Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Strange, Unlikely, and Circular Story Behind THE BEAST OF CRETACEA

The idea to write a sci-fi adventure novel based on Moby Dick, and with environmental overtones, evolved in a slow and serendipitous way, beginning with an article in the New York Times about space junk -- those nuts, bolts, parts of old satellites and rockets that orbit the earth and are numerous enough to be a danger to working satellites, space vehicles, and stations.

Accompanying the the Times article was an artist’s rendering that looked something like this. Imagine that all the white stuff is debris.

If you saw the movie, Gravity, you may remember this scene where the space station is destroyed when a loose field of debris blasts through it. In an earlier scene another debris field had destroyed the space shuttle.

 My original thought was to write about space junk collectors who sail through space on solar winds, pulling vast nets much the way sea-going trawlers on Earth gather fish. Only they’d be gathering space debris.

The concept of trawling through space for junk was my original idea, but not the idea of ships sailing on solar winds.

That I remembered from a story called The Sunjammer by Arthur C. Clarke which appeared in a 1964 issue of Boy’s Life.

 Originally, my purpose in writing the book was to point out (in an exciting and entertaining way, of course), that we humans have not only managed to pollute the earth with our garbage, but much of the near space around us as well.

We often hear people complain about invasive species, that is, plants, animals, or pathogens that are non-native to a particular ecosystem, and whose introduction to that ecosystem causes or is likely to cause harm to the native life. Zebra mussels, West Nile virus and Dutch elm disease all qualify.
But none of them hold a candle to the most enduring, and damaging, invasive species ever -- humans.

Not only have we ruined a great deal of the Earth, but the near space around us as well.

To make the story entertaining and exciting, it would need danger, and to my mind that led to space pirates. But, as is always the case in creating stories, that also led to a problem. Why would space pirates care about nuts, bolts, spent rocket stages, broken satellites, and other floating detritus?

They probably wouldn’t.

So I decided that the quest would have to be for something much more valuable (more along the lines of the wonderfully named Unobtanium from the movie Avatar), something that space pirates would crave.

 It was around this point in my thinking that I started to listen to the audio version of Nathaniel Phillbrick’s book, Why Read Moby Dick? which I’d picked up because at the time (well, actually, even today) I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around what makes that novel such a famous and renowned work of fiction.

 While I’m not sure Philbrick’s book ever quitey answered its titular question, it did inspire me to incorporate the plot of Moby Dick in my story… up to a point. Melville’s famous novel does not include run-ins with pirates, nor does it feature a clan of enlightened and highly-evolved islanders.
And finally, as to the amazing, earth-shattering, utterly surprising ending to The Beast of Cretacea?

I believe I can take credit for that single-handedly.

Incidentally, the evolution of The Beast of Cretacea recently came full circle when I was contacted by the editors of Boy’s Life and asked to contribute a short story about Cretacea to the magazine.

Thus, a novel that is partly inspired by a 1964 story in Boy's Life returns the favor in 2015.

Todd Strasser is the author of more than 100 books including such award-winning novels, such as The Wave, Give A Boy A Gun, Boot Camp, and Fallout. His newest novel, The Beast of Cretacea has already received numerous rave reviews. Publisher’s Weekly said the book is, “Equal parts Moby-Dick retelling, environmental cautionary tale, and coming-of-age story. Strasser’s fantastical SF epic blends disparate pieces into a harmonious whole... Filled with luscious depictions of life at sea that harken back to the golden age of science fiction, Strasser weaves an engrossing tapestry that evokes a sense of wonder and calls to the imagination.”

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Interview re:The Beast of Cretacea in Adventures in YA Publishing

Todd, what was your inspiration for writing THE BEAST OF CRETACEA?

