The Story of Youtube

In 2012, after OWEN was written and sold, a video was posted to Youtube. It was a cover of a popular song, and what made the video interesting was that it featured five people playing the song on guitar. On one guitar.

I hadn’t even heard the original when I first saw the video (not uncommon for me), but I was hooked. This, I knew, was how Siobhan made her mark on the world. More accurately, this was how EMILY made Siobhan’s mark on the world.

I remember when American Idol first came out, and a bunch of my friends who are, uh, shall we say “choosy” in their music habits were all “UGH, this is terrible”. I was fascinated, though, because I felt like I finally got to see how music packaging works*.

(Side note: my dad’s favourite bands include ABBA and The Mama’s and The Papa’s, so from the time I was small, I was no stranger to music that was arranged rather deliberately.)

And this is Emily’s world. She is very good at the internet, and she’s the one who talks Siobhan into actually putting the music up for wider consumption. It never would have occurred to Hannah and Lottie (or Owen, for that matter), which is one of the reasons I like Emily so much, even though her scenes are a pain to write.

This was a bit of a shift for me, though, because the musician I had originally modelled Siobhan on was slightly different. Her name is Heather Dale, and she is a true bard. Heather started off writing for Renaissance Faires, and eventually recorded CDs and sold them, and travels a lot to perform. I really cannot understate how beautiful her music is. Every time I play it for someone new, they ask me who she is and comment on her words and voice and diction. She might be the best I have ever heard.

Heather has also made really great use of Youtube, as Siobhan eventually does, but the fact that they both got their start “off camera” gives them a slightly different style. It was a lot of fun to play around with. Heather’s music is intrinsically part of my concept of Siobhan herself and of Siobhan’s musical leanings (in particular THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO in The Story of Owen, and JOAN in Prairie Fire).

I think the BEST thing about music on Youtube, though, is that if you are talented, people will find you. It’s the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, only with music instead of baseball. Siobhan is very talented, and her music catches on because it is familiar…with a twist. My current Youtube infatuation is a duo that I think really captures every part of that.

(Also, check out their cover of TAKE ME TO CHURCH because: my heart.)

The Brooklyn Duo is a thing I never would have heard of, were it not for Youtube. And yet, because they recorded a video and put it on the site, and then someone brought it to Taylor Swift’s attention and she tweeted about it, and because I follow Taylor Swift on Twitter, I have heard of them, and I absolutely adore them.

This is how Siobhan’s music works. She doesn’t have to go town to town, singing for her supper (though she would if she did). Her music reaches farther than she imagined, farther than Lottie ever hoped, because it travels at the speed of WiFi, all around the world.

PRAIRIE FIRE is a bigger stage, and Siobhan’s not entirely ready for it yet, but she will be. She will be.

 

Prairie Fire comes out on March 1st, and is available for pre-order.

 

*So it’s not entirely a Youtube thing. Or even a CURRENT thing. Ed Sullivan was really good at finding niche acts to round out his show (my favourite is Gayla Peevey’s I WANT A HIPPOPOTAMUS FOR CHRISTMAS), but my father had to go to someone else’s house to watch that show. Youtube is much more accessible, and much more difficult to control.

 

And then, a sequel

There are usually some pretty good reasons to write a sequel. Here are some terrible reasons I had:

  • I had promised Tessa Gratton that I would burn down Kansas.
  • I had a vague desire to sic a dragon on the town of Hinton, because one time I was working a contract there in December, and I fell in a creek and had to cut myself out of my snow pants.
  • A song I really liked was exactly the wrong shape for OWEN, but I thought might be okay for PRAIRIE FIRE.
  • I had already come up with the title.

But here is the real reason I ended up writing it:

  • I always knew this part of the story.

In May of 2011, before I sat down to write THE STORY OF OWEN properly, I stood on a bluff overlooking the Athabasca River just outside of Whitecourt, Alberta, and I knew that someday, Owen and Siobhan would go there. It was sunny and windy – too windy, we would learn – and not too cold. Everything about the day was perfect, until we got back to our hotel. “Oh, thank goodness!” the hotel owner said. “You’re the last field crew to come in. I’m so glad you’re safe.” Alberta, it turned out, was on fire. The flames were jumping fire-breaks and highways.  For the next week, the woods were full of noise; there were helicopters and smoke in the air. And that was how PRAIRIE FIRE started.

