Sunday, November 17, 2013

Follow the brain or follow the heart? A guest post by Brent Hartinger

When I saw this item in Brent Hartinger's newsletter, I asked him for permission to repost it on my blog, which he graciously granted. It's not just about a movie; in fact, it's more about the whole artistic process, and the paths we take in trying to bring our work to others. I think it captures perfectly the choices authors face, the factors we have to weigh in making those choices, and how important it is to have supportive people in our corner. Many writers will laugh knowingly at the line about how "there's no market ..." and how wrong that prediction can be.
(And by the way, if you haven't read the Russel Middlebrook books, which start with Geography Club, I suggest starting!)

They Turned My Book Into a Movie. What Does It All Mean? (by Brent Hartinger)

They’ve turned my 2003 novel Geography Club into a movie. It’ll be released in selected theaters and on VOD on November 15th, and people have already started asking me how it all happened and what I’ve learned from the whole experience.

What did I learn?

The story starts when I graduated from college and decided to try to make a career writing novels and screenplays. It was the early 90s, and one of my first books was a young adult novel about a gay teen named Russel Middlebrook and his misfit friends. It was an extremely personal topic for me, because I had been a gay teenager, and I had also co-founded one of the United States’ very first gay teen support groups, in 1990.

Cameron Deane Stewart (right) plays Russel Middlebrook.

For ten years, I (and later my agent, Jennifer DeChiara) tried to sell the book to publishers. A lot of editors wanted to buy it, but ultimately I heard the same thing over and over again: “I really like this, but the accountants at my publishing house tell me there’s no market for a book about gay teenagers.”

In early 2001, a brave editor at HarperCollins named Steve Fraser bought the book, even over the objections of the accountants there, who were just as certain as everyone else that the project would flop.
The book finally came out in early 2003. Two weeks after it was released, it had already gone into a third printing. In other words, all those accountants and all those publishing houses who said there was no market for a book about gay teens? They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

Andrew Caldwell is Gunnar

Because the book was a hit, I was given the opportunity to write lots of other books. I even turned Geography Club into a series, the Russel Middlebrook Series.

Better still, we had a lot of movie producers interested in developing the first book as a feature film or TV series. Different companies optioned it and took it around Hollywood. But this was long before Glee, and time and again, the answer was, “We really like this, but there’s no market for a movie or a TV show about gay teenagers.”

It got to the point where the producer said to me, “I literally think this thing has been rejected by every studio, network, and financing company in town.”

But two producers, Frederick Levy and Bryan Leder (and later, their producing partners Michael Huffington and Anthony Bretti) wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. And finally, ten years after the book was published, they got the movie made — with pretty much a dream cast too (including Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky, Suburgatory‘s Ana Gasteyer, Glee‘s Alex Newell, The Lying Game‘s Allie Gonino, Scott Bakula, and a bunch of up-and-coming young actors).
Me on the set of Geography Club, the movie

Even better, the finished movie’s quite good. There’s even talk of doing the sequel, The Order of the Poison Oak, as a movie too should the first movie prove to be a hit.

So what’s the take-away from all this? Listen to your heart, not the nay-sayers? Never give up your dreams?

Maybe, but the fact is, if certain people hadn’t been willing to move heaven and earth for me and my projects at key points in my career, my book and the movie never would have happened, and right now I’d probably be asking, “Would you like fries with that?” That’s kind of sobering when I think about it.

But if I’ve learned anything at all over the years about selling books and making movies, it’s this: there are really only two ways books get published and movies ever get made:

(1) Create a book or movie project that everyone thinks will make them a lot of money. This is a lot easier said that done, since you never know what other books and movies will be flops and hits right around the time your project is being pitched. Talent counts for something here, but I think this is mostly just timing and luck.

(2) Create a book or movie project that at least few people feel really passionately about — so passionately that they’ll keep working on it even as everyone else tells them they’re crazy, that it’s certain to flop, and that they’re wasting their time.
Basically, the choice is: go with your brain or go with your heart.

