Monday, March 31, 2014

School of Deaths

Last Friday, I finished my galley review and sent it to the publisher.  The very next day, my book went live on MuseItUp's website, now available for pre-order.

Thirteen-year-old Suzie Sarnio always believed the Grim Reaper was a fairy tale image of a skeleton with a scythe. 

Now, forced to enter the College of Deaths, she finds herself training to bring souls from the Living World to the Hereafter. The task is demanding enough, but as the only female in the all-male College, she quickly becomes a target. Attacked by both classmates and strangers, Suzie is alone in a world where even her teachers want her to fail.Caught in the middle of a plot to overthrow the World of Deaths, Suzie must uncover the reason she’s been brought there: the first female Death in a million years.

Please click here to read a sample section, or to pre-order

Also visit my main site for extras and more information.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Santa Muerte

One concern every artist has at some point is on originality.  No one wants to copy another's ideas.  I remember reading an article about how Suzanne Collins received criticism when The Hunger Games was released, claiming that she had copied the idea from a previously released Japanese manga story called Battle Royale.  Apparently the two stories had almost identical plots, and much of the imagery was repeated between the two concepts.  Collins denied ever hearing about Battle Royale before her publication.

Authors, and indeed all artists, begin a creative process.  They may be influenced by other ideas, but no one (unless writing "fan fiction") wants to copy someone else's world.  When I was writing School of Deaths, I honestly believed that the idea of a female Death was completely original.  The reason I made her female, as discussed in previous posts, was to increase her isolation.  My original concept was simply a school that trained reapers.  Although I had never read or experienced either, both ideas exist independently of my novel.

I learned last week about Santa Muerte.  The idea of a female Death actually dates to the 1700s, when Catholic traditions in South America blended with meso-American cultures to produce a folk saint "Our Lady of Death" or "Saint Death".  Santa Muerte is a female Grim Reaper.  Unlike Suzie, she is not a kid, and does not train to be a Death.  In fact, she is essentially the same as the traditional image of the Grim Reaper, only female.

I first learned about Santa Muerte as part of a report on illegal drug trades in Mexico.  This is the most depressing revelation of all.  Suzie Sarnio is a female Death who represents hope to young people.  She overcomes sexism, and becomes a leader in a world where she's hated.  Santa Muerte, perhaps the earliest imagery of a female Death, has associations with every negative aspect I wished to avoid.  

At the same time, even my School of Deaths, where Deaths are trained, has echoes of other ideas.  Last summer, long after the novel was finished and the publishing contract signed, I learned about a Japanese manga series called Soul Eater.  I watched the entire series, which is markedly different than my novel, but at its base does feature kids training to be Reapers.  

I now had to ask the question, is anything original?  I developed my ideas on my own, and the story itself is unique, but the themes all exist elsewhere- some dating back centuries.  Joseph Campbell is famous for postulating that all ideas emerge from a single "monomyth" deeply rooted in human consciousness.  If every story is in some ways a retelling of the same central ideas, where does originality factor in?

The answer, I believe, is in the construction of a novel, which is the true art.  I am currently reviewing my final galley version for School of Deaths, and have been writing a second novel as well.  Now that I've discovered that similar ideas exist elsewhere, am I changing mine?  No.  The novel I've written is still an original work, the character and their situations completely unlike anything I've ever experienced or heard of elsewhere.  Perhaps, at the base of our souls, there really is a single complex of "monomyths" from which all stories emerge.  Yet, it's the way we interpret and transform those myths that truly makes us artists.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Chutes and Ladders: Part Two

In my last post, I discussed the role of chance in our everyday lives.  Today, I look at the role of chance in writing.

Today is St. Patrick's day.  I remember as a kid, looking through our yard for a four-leaf clover.  I never found it.  When I was in kindergarten, my mother pointed to a rainbow in the sky, and told my brother and I that we'd go look for the pot of the gold at it's end.  We jumped in the car, full of excitement, but never seemed to catch the end of that magical arc of colors.  How many people look for a little token of control- something to change the roll of fate's dice in their lives, and reduce the amount of chance?
However, whether you believe entirely in chance or not, there's one arena where chance needs to be both absent and always-present: fiction. Perhaps the only place where there is no chance, no fate, and no luck at all is within the world of fiction.  Getting published, or making lots of sales- that's a different matter.  I'm referring to the world of the novel itself.    
Like most authors, I started my novel with an abstract idea.  This led to a rough outline, then a first, second, and third draft...  eventually to line edits, content edits, and currently a galley review.  There isn't a word in my novel that's in there by chance.  There's not a single thought that hasn't been evaluated and studied, not just by me, but by my early readers, my editors, and my publisher.  This novel, and indeed all novels, is meticulously planned out.  However, it still needs to give the illusion of chance.  I need my readers to believe that some of the events happening to the characters are random.  If you want a storm to blow over your setting, for example, that storm needs to appear from nowhere.  Or perhaps a character dies randomly- it happens in both real life and fiction, the difference is that fiction only appears random.

