Writing YA Fiction in 2018

The YA Journey

(Written for the 2018 MN Writing Workshop)

IMG_0376

The topic I’m mainly addressing today, writing young adult and middle grade fiction that compels the reader to not only start reading, but continue reading all the way through, is a daunting one. Writing a well-crafted, compelling story is difficult in any genre, in any era, but we all happen to be living and writing in the year 2018, a period in human history firmly in the grip of glowing screens that magically entertain and provide any type of distraction you can possibly imagine. Today’s writer is forced to compete with a media explosion unparalleled in human history and its biggest fans, hands down, is the same core audience whose attention we’re trying to grab. A potential reader of a young adult novel may also have the choice of playing an immersive virtual reality video game, or video chatting all night with literally every friend they have, or watching five straight hours of cat videos, all from the comfort of their pillow laden bedroom. How can a writer today compete with all this shiny, glowing noise?

Later on, I’ll go over a sheet full of various writing suggestions, much of it simply the soundest writing advice I can pass on to anyone, regardless of genre or target audience, but first I’d like to address the core strength of any young adult or middle grade novel.

That strength is you, the author.

The experience of reading a novel is, at its root, a conversation between author and reader. It’s an old form of conversation that goes back as far as people have been telling stories to each other to entertain, instruct, and to simply pass the time. Since a novel is a one-way conversation (until you read the comments on Amazon after your work is published, anyway) it is up to the author to be as engaging as possible and use every tool in their author toolbox to accomplish this. The plot needs to hook the reader early on, continue to flow in a way that not only maintains, but builds tension, while climbing the steep narrative hill toward a climactic moment that proves satisfying to the reader and their expectations.

Now, you can know all of this, rationally, but all the craft knowledge in the world will not help a story if the author behind it isn’t fully invested in the tale themselves. I believe the old cliché, “Why will your reader be invested in your story if you’re not?” is even more pertinent to young people’s literature than adult lit. Why? Because young people have a great bullshit detector. Young people can tell when an adult isn’t having fun telling them a story (or teaching a class, which, in a way, is another form of storytelling). Young people can tell when a storyteller is phoning it in, even if they forgive them for it because they want to be told a story so badly in the first place. One of the biggest selling authors of all-time, J.K. Rowling, wasn’t the first author to write about young wizards, or even a school of wizardry, but she was obviously as invested in the world she’d created as she could be, infusing it with her own sense of wonder, her own joy at creating something, and obviously people around the world, of all ages, responded to that wonder. Because Rowling captivated herself first, with her own unique take on an established genre, she was able to captivate others. Computer programmers will never come up with a novel writing program that can duplicate that. (Well, at least, it’s probably going to take a while. Who knows, right?)

Despite what you may read online, the greatest challenge for an author is not sitting down at a desk and pushing yourself to write. It’s not even mastering the craft of writing (which is challenging enough, even if you have fifty years of writing time at your disposal). The greatest challenge, if a writer hopes to write something that truly transcends the mundane, something people remember and love, is being able to look inside your own heart, your own mind and soul, and finding something you feel truly excited to share, something unique to you and you alone.

Of course, this can be a very scary thing to do, a process you may not be able to fully control, a process tied to emotions you’d rather not deal with. If my own personal psyche is any indication, there be monsters in those depths, and not all of them are friendly, either. For me, the act of writing is a lot like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I go through another day as working adult, with its ups and downs, and then I go into my bedroom office in the evening, usually around eight or nine PM, and sit down in front of my computer. I open up Word (just like I’ve been opening it up since Word 97 came out over twenty years ago), put on music, light a stick of incense, and suddenly my bedroom-office is transformed into a dimly-lit jungle filled all sort of beasts, roaring wild things I must assert myself over lest they sense my fear and tear me apart.

It is in this jungle, among all the rowdy wild things, among everything that brings me joy and everything that terrifies me, that I do my best and most interesting work. This is where I give myself permission to ask “what if”, no matter how ridiculous the question may sound when uttered aloud. This is where I take off my grownup armor (which is so heavy, so riven with old scars, and really, so boring) and truly focus only on what I find interesting. What’s interesting enough to maintain my interest over an entire 60,000 word novel, what’s interesting enough to make me spend time developing this or that character, what’s interesting about this scene, this line of dialogue, this sentence, even this particular adjective I’m using to describe something.