I came home from Alberta and wrote THE STORY OF OWEN. Then I sold it*, and got an agent. “Is it a trilogy?” my agent asked. “No,” I said. “Can you pretend it is?” he asked. So I did. I pretended there was a second and third book, even though I had no idea what happened in Book 2 and didn’t really want to write Book 3. And everything was going swimmingly until we started editing, and Andrew kept asking questions like “How does the Oil Watch work?” and “No, really, what is up with Sadie?”, and I did my best not to think about it.

But I was. I was thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it so much that I had come up with a dragon for them to fight and a couple of new characters, and a whole “new” city**. And then I got on a plane to fly to Texas, and listened to THE FIREBIRD SUITE on my iPod, and cried a bit, and wrote, quite fatefully After the Thorskards came to Trondheim, we always had a permanent dragon slayer.

I emailed Josh (“Remember that time you asked me if there was another book and I told you there wasn’t another book? I’m writing another book.”), and Josh talked to Andrew, and I wrote Chapter 1, and then we had a deal for it, and then I buckled down to write the rest.

I was terrified that I would experience Second Book Trauma, but I really didn’t. Instead I had regular old physical trauma, and was unable to sit in a chair (at Starbucks, or anywhere), and so had to mostly write in bed, which is not a lot of fun. Unlike my previous books, which I wrote mostly in one place, I never wrote PRAIRIE FIRE in the same place twice. It was very weird. Also, I had to send the last ten chapters to Emma while she was on her honeymoon, which will be funnier after YOU have read the last ten chapters, but then you’ll understand why John, her husband, gets a spot in the acknowledgements.

The thing I like about PRAIRIE FIRE is that it’s the third book in a trilogy. Sort of. Sarah Rees Brennan has famously said that the basic breakdown of a trilogy is: Meet Up, Make Out, Take Over The World, and I am following that model, but skipping Book 2 (it’s not even because of the kissing! It’s because the whole plot is about small town/rural Canadian politics and NO ONE ALIVE cares about that enough to read it in a book, even if the book has dragons). My apologies to Sadie Fletcher.

I really liked the bigger world, higher stakes, and [redacted for spoilers] that came with writing PRAIRIE FIRE. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

PRAIRIE FIRE comes out on March 1, and is available for pre-order now.

 

 

*Slightly more complicated than that.
**Blog posts to come, obviously.

Two Important Things

1. THE STORY OF OWEN is nominated for the 2015 Morris Award!

the story of owen

I am beyond thrilled about this, and very excited. Thank you to everyone for all of your support.

2. At a writing retreat in Tennessee in October, I made some Oreo truffles that were sort of epic.

SONY DSC

They are quite appropriate for Christmas, and dead easy to make, so here is the recipe:

Step One – Buy two bags of oreos, one block of cream cheese (not low fat), some hard candy mints (or a couple of candy canes), a thing of baker’s melting chocolate.

Step Two – Crush oreos. Mix with cream cheese. Roll into balls 1″ in diameter. Put in fridge for 20 minutes.

Step Three – Crush mints.

Step Four – Melt chocolate. Drop oreo balls into chocolate, roll around for a bit, then pick up with a fork. Allow to drip for a second, then place on waxed paper. Sprinkle with crushed up mints.

Step Five – Put in fridge or freezer until hard.

Step Six – Become the hero of whatever small town it is you are from.

You can also decorate the tops with different colours of melty chocolate and mix the candy canes right in. It really depends on your aesthetic.

Cap salutes

(Word) Crime and Pun-ishment

One of the things I loved the most about BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was the way that the characters used words. I mean, every TV show and book uses words, but the BUFFY crew managed to do something really cool. Without inventing words or borrowing from other languages (both of which Whedon would do later), the show managed to be linguistically interesting. I could imagine real people talking the way the characters did, because it was such a natural extension of English.

