Questions That Haunt Me

Here’s where you can find the answers to questions people ask me. The first questions are about me personally, but if you’d rather go directly to my answers about specific books or another topic, click on these links:

Jump to Questions About Russel Middlebrook (Below)

Jump to Questions about Writing and Publishing (Below)

 

Questions About Me, Me, Me

Will you sign one of your books for me?

Certainly! You can buy a book from me directly (with free shipping in the U.S.), and I’ll sign and/or personalize it.

Where do you live?

In Seattle, near Green Lake (I walk the two miles around the lake almost every day after writing). I once also lived in Los Angeles (for a year and a half, to pursue screenwriting).

Do you do appearances and give speeches — and what do you charge?

Yes. I’ve given dozens of speeches and keynote addresses, and held hundreds of workshops and readings and seminars and classes. I’ve spoken to groups as large as a thousand and as small as, well, one (it happens to every author: only one person shows up to a reading. Awkward!).

Interested in having me talk to your classroom or group? I charge $800/day or $500/event for local events (Puget Sound area) and $1500/day (plus expenses) for “away” ones.

I can talk on a variety of topics, both serious and more “fun,” and (ahem) I think I’m pretty good at keeping an audience’s attention, whether they’re teenagers or older folks.

Contact me for references or details.

Would you volunteer to speak at my charity for free or for a reduced fee, or donate copies of your book?

Possibly. Send me an email pitching me your event and describing your financial need.

Regarding book donations, I can’t donate copies to individual organizations, but I am more than happy to donate a copy or two as a prize for a raffle or silent auction in any fundraisers your program may be having. That way, you get a way to make a little money, and I get a little publicity for my book, and everyone (including my checkbook) is happy.

Do you do freelance editing?

From time to time, I do work as an editor-for-hire. When I was an instructor in the creative writing program at Vermont College, my students sometimes referred to me as “the plot whisperer,” and plot and structure are what I think I’m particularly good at. I’ve worked on genre fiction, young adult, adult, literary fiction, and screenplays. But I’m probably worthless when it comes to novels-in-verse, dystopian, zombie or vampire books, or paranormal romance.

Past students and freelance clients of mine include Jandy Nelson (I worked with Jandy on both The Sky is Everywhere and I’ll Give You the Sun); and Julie Barry (I worked with Julie on The Amaranth Enchantment and Splurch Academy, and Julie later published another terrific novel, All the Truth That’s in Me). I’ve worked on many other novels as well, some of which have been published and some of which are forthcoming.

I charge a penny a word (half up front, half upon completion). And since I don’t do freelance editing as my primary income, I’m happy to read a chapter or two of your project to see if we’re a good “fit.” I’ll give you my general sense, and if I don’t feel that I’m the right editor for you, I’ll definitely tell you upfront: it’s no fun for me to work on a project that I don’t feel passionate about or just isn’t my cup of tea.

I’m happy to answer more questions or provide references. Drop me an email, okay?

How much email do you get? Do you answer it all?

A lot! And yes, I answer it all (though it might take me a few days to get back to you).

I consider keeping in touch my readers the absolute best part of my job. My books touched you in some way? Or you have some other question (or even a criticism)? By all means, let me know!

I also hope you’ll consider following me on social media, joining my GoodReads group, or signing up for my newsletter. (If you do sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a free book, plus discounts and other free offers on my other books. I give away a lot of freebies, because the way I see it, I don’t make my money on my hardcore fans. I make my money when my hardcore fans tell other people about me and my books.)

 

Questions About the Russel Middlebrook Books

Is Russel Middlebrook you?

GeographyClubPostNope. The Russel Middlebrook books are fiction; they’re not autobiographical.

That said, I have a lot in common with Russel. He looks a little like I do (or at least like I did). We have the same sensibility about many things and a similar outlook on life. And about 30-40% of the things that happen to him also happened to me.

But we’re different too. He’s funnier than I am, and a bit more optimistic (but I’m a little wiser and have a broader perspective).

I never think of Russel as “me” at all. I know I created him, and he’s fictional, but I still always think of him as someone outside me, someone very real — so much so that when people talk about him like he’s just a character, I sometimes have to stop and remind myself, “Oh, yeah, he isn’t real, is he?”

I did make a point to make Russel likable. One of my pet peeves is the idea that the only way a character can be “truthful” and “authentic,” or even worthy of literary criticism, is if he or she is a raging asshole.

I’d like to think if you like Russel, you’d probably like me. But if you don’t like Russel, I’m positive you wouldn’t like me (and I probably wouldn’t like you!).

Which things in the books really happened to you?

Two of my best friends vaguely resemble Gunnar and Min; my best friend in high school desperately wanted a girlfriend (and I was threatened by it); I went on several disastrous Trish-like dates; a “Brian Bund” went to my school and turned out to be a great guy; I helped found one of the world’s first GSAs (in 1990); one of my first loves was a guy like Kevin; there really is a “stinky picnic gazebo,” exactly the way I describe it; I once worked as an extra on a movie; I’ve broken into a few abandoned warehouses in my time; there was a rumor that there’s an abandoned streetcar in the woods where I grew up; I lived in Seattle in my early twenties; I worked as a lifeguard; I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in screenwriting, and I had an experience very similar to the one with Mr. Brander; and I had my own wedding surrounded by my closest friends, in a place exactly like the Amazing Inn, on Vashon Island.

But I never started a secret GSA; my “Kevin” wasn’t closeted; my “Gunnar” and “Min” are very different from Russel’s friends; I was never a counselor at a summer camp; I never dated a freegan; I never lived on a houseboat; I didn’t work as a lifeguard at Green Lake, and I never saved anyone from drowning; I’ve never gone on a Bigfoot hunt; and I didn’t have a mentor like Vernie Rose (although I really wish I did!); and there was no windstorm or stinky dead whale at my wedding on Vashon Island (although we did find a dead seal on the beach).

Even the things that did happen to me, they didn’t happen in the same order or at the same time in my life as they do in the books.

But I will say this: most of the things that happen in all the books? I’ve almost always experienced the emotions behind them.

Is it true there’s a Geography Club movie?

Yup! A feature film version of Geography Club was released in selected theaters and on VOD on November 15, 2013, starring Scott Bakula, Marin Hinkle, Ana Gasteyer, Cameron Deane Stewart, Justin Deeley, Andrew Caldwell, and Nikki Blonsky.

I wasn’t involved in the creation of the movie (although the producers did keep me informed as they worked on it). And it’s not just a film of the events in the book: it’s a film based on and inspired by the book. That said, it’s a somewhat faithful adaptation, with about 50% taken from the book.

I spent a few days on the set, and I came away very impressed by the talent involved, behind and in front of the cameras. I’ve got more thoughts on the experience of having one’s book turned into a movie here.

Here’s me telling the whole “movie” story in my podcast.

I also wrote a play based on Geography Club. We premiered at Seattle’s FringeACT Festival of New Plays, and it was a big success. It’s been produced many times since then, often to sold-out audiences. (If you’re involved with a theater and want a copy of the script, contact me.)

Will there also be a Geography Club TV Series?

Very possibly. There’s a TV series in development now by a Canadian production company, to air on Canadian TV and Netflix, or possibly an American network or channel. It’s more of a TV sequel to the 2013 feature film — it’s not based on the events in the Russel Middlebrook Series of books, or the Futon Years series. And my only creative involvement is that I might write some teleplays. But still, it’ll be fun if it happens.

What books influenced or inspired you to write the first book, Geography Club?

Ironically, it was a lack of books that inspired me. At the time I was writing it, there were a few LGBT teen books (and a couple of really good ones, like Hard Love). But most of them were long out of print. And a lot of them were too serious and angst-y for my taste.  Being a gay teen is a big deal, and it was a bigger deal back then, but I wanted to write a book that also captured the “fun” and humor of the situation.

Here’s the whole, detailed story of how Geography Club came to be published.

Why did you write sequels to Geography Club?

To tell the truth, I just always assumed I would. Right before Geography Club came out in 2003, I mentioned this to my editor. He sort of smiled and said, “Well, let’s wait and see how Geography Club does, okay?” I guess I didn’t know that publishers only publish sequels to successful books. Or maybe, when it finally sold, I just knew in my gut that Geography Club would be a hit.

There are now four books in The Russel Middlebrook Series (and a free short story):

  • Geography Club (book #1)
  • The Order of the Poison Oak (book #2)
  • Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (book #3)
  • The Elephant of Surprise (book #4)
  • Two Thousand Pounds Per Square Inch (a free short story, part of the Real Story Safe Sex Project)

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(Click on a book jacket for more info about any book.)

