Tag Archives: publishing

Lady Science!

There are a lot of things that I can’t believe are still things in the 21st century. The KKK. Homophobia. Tab cola. Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the gender gap, another inexplicable thing that’s still a thing. You know the one—it’s that thing where 50% of the population are so poorly represented that they qualify as a minority. I’ve been thinking about the gender gap in the sciences in particular.

The fact is, women may have long since won the rights to vote, to have careers, and to wear stylish yet functional bedazzled pants, but men still hold 70% of all careers in science and engineering. White men alone hold the majority of these positions, but men of every demographic outnumber women of the same category. All women of color combined barely add up to a tenth of the total professional scientific population.

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In my novels, I write about a young woman living a century ago with a background in science. While writing, I constantly need to remind myself that it wasn’t the norm. It comes far too naturally to me to envision scientifically-minded women. I’ve learned plenty about Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale and Irene Curie, but more than that, my own grandmother, Mary Campbell, practically wrote the book on Medical Mycology. In fact… she DID write the book, and if you studied medical mycology at university, chances are it was on your required reading list. Incidentally, if you studied Medical Mycology at university, you are probably also doing more important things with your life than writing novels that feature a magical detective. Good for you.

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My family is full of female professors, nurses, veterinarians, computer analysts, and research scientists; when I was growing up, I couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a smart woman. I know. I tried. My sisters tattled and I got grounded for it. It continues to shock me, therefore, that the image of a woman as an intelligent professional is a concept that needs normalizing.

The trouble is ingrained in our culture. Women are encouraged to be supporters while men are pushed to be competitive. If that’s not blatant enough, loads of brilliant successful women have been actively cheated out of their notoriety by male colleagues.

3 Women Scientists Whose Discoveries Were Credited to Men

6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism

8 Inventions by Women that Dudes got Credit For

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“Who cares?” one might argue. “Those men probably stole credit from other men, too, that’s just the cutthroat nature of the field.” But when there are so few women in the field to begin with, each overlooked achievement represents a greater loss.

The problem with the erasure of women is that as a result, countless women just don’t get to see a future for themselves in the sciences in the same ways men do, and that matters. With good role models, possibilities blossom, and limitations drop away. Without any, invisible walls grow and self-doubt takes hold.

A few years back, my sister followed in the footsteps of Medical Mycology Mary and co-authored a book called THE ULTIMATE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO SCIENCE.

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Her role models mattered to her, and in turn she has became that role model through books and camps that she helps run for kids. Her latest project is the culmination of years of research that is both practical and awesome and involves fire… and also happens to be literally rocket science. Her Kickstarter for the ROCKET MASS HEATER GUIDE has just a few days left if you want to support an awesome woman in science RIGHT NOW, by the way, although she has already doubled her goal because the concept is just so damn cool!

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Women are a part of the scientific community. They just are. Awesome though their accomplishments might be, the fact that they exist should be the most boring thing in the world. Sadly, it’s STILL an anomaly in the 21st century for a woman to be seen as a scientist. I don’t want writers of historical fiction a hundred years from now to look back at 2016 and find themselves astonished at how unusual it was for women in our time to be recognized for their contributions.

So, let’s share a little recognition right now—who are your favorite female faces in the field of science and engineering?

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For the Book Pushers

(This post is modified slightly from a speech I had the privilege of delivering to my fellow book-pushers in the Pacific Northwest.)

My name is William Ritter. I write books, I teach high school, I raise kids, and I worry.

Mostly I worry.

As a FATHER, I worry that my own kids—kids who love reading and discovery—will be dulled by school instead of inspired by it. I worry that they will start to see reading as work and discovery as a chore. It’s hard for me to watch them go into a place where I can’t hover around them like a helicopter. I can’t remind them to be good or shield them from pain. I want to slip little cheesy inspirational notes into their backpacks. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself!

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As a TEACHER, I worry about my students. I worry every time I ask “What stories did grown-ups read to you when you were little?” because every year one or two students simply cannot answer because their parents never read to them. Their parents never read. The only reading material in their house is the back of a cereal box. These are the kids who struggle most—not only in reading, but in math, science, and social studies.

As a WRITER, I worry that what I do doesn’t matter. I worry that my YA novels are frivolous “genre fiction.” When I first signed with Algonquin Young Readers, I realized the list of books they would be publishing alongside mine were meaningful stories about war and persecution, about racism and homophobia, about overcoming loss and confronting mortality. My novel, on the other hand, was a fanciful tale about a magical detective. I worried that I was fluff in a world that needs substance.

But what I do matters. What we do matters. Books matter.

Truth time. By third grade, literacy scores have a direct correlation with high school graduation rates. Readers see more success than non-readers. Raising readers matters. If teachers do nothing more than promote a passion for reading, they achieve infinitely more good than drill-and-kill literacy lessons and high stakes tests. Students who read for pleasure see even greater success—and as it happens, readers like reading books that they LIKE. Who knew? What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that reading fiction—yes frivolous genre fiction even more than serious non-fiction—increases empathy. In a world so full of greed and fear and hate, we need empathy. We need readers.

So I try my hardest to help books reach kids. I push books.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a student in my care that our class novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was the first book he had ever read.

“What?” I said. “No, you read a novel last year with Mrs. Walloch.”

“No,” he said. “The class read a novel. I never read a single chapter.”

“Well,” I said. “Congratulations. How do you feel about reading a novel?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I want to read another one.”

BAM.

There it was. I felt the instant self-satisfied pride that I imagine is usually reserved for really talented drug-dealers.

It was awesome.

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I taught an ESL class the next year. There were some great kids in that group, including a tricky pair of boys who had not only never read a book, but who took real pride in being non-readers. I went on and on about how that was like a toddler taking pride in never learning how to walk—I told them they’re limiting themselves! None of it got through. So instead of lecturing, I pushed a book across the desk at S.S.R. time. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time-Indian. I pretended not to notice when the student reached the naughty bit in the first chapter and shared it with his friend. I knew I had him when I caught him reading during break. He finished that book and then told his friend that he HAD to read it next, because “it’s actually GOOD.” That book was later stolen from my room. The thief copped to taking it because it was “the first book that got me, ya know?” I let him keep it. He needed that book more than I did.

That’s how you get ‘em. The first one’s free, kid. Come back for more when ya start jonesing. Soon you’ll be forking over money to a stranger in a dark alley for Ray Bradbury, the Bronte sisters, maybe a heavy dose of William Shakespeare. I have become an unabashed pusher.

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I pushed If You Could Be Mine on a self-conscious, self-critical, self-described “loner” from a conservative family. She read it twice in one night. She was changed. That summer she corresponded with the author, Sara Farizan, and gained the confidence to come out for the first time to her parents. She took over as president of the school’s GSA and as a peer mentor. She has become outspoken, bold, and brighter.

I did more good for all of those students by pushing books across their desks than I did in all of my lesson-planning and teaching. Pushing books matters.

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I can’t tuck cheesy little inspirational notes into every single backpack, so I tuck them into the books I write, instead. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself! It helps me worry a little bit less. It helps me remember that what I do matters, too.

When you suggest a good book, post about one on a blog, push one across a desk, or read one to your kids—it matters. Push books. My students need those books. My sons need those books. The world needs those readers.

To all my fellow book-pushers out there, what you do matters. With each push you make a difference, you make a brighter world, you make a reader. Keep pushing.

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Comparisons

Do you like ____? Well, then you’ll LOVE ___!

This new title is like ___ and ___ by way of ___.

___ meets ___ in this exciting debut!

Literary comparisons are excellent for publicists. A new book can’t sell based purely on strong characters or great style, because readers haven’t read it yet. That’s the whole reason publicists exist. For readers, comparisons can be beacons toward books and authors they might love, but they can also be traps that ruin an otherwise grand experience.

The marvelous Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan was touted by many as “The Next Harry Potter.” Unsurprisingly, the most common criticism in its reviews is that it’s not. Of course it’s not—a comparison is a metaphor; it’s not literal. Eragorn is not The Lord of the Rings. Divergent is not The Hunger Games. Percy is not Harry. Taken simply as books with a kindred spirit, these titles would likely have swept their grumpiest critics along for a pleasant ride, but instead they sank under the weight of what they are not… what they were never meant to be.

When I was five or six, I went through a big science phase. I would fill petri dishes with anything I could find that was smaller than a petri dish, sketch funny looking insects that I found in the garden, and cruise through as much baking soda and vinegar as my parents kept stocked in the house. For weeks I wore a little white lab coat and safety goggles to play in the back yard (embarrassing but completely true).

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My parents couldn’t afford much, but to support my enthusiasm, they bought me a magnifying glass. It was a slim plastic thing I could slip into the pocket of my wee little lab coat—and it had a handle that made it look like it was just an ordinary pen. It was like a secret agent’s magnifying glass, and it WOULD have been the perfect little trinket to accompany my happy obsession, had it not been prefaced by an incredibly helpful comparison.

“Mom and dad got you something that looks like something else,” my sister hinted. I assume she had been instructed not to reveal the gift, but she felt no qualms about dropping cryptic clues.

“Something that what?” I asked.

“You know… like a cane that’s really a sword when you pull on the handle. It’s something that looks like one thing, but it’s really something else.”

There it was. I could not comprehend that the comparison was figurative. I was 100% eagerly anticipating a freaking samurai katana blade concealed inside a stylish British walking stick… and my poor parents handed over a nifty plastic magnifying glass. For a little kid, that is the emotional equivalent of a Wile-E-Coyote painted wall prank. I was done. Science was ruined. I never wore my white lab coat again (tragic and melodramatic, but also completely true). It’s too bad. It really was a fine little magnifying glass.

It’s a quarter of a century later, and I’m still not scientist. Instead, I make up stories in which things often appear to be something they’re not. Also, I own a katana concealed within a walking stick. Don’t judge. That stuff sticks with you.

My book, Jackaby, is currently being publicized as SHERLOCK meets DOCTOR WHO. On one hand, that’s a solid comparison, and I love it. An eccentric detective with impossible insights—a down-to-earth yet indomitable companion—a grim yet cheeky caper with a supernatural twist. It all fits, and it’s a brilliant beacon for precisely the sort of fans likely to enjoy Jackaby. On the other hand—crap! “WHOLOCK” is the fandom equivalent of a freaking katana blade concealed inside a stylish British walking stick, and I DIDN’T WRITE WHOLOCK. I didn’t even try to. I wrote Jackaby.

All I can do is hope that readers will find a way to love my little magnifying glass for what it is. It’s exactly the magnifying glass I set out to write. It’s a really good magnifying glass, and it could fit right in the front pocket of your lab coat, close to your heart, if you let it.

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The Perils of Positive Reviews

I don’t know precisely what the One Ring whispered to Gollum when he held it close, crouching in the darkness of a cave… but based on its effect, I assume it was giving him a series of positive literary reviews. Reviews, I am coming to find, are diabolical and all too precious things.
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There have been piles of articles advising authors on how to deal with negative reviews, but a scarcity about processing praise. In a strange way, praise can be just as maddening. As reviews come in from the Advanced Reader Copies of Jackaby, I find my fragile, increasingly schizophrenic arguments going something like this:

– They’re not for you. Walk away before you stumble on a harsh one.

– Read them, but read them for a purpose with a rational, cool head.

– Don’t! Fool of a Took! You’ll allow them to gain power over you!

– Too late! Lalala! I’m a princess in a tower made of pretty words!

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It’s a terrible habit, I know—but like Frodo atop Mount Doom, I can’t seem to chuck the dang ring into the fires. The reviews for Jackaby have been unbelievably G R E A T, and I’m so proud and happy… but they make me all the more paranoid about when the other shoe will drop. Someone is bound to give me a thumbs down or a one star out of five. Who will it be? Who is after the precious?

I have, at least, discovered something better to distract me from the lure of obsessing over positive reviews: terrible reviews for acclaimed authors. My new AYR book buddy, Kelly Barnhill, recently turned me on to me a tumblr of one-star reviews… and they are a marvelous. They’re loaded with gems like:

Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare): “First of all, the whole thing is almost all dialogue.”

Metamorphosis (Kafka): “I’m probably going to burn it.”

To the Lighthouse (Woolfe): “… wasn’t lighthouse-y enough.”

They’re like a smelling salt. It’s impossible to take a review too seriously after a handful of those babies. If you receive public feedback on anything that you do, I highly encourage you check them out. Let the ridiculousness of totally subjective criticism shake you from your trance and help you to destroy the ring.

(Speaking of Lord of the Rings, Tolkein’s modern classic received initial reviews ranging from “Masterpiece… destined to outlast our time,” to “high minded… the death of literature itself,” to simply “Oh God, no more elves.” True fact!)

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Girls and Boys

I was told recently that being concerned about how we write men in literature when women have it much worse meant that I have misplaced priorities. Here is my elegant dissertation on why that’s a steamy load of poo. First and foremost, the two are the same priority. The issue is not boys versus girls, it is gender roles and societal expectations, which is a single coin. Insisting that it’s about tails landing down and not about heads landing up is as logical as it is helpful. Secondly, it reinforces the divide rather than repairing it.

I recently encountered an article bemoaning the poor treatment of men in YA fantasy. The thesis, sadly buried amidst a great deal of rubbish, was that impossible masculine ideals can be harmful to the self-esteem of young men. While this is reasonable, the author provided only two examples, neither of which were used well, and then went on to suggest that young women were NOT faced with such pressures, soundly blowing her own point to smithereens.

The argument reminded me of a graphic that flittered around the internet some time ago protesting a feminist double-standard. It depicted He-Man and Barbie, and claimed that feminists protested the unrealistic body type of a Barbie for girls, but that they were okay with the impossibly muscular He-Man for boys. (below)

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The first fault of both the article and the graphic is that they fail to recognize why the female archetype gets more attention, and why it is more insidious. To put it simply, if a boy tries to be like He-Man, he will try to be strong, athletic, and confident. If a girl tries to be like Barbie, she will avoid exertion, starve herself thin, and try to act demure and submissive at all times. Both archetypes reinforce a gender dichotomy in which men must be strong and overpowering, and women must be weak and overpowered.

The second fault of both the article and the graphic is that they create an us versus them standoff. Those darn feminists, the graphic implies, don’t care about the troubles we men face. In truth, the creator of the image is actually making a feminist point. True feminists DO have a problem with the gendered pressures facing boys, both because it sets up a society that subjugates women, and because young boys can suffer greatly as a result of these pressures. Teen suicide rates, as we have seen, are over four times higher in boys than girls in the US.

The article tries to claim that young men have it worse when it comes to unrealistic characters in YA. She makes it a competition, boys vs. girls. This is a fight she can’t win, and one not worth fighting to begin with. Even in the examples she provided, both kinds of gender stereotypes are present, and the male characters still have the power roles. In Twilight, for example, Edward Cullen is the brooding Beast, Bella his submissive Belle. Strong & weak gendered ideals are a tale as old as time. Contrary to the article’s claim, men simply do not face aesthetic pressures to the same degree that women do, and the physical ideals men are pushed toward are less oppressive. The ignorance of the claim does not, however, mean that men do not face unrealistic ideals, or that a lack of variety in literature is not a problem.

Before completely discarding her article as ridiculous, which is easy to do, it’s worth pushing past the poorly justified rant to look at the kernel of truth. There are an abundance of supernaturally attractive male figures in YA romance (and in the media in general), which can lead young men to feel insecure and unattractive. This is true. To dismiss this in favor of the argument, yeah, but women have it worse, is not a healthy form of discourse. To use an extreme analogy, one should never dismiss the holocaust of the Jewish people because the genocide of Native Americans resulted in more deaths. Both were unfathomable atrocities. Its not a competition. To claim that one group does not have a right to their grievance is callously dismissive and does nothing to improve the issue on either side. All it does, in this case, is create the incorrect impression that feminists care only about girls, leading to ignorant internet memes (see above).

In the end, I left the article with at least one worthwhile scrap of wisdom (although it took multiple readings and one incredibly frustrating attempt at a respectful discussion on twitter). What I took away, aside from “avoid weighty topics in 140 characters or less,” was this: Conscientious fantasy authors would do well to include a wider variety of body types, both to improve the messages bombarding teens today, and to improve their writing. It’s not about boys versus girls, it’s about being good, moral contributors to the world of YA literature. 

Your leading character is the eyes through which your audience sees the world, so what perspective are you asking readers to assume? I write a female narrator in a YA fantasy novel, so the article spoke directly to me. I think a lot about what kind of person she is and who she might become, but now I plan on keeping an even closer eye on the men in her life, too. This is a priority to me as as a feminist, as a father, and as a writer, and I don’t believe it is misplaced at all.

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Historical Fantasy: 3 brief reviews

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Fantasy is all about creativity and originality—building unique worlds where anything goes. Historical Fiction is about fidelity and plausibility—recreating a very real world, one with strict boundaries of barbed timelines to keep out anachronisms. Some of my favorite stories are the ones that sneak the former past the rigid security of the latter, creating something called Historical Fantasy. It’s a place where skilled authors meld the established with the eldritch. My own Historical Fantasy prints in the Fall of 2014, but if you can’t wait that long, try one of these 3 gems from the past 3 years:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011).
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Morgenstern writes the way a practiced magician performs. Set at the turn of the century, The Night Circus follows two very different illusionists and the remarkable venue in which they demonstrate their skills. The chronological order of the story is very deliberately shuffled, never tipping its hand, always revealing just the right details to entice its audience further into the mysterious plot. It has action, but it never stoops to ham-fisted spectacles. It has romance, but it is neither a tactless bodice-ripper nor a teen fluff story. It is a book which celebrates theatricality and craftsmanship as much as it demonstrates them. Suspenseful and magical, and positively worth the read.

The Diviners by Libba Bray (2012).
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If F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stan Lee themselves had come together to create a period piece about an unlikely cast of superheroes, they could not have done a finer job than Libba Bray. The characters are unique and the stage is an engrossing 1920’s era America. The Diviners‘ greatest strength is its worst character, the masterfully wicked Whistling John. Bray keeps this occult villain shrouded in secrets, revealing him inch by inch as the story unfolds. Her storytelling is frighteningly effective, and it has been a long time since I’ve read a creepier antagonist. Biggest downside, Bray clearly intended this as the introduction to a series (she plans to write 4 in the set). This means loose ends left and right and slow character growth, which can be frustrating knowing it will be years before the final chapter is printed. If you can take the anticipation, definitely worth jumping in as an early fan.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013).
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It’s common for writers to use a banal character’s point of view to help the audience become awed by the supernatural. The beauty of Wecker’s novel is that she uses her supernatural figures to explore the everyday with just as much awe and wonder. Set again at the turn of the century, The Golem and the Jinni (or Djinni in the UK version), is engaging and endearing, all the while exploring serious concepts of social expectations & free will. Her characters grow and evolve, and the world around them is at once gritty and grand, marvelous and miserable. The novel is a must-read.

In addition to being historical fantasy, all three works boast strong, independent female leads, engaging supporting casts, and suspenseful plots. With 2013 coming to a close, I’m more excited than ever for my chance to join these amazing authors on the bookshelves.

Any paranormal period pieces you just couldn’t put down?

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Agent 13

I was living in Japan the year I finished my book. After months of editing, it was finally time to send my private project out into the wide world. I was an American in Okinawa, but the publishing industry was far more foreign to me. My friends and relations very helpfully warned me to watch out for bad agents, but what I needed was a clear way to pick a good one. How can you tell if a total stranger will be passionate about your project, if they will push through hell and high water to make it a success?

I did my research and wrote a query letter. I committed myself to sending one query per day for a month, more to force myself to get over my hesitation than because it is a good way to find the right agent. By the end of the second week I had gotten much better at researching, and was becoming more discerning about which agents I queried and which I skipped over. I sent my 13th and 14th letters on the same night, and woke in the morning to find that both had replied with requests for a full manuscript.

I was ecstatic. This is a first step, but it is a huge step. I sent the drafts out and waited, knowing that either one could open the door for me to become a published author. This was my big break. I was half-a-step away from crossing that threshold, and nothing could stop me now!

That’s when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

In case you’ve forgotten “Superstorm Sandy,” it was the largest Atlantic Hurricane in recorded history, wreaking havoc up and down the eastern seaboard. The east coast, incidentally, is where America keeps its literary agencies, stacked like sandbags along the coast. I found reports of trees uprooted and facades ripped off of buildings within a few blocks of the agencies I had queried. I began to spend slightly less time hoping that the agents would like my book, and more time hoping they would survive long enough to read it. The storm killed power, phones, and internet, so they had no way to open the document, even if it did cross their minds to do so while huddling in a basement, getting pummeled by hundred mph winds.

The day after the storm finally passed, disappointment had settled in, elbowing hopeful anticipation callously aside. With reports still flooding in about the damage and the state of the blackout, I was more than a little surprised to find a message in my inbox. Agent 13, still without internet or reliable phone lines, had sent a message through an associate, requesting to speak with me. After maneuvering time zones and bad connections, I finally got through. She had just reached a home with electricity to keep her phone from dying. I was using a spotty internet service to make the long-distance call from Japan to New York, but I could hear a muffled group of people around her, and she told one of them to go use the shower first, because she had an important call.

Agent 13 had literally reached me about my book before reaching running water during an emergency. She had, I learned, printed the full manuscript and finished it by candlelight during the blackout. She had not only fallen in love with the project, but had already developed some good ideas, showing thoughtful understanding of the characters, tone, and central themes of the book, and had then navigated a damp, post-apocalyptic New York just to get a message along to me.

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I don’t know how other writers determine if an agent is right for their book, but Agent 13 crawled through wet hell to represent mine. She has, indeed, remained its stalwart ally every since. Within two months, she had attracted several major publishers. We held an auction, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to turn down offers beyond my wildest dreams, and sign with the very best publishing house for my story. My book is JACKABY, soon to be released by Algonquin Young Readers, and Agent 13 is the inimitable Lucy Carson, of the Friedrich Agency.

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