Well, mostly natural.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to do with my books. I was adding dragons to the world, and I wanted to think about any of the ways that dragons might have changed the way we talk, without changing the way we talk entirely. The key is that you have to know the rules to break them, and I do know the rules. That’s part of what makes it so much fun.

I batted around a bunch of ideas, but ended up deciding on one small change. Since dying, or at least the threat of dying, was so central to the idea of dragon slaying, the words I ended up fiddling with were two verbs: “to kill” and “to slay”.

we are going to die

I set them up as two entirely different words. If a dragons died, it was never, ever, ever “killed”. That word was reserved for humans entirely. I wanted a hard opposite for dragons, which was a problem, because “to slay” has a different form. You have slayed the dragon, but the dragon has been slain.

I didn’t want that. I wanted the word to always be the same. I decided to go with “slayed”, even though it was not entirely grammatically sound, because it was a good mirror for “killed”. Unfortunately “kiln” is not a word that I can use in this context, so it had to be “killed” and “slayed” right from the get go.

Now, I ran approximately a hundred million Ctrl F searches on “killed” and “slain” just to be sure I hadn’t made an oversight while I writing. The only thing I checked more obsessively was the number of syllables in the haiku at the end of the St. George chapter. My point here is that “slayed” is not a mistake. Ever. In the text, in the world of Owen and Siobhan, it is the only word that means you have ended the life of a dragon.

that's how we roll in the shire

I fought with at least one test reader over this from the very beginning, but I was determined to leave it as it was written. During revisions, I explained the world building to my editor, and got to keep it. A couple of reviewers have mentioned using “slayed” as a criticism, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this post. I’m very glad I got to keep my somewhat awkward word choice, though, and that it stayed as subtle as it is, because most of the world building I got to do was very subtle (well, as subtle as a dragon can be), and much of it was word based.

The other place I got to world build was, of course, with the dragons themselves. Here, it was mostly with the dragon’s names, thought obviously their historical impact also came into play.

In OWEN, the dragons are mostly referred to by their Latin (or scientific) names. The corn dragon is my exception, because it’s also my joke: there is no word in Latin for corn, because corn is a North American crop. Accordingly, the dragon is actually called the wheat dragon, which is why it is stupid, and sometimes cannot tell corn from beans.

PRAIRIE FIRE has my favourite dragon name word joke, by far, and also my favourite dragon. But you will have to wait for that.

smaug

The Bayfield Writers’ Festival

I spent most of Saturday in my old stomping grounds, Huron County, where THE STORY OF OWEN is set. I had been invited to speak at the Bayfield Writers’ Festival, put on by the Bayfield Bookshop, and saying “yes” to the invitation was very easy!

Bayfield (named for Admiral Bayfield who, amongst other things, mapped a lot of Canadian coast of Lake Huron), is a gorgeous town, and the weather was bright and sunny. The other writers were all from Toronto, and the comments that kept getting repeated were all to the tune of “This place is so NICE!”

IMG_20140621_113938020

For real. I didn’t put the actual town of Bayfield in my book because I didn’t want to light it on fire. That is how much I love it.

Anyway, the festival was lovely! The town hall was full, and the other writers all gave excellent readings. I was a bit worried, as the only YA writer in the crowd (the audience was mostly retirees), but they all laughed at the right places during my reading, and the Q&A was great.

My favourite part was during the public Q&A part. When the moderator asked if there were any audience questions, there was the traditional 20 seconds of dead silence, and then a woman in the audience said:

“My question is for Kate. What is the Oxford Comma?”

(I mention the Oxford Comma in the jacket of my book, as part of my about the author. Because I am that kind of nerd.)

So I got to nerd out about grammar, and make everyone laugh a couple of times, and we all learned a valuable life lesson about the difference between peanut butter and jam and tuna sandwiches, and peanut butter and jam, and tuna sandwiches.

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After that it was off to the Lion’s Club Chicken BBQ dinner in Seaforth. It’s an elimination draw, along with your food. Once upon a time, the prize was a tractor. The only people I know who ever won it weren’t farmers, so they sold the tractor and basically built another house on top of their existing house. Now it’s money, but it’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, while we were eating (the largest piece of chicken I have ever seen), and they were drawing (number after number after number), I got to catch up with all kind of people I haven’t seen in a long time, and then a funny thing happened.