One of the clearest examples occurred in a TV program I enjoy: Downton Abbey.  In the finale of Season 3, the authors of this popular drama set up an idyllic vision.  Matthew and Mary were finally united, after overcoming every obstacle imaginable.  Then, in the final minutes of the episode, Matthew suddenly died in a car crash.  Everything was perfect, and one heartbeat later, everything's misery. This takes careful planning to pull off successfully, yet if done properly it shows chance in a world where nothing happens by chance.

The method employed by Donwton works well in fiction as well.  Engage the audience's attention thoroughly in the opposite direction you intend to take them.  Then throw your curveball.  If you truly want an event to seem random, avoid foreshadowing it, or keep foreshadowing to a minimum.  You, the author, know what's around the corner, but you want the reader staring staring straight down the road.  That way, when your plot twist comes leaping out, the reader is blindsided and thinks its purely chance.  Keep in mind, however, that not every event is chance, even in your novel.  Just like in reality, if there's an internal choice, it still should follow the character's rationale.

That's my thoughts on chance.  I also have some major news for my novel.  The cover is out, and I have a release date of May 2nd.

In preparation for this release, I have written a short story set two years before the novel.  SHADOW OF THE SCYTHE- the story of a French boy brought to the World of Deaths.  Download a FREE copy of Shadow of the Scythe at my website:

On a final note, if you enjoy chance- you now have an exciting chance to win a FREE copy of my upcoming novel School of Deaths (the full novel).  This sweepstakes runs through April 1st.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Chutes and Ladders: Part One

There's a game my brother and I used to play as kids, called the Game of Life.

In this game, you spin a dial to determine how quickly you progress through certain life phases, such as college, marriage, and childrearing.  I haven't played it since I was about seven, and honestly don't remember the game too much, but it brings to mind a serious question: how much of life is purely chance.  In the end, is there some sort of cosmic force spinning a dial, or do we really determine our own fates.  This blog post on the element of chance will come in two parts (over two weeks), and this part will focus on chance in life.

I really began thinking of chance recently, after listening to an NPR study on how chance affects art.

The story can be heard here:
Ultimately, the idea discussed is that art popularity (including writing) may be governed in very large part by chance and coincidence.  For a writer, this is discouraging.  Yet, I started to wonder.  Is art the only element affected by chance, or is life itself an enormous roll of the dice?  I've never been too sure of fate or destiny, but is the opposite possible?

This past summer, I played the game Chutes and Ladders with a camp student I was working with.  It was the first time I'd played as an adult.  My initial reaction was this game is utterly stupid. I mean, really, I'm rolling a die, and don't make a single choice.  The die roll decides if I climb a ladder of success or come tumbling down a chute of despair.  I peddle along this path, experiencing life's greatest joys and sorrows without any semblance of control, and at the end someone wins.  Is that all life's about??

And yet, what if life really is entirely up to chance?  Sometimes lately, I've wondered.  My life has mostly been joys.  I've achieved all of my dreams.  I'm teaching in a job I love, my first novel will be released soon, and I'm marrying my soul mate.  Still, those chutes keep appearing.  Rachel's cousin Courtney died last weekend.  Courtney was only 17, yet died possibly from drugs.  At the same time, John (mentioned last post) remains in critical condition in the hospital, and even today one of my other students was taken out of school in an ambulance.

Is there someone up above rolling a die, and pushing me across spaces on the board?

I believe that life is a blend of chance and choice.  Yet, the truly important thing is not what happens, but how we react.  Despite calamity, focusing on future joys (the "ladders" on the way) keeps us optimistic, and helps us move past the occasional disappointments.  Next week, I will discuss adding chance to something deeply planned out: a novel....

Monday, March 3, 2014

Crises- Part Two

A couple months ago, I wrote about teens and dealing with crisis.  The original post can be found here.

I hadn't planned to return to this subject, but last Sunday (Feb 23) I received terrible news.  The worst part of being a teacher is learning that something bad has happened to a student you care about.

John is a great student.  He is full of energy and enthusiasm, and always smiled.  He was a leader on the school improv team, a rising leader in the drama department, and was one of two students who signed up to be a student aide for me next year.  While riding his bicycle (with a helmet), John was struck by a car.  He has been in three hospitals since then, and has still not regained consciousness.  The latest prognosis indicates that there is a chance he might never regain full use of his arms and legs.  

This tragedy has shaken my program, especially myself.  In my last post I mentioned how teens sometimes dealt with crises in surprising ways, often by hiding their true feelings.  This issue seems to have hit closer to home with them, and in a way the roles have been reversed.  I have to channel my emotions and stay positive, while many of the students are more visibly distraught.  The improv team put on a show last Thursday to help raise money for John's family.  It was moving to watch.  

Perhaps this crisis hurt more students because they knew John so well.  Perhaps it reminds us of the fragility of life.  How the students continue to deal with crises shows me how strong they are, and reminds me of how strong I must be as well.