Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Joyful Playlist

I tend to go on and on about the "Ragged Glory" playlist that lasted me the whole time I worked on SPARKS, from the first draft to the last copyedits. The songs all have a ragged, soaring, triumphant quality that I wanted in the book. I don't think playlists help much with rough drafts, but they're fun to make and help me a lot on revisions. You play a song with the right vibe and try to build the scene to work like that song is playing in the background.

Today I made a very important decision that I think will change my life: I typed "Slade" into the "Create a Station" field on Pandora. The station this created has me jumping off the wall as I bang my head and sing along to "Somebody to Love," "Cum On Feel the Noise," and "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress."

It makes me want to talk about my "joyful" playlist, which I switched to for a couple of scenes in the book during revisions. Songs that sound like the band and singer are so happy they can hardly contain themselves and want you to feel the same way. Here's what's on that:

"Oh Yoko!" by John Lennon. The harmonica solo at the end is pure distilled joy.

"Hold Me Now" by Polyphonic Spree. I'm not sure what they're on about in this song - I'm never sure what these guys are on about. But they sure sound uplifting. It's like an indie "Up With People."

I always wanted to start a band called "Up To Here With People."

"Good Lovin" by the Grateful Dead. Once I was at a show where they played this, and a rainbow appeared in the sky. I told a dead head about it and he said "Yeah, that happens a lot at Dead shows. There's a lot of psychic energy." I'm pretty skeptical about stuff like that, but there's no possible scientific explanation to explain how all those VW micro-busses in the parceling lot are still running.

"We Are Golden" by Mika. Fun!

"Don't Stop Believin' (Glee version). I never felt like the show lived up to the promise of the pilot. I like it when their music really sounds more or less like something a really good glee club would do (plus guitar and drums). They usually just sound like karaoke versions. But I sure loved that pilot! Did they ever get around to the gag I assumed they were going for where "new directions" sounds like "nude erections?" The "Halo/Walking On Sunshine" mashup is on there, too.

"My Favorite Things" by The Mountain Goats. One of their dozens of "unreleased" numbers. A minute long song about hearing John Coltrane on the radio while dancing with someone you're probably about to sleep with. "you put your arm around me and it felt real fine /and your ankle brushed up against mine /  and resonating in my bones / the precise, crisp, drumming of Mr. Elvin Jones / god damn it! / i love john coltrane!" I swear he actually sings the exclamation point. John Darnielle tends to sing in italics. He does not sing his songs so much as he declares them.

"Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" by Bruce Springsteen an the Seeger Sessions band. The Seeger Sessions band sounded like what old folk music should have always sounded like, but it's a sound that couldn't exist in a world without mixing boards. An 18 piece folk band with a banjo, a tuba, an accordion, and a ragged band of gypsies vibe. I really hope he brings this band back - or makes up for the loss of Clarence by sort of merging the E Street band with some of these guys (which is pretty much what he's already started).

"Janglin" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. These guys (like Polyphonic Spree) sort of seem like a cult. But what a swell cult! One line I just can't get past here is "We want to heal ya / we don't mean to kill ya." Well, good. I wouldn't want to listen to a band that meant to kill me (and wasn't a Norwegian black metal band).

"Kick Drum Heart" by The Avett Brothers. A bouncy song on an album that is generally not bouncy.

"In The Aeroplane Over the Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel seems like it fits into every playlist ever. All building up to the line "can't believe / how strange it is to be anything at all" which is sort of what Sparks is all about. I would have written that right in, but Flux is pretty hardcore about not quoting any lyrics. This made writing the scenes where they listen to "God Only Knows" and "This Year" and "It's All right Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" an interesting challenge. This is not a song Debbie would like, though. It took forever for this band to click with me, and Debbie is not into artsy, avant grade-type stuff. Maybe one day she will be. Not yet.

"Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service. This makes me think of my wife.

"Love the One You're With" by Stephen Stills. When I was about 14 I went to see a Shakespeare in the Park thing where they did Midsummer Night's Dream with hippies in place of fairies, and between acts a band played this. One of those songs (like "You may Be Right" by Billy Joel) where, if you pay too much attention, you'll start thinking the singer is acting like a complete douchebag, but they make it fun anyway.

"What Is Life" by George Harrison. My favorite of his solo songs. "Waiting ON You All" would have worked in any Sparks playlist, too.

"My Roller Coaster" by Kimya Dawson. One of her happier songs. All the people in this book need to listen to more Kimya Dawson records. We all do, probably. The importance of "Nothing Came Out' by her band, The Moldy Peaches, to SPARKS can not be over-stated. Sounds like a funny song if you've never been "there," but I think it's really their most doggedly serious song.

"Queen of the World" by Ida Maria. I love Ida Maria. This is one of her happier songs, where the depression underneath is more effectively buried. She features very prominently on the playlist for another upcoming book tentatively titled Mad to Live, and "We're All Going to Hell" is on the Satanic YA book playlists (of course).

"Valerie Plame" by the Decemberists. "Engine Driver" turns up in most of my other playlists, but this one delights me more. Something about opening a song with "Valerie Plame / if that really IS your name" makes me smile.

"What Light" by Wilco. THe "Sing, Sing a Song" of my generation.

"The Happy Wanderer" by The Polkaholics. These guys are the greatest band in Chicago. They are a guitar-drum-bass combo that sounds like early Green Day, only they play polka. All polka is happy. It is happy music for happy people. "The Beer Barrel Polka" teaches us that something can start in Scranton and go to Number 1. The lead singer, Dandy Don Hedekker, is the name sake of the appliance store in the book I Put a Spell on You.

"Constructive Summer" by The Hold Steady. The Ragged Glory playlist was heavy on these guys.

Just added today to this list  is "Stuck On F**in' You" by Lady Gaga. Sounds like a Beggar's Banquet outtake. She should do more songs like this. I found myself wishing that whole last record was a big more organic (but in that Jim Steinman and Meatloaf way, if that makes any sense).


Some other music writings I've done:
On Green Day
The Gospel of the Mountain Goats
The Hold Steady and the Gaslight Anthem: Two Gangs Fighting In the Same Springsteen Song
On 90s Alternative as Oldies

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

News, all sizes

Some time soon I'll be doing a radio interview on KMSU's Weekly Reader program. More details when I have them.

Fiction State of Mind has a nice review of Sparks today.

Selzer and I are continuing work on Satan's Parents' Basement: A Novel For Young Adults Who Worship the Devil. No word on what we'll DO with it - we're very happy with it, but we're realistic about its chances of fitting into today's market. Contemporary humor with a male protagonist is a hell of a tough sell today.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Barf

If you take the map of Cornersville Trace , the made-up suburb of Des Moines where SPARKS takes place, and overlay it on a map of where it would actually be in Des Moines, Lisa's house in the book would be right about where Newt Gingrich just opened his new headquarters.  Ugh.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hail Satan?

About a year ago Adam Selzer (my boss on the Smart Aleck Staff) got into a discussion about Christian YA novels and joked that he should write a Satanic one. He started writing down a few lines and had the first chapter pretty quickly.

He and I are collaborating on it now. he brought me in because he needed some "14+" stuff in it.

It's the story of Leon, the kