Wednesday, January 27, 2016

THE BLUE WOODS by Nicole Maggi

Last year, I featured Nicole Maggi's Twin Willows series. I also had a chance to meet her at the American Library Association (ALA) conference last June:

She's doing an excellent job of modeling the first two Twin Willows books.
The final book in Twin Willows trilogy, THE BLUE WOODS, debuted on January 12. Have a look:

Sixteen-year-old Alessia Jacobs wants to go to college someday like her friends. She wishes for a chance at a normal relationship with Jonah. But normal is never an option for a Benandante like Alessia, who has sworn to protect the magic in the world from the Malandanti . . . especially when Jonah is on the opposite side of the deadly struggle. When the war comes to a head, lives will be lost, love will be gained, and Alessia will risk everything to save the people she loves and destroy the Malandanti once and for all.

Nicole also answered some follow-up interview questions:

In our last interview, you said how important it was for you to be spontaneous when you write. Was this true when you were writing THE BLUE WOODS, and were there times the plot deviated from your original plan? 

I think it was less true on THE BLUE WOODS than any other book I've written, and that's just a necessary ramification of writing the third book of a trilogy. I knew where the trilogy had to end, and by the time I started writing THE BLUE WOODS I knew many stops along the way of getting us there. That said, I did have one huge moment of spontaneity while writing. I had plotted the book out with this big spoilery thing happening around page 200 (about 100 pages from the end). I had written about 50 pages past that point and I looked at the book and thought, "this whole thing falls apart at page 200. What's going wrong?" And I realized that the big spoilery thing that happened at page 200 actually needed to happen at the end of the book, at the climax. So I scrapped the 50 pages I'd written, and wrote the last 100+ pages without any kind of plan, except to get to that big spoilery moment. And this was about three weeks before my deadline (which I had already extended twice so I absolutely could not ask for another extension). But writing the last third of the book without a road map was pretty exhilarating, and the book is much better for it.

I love when stories come together that way. In what ways has the world grown since WINTER FALLS and IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF?

In the second book, IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF, we got to meet new characters from each side of the Benandanti vs. Malandanti war, and we learned a lot more about the mythology. We also got to see a lot of the magic from the Seven Sites in action, mainly through the character of Bree, who I brought in as a second POV character in that book. All of that just expands outward in THE BLUE WOODS. We see more magic, more characters and, most exciting to me, more of the Seven Sites. In this book we travel to Tibet and it was so much fun to write that section (and emotional, because Something Big happens there). The Tibetan Benandanti Clan is my favorite. They all transform into Snow Leopards, which I think is one of the most magnificent animals on the planet.
Every time I had a scene with the Snow Leopards in it, I got really happy.

We also travel to Italy in this book, which was really special to me. The mythology of the original Benandanti was where the idea for the trilogy began, and it was really cool to revisit some of that and write my own twist on it. Plus in that section we get to meet Alessia's maternal grandparents, and see Alessia realize that even though Twin Willows is where she lives, she has another home halfway around the world. The heart of the world of the trilogy will always be the town of Twin Willows, but in THE BLUE WOODS we get to see all the arteries that lead to that heart.

What a lovely way to round out Alessia's world! Now that the Twin Willows trilogy is complete, what's next? Do you have any book ideas brewing?

I do! I am writing a contemporary novel for my other publisher, Sourcebooks Fire. I don't want to say too much about it, because it's still in the very early stages, but it will be dark and character-driven and similar in tone to my standalone thriller, THE FORGETTING. I'm very excited about it. But I'm sure it won't be long before I'm writing fantasy again. I can't stay away from it. Fantasy is my jam!

Mine too! Thanks, Nicole, for another excellent interview!

To grab all three of the books in the Twin Falls trilogy for yourself, click the links below:


Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound


Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound


Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

WE ARE THE ANTS and VIOLENT ENDS by Shaun David Hutchinson

When these books passed by my desk, I was so impressed with the writing in both that I knew I had to feature them. Shaun's WE ARE THE ANTS offers a wry look at a possible apocalypse when Henry Denton is given a choice to press a button and end it all. In a similar vein, VIOLENT ENDS, edited by Shaun, is a collaboration between multiple YA authors providing individual perspectives after a school shooting does end it all.

More specifically:

Henry Denton doesn’t know why the aliens chose to abduct him when he was thirteen, and he doesn’t know why they continue to steal him from his bed and take him aboard their ship. He doesn’t know why the world is going to end or why the aliens have offered him the opportunity to avert the impending disaster by pressing a big red button.

But they have. And they’ve only given him 144 days to make up his mind.