Later, after I have a rough draft down, I begin to refine the wild things I’ve returned from my mental jungle with. I smooth down their edges and trim as much excess as possible. In the new state, this editing state, I become keenly aware of my audience and the fact that I’m asking them to spend their precious time with my creations. I’m trying to get them to listen to me, somebody they don’t even know, for several hours while the clamor of the modern world blares all around them, tugging at their attention.

A good, if admittedly extreme, example of how arduous the editing process can be is my most recent novel, The Town Built on Sorrow. A YA horror novel, a paperback copy of SORROW weighs in at around 270 pages. To get to this point, I was forced to rewrite SORROW from scratch three times, amassing around a thousand pages of new content. The first draft, which I originally pegged as an adult literary novel, weighed in at over 400 pages. I read this draft, thought about it for a while, and decided it wasn’t up to snuff. I wasn’t full compelled by it. It didn’t ring true.

But I did like the rough draft’s setting, the flashback sequences, and one of the main characters, a fourteen-year-old girl named Harper Spurling. So I rewrote a second draft focusing on Harper and her family, now rotating between each family member’s point of view, chapter by chapter. I liked this all-new second draft, which weighed in at another 350 pages or so, enough to send to my agent, who acts as my first (and sometimes only) reader. I still considered SORROW a literary novel at this point but it was my agent that pointed out two important things: A) SORROW obviously wanted to be a horror novel and B) Harper Spurling was easily the most interesting character in the novel. Armed with these two revelations, which would have made my life a lot easier if I’d have known them going in, I wrote a third draft primarily from Harper’s point of view, which now necessarily made it a young adult novel, since she was a teenager, and let the darkness and supernatural elements of the story really flow, which made it a full-on horror novel. On the positive side, all that time and effort I’d put in on the novel’s earlier drafts had allowed me to really get to know the novel’s setting, the haunted town of Hawthorn, and I’ve never had an easier experience writing a novel than I did working on this 3rd from-scratch draft.

Today, anybody reading The Town Built on Sorrow hopefully enjoys the experience of a smooth, page-turning read that engrosses them. They don’t see all time and effort the author put in to get to this point—if they stop to ponder the process of the book’s composition at all—and they can finish the entire book in a few short hours and move on with their lives. For all they know, I wrote the whole thing down in a few weeks, not over two laborious years.

And that’s a good thing.

That means I did my job.

#

 Another idea I find helpful when I write young adult fiction is remembering that every young person (like all of us) is on a journey of their own, and that their journey is still just beginning. Because of this quality of freshness, every event in their young life feels like the opening of an epic quest novel, the seemingly static part where the hero or heroine is still waiting for an inciting event to occur, like Bilbo Baggins before Gandalf knocks on his front door. Teens and tweens are still in the early stages of mapping out not only the exterior world around them, but their own inner world as well.

You can see this journey playing out in the books they read. Middle grade fiction, usually aimed at readers between eight and twelve years old, tends to focus on fun plots, with lots of action and zippy dialogue to keep the reader turning pages, while young adult fiction, roughly aimed at readers from twelve to seventeen, often dives more deeply into the interior life of its characters, who often are tasked with facing hard decisions while gradually realizing that the choices they make can have a profound effect on their entire life. By reading about the lives of fictional characters, young people are allowed to dip into a variety of life experiences and see how a variety of decisions and behavioral patterns play out without experiencing any personal risk themselves. A good book is not only an escape for a young reader, it is a safe space to encounter a variety of terrifying things, from the death of a parent to a first sexual experience to a zombie apocalypse.

I recently watched the 1974 film Alice in the Cities. Directed by Wim Wenders, who is best known for Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas, the beginning of Alice in the Cities delivers a classic misdirect. The first twenty minutes of the film focuses on a melancholic German travel writer named Phil Winter who is returning to New York City after a tour of America, feeling even more lost and confused than before he began the tour. Then, well after the film is under way, Phil encounters a girl named Alice and her mother. Both Germans themselves, Alice and her mother are also on their way back to Germany.