Like a lot of book ideas, the final story turned out to be completely different than the original premise. At first, the idea came from a news article I’d read about the problems and dangers of space debris -- spent rocket stages, old satellites, and fragments from disintegration, erosion and collisions -- that litter the orbits around our planet. There is now so much “space junk” up there that it can literally impact the launching of new satellites and space missions. Something as insignificant as an old screw from a defunct satellite launched 40 years ago could be traveling around the Earth at nearly 20,000 miles per hour. There have already been several instances where impacts with such debris has disabled or destroyed brand new multi-million dollar space missions.

So at first I was going to write a novel about space junk collectors. I remembered reading a story in Boys Life Magazine when I was young about space travelers who sailed through the solar system in vehicles that caught solar winds with enormous sails. So I envisioned space trawlers orbiting the earth towing gargantuan nets in which they’d gather up space junk. (Actually, even though I changed directions in the Beast of Cretacea, that still seems like a pretty cool idea for a book).

But then there had to be danger so I thought the threat of space pirates might be an exciting idea (I'm a big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean). Around that time I happened to listen to a book called Why Read Moby Dick, basically because it was a question I'd wondered myself a number of times. I had a professor in college who was obsessed with the novel about the great white whale and had had us read parts of it, some of which I found interesting, and others, not.

Anyway, the next thing I knew, I was thinking about a sort of Moby Dick in Space story, which eventually led to the Beast of Cretacea.
What scene was really hard for you to write and why, and is that the one of which you are most proud? Or is there another scene you particularly love?

Writing the scene where Ishmael and his crew sneak into the pirate's camp to save Queequeg was tough. It had to be exciting, and as original as I could make it, but at the same time it involved a lot of characters doing a lot of different things simultaneously while maintaining, and being limited to, Ishmael’s point of view.

My favorite scenes are the ones set on the ocean with Ishmael and various crewmen battling ferocious sea creatures.

What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or vice versa?

You'd think that Moby Dick would be an obvious choice, but I can’t say I recommend the book, especially to young readers. Some of the books I’ve loved about the ocean were Adrift, The Perfect Storm, Far Tortuga, The Old Man and the Sea, Endurance, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, and Looking for a Ship.

How long did you work on THE BEAST OF CRETACEA?

At 432 pages, it's the longest book I've ever written, and, not surprisingly, took the longest amount of time to write. About three years.

What do you hope readers will take away from THE BEAST OF CRETACEA?

First and foremost, I hope readers will be immersed in, and transported by, the story. It's meant to be entertainment. As Publishers Weekly said, “Strasser weaves an engrossing tapestry that evokes a sense of wonder and calls to the imagination.” As I mentioned earlier, there is an important underlying message about the environment, about the Earth's climate, and what humans have done and are doing to our planet. One of the things I like to point out is how often we read or hear about this or that invasive species wreaking havoc with this or that ecosystem. But who has been by far the single most successful invasive species in the history of the Earth? Humans.

How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?

I've published more than 100 novels, and I’ve begun, written parts of, and left unfinished, many dozens more. You might assume that after all that, the road to publication for the Beast of Cretacea might not have been very difficult, but actually, it was one of the most challenging for me. The longer a book is, the more loose ends you need to tie together. But even the first hundred pages of this book were difficult. I had to revise them repeatedly. Sometimes you read something you've written and know in your gut that it's not right, but you can't always pinpoint the reason why. Perhaps, if I'd been able to get away from the book for six months and had then given it a fresh look, the problem with that beginning would have been easier to identify. But it was only with the helpful suggestions of several editors as well as my children and a few other readers, that I was finally able to get the beginning to work.

What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc.?

I'm fortunate that I’ve been able to be a full-time writer for the past 25 years, so basically, I get up in the morning, make coffee, read the paper on line, check a few sites, and get to work. Some days are more productive than others, but sometimes it’s difficult to judge precisely what makes a day “productive.” It’s not just about writing a lot of pages. Some days you might hardly write any, but then have a “breakthrough” idea that will eventually lead to a better book. The other thing is, when I said fulltime writer I truly meant FULL TIME. The writing day doesn't ever end. I could be taking a bike ride and suddenly have a thought about the book I'm working on, or I could be in the car listening to another book and it sparks an idea, or lying in bed, waiting to sleep and something about a character or plot pops into my head (Yes, I have to turn on the light and write it down or I’ll probably not remember in the morning). Every now and then I'll even wake in the middle of the night with the solution to some problem I’ve been dealing with. Even though I'm often not conscious of it, I've come to believe that there must be a part of the brain that's always cogitating about the story, whether I’m aware of it or not.

