Being A Bestseller, Being A Mensch

The majority of this post has come from an account by a non-fantasy reader, One Ill Writer,  who happened upon a book signing of Terry Brooks in August 2011.

I have been looking of a way to recognize Brooks, whose first novel, Sword of Shannara,  will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary. I have personally finished three of his trilogies and I am, one would say, indeed a fan.

“This past Thursday, some friends and I went and checked out Terry Brooks at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s Books. I had read one of his books back in the late 80′s. He writes elf magic fantasy novels mostly, which aren’t really my thing, but I’m always interested in hearing what an experienced novelist has to say regardless of genre.

“My favorite thing about genre fiction is that the fans are dedicated to their favorite authors. And let me just add here that Terry Brooks’ fans are fanatics. I love that. There’s something infectious about people being so in love with an author’s world that they squirm with unrestrained giddiness and exchange obscure trivia about the different books set in that universe. I didn’t know much about Terry Brooks or his novels, but within five minutes of sitting down, I was pumped for I didn’t know what.

“In all about 60 people sat in folding chairs and stood around the edges. There was a guy a row ahead of me who had a duffle bag full of all the Brooks novels in paperback. An employee from the store was handing out post-its so Terry would spell your name right when he personalized your book.

“There was a rolling rack full of dozens of copies of his latest novel and a few people grabbed a copy before they sat down. There was a microphone at a podium behind which was propped a large poster of the new book cover. To the right of that, a table with pens on it. Pretty standard book release/signing setup. I’ve been to a few of these things and sometimes the authors come out, they read, they answer a few questions (one of which is invariably, “Where do you get your ideas?”), then they sign books. The author’s demeanor at these things normally ranges from contemptuous to putting-on-a-good-face.

“But Terry Brooks has been in this business a long time. When he came out, he said hello and from that instant, he was in 100% control of his fans. He said he would read a few pages from a book, but instead of the book being released, he would read from the next, unpublished book. He then said he would make an announcement about upcoming works that he hadn’t even told his publisher.

“Lastly, he said he was going to release a book every sixth months instead of once a year. If you think the crowd was excited when they showed up, after these three statements, people were losing their minds. It wasn’t like they were cheering and screaming like a drunk at a soccer match, but they were exchanging looks and shifting in their seats. If there’s one thing about fans and collectors, they love knowing something before anyone else. And more than that, they love to be the ones who tell their friends who didn’t make it to the reading! More than one person was using their phone get video of the announcements.

“Mr. Brooks understands his readers. Maybe better than any novelist I’ve seen speak. When the Q&A came, he didn’t laugh or scoff at the obscurity of any of the questions. And he answered every question quickly with engaging humor and honesty. I couldn’t tell if he actually had his whole universe in his head, or was just making stuff up on the fly, but either way, every fan was satisfied with his answers. He never dismissed anyone or said anything like, “What do you think should happen?” It was amazing. I won’t even go into the pages he read, but I’ll sum up by saying the reading ended with a cliffhanger. I read one book 20 years ago and suddenly I can’t wait for the next one? Brilliant. The guy was a master of his element.

“What I took from this besides an admiration for the professionalism of Terry Brooks was that it’s crucial to know your audience. Crucial! He writes books that he knows his audience will love. He’s not writing to a general fantasy market, but specifically to those who already read his books. John Locke, the million-selling ebook guy, said the same thing. Guys like them know they will ultimately sell more books because their hardcore fans will be a marketing army. For FREE.

“I had noticed he pronounced “Shannara” (his universe) differently than all his fans did. He said “Shanneruh” while everyone else says, “Shuh-nara.” You know, sounds more elf-y that way. So I asked him if he ever got into arguments with fans who pronounce things differently than he does. He said, “No, man. It’s your book. Say it how you want.” People behind me in line laughed. Flawless. Now it’s MY book!

“The number of books he sold that night was astounding. People who had casually picked up a used paperback before he spoke had stacks of books by the time they got in line for the signing. The new release rack was nearly empty when I left. He had converted everyone in the room. He reminded his die hard fans why they read his books. If said before that the energy of the fans was infectious, Terry Brooks’ respect for his fans was doubly so.

