Everfound: My life as a Dictator

May 21, 2010

My process for writing EVERFOUND was a little different than usual. Because I had a very tight deadline, and because I didn’t want to compromise the quality of the work, I sped up the process by having my assistant, Wendy Doyle, transcribe material for me. I would write my first draft in a notebook—I always do it that way. Technology is great, but there’s something important to me about getting my ideas down on paper first. Then I would dictate what I wrote into my iPhone, digital recording app after I was done for the day. Usually I had lots of trouble reading my own handwriting, so I’d be revising the whole thing as I dictated. (See image of a handwritten page.  Can you read my handwriting? Didn’t think so.)

This page, by the way, includes “place holder spaces” for two characters which I offered to name after my facebook fans.  Hundreds of kids suggested their names, and I chose twelve to use — six first names, and six last names. I use multiple colors when I’m writing for four reasons 1) To mark where I stopped writing, and started dictating 2) to mark  chapter breaks;  3) To add variety so I’m not always looking at one dull color;  4) because I can’t find the last pen I was using.

Wendy, my "ethereal" assistant

Once I’m done dictating the segment I’d just written,  I would e-mail the file to Wendy, and while I was working on the next section, she would transcribe it, send it back to me, and I would do a major revision of the transcription. (By the way, I’ve never actually met Wendy— we’ve been working for more than six months together but all by mail and internet!)

The stuff that Wendy gets is so random, so disjointed, it barely resembles a book. It’s really in the next revision that it comes together. That’s when I add the “connective tissue,” bridging the various sections, and making sure that the characters are behaving like real people. That’s crucial. I’ve learned that if the characters are real, you’ll take the wildest journeys with them — but it all rests on you believing those characters. So I built the book, handwritten, dictated, transcribed, rewritten, revised, then polished, and then did another revision of everything before writing the last fifty pages. Once I reworked it, and made sure the whole book was working, I dove into the last fifty pages…. Which turned out to be 100 pages instead of 50! More next week – some teasers about what to expect in EVERFOUND!


Everfound: Ghostly Inspiration

May 16, 2010

Early in the process of writing EVERFOUND, I found myself stuck. “Writer’s Cliff.” The original direction I felt the story would take just wasn’t working. I still had the ending fairly worked out—I knew where the story was going from book one—but getting there was the problem.

As it was a story about ghosts, I decided to spend a few days aboard the Queen Mary — which is a huge old ocean liner that is permanently docked in Long Beach California, and is now a hotel. A haunted hotel. It’s filled with creepy passageways and deserted ball rooms. They even give “ghost tours.”

After a day and a half, I felt like pounding my head against the bulkhead. No ideas. Brain dead. The story wasn’t gelling, and I doubted my ability to tell it. I stayed up till midnight in my little windowless cabin, and passed out from exhaustion. Not a page had been written since I arrived. Or, more accurately, dozens of pages were written, but every single one of them was torn out, and tossed into the trash.
Then I woke up at about 3:30 AM. I was lying in the pitch dark of the cabin, and suddenly I saw the book playing in my head like a movie, so I figured, okay, I’ll watch this movie in my head and see where it takes me. Out of nowhere, all these ideas began to fill my brain. New directions for the story, new motivations for the characters, even new characters. In short, the story began to write itself in my head. I kept watching that mind-movie getting more and more excited. With less than four hours sleep, I got up, and began writing. I went on deck to watch the sun rise, and wrote all day until it started to get dark. I was thrilled with everything that I came up with, and the story was moving forward in leaps and bounds. I love those times when a flash of inspiration hits you, and you begin to write up a storm!   More on Wednesday.

Ever Lost-And-Found

May 11, 2010

I have a good reason for not blogging for the past few months. It’s called a deadline. Just last week I finished the first draft of Everfound. I’m thrilled with it, but I thought it might be worth sharing the love/hate relationship I have with my novels while I’m writing them. I think most authors can attest to the fact that writing a book is like giving birth. Alright it doesn’t hurt THAT much, but it’s a pretty exhausting, and painful process to push something forth from your brain, work it, rework it, obsess over it, spend sleepless nights, and write until your fingers and brain feels like they are going to fall off. Everfound was no exception.

I had a huge task before me with this book.  The completion of a trilogy is always very difficult. I experienced it first with SHATTERED SKY, which I consider to be one of the best books I’ve written–and closest to UNWIND in style.  With each book of a trilogy, new characters are added, and only a few characters leave the story, so by the time you get to the last book, not only do you have a story you have to tell, but A) you have dozens of characters to write about, B) You have to make the story bigger and better than the first two C) You have to resolve everyone’s story in a satisfying way. Throughout Everfound, the challenge was all consuming. With every book I write, I bite off as much as I can possibly chew, and barely stay above water (How’s that for a mixed metaphor).

The scope of Everlost is massive, and the journeys the characters make are epic — both the physical journeys, as well as the internal journeys. Plus there are two  new main character, and several new secondary characters. There’s the new character of JIX. Jix (which is Mayan for “jaguar”) is a skinjacker whose specialty is skinjacking great cats (furjacking). He is now just as important as Nick, Allie, Mikey, and Mary in the story. There’s also Clarence, a character who exists partway in Everlost, and partway out. There are new groups of kids our characters come across in Texas, Mexico, and other points of the globe. And there’s the return of a character we saw in EVERLOST, but not EVERWILD. (I won’t tell you who).

There are basically four separate story lines that need to converge. Allie and the train that has just crossed the Mississippi at the end of Everwild; the character of Jix; Mikey and Nick; and then what happens to Mary. As I was writing, the hardest thing to do was to bring the four storylines together, because the characters all wanted to do different things than I wanted them to do — but I have to go with the characters choices, not my own, otherwise it won’t feel true to those characters. That’s why the book took 465 pages to bring home! More on Friday.

School Library Journal Review of UNWIND audio!

March 6, 2010

Unwind (unabr.). 9 CDs. 10:16 hrs. Brilliance Audio. 2009. ISBN 978-1-4233-7308-7. $97.97.

Gr 7 Up—Set in the future, the second civil war is fought over abortion. To end the war, a compromise is reached that ends the practice of abortion but creates an alternative called “unwinding.” Between the ages of 13 and 17, parents or guardians can choose to have their children unwound, which involves having every part of their bodies harvested to be “donated” to another person so, technically, they don’t really die. The complex and compelling plot follows three teens whose stories intertwine when they escape while on their way to the harvest camps. Fifteen-year-old Connor’s parents can no longer control him. Lev, a tithe, was raised by religious parents for the sole purpose of being unwound. Risa, a ward of the state, is a victim of shrinking budgets since she is not a talented enough musician to be kept alive. Neal Shusterman’s engrossing novel (S & S, 2007) is narrated in an even cadence and matter-of-fact tone that suits the author’s straightforward narrative style. His wide array of voices makes the involved story line, which is left wide open for what is sure to be an interesting sequel, easy to follow. This gripping, thought-provoking novel is guaranteed to lead to interesting discussions about abortion, adoption, organ donation, religion, politics, and health care.—Karen T. Bilton, Mary Jacobs Memorial Library, Rocky Hill, NJ

Heck, Upside Down…

January 18, 2010

I have always  loved cruise ships.  I loved the idea of them long before I ever took my first cruise.  It all started, I think with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.  Not one of the various remakes, but the original, with Shelly Winters, and Gene Hackman.  I saw it when I was eleven.  My father actually took me all the way into Manhattan to see it — which he never did.  The advertisements billed it as “Hell upside down.”  To me it was heaven.  For an eleven-year-old, that crazy, campy movie was a life-changing experience.  Oh, how I wanted to be in a big giant ship that turned upside down.   I became obsessed with the movie, drawing pictures of the Poseidon in various stages of capsizing and sinking. I read the book by Paul Gallico. I even wrote him a letter, which he never responded to on account of he died.  How inconsiderate of him.

I secretly watched The Love Boat as a teenager.  All I knew about Mexico was that Princess Cruises went to some mystical place called Puerto Vallarta.  Now I own a time-share there.

Then, in my adulthood I took my first honest-to-goodness real-life cruise in 1994.  The Big Red Boat.  My sons, Brendan and Jarrod were 5 and 2.  I was, from that moment, hooked.   Once a year after that we went on some cruise somewhere, always trying to find a different ship, experiencing the various cruise lines.  I discovered that Carnival is great for kids and for people who like to party, however has the largest flesh-to-tattoo ratio I’ve ever seen.  Celebrity is not for people with small, loud children.  Princess has the best frozen drinks, Norwegian has the worst food, Holland America is for people who are already dead, and Royal Caribbean is generally best all around — people of all ages, great activities for kids and adults, and the coolest ships.

In 1996, I received a brochure in the mail about the largest cruise ship in the world: The Carnival Destiny.  101,000 tons of Caribbean joy.   My kids begged and begged that we go on it — and not just on any cruise, but it’s MAIDEN VOYAGE!

Did we dare?

Did we have the audacity to book the maiden voyage of the largest cruise ship in the world?

Oh yeah!

