A Great Wisconsin Novel

  This book has had such great rewards that it’s paid for itself many times over. Of course, this is coming from a Wisconsonite, who will soon be driving, like one of the rotating first-person POVs, through the Dells, north through the pinelands towards Eau Claire, to pick up my son at UW-Eau Claire. But even if the physical terrain is unfamiliar, the psychic landscape of these 30-something characters will hit home, resoundingly. Is every voice of the rotating narratives convincing rather than uniformly literary? No, but cut Nickolas some slack. He tells the story with such warmth and heart that quibbles are soon forgotten. This is a book which beckons you back to it like a warm fireplace on a Wisconsin winter night. Cozy up and enjoy.

P.S. Went to hear Nickolas read here in Madison on May 6 at the new public library to a group of about 60 people. He did a nice job, reading for about a half hour (the wedding scene, if you’re curious) before answering questions, mostly about the intersection of his life and his fiction. He had glowing things to say about his two-year stint in Iowa City at the Writers Workshop and was very down-to-earth — just a grown-up small-town boy.


Our Little Library

This was really my wife Diane’s baby, but I take some pride of ownership for my contributions to the construction — crude carpenter work on the pole and support, cementing the post, bolting the whole thing together. She was inspired by a similarly decorated little library outside of Avid Books, the terrific indie bookstore in Athens, Georgia. We spent some time in Athens last December, trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to find some better weather. But it wasn’t a trip without some inspiration.


Remembering Iowa

Just a reminder of all those great readings in Iowa City that were part of the writing scene — wish I had grabbed more of these handprinted bills (after the readings, of course).


My Season on the Brink

Ankeny Iowa Girls Basketball Team, six starters, 1981

I happened to be catching a bit of the Big Ten Basketball Championship game on March 7, 2014 between Nebraska and Minnesota when I was startled by a familiar face. The Nebraska head coach, Connie Yori. I had last seen her in 1981, in tears after losing the state championship game, 53-51. In the semi-finals she’d put up 49 points and was the best high-school girls basketball player I’d ever seen in person.

Back in 1980, when I still thought being a sports reporter might be a dream job, I was doing some freelance writing and pitched The Iowan Magazine on following a girls’ basketball team for an entire season. This was back near the beginning of the Title IX sports boom, which had only gone into effect two years earlier in 1978. When I had been in high school a decade earlier my large Iowa high school had a girls’ golf and tennis squad, but offered no team sports for girls such as basketball, volleyball or soccer. Still, Iowa girls’ basketball was something of a cultural phenomenon, with the state championships selling out the largest venue in the state, Veteran’s Auditorium in Des Moines.

But it was a small-town sport. The state tournament featured teams from places like Montezuma, What Cheer and Grundy Center. And the girls played under odd rules. Each team fielded a three-person offense and a three-person defense. In deference to the tender nature of the female sex, no player was allowed to cross the center line, and exhaustion and collapse was further protected by a two-dribble rule.

I remember the concern which crossed the editor’s face when I proposed this story.

“Well,” he said. “Just don’t spend too much time on it.”

In other words, I wasn’t to expect more than the normal compensation, which if I remember, was in the low-to-mid three figures.

I wasn’t daunted. I could bolster my payment a bit by doing my own photography.

At the time I was living in Ames, Iowa, where the large metropolitan high schools didn’t field teams. To the north there was a strong program in Story City, and to the south, in Ankeny. I decided to go with Ankeny, which had won the state title the previous year. I contacted coach Dick Rasmussen and he gave me the okay. I started following the team in the fall of 1980, attending some practices and scrimmages. On more than one occasion the coach would ask, at the end of practice, if there anything the players needed to work on. Yori would always say, “Let’s play a five-on-five game!”

Rasmussen would roll his eyes. As far as I now, he never relented.

It turned out I had found my way to one of the legendary coaches in Iowa prep history. One of the first things he said to me when I introduced myself was, “You ought to see them play softball.” Only years later did I bother to look it up — they’d won the state title three years in a row: 1978, 1979 and 1980.

Behind Yori, Ankeny had a great season, making it to the state finals, where they lost to Norwalk on a last-second shot. And yes, there I was, shamelessly photographing the teary aftermath, although thankfully, none of those shots were featured in the Spring, 1982 issue of the Iowan.

