It's been a couple weeks since my last blog post and I thought this would be the perfect time to update everyone on my progress concerning Kira and the Rat Queen.
Last week I invited a number of family members and close friends to participate in my Beta Reading conference for Kira and the Rat Queen. This was my first opportunity to hear feedback and impressions from an audience older than 11 years old.
I always enjoy this stage of the writing process, even though receiving criticism (even when that criticism is constructive and well-intentioned) is rarely fun. I remember writing a blog post about a year ago about my first negative review and how much it affected me. You can read all about it here: suck-it-up.html
I'm happy to report, after a year's worth of online criticism, my skin has gotten considerably thicker. It's easier now to separate the intentions behind someone's critique from the emotional impact the words might otherwise carry. The end result was the best Beta Conference to date. I was able to listen to criticism without jumping in to defend myself, and to their great credit, my cadre of Beta Readers have refined their criticism, honing in on the issues I'm most curious to hear about.
The group had a bunch of questions and some really good suggestions that I'm going to try and incorporate into the third draft of my novel, and the end result will only be a better final draft.
I've contracted again with Liam Carnahan and his team at Invisible Ink Editing to comb through my prose for any additional missteps, and I anticipate publishing Kira and the Rat Queen right around Thanksgiving, just in time for Christmas.
In other news, now that Kira is almost finished, I've once again turned my attention to my sequel to ANOM: Awakening. I'm sorry to say I fell down on the job last spring when I thought I could balance, both narratives. ANOM moved to the back-burner for most of the summer as I pushed forward with Kira, but now the tables have turned and ANOM is once again my priority. The good news is that the first draft is halfway finished, and the time away has truly crystallized the story in my mind.
Finally, we continue to work on the audio book for ANOM: Awakening. A very talented voice actor, Owen McCuen, has recorded the novel, and now we only need to wait for the editing to be complete. With any luck, the ANOM: Awakening audio book will be available before the end of the year.
Next week I would love to answer your questions about any of my upcoming projects or the writing process in general. Submit your questions to my contact page and I'll answer as many as I can.
If you've followed along with my blog over the last year, you'll know that Walt Disney World played an important role in jump-starting my first novel.
The short version of the story goes something like this... on a flight back from Disney World, I talked to my brother Michael about an idea I had for a story. Thanks to his encouragement, I returned to writing after an extended hiatus and published my first novel, ANOM: Awakening in June of 2016.
Feel free to read the extended version of the story here: how-my-brother-inspired-my-book.html.
This summer I had the opportunity to return to Disney with my family, and I started to think about what the "Happiest Place on Earth" could teach me about writing, and the answer is ... a lot!
At first glance, Walt Disney World should be just another theme park. There are lots of shows, and a variety of foods, and rides... lots and lots of rides. But none of that is special. Disney doesn't lay claim to the tallest roller coaster on the planet like Kingda Ka in Six Flags. They don't feature famous headliners like every casino in Las Vegas. And a turkey leg at Disney World is really no different than a turkey leg at your local renaissance faire. So what's the difference?
The difference is in the details!
There are a million insignificant details at Disney that work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. From the scripted interactions between cast members and guests (having someone wave and say goodbye to everyone who exits the park) to the amazing cleanliness in the parks (Disney has a trash can every 30 feet) to the stories incorporated into the rides themselves (Space Mountain isn't just an indoor roller coaster - it's a mission to space!).
The parallels are obvious. The details of writing - point of view, diction, even punctuation - can make all the difference in a story.
After all, a sentence like this: "John slithered down the alley, his eyes cut in thin slits against the light."
Creates a very different picture from the alternative: "I walked between the buildings, squinting in the sunlight."
But there's also a word of caution for every writer in Disney World too.
There's no doubt that the details of your story are important, but obsessing too long over the perfect word or comma can lead to a kind of writing paralysis. As a writer, you can never allow yourself to sacrifice your story on the altar of craftsmanship.
In other words, just like no one goes to Disney World because the trash cans are thirty feet apart, no one will read your perfect prose with an incomprehensible plot or one-dimensional characters. They want to read your book for the experience, and that starts with your setting, characters, plot, and theme! The details can only make it better (or worse).
My advice to every writer is to get your story on paper first. Then you can perfect the details in the revision process. Otherwise, your story may never get told.
I wanted to submit a new article today, to build on the momentum of last week's post... but writing today is difficult.