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

Write knowing that whatever you're saying will be revised and will change and evolve, possibly to a point where it will no longer bear any resemblance to what you started out with. I was once trying to fix a front step of my house, trying to get this one piece of wood to fit in a place where it didn't seem to want to go. A neighbor was passing by and we discussed the problem I was having. After listening to my tale of woe, he said, "If I were you, I'd chuck that piece and start over with a new piece... I mean, seriously, Todd, it's just wood." He was right, of course, and I chucked the piece I’d been struggling with and cut a new one and it fit just fine. It's the same thing with writing. Don't struggle too hard trying to make things fit. Don’t cling too strongly to what you’ve already written. Don't be afraid to toss words, sentences, paragraphs, even entire chapters away and then start again. After all. They're just words.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Interview in LitPick 10/16/15


Hello, LitPickers! Today, we’ve got Todd Strasser on the set of “Extra Credit”! Todd is the author of the Help! Im Trapped series. Todd Strasser writes his books largely out of his own experience or remembered feeling, and always with his readers in mind. He tries to observe young people whenever he can, and when he can't, he will eavesdrop on their conversations in places where they hang out. One of his favorite things to do is visit schools, where he talks about what it's like to be a writer.
Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along?
Both. I start with an outline and then get lots of ideas while I write. I incorporate the ideas into the story, which changes the outline, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in profound strokes, but always, to my mind, making it a better story. Generally, by the time I’ve finished the innumerable revisions, the resulting story bears little resemblance to the original outline.
Has someone you knew ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)?
Oh, yes. Especially in Fallout, but I’m afraid if I say which ones I may get sued.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
I think that’s one of the great justifications for creating an outline. If I get writer’s block I can always skip to another place in the outline and pick it up from there. Often I’ll later discover that the thing I was blocked on really wasn’t germane to the story anyway. Another trick I employ for writer’s block is to do some research. I find there’s always something to research in my stories and doing so helps get my brain out of that tunnel-vision-writer’s-block thingy.
If you could live in a book's world, which would you choose?  
Wonderland. The world PG Woodhouse created for Bertie Wooster in Jeeves would be pretty amusing to live in.  The world Neal Stephenson creates in Snow Crash. Any number of Steampunk universes. Plus, there must be a Kurt Vonnegut world or two that’s worth spending some time in.
What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?  
Carrie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jurassic Park, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Babe, Blade Runner, Schindlers List, and probably my all-time favorite, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive!), who would it be?
I’m pretty sure it would be the living one. Unless you guaranteed that the dead one wasn’t a zombie or vampire, was at least somewhat animated, and could actually chat (I’d forgive him or her for not having much of an appetite. I wouldn’t have one, either). In which case, just about any dead author would do. I mean, wouldn’t you just die to get their take on what things are like on the other side?
Your Help! I'm Trapped books, about a boy and his friends that switch bodies with hilarious results, are probably your best-known works. Where did you get the idea for the zany series?
I was not a well-behaved student. Part of the reason, I suspect, had to do with undiagnosed learning disabilities. Back then it was called “under achieving.” Anyway, I drove teachers crazy. So when my own kids got to their middle grade years – corresponding to the time when my own school antics began to flourish -- I started thinking back to me at their age. Only now I was older and could look at it from the teacher’s point of view. That’s how the idea of switching bodies came about. It’s the delicious revenge a teacher could have if he were now the misbehaving kid while the misbehaving kid had to act as the teacher.