Since the suicide of his boyfriend, Jesse, Henry has been adrift. He’s become estranged from his best friend, started hooking up with his sworn enemy, and his family is oblivious to everything that’s going on around them. As far as Henry is concerned, a world without Jesse is a world he isn’t sure is worth saving. Until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past who forces Henry to question his beliefs, his place in the universe, and whether any of it really matters. But before Henry can save the world, he’s got to figure out how to save himself, and the aliens haven’t given him a button for that.

It took only twenty-two minutes for Kirby Matheson to exit his car, march onto school grounds, enter the gymnasium, and open fire, killing six and injuring five others.

But this isn't a story about the shooting itself. This isn't about recounting that one unforgettable day.

This is about Kirby and how one boy—who had friends, enjoyed reading, played saxophone in the band, and had never been in trouble before—became a monster capable of entering his school with a loaded gun and firing on his classmates.

Each chapter is told from a different victim's viewpoint, giving insight into who Kirby was and who he'd become. Some are sweet, some are dark; some are seemingly unrelated, about fights or first kisses or late-night parties.

This is a book of perspectives—with one character and one event drawing them all together—from the minds of some of YA's most recognizable names.

Shaun was also kind enough to answer some interview questions:

According to your website, you're currently sculpting characters from the comic book within your story THE FIVE STAGES OF ANDREW BRAWLEY. Do your creative outlets feed one another often, and do you have strategies for when your creative well goes dry?

They do.  I’m honestly pretty terrible at…well pretty much everything artistic other than writing.  I’ve tried to learn to play both the piano and the guitar, dabbled with painting and sculpting.  But even though I don’t have any real talent in those areas and most of my attempts will never see the light of day, those creative pursuits help open my mind to unique ways of thinking.  Describing a character through words is a different process than trying to build a three-dimensional sculpture.  It forces me to use view the world in ways I’m not used to. I’d seen a steampunk inspired keyboard a friend had bought a few months ago.  I didn’t want to spend $400 , so I decided to build one myself.  It took me a couple of months, a lot of trial and error, and likely cost more than $400 since I had to buy all the tools, but I learned a lot.  I love learning, and everything I learn has the potential to become part of a story.

I’ve found the best way to keep the creative well filled is to constantly try new things.  Music, books, TV shows, activities.  The creative brain is always making connections between random things, so the best thing a writer (or any creative person) can do is give their brain lots of things to connect.  The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley was inspired by a song, two comic books I was reading at the time, a news article, a scene from a TV show, and my time training as an EMT.  We Are the Ants, on the other hand, was inspired by my mom (and her love of Motown), my own suicide attempt at 19, a few books about space travel I’d read, my best friend, some of my own high school experiences, Andrew Smith’s book Grasshopper Jungle, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.  The truth is, you just never know where inspiration might come from, so experiencing everything you can is a great way to make sure you don’t miss anything.

An excellent way of putting it--and I was especially drawn to the voice in WE ARE THE ANTS, because it felt so authentic. You give a very thoughtful look at grief, and it's no surprise that the book has gotten starred reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. In what ways were you able to tap into Henry's experiences, and what do you hope readers will take away from the tough choices he has to make? 

Thank you!  Part of the inspiration for We Are the Ants came from my own suicide attempt when I was 19.  I spent a lot of time after that happened thinking about how it affected me, how I could get well.  But it wasn’t until much later that I started thinking about how it had affected the people around me.  My mom, my best friend, my family.  I hadn’t really taken the time to consider what they must have gone through.  Which is why I decided to look at how Jesse’s suicide affected the people in his life.  But with regards to Henry’s nihilistic view of humanity, I definitely drew from my own emotional state when I was a teenager.  High school was nowhere near as difficult for me as it is for Henry, but it felt like it was at the time.  It felt like nothing mattered, like nothing I did mattered.  So that’s the place from which I wanted Henry to begin his story.  But I hope by the end of the book readers will see that even if nothing matters, everything still matters.  We may be meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe, but we matter to someone, and that’s what’s important.

I think we all find those empty places, and they're especially prevalent in high school, when we're still finding ourselves. I'm sure your experiences will help many teens (and even adults) negotiate through them. In VIOLENT ENDS, multiple perspectives explore the different pieces people have to put together after a school shooting. What inspired this project, and how did it develop? 

There was a story a few years ago about a man on a Greyhound bus in Canada who attacked his seat mate with a knife.  When the attack began, the bus driver stopped the bus and everyone fled, watching through the windows as the attacker decapitated the victim.  It made me start thinking about why each person on that bus fled rather than trying to stop the attacker, and I had this idea of writing 40 very short stories about it.  Ultimately, I shelved the idea, but the format stuck with me.  Honestly, I don’t remember what exactly prompted me to start thinking about writing a school shooting story, but as soon as the idea popped into my head, I knew I wanted to write it from the perspective of people who knew the shooter.  I briefly considered writing all the stories myself, but I decided it would be so much better to get as many different perspectives from a diverse group of writers as possible.