You see, I don't want to write because this weekend - in Charlottesville, Virginia - a group of domestic nazis marched on a college campus resulting in several injuries, and ultimately, the loss of life. And honestly, I don't want to write about any of it, but how can I write about anything else?
I don't want to write because the purpose of this blog is to promote my writing, and the idea that I might be using the tragedy of this weekend in some twisted form of self-promotion is sickening - but there is also an obligation placed on every writer (on every artist, for the matter) to reflect the truth, and to write about anything else in this moment would be a lie.
I don't want to write because I doubt my own footing. I am a male, middle-class, heterosexual, protestant caucasian. In other words, I may have been the only group not targeted by the hate being spewed in Charlottesville this weekend, so who am I to talk about my anger, or hurt, or shame? Maybe it's not my place, and yet those feelings remain, and require a voice.
I don't want to write because it means admitting I was wrong. For years I believed that race-relations in America were steadily improving - that with each new generation, we were getting closer to forgetting our differences and coexisting simply as Americans. I thought that the racists were a dwindling minority. But I was wrong. The boldness displayed over the weekend - adults spewing their hatred without hiding behind masks or hoods - was not the death throes of a dying breed. It was a debut - an invitation to hate our fellow man in broad daylight without fear of repercussion.
And I don't want to explain what's at stake. It's 2017 in the United States of America, and I shouldn't have to explain why nazis are still evil. I shouldn't have to justify condemning the KKK and the alt-right on social media. I shouldn't have to listen to the leader of the free world talk about hate on "many sides" when men brandishing swastikas march through an American city. Yet here we are.
Maybe more than any other time in human history - with the rise of social media - we will be judged by future generations for what we say and do in these moments of national crises. That's why we must be clear and unwavering when we declare that the evil and violence witnessed in Charlottesville has no place in our country. To remain silent now, is inexcusable - and history will judge our silence.
This is my first post in a while.
The last time I wrote here was in March. That's five months ago. It feels like an explanation is in order.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary on HBO titled The Defiant Ones. It told the story of two icons in the music industry, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. I thought it was fascinating.
At one point, Jimmy Iovine is relating a story about his first real job at a recording studio in New York City. It's Easter Sunday, and the owner of the studio calls Jimmy and asks him to come to work to answer the phones... on Easter Sunday.
At the time I thought to myself, there's no way I would ever do that. I would never choose to leave my family and Easter dinner to go and answer phones on a Sunday. Jimmy Iovine made a different choice. He went to work that day, only the job wasn't answering phones. He was called in to work with John Lennon. That's how his career started.
Over and over again in The Defiant Ones they talked about these iconic artists -- Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Dr. Dre -- and how their pursuit of their vision bordered on obsession. That's when I realized, that would never be me.
Regardless of innate talent, every artist -every human being for that matter- is limited by the same factor...TIME. Rich or poor, male or female, exceptional or just average... we all get the same 24 hours everyday.
Where you invest your time, reveals your priorities.
So as much as I love writing, it will never be my priority. I have too many other things - important things like family and friends - pulling me away from the computer. I would have stayed home on Easter Sunday.
But still, there are other choices I can make... For example, starting in December 2016, I chose to focus myself on writing the sequel to Kira the Rainbow Princess. I really wanted to finish the novel in time for Christmas 2017. And that's why I decided to step away from the website. Every spare minute I had to write, I wanted to pour into my newest novel.
Now, I am excited to announce that Kira and the Rat Queen is almost done, right on track to be released in time for Christmas!
That also means I have time again for the website. I have time to share news about the latest installment of Kira. Or time to share my thoughts on writing, or superhero movies, or life in general. Honestly, it feels good to be back.
So that's where I was over the last five months. Maybe it was wrong to step away from the website - or maybe it didn't even matter - but in the end, they were my 24 hours, and I had to choose where to invest my time.
Sometimes in life we all start to doubt ourselves. I believe this is natural.
You fall into a routine: wake-up, drive to work, eat your ham and cheese sandwich, pick-up the kids, eat dinner, watch Netflix, go to sleep, repeat.
But if you wait long enough, you start to question that routine. Things like . . . what am I doing? How did I get here? Am I really doing this? Why? The same thing happens when you say a simple word over and over. Eventually it sounds strange. That's life.