The film’s big twist comes when Alice’s mother abandons Alice in Phil’s care, instructing him to return to Germany with Alice in tow—she will meet them both a few days later, after she resolves some romantic business in New York. Not only does Phil (implausibly) agree to travel with Alice back to Europe, from this point on Alice, a charismatic force of nature despite being only nine years old, basically hijacks Phil’s life for several days. Alice and Phil proceed to travel around Germany for the rest of the film, looking for both Alice’s relatives and a sort of understanding of the world itself that seems to be eluding each of them. The film we thought, at its beginning, would be about a morose German travel writer becomes the story of a young girl trying to find her place in the world while enlisting a driftless adult to help her do so.

In a DVD liner notes essay about the film, Allison Anders writes:

American cinema has presented a view of children as innocent and incomplete versions of adults since the very beginning of the medium. From before Shirley Temple to the present day made-for-kids fare, we simple can’t seem to escape defining children on-screen as, at best mini-adults and, at worst, idiot savants or creatures possessed of magical innocence. We rarely see them present as complex, flawed beings full of desires that elude control of their parents and other elders….It’s as if the entire fabric of American life would come apart if a child were presented as whole and autonomous on screen.

While I mostly agree with Anders that children are frequently idealized in American film and television (think of any kid on any network sitcom), I think young people are as fully fleshed out and realized, warts and all, as they’ve ever been in fiction. This is partly due to the explosion in young people’s literature in general, and the writer talent rush that’s followed it, but I think it’s also due to the inherent advantage in the medium of literature compared to film. Literature allows for a depth of character study film can’t compete with, no matter how hard it tries or how often it falls back on clever first person POV shots or first person narrations.

A good YA novel gives its audience hundreds of pages to peel back the layers of a character as they proceed upon their journey. An author is free to reveal the interior of a character, either in first or third person point of view, as deeply as they want, allowing the characters personality to not only influence the novel’s plot, but to pervade the entire work from the first word until the last. Readers in general, and I think young people in particular, enjoy this aspect of literature; they love to lose themselves in a fictional character and the character’s particular POV while also seeing aspects of themselves, of their own struggles, hopes, dreams, and sorrows, in that character as well. A film, due to its very nature, forces its audience to remain at least one step removed from the characters we watch on screen. We can watch them, and empathize with them, but we can’t exactly become them. A good novel, propelled by the powerful machinery of the imagination, enables its audience to slip into its characters as smoothly as if they’re putting on a new shirt, taking them along on an empathetic journey that the reader, distracted by the story’s plot, dialogue, and particular world, hardly realize they’re taking at all.

#

 I’m always a little hesitant to speak at a workshop like this. I’m worried about the “How to Get Published” mentality in general, as if getting published were the greatest end you could possibly achieve in life, or is even necessarily desirable in terms of a person’s growth as an artist and a human being. Getting advice and knowledge from publishing industry experts is all well and good, a fun way to spend a Saturday, but if you don’t put in the time and effort necessary to write a really good book, a compelling book with a voice all its own, knowing how to write a snappy query letter isn’t going to get you very far. I know, I know. This isn’t probably the sexiest thing a publishing workshop speaker could say. We now live in a lifehack obsessed society pervaded with all forms of instant gratification-if you want to publish your book yourself, you could go home and do it right now.

But the longer I write, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the grind of writing and rewriting, the polishing effect such a long and often exhausting process has, both on my writing and myself as a person. As clunky, slow, and often infuriating as the publishing industry can be, it can offer its own particular lessons about the usefulness of patience, whether you want to learn them or not. I’ve written seventeen novels. As of today, I’ve only published five, and several of my unpublished novels came after I’d gotten an agent and published my first novel.

It’s amusing to me that writing for a YA and middle grade readership, a core audience that is well known for impulse decisions, impatience, and fluctuations in temperament, requires such an extreme amount of patience, planning, and steadiness, character traits that usually take time and experience to acquire. You need to be able to not only know yourself, you need to possess the ability to dip back into the self you once knew, way back during the hormonal hot zone of adolescence. You need to take your time to craft something truly excellent while recalling, somewhere in the back of your mind, that your own time on this planet is limited, so it’s probably a good idea to get the important stuff as quickly as possible, the stuff that moves and interests you as a human being. Writing is a journey you embark on alone while hoping, against all odds, that you return with something that resonates with others. A good writer not only entertains, they connect with their audience on multiple levels.

