Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Conversation with Joshua Bellin, Author of SURVIVAL COLONY NINE

Joshua Bellin, author of SURVIVAL COLONY NINE

Hi Josh! I'm so glad you could stop by in the days leading up to your release. So how's the debut whirlwind been? Highlights? Parts that were difficult?

Hi JRo! Thanks for inviting me to chat. The months leading up to my release have been totally crazy: working with my editor and publicist, planning my launch party, responding to interview requests--and all this while trying to live a halfway normal life with my wife and kids. Some of the best moments have been the radio interviews I did and the times I got emails from perfect strangers who'd heard about my book. The only tough part, in all honesty, has been the WAITING. I've known about my pub date for well over a year, and I want it to be here NOW!
Querry Genn is in trouble.

He can’t remember anything before the last six months. And Querry needs to remember. Otherwise he’s dead weight to the other members of Survival Colony 9, one of the groups formed after a brutal war ravaged the earth. And now the Skaldi have come to scavenge what is left of humanity. No one knows what the Skaldi are, or why they’re here, just that they can impersonate humans, taking their form before shedding the corpse like a skin.

Desperate to prove himself after the accident that stole his memory, Querry is both protected and tormented by the colony’s authoritarian commander, his father. The only person he can talk to is the beautiful Korah, but even with her, he can’t shake the feeling that something is desperately wrong. And that his missing memories are at the very center of it.

Yep, totally know that feeling. So, SURVIVAL COLONY NINE, is a science-fiction story set on earth some time after our current now. The world is dry and dusty and inhabited with these freaky, scary creatures called the Skaldi. What was your inspiration for them? And do you consider them to be the true antagonists of your story?

Great question! The Skaldi came to me in a flash of inspiration very early in the development of the story. I'd jotted down my main character's name, the setting, and a couple plot points, and then I wrote down the word "Skaldi" and knew I had my story's monsters. I didn't know yet what they were or what they could do, but the word--sort of like "scald," sort of like "skull"--just struck me as very otherworldly and menacing. As they developed, they became these terrifying body-snatchers (and I made them more terrifying with each revision, my agent and editor urging me along!). They're definitely what everyone in the story is most overtly afraid of, but as my protagonist learns, there are other threats to his colony--threats originating from inside--that may be just as monstrous.

That was one of the things I liked most about your book, is that it was not only a speculative fiction novel, but also a somewhat classic coming of age and finding self novel. Was this your intention or did this facet of the story grow as your novel did?

I'm glad you picked up on that, because it was definitely my intention from the start to have that dual focus: the epic story of humanity's struggle against the Skaldi, and the small-scale story of one teenage boy's growth toward manhood. My thinking was that even in the most terrible of circumstances, young people continue to live out the dramas of finding themselves, coming into conflict with the older generation, and so on. For example, in Anne Frank's diary, even against the context of the Holocaust, there's the story of Anne discovering who she is, fighting with her parents, and having her first crush. This isn't always the case: for instance, in Uzodinma Iweala's BEASTS OF NO NATION, a fictionalized account of orphan soldiers in Africa, the circumstances are so horrific they absolutely deny young people normal developmental milestones. But I wanted to write a book where coming of age was still possible despite--or because of--the severe challenges the post-apocalyptic world presents.

I haven't read BEASTS OF NO NATION. It sounds like one of those difficult reads that really makes an impact. So let's speak of environment. Your setting for SURVIVAL COLONY NINE is stark. What challenges did such a limited landscape provide as you were writing?

I was faced with two challenges: one, to make the desert interesting, and two, to give my narrator and the other characters a vocabulary appropriate to their experience. In the first case, there are only so many times you can describe sand and dirt and bare rock, so I tried to enliven the desert with other physical features: a nearby river, the occasional tree or valley, remnants from the built environment of the past, such as an abandoned compound, a destroyed road, a fractured pipeline. In the second case, I was limited in what characters could think or say, because so much of the old world was swept away so quickly they don't remember it. So no one would be likely to say that something is "as big as a horse" or "as tall as a skyscraper," because no one's ever seen those things, not even in photographs. The result is that my characters tend to talk and think in terms of their surroundings: the environment shapes not only what they can do but what they can imagine.

Fascinating. Yes, their world views would be very different than ours. 
So if there is one thing you want your readers to take away from Survival Colony Nine, what would it be? (or two or three :))

I'll go for three. First, I hope readers identify with my narrator's struggle to recover his past and discover his identity. Second, I hope they get drawn into my portrait of a world ravaged by war and climate change. And third, I hope they find the Skaldi as terrifying as I tried to make them.

And, okay, I'll add one more: I hope readers like SURVIVAL COLONY 9 enough that they'll ask for more!

Ah yes, there is a sequel? Title?

Well, I've written a sequel, titled SCAVENGER OF SOULS. But as I tell everyone, it doesn't have a publication date yet. I guess that'll depend a lot on how SURVIVAL COLONY 9 is received.

I will say this, though: it's a really cool sequel. It shows more of the world than is seen in SC9, has a bigger cast of characters, higher stakes, more monsters, and even more action than its predecessor (if that's possible). So here's hoping.

And final three questions! What's been playing on repeat lately? Best drink ever? and Next 3 books on your TBR pile?

