Thursday, June 21, 2012

From Wargarous to Monocles: an Interview with EJ Patten, Part III of IV

Welcome back to part three of Wargarous to Monocles, an interview in four parts with EJ Patten, whose favorite subjects are Ramen noodles and Vienna sausages and who is the author of Return to Exile... I know I'm a day late. It's supposed to be 4 Thursdays in a row but work with me will you?

Joe: Return to Exile is Middle Grade Fiction – a tough marketing job, as you have stated on your blog. So tell me, why write middle grade fiction? How did you end up with a middle grade story instead of a YA or adult tale or a Buddhist monologue, and what do you think of the genre you write in? Oh yeah, and there was that little question about why you were fired...

Eric: Okay, so I should probably address the firing question before I dive into the middle grade question. Once upon a time, I designed high-end training courses for consultants and bestselling business book authors. I have a lot of stories about this, and why I was fired, but they’re all very boring—not nearly as cool as your story. To sum up, both firings came down to the same issue: I challenge bad ideas regardless of who proposes them and I’m not always circumspect in my approach, even though I try. The problem was that some of the people I reported to assumed that I was challenging them rather than their ideas. The fact that they had a lot of bad ideas didn’t help matters.

Fortunately, the people I work with these days—like my agent and editor—have very good ideas and we make these ideas even better by leaving our egos at the door when we talk. Of course, we don’t have to deal with all the roadblocks and political maneuvering that makes excellence so difficult for corporations to achieve, but that’s a topic for another time. Or not.

You asked about why I write middle grade fiction rather than something else, especially considering how hard it is to sell and market these days. Years ago when I was an undergrad in the film program, I had two screenplays/books I wanted to write: One was middle grade (though I didn’t know what that was at the time); the other was historical fiction. Both were pretty strong ideas, and I wasn’t sure which to pick. The second Harry Potter book had just come out and someone recommended the series, so I bought it. Harry Potter hooked me like no other series had in a long time and I thought, “That’s what I want to write!” It was intriguing and fun and dark and imaginative all at the same time.

Then, life got in the way and things didn’t work out. I was derailed for a number of years. I suspect that if I’d written Return to Exile back then, sales and marketing would’ve been easy. Harry Potter ushered in a heyday for middle grade books. Then, Twilight ushered it right back out and into young adult. If there’s an “it,” and if that “it” is somewhere, YA is where it’s at.

I can name several recent YA hits by debut authors, but I can’t name a single MG hit written by a debut author within the last five years. And by hit, I mean a breakout hit with sales in the millions. The biggest MG series and authors today all started just before the last Harry Potter book was released in 2007: Percy Jackson, Fablehaven, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Mysterious Benedict Society.

It’s possible that it simply takes five years to reach breakout levels; it’s also possible that Harry Potter, which had captured a huge and diverse audience, left a hole in the market and these series and authors stepped in to fill it and have owned it ever since. By the end of Harry Potter, we were well into YA territory, and I suspect that Twilight, which came out in 2005, captured the biggest share of the readership and put the focus on YA.

So what does all this mean? I have no idea. More importantly, I don’t really care.

I write middle grade fiction because I love middle grade fiction. It’s imaginative and fun and exciting. It can be scary or funny, light or dark, adventurous or thoughtful, or all of the above. Adult speculative fiction is almost never fun. Young adult is seldom adventurous. Writing great middle grade fiction requires a finesse and balance that you don’t find in other genres, and your readers are both more and less forgiving. Younger readers will forgive typos, grammatical mistakes, and sloppy writing, but they’ll never forgive you if you bore them. With adults, the opposite is true. With young adults, you can be as sloppy and boring as you want so long as you engage their hearts.

Of course, in the midst of engaging middle grade readers, I don’t shoot for sloppy or heartless. I doubt any writer shoots for this, though some hit the target anyway because they don’t take time to aim.

