Travel: Edinburgh

I went to Edinburgh with my mum earlier in January. Here’s a few photos from the trip. I love Edinburgh, and this was my first time going for longer than just a day trip or sleeping over one night. I felt like I got more of a sense of the city.

I love getting away from the computer screen (where I spent a goodly portion of my life), and exploring and seeing new places and things. All of it is spirited away in a corner of my subconscious, to come out in my writing at some undefined point in the future.

I’ve attached some photos in a slideshow below. They were taken with my mum’s camera, which isn’t very good at taking photos indoors.

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NaNoWriMo – January Ruminations

Discussing NaNoWriMo in January–strange, I know!

I “failed” NaNo—only made it to 30,000 or 35,000 words before other real-life distractions barged in on my life. But, 6 weeks after the end of NaNo and I can still recognise the effect my demi-NaNo it had on me.

I don’t often suffer from the type of writer’s block where I can’t figure out what happens next. My main obstacle is the fear of starting and the fear of putting things down on the page. I used to dither quite a lot. I had a ritual I performed—first check Facebook and Twitter, then check the AbsoluteWrite forums, check my email, check Livejournal, and THEN I’d write. Obviously, if I only had a small bit of time to write, then this meant that many days, I never got around to actually getting words down on the damn page. It was a rare that I wrote more than 1000 words a day. I wrote my first novel in regular but small spurts of 400-800 words.

Enter NaNo.

I had to break that habit, and I had to break it fast. There was no time for pantsing around and checking my various feeds. Words went on the goddamn page, even if they were rubbish.

And that helped me so much as a writer, even if I wasn’t necessarily new to writing. It helped me get over the fear. Because, hey, I had a first draft, and despite all my worry and agony, it still wasn’t perfect. And so what?

While I still procrastinate a bit before writing—damn you, Twitter—I start writing a lot sooner, and now my writing sessions usually average at 800-1200 words at a time, which is a massive improvement. I’ve also worked on my books, planning, or research almost every single day since NaNo ended. Even if it was only for half an hour, I know how to make time for my writing. The few times I didn’t write or plan it felt completely wrong. Writing isn’t something I’ll be able to stop. I’ve had the disease for a long time, but now more symptoms are manifesting 😉

And this is the point of NaNo. Forces you to stop pantsing and actually writing, and to get you addicted so you keep writing in December, and January, and all the other months of the year.

Random Research: A Short History of Pantomime

An early Harlequinade (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Pantomimes have changed throughout history to echo the cultural zeitgeist. Pantomime originated in Rome, when a single actor told a story without words (panto = all, mime = well, miming), using different masks for each character. Italians had the Commedia dell’Arte skits, and the Middle Ages had their own form of pantomimes. In the 18th century, harlequinades became popular, which are usually variants of the following plot: “Harlequin, who loves Columbine, her greedy father Pantaloon, who tries to separate the lovers in league with the mischievous Clown, and the servant, Pierrot, often involving a chase scene with a policeman” (source: good ol’ Wikipedia). There was always a signature chase sequence, complete with slapstick and comedic music. When the Pantomime first came to England, it sometimes linked together a larger show, such as an Opera.

Cinderella Pantomime Poster (Victoria & Albert Museum)

In the Victorian times, pantomimes diversified and some became more fairy-tale-like. Adaptions of Aladdin, Jack & the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and others became popular.

Stock characters appeared, such as the principal boy (usually played by a cute female), the Clown, the Dame (usually played by an older male), the Harlequin, a magical clown, who usually had the slapstick of a magical wand, and sometimes an evil, overbearing father figure, such as Pantaloon.

The "Star Trap" (Victoria & Albert Museum)
The "Star Trap" (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Special effects became wildly popular, and illusions such as Pepper’s ghost were used to great effect. Sometimes characters would emerge through a hidden trap door beneath the stage called a “Star Trap.” This was a rather dangerous apparatus, but it shocked and delighted the audience when a character seemed to appear out of thin air. Elaborate set changes and huge choreographed affairs became the norm. All characters wore increasingly amazing and elaborate costumes. Pantomimes had it all–fight scenes, romance, magical effects, and entertaining plots, and they took the nation by storm.

A "Pincipal Boy" (Victoria & Albert Museum)
A "Pincipal Boy" (Victoria & Albert Museum

As you can see, gender identity is all over the place, and so I knew when I wrote my book I wanted to play around with the pantomime in my circus story. I wrote several different plots, but the one I was most pleased with ended up amalgamating different aspects of the pantomime from different periods of history. This plot relates to the history of my world and was great fun. I have magic and monsters and love conquering all.

