Monday, July 30, 2012

Talking with Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club

I’d like to welcome Brent Hartinger, author of Geography Club and more in the Russell Middlebook series.

Mr. Hartinger’s first book was published in 2003. Since then, he has gone on to publish many more “page turner” YA novels -- not to mention his ongoing work in play and screen writing, counseling and teaching.

I’ll steal a line directly from his website here:  Brent’s many writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Book Award, the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, a GLAAD Media Award, the National Best Book Award, and a Book Sense Pick (four times).
Pretty amazing, right? I’m honored that Mr. Hartinger was able to take time to do the following interview for us all at Carpe Keyboard. Welcome, Brent!


Carpe Keyboard:  I read about Geography Club in a recent article on Huffington Post. The article wasn’t about the story – but about how you have sold the movie rights. Congratulations! What is it like to get a call like that? To know your novel is going to go to the big screen?

Well, it's incredibly validating. I mean, someone wants to spend millions of dollars making of a movie based on a story that you just invented out of thin air? How can that not be incredibly flattering? I was at the movie shoot the night they shot a scene in a stadium with a thousand extras. Looking at all the actors, and the cranes and cameras and all those extras, I thought, "I wonder if this is how the Pharaohs felt when they were watching them build the pyramids!"

But "the call" you're talking about isn't exactly what you think. It's been such a long, grueling process getting here, such an emotional roller-coaster. The rights to the book were first optioned right after the book came out in 2003. For the next ten years, producers came and went, directors came and went, financing came and went. Contracts were written and rewritten as options expired. Every possible scenario you can imagine, it happened. My hopes had risen and been dashed dozens of times. And I've gone through the movie thing on other projects too, other books and screenplays and plays.

So when another producer -- the fourth -- finally invoked their option and purchased the rights a year or so ago, I was still thinking, "Well, the money is nice, but the movie probably won't ever happen." Like I said, I've gone through this before, had many promises and assurances made to me, and it NEVER ended up happening.

Then it finally really did. Until the day the movie wrapped, I was thinking, "Something's going to go wrong!" Just last week, I thought to myself, "I hope the director and the editor are making copies of the footage in case their computers crash!"

But at this point, I think we're finally good. And I'm over the moon about it. Just couldn't be happier with the production or the script or the cast. And to top things off, they've treated me like royalty. For ten years, I was living every horrible Hollywood cliche, but with this movie, it's been the opposite, in a wonderful way, of what you always hear.

CP:  Russell and his friends' dialog and actions rang so true. Your characters never felt forced or fake – but like we were peeking into the lives of actual teenagers. Was that voice hard to come by? When did you realize you could write in the voice of a teenager?
It's an excellent question, but it's funny how I never thought like that before I had been published and reviewed. I never thought about it all. I just knew I'd worked with teenagers a lot, I knew I like teen books, and I knew I related to teenagers in a really basic way. Even today, whenever one of my adult friends complains about their teenager, I almost always secretly side with the teenager -- even without hearing his or her side of the story!

I do remember being frustrated by all the dour, depressed, and sarcastic teen voices in YA literature. To me, that's a cliche, that's how teens act on bad TV -- how adults THINK teens sound, because that's the teen they see. But that's only how teens act around adults. When they're around their good friends, most teens have a great time. Sure, it's hell sometimes, but I had some of the best times of my life as a teenager, even as a closeted gay teenager. Why don't more adults remember how incredibly fun and freeing the teen years can be?

Anyway, it was really, really important that my book include more than just teen angst. That's the key to the teen years, IMHO: the low-lows, but also the high-highs. It's the extremes, the worst of times, but also the best of times. That's why good teen stories are so appealing, those extremes, why they make such good, universal drama.

Now, of course, I'm much more conscious of whether my book teen voice sounds "authentic." I'm much more aware of craft in general. That's good in a way, because I think my voice really is better now, better crafted. But on the other hand, it was nice to be so innocent. In a way, I think that innocence contributed to the authenticity of my first few books.

