Friday, January 30, 2015

The First Page of The Beast of Cretacea

Last night I Fed-Exed the manuscript back to Candlewick for what should be the last time. It represents roughly two and a half years of writing, including endless revisions.  Next, Candlewick will send me the first set of printed pages for review. The book's pub date is August.

This morning I was straightening up and came across something a bit surprising for me: A hand-written first draft of the first page. These days it's usually all on the computer. I have a vague recollection of writing this page while sitting on the beach at Ditch Plains during the summer of 2012.


Quite a lot has changed since then. The POV has gone from first person to third person, Ishmael is an orphan and foster child, the planet is now called Cretacea. But in other ways, the scene described is basically a condensed version of what I sent off yesterday. Here's the first scene two and a half years later:

1

“Wake up.”
It’s dark and gelatinous. Ishmael floats in a breathable syrup. Is this a dream? he wonders before soft, warm tendrils reach out and draw him back into a black, foamy haze.
“Come on, everyone. Rise and shine.”
Ishmael makes a fist; the gel is gone. He opens his eyes and sees hues: a woman’s copper face with an unusual sheen accentuated with serpentine tattoos. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, a gentle smile.
“Are we there?” he asks. He is lying on his back. The foamy haze has lifted, but he feels woozy and surprised by how tight his jaw feels. As if it’s rusty, in need of oil. He starts to push himself up.
“Easy, honey.” The woman places her fingertips on his collarbone to keep him from rising. “You’re here, but you’ve been in deep stasis. Take it slow.” She gently pushes him back into the molded foam. “I’ll tell you when.”
Ishmael allows himself to be eased down into the soft cushioning, but when the woman moves to the next pod, he peeks over the edge and watches while she tells the person inside it the same thing she told him. In this dimly lit chamber, there are five green oval pods, each containing a new arrival. Ishmael saw some of them the day they left Earth. Strangely, right now, that and his name are the only things he remembers.
Moments later, having awakened all of them, the woman steps into the middle of the chamber. She is wearing blue shorts and a blue shirt with the sleeves torn off, exposing arms covered with tattoos. “Listen up. My name is Charity, and I’m going to guide you through reentry. I know you’re eager to get out and look around, but unless you want to do serious damage to yourselves, I recommend that you do exactly as I say. Raise your right hands.”
Ishmael does as he’s told. Like his jaw, his elbow and shoulder feel tight and stiff.
“That’s your left hand, Billy.”
A high-pitched voice flutters: “S-sorry, ma’am.”
Now raise your left hands.”
Charity leads them through a process of moving their limbs and flexing their joints. Ishmael has never felt so stiff or feeble. Just lifting one leg leaves him momentarily breathless.
“Don’t worry about feeling weak or tired,” Charity tells them. “Just before destasis, you were infused with a biologic that will help you regain your strength and balance. We’re now going to start the process of getting vertical. Most of you won’t succeed on your first attempt. That’s expected. When you start to feel light-headed, let yourself fall back into the pod. That’s why it’s got all that nice soft cushioning. What you don’t want to do is fall forward and crack your skulls on the floor. Everyone got that?”
Muted affirmative replies.
“Okay, try to sit up.”
Slowly propping himself on his elbows, Ishmael feels his heart begin to pump harder. From this angle he can see into some of the other pods. He doesn’t remember putting on the stiff brown uniforms he and the other new arrivals are wearing. Across from him, a girl with a tangle of unkempt red hair manages to sit partway up before her eyes roll and she flops back with a soft thump.
Once his heartbeat feels steady, Ishmael lifts his torso more. Someone else tries to sit straight, loses consciousness, and falls back. Carefully, Ishmael inches up a few degrees more.
Charity glances his way and nods approvingly.
The others adopt the gradual approach. Still in the pods, they eye one another curiously. Next to the girl with the red hair is a tall fellow with broad shoulders, and a frail-looking kid with short, curly blond hair who Ishmael suspects is the one named Billy. They are all thin and bony and have dull, mud-colored skin.
The next step will be to get out of the pods and stand. “Make sure you hold on to the handrail,” Charity tells them. “Don’t try to walk. If you straighten up gradually, you shouldn’t feel dizzy, but if you do, bend your knees and lower yourself to the floor.”
The pods slowly tilt forward. Grasping handrails, Ishmael and the other new arrivals place their feet unsteadily on the floor. The tall fellow is the first to stand, but then he starts to sway. As his knees begin to buckle, Charity scoots behind him, sliding her arms under his shoulders and easing him down.