Advertisements

Story I Wrote for The Bet 2017: “The Opposite of Opposite Day”

This year I took place in #TheBet with authors Brian Farrey, Catherine Ryan Hyde, and Kimberly Pauley. I lost and was given the title “The Opposite of Opposite Day” by Catherine Ryan Hyde. It was a trippy, fun title to work with and the story took an unexpected turn or two for me. It’s based on an ill-fated lawn maintenance company my best friend and I started one summer called Lords of the Lawn.

The Opposite of Opposite Day

Doug and Gormley worked beneath the hot July sun, pulling weeds from a large garden and dumping out bags of fresh mulch. Second-year college students, they were working for an eccentric old widow named Mrs. Ulah. They wanted to make enough money to buy a decent bag of weed and some mushrooms for a bluegrass camping festival that weekend. They weren’t friends, exactly, but they lived in the same shitty, ant-infested off-campus house they rented with four other college students, which at least made them housing acquaintances.

“This is so much bark,” Gormley said, wiping his nose with the back of his work glove. “This must be about three trees worth.”

“It’s mulch,” Doug said. “Not bark.”

Gormley stretched his arms, pointing a bony elbow toward the sky.

“What’s the difference?”

“Mulch is a lot of stuff,” Doug said, suddenly unsure of himself. “All chopped up.”

“Looks like bark to me.”

“No, mulch is a collection of organic matter,” Doug said, searching his heat-addled brain for something intelligent sounding. “It’s organic pulpy wood matter chopped up and churned together to provide a pleasing edging for your yard. Saying mulch is just tree bark is like saying spaghetti sauce is just a couple of smashed up tomatoes.”

Gormley picked up a chunk of mulch and examined it. The chunk was reddish in color and fibrous around the edges. It looked, Doug had to admit, a lot like bark. Gormley sniffed the chunk, his nostrils flaring.

“It smells good.”

Doug nodded, slapping a mosquito on his neck.

“It smells like a forest. Like out west, maybe.”

Doug didn’t respond to this observation. Gormley was starting to piss him off. He was one of those weird, gaseous hippy vegans. He had a wispy blond beard that he liked to stroke when he was thinking, as if he were some kind of yogi sage, pondering an ancient truth. Worst of all, Gormley sometimes left his bedroom door open when he was fucking his girlfriend, Skye. Once Doug, startled by a loud groan while passing by in the hallway, had inadvertently peered into Gormley’s bedroom and seen things that could not be unseen. Terrible, hairy things.

Gormley bit into the chunk of mulch. His pale blue eyes went far away as he communed with the mulch. “I don’t think we’re supposed to chew on the landscaping product,” Doug said. “We’re here to spread it around, remember?”

Gormley’s eyes came back into focus. “I know what’s going on,” he said, grinning. “Today is the opposite of Opposite Day.”

“What?”

Gormley nodded and clucked his tongue.

“Yep. Uh huh.”

Doug looked around the yard, wondering where he’d left the shovel. He wasn’t really going to physically assault Gormley, but it might feel good to hold the shovel again.

“Today is the opposite of Opposite Day,” Gormley said, repeating himself. “Everything we see around us is exactly what it appears to be. This piece of mulch looks like tree bark, so it is tree bark. This garden looks like a garden, so it is a garden. Everything is totally, absolutely certain today. Today is a day of reckoning and truth.”

Doug tore open a bag of mulch, tipping the bag into the depleted garden and pouring out its contents. As the mulchy cedar smell overwhelmed him, Doug envisioned himself hiking on a secluded mountain trail with a cute pixie girl in denim cutoff shorts. He was wearing a backpack loaded with picnic supplies, including cheese and wine and a make out blanket, as well as comfortable hiking boots with the laces tied just right. He and the pixie girl went through patches of sunlight and shadow as they hiked, holding hands in a firm but not too sweaty kind of way. Cicadas droned pleasantly in the background while chipper mountain squirrels chased each other from tree to tree, getting their frolic on. Everything was so peaceful—

A door slammed. Mrs. Ulah shuffled into the yard, studying Doug and Gormley through her oversized, gradient-tinted glasses as she leaned on her cane. She was wearing a bright yellow and orange muumuu that made her look like she was on the verge of spontaneous combustion.

“Would you boys like some iced tea?”

Doug sighed and took off his work gloves. There was no secluded mountain trail. There was no cute pixie girlfriend. There was only dumbfuck Gormley, this mosquito infested backyard, and a nice old lady in a muumuu, offering them a beverage made out of dried foliage. This was real life, in all its unyielding lameness.