How did you get started writing?  
By fits and starts. I can honestly say that had there been a vote in high school as to who was most likely to become a writer, I would have finished close to last.  I struggled with reading and am a terrible speller, and if I showed an affinity for anything in school, it was for the natural sciences. But somewhere I caught the writing bug and have been infected ever since.
Who influenced you? 
Reading and writing were valued in my family. We had books and the New Yorker. My grandfather wrote songs and poems for fun, and my mother dabbled briefly in fiction and journalism. Sometimes I wonder if what motivated me was a need to prove myself to them. A mild dose of OCD doesn’t hurt, either.
Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting? 
I’ve read so many amazing books that it’s impossible to select a favorite. The world today is more highly educated than ever and is producing more great writers than at any time in history.  I am sort of keen on steampunk at the moment.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
Well, you have to write. So many people say they’re going to start writing just as soon as ….  And you’ve got to read in order to develop a literary standard to which you can compare your writing and revisions.
Where is your favorite place to write?
In front of a large white screen.
What else would you like to tell us?
Even though it feels like I’ve arrived at the end-of-the-world dance ten years too late, I’m working on a dystopian science fiction adventure novel. Working title: Moby Dick in Space
Sometimes I feel thankful that I’m not starting out as a writer today. I don’t think the competition for reader’s eyes has ever been greater, nor the talent pool deeper. Though, for all I know, other writers could have been saying the same thing back when I came along. No matter when you come along, if you’re a writer, you’ve got to write.


A Well-Crafted Piece

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It's Oct. 13. Publication day for the Beast of Cretacea!

I've been waiting  almost four years for this day. One feels equal amounts of hope and anxiety. So many books are published each year. You do whatever you can to garner attention for yours ... and then you both wait and go on to the next project. For so many, publication day is really just the calm before the calm. Guess we'll see.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ever Wider Concentric Circles: How I got my first writing job by going around and around

By the time I graduated college, in 1974, I knew I had to become a writer. This wasn’t a conscious choice; writing had become the default activity of my life. It was what I did each day if I couldn’t find anything better to do. And most days I couldn’t.

But I also had to support myself financially, something even published writers had -- and still have -- difficulty doing. Writing fiction wasn’t an option; at that point I’d only published two short stories in literary journals, and was halfway through my first novel. So that left non-fiction, and – given the options available in those pre-Internet days – that meant newspaper reporting.

Being young and naive, I decided I would become just that, a newspaper reporter. True, my entire journalistic experience amounted to a handful of stories for my college newspaper plus a few puff pieces I’d written for the college public relations office, but I wasn’t about to allow such paucity of experience stand in my way.

Compounding the challenge was Watergate, and an entire country that had recently been captivated by the exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. As a result, the goal of becoming a muck-raking newspaper reporter was popular among many college graduates. The desks of newspaper editors were awash with job applications and resumes, many from candidates with degrees in journalism, or at least with numerous under-graduate journalism courses completed.  In other words, candidates who, on paper and off, were vastly more qualified than I.

Given my slim chances, I was advised by someone wise (Sadly I can no longer remember who) that my best -- and possibly only – shot at finding a job in journalism was probably to show up at newspapers in person and attempt to talk my way into the office of anyone – A managing editor? A publisher? – who might be in a position to hire me. I was specifically warned not to call and announce my visits in advance, as that would give the person on the other end of the phone line the opportunity to say no, don’t come, you don’t have experience, we can’t hire you.

(Photographer Mike Carey and I spent a day doing a story about what being a West Point cadet was like. We got to dress in Army uniforms.)

Hoping to accomplish this task of appearing unannounced at newspapers in an orderly fashion, I bought a map and drew concentric circles at ten-mile intervals emanating from New York City (I skipped the newspapers in the city itself, since they only hired reporters who had proven themselves worthy through many years’ experience). Then I started driving. First to every newspaper within ten miles of the city, then within 20 miles, and then 30.

What may seem remarkable now is that in those pre- 9/11 days, I was often able to talk my way into a newsroom to see someone in a management position, if only for a few minutes. The security measures that today prevent people from even getting in the front door did not exist then. Alas, not a single newspaper within 30 miles of the city had a job to offer, leaving me no choice but to try newspapers 40, and then 50, and then 60 miles away.