“Don’t anyone else faint. There’s only one of me to catch you.” She squats before the tall fellow, who is now sitting on the floor with his head between his knees. “You okay, Queequeg?”
 He places his hands flat on the floor. “Yeah, I think so. Thanks.”
“That was a little too fast,” she says, helping him up. “Try it more slowly this time.”
By now, Ishmael and the others are standing unsteadily, still gripping the handrails. The floor gradually tilts beneath them.
“Feels like a ship,” says a boy Ishmael hadn’t noticed before. He is short and chubby with neatly cut black hair and evenly trimmed fingernails. For a moment, Ishmael stares, unable to remember the last time he saw anyone with so much as an extra ounce on them.
“That’s because this is a ship, Mr. Lopez-Makarova,” Charity replies.
“You may address me as Pip,” the boy says.
“W-where are we?” asks the frail-looking blond kid, his high-pitched voice quavering.
 “You’ll hear about that later, Billy. If I told you now, you’d just forget. Memory loss is a side-effect of deep stasis, but it will pass. Right now just concentrate on keeping your balance. Oh, and one more piece of business. Hold out your left wrists.”
They do as they’re told, and she scans their wrists with a tablet, starting with Billy, whose slim wrist reflects his fine, delicate features. Ishmael focuses on the strange symbol tattooed on the inside of his own wrist. The one-inch square resembles circuitry, with clear and copper-colored filaments woven through a black matrix code. A registry, he remembers.
Illuminating the red-haired girl’s wrist with purple light, Charity gives her a curious look.
“Got a problem?” the girl growls.
“That attitude won’t help you here, Gwendolyn.”
“Nobody calls me that,” she snaps. “It’s Gwen.”
Charity moves to Queequeg who holds up an unmarked wrist. “Sorry, don’t have one.”
That catches Ishmael by surprise. Despite his addled memory, he’s certain that back in Black Range everyone had a registry — it was the law. But Charity accepts the boy’s answer and moves to Ishmael. As the purple light passes over his wrist, he catches a glimpse of gold filigree. Charity gazes at him with an expression he can’t quite decipher, then turns away.
Ishmael wonders if any of the others noticed that she didn’t even try to scan the wrist of the boy named Pip.
It’s not long before the new arrivals take their first steps. Feeling as shaky as a toddler, Ishmael finds it hard to separate his own unsteadiness from the mild sway of the ship. Charity is both gentle and demanding, directing them through each stage of movement. Finally she hands out goggles. “We’re going up on deck. Be careful with these. They’re delicate and in short supply. Once we’re up top, under no circumstances are you to take them off. To do so will mean risking severe macular damage.”
“Then maybe we shouldn’t go up on deck.” Gwen tosses her goggles back.
Charity lurches to catch them before they hit the floor. “Did you hear anything I just said? They’re delicate. You can’t toss them around. And you are going up.”
When the redheaded girl crosses her arms and juts out her chin defiantly, Charity steps close, then lowers her voice. “Don’t be stupid, Gwen. You’re here to make money, and to do that you’ll have to cooperate and take orders.” She holds out the goggles. “Unless you’d rather spend the voyage in a stinking hot cell next to the reactor.”
Gwen snorts but does as she’s told. Charity turns to the others. “Okay, everyone, it’s time to meet your new world.”
Eager to see what’s out there, Ishmael puts on the goggles. They’re different from VRgogs, which are always dark for virtual reality. These stay clear while Charity leads them out of the chamber and up several ladderways. At the end of a long passageway, she pushes open a hatch. Through it comes a blinding glare far brighter than anything Ishmael ever experienced on Earth. The hot air wafts in.
“One at a time,” Charity orders.
Queequeg goes first and seems to melt into the powerful brightness outside. He’s followed by Gwen, then Pip. Ishmael shuffles closer, his pulse revving with excitement. As he steps through the hatch, a blast of torrid air hits him; the top of his head begins to feel hot, as though he’s standing under a heat cell. Even with the goggles darkening automatically, he has to squint in the painfully bright whiteout. Meanwhile, he’s bombarded with a host of bewildering sounds, smells, and sensations.
But there is one thing he knows for certain: for the first time in his life, he is standing in sunlight.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Rock

 As part of the program I do at schools, I talk about failure and how important it is to keep trying. To get the kids interested, I use the example of Dwayne Johnson, and his various incarnations - football player, Rocky Maivia -- before he became a huge success. For years I've asked students if they knew what he was before he became a movie star. Most kids would answer that he was a wrestler. A few knew he'd tried football. Today I asked a crowd of 6th graders, "Does anyone know what The Rock started out as?"
A kid raised his hand and I called on him.
He cleared his throat and said, "A pebble?"