The departure out of Miami was a city-wide party.  Helicopters circled, news vans reported from the pier. Traffic was shut down as the Destiny left port.  We had a floor to ceiling window in our cabin.  I woke to the rising sun at least three mornings.  Heaven.

But where do you go in 1996 after you’ve done the maiden voyage of the largest ship in the world?
Answer:  You go see TITANIC the day that it opens.

I will not tell you how many times I saw Titanic on the big screen.  I’ll give you a hint:  it was not quite as many times as I went to see the first STAR WARS, but a few more times than I went to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.  Some people went for the romance.  I went for the ship.  Watching the Titanic sink on the big screen was like reliving my childhood viewing of the Poseidon Adventure.  There are simply some childhood memories, some youthful indulgences we never do  grow out of.  For me it was the surrealistic nature of sinking luxury vessels.

And then… Like magic… I made a REMARKABLE discovery!

I had deadlines coming out of my ears, so I had rented a hotel room for a week as a writing retreat.  It was a fairly cheap  (in other words lousy) hotel, but I needed time away from home to focus on my work.  Still, that rotten hotel cost way too much.

…Then I happened to glance at the prices of cruises.

Did you know that during the off season, you can take a seven day cruise for about $400 to Mexico, or anywhere in the Caribbean?  $400!  That’s half the price of that lousy hotel AND you get food… AND entertainment, AND a lounge chair, AND a 360 degree view of the ocean that changes every day!

I cancelled the hotel, and went on a cruise instead.  I was amazed at how much writing I got done!

Since then I book about four floating writing retreats a year.  I only book trips to places I’ve already been, so I don’t get tempted to get off the ship and explore.  I’m there to write.  I write 12 to 15 hours a day, then I work out — which I do more on ships then I do at home — then I eat, and then the gentle motion of the ocean rocks me to sleep.

I still take my family on cruises.  Sometimes It’s just me and the kids.  Sometimes I bring my parents along.  Sometimes it’s just me and my girlfriend, Chris.  In fact, I’m writing this on a cruise right now (but I’ll get to that later).

People think cruises are for old people, and although there are always quite a few retirees on the ships, somehow cruises keep me young. They feed me — and I’m not just talking about the buffets.  I  believe that there is  something wonderful about a group of strangers taking a communal journey.

And how cool if it sinks.


Right now I’m sailing on the Oasis of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s brand new flagship which is almost twice the size of any other ship afloat.  It’s the closest thing to science fiction I’ve ever seen.  I’ll blog all about it on Thursday. Stay tuned.  (And I’ll stay tanned.)

Library Heaven in Columbus, GA

November 28, 2009

I recently spoke in Columbus Georgia. Columbus is a town that clearly struggles with harsh economic times. Everywhere you can see boarded up abandoned buildings. And yet there is  positive spirit there in the face of economic woes. The first thing that struck me was he performing arts center in a downtown area in the midst of renewal. A grand an inviting structure. But nothing could prepare me for the library.

Historically a library is the grand salon of a community. A comfortable place for  people to gather, to study, to read, to enlighten themselves. The Columbus Central library is the benchmark of what a modern library should be. Vast comfortable spaces dozens of public computers. Light streaming in from huge windows. I could live in this library.  There is huge support in the community for the arts and for the library System; things that transcend the here-and-now and look to the future.

I think to my home state of California, where libraries – particularly school libraries are severely underfunded and in some cases even shutting down.  The health of a community  can be judged not by it’s wealth but by how it chooses to spend it’s resources. By investing in it’s libraries, Columbus has invested in it’s future. It’s good to see a community with it’s heart and priorities in the right place.

Banding Together…

November 14, 2009

I attended a surreal concert on Halloween (is there any other). The band was Dead Mans Party — an Oingo Boingo tribute band. They were pretty good. But what made it surreal was the opening act. A guy called Elviss Simmons. He was a fat Elvis personator in KISS make up.elviss
He sang KISS songs the way Elvis would have, and Elvis songs the way KISS would have. Very bizarre.

But then I started thinking why stop there?  There are so many performers and bands out there it would be much more efficient if they could be genetically combined. So I’ve put
together a sample list for you:

Black sABBAth. Featuring the musical stylings of Ozzie Osbjörn.
“You can dance, you can jive… and bite off the head of a bat…”

And considering the fact that geography is being cut from most high school curriculums, why not combine all those geographical bands into Bosto-Chicag-Alabam-Kansa-Berlin?

For those of you who like abbreviations, R.E.M.E.L.O.
(“That’s me in the corner, losing my Evil Woman…”)

And isn’t it about time we combined hip-hop with 80’s pop by creating Soulja Boy George?

Eminem Mraz?  Because most candy is made by that company anyway.