They followed Mrs. Ulah into her house. The central air conditioning, cranked to the max, caused Doug to stagger for a moment and say a brief internal prayer of thanks to science and electricity. “You boys can sit on that davenport,” Mrs. Ulah said as they entered her living room, pointing at a white couch covered in clear plastic, one of four that had been arranged around a coffee table.

“Cool,” Gormley said. “A space couch.”

Doug rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand, fighting off a stabbing pain. The couch crinkled as they sat down and Doug edged over to the far side of his end. Gormley used an organic deodorant that didn’t get the job done on a normal day, much less a hot summer day, and it made him smell like a mix of brined fish and raw onion. Doug had no idea how Skye endured the Gormley stank—perhaps she’d lost her sense of smell after undergoing some kind of head trauma. Maybe that explained their entire relationship.

Mrs. Ulah poured iced tea from a pitcher into three tall glasses and sat down across from them, her muumuu billowing around her in a way that reminded Doug of a jellyfish bobbing along in the ocean. The coffee table in the center of the room was covered in pewter figurines of dragons, wizards, trolls, and sword brandishing warriors. There must have been two dozen of the little fuckers. An entire magical army.

Mrs. Ulah smiled and folded her hands in her lap. Doug took a drink of his iced tea and tried not to think of anything. He just wanted to enjoy the air conditioning and his cold beverage, which had a wedge of lemon in it and was actually pretty refreshing.

Gormley leaned forward and scrutinized a pewter wizard.

“You like fantasy stuff?”

“I do!” Mrs. Ulah said, leaning forward. “Especially dragons.”

“So do you like George R.R. Martin?”

Mrs. Ulah, already beaming, somehow upped the wattage of her smile even further. Doug silently cursed Gormley as the pair broke into a long, boring conversation about the A Song of Ice and Fire series and how it differed from the HBO show. As they blabbed on and on, Doug studied Gormley’s narrow, rat-like facial features, his beady dark eyes, his greasy, pustular complexion, and, of course, his wispy little monkey man beard, wishing he could blink his housemate out of existence. Finally, unable to stand any more fantasy nerd talk, Doug chugged the rest of his iced tea and set the glass down on the cluttered coffee table.

“Well, we better get back to work.”

“Wait, wait,” Mrs. Ulah said, holding up her hands. “Let me bring out a piece from the other room. It’s the loveliest drake. I just got it yesterday.”

“Righteous,” Gormley said. “I’d love to see it.”

Mrs. Ulah reached for her cane, planted its tip in the carpet, and rose quickly to her feet, looking pretty excited.

“I’ll be right—”

Mrs. Ulah blinked. Her eyes, already magnified by her glasses, appeared to swell even further.

“Mrs. Ulah?” Doug said.

“I…I…”

Mrs. Ulah sat back down. She looked surprised.

“What—”

Mrs. Ulah dropped her cane and sank sideways onto the couch, paused for a moment, then rolled off the couch and onto the floor. She lay face down on the carpet, as if she’d suddenly decided to take a nap.

“Holy shit,” Doug said, stunned. Gormley stood up without hesitation, as if he’d been waiting for something like this to happen to him his entire life. He moved the couch back, giving Mrs. Ulah more room on the floor. He reached into the folds of her muumuu, grabbed a shoulder and a flank, and rolled her onto her back. He placed his ear against Mrs. Ulah’s chest and Doug, in a moment of lustful insanity, wondered how soft and comforting the old woman’s breast felt against Gormley’s cheek.

“Her heart’s stopped,” Gormley said. “She needs to be rebooted.”

“What?” Doug said, still trying to catch up to the situation. He watched in increasing amazement as Gormley tilted the old woman’s head back, swiped a hooked finger into her mouth, and locked his lips with her lips, blowing air into her mouth. Gormley did this a few times and then began thumping her chest with the palms of his hands.

Compressions.

Those were called chest compressions.

“You’re not dead!” Gormley shouted as he compressed, again and again and again. “You’re alive, Mrs. Ulah. You’re alive!”

Doug discovered he was standing on his feet. Time had slowed down. The afternoon light was shining in an uncanny way through the living room windows and all the crystalline stones in the coffee table figurines were sparkling, as if they’d been activated by an otherworldly command. Gormley, growing desperate, pounded on the old woman’s chest with a closed fist. Something cracked and Mrs. Ulah coughed, sputtering back to life.