My agent loved the idea, we worked on the proposal and I contacted the writers I hoped would agree to contribute, and my editor at Simon Pulse made an offer 48 hours after we submitted it.  Honestly, Violent Ends wouldn’t be a quarter of the book it is without the work the authors did.  Their stories were better than I could have possibly hoped for, and any deficiencies in the book are due to my inexperience as an editor.  We worked together online to build the world, which was an amazing experience.  We talked about characters and places and motives.  We read each other’s stories, feeding off of each other’s ideas.  It was probably the greatest experience of my writing career.

I'm glad. And what a creative way to explore the domino effect an event like that has. What are some of your current projects?

Well, I have another book with Simon Pulse coming out in 2017 tentatively titled CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE.  It’s about a guy named Ozzie whose boyfriend has vanished both physically and from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him other than Ozzie.  Oh, and the universe is shrinking.  Beyond that, I’m not quite sure.  I’ve got another odd idea for an anthology.  And I’m working on one book about an android civil war, and another about a girl who was born via immaculate conception and may or may not cause the end of the world.  But who knows.  We Are the Ants was a murder mystery, a haunted house story, and a sci-fi set on a space station before it became what it is. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to write until it’s written.

That's definitely reassuring, especially for those of us still in the drafting stage. Thanks, Shaun, for such a wonderful interview!

To snag Shaun's books for yourself, including VIOLENT ENDS, click the links below. Also check out his bio, told in a fun set of pictures


Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound


Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound


Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


The moment this book passed my desk, I knew I had to feature it. It's a wonderful middle grade fantasy romp that goes beyond the usual tropes of dream catching. Sarah Beth Durst also writes in multiple genres, which brings a lot of richness and complexity to this story:

Sophie loves the hidden shop below her parents' bookstore, where dreams are secretly bought and sold. When the dream shop is robbed and her parents go missing, Sophie must unravel the truth to save them. Together with her best friend—a wisecracking and fanatically loyal monster named Monster—she must decide whom to trust with her family’s carefully guarded secrets. Who will help them, and who will betray them?

Sarah was also kind enough to answer some interview questions:

In an interview with YA Interrobang, you mentioned that Star Wars was the "definition of Story." What defines story for you and why? And were you among the legions seeing The Force Awakens

I love Star Wars.  Always have.  We taped episode IV off the TV when I was a kid, and I remember the VHS tape flickered between color and black & white with some static fuzz every so often, yet I still watched it over and over again.  For me, Star Wars is the quintessential Story-with-a-capital-S.  It ticks all the boxes: wonder, adventure, humor, excitement, romance, and lightsabers; it has characters I love; and it has an immensely satisfying structure.  Perhaps it's because I encountered it at such a formative age, but it is my defining fairy tale.

Absolutely saw The Force Awakens, and absolutely loved every single frame.  It captures the same feel of episode IV: fun and funny and stirring and mythic.  I love that a new generation is going to grow up with Star Wars imprinted on their souls.

After I finish the next draft of my current novel, I'm going to reward myself by seeing it again...

I think I need to see it again too, to fully appreciate it. And good luck with the next draft! 
THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM received starred reviews in School Library Journal and Kirkus. Congratulations! What do you think gives the book such broad appeal among readers? 

Thanks so much!!  I loved writing this book, and I'm so excited to share it with people!

I feel very strongly that the secret to writing is to write what you love.  Don't write the book you think you're supposed to be writing -- the one your teachers wanted you to write, the one your family expects you to write, the one your friends think you should write.  Instead, write the kind of book that you want to read, the kind that gets you excited to read, the kind that carries you away into its world, the kind that makes you laugh and cry and think and feel.  Write to make yourself happy -- and in doing so, you might make other people happy too.

So true. And beautiful things happen when writing comes from the heart. You write for all age groups--children, teen, and adult. What is your favorite part of writing for each demographic, and why?

I love writing fantasy -- that's where my heart is.  Sometimes the stories I think of feature a kid, sometimes a teen, and sometimes an adult, and I love writing all of them.  So long as there's a monster or a talking polar bear or something impossible in it, I'm happy.  But I have discovered that there's a different kind of joy to be found in writing each kind of book.

When you write for kids, you're dealing with a lot of firsts.  First adventure.  First taste of independence.  First real responsibility.  First monster.  And that forces you, as a writer, to see the world through these fresh eyes.

In THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM, Sophie's family is hiding an enormous secret: they run a dream shop, hidden beneath the family's bookshop, where they buy, bottle, and sell dreams.  Because she's been hiding this secret, Sophie hasn't been able to make many friends.  Except, of course, for a loyal and cupcake-loving monster named Monster.  So this book is about her first friendships, her first adventure, and her first taste of danger.

In writing for adults, you're not dealing with firsts either for the character or the reader, and that's fun too because you can play with and subvert reader expectation.  You can draw on the huge body of literature and deep-rooted cultural references that came before.  For example, right now I am working on an epic fantasy trilogy entitled THE QUEENS OF RENTHIA.  (The first book, THE QUEEN OF BLOOD, will be out from Harper Voyager this fall, September 2016.)  It's about a world filled with nature spirits.  But they're not the sweet, frolicking nature spirits from a pastoral tale.  These spirits want to kill all humans.  I had so much fun subverting the concept of a nature spirit and literally pitting humans against nature.

For YA, you're typically writing about a moment of tremendous change.  This is the time when personalities are really formed and solidified, and it's great fun to take your characters and bend, twist, and break them so that they can come out stronger.

I feel very lucky to be writing in all of these age groups.

And I love the poignancy you bring to all of them! If you could bottle up your own dream to sell, what would it be and why? 

My books are my dreams.  (Okay, not literally -- I've only had one book that was born in a dream, and that was VESSEL.  It began with a girl dancing in the sand, knowing at the end of the dance that she was going to die and welcoming that death.  I woke up worrying about that girl.)  But I think of books as shared dreams -- shared between the writer and reader -- and by reading a book, you're drinking a bottled dream.

What a beautiful way of putting it! Thanks Sarah, for such a great interview!

Sarah Beth Durst is the author of ten fantasy novels for children, teens, and adults, including Conjured, Vessel, and Ice. Her latest middle grade novel, The Girl Who Could Not Dream, came out in November 2015 from HMH/Clarion Books, and her next novel for adults, The Queen of Blood, comes out in fall 2016 from Harper Voyager. Sarah was awarded the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children's Literature and has been a finalist for SFWA's Andre Norton Award three times. Sarah was born in Northboro, Massachusetts, a small town that later became the setting for her debut novel. At the age of ten, she decided she wanted to be a writer. (Before that, she wanted to be Wonder Woman, except with real flying ability instead of an invisible jet. She also would have accepted a career as a unicorn princess.) And she began writing fantasy stories. She attended Princeton University, where she spent four years studying English, writing about dragons, and wondering what the campus gargoyles would say if they could talk. Sarah lives in Stony Brook, New York, with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat.

To get THE GIRL WHO COULD NOT DREAM for yourself, feel free to click the links below:

Buy: ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound

And to find Sarah's other books, click here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Star Wars Rant (*contains spoilers*), how it helped my writing, and Teddy Roosevelt

This epitomizes my feelings as Star Wars: The Force Awakens began:


And my feelings as it ended:


At first, I couldn't quite articulate what left me unsatisfied and empty. Many people love the movie, and I can understand why--it has a lot of excellent scenes, elements, and characters. Especially Rey and Han. But it felt like the story was sacrificed to draw out the mysteries that are supposed to be revealed in the sequels. In fact, I've even heard some people defending this as a reason that the movie actually worked for them.

But. There's holding back. And then there's deliberate stifling. The Force Awakens was full of the latter. When Rey asked Maz Kanata to answer a perfectly legitimate question about Rey's past, Maz dismissed her with, "That will be revealed at the proper time." There was no reason whatsoever Maz couldn't reveal it then. No one was getting shot at, or even feeling a remote disturbance in the Force. It was an obvious opportunity to address some of the plot holes, and it was deliberately, obtusely avoided to the point where I wonder if the screenwriter contorted into a pretzel doing it.

This isn't storytelling. This is lollygagging. And it's best articulated in this Salon article, which finally fully explained why I felt so empty at the end of the movie. (It had a good point about the gargantuan Death Star too.)

However, just because something isn't created to my liking (or someone else's) doesn't necessarily mean it needs to be maligned, either--as the commenters of the Salon article wisely pointed out. And, sometimes, looking at something from multiple angles helps the overall creative flow. For example, I used the lack of context in The Force Awakens to put extra elements into parts of my story that felt a bit skeletal. After a group of people is murdered, instead of glossing over it, my protagonist now actively wonders why they had to die, and whose lives were affected as a result. So thank you J. J. Abrams, and Star Wars, et al. You make me a better writer.

And, to further drive the point home that all criticism is subjective, there's this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -- Theodore Roosevelt 

In other words, we are all glad for a new Star Wars movie, regardless of the outcome.

Fight on, Mr. Roosevelt.