I’ve also written an entirely new series featuring Russel Middlebrook, about Russel and his friends in their twenties. It’s called Russel Middlebrook: the Futon Years. These books are set six years later (in the present), with the characters in their early twenties. They’re also “adult” books, not YA, so they’re longer and a bit edgier (but hopefully just as fun and funny). They’re also “stand-alone,” meaning you don’t need to read the earlier books.

Here are the books:

  • The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know (book #1)
  • Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams (book #2)
  • The Road to Amazing (book #3)

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I’m in the process of writing a new Russel-related series, but this one stars Otto Digmore, one of Russel’s friends. It’s called The Otto Digmore Series.

The first book is:

  • The Otto Digmore Difference (book #1, coming February 2017)

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(Are you a book reviewer and want a copy of any of my books? Go here.)

Why all these Russel Middlebrook books?

Two reasons: I love writing them, and people seem to like reading them.

But the deal I made with myself (and my readers) at the very beginning was: I never wanted to repeat myself. I don’t see any point in writing the same story over and over again.

One of the things I’m most proud of with all the Russel Middlebrook books so far is that they’re all very different in some way — not just a new story and new characters, but some new writing challenge for me. And yet, there’s also an overarching story that ties them all together.

I’m absolutely not comparing my books to Armistead Maupin’s brilliant Tales of the City books, but those books’ intimate-yet-”epic” feel is definitely the vibe I’m going for.

And with the latest books, I’m trying another grand literary experiment. Can an author have his literary character successfully jump genres (from young adult fiction to adult fiction)?

I’m giving it a shot!

Will there be books about Russel in each decade of his life?

There might be! If people keep reading them, I’ll definitely keep writing them.

Which is your favorite of the Russel Middlebrook books?

I like parts about all the books: the beach place scene in Geography Club; the Rainbow Crow story in The Order of the Poison Oak (including the part Russel adds later); what Min learns about what really went on in that park in Double Feature; Wade’s passion and philosophy of life in The Elephant of Surprise; Vernie Rose in The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, and also the reason why Gunnar is obsessed with Bigfoot; Mr. Brander in Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams, and also the final scene, which perfectly captures my own philosophy of life; I like the last four chapters of The Road to Amazing, when Russel and Kevin have sex on the bluff, what the sex means, and also what Russel decides is the secret behind the town of Amazing; and I like the character of Otto Digmore in The Otto Digmore Difference, especially how unusual he is — gay, disabled, and trying to make it as an actor. I confess I’m also proud that I first started publishing stories about Otto back in 2005, way before characters like this were on most people’s radar. I also like that this last book is a story about friendship, because I think that’s at least as important as romantic love, but there aren’t nearly as many stories about it.

I also like that Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams is an homage to the movie Sunset Boulevard.

In order, I’m most proud of: Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams, The Road to Amazing, The Otto Digmore Difference, The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, and The Elephant of Surprise. But that might be because those are the newest books, and I always like what I’ve done most recently best.

(Three Truths and a Lie and Grand & Humble are my favorites of my other books.)

Is the Rainbow Crow story real?

PoisonOakJacketThat story from The Order of the Poison Oak is definitely a real Native American legend. I found it in a book called The Grandfathers Speak: Native American Folk Tales of the Lenape People by Hitakonanu’laxk.

I wish I could say I wrote it, because I think it’s a beautiful, very moving story. But I didn’t. (I did write the part that Russel adds later, about The Order of the Poison Oak.)

Do freegans really exist?

In The Elephant of Surprise, the fourth book in the series, Russel gets involved with a mysterious (and handsome) guy who’s a member of a group called “freegans” — another secret society, if you will. And yes, they totally exist!

Freegans are actually a real-life group of environmentalists who give up all their possessions and live on the streets, foraging for food and other necessities.

I remember reading about them years ago. And the more I researched them for this book, the more interesting they became. It’s a totally different kind of life – and as Russel learns in the book, it’s a pretty fascinating one, and in some ways, even a very romantic one.

And dramatically speaking, there’s nothing like a character who makes your main character question everything about his life. That’s the function Wade (the freegan) has with Russel in The Elephant of Surprise.

Where and when are the events of the Russel Middlebrook Series set?