“You’re alive, Mrs. Ulah,” Gormley said, panting as he rested his hands upon his knees. “You’re not dead.”

Mrs. Ulah’s eyes fluttered open and she touched her chest, as if verifying her own continued existence. Gormley looked up at Doug and smiled, golden, dust-moted sunlight surrounding him like a halo.

He was, Doug had to admit, kind of beautiful for such a dumbfuck.

New Interview for For Love of Books

Here’s a new interview I just did to celebrate Halloween for the big time blog For the Love of Books. There’s also a review and a book giveaway!
1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a novelist who lives in St. Paul, MN. I love many fiction genres: horror, fantasy, sci-fi, literary, classic, etc. With every book I write, I try to challenge myself in a new way and find something new to mine in the genre(s) I’m writing in. I have a day job at the University of MN. I like going to rock shows, running outside all year long, watching too much TV, standup comedy, playing gin rummy in taprooms with my girlfriend, drinking coffee, and right now I’m really into Skyrim on my old XBOX 360. You can’t cover everything, but I like to think I’m enjoying life as much as I can before I die.
2. What makes your heart beat faster?
Going on blind dates! Ha. I also hate going to the mall when it’s busy and everybody’s a little crazy. When I’m at the mall, humanity seems like it’s ready to tear itself apart…
3. Which horror monster do you fear the most?
Freddy Krueger. He’s just waiting for you to fall asleep! What’s scarier than not being able to go to sleep?
4. If the zombie apocalypse would happen today, what would you do?
I’ve thought about this way too much. If I was at home in my apartment, I’d lock the front door (obvs), somehow cover up all the windows, and fill the bathtub with water in case the water stops running. Then I’d start drinking whiskey and wait for the scraping sounds to begin…
5. What’s your favorite scary movie?
This is a tough, tough question. The People Under the Stairs scared the HELL out of me when I first saw it. So did Event Horizon and Candyman. I also really love the John Carpenter version of The Thing (1982) but winner-takes-all is probably Aliens (1986). That movie is just a terrifying good time.
6. What’s your worst nightmare?
A world where the United States has destroyed its national parks for a temporary profit that benefits only a few wealthy demon-men.
7. If your book was made into a movie, who would play the lead characters and why?
The lead characters in The Town Built on Sorrow are all teenagers and I’m not really up on my famous teen actors. I’d hope they’d actually be raw, relatively unknown young actors who could convey their emotions with force, like the young actors in Stranger Things. I also thought the cast of young actors in the new version of IT did a great job.
8. What inspired you to write scary stories?
I like to see how freaked out I can make both myself and my reader feel-it’s fun for me because I’m a madman.

9. If you’d go to a Halloween party what would your costume be?
This year I went as Mike Nelson, the 2nd host from Mystery Science Theater 3000. I love that show-it was created right here in the Twin Cities.10. What can we expect from you in the future?

I’ve written a YA sci-fi novel called Blood Red Sky and we’ve just started sending it around to publishers. It’s about a group of prep school students who have to band together to survive after their planet is invaded. Also, the film rights to The Town Built on Sorrow have been sold to a production company-it’d be really cool to see a film version of the book!

Six Weeks Out/New Review

IMG_0376

Summer is passing in a blur and we’re already roughly six weeks out from the release of my new novel The Town Built on Sorrow (Sept 26th). The publication reading will be on Saturday Sept 30th at 3 PM at the very cool gallery Artista Bottega in St. Paul, MN. I’ve created an event page here for the reading to answer any questions you may have. Should be a great time!

Also, a glowing new review for TOWN has come in from School Library Journal:

OPPEGAARD, David. The Town Built on Sorrow. 264p. Flux. Sept. 2017. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9781635830064.

