I’d say eighties, but there weren’t many teen shows before the nineties) were incredibly contrived and staged compared to Buffy. And forget about teen shows for a second, think of the shows you watch now. Unless they have a former-Buffy writer on staff (and sometimes even if they do) the dialogue can be kind of cringe-worthy. Watch an episode of Revenge or Once Upon a Time and then try to imagine how it might sound if Joss wrote it. But he’s a little busy now since the number one movie of 2012, I guess.

2. The Whedonverse

No power in the verse can stop him: Joss has created an entire Whedonverse, for those of us who will follow him anywhere. I’ve loved almost everything he’s done (the only exception for me is Cabin in the Woods.) Now that Avengers has exploded, a lot of the formerly uninitiated are starting to discover the genius of Whedon: Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse. If you have Netflix and a takeout menu your weekends could be set for the year.

1.     Words

This one is number one for me. The other week I was in a Twitter chat with some other debut authors, and one of the questions was about our influences. A lot of writers in the chat were mentioning classic authors. But I said Joss Whedon. The way his characters spoke on Buffy still echoes through almost every show and book with teenage characters. Watch an episode of anything on the CW or ABC Family and you’ll hear at least a hint of Buffy-slang. His signature anthimeria: turning adjectives to nouns or verbs, is now a part of our regular speech. The Scooby gang was generally fighting for their lives, but they never stopped being witty while doing it. Even small throwaways, like the names of random demons, were a chance for comedy: for example, the sixth season demon M’Fasnick (like, Mmmm, coookies?) Buffy was even known for tossing off a memorable one-liner before offing a vamp. The way these characters spoke was revolutionary: inspired by real slang, improved by genius writers. I catch myself writing a Whedonism pretty often. And I’m guessing I’m far from the only one. 

This Sunday marks sixteen years since we were first welcomed to the Hellmouth Buffy may not be the most important show of your life, like it is for me. But I can almost guarantee that something you’ve laughed or cried at in the past sixteen years has been influenced by the genius of Joss.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fiction and the Future

The not-so-distant future is a very popular setting, and for good reason. It’s interesting to wonder where we’re headed. We can extrapolate, but in a way the future is tabula rasa—writers can paint any picture they want, because no one really knows. I think it’s surprising how many similarities these futures tend to have, actually. The popularity of the dystopian setting isn’t hard to explain: it was a big trend (for a while), and also a broken world means built-in conflict.

I’ve written before about the fact that in an alarming number of these possible futures, actual food is no longer a thing. People eat blue pellets or pre-measured scientific portions. Nightmare. The other option is that we go backwards: for example, Katniss providing for her family by hunting in the woods.

Fashion is also a logical casualty in worlds like the one found in the Hunger Games series. For folks in the districts, it’s back to basics: whatever you can scrounge or make at home. This series is interesting because it has both kinds of future world: the futuristic dystopia of The Capitol, and the back-to-our-beginnings Districts. Fashion does seem to be the raison d’etre of the Capitol dwellers, along with the ritual slaying of children, that is.

One other part of modern life that's noticeably absent from a lot of dystopian futures is one a lot of us can’t imagine living without: Reading. Books. Literature.

In the case of characters like Katniss, it’s unclear whether or not there are still books around in her world, but either way she doesn’t have the money or the time to curl up with a new release. I also think it’s strongly suggested that in the Capitol they’ve mostly thrown over thinking for a neo-Roman bread-and-circuses mentality. In a lot of other back-to-basics broken future worlds, books have suffered a similar fate: no one has time to read, because they’re too busy running from the government, dying at twenty-one, or having the love-area of their brains removed.

In some dystopian/SF worlds, the fact that literature is gone is part of the point. In my favorite classic dystopian, Brave New World, literature has been taken away, on purpose, as part of the plan to end conflict—and cognition. Fahrenheit 451, Feed, Uglies—my bookshelf is full of cautionary tales about a world full of people who have lost touch with the great words and ideas contained in books, and this loss has contributed to—or caused—the people to be less than they might otherwise have been.

I could write here about the oncoming storm. The common core standards that quantify how much fiction (versus the preferred, more practical non-fiction) a public school student can and should be exposed to. David Coleman, the College Board president, has been widely quoted as saying that it’s rare in a working environment in which someone will ask for “a market analysis by Friday, but before that…a compelling account of your childhood.” No, Mr. Coleman. I don’t want a compelling account of a random market analyst’s childhood. Or of yours, thanks very much. But wouldn’t the world be poorer if no one ever read about Pip’s coming of age? Or even Harry’s or Katniss’s?

So maybe we are creeping in that general direction. Literature may not be directly practical. I have news: neither is algebra. I’m still waiting for that moment when I need to use something other than retail math (70% off!) in my life. Ever. But literature is communication. Which is sort of important in actual life (at least until we have our feeds installed).

But books are more than that. They’re part of the reason we’re here. Artifacts that testify, sometimes so eloquently that you want to cry, that we’re all trying to figure out what it means to be human.

That’s why I think the 2002 film version of The Time Machine is the most hopeful SF story ever. In that film, as in the book, the distant future’s version of humanity is broken nearly beyond repair, split into two, and the great ideas of the past are all literal dust. But in the movie, the contents of the New York Public Library have been preserved on some sort of self-powering future computer. One of the final scenes shows the hologram librarian of the past reading Mark Twain to a group of Eloi children. The subtext (something people who read literature learn to pick up on—another benefit) is that literature will save us.

As messages go, it’s not a bad one.