The difficulty comes in the balance: If I’m writing non-stop action, by definition I’m not stopping to engage a reader’s heart, and if I’m talking about my cool world page after page, I’m not talking about my main character who lost her Aunt Suzie to a rabid falcon when she was young. The most balanced stories start with character and branch out from there. Character moments are almost always slower moments, which is fine for adults and young adults, but not as fine for middle grade readers. This is why so many middle grade books since Harry Potter feel shallow to older readers, because they sacrifice character in favor of action to quickly engage their audience. The breakout hits, like Percy Jackson and Fablehaven, don’t sacrifice character, which is why they appeal to older readers and is one of the reasons why they’re breakout hits in the first place. The finesse comes in trying to find ways to keep action-focused middle graders reading through the setups and character moments in the early parts of the book, but that’s what I try to do. I try to layer my stories so that they’ll appeal to all readers.

I think that’s what Harry Potter did so well.

The market has fragmented since then, and reader’s tastes have changed, but I think that a well-written book that engages the heart and mind will always find a home, no matter the genre.

But I write middle grade fiction because I love it. That’s not to say that someday I won’t write a YA book, or something for adults, but for now, I’m going to stick with middle grade, assuming people keep buying my books.

How about you, Joe? Why write YA (and historical YA, at that)?

Joe: First I think we all should take a moment and write this quote down. It's brilliant. Even if you don't want to, humor me.

"Younger readers will forgive typos, grammatical mistakes, and sloppy writing, but they’ll never forgive you if you bore them. With adults, the opposite is true. With young adults, you can be as sloppy and boring as you want so long as you engage their hearts." 

I remember once sitting in a theatre in the upper west side listening to all kinds of people (actors, politicians, writers) read from beginning to end, out loud, to commemorate the life of James Joyce, the novel Ulysses. It was Bloomsday. The first actor (who was it? never mind) said something about how he'd never read the book and thought that most people hadn't. He said it was like one of those books you were supposed to have read but found too navel gazing to actually get through. That has stuck with me. Adults will forgive boring writing but not grammatical mistakes. That's perfect.

So now that I've insulted James Joyce I'd better move on to your question.

I have always loved reading Middle Grade and YA novels. I just have. I browse bookstores and the kids section is a treasure trove. So is the sci-fi and fantasy and mystery sections. I've also always loved historical novels.

But I never set out to write either. I pretty much wrote contemporary, adult material and fantasy stories when I came upon Open Wounds. An agent gave me the advice to make the book either an epic story of Cid Wyman's life and come in around 6-700 pages or do a YA version of his childhood. I took the YA version by changing the voice of Cid from an old man looking back to a boy's perspective on his own life. By all rights and the age of the protagonist it should be an MG book but the content is too harsh (or so I've been told) for MG. So I didn't write a YA book I just reworked my adult book with a new voice and it worked better that way so I was happy with it.

As for writing an historical novel I came up with Cid Wyman's character first as a 72-year old man and as I worked backward trying to figure out who he was and where he'd come from I found myself in 1936 at the opening of Captain Blood just after Christmas. I didn't find it. It found me. I really enjoyed the research and love that time period in New York City so it all just jelled. I liked it so much I'm writing another historical YA that takes place in a time and place I'm also fascinated with - WWI, the western front, Flanders Field. It's surprises like this that can make writing so cool.

Now here's your last question. John Rocco is a wonderful illustrator and did all the work in your book and a lot of the images on your website (all in this post). Tell me about the process of working on your cover, of hooking up with Rocco, and about how you envision the characters and creatures in your books.
Come back next Thursday as EJ and I go back and forth for one more once. In the mean time the give-away at the end of the interview (closing date for entry is July 2 and winner will be announced Friday, July 6) will be a critique of up to 10 pages of manuscript by EJ himself. I'm not kidding. It's the real deal.  You’ll get one entry for each of the following: mention the interview on Facebook; tweet about the interview on twitter; and/or become a follower of Gotteenfiction.
- Joe


  1. ok, i am sorry if this is not the right place to ask someone this but i could not find any other place that is closer to getting e.j.'s attention about a seiries. i was reading hunters chronicles and i finished legend theif, I CAN NOT FIND THE THIRD BOOK IS THERE EVEN ONE I HAVE BEEN SEARCHING FOR IT EVER SINCE I FINSHED THE SECOND BOOK I AM BEGINING TO THINK THAT THERE ISN'T GOING TO BE ONE BUT THERE HAS TO BE WITH THE GIANT CLIFF HANGER AT THE END I HAVE TO FIND OUT THAT WAS MY FIRST SERIES TO FALL IN LOVE WITH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!