Gr 9 Up–As a serial killer runs rampant in the mountain foothills town of Hawthorn, 16-year-old Harper Spurling grows more and more fascinated by the diary of Sofie Helle, a local pioneer girl from the 1860s. Meanwhile, Olav Helle, a classmate of Harper’s, uncovers a skull in the woods, from which he starts receiving disturbing telepathic messages. In alternating chapters, readers follow Harper and Olav as they interact with their families and each other, as well as the experiences of Sofie Helle as the town of Hawthorn is settled. As Olav’s relationship with the skull grows more intense, so does Harper’s interest in Sofie, with whom she feels a connection. Grim and at times disturbing, the heavy subject matter is pleasantly leavened by the smart and interesting Harper, whose interactions with her family, including her hilarious and spunky 80-year-old grandmother, add an authentic and relatable angle. Oppegaard weaves together three stories that are very different in tone and substance but make for a unique reading experience that feels fresh, entertaining and more than a little creepy. Give this to teens who enjoyed Libba Bray’s “The Diviners” and Maureen Johnson’s “Shades of London” series. VERDICT Fans of dark, quirky dramas with a strong sense of place will love this book. A solid addition to YA collections.–Kristy Pasquariello, Wellesley Free Library, MA

The first review for The Town Built On Sorrow is up!

From Kirkus Reviews:

A Midwestern town’s dark past meets its grisly present.

Sassy, journalism-inclined, 16-year-old Harper Spurling’s family are the descendants of her hometown of Hawthorn’s founders. The white teen runs track, loves hanging out with her friends, refers to her parents as “The Mom” and “The Dad,” and adores her best friend, Eva Alvarez, who is a mixed-race (Mexican and black) party girl. When her history teacher assigns the class to read the diary of one of the town founder’s daughters, Harper becomes entranced by her story, wondering why it ends so abruptly. Enter mysterious, Nordic, white Olav Helle, who also attends Harper’s high school. He’s also seemingly touched by the magic of the town and its surrounding woods. It also compels him to off members of the local population using various gruesome tactics; from the get-go readers know he is the town’s Tender Heart Killer. Oppegaard pens an intense, page-turning, often harrowing nail-biter that may leave readers with stomachaches as they move through the story, alternating between Harper and Olav. Some plot parts may feel stretched, but the magic is subtle enough to walk the delicate line between what could be hallucination or the supernatural otherworld. The tension that builds toward the eventual meeting of Olav and Harper, however, is very real, and that’s what will keep readers hooked until the end.

Pretty gross but pretty great. (Thriller. 13-18)

Selling Books in the Apocalyptic Year of 2017

So. 2017 in the United States of America. Some interesting stuff going on, amIright? Maybe we’ll all live to see 2018, maybe not. Check in on Twitter to find out!

klehey

In the meantime, we’re all still hoping civilization is going to continue onward, and part of that hope in my own squirrelly little life is releasing a new novel this fall. 2017 will actually mark the 10 year anniversary of the publication of my first novel The Suicide Collectors with St. Martin’s Press. I think it’s fair to say at this point that promoting and selling a novel has been a quixotic process in my experience and I’m finding it harder than ever to gear up for another campaign, especially in a world where it seems like people read, and care about books, less and less.

Living on the road my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron,
And your breath as hard as kerosene
 -“Pancho and Lefty”

But then again, everybody warned me writing would be a hard road. Yet I persisted, like some kind of lunatic cat attacking a scratching post. So what the fuck did I expect, right?

Last night I stood by a table for 4 hours in attempt to sell copies of my novel The Firebug of Balrog County and handing out free bookmarks.  I don’t mind talking to people, but selling something as personally meaningful as Firebug, much less anything at all, tends to make me a little queasy, even after a decade of practice. I started out the night feeling proud and cocky, wondering aloud to my buddy how many of the authors gathered at the event were published by mainstream presses (as if it really fucking mattered, right?) and ended the long night with a grand tally of three books sold. Ah, the swift reality check that is trying to sell your work to the public! No matter how many great blurbs and reviews it may have garnered! No matter how cool you think the cover is!

I often tell beginning writers that they better love editing as much as the initial process of writing or otherwise they’ll be bound to burn out long before the process of polishing their work is complete, not to mention the process of becoming a good writer. So does it follow that if you want to be a published author who makes a decent income (through product sales) that you must love promoting your work (and thus yourself) as well?

By necessity, a novelist spends a lot of time alone and withdrawn from the world. Even the ones who write in a coffee shop, surrounded by keyboard clacking and the ritualistic banging of espresso machines, are still very much alone in their inward process. Either by natural inclination or through the learned habit of repetition, a novelist embraces the solitary side of their nature, which, you’d think, would cause you to drift further and further from the more extroverted traits a good salesperson calls upon.