One of the women I used to work with at the Nursing Home came over and asked to buy a book (I had brought a couple with me for just this purpose), and while we were talking, she mentioned that she had tried to buy the copy I donated to a charity auction a few weeks ago, except someone kept outbidding her.

I never donated a copy to a charity auction! But someone did! And there was a bidding war, because my co-worker wanted a copy (it was signed), and the owner of the family hardware store in town wanted it too (because his store is in the book, as Archie’s bookstore in Saltrock).

I signed the book, and we both went back to attempting to eat our chicken (thank goodness people kept interrupting and giving me a chance to digest, or I might still be there), and then there was lemon cake, and then we began the two hour process of trying to actually get out of the building.

Fun times, basically.

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Now that I’ve done a couple of school visits in Huron County, I’ve had more than one student be INCREDIBLY surprised that I could write a fun book about the place. I certainly would not have believed it myself, and didn’t, back when I was their age. And yet: a woman with a walker shook my hand and told me she was “mad for dragons”, and at dinner, there was hilarity and excellent food. They might not all be great stories to tell or hear, but they all have the seeds of them, I think, and that is how I do it. I find what’s there. And then I make a dragon attack it.

(Except in Bayfield. Bayfield is too pretty to die.)

Book Launch Party

So! My book THE STORY OF OWEN: DRAGON SLAYER OF TRONDHEIM came out on March 1, and we had a party to celebrate at this AMAZING toy store called Family & Co., which is in Stratford. I have been going to that store since I was five years old, so it was the perfect place to celebrate a book that is mostly about family and company. And, you know, lighting things on fire.

ImageThere was a great crowd, and a beautiful display.

ImageAND! My nephews and niece came in COSTUME!

ImageHOW CUTE ARE THEY?

My friend Rachel made me some delicious cupcakes and this astounding cake topper that captures one of my favourite scenes in the book.

ImageAll told, it was a really amazing evening. So many of my favourite people where there, and it was wonderful to share my happiness with them. Also, they laughed at the funny parts when I read, which was nice.

ImageAND HERE I AM ON A BOOKSHELF! RIGHT NEXT TO MAUREEN JOHNSON!

Image

Some Exciting News

*blows dust off of blog*

Sorry, wordpress. Tumblr’s just so pretty.

ANYWAY, there is some GREAT NEWS for Kate fans! I got to do my cover reveal on an in-universe tumblr the week before last, and I’m still not really tired of looking at it, so HERE IT IS AGAIN:

OWEN - Front Cover

But that’s not all!

CarolrhodaLab has put up their spring book list, so you can see my book, and all the books that will be released around the same time.

If you click here and scroll down a bit, there’s a link on the right hand side where you can download THE STORY OF LOTTIE, the first chapter of my book.

You can also pre-order it at the Lerner website, or at Barnes and Noble. If you want to tweet me about it, @ek_johnston, you will pretty much make my day.

Hopefully, I will have a Chapters link for you soon.

That’s all for now! But I am starting to get super excited, so I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about soon.

The Difference A Year Makes

One year ago today, I sent the most nerve-wracking email of my entire life. It looked like this:

Dear Andrew:

Please find attached my YA novel, The Story of Owen. It’s 65,865 words long, and if pressed, I’d say the subgenre is contemporary fantasy. Based on what I know about Carolrhoda Lab and the books you’ve published, I think The Story of Owen would be a good fit because it’s contemporary with a twist.

I’m sending this to you on a non-exclusive basis, and I will let you know if I get another offer or accept agent representation.

I look forward to hearing from you sometime before the end of 2012,
Kate Johnston

It doesn’t look that scary. And it looks even LESS scary when you know that the only parts of it I wrote were:

THE STORY OF OWEN,
65,865,
Comtemporary Fantasy,
THE STORY OF OWEN, and
contemporary with a twist

Seriously. It was FILL IN THE BLANK. That’s the whole query. That’s also why I have never really posted much of a “how I got my book deal” story. Because my story is profoundly useless to other people.

Except. Except it might not be entirely so.

Yes, by the time I queried OWEN I had spent a year on Twitter networking and getting to know how other writers worked. Yes, I read a CRAP TON of books. Yes, I had painstakingly written a different query for two other novels at this point. Yes, I had even tackled the dreaded synopsis. But while all of those things turned out to be tangentially important, there are two things that I often overlook that are MORE important.

The first is that I wrote the book. I realize that seems like an odd thing to forget, but you can have all the connections and have done all the homework, and if you don’t have the book, you can’t sell it. All the other things help (a lot, I can’t understate that: they help A LOT), but at the end of the day, you have to have written the book.

The second thing is that I took a chance. I had my list of preferred agents, but at the very last minute, I decided to query Andrew Karre as well. Andrew was hosting an open call at the time, and it was the second one he’d done since I’d finished writing OWEN*. I had wanted to query the first time, but one of the “no”s was “6. I don’t do high fantasy. Here there be no dragons.“, and that took me out. The second time, though, it just said “any YA subgenre except high fantasy“. And I rolled the dice**.

The rest, as they say, is history. Within a week I had added 18,000 words to the manuscript at Andrew’s suggestion. Within two weeks, I had an agent. And within a month I had a book deal.

So maybe I got lucky. And maybe I knew the right people. But I wrote the book. And I took a chance. And I sent an email that made me nervous.

And I’ve never looked back.

 

 

 

*Though the first since I had really thoroughly EDITED it.
**I am a PEDANTIC rule follower, which is why the first time I went with “no dragons” knowing the book wasn’t high fantasy, and why the second time, I was all “OH GOD I AM BREAKING THE RULES” even though the book STILL wasn’t high fantasy. At this point, I’d been job hunting for MONTHS and I was very good at being “creative” when it came to requirements. Sometimes I still worry that I am not weird enough for Carolrhoda, even though clearly I am. 🙂

Going On An Adventure!

In lieu of an actual blog post, I thought I would tell you about the writing retreat I am about to head off on.

Our story begins some months ago, when I got an email from Natalie C. Parker asking me if, should she organize a writing retreat, I would like to go. This was, you may recall, about a month before I started querying THE STORY OF OWEN, and I was also unemployed, but I decided right then that I would make it happen.

And happen it has! I leave tomorrow, for a house in Texas where I’ll be staying with 21 other people. Some, like me, are awaiting our debuts. Some are established authors. A couple are New York Times Bestsellers.

To say that I am excited would be an understatement. I have no idea what is going to happen, or if I am going to get much work done (I have a list. It’s almost as exciting as the actual retreat). But between the list of attendees of whom I’m in awe and the list of attendees I’ve been dying to meet for a while now, I’m bouncing up and down like a kid at Christmas.

THE OTHERS:

Brandy Allard, @BrandyAllard
Anna Carey, @AnnaCareyBooks
Rae Carson, @raecarson
Corinne Duyvis, @corinneduyvis
Sonia Gensler, @soniagensler
Tessa Gratton, @tessagratton
Bethany Hagen, @Bethany_Hagen
Tara Hudson, @thudsonwrites
Emily Kate Johnston, @ek_johnston
Michelle Krys, @michellekrys
Gretchen McNeil, @GretchenMcNeil
Myra McEntire, @MyraMcEntire
Amy Parker, @amychristinepar
Natalie C Parker, @nataliecparker
Amy Plum, @AmyPlumOhLaLa
Beth Revis, @bethrevis
Carrie Ryan, @carrieryan
Victoria Schwab, @veschwab
Amy Tintera, @amytintera
Kim Welchons, @Kim_Welchons
Stephanie Winkelhake, @StephieWink
Brenna Yovanoff, @brennayovanoff

SEE? *breathes into a paper bag*

The other exciting thing in my life is that I have just sent my (mostly) completely revisions to Editor Person. I mean, there’s one big change to attempt still, and presumably some tweaking because I had some questions, but generally speaking my Book Shaped Thing is much more Book Shaped now, and I am very, very pleased with it.

Right now, I have to pack. And quadruple check my travel documents. And set three alarms because it’s Lose An Hour Night, and I forget if my phone changes automatically*.

But mostly, things are good. And there are new things. That I hope to tell you, as soon as I can.