But I also believe the universe, invariably, provides us with moments of clarity - some kind of event to either confirm or refute our own self-doubt. A moment that says, in a loud, unmistakable voice that what you're doing matters.
I had my moment yesterday.
A video has been going around the internet where a mother and daughter take away every children's book without a female character, a female character who speaks, and/or female characters who are princesses (I'll include the video below). As you can imagine, once they were done, there weren't many books left on the shelf.
A Facebook friend tagged me in the video, and wrote a very complimentary line, "It looks like Jason James has some writing to do."
Now, I never consciously wrote Kira the Rainbow Princess to be feminist literature, but I consciously chose to make Kira the hero of her own story. She is the one who chooses and acts and saves the day through her intelligence, kindness, and bravery. I never expected that kind of writing to be the exception rather than the rule. Needless to say, when my friend mentioned me in this post, I was flattered.
But then someone else chose to comment on the post. They wrote, "I dunno - a lack of children's books featuring females who *do* speak doesn't seem to have stifled the gabbiness of the average broad - just sayin'..."
I asked this person if they were joking. They assured me they weren't.
I then pointed out how important it is that young girls be presented with a variety of female protagonists who can reflect their dreams and aspirations, and I also pointed out the ignorance and hate lying under the surface in this man's post.
He responded by saying, "Carry-on, amazing Princess!"
I imagine he intended this as an insult. I took it as an affirmation.
It confirmed my belief that we need more books like Kira because our daughters (and our sons) are growing up in a world where people still comment on the "gabbiness of the average broad."
If Kira the Rainbow Princess can affect that even the slightest, than what choice do I have? It's time to carry-on.
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to speak with the entire 6th grade of Pitman Middle School. I'm still not sure who had more fun.
The kids certainly seemed to enjoy themselves thanks, in large part, to the efforts of the faculty and staff at Pitman Middle School. They had food prepared straight out of my novel Kira the Rainbow Princess, complete with cauliflower, bagel pizzas, and snoozeberries. The teachers held a bookmark art contest that I got to judge (it was really difficult), and two lucky winners received limited-edition Kira t-shirts. Finally, every student received a personalized and signed copy of Kira the Rainbow Princess!
But at the end of the day, I still think I came out on top. Not only did I get an awesome Pitman Panthers hooded sweatshirt, but I got to spend the afternoon surrounded by kids who wanted to talk about my book. It must be every author's dream come true! The students themselves were an engaged, polite, and respectful audience - a testament no only to their teachers, but also their families and community. Best of all, they had some incredibly insightful questions about Kira and the writing process.
One of the questions that seemed to pop up again and again was if any of my characters were based on real people. I told them that EVERY character was based on real people because all of my life's experience has colored and shaded my imagination. Kira is very much based on my daughter Fiona. Ben the Brave is a reflection of my son Aidan and my brother Michael. But I also told them the truth, which is every character was also based on myself. I am Kira. I am Ben. I think I'm very much Fred the Zombie. But that also means I'm King Bill.
And this led to a new thought. I often tell my high school English students that the purpose of a novel is turn our eyes inward. To understand who we are, question who we are, reflect on who we are, and possibly to change who we are. But what happens when I'm also the person who wrote the book in the first place?
I understand that my life's experience has shaped my art, but now I'm left to wonder how my art is shaping my life. Am I stuck in an eternal loop of life changing art changing life? And would that even be so bad?
I had an experience earlier this week that brought this seeming paradox to the surface. I was in attendance at a public meeting when my wife's character was attacked. I don't know that the man knew who he was referring to when he called Vanessa a "low life". I certainly doubt that he knew her husband was sitting in attendance (thankfully Vanessa was not). Nevertheless, those words were spoken and I was left facing an unpleasant decision... Now what?
I don't think anyone really enjoys conflict. Certainly we argue, and debate, and compete... but that's not what I'm talking about. The conflict I experienced that night cut much deeper, cutting down to the core of character. It was ugly, uncomfortable, and unavoidable.
I responded with my words. I defended my wife and her character in no uncertain terms. I took action when action alone would suffice. I'd like to think that Kira (or Snugg) would have done the same. But more than that, I'd like to think that maybe Kira and Snugg helped me do the same.
I'm not telling this story to brag - although I am incredibly proud of speaking up in support of my wife - but rather I'm sharing this story to leave one final thought. . . my character as a husband, father, and human being has been shaped by the sum of my life's experience, including every story I've ever read: The Black Cauldron, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Spider-Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, and yes, even Kira the Rainbow Princess.