I have deliberately left the locations vague, because I wanted the books to have an “everywhere” feel. That’s also why there are no adults in Geography Club: I wanted to recreate the pressure-cooker than is a typical high school, a heightened and isolating sense of reality where it feels like your classmates are the only thing that matters, and school is the only place that exists.

As for the “time,” that’s a different question. Geography Club was written in the 90s. The sequels were written sporadically over the next fifteen years (Poison Oak in 2002, Double Feature in 2004, The Elephant of Surprise in 2012).

But the events in the books take place over a period of about a year and a half. So my challenge as a writer was to make it believable that they could all exist in the same general period of time. But the world changes. And for GLBT teens, things have changed a lot. The gay teen sensibility is totally different now than it was when I started the series: starting a GSA isn’t nearly the controversy it once was, even in conservative areas.

In the end, I decided the first series of four books is set in 2007-2008. This was important to know, because the second series, starting with The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, is set in the present, and in very specific places. The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know is set in the summer of 2014, in Seattle, Washington. The second book, Barefoot in the City of Broken Dreams, is set in Los Angeles in the fall of 2015. And the last book, The Road to Amazing, is set on Vashon Island in Puget Sound in Washington State, in the fall of 2016.

Questions About Writing and Publishing

How do I get published?

Well, getting an agent helps. But a word of warning about agents: there are a million scam-artists out there who pose as agents, and they will try hard to steal your money. Here’s a link to Writer Beware, a really good site that documents all kinds of writing scams. Every aspiring writer should read it.

Incidentally, here’s a podcast I did that includes a lot of my writing advice.

Jennifer DeChiara

Who is your agent? 

Jennifer DeChiara. You can contact her if you want, but I really wish you wouldn’t, because I’d rather have her devote all of her time to me.

Incidentally, if you do sign with an agent, make sure your contract has an “out” clause. You should be able to part ways at any time or, at worst, after a three-month waiting period. The agent-client partnership is a business relationship, and most of the power is with the agent; you the writer desperately need the leverage of being able to leave if things aren’t working out. Being stuck with a bad agent really is worse than not having any agent at all.

Is it hard to get published?

Very. Basically, you’re asking someone to pay you to do something you love, probably something you’d do for free. Needless to say, there’s going to be a lot of competition for that gig.

But it’s not impossible, right?

It’s absolutely not impossible. But the fact is that everyone wants to be a writer. And, weirdly, almost everyone thinks they can write. So the system is clogged up with so many wannabees, making it really hard for even someone with a very good book to get noticed by agents and editors.

Personally, I subscribe to the 10,000-Hour Rule: it basically takes 10,000 hours of practice before you’re able to do anything at an “expert” level, which is what you need to be able to do to be successfully published.

But this is actually good news. Everyone is writing a book, true, but most of them are awful; they’re not serious competition to the truly talented. If you’ve written a great book with any kind of real audience, it will get noticed eventually, at least if you’re smart about getting it out there.

Should I self-publish?

Here’s one perspective on the topic that I think is brilliant. And I frequently discuss this issue on my podcast. Give a listen:

Should You Self-Publish?

But to nutshell it? If you’re planning on just self-publishing your novel and then waiting for the world to discover it, I think you’re crazy. In the early days of self-publishing, a few people had great success by doing this. But it was extremely rare then, and even rarer now.

Getting people to buy your book is very very difficult even when you have the imprimatur of a major publisher and great reviews from the New York Times. So why do you expect anyone other than your friends and family to take a chance on your self-published novel?

Here’s how to up your odds of success:

First, make sure your book is truly ready (my first five books didn’t deserve to be published). Then be extremely professional in everything you do, hiring a professional editor, copy-editor, and book jacket designer. Don’t even think about doing these things yourself (or having a friend do them). The book needs to be of professional quality, and it also needs to look professional in every way.

The second thing? Traditional media aren’t going to promote your book, so you need to do it yourself. That means using social media to create a platform and a brand. If you don’t know what these things are, you have more homework to do before you’re ready to self-publish your book.

Big picture? Forget the spin and hype: there are no shortcuts in publishing. Traditional or self-publishing, either way, it’s a hell of a lot of work, and there’s (usually) a lot of heartache along the way.

Oh, and here’s a podcast I did on book marketing.

How do I sell my screenplay for a million dollars?