CP: In my own writing life, I’ve read lots about the character’s arc or the character’s journey. Russell takes quite a journey of his own in this book – of self-discovery, crushes, difficult decisions (and a few bad ones). Did you map out a character arc for him either before or during writing? Or do you use a more organic method?
I'm an outliner. My books usually end up being pretty different from my outlines, but I always know how the story is going to end before I write a word.

When I first started writing, I really resisted the whole idea of outlines and structure. I used to say I thought it was too confining, but I think I was really just lazy. I wanted to get to the fun and easy part, which is writing those first three chapters, before you have to deal with the dreaded second act, what the book is ABOUT.

Then I started writing plays and screenplays, and I realized that structure is essential, just ESSENTIAL, for what I consider to be compelling storyline. I know some people can do structure intuitively, but I still think most people can't. Alas, I think a lot of people, even some readers, just don't care that much about plot or structure. But it's so important to me, and it's, frankly, annoying that more critics don't seem to respect the beauty of truly well-crafted plot. Language, they appreciate, and character and voice. But plot? It's like they couldn't care less. Oh, it's nice if the ending is inevitable, yet completely unexpected -- the hallmark of a good ending -- but it's certainly not required or anything.

For me, it IS required. It's one of the essential elements of storytelling. For me, a book with a thin plot is like a book with cardboard or cliched characters. Character and plot are BOTH essential. Maybe it goes back to my thinking like a teenage boy, but I am IMMEDIATELY bored with meandering, sloppy, or non-existence plots, even if they're beautifully written.

Now I know everyone sees the world differently, and viva la difference! But this is one of those differences that I truly have a hard time understanding, because it's so far from my experience. I'll read a plot-less book or see a plot-less movie, and I think, "Why isn't the whole world as bored as I am with this thing?"

But for the record? My fascination with plot? I totally think that's part of the reason why my books have attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. Movies are ALL about plot. So it's nice to know there's one place where being a "plot" guy really, really helps. 

Basically, plot won't win you any awards, but it sure helps pay the bills. And it gets you lots of appreciative readers. 

CP:  Geography Club tackles some sensitive topics… did you see reservation from the young adult publishing community about representing a novel about gay teens and their stories?
Ha! Boy, did I ever! I wrote the first draft of the book in 1990, and I spent the next eleven years trying to sell it. I heard from so many editors how much they loved it -- three even took it to acquisitions. But they, and I, were always told: "It's too controversial. A book about gay teens won't sell. Libraries won't buy it, and bookstores won't stock it."

And the thing is, they may have been right at the time. It was a VERY different world back in the 1990s. There was a few other gay teen novels, and a couple, like Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger, were even really good. But I think if my book had sold, it would have come out, sold a few thousand copies, and disappeared into the ether.

So it's probably a good thing that it wasn't until 2001 that an editor at HarperCollins, Stephen Fraser, bought it. He had to fight tooth-and-nail, and the advance was almost nothing. But when the book came out in early 2003, the world was ready. By the end of the first week, we'd gone into a third printing.

CP:  When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Well, I am so not one of those writers who writes every day. I wish I was, and I respect that, because I think writing is ALL about dedication and discipline. But I hate writing. It destroys me, just consumes me. I love having written -- I feel an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment. But while I'm in the middle of it, I become obsessed. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think of anything else. I have this weird quirk where once I start something, I have to finish it.

It sounds nuts, doesn't it? It IS nuts. I might even be a little manic in that respect -- although, thank God, I never get depressed. But I'm glad I am the way I am, because it's served me very, very well. When I'm working, I am incredibly productive. But when I'm not working, which happens from time to time, I am soooo not working. I'm busy reading and playing video games and watching movies and going on hikes and bike rides. I don't even think about my books. Never. I don't get ideas, I don't keep a notebook. I totally have to turn it on. Everyone has their own process. By this point, I'm very familiar and very happy with mine.

CP:  How about your editing process? Can you tell us how you go about moving from a first draft into editing? And how do you know when you are ready to share a manuscript with the outside world?
It's an excellent question. I think the biggest mistake new writers make is not structure or outlining their stories. But the second biggest mistake is not revising, not knowing what to do with a first draft.