Oingo Bono.
“It’s a deadman party ,who could ask for more?
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Nickelbackstreet Boys. ‘Nuff said.

Performing for Thanksgiving we have The Cranberry-Byrds.

For some latin flavor tastefully blended with a fine female songstress, we have Medudodido.

And last, but not least, we have the dark, brooding, yet fashionably neurotic sounds of  Jim Morrisette.

(This is the end. Isn’t it ironic?)

EVERWILD – the first review is in!

November 3, 2009

everwild final coverHi, everyone!  Here’s the first review of  Everwild, due out on November 10th!  KIRKUS is one of the toughest review journals, so this kind of praise from them is a fine thing indeed!!

EVERWILD –Kirkus Reviews

Everlost is where children go when they die, if they miss their chance to go into the light or are just not ready to transition into the hereafter. It’s a world between, where lost souls search for safety, for permanence or just a feeling of belonging (not unlike real life). Mary seeks to trap children there forever as her loyal—but unwitting—followers. Nick, the Chocolate Ogre, has already discovered how to send these lost souls into the light and is determined to fight Mary before he turns completely into a chocolate statue. Allie can move back to the real world by hijacking the body of a living being, but she can’t move on into the light, even if she wanted to. In this sequel to Everlost (2006), Shusterman has once again created a world that is beautiful and imaginative yet increasingly eerie and grim. Each character grows, developing new aspects of their personality and finding out just how far they’ll go to achieve their aims, whether anyone else likes it or not. Everlost is turning into Everwild, right before readers’ eyes. A fascinating read penned by an expert hand.

Oooh – I love that last line! 🙂

Dead and Breakfast…

November 1, 2009

I spent two nights in the Haunted Mansion last month.  No, really.  It was bizarre.  When I travel, I usually just go in for a Marriott, or Comfort Suites — you know the typical, predictable hotels that are so uniform, I can’t remember what city I’m in when I wake up in the morning.haunted hotel4 But every once in a while, I’ll go for a bed-and-breakfast. Especially when I’m someplace picturesque and rural.  I’ve come across some of the coolest B&Bs around the US.  The Cobblestone Manor in Rochester Michigan, the Bonnynook inn Waxahachie, Texas.  And then there’s the Evergreen in Anderson, South Carolina.

Okay, to be fair, the Evergreen WOULD have been one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed.  It’s a pair of old plantation homes renovated to perfection.  Charming, elegant, all that.  Except for one thing.

I was the only soul on the entire property.

I arrived at night, and thought it was odd when I pulled into the isolated parking lot, that my dinky little Ford Focus rent-a-car was the only vehicle in the lot.  I had received an e-mail from the innkeeper telling me the combination to the back door.  But which back door?  On which building.  It was raining, it was dark, and I had to to circle two buildings that each had half a dozen doors to find the one that had a combination to get in.  As I was checking the doors, I started to consider that if I was attacked by oh, say, an escaped lunatic, my body might lay there on the back porch for days until I was discovered.

Once inside, there was a credit card slip and an envelope  (I gave my credit card over the phone).  And then I found my room.

haunted hotel2 You know the eight-sided room they put you in when you go into the Haunted Mansion?  The one that slowly stretches and ends with a skeleton hanging from the rafters?  This was room.   Creepy wallpaper, creepier chandelier.  The room was labeled  “The Library.”  As if it wasn’t creepy enough, for some reason the room had a door to the outside that remained locked, but shook every time the wind blew, as if some lost spirit were trying to find a way in.   I went upstairs to check out the rest of the place.  While the downstairs resembed the Haunted Mansion, the upstairs was more reminiscent of “The Shining.”   I dared myself to go into one of the dark bathrooms and pull back the shower curtain, half expecting to see a Stephen King-esque  rotting corpse.  I read the Shining when I was in 8th Grade.  I still remember the number of the room.  Room 217.  In the movie, for some reason they chaned it to 237, but for me it will always be room 217.  Whenever I travel, and end up with a hotel room that’s #217, I always have to take a moment to calm the inner child.

Back down to “The Library,”  Where Professor Plum killed Coronel Mustard with the candlestick.  The lights in my room had dimmers, but when I dimmed them, the place REEEEALLLY looked like the Haunted Mansion. So I slept with the lights on.haunted hotel1

I left early for  a school visit to Starr Iva Middle school.  Breakfast had been mysteriously left in the Evergreen’s refrigerator for me.  Fruit and two muffins.

When I arrived back at the Evergreen in the afternoon, there was a car in the parking lot!  At last a real live human!  I took a quick shower and went out to introduce myself to the person I assumed was the innkeeper.  But when I got out of the shower, the car was gone.  And there were two muffins and fruit left in the refrigerator.