Good question. If you find out, let me know. A note about the world of screenwriting: don’t believe a word anyone says. No matter what they tell you, it’s all hot air and lies. The only thing that’s real is the check (and sometimes checks bounce!). I’m absolutely serious about this.

How much money do you make?

Something you need to know about writers: we’ll tell you the most intimate details of our lives (often cleverly disguised as “fiction”), but we NEVER let on how much money we make.

When I was an unpublished writer, this used to drive me crazy. But now that I’m on the inside looking out, it suddenly makes a lot more sense. Let’s just say that I write fiction full-time, and I make a nice living, okay? But since I won’t answer this question, I will substitute an answer to a question that’s just as personal: briefs.

What’s the worst part of being a writer?

The worst part is definitely the rejection, which is unrelenting. Until you’re successful, everyone seems so eager to dismiss and reject you. And if you do find success, every door will open for you, but only for about five minutes. Then you’ll face more rejection. And if you’re successful, you’ll still face plenty of criticism. I like to say the job of a writer is to be a professional object of criticism. It gets easier, but it never gets easy.

Another bad part of writing is the waiting. Every decision takes at least three times longer than they say it will (I’ve never seen a decision about anything reached quickly). And once a project is finally accepted by a publisher or producer, it takes at least a year — usually two or three! — before it actually sees the light of day.

Increasingly, I see the advantages to self-publishing.

What’s the best part of being a writer?

Having people say they liked or were somehow touched by your work. It just never gets old. It’s also nice to imagine that all my rivals and enemies from over the years are green with envy over my success.

What are the most common mistakes new writers make?

I am intimately familiar with the mistakes new writers make, because I made every single one.

I think the single biggest mistake is not outlining or somehow structuring a book beforehand. New writers often just sit down at a computer and begin writing. Most say they like the spontaneity of this, that they want to be “surprised” by what the characters do and “discover” what happens to them.

Unfortunately, the writer usually ends up with a meandering, confused mess of a book with no clear theme. Some people can structure a book intuitively, but most people can’t. And even if you can eventually hammer your book into shape, I think this is a wildly inefficient way to write.

Everyone’s process is different, and all the matters is the final product. But I encourage you to at least think about your overall story before you begin. Better yet, study one of the many books on dramatic structure (like Syd Field’s Screenplay, which is about movies, but also applies to books).

Better still, write a play — and get it performed in front of a live audience. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a darkened theater while you lose the audience to yet another unnecessary monologue to convince you of the importance of “story.” (Been there, done that!)

A second big mistake new writers make is picking a vaguely defined, hard-to-describe, or done-to-death idea for a book. These days, before you can sell your book, you first need to sell people on the idea of your book.

If you really your book to be successful, your life is made much easier by picking an idea with both pizzazz and a killer hook — something that really sets your book apart from all others. (And by the way, the world already has too many books featuring child-wizards, vampires, zombies, or talking mice. Lately, there’s been waaaaaay too much dystopian stuff too, IMHO.)

Incidentally, plenty of established writers make the above-mentioned two mistakes too. The difference is, they have devoted fans who will buy whatever they write. Plus, they already have book contracts.

Do you have any other advice for writers?

Be prepared for the fact that you’ll hear “no” a lot more than you’ll hear “yes” (the ratio is approximately one thousand “nos” for every one “yes”!).

The stories you hear about overnight sensations are exceptions to the rule, and often, that kind of success doesn’t last long. Most writers struggle in obscurity for years, with little or no acclaim or financial reward. Some eventually break out, but the vast majority do not (I think it’s interesting that I have a lot of very bitter writer-friends, but that none of my doctor or lawyer friends are bitter!).

If you choose to devote your life to writing, accept the possibility that you might never make a great living from it, even if you’re very talented. It’s a big, cold world out there, and no one “owes” you anything, especially a career as an artist.

That said, if you must write, then write. But first, learn the craft. Learn your genre inside and out. Also, learn the industry (and learn how to be a business, which is what you are, even as an artist). Be smart and adaptable. If something doesn’t sell, move on; you can always come back to it later, and you’ll have a much better perspective.

Finally, don’t get discouraged. Because good writing is personal, it’s hard not to take rejections personally. But being a sane writer means having an ego of granite with a Teflon coating. And being a successful writer means being very, very, very, very persistent.

 

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