 

 

*I had this exact debate with myself in the fall, when the clocks went back, but I can’t remember the result.

Looking Out The Window

Since I am about to plunge into my own revisions and face down decisions about what to do with things like cellphones and laptop computers, I thought it might be a good time to talk about credibility in fiction when it comes to methods of communication. Or, you know, it’s entirely possible that I’ve been thinking a lot about Middle Earth and this just seems like as good a post as any to hang this on. You pick. 🙂

Anyhoodle, one of the things I always had an easy time wrapping my head around as a kid was how BIG Middle Earth was. I know a lot of people complain about the plodding pace of the Hobbit and The Fellowship, in particular, but it’s a LONG way anywhere in Middle Earth. The movies more or less completely fail to capture this, despite the lingering shots of New Zealand. They try. I mean, Gimli has a line about how it’s been three days without sight of their quarry, but I have my doubts that the days and days in Mirkwood (without food, no less!) will make it into the movie.

And mostly that’s fine. There are nuances that simply do not translate well to modern movies, even though it does have the unfortunate side effect of making Thranduil look like a jerk because he could have solved 90% of Middle Earth’s problems, had he LOOKED OUT THE WINDOW on occasion.

(You can’t just blame the elves for this, by the way. Pretty much all of the various races of Middle Earth are equally bad at it. No, seriously. When Balin and Ori and Oin went to Moria, they sent regular updates for a while. And then they just stopped. And for TWENTY-FIVE YEARS, the Erebor dwarves were all “You know, maybe we should…” but didn’t. I mean, it’s not like Balin had set off for a hugely dangerous, much contested territory, where one time Dain MADE EYE CONTACT WITH THE DEVIL*.)

But that’s the thing about epic fantasy: there is no easy way to communicate. Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain is like walking to Florida (as the crow flies, and over flat ground, neither of which are possible at the time of the Hobbit). Even when communication is aided by magical means**, there is usually some kind of price for it.

There’s a price for communication in contemporary settings too***. Technology moves very quickly now, so that even a book I wrote a year ago has somethings in it that are already dated.

The classic example, of course, is the movie YOU’VE GOT MAIL, which came out in 1998. Think of all the ways we couldn’t talk to each other fifteen years ago. I had an email address, because we all got one when we were in Australia, but I almost never used it once I got home because I had no one to email. I’m pretty sure we were still using Windows 95, and I don’t think we had the internet at home yet. And that was normal. We phoned Australia on special occasions, but it was expensive.

In the time since then, I’ve lived in 4 different countries, and the only time I had limited communication was in Jordan, when I had to walk down two flights of stairs to access the wireless. Even the workmen on site, who live in tin sheds next to the wadi, had cellphones.

So. The problem in writing stories becomes keeping technology reasonably current, without making it immediately dated. There are still a lot of ways to cheat. Your protagonist can have “old fashioned” parents, who limit them to clunky cellphone with no data plan. Your protagonist can be forced to pay for his or her own technology, thereby limiting access to whatever is available on the current minimum wage or babysitting rate. Your protagonist can have a teacher who insists on handwritten essays because he is concerned about the lack of penmanship in his current generation of students.

That’s enough for a start. But you still have to make decisions like “is there going to be a Facebook-equivalent?” and “How smart are their smart phones?” and “Why didn’t I write a book where they all live in the woods and use candles for reading lights?”

The most important thing is to be consistent. If Thranduil never looks out the window and notices that Sauron has moved in across the street, he has to keep not looking out the window. If your character has an iPhone in chapter one, she needs a good excuse to write an essay on paper in chapter seven. Ask kids, ask their teachers, and ask their parents. Someone will tell you what makes the most sense.

Failing that, keep good notes and do your best not to freak out when your editor notices a small plot discrepancy and then asks you what your take on the technological development of the world you half-invented is. Which is certainly not what I spent last week stewing over****. Keep a grip on the world you’ve built, and nine times out of ten, it’ll have an answer for you when you need it.

*Except, you know, THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED.
**Or magical moths. Or Brain Skyping with Galadriel.
***And Sci-fi too, I hasten to add, though usually in sci-fi you can just break whatever it is your characters use .
****Kind of is.