My first drafts suck. They really, really do! Even working from an outline, there's always some massive contrivance, and some huge plot revelation that isn't working at all, character arcs that aren't developed, writing that's sloppy.

So I show my partner, and he tries to help me see all the flaws I'm usually very resistant to see or even admit. It can get snippy and nasty. But I eventually see the light. Then I rewrite. Then he sees the book again, and I rewrite again. Then it goes out to a handful of readers, and I initially resist but ultimately accept their feedback too, and then I rewrite again.

Then it finally goes to my editor (if it's under contract) or my agent (if it's a spec book that we're trying to sell). But that, of course, is just the beginning of the "actual" editing process. I'll usually do at least one more draft with the editor. But I have been told by quite a few editors that my submissions are pretty "clean." I think that's because I've already rewritten the book four times before he or she even saw it!

Here's the thing: we're all terrible judges of our own work. We all think we're geniuses. We're not, but we just can't see it. We know what we're trying to say, but it's not necessarily reflected in our words. On one hand, I'm excited by the rise of indie e-publishing. But on the other hand, I'm frustrated, because I'm seeing all these people publishing the first or second drafts of their books. The books could have been good if they'd finished the writing process, but they didn't. They got impatient.

Writing is rewriting. I'm not the first one to say it, but it's true. It's literally the difference between an amateur and professional. Every professional writer I know knows that the first draft is just the start of a long, complicated, difficult, horrible process.

Oh, are we done already? Thanks! Loved the craft questions. I wish more people would ask me about that!

And feel free to have your readers check out my website or follow me on Twitter or Facebook

Mr. Hartinger has generously offered up a book – your choice of any of his published novels! – as a giveaway for Carpe Keyboard readers. So… you know the rules. Leave a comment below, contribute to the discussion of Mr. Hartinger’s work and his interview. I’ll put your name in the proverbial (and in this case, literal) hat for the drawing!
I’ll draw a winner on Monday, August 6 and announce it here on CP.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Winner of Seize the Story… and Summer Reads

Last week, I posted an opportunity to join a conversation about the art of writing dialog. The luck y winner of Seize the Story (drawn from those who commented on the post) is…
Nancy Barth!
Congratulations Nancy and thanks for reading Carpe Keyboard! Please email me at with your mailing address and I’ll send the book to you asap!
So – what are you reading this summer? Anything great?
Right now, my shelf has a bunch of library books piled up and I’m plowing my way through with the summer sunshine and some cold (cold!) iced tea to help me along. Here’s what I have lined up this month:
A Million Suns by Beth Revis

City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare

    Fear by Michael Grant

Geography Club by Brent Hartinger

Turns out – all of them are parts of different series, which is coincidental (I didn’t specifically go looking for series books to read) but not surprising in today’s YA market.
Have you read any of the above? What did you think?
I’m a fast reader, so will have these finished in a flash. Any suggestions on other YA or middle grade novels I should look for?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Dialogue Albatross