On a movie set at 5 AM
On one hand, going with your heart is trickier: do you really want to devote years of your life to a project that a lot of editors and producers won’t even want to read? On the other hand, it’s a lot easier than trying to predict exactly where the crazy pop culture market and zeitgeist are headed. All you have to do is ask yourself: what exactly do I personally feel the most passionate about? What project would I desperately like to see that doesn’t already exist?

If you’d asked me my opinion earlier in my career, in the midst of all the rejection for Geography Club the book and later the movie, I would have said, “Do strategy number one! Go with your brain! Write that dystopian zombie-vampire book! There at least you have a chance for success! Strategy number two is for suckers and fools!” (And then I would have added, “Would you like fries with that?”)

But I’ve been in the business for a while now, and I’ve seen editors and producers get very excited about my work, only to lose interest when the project didn’t turn out to be an instant hit or get immediate financing.

I also think it’s very interesting the only movie projects I’m associated with that are actually getting made – Geography Club and another film I wrote that will hopefully be filmed next year — are the passion projects. In other words, strategy number two.

Justin Deeley plays Kevin

There’s another benefit to choosing strategy number two: you’re working with people who aren’t just in it for the money. They’re in it for the passion. Which means — at least in my experience — they’re far less likely to be jerks. Since you end up so intimately involved with these folks, and since your words and your career are so closely associated with them, this not a small thing. I’m very proud to call these colleagues my friends.

The screenwriter William Goldman once famously said about Hollywood, “No one knows anything,” and it’s probably the most accurate thing ever said about that town (it’s completely true of New York publishing as well).

No one knows anything. Sometimes a project flies high, sometimes it completely flops (and usually it lands somewhere in that infuriating middle area in between).
And no matter what anyone says, no matter how much money they spend or who is involved, no one can predict for sure which projects will be successful and which not. That’s what makes a career in the arts so frustrating — and also so magical.

Making movies and publishing books are ultimately businesses: they exist to make money. As a result, a lot of the people in those industries like to talk like success is all about the brain. They want to believe they have some control over the money they’re spending.

Do they? Maybe. But in my case, success turned out to be all about the heart.

For more photos from my Geography Club movie set visit, go here.

Copyright © 2013 Buddha Kitty Books, All rights reserved. Reposted by permission.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Some history of YA novels

I'm mystified when people say that young-adult novels are a new thing, that they weren't around even a decade or two ago. They've been around much longer than that. In fact, many of the YA books I'm going to discuss here were written before I was even born.

For purposes of this discussion, I'm excluding books that were originally written for adults but later became high-school classics (like The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies), and books that featured teen characters but were clearly for younger readers (like the Nancy Drew books), and books that were stocked in the adult section when they first came out but would go in the YA section now (like Forever ... and It's OK If You Don't Love Me). I'm talking about books that were absolutely aimed at teens, that were grouped together in the children's or teens' section in bookstores and libraries, and were sold in school book clubs.

They've changed over the years, of course. The typical YA of the 1960s-1980s was short (closer to 200 pages than the 350 pages of our current era). Contemporary realism dominated the market. You could find a smattering of historical fiction, and there were mysteries and science fiction and romances. But there were, by far, fewer fantasy and paranormal novels than there are now.

Also, while today's books tend to be more explicit when dealing with edgy material, tough subjects were not off limits even 40 or 50 years ago. Here are a few examples to illustrate that this genre has been thriving for much longer than people might think:

1940s and 1950s

Practically Seventeen, by Rosamond du Jardin (1943)
Senior Year, by Anne Emery (1949)
Jean and Johnny, by Beverly Cleary (1959)

YA from this era was definitely tamer in tone than today's stories. There's nothing in these books that most middle-graders couldn't read. But I consider them YA because all three feature high-school girls and their adventures (mostly misadventures) with the opposite sex. Boyfriend troubles are usually considered a YA subject, even nowadays. All three books are clearly aimed at readers who are the same age as the protagonists; the voices and point of view are young.