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Beast of Cretacea

It's been quite a while since I blogged, but I think it's mostly because I've been intensely involved in a new project, my first science fiction adventure, The Beast of Cretacea.

So I think I'll start writing about it, discussing how it evolved, the cover, etc. But I'd first like to begin by gratefully acknowledging my daughter Lia, who created the cover for this book, and my son, Geoff, who read a nearly 500-page version of the manuscript and made many insightful and useful editorial suggestions. It’s not only more enough to make the old man proud; it brings a tear to his eye as well. I love you both, and thank you both.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I Learned About Writing .... from soap operas?




For many of us, the best and most rewarding stories are character driven, those in which the plot is advanced by what is gradually revealed about the character, what he or she learns, and how he or she changes. Add some suspense and a few good plot twists, and we’re usually as happy as clams (if we could only figure out what makes clams happy).
But I have something more to add -- two simple and valuable suggestions that I learned about writing such stories while toiling in a rather unlikely field – soap operas. I realize that at first glance this probably won’t reflect well on me as an author, but during one temporarily stunted point on the way to here I spent two years writing soap operas for television. This brief detour in a career that was otherwise spent almost entirely writing books for teens and pre-teens began around 1988. At that time the sales of the sort of YA books I’d been was writing -- often referred to in the 1980s as problem novels -- had slowed precipitously. Editors felt that nearly every problem a teen could encounter had been written about, some many times over, and I found it difficult to sell any new ones.

At the same time, the hottest thing in the YA book world was a new series called Sweet Valley High. A second series for slightly younger readers, The Babysitters Club, was beginning to look like it would be even bigger. Editors were interested in ideas for series, but I didn’t actually understand how a series worked. Except for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, I’d never read one.

For much of the previous two decades I had only written one kind of book. It always began with characters who had a problem and who learned and changed and grew as a result of dealing with it. When it was time to start the next book, I began with a whole new group of characters and a completely different problem. But a series had continuing characters (until later when Fear Street and Goosebumps came along), and could easily grow to be 30 or 40 books long (Sweet Valley High and its spawn eventually reached 152 volumes; according to Wikipedia, the Baby-sitters and its spinoffs gave birth to somewhere around 200). How could the same characters keep learning, changing and growing through that many books? Especially when they never appeared to age?

I felt I needed to find the answer, but I had young children and also needed to make a living. One logical course would have been to sit down and analyze a book series, but I’d recently met someone with connections in the world of soap operas, and I was tempted because I thought it might someday lead to others sorts of well-paying television writing.

In truth, I’d never actually watched a soap opera, but I knew that they were series with continuing characters and that some of the shows had been going five days a week since before the invention of television (Guiding Light, where I would eventually work for a year, began in the 1930s as a radio serial and moved to television in 1952). In addition, soap opera writing paid well. Quite well, in fact.

Through my friend I learned that CBS had a soap opera writing program, and, through a friend of that friend, I managed to get into it. The training program may have been geared toward writers with less experience than me (the people at CBS weren’t certain they’d ever had a published novelist in the program before), but that didn’t mean there wasn’t lots for me to learn. Or at least new ways to look at the craft of telling stories.

While the characters in soap operas rarely seemed to change, or learn anything -- except when they recovered from amnesia, or redeemed their wicked ways – they were still very much character driven, and that is where I stumbled upon two ways of approaching character that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Both lessons will sound simple, but I hope that won’t diminish their importance. Even to this day, some 100 novels later, I find them extremely useful.

The first is, whenever writing a character, always keep one question foremost in mind: what is this character’s motivation? What does this character want? Characters drive stories, and motivation drives character. So that basic motivation should never be too far from the character’s thoughts. What does this character want and what is he or she doing in this scene to get it? It’s almost a litmus test for the viability of a scene. If your character isn’t doing something to get closer to what he or she wants, then you should be asking yourself if the scene is really necessary.