To learn more:

Cambridge Arts Theatre – Victorian Pantomime Notes – Roberta Hamond

It’s Behind You! – The History of Pantomime – Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins

It’s Behind You! – Pantomime Storybook – Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins

The Pantomime Alliance – A Brief History of Pantomime

Victoria & Albert Museum – Pantomime

The Victorian Web – Pantomime – Philip V. Allingham

Women’s Thoughts – The History of Pantomime

Author Interview: Brian Katcher – Almost Perfect

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. The premise appealed to me and I downloaded it to my Kindle. Less than a day later, I had finished, moved by the bittersweet story of Sage and Logan. I kept thinking about the book, wondering how these characters navigated their lives as adults. After stumbling upon Brian’s website, he seemed really nice and I decided to approach him through Goodreads and ask him to be my guinea pig for my first interview. Turns out he was nice, for he agreed.

Brief summary of Almost Perfect: Logan is a jock in small-town Missouri. His girlfriend of three years cheated on him, and he’s in a prime stage of angst. And then a new girl, Sage, comes to town. He’s immediately attracted to her and tries to get to know her. She’s flirts and pushes him away by turns, leaving the poor boy baffled. She finally tells him her secret: she’s trans. Logan reacts terribly (very badly) and pushes her away. He realizes how bigoted he’s being and reaches out to her again in apology. But it isn’t quite that easy.

Bio: Brian Katcher was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1975. He attended the University of Missouri, Columbia, before dropping out of society and bumming around Mexico for three years. He’s worked as a fry cook, a market researcher, a welding machine operator, a telemarketer (only lasted one day), and a furniture mover. He lived on an Israeli military base one summer, and once smuggled food into Cuba. When he’s not writing, he works as a school librarian. He lives in central Missouri with his wife and daughter.  He still hasn’t paid the parking ticket he got in West Virginia in 1997.

LL: Hello, Brian. Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

BK: Thanks again for interviewing me.

LL: Every writer’s path to authordom is different. How long did it take you to finish your first novel, Playing with Matches, and what was the path to publication like?

BK: Well, there I was in Puebla, Mexico (2001). My girlfriend had just informed me she was moving to Germany. My parents had just divorced. I was a broke, broken-hearted gringo. I thought ‘Either I have to start drinking hard, or I need to write a book.’ Shortly after I realized I could do both.

Playing With Matches started out as something to fill the time. But after keeping with it for a few months, I realized I was actually enjoying writing a great deal. About three years later, in Tel Aviv, I finished it. I think I was more surprised than anyone.

Not knowing what else to do, I went out and got a copy of Writers’ Market and sent my MS off to every agent and editor in the US, Canada and the UK who published YA fiction. I still have the sheaf of rejection letters. I was about to shelve the project and move on to other things when I got a notice for a contest for YA authors, sponsored by Random House. I shrank my font size so I’d fall under the maximum word limit and sent it off. I didn’t hear from them so long I assumed I’d lost and no one told me. However, one day I received an e-mail from a New York editor. I was right, I didn’t win. But she asked me to rewrite the book, based on some vague suggestions she had. I promised myself I would dedicate all my energy into the rewrite and to think of nothing else until I was done.

A few days later, my wife tells me she’s pregnant. Nine month deadline.

Well, it took a couple of rewrites, but about two years after I became a father, I became a published author.

LL: Pueblo and Tel Aviv! Even though your two books so far are set in American high schools, do you feel your travelling has influenced your work?

BK: Well, Mark Twain said something to the effect that travel is fatal to prejudices. It’s a big world at there, and I cherish the years I spent traveling. Every person you meet is a potential character, and it’s nice to get out of your comfort zone.

LL: Moving along to the book that prompted me to interview you, Almost Perfect is told from the POV of Logan, a Midwestern high school jock with a rocky home-life and a sense of humour, who meets a girl with a secret. What there something specific that sparked the idea for this novel?

BK: I did not set out to write an issues book or an LGBT book. I just wanted to tell a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times. Eventually I hit on the idea of a heterosexual, conservative guy falling for a girl who wasn’t born a girl. As I researched this topic, I realized how many people think of transwomen as perverts and weirdos. Instead of making Logan an open minded, accepting guy, I made him someone who thought transwomen were perverts and weirdos…until he falls in love with one.

LL: I liked Logan, despite his moments of acting like a jerk. He is, in some ways, an Everyman for Midwestern American boys–he’s grown up never really thinking much about sexuality and gender until he’s confronted with it and doesn’t know how to react. I often found myself wondering how Sage was reacting to events and wanting to get inside her head. Did you ever consider writing certain chapters from her POV?