The Unchosen, by Nan Gilbert (1963)
Drop-Out, by Jeannette Eyerly (1963)
Durango Street, by Frank Bonham (1965)
A Girl Like Me, by Jeannette Eyerly (1966)
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton (1967)
The Pigman, by Paul Zindel (1968)
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, by Ann Head (1968)
Tuned Out, Maia Wojciechowska (1968)
I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down, by Nat Hentoff (1968)
I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, by John Donovan (1969)
My Darling, My Hamburger, by Paul Zindel (1969)

The 1960s saw a shift in tone and subject matter. While the first book on this list, Nan Gilbert's The Unchosen, is similar to the 1940s-1950s-era stories in its often light tone and humor, it is less chatty in style, and it's extremely well-written. Also, while its references to making out would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, it approaches the subject a bit more frankly than the books of the previous decades.
With Drop-Out arrives the serious tone--and the edgy topics--of the problem novel: dropouts and runaways (Drop-Out), teen pregnancy (A Girl Like Me; Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones; My Darling, My Hamburger). In these books, for the first time, teens are sexually active--although that all happens offstage, and every girl who does it gets pregnant.
Durango Street is about street gangs; its main character has been arrested for car theft.
The Outsiders and The Pigman were undeniably watershed novels, novels that show the power of the genre. Those who know Zindel only for The Pigman might be surprised to come across My Darling, My Hamburger, a book in which a teen girl has an abortion (a topic that YA novels rarely touch even today).
And John Donovan's I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip is often cited as the first YA novel to introduce a same-sex attraction. It may be; I don't know of others. I do recall that the main character seems to write off his interactions with his friend as just adolescent experimentation.
I'm Really Dragged But Nothing Gets Me Down references the draft; unsurprising, since this was a major concern for teen males of this era.
Tuned Out is the earliest example I have of a problem novel centering around drugs.


Phoebe, by Patricia Dizenzo (1970)
An American Girl, by Patricia Dizenzo (1971)
Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks (1971)
Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, by M.E. Kerr (1972)
The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet, by Rosemary Wells (1972)
The Room, by Ruth Holland (1973)
They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me, by Alice Bach (1973)
A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, by Alice Childress (1973)
Trying Hard to Hear You, by Sandra Scoppettone (1974)
The Late Great Me, by Sandra Scoppettone (1976)
Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, by Paul Zindel (1977)
Happy Endings Are All Alike, by Sandra Scoppettone (1978)

The problem novel was going strong in the 1970s, and drugs were everywhere in books. Lots and lots of drugs (almost always in cautionary tales): see A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich, Go Ask Alice, Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!, and The Room. (The latter two, incidentally, manage to be warm and funny as well, and Dinky Hocker really only mentions drugs peripherally.) Alcoholism shows up, too (An American Girl, about growing up with an alcoholic parent; and The Late Great Me, about a teen with alcoholism). I have to say that although the problem novel eventually became a rather played-out formula, in its heyday, it produced some gripping novels.
We also have more discussion of same-sex relationships in They'll Never Make a Movie Starring Me, Trying Hard to Hear You, and Happy Endings Are All Alike. Gay and lesbian teens may have found a glimmer of hope that the lesbian couple in Happy Endings was featured prominently on its cover, although the perils of prejudice experienced by those who dared to come out of the closet were brutally rendered in that book and in Trying Hard to Hear You.
Although 1970's Phoebe had an unplanned pregnancy, by 1973 pregnancy was no longer the obligatory outcome for a sexually active character. The main characters in the Wells and Bach books are the first female characters I can think of who actually wanted people to think they were experienced, unlike the girls of an earlier era.
Suicide--attemped or successful--is also mentioned in The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet and Confessions of a Teenage Baboon. (Come to think of it, Zindel touched on this topic in his 1969 book, too.)

And yes, in these decades YA was very (though not exclusively) white, which continues to be an issue today. I can recall a few novels about teens with terminal illnesses, but fewer about teens living successfully with physical challenges (Beverly Butler's 1970 Light a Single Candle being a notable exception).