The second lesson was equally simple, but also valuable. If character A encounters character B after an interval of time apart, always be sure to go back to the last time they were together and see what their feelings were about each other. If they haven’t interacted on your pages in a while, you may have forgotten that the last time they were together they’d nearly killed each other, or fallen passionately in love, or perhaps merely told a lie. In which case you would be remiss in not recalling that fact in the current scene.

Going back over some earlier (unpublished) writing, I was amazed at how often I’d have two characters meet without the slightest reference to how they were feeling about each other at their last point of departure. But such continuity is essential for telling a good story. Readers read much faster than writers write, so while we may forget what two characters did 60 pages ago, your reader won’t. When it comes to character interaction it’s important to always pick up where you left off.

I spent two years writing soap operas before deciding that I was much happier writing books. After quitting I almost immediately began my most successful series, the 17- book Help! I’m trapped in… collection, which is still selling – (as e-books) 20 years later.

It never would have happened without soap operas.

I don’t recall now how long the CBS soap opera training program lasted. All I know was that quite soon thereafter, I was hired to write for Guiding Light. And that’s when I learned yet another lesson. All my life I’d thumbed my nose at soap operas as hack work written by untalented writers. And the truth is, some of the writers I met weren’t the most talented, but others were some of the smartest writers I’ve ever met anywhere. Why they chose to write soap operas I’ll never know, although money clearly had a lot to do with it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A "MUST-READ MIDDLE SCHOOL BOOK!"

│ JLG’s Booktalks to Go
 
STRASSER, Todd. Fallout. Candlewick. 2013. ISBN 9780763655341. JLG Level: C : Advanced Readers (Grades 6–9). It’s 1962. Every day at school you hear rumors of attack by the Russians. Bombs are coming! Your teachers train you to duck under your desk. You learn to cover your face with your arms to protect you from nuclear fallout. Your father prepares for the worst by building a bomb shelter. Food and water, along with emergency supplies, will keep your family protected until it’s safe to come out. People laugh at your doomsday attitude. Then the sirens go off. Your family of four heads for the shelter. The problem is that your family has the only shelter. Can you really shut everyone out, knowing that outside will surely lead to death? If you let them in, food for four will have to be shared among more. How long can your family last then? Don’t miss Fallout, a what-if tale that asks the really hard questions. Author Todd Strasser uses his personal experience to create an end-of-the-world historical revision tale about the Cuban Missile Crisis. On his website, he shares his personal pictures of his family fallout shelter. An official Fallout website has great resources including a tab on memories of 1962 (with a link to the Duck and Cover movie). The Candlewick book page features curated links to multiple resources. Be sure to listen to the audiobook sample and check out the ready to use discussion guide. You might also view Jenny Sawyer’s Book of the Week. While it’s not a book trailer, it will surely get your student’s interested in reading the novel.
 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Well-crafted Piece