BK: Funny you should mention that. In my original draft, I ended most chapters with an excerpt from Sage’s diary, giving hints to what she was going through. However, I wanted the readers to fall in love with Sage before they realized she was transgender, so I had to make a lot of  the entries vague. Eventually, my editor had me drop that idea.

LL: I’m glad I asked that question!  What has the reaction to Almost Perfect been like?

BK: Surprising. Ten years ago, there were very few books about LGBT youth, and when Almost Perfect was released, I was not expecting much of a reaction. I was absolutely shocked to learn that the ALA had honored it with the Stonewall Award for Children’s and YA Books. This is a prestigious award, and I was especially thrilled for two reasons: I’m a librarian myself, and more importantly, they decided to give this LGBT award to a heterosexual guy.

The award really helped me gain a lot of readers. When writing this book I was terrified that I would hear form transgender people who’d tell me that I had no idea what I was talking about. I’m happy to say that this has not yet happened. I’ve received dozens of e-mails from transpeople who enjoyed the book, many of whom have said Sage’s experience mirrored their own.

Of course, this is a sensitive subject. Some readers (hi, Mello!) felt that the book was too much of a bummer and that if a transgender teen read Almost Perfect they’d take away the message that they would always be in danger and no one would ever love them. I really, truly hope this is not the case. I wanted Logan and Sage to live happily ever after, but I think that would have been a weaker book. Life, unfortunately, is not always pretty. I opted for realism.

Other readers have stated that a heterosexual guy has no business writing about such issues, and LGBT novels should be written by those who have experienced these things personally. Well, by definition a novelist is someone who writes about things that they’ve never experienced, fiction is all about inventing characters. Otherwise, I could only write about phenomenally handsome librarians from Missouri. Creating Sage was a challenge, but she’s my favorite character, and I’m proud of her.

I kind of expected more of a backlash from the anti-gay crowd, but I’ve received exactly one hate letter from someone (apparently in my hometown), accusing me of ‘pedaling filth in the schools’. I didn’t respond, but I was tempted to accuse him of using a fake name…I really doubt baseball great Don Mattingly wrote that letter.

LL: You have a rare example of how to respond well to a negative review on Goodreads that sparked a civil, thoughtful discussion in the comments. There’s been a bit of a flurry lately in the YA community with authors reacting poorly to negative reviews. What are your thoughts on being an author in the age of social networking, where you can see exactly what people are saying about your books, both positive and negative?  

BK: Well, it’s not just in the YA community; many authors have been guilty of this. When you write something, and pour your heart and soul into a work, and when you fight and struggle to have something published and can finally say with pride: I worked for this. I earned this; this is good…it can kind of take the wind out of your sails when some reviewer says your book sucked. In a way, your book is like your child, and you sure wouldn’t let someone talk smack about your own kid, would you?

In the age of social media, nothing is private. You can read nasty things about your book, and by extension, yourself, that the reviewer never intended for you to see. And what should you do when you read something like that?

Zilch. Nothing. Nada. Sure, it’s tempting to want to jump in, to say ‘Hey there, let me explain.’ But you should just let it go. You’ll only make yourself look obsessive and thin-skinned. It’s hard when someone accuses you of say, exploiting transgender issues for money, but you know the truth.

Of course, there are exceptions. If someone says something in error, you might politely correct them (Sorry, but I never dated Kim Kardashian). And sometimes, if review is especially well-written, it’s fun to leave a positive comment. Most of the time, your best bet is just take a deep breath, anonymously give the comment a thumbs down, and move on with your life.

LL:  I’ve not (yet) read your other novel, Playing with Matches, and your short work in the collection Awake. You’ve also sold a third book, Mysterious Ways. Care to pimp yourself and tell us a bit more about them?

BK: You’re breaking my heart here. My publisher decided to drop Mysterious Ways, I’m still not sure why. It was to be the story of Katrina, a young, aspiring artist with emotionally abusive parents. She meets a boy, Jonah, who claims that the internet does not report the news, it creates it, as people will believe whatever they read online. He proves this by planting news stories and starting rumors that affect public policy. Too late, Katrina realizes he has a score to settle with people he believes have wronged him, and will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Hopefully, I’ll find a home for this book someday.

Playing With Matches, is about Leon, a nerdish high school boy who befriends Melody, a girl whose face was badly scarred in a childhood accident. When their friendship starts to become something more, Leon must decide if he can overlook Melody’s appearance, especially now that Amy, his long time crush, is showing an interest in him.