This is hardly an exhaustive or systematic survey. My point here is to show that YA was around at least as early as the middle of the 20th Century. (I'm open to the idea that it goes back even farther than I've shown here, if anyone wants to pursue that.) YA has continued to evolve, and I've only barely touched on what was happening in the genre even in the 1940s-1970s. I just wanted to review some of the history of the genre.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 3

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'm running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 3 of 3. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In my experience, bullying peaked in the sixth to eighth grades, declining in high school (but never disappearing—there are bullies even in the adult world).

After high school, I did not dwell on the topic of bullying anymore, although it affected every relationship I had. My default assumption of not being liked was firmly entrenched. It colored the way I saw the world, the way I treated others, the way I expected to be treated. In her book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons spoke to women whose mistreatment by their peers in girlhood stayed with them for decades, influencing relationships of all kinds. This rang very true to me.

It’s why, when I finally decided to write a book in which bullying was a major topic, I chose to come at it from that perspective. There has been a backlash against bullying in recent years; it is no longer seen as a necessary and natural part of childhood, something that just has to be accepted and endured. More and more people have been speaking up. There are books that discuss bullying from an inside, immediate perspective: how it affects people at the time, how it begins and how it ends.

But I wanted to address the aftermath, the lingering psychological damage. I wish it hadn’t taken me years to confront this part of myself, and I hope that maybe some people who read my book will receive relief sooner: to have the comfort of knowing they’re not alone, to challenge negative default assumptions, and to know they do not have to be victims forever.

I chose to write fiction, and I did not borrow literally from my life. The names, the characters, and the actions described in the book do not represent the facts of my own (or anyone else’s) real life. But the emotions and thought patterns are as authentic as I could make them, having lived them. The book is not only about bullying. It’s also about friendship, and romance, and hiking—all subjects dear to me. But underneath everything runs the challenge of a girl struggling to break free from victimhood, to be complete and happy, at home with herself and others.

Until It Hurts to Stop comes out September 12.
I also recommend Rachel Simmons's book if you're looking for nonfiction on the topic that focuses on bullying among girls.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bullying: The problem that never seems to go away, part 2

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'll be running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. This is Part 2 of 3. You can read Part 1 here.

It took a long time for me to see the toll that peer abuse and bullying took on me. On her blog, Between Fact and Fiction (Feb. 8, 2012), Natalie Whipple wrote that after being bullied, her default assumption is that people won’t like her, “[o]r worse, they’ll be openly mean ...” It amazed her when a friend of hers said, “I generally assume people like me until proven otherwise.”

I shared Natalie’s default assumption. But I only become aware gradually, over a period of years, that not being liked was my default assumption, and that it did not necessarily reflect reality. Before I began to question that assumption, I would think that any whispers or giggles in my vicinity were about me, and that in any new social situation, people would not want to get to know me. I finally learned to question that assumption and act against it, but my natural first impulse was, and sometimes still is, to expect rejection. It’s that ingrained.

This assumption formed partly because my abuse in two states by three groups of kids seemed to prove my unworthiness, to prove that I deserved mistreatment. But now I have a different interpretation.

Now I think that after I had been through the mill once, in middle school, my default role of victim and outcast was in place. Bullies sensed that and acted upon it; I did not fight it because I had learned to expect it; and the cycle became self-perpetuating. In saying that, I’m not saying that I brought it on myself. The fact that a person is an easy target does not make targeting that person acceptable. This is one reason it drives me bananas when people describe bullying in these terms: “She was bullied because she was short/tall/fat/skinny/wore glasses/had scars/had a funny name/had a different religion ...” People are not bullied because of who they are, but because their bullies will not leave them alone. Bullies act out of their own intolerance, insecurity, fear, ignorance, cruelty, or whatever.

That’s so important that I want to say it again:

People are responsible for their own actions.