Yori went on to a stellar collegiate career at Creighton and then I lost track of her, until last night, when her Nebraska team was on national TV. I found a stack of 8×10 glossies of the season I had printed for the story, and I’m planning on bundling them up and sending them on to Yori at Nebraska. I bet they’ll bring back some good memories.


Computer Gaming and the Olympics

While NBC does a nice job of providing background color on the U.S. athletes, it’s my sense that most viewers never get a deep sense of the dedication and single-mindedness that is required to rise to the elite level in today’s sports. I’ve watched this process for many years in the world of tennis, where I’ve worked as a coach, a facilities manager and administrator at the national level. It can involve parental commitments that go far beyond support into huge financial sacrifices and all manner of craziness. The untold story may be the hundreds of aspirants who fall by the wayside for every athlete attaining national prominence.

I’m thinking about this as I watch the opening ceremonies because the same sort of hyper-competitiveness has taken hold of the big-time world of computer gaming. This is the subject of my upcoming novel, IN REAL LIFE, which follows a gaming prodigy in his dreams of making it as a professional gamer on the lucrative South Korean circuit. It turns out this pursuit has more in common with skiers and skaters than you might think, including the emergence of million-dollar purses for gaming champions.

IN REAL LIFE is scheduled for publication this fall from Tuttle — more to follow at this locale.


Insights Into Literary Agents

I’d missed this article from this past summer on


A Middle Grade Novel for Insect Lovers

I guess I’m a frustrated entomologist. I even did a magazine piece where I followed around an Iowa State professional entomologist — sort of a day-in-the-life of a bug scientist. So I was excited to see the publication of a MG novel by Jennifer Angus, who is a fantastic artist. I’d seen a showing of her work at the Sundance Cinema in Madison and was head-over-heels. Similar illustrations appear throughout IN SEARCH OF GOLIATHUS HERCULES. Here is my thumbnail review:

If you know a young reader whose is fascinated by insects, this is a must read. Author Jennifer Angus takes us back to Victorian times in the story of 12-year-old Henri Bell who is sent from England to America and discovers a strange and amazing skill: he can talk with insects. This sets off a series of adventures that reminded me of Water for Elephants (yes, there is a circus), the Lost City of Z (the story of a Victorian search for a mythical Amazonian Atlantis), with a layering of more fantastical narratives such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis. As a bonus it is filled with the author’s wonderful insect illustrations and lots of entomological knowledge. I would have loved to curl up with this book as a 12-year-old after a hard day of chasing insects with my homemade net of cheesecloth, coat hanger and broomstick.



Congratulations to National Book Award Winner Cynthia Kadohata

Enjoyed watching the live steam of the National Book Award ceremonies last night and the gracious acceptance speech of Cythnia Kadohata. The Thing About Luck is wonderful.

National Book Award, Young Adult, YA Novel, YA writing, young adult writing, queries, agents, wri, writing young adult novels, what makes a good young adult novel,


Understanding the Stakes: National Book Award Finalists for Children

The short list for the 2013 National Book Award for Children’s Literature: Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About LuckTom McNeal, Far Far Away, Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone, Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints

In a lengthy conversation with a well-established literary agent regarding one of my young adult books, he boiled everything down to two questions: “What are the stakes? What is the worst thing that can happen to your main character?” It seems like a lot of successful young adult literature take these questions to extremes. Not only are the main character and his or her loved ones facing personal extinction, the entire fate of mankind is at stake. Think Ender’s Game, or the more recent The Fifth Wave. The Hunger Games may be the perfect example of piling on when it comes to stakes: not only is Katniss facing likely and imminent death, her vulnerable little sister, mother and cat are likely to suffer starvation in her absence, while her death, will, alas, prevent the reader from discovering just how her romantic attachment to two lively prospects will turn out. And don’t forget the entire oppressive society which is just waiting for its Joan of Arc to reinvent itself as something wonderful, say 20th century America.

Of course there is a gap between the massive bestsellers and the more sophisticated tastes of the National Book Award panel. None of the aforementioned blockbuster books have been shortlisted for the award. Wouldn’t the panel be more inclined towards stories of personal development, heartwarming or heartbreaking tales of coming of age, carefully wrought literary novels?

I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this year’s finalists through the same lens the literary agent supplied. What are the stakes and what is the worst thing that can happen to the main characters?