To think that my words may one day give a young man or young woman the courage to act when action alone will suffice... it's a humbling thought, and I can only hope it proves to be true.
It's been too long since I've updated my blog... sorry about that.
In my defense, I've been doing a LOT of writing anyway. Most of you know that I've already started the rough draft of the ANOM: Awakening sequel, tentatively titled ANOM: Legacy. I'm about a third of the way through my draft, and I'm very excited in the direction the story is taking. I've introduced some great new characters into the ANOM universe, and I'm answering some of those questions that were left open in the first book. There's still (way) too much work to get done on the book to think about release dates yet, but I'm hoping the rough draft will be finished by the summer.
Of course ANOM is not my only series and due to popular demand, I've also started to write the sequel to Kira the Rainbow Princess. For whatever reason, kids seem to truly love this fantasy novel about talking teddy bears and not-so-scary zombies. I've heard countless stories from parents and teachers about reluctant readers investing themselves in Kira the Rainbow Princess. Of course the other story I've heard, without fail, is that by the end of the novel, my readers are dying to know: Where's the sequel?
I'm happy to announce, it's on its way. The second novel in the Rainbow Princes Chronicles should be released before the end of the year (just in time for Christmas).
And there are other projects too. In addition to being a full time English teacher at a South Jersey High School, I'm working on some other avenues to advance my writing career.
With the success of Kira the Rainbow Princess, a number of my friends (who just happen to be teachers) have invited me to speak to their classes about writing and specifically my writing process for Kira. Believe it or not, not every 3rd-6th grader loves to write! Hopefully, by meeting an author and talking about my book, these students will become more engaged with reading and the writing process. I'm already scheduled to talk to the entire 6th grade of Pitman Middle School, and I'm currently in talks to present my book to students in Swedesboro and Blackwood, too.
In other news, I've partnered with the Pitman Gallery and Art Center to offer a number of creative writing classes to our community. Classes will be geared for both young and old writers, advanced and beginners, and everyone else in-between. I'll keep everyone aware of dates, times, and course registration as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, you can check out the Art Center webpage here.
Finally, I'll be working to create a new cache of ghost stories for this year's Haunted Tales of Pitman Ghost Tour. This was a fun, free event last year that invited people to walk through our small town and hear some of the creepy stories from our haunted past. I'm happy to announce this free event will continue in 2017 with even more scary (and not-so-scary) stories... of course somebody has to write those stories down, and that person happens to be me. For more information about the Haunted Tales of Pitman, you should like our Facebook page.
So as you can see, it's a busy time to be a writer. Thanks for your patience, and hopefully I'll write again very soon.
In my experience, the most difficult moment in writing is always found on the first page. And the single, hardest word to write is always the first word.
It doesn't matter if I'm typing a simple blog post or starting a new novel... page one, word one is torture. It is a trap fraught with fear, doubt, and procrastination. It is the event horizon of the writer's black hole, and once you cross that threshold, you will be carried inextricably down to some unknown, unavoidable conclusion.
In the last year I have experienced great accomplishment. Years of writing and editing and re-writing and re-editing finally bore fruit as I self-published my first two novels. The launch parties, and praise, and holding a physical copy of my book were all lots of fun. I felt like the surfer riding on top of a wave toward shore, carried by the unseen momentum of my finished work.
But now the wave has crested and crashed, and I'm left paddling out again into the surf. I have started two new novels -- the first is my sequel to ANOM: Awakening and the second is a sequel to Kira the Rainbow Princess. In both cases I am gripped by the fear that neither one will be as good as the original. And that fear can be paralyzing.
Of course the fear that I'm talking about -- fear of failure -- is part of the bargain. In any attempt to create something new there is the specter of failure hanging over the attempt. And sometimes that fear is so great, that it's easier to simply never begin. I wonder how many novels were left unwritten because of page one, word one?
I don't know that there is any cure other than the need to tell a story. When the need to write is greater than the fear of failure, you sit down and force yourself to conquer the blank screen. You accept the imperfections of your writing because you trust that an imperfect "something" is preferable to the perfect "nothing" of a blank page. You push the doubts aside and tell yourself it can all be fixed in a second draft.
And then you roll up your sleeves, sit down at your desk, and go to work.