So I now think of my second and third situations as a continuation of a pattern, the playing out of roles that had been set earlier. The first situation, the one that began the cycle, was a sort of serial-bullying scenario. The class ganged up against one person, then another. I was the first victim, and I believe I was the target for the longest, and I had more than one turn. But eventually there followed a series of victims—even, very briefly, the original ringleader herself. Her turn under fire gave me no satisfaction. Mostly I just felt that I could never relax, that there was no such thing as “safe.” It was a poisonous environment for all of us.

Where were the adults in all this? you may ask. This was the era when bullying was seen as a natural part of childhood, even a rite of passage. “Just ignore them” was the standard advice I got. That did no good, although I did learn to keep a stony face no matter what people said to me, and I learned not to cry in public. A couple of teachers joined the bullying, making snide or cutting remarks. Some adults tried to intervene, although they didn’t see most of what went on, and they were fighting an unofficial code of silence. My father drove me to school one year when bullying on the bus became unbearable. He should not have had to do that. But it gave me some relief; it was a concrete step that interrupted the abuse.

I know now that there must have been kids who participated only reluctantly, those who were understandably afraid to buck peer pressure. There were many who were silent witnesses rather than active participants. There was even a girl in junior high who stood up and fought back. I now think that a lot of kids who witnessed bullying, or participated in it, were actually troubled and scared by it. Scared not the least because they knew it could happen to them, too.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bullying: the problem that never seems to go away

Next week I have a book coming out that deals with the aftermath of, and healing from, bullying. This week I'll be running a three-parter on the topic of bullying. Here is Part 1.

A few years ago, when the anthology Dear Bully put out a call for submissions, I didn’t participate. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a story to tell: I did. I just I wasn’t ready to tell it then.

At least by then, I had accepted the idea that this was something that could be talked about, written about—even if not by me, not at that time. At least I sensed that it was something I would write about sooner or later. That in itself was progress, because very early on, the whole subject was wrapped in so much shame that I only hoped nobody would ever know.

For a while, I thought I was the only person it had happened to. Of course I’d seen kids mistreating other kids. I knew about individual bullies who might go after one person one day, a different person the next. But the systematic abuse of one kid by an entire classroom—and later, by other large groups—was, I thought, unique to me. And there had to be something wrong with me—especially since this happened in two different states and at the hands of three different groups of kids.

The worst of it ended with eighth grade, but my life became a quest to make sure not only that it never happened again, but that anyone who met me later would never know it had happened in the first place. Of course, since I didn’t know what had caused it, my quest to prevent it was crazy-making. I became very good at listening to people, at watching them for danger signs. One part of my writing that has always been praised is my ear for dialogue. I’m convinced that my ear for dialogue developed as a direct result of my obsessive attention to everything anyone ever said within my hearing. My mental repetition of their words and tone. My dissection of their statements for any sign of sarcasm, ridicule, or threat.

The first crack in my wall of secrecy came in the summer between tenth and eleventh grades. I had gotten into the writing program of a summer camp for the arts. Although the classes were rewarding, nothing I wrote there and nothing I learned about writing was as valuable as the social experience. For the first time, I found a welcoming community of kids my own age. For the first time, I felt I belonged in a group. (Although I had friends at my high school, some of my former tormentors also went to school there, and I never completely relaxed.)

One day during that summer, when the writing students were reading our work out loud to one another, I was shocked to hear a girl read her account of being bullied by her classmates. I no longer remember the details of her story; what struck me was that she was willing to talk about this in front of everybody. In doing so, she did not accept her bullies’ version of her; she was claiming the story. She did not have to keep her mouth shut about it because she had done nothing wrong.

I spoke to her after class, thanked her, told her a little of my own experience. To this day, I am grateful to her because she was the first person to show me another way of looking at the situation, and a way to express it. Not that I was ready to take that path then, even though she’d shown me the trailhead. It would take an unbelievable number of years before I could fully accept, and act upon, that knowledge.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Facing fear: High ceilings, by Alissa Grosso

The latest installment in my guest post series on fear is by Alissa Grosso. I have known Alissa for a few years now, and I have never noticed her reacting to the fear she describes below. (I was probably too busy eating chocolate--or reading book jackets, since so many of our meetings occur in bookstores.) Instead, I have noticed that she writes cool YA books. But read and learn about this phobia:

My guess is that most folks participating in this guest blog series on the topic of fear are going to pick something nice and normal like fear of snakes or fear of spiders. Perhaps they will choose something deep and profound like fear of death or fear of the unknown. I've never in my life done things the normal way, and I see no reason to start now. No, my blog post is on the fear of ceilings.