True Blue Scouts is in many ways an old-fashioned children’s book, one aimed at younger readers than the other finalists. It features sentient raccoons who enjoy listening to the radio, a yeti-like swamp monster, a female alligator wrestler, an evil land developer and a young girl as hero. But the stakes are more modern: ecological disaster, the loss of an endangered (if mythical) creature, while overlapping the timeless: the loss of home and hearth. What is the worst thing that could happen to the main character? The world she knows and love could be lost forever.

Far, Far Away also is self-consciously part of a tradition, as it is narrated by the ghost of one of the Grimm brothers of fairy tale fame. Here the stakes start out in familiar young adult territory: the battle between being exceptional and fitting in, a budding romance between the main character and a strong-willed and stunning redhead, popularity and shunning. Once again the loss of home and hearth develop into a major stake, but as fitting the older readership and the fairy tale tradition, the story moves from a romp in the woods into a much more sinister, if far fetched, finale which might have been borrowed (after removing the titillation) from a James Patterson thriller.

Picture Me Gone strikes me as a more traditional National Book Award selection. In this carefully plotted and composed tale, the young main character (who may be cited as twelve, but comes across as sixteen) is an exceptional girl with an otherworldly sensitivity to others. For instance, she identifies a diner waitress as pregnant even as realizing that the waitress doesn’t yet know it. She’s especially good at understanding the German Shepherd who pines after the main subject of the book, a missing friend of her father’s. Unlike most YA, this book is firmly placed in the world of parents and their associates. The stakes are also much more subtle than most popular teen books. While the ostensive object of the book is the search for a missing man, the real subject is deceit and trust. What is the worst thing that can happen to the main character? She will lose her faith in her father and adults in general, in her fundamental faith in goodness and honesty. A long way from the battlefields of The Hunger Games indeed.

In The Thing About Luck, the twelve-year-old main character begins the story under stress. Her parents have returned to Japan to care for an ailing relative, and she and her grandparents are on the road, part of a crew of migrant harvesters traveling from Texas to Kansas. Unlike the Grapes of Wrath, these workers aren’t using their hands, but $300,000 machines. What is at stake? Well, if they don’t earn their keep, the family will lose their house and hearth. What is the worst thing that can happen to her and her autistic brother? They could end up friendless and unmoored and she will disappoint her grandparents. As more of a middle-grade book pitched to younger readers, this seems in line with the genre. Death, dismemberment and eating disorders are the stuff for fifteen-year-olds, not twelve-year-olds.

I wish I could comment on the dual graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang, which are favored by some to win the award, but I haven’t ventured there or into the whole world of graphic novels. But the setting, the Chinese Boxer wars, and the subject of war and societal chaos, assures me that the stakes here are certainly life and death.


The relativity of time — writer/agent/publisher

What is a long time for a writer? Agent? Publisher?

On a writing forum I recently replied to a post about response time from an agent. You could almost hear the hopeful, pleading tone in the message, asking if anyone, anyone had ever signed with an agent after taking “ages” to respond.

My response was “define ages.”

I was recently called out by an agent for “unprofessional” behavior for having submitted to a single publisher after hearing nothing — nada — after five months of an exclusive submission. This including a nice nudge letter two months in, letting the agent know that I’d received a contract for another novel aimed at the same audience. This agent swore he was about to read my full manuscript that very week. He went on and on about how egregious my behavior was. And here I was hoping he’d ask me sign on since I’ve got other projects and could use the help with any contract that should arrive. Not after that blow up.

Today I got an email from a small press editor who had requested a full manuscript from me in April. In her original request she’d said to expect a response in May. I shot  her an email this week –six months after subbing, assuming that the book had been long forgotten. Instead the editor asked if I’d be willing wait another month. Or so. I said sure.

The book I did sell, IN REAL LIFE, is scheduled to come out from Tuttle Publishing in the Fall of 2014. It’s a young adult novel about a computer gaming prodigy. I originally submitted my proposal to Tuttle in April of 2012. If it comes out on schedule, that means it will be two-and-a-half years from sub to pub.

So what is a long time for a writer? Weeks. For an agent? More than six months, from my experience. Publisher? Hope it encompasses your natural lifespan. And be careful about including too many pop culture or high tech references. By the time they appear in print, they’ll be so yesterday.