Last year I had the chance to celebrate my writing with my friends and family, but last year is over. Now it's time to go to work.
What a perfect ending to an amazing year!
The launch party for Kira the Rainbow Princess was incredible. We had a packed house at Alaura Kitchen and Candy almost the entire time that we were there. It was great seeing so many of our family and friends, and it was humbling to know that they were all there to support me.
I especially want to thank our Master of Ceremonies, the incomparable Matthew Weng, for keeping things moving on the microphone. I need to thank Jessi Smith, who not only took pictures of the event, but made commemorative soaps and peg figurines (still available at the Wind Change). A big thanks to Alicia Sierra and Liz Jackson for handling the raffle tickets. Thanks to my brother Michael and his wife Nan for being in charge of sales. And last, but not least, thank you to Patrick and Michelle Bradley for allowing us to invade their shop for a couple hours (and to Cindy and Stephanie for scooping all that ice cream!)
This will be my last post in 2016 so I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Joyous New Year. You all have made my 2016 a year I'll never forget. I'm excited to look ahead at 2017 and all the work I need to do . . . ANOM: Legacy and the sequel to Kira are not going to write themselves.
Let me leave with this one last exhortation -- if you've had a chance to read Kira, please consider going to Amazon to leave a review of my book. ANOM: Awakening cracked the Amazon top 100 because so many of you took the time to give it a rating and review. I know, with your help, that Kira can enjoy the same success.
Other than that, stay bundled up this winter and you'll hear from me again in 2017.
I wish you all the best, always.
There was a wonderful song we learned in nursery school . . . "Make new friends, but keep the old; One is silver and the other's gold."
In the context of the song - despite what we've clearly been taught by Olympic competition - gold and silver are equally valuable. Therefore both old friends and new friends should be considered precious.
And I was thinking of this song as it relates to Kira the Rainbow Princess. Certainly Kira is a book that emphasizes community. The story is a familiar one . . . our hero goes on a journey to save her parents, and on the way she meets a host of new friends.
But the more I thought about Kira, the more I began to reflect on my own life's journey this past year and the influence of my friends - both old and new.
One year ago, this website did not exist. No one besides my closest friends even knew that I was attempting to write anything. Now I stand on the eve of my second novel's launch party. Talk about a journey!
And I know that none of this would have been possible without the help, encouragment, and support of my family and oldest friends. Some obvious names come to mind - my mom and dad. My sister Courtney and her husband Doug and their family. My brother Michael and his wife Nan. My Uncle Tommy and Aunt Vicky. My in-laws Ray and Joyce, and my sister-in-law Whitney and her husband Joe. Vanessa's cousin Rebecca. All of them have encouraged me to pursue my dream of writing.
And no one has offered more support than my amazing wife Vanessa and my two wonderful kids Aidan and Fiona. This book would literally not have been possible without them.
And I think of old friends who have become something closer to family after years of shared experience . . . George and Shannon DeVol, Curtis Homan, Michael and Leah Morgan, Eleasa Allen, Karen and Ryan Fothergill. I am so grateful for their years of friendship and support. So much of what I've accomplished this year rests on the fact that they never once treated my dream of writing like a joke. They were with me, step for step, sometimes pushing me forward.
But for as much as my friends and family have remained a constant, life has a way of changing . . . and looking back on 2016 I can see those changes now that they've unfolded.
There was a wonderful Facebook post from my friend Dani Cooke when she wrote, "At some point in 2016 my house became my home and my town became my hometown. I am thankful every day for the place i live and the people who live in this place."
And I thought I was supposed to be the writer . . . but I read her words and it echoes my own heart.
I've made so many great friends this year (or deepened fledgling friendships from years before) . . . Matthew and Sarah Weng, Jeff and Jackie Danger, Dani and Stephen Cooke, Brad and Jessi Smith, Bobby and Liss Jones, Steven Narleski, Leanne Tursi, Patrick and Michelle Bradley, Dan and Amy Rudley, Preston Conyers and the senseis and students at Champions, Greg and Liz Jackson, Lou and Alicia Sierre and the list could continue . . .
In the final episode of The Office, the character of Andy Bernard says, "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."
Today I know I'm there.
And that's why I'm so excited for tomorrow . . . I'm excited to share my day with so many of you - old friends and new - who have made my dream of writing come true. Tomorrow is a day for all of us!
With lots of love and a thankful heart, always.