(Is it just me or  do the authors who are very slick, with shiny hair and gleaming lupine smiles, often write forgettable schlock? Is there some kind of correlation between how good you are at sales and the level of authenticity in your work on the page? Does the blunt relentless self-assessment that aids good writing detract somehow from your sales ability? Or is this just my own bias speaking? My own jealously at how slick and best selling these writers tend to be? Probably. Though I think there’ some kind of kernel of truth here, nevertheless.)

Of course, there are plenty of great writers who are also great at the promotional side of bookselling. Personally, I’m still a promotional work in progress. (Or maybe I’m just kind of lazy?) If my publicist Megan is reading this, I just want to say thanks for bringing the new The Town Built on Sorrow bookmarks to the event last night and chatting with me far longer than required by your profession. I promise to pull my share of the publicity load as much as possible, writing all the blog posts and interview responses required, pestering my long suffering friends and family (hey, this will be book #5, I get it folks!) and standing in front of an audience or two, wondering in the back of my mind how it was again that I ended up here, reading a book with my own personal feelings in it to a crowd as if I’m asking a longtime crush if they’d possibly, maybe, perhaps, want to go on a date with me, the sweaty bumblefuck.

 

I’ve sold my 5th novel!

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while, but I’m finally signing and mailing the contract today-I’m happy to announce I’ve sold my 5th novel THE TOWN BUILT ON SORROW to Flux! Currently, the release date is slated for sometime this September. Big thanks as always to my literary agent Jonathan Lyons. Here’s the rough copy I’ve written for the book:

The Town Built on Sorrow
By David Oppegaard

Welcome to the strange, haunted foothills town of Hawthorn, where sixteen-year-old Harper Spurling finds herself increasingly obsessed with the diary of a 1860s pioneer girl while a serial killer runs unchecked through the area, dumping his victims into the town’s dark river. When Harper’s curiosity eventually leads her into the Tender Heart Killer’s company, she’s forced to think fast or join the killer’s growing list of victims…

Because in Hawthorn, a town built on sorrow, the barrier between life and death is as fragile as an old forgotten skull.

The Canary

638537bc3da7a144ab31068da24052ac

Beloved local musician and storyteller Jack Pearson died yesterday at the too-young age of 63. I first met Jack in 1998  through his son, Peter Pearson, my friend and fellow Great Con student at St. Olaf College. In the summer of 1999 I went to an outdoor Bob Dylan and Paul Simon concert with Pete, Jack, and Kari, Pete’s sister. It was a great concert (Paul and Bob played “The Sound of Silence” together!) but one of my favorite memories from it was Jack pointing out after the show that, from a technical perspective, Dylan was a crappy harmonica player. It was an eye-opening revelation about the importance of craft to me, no matter how famous you were, and also the only unkind thing I ever heard Jack, who was like a Twin Cities musical version of Mr. Rogers, say about anyone in all the time I knew him.

A lot of people loved Jack, who recorded many albums and traveled around to schools and other locales and entertained children, bringing the joy of live music to their lives with a rare mixture of skilled craft and happy exuberance, but what always struck me most about him was the philosophy of kindness and acceptance he embodied. I’ve long surrounded myself with a thick shield of dark humor and sarcasm, most likely hardened and significantly enhanced during my mother’s long battle with cancer during my teenage years, but Jack didn’t need any of that. He was naturally earnest. He was open to all the currents. We’d discuss philosophy, me playing the nihilistic devil’s advocate, and he’d consider everything I said carefully, even though I was a hotheaded college student. He was a strong Christian who didn’t necessarily believe, or need to believe, everything in the Bible was literally true. The idea of practicing kindness was all the truth he needed.

Kindness is a hard truth to truly learn and practice-being kind to both myself and others is something I struggle with on a daily basis. It’s something our country, and the world, is struggling with to a seemingly greater extent than ever. It’s hard, on this cold January day, to not think of Jack’s sudden passing as the embodiment of the old “canary in a coal mine” (old-timey miners would take a canary with them down to the deep underground mines they worked in-if the canary stopped singing and died it would alert them to the presence of poison gas in the mine). On the eve of a Trump presidency, with the prospect of so much hate and toxicity before us, Jack has stepped out and left the room (he coincidentally passed away in the same cancer ward as my mother). It’s up to the rest of us, even the damaged snarky fuckers, to step up our game and keep the torch of kindness and generosity burning.