The results of these forays continued to be negative. And yet, despite having absolutely no backup plan or alternative course to follow, I approached this endeavor not with a sense of desperation, but with blind youthful determination. I suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind I assumed I could just keep drawing concentric circles farther and farther from New York forever.

And then one day, somewhere around 70 miles from NYC, I found my way into the office of Glen Doty, the managing editor of the Middletown (NY) Times Herald-Record.

(Middletown still looks like this, only with paved streets and cars instead of horses).

I’d never heard of Middletown, a small, mostly working class city at the foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains, and a stopping off place for travelers on their way to famous Borscht Belt resorts like Grossingers and The Concord. Except for the modest downtown, where some of the brick buildings stretched as high as four stories, it appeared to be comprised mostly of small two-story wooden homes, discount stores, and bars. Beyond town in all directions was farmland.

The editor’s door was open and Mr. Doty was at his desk, pouring over copy with a blue pencil. He had a light-brown mustache, gold-rimmed glasses, and was smoking a cigarette. When I knocked, he squinted up through his glasses and asked what I wanted, as if anyone who knocked had to want something. I said that I was looking for a job as a reporter.

Mr. Doty gazed at me silently for a moment or two and then asked, “Do you have any experience?”

“I wrote for my college newspaper and was editor of the literary magazine.” I handed him a thin binder containing my resume and photocopies of some stories.

Only twice before – at newspapers in Red Bank, and Dover, New Jersey – had an editor actually taken the time to peruse this slender volume, and both times they’d been kindly encouraging as they sent me on my way, saying they’d be in touch if any job openings came up.  

Expecting much the same from Mr. Doty, I waited while he thumbed through the pages with his left hand while tugging thoughtfully at a corner of his moustache with his right. Finally he looked up and said, “Can you start a two-week tryout tomorrow?”

I knew I’d heard him clearly, but still found the words incredible. Restraining myself, I said I could. Doty nodded, said, “See you tomorrow,” and turned back to the copy he’d been editing.

The next day, charged with nervous excitement, I returned to the paper and was shown to a nicked and scarred gunmetal gray desk in the newsroom, where reporters were busy typing, editors smoked and edited, and a row of clunky teletypes along a wall clacked noisily.

 (We got all our state, national, and international newscopy through teletype machines from the Associated Press (AP), Dow Jones, and United Press International (UPI).  Around the newspaper they used to say you couldn't spell stupid without UPI)

 On my assigned desk lay a pad of mostly illegible notes next to an ashtray filled with cigarette butts. A half-typed story was in the typewriter. Clearly, someone had recently been working there.

Uncertain of what to do with the notes and story, I turned to the bearded reporter at the desk next to mine. He was a big fellow, wearing a plaid shirt, and typing with two fingers.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Is this another reporter’s desk?”

“Not anymore,” he replied without looking up from his typewriter.


“It was Gil’s desk,” the reporter said.

“Was?” I repeated.

“Yeah. He got shot two days ago.”

He continued to type, as if being shot was just another nuisance faced by reporters at small rural newspapers. “What about this?” I asked, pointing at the unfinished story in the typewriter.

“Chuck it. He won’t be finishing it.”

It turned out that Gil had been shot by his wife. He managed to survive only because he held his hand up in front of the shotgun barrel just before she pulled the trigger. Charges weren’t filed because Gil told the police it was an accident (People said she’d caught him cheating on her). Unable to continue working as a reporter because he was now missing most of one hand, he eventually returned to the newspaper and worked as an editor.

As for me, I began my two-week tryout keenly aware that if Gil’s wife had not shot him, and I had not wandered in looking for a job shortly thereafter, I would never have gotten my chance. I spent two years at the paper, and in my spare time finished and sold my first novel. I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.

Branch Rickey, the famous baseball executive, once said, "Luck is the residue of design." In my case, it was just a matter of drawing ever-wider concentric circles.