I managed to sleep with only the bathroom light on that night, but every time that door to the outside rattled, I woke up.  I left in the morning, downing my muffins and fruit.  I never did see another soul on the entire property.  At least not a living one.   I did sign the guest book, though.  I wrote, in finest Jack Nicholson fashion, “All work and no play makes jack a dull boy all work and no play makes jack a dull boy all work and no play makes jack a dull boy.”   Next time, I think I’ll stay at the Marriott, where the only REDRUM is in the lobby bar.

Where the Wind Comes Sweepin’ Down the Plain…

October 28, 2009

I had never heard of Ada Oklahoma.  All I knew was that I had been invited, and it was on my speaking schedule. Sometimes my speaking trips are so similar, I can forget exactly where I am.  “Am I in Kansas? No that was last week, this week is Iowa.”  The schools are aways very polite, the students excited and most of the time they know the books.

But from he moment I arrived in Ada, I knew this was not going to be a typical author visit.  I was greeted at the airport in Oklahoma City by Ada’s scout troop 13 – where I met scoutmaster John Garber; the mastermind behind my entire visit. A wildly energetic guy who has mastered the fine art of never growing up.  This is an art I try to master, with mixed results.    “I hope you don’t mind riding in a bus,” Dr. Garber said.  I thought he was joking.  No!  He brought the troop in a church schoolbus.  I was actually delighted. This was not going to be the dull 90 minute exhausted-after-flying two passenger drive I was expecting.  I rode with a bus load of scouts who had all read a whole bunch of my books and had great questions.  Since the ride was a long one, I gathered the kids around, and opened my laptop, reading a story no one — and I mean no one — had ever heard before.  A story called “Resurrection Bay.”   33 pages, which took almost an hour to read.  With nothing but the computer light shining on my face, it was like reading a story around a 21st century campfire.   I don’t know who had more fun, the kids, or me.

We arrived at my hotel and The Holiday Inn was then beset by a scout troop escorting me to the check-in desk.

The next day, I was picked up in the morning in a 1929 Model A Ford Coupe, and driven to my first set of speaking gigs.

ada model A

At lunch time I was the guest of honor at a performance by members of the community in period clothing re-enacting  (well, not actually re-enacting) the “Four Men Hanging,” an infamous lynching of notorious criminals, which is the event that brought an end to the “the wild west.”  Then, in the evening, we had a “dry-run” of Dr. Garber’s haunted house.   I thought my family did the haunted house thing pretty well, but this one put my house to shame.  I took my place in full ghoul regalia, at the front door, pretending to be an animatronic monster, until people actually passed by at which point I would scare the shitake mushrooms out of them.  I am told that 991 people showed up on Halloween last year.  I’m sorry I have to miss the real thing, but I’ll be back in California by then.

On day two, I was picked up by a 1928 Model A sedan, and taken to my speaking venue.   The Chickasaw tribe had planned to have some traditional dancers perform in my honor, but apparently word got out, and as word-of-mouth will do, it became like the game of telephone. “Some guy who sometimes writes for the Disney Channel is speaking in Ada,” magically turned into “A film crew from the Disney Channel is in Ada, and is going to be taping Native American Dancers.”   Suddenly a Native American dance troop all the way from Oklahoma City showed up hoping to be a part of the festivities.  And so the dance began, and when it ended, I was presented with an eagle feather by the Chickasaw Nation.  This, if you don’t know, is an incredible honor!  You can bet that feather is going in a place of honor in my home. ( I was assured that an eagle feather is legal when presented by an Indian tribe, and if TSA tries to take it away at the security check, they are in for a fight).

chickasaw dancers

After a few booksignings, I was then whisked away to a Dia De Los Muertos celebration. “I know we’re in breach of your contract,” Dr. Garber said, “making you do all these things.”   What my contract doesn’t state is that you can breach it all you want, as long as I’m having a good time, and actually want to be there — which I did.

So now it’s 10:30 at night, and I’ve just gotten back to my hotel.  Am I exhausted? Yes.  Would I have missed anything today?  No!  The warm reception I’m getting everywhere I’m going is worth sacrificing some free time.

I understand that arrangements are being made for tomorrow, and that I may be picked up in a hearse.  With a coffin.  (It is not clear as to whether I am expected to ride in the coffin, and then pop out at the school visit.  I may draw the line at that, though).  Be that as it may, this has rapidly turned into one of my all time favorite speaking trips, ranking right up there with my amazing trip to Guam a few years back!

Ada Okahoma.  Who’d a thunk it?