Playing on repeat: that OneRepublic song I can never remember the title to. Best drink: something I invented called an Allegretto Gold. Books on TBR pile: SILVERN by Christina Farley, SALT & STORM by Kendall Kulper, and SWEET UNREST by Lisa Maxwell.

Thanks for having me, JRo! It's been fun!

Thanks so much for stopping by Josh and congratulations on SURVIVAL COLONY NINE, it's a brilliant debut!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Read Aloud Challenge

My "friend" (can I call her that after this?), Kelsey Macke, author of Damsel Distressed, challenged me on YouTube to do a read aloud challenge from my book.

I figured it'd be good practice. So hear I am, in all my Sunday slouching glory, reading from NO PLACE TO FALL. Enjoy!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Falling in Love: #PitchWars, Selections, and the genesis of #TeamGrit

It's been a few days since Pitchwars decisions were announced and I still haven't quite recovered from the sheer IT of it. This was my second year as a mentor and if it seemed huge last year, it was super huge this year. More authors, more mentors, more hopes and dreams and competition - more organization on both sides.

The amazing Dan Koboldt put together this groovy entry form that was directed straight to each of the four selected mentors inboxes. This kept Gmail from crashing, but also prevented some of the transparency of the previous year when we snuck into each other's slush. But that didn't stop mentors from suggesting manuscripts on our behind the scenes Facebook group. We were all cheering for our close but not quite our pick choices. Some successful matches were made that way to get stories into the best hands.

Then there were the videos, pre-videos, post-videos (sorry I missed out on that one Brenda Drake - but you are the bomb). The late night Google chat show put on by mentees. The late night live reveal that I hear involved a ferret and weird hats. Not to mention what seemed like a half a year of #pitchwars Twitter feed dreams and wishes. It was insanity in the best way.

I ended up with 60 entries in my inbox. This was down by three from last year, but I also requested one less genre (fantasy - so many more "accomplished with the genre" mentors requesting it). Still a massive number. My kudos to agents everywhere who do this on the daily.

Of those 60, I requested more pages from 12 manuscripts.
Of those 12:

1 was chosen as my mentee
1 as my alt
3 were chosen as mentees by another
3 were science fiction that I thought were very close but in looking at the agent wish list, sci-fi was only on the list of a few.
1 was a dystopian so well-written I didn't know how to mentor it & suggested straight querying - plus there's that whole dystopian is not selling thing.
1 was a paranormal, same market issue, and though fun to read, quite long for a contemporary at 100K.
1 was incredibly well-written but I was worried the hook wasn't strong enough.
1 had an amazing first chapter, but the pages weren't quite what I thought they were going to be.

So who did I pick?

My Mentee:
Kristin A. Reynolds' historical magical realism manuscript, LE CIRQUE DU LITERATI, blew me away with poetry. She writes words wrapped in velvet and whispered with fireflies and oh my, scrumptious hug the book feeling. What writer anywhere wouldn't feel in love with a literary utopia in the sky where creative folk can escape the oppression of the Sleepers. Her manuscript affected me so that I cried last Saturday to R, "Why can't we just live in a place where people get it? Where they really get it?" R's response, "Is this because of the story you're reading?" Yes, yes, it is. Not only that, there is a beautiful deep love between two of the characters, Josephine and Nikolai, that left me with that Karou and Akiva feeling. We have some structural work to do, but this is a story that is worth the work. There are IMPORTANT things in these words. About society, about overcoming pain, and about the true meaning of love and self. I can't wait for the world to meet this book.

My Alternate:
April Rose Carter's contemporary LGBT novel snagged me with the comps in her query, something along the lines of what if Rowell's Eleanor were to fall for Green's Margo. Then her words and story didn't disappoint. This is a story of hardship and poverty. It's a story of a passive mother and an abusive alcoholic father, and a farm girl hopeful that somehow life will take a turn for the better. Then Sarah meets Bonnie, brash and ballsy and everything Sarah is not. Their friendship slowly turns into romance and even though Sarah's never identified as a lesbian, her mother's suspected. The coming out scene between mother and daughter is one of my favorite scenes ever. So skillfully and thoughtfully done. This is a hard story, a sad story, a story for tears. But it is also a story for the sweet ache of new romance and finding yourself in a complete way that's never happened before. April's writing is as spare as Sarah's lifestyle and in her choices of phrasing and words conveys the cold, the poverty, and the hopelessness with skill, all colored with the red of Bonnie's hair and the heat of first love. This is a book I would pick up off the shelves and pass on to students. We're working on pacing and interiority but it won't be long before all the agents start requesting!

So here's my team! I personally think it's the best team and plan on blowing all those other teams out of the water. But, I'm also excited for my last year's alternate, Sarah Cannon, who was picked as Cat Scully's mentee this year with her quirky middle grade, Oddity, for #TeamScully. And my long-term CP, Kip Wilson, who was picked as mentee by Sarah Guillory for #TeamGumbo (that was HARD to keep a secret y'all, but I did!). And my longtime #wipmadness and occasional CP friend Shari Green whose middle grade in verse, was chosen by Stefanie Wass. Plus all the other talented writers out there.

For those of you who didn't make it onto a team. Remember this is a chance to learn, to grow, and if  you manuscript is close, remember it's truly subjective. Straight up querying is still the best way to get an agent!