Awake is a compilation of stories dealing with LGBT issues. 100% of the profits go to the Trevor Project, a suicide hotline for gay teens. My contribution, ‘Pervert,’ is about a junior high kid, born a boy, but who identifies as female. It’s about how he finds the courage to tell his sister and parents.

LL: Oh, no! I should have done my research better. That’s a terrible shame. I hope you find a home for it soon as well. Are there any other projects you’re working on in the meantime?

BK: Please don’t worry about it, I endlessly promoted Mysterious Ways, and then really didn’t say anything when it was canceled. That’s life, I guess.

I’m currently rewriting Everyone Dies in the End, a Romantic Comedy. It’s about a career-minded high school journalism school who uncovers a rash of murders in the 1930s. Too late does he realize that that organization that killed the men during the depression is still around and does NOT appreciate him digging up the past.

LL: Last question! When not tapping away furiously on a keyboard and infecting  children with a love of reading, what else do you do?

BK: Well, I love spending time with my family and we travel when we can. Before I became a father I did a lot of community theater. And of course, there’s my ‘real’ job as an elementary school librarian, which I truly love.

***

A huge thank you to Brian Katcher for taking the time for this interview.

Random Research: The Giant Circus Book

For this week, I’m sharing the book that has been wickedly helpful for my book set in a circus.

The Circus Book – Linda Granfield et al (Taschen, 2010)

Product Description from Amazon:

During its heyday, the American circus was the largest show-biz industry the world had ever seen. From the mid-1800s to mid-1900s, traveling American circuses performed for audiences of up to 14,000 per show and crisscrossed the country on 20,000 miles of railroad in one season alone. The spectacle of death-defying daredevils and strapping super-heroes gripped the American imagination, outshining theater, comedy, and minstrel shows of the day, and ultimately paving the way for film and television. The circus offered young Americans the dream of adventure and reinvention. This book brings to life the grit and glamour of the circus phenomenon. Images include photographic gems by early circus photographers Frederick Whitman Glasier and Edward Kelty, many of the earliest color photographs ever taken of the circus from the 1940s and 1950s, iconic circus photographs by Mathew Brady or Cornell Capa, and little-known circus images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. For the first time, contemporary readers can experience the legend of the American circus in all its glory.

Me with the Circus Book. Note that I am 6 feet tall, so it's not like I'm super petite.

Firstly, this book is absolutely massive. It’s definitely a book that can only be read at home.  It’s also extremely heavy. This is not something you can cart around with you, unless you want some decidedly odd looks on the street. And a good workout.

The book is divided into different subsections:

Introduction: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Chapter 1: Worldwide Roots of Circus: Invention, Performance, and Play

Chapter 2: Wonders of the World Await You

Chapter 3: Venuses of the Age: The Female Performer Emancipated

Chapter 4: Strange Beasts from Foreign Lands

Chapter 5: Circus Acts: Controlled Mayhem to Dazzle and Delight

Chapter 6: Eating Fire, Throwing Knives: Freaks & Wonders of the Sideshow

Chapter 7: Tent City: Backstage at the Circus

Chapter 8: Seconds from Death: Risking Life & Limb for the Crowd

Each essay is also translated into French and German, but the hundreds of photographs are captioned in all three languages. I speak French passably well and German rather poorly, so it was also a chance to practice my language skills. Bonus!

But this book was absolutely extraordinary and showcases why print books will never leave us entirely: this is a work of art. It’s solidly made and the colour plates are fantastic. The photographs and old circus artwork truly brought the circus to life. There are plenty of full-page spreads and a good range of time periods, though there’s a bit more of the more recently 1940s-1950s than the 1870s, for instance.

The essays were also extremely helpful, especially the chapters about the freak shows and the daily life in the circus, as most of my other research focused far more on the acts and their social significance than the day-to-day details of living in a nomadic circus. I loved the candid photos of circus folk laughing and fooling around on the back lot to pass the time between shows. I also really enjoyed reading about how the circus was a way for the audience to learn and experience foreign lands, and nevermind that most of the people in the fantastic costumes were not from the land they pretended to be.

Of all the research I’ve done in the circus, this was the source that best showcased the wonder and magic the circus evokes.

I desperately, desperately want the Taschen book on magic, but it’s £98 on Amazon, whereas the Circus book was only £27. I keep hoping it will go on sale because I know it’ll be invaluable for my sequel. If it doesn’t, I’ve decided that if I sell my first book, I’m buying this as a well-deserved treat. Maybe I’ll be able to write it off my taxes, heh.