Okay, specifically it's on the fear of high ceilings. In case you were wondering, this is really a thing. There's one of those impossible-to-spell phobia words to go along with it. In this case: altocelarophobia. Why yes, I did just copy and paste that from Google, but my spellcheck still disagrees that it is an actual word.

For as long as I can remember, I've had an irrational fear of high ceilings. Looking at them makes me feel dizzy and lightheaded. Common places that tend to freak me out include gymnasiums, churches, big fancy government buildings and planetariums with the lights on. Since avoiding such places at all costs would put a bit of a crimp in my lifestyle, I've learned to live with this fear and the weird feeling I experience when I am in one of these high-ceilinged buildings.

Of course, living with an irrational phobia and acting completely normal are two different things. The best of course of action seems to be to not look up at high ceilings, to sort of pretend they aren't there. The result is that I tend to cower a bit when I am in a room with an abnormally high ceiling. I spend a lot of time looking at the floor and peoples' shoes.

Every once in a while, though, I get the urge to take a peek at the ceiling. It's my way of challenging myself, or perhaps my attempt to prove how ridiculous my fear is. Invariably this leads to a dizzy sort of feeling and a layer of nervous perspiration suddenly appearing on my hands. I quickly avert my eyes, returning my gaze to something safe and much, much closer to the ground.

As I begin to schedule some book promotion events for 2013, I do not let my altocelarophobia (spellcheck, Google insists this is a word!) determine where I will appear. In fact I'm looking forward to this year's Hudson Children's Book Festival* despite the fact that it's held in a school gym. I'll be there, and if you happen to be there and notice that I spend more time looking at your shoes than your eyes please know it's nothing personal, I'm just trying to avoid catching a glimpse of that big, high, scary ceiling.

*The festival has happened since this was written ... and without visible author panic!

Alissa Grosso is the author of the YA novels Popular, Ferocity Summer and Shallow Pond. She can be found online at Her latest, Shallow Pond, is about a teen girl whose quest to leave her small town is derailed when she discovers a shocking family secret.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

American Graffiti through a YA lens

I recently watched the movie American Graffiti again. What struck me this time was how much this 1973 film really is a YA story, even though it's more commonly considered a nostalgia piece about 1962 (the year of its setting). It's true that the music and the cars are an integral part of the film, and that some details of the story could not easily be transported to any other time. (What current generations, raised by helicopter parents, will notice especially is how all the teens in the film are free to drive around until sunrise, with no hint of curfew or parental involvement.)

But, boiled down, it's a coming-of-age story. The bare bones of the plot could be told in many settings, with many different characters. Two boys are supposed to leave in the morning, for college on the other side of the country. The one who's been eager to leave is suddenly unsure; the one who would just as soon stay has already committed to going, breaking home ties to the point of lending out his beloved car and suggesting to his steady girlfriend that they be free to see other people. In the morning, one boy leaves and the other stays, both of their decisions affected by the events of the night, and both of their decisions setting the course for their separate futures. At the same time, their nerdy younger friend tries his hand at impressing a girl he's just met; this character, who seems at first like just a lovable goofball, has a grim future at war. The fourth main character, whose life has revolved around cars, is beginning to realize that what makes you a king in your late teens won't necessarily set you up for life. On the night in question, he is still popular, still the best racer, still the envy of his peers, but he can see the cliff's edge looming.

I suspect that what made this movie such a success was not just fond recollections of drive-ins, drag races, Wolfman Jack, and sock hops. There's a larger appeal in a story about such nights: The last night your friends were all together. The moment when you realized high school was really over. The day you decided whether to stay or go.