“People who aren’t sci fi or crime or fantasy dorks don’t get it. Book nerds are weird people, they think. They also think it’s ok to dress head to toe in Timbers or Seahawks colors and get hammered in the nosebleed seats on game night, but not ok to take an armload of books to the suburbs and actually shake the hand of the man who enriched your life for the past 30 years? Give me the book nerds any day.”

I love this account because it comes from someone outside the genre. Brooks endears himself to people because he is both a master of his craft and a humble person. That’s a rare blend for a 21st Century celebrity. It feels almost mythical, even other-worldly.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and The First Decree, the sequel to At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Where is the Moral Line in YA Fiction?

Since I wrote Wycaan Master with my (then) 11-year-old son, I assumed that our story fitted the Young Adult genre. It is a coming-of-age novel, so I never gave it much thought. There is no clear sex or profanity, though race is a big issue in the first book.

Since I have become absorbed in the fantasy genre, I have begun to wonder where the line is drawn. As I continue to write the second and third books in the series, intimacy has developed between characters, sometimes direct and at other times implied. There has been plenty of violence and references to overindulgence in alcohol. Colleagues at my writers group have questioned whether I should be including these themes.

As I began to research this, I found a number of excellent sources regarding YA fiction in general. Heather Dunlevy-Scheerer has written an interesting article about the historical development of YA literature.

She lays out several characteristics that she took from someone called Niday (I couldn’t find a clear reference).

(1) a teenage (or young adult) protagonist

(2) first-person perspective

(3) adult characters in the background

(4) a limited number of characters

(5) a compressed time span and familiar setting

(6) current slang

(7) detailed descriptions of appearance and dress

(8) positive resolution

(9) few, if any, subplots

(10) an approximate length of 125 to 250 pages.

From a brief skimming of the Internet, it seems that the common thread in YA fiction is an adolescent, rather than an adult or child, protagonist. However, the subject matter and story lines of leading YA literature are relevant to the challenges of youth, and more edgier novels include themes such as identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, money issues, race, familial struggles, and bullying.

April Dawn Wells suggests seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.

There are a number of YA novels currently in print that are on the edgier sides, dealing with peer pressure, drugs, gangs, crime, violence, sexuality, incest, oral sex, and female/male rape.

The obvious criticism of these novels is that they encourage destructive or immoral behavior or at least bring them into the adolescent’s mind at too early an age. Countering this is the fact that teens will be better equipped to deal with real-life difficult situations and social issues because they have role models in the protagonists they have followed.

Where is the line drawn in amount and nature of such issues between appropriateness and inappropriateness in young-adult fiction? How can we keep literature as a relevant medium when the exposure of TV, computer games and Internet is almost not monitored and easily accessible? None of these mediums, in my opinion, can offer the depth of thought and emotion that a good book provides.

Now more than ever, YA literature needs to stay relevant. Maybe the adults (including parents of teens like myself) have to accept that we might be more uncomfortable with this than our children.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Traditional Epic Fantasy and The Higher Concept

There is a lot of discussion among fantasy writers about the need for the Higher Concept. Can an epic fantasy novel succeed if it is about a young underdog with a magical talent, who needs to overcome the evil (insert whoever)?

True, Tolkien did it, Brooks did it, as have many others. But they are established authors with huge followings. Who will take a chance on the unknown author?

I feel very defensive about this: what about memorable characters, internal conflicts, and plot twists? How about strong dialogue and a couple of intriguing plot twists?

The question is, whether these key components are enough to allow a manuscript to rise through the slush pile in an agent’s office?

There is no question about why Harry Potter, Percy Jackson or The Hunger Games, all stood out to their respective agents and publishers. But I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t something attractive in the familiar.

I have read eight books in Terry Brook’s Shannara series. I will start the ninth soon. I am not bored as each series offers something different, but the tropes remain similar and still I come back for more.

And while I am in defensive mode: Does Grisham, Patterson, or Steel, offer anything new within their genres with each novel? Romance, mystery, crime: don’t they have their own tropes that figure in book after book.

From Terry Brooks – First King of Shannara. copyright ©Andy Simmons 1995-2002

When people get familiar with a genre, do they not go looking for these tropes? Is it not enough to ensure a strong plot with twists, distinct characters and strong dialogue?

What do you think?

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here.

More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).