     At a gathering recently someone asked me what I did for a living. I said I wrote books for young people. What followed was a conversation every writer of picture, middle-grade, and YA books has probably had many times. He asked if I had ever thought about writing for adults? I said I had and I have. He asked if I’d ever thought about writing for TV. Again, I had not only thought of it, but had done it. Then he asked if I’d ever thought about the big time? For a moment I thought he meant trying to write a best seller, but it turned out he meant writing for film.
      There too, I had both thought about it and done it, although I’ve never had anything more than the script for a made-for-television movie produced. In fact, in more than forty years of writing there probably isn’t much I haven’t done. Newspapers, magazines, advertising, public relations, poetry, song lyrics, short stories, novels, book series, TV and movie scripts, even fortunes for risqué fortune cookies (those were actually my first best sellers).
      In the process I have worked alone, in collaborations, and with teams of writers. And, as I’m sure many others have, I’ve pictured myself in “the big time,” writing bestsellers and blockbuster movies, giving lengthy interviews on radio and TV, appearing on the covers of magazines, and sitting at tables in book stores while long lines of fans waited for my autograph.
      Now that I’ve reached my 60s most of those fantasies have passed. These days, the idea of writing a movie script, of going Hollywood, and all that implies, doesn’t hold much appeal (except for the medical benefits offered by the Writer’s Guild of America). A bestseller would still be wonderful, of course, but in the meantime I find I’m content to work quietly and by myself in my “workshop,” feeling the way I imagine a craftsman must feel. Mostly, what I dream about now is producing a really good piece of work.
      Something akin to a handcrafted desk or dresser…
      Please allow me to explain the non-sequitur. For most of my life I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to furniture. It was there to put things on, or in, and I used it like everyone else. Even antiques and museum pieces held little fascination for me. After all, it was just … furniture.
      Then one day my wife and I took our children to colonial Williamsburg, Va. In one of the old shops I watched a cabinetmaker work on a replica of an antique desk, complete with inlay and beveling and all the other carefully added flourishes that perhaps only a handful of craftsmen have time for anymore.
      After a while the kids got impatient and my wife took them to see the wigmaker and the blacksmith, but I stayed and observed the care and precision with which this craftsman went about his work, the ultimate reward not being the opportunity to give an extended radio interview, nor appear on a magazine cover, but the simple pride and satisfaction that comes with having produced a really solid, sturdy, well-crafted piece.
      Even then I didn’t give up my fantasies right away. I had to sign books for long lines of fans, only to see some of those autographed books appear for sale on eBay the very next day. I had to give some long radio interviews and appear on television a few times to realize that so many people do these things now that it hardly makes a difference. I had to walk down the red carpet at the premier of a movie made from one of my books to find out that unless you are J.K. Rowling the paparazzi has no interest in the novel’s author.
      I’m glad I had those experiences, because – and I know this will sound clichéd – they helped me to focus on what I now believe are the important things in life: family, friends, and working patiently to produce something solid, sturdy, and lasting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The New York Times Review of FALLOUT


On the first page of his exciting, harrowing new novel, Todd Strasser pulls his readers into a nightmare that almost came true. Scott Porter is a fifth grader living in a New York City suburb in 1962. One night his father shakes him awake, saying, “We’re being attacked.”  
Strasser has reimagined the Cuban missile crisis and set “Fallout” in a realistic John F. Kennedy America. Mickey ­Mantle plays hero for the Yankees. Nikita Khrushchev plays villain for the Reds. Dads go to work and read Playboy. Moms keep house and smoke. The one unhistorical detail is that in this story the Soviets don’t back down. They strike. 
The narrative that follows alternates between present-tense scenes of acute distress as the Porter family and six largely unwanted guests struggle to stay sane and alive in an ill-stocked bomb shelter meant for four, and past-tense scenes of the simple, everyday dramas of Scott and his pals in the lead-up to the bombing. Nothing so theatrically terrible happens inside the shelter, though there are some grisly arguments about reducing the number of hungry mouths. Yet as I read and suffered along with the characters, I kept thinking how comparatively pleasant it would have been for them to have faced one of those zombie apocalypses screenwriters are so fond of these days. The bomb shelter is a form of living death. No electricity, no privacy, enough food for only a few days and persistent questions about whether the occupants will starve or suffocate or kill one another before radiation levels fall enough for them to escape the shelter. And what will they find when they open that trapdoor? 
“There’s down here and up there,” Scott says. “The ones who feel like they’re buried are alive, while the ones who aren’t buried probably aren’t alive.” Personally, I’ll take zombies. At least with zombies you know where you stand (they want to eat you) and you can look up and see the sky in between attacks. 
By now you’re probably wondering whether “Fallout” is really appropriate for children. So let’s be clear. For all its horror, this is a superb entertainment suitable for any tough-minded kid over the age of 10. It thrums along with finely wrought atmosphere and gripping suspense. If the characters aren’t exactly overburdened with complexity, they’re better drawn than many of the people one bumps into in the average thriller. 
Strasser, a prolific writer for children and teenagers, writes with purpose and economy and structures his book intelligently: The scenes of prewar life give context and emotional weight to what happens in the shelter. Without the prewar material, the tension and misery of the drama in the shelter might be unbearable.  
My guess is that Strasser’s middle-grade readers know little about the Cuban missile crisis, and this exercise in “what if” should help them — in a way no textbook could — to understand a historical moment better known for what didn’t happen than for what did. By contrast, the author knows his material very well. He was 12 in 1962, and his dad built a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard. Given his experiences, it’s no wonder Strasser takes a strongly antiwar position, especially in an author’s note at book’s end. Thankfully, he had enough sense to leave most of the preachy tone out of his suspenseful