Dialogue is my albatross.
My own, personal albatross. I think I'll name him Henry.
Seriously. Words contained between double-quotes feel like they are slung around my neck right before I plunge into the watery abyss of writing.
Sometimes, when I feel like I’m successfully treading those artistic waters -- writing without pause, feeling like the crazy plot living in my head might turn into a story – the dialogue emerges from the depths. The damned spoken words, neatly packaged in those double-quotes wrap themselves around my neck and tug me under the surface until, desperate for air, I gulp mouthfuls of cold, salty writer’s block and sink below the surface.
Is there a life vest for writers? Do they sell those on the internet?
But I digress…
I was prompted to write today about dialogue because of the book I’m reading at the moment. It is a YA novel – a first novel for this author – published a few years ago. An adventure story full of possibilities. A journey, a kidnapping, murders, magic spells, mysterious symbols and dusty libraries. What’s not to like, right?
Well… I’m nearly finished with the book and I’ve decided I need to study this writer’s dialogue. Like me, I think she must find writing dialogue a mostly painful experience. Or that is how her characters speak: as if their writer was struggling for her life, trying to find something (anything!) for them to say to each other that might (maybe!) sound like spoken words.
Her characters say things that sound out of place, especially considering the emotion or tension of the scene. I’m hesitant to provide direct quotes here as examples because I believe strongly in supporting writers on this blog – not being a scratchy, prickly critic. Instead, I will say there are lots of exclamation marks when her characters speak. And they are often “overheard” saying things like, “So, what’s been going on?” to each other in the middle of a journey to the villain’s lair.
But that’s the rub with dialogue, isn’t it? Trying to make talking sound like real talking is so very hard. Dealing with those moments when, in real life, we would make idle chit-chat, can kill a scene. That albatross could peck out your eyes as quick as a wink as you try to show tone and volume with punctuation.
Desperate to find a life preserver, I googled “unrealistic dialogue” and found some helpful thoughts from other writers. Check these out:
Oh – and one more observation about dialogue from my erstwhile YA author: Don’t try to introduce coinkidinky plot devices via dialogue.
For example, if the world in which your characters live is full of horses and wagons, ink-drawn parchments, and no technology more sophisticated than a wheelbarrow, please don’t suddenly have a character exclaim, “Why are these letters on this parchment printed so perfectly? It’s almost like they were printed by…a machine!” 
To which a supporting character suddenly replies, “Oh yes! We discovered that document 30 years ago and we think it was printed … on a machine!”
Yeah. Don’t do that. It’s a teensy bit jarring to the reader. Even with the albatross of my own slung haphazardly across my shoulders, I hope I can stop myself using bad dialogue as a vehicle for coincidences that pull together an otherwise holey plot.
What about you? Any difficulties with writing dialogue? Or have you read any particularly great (or horrible?) dialogue lately? Please share!
In the spirit of constantly honing our craft – leave a comment below to enter your name for a chance to win a brand new copy of Seize the Story by Victoria Hanley.
It is a handbook for teens and writers who write for teens – with a whole chapter on ….drum roll, please… writing dialogue!  Just leave a comment below with your email address included. On Wednesday, July 25, 2012 I will randomly draw a name and email the winner.
(As usual, if you don’t respond to my email message within a week, the book will go back on my shelf for another drawing at a later date.)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Influences, schminfluences

Do the books you are reading leave their footprints on your works in progress? When you write, do you sometimes look back over the last few paragraphs or chapters and think, “Gee…that sounds sort of familiar…” and then realize you just rewrote a scene from your current favorite read? And your characters are now helping themselves to some other author’s plot?

OK…maybe I’m the only one.

But seriously, when I go from reading the last book in the Song of Ice and Fire -- Game of Thrones series, then crack open my middle grade fantasy WIP – and see bits and pieces of my own little game of thrones going on, it makes me pause.

First of all, don’t get me wrong. My 12 year old characters are not lopping off each other’s heads or marrying their own cousins, hatching baby dragons or even shape-shifting into huge, wild wolves when they dream. (Forgive me, George R. R. Martin! But I’m not really stealing your stories!!) There is, however, an element of a tug-of-war over a throne, cousins vying for the King’s attention, eccentric characters and even a dragon coming to life in my manuscript.

So after editing 40 pages last night, I stopped with fingers poised over the keyboard and said, “Oho!”

OK…I didn’t say it out loud. But I thought it – loudly – so that should count for something.
            “Oho!,” I thought. “THIS might be why there are only so many plots in the world! Writers steal from each other. And I bet everybody knew this but me!”

(Oh, come on. You totally have moments where you talk to yourself like that. I know you do. Just admit it.)

“West Side Story really IS Romeo and Juliet rewritten!” I mused.

My thoughts continued to meander, eventually focusing again on my own characters, their story and their world. But I suddenly felt like I had a better grasp on why they were doing some of the things they were doing…why I had written parts of the story a certain way and what I should think about changing, expanding, and deleting as I was editing.

What novels have inspired you? What influences can you trace in your own writing? Poets? Essayists? Novelists? Playwrights? Do you see Shakespeare’s plots or a shimmer of Emerson’s words in your pieces? Maybe Stephen King’s tension or characters that remind you of someone from a Norah Ephron screenplay?

So maybe my MG novel will be the Game of Thrones for the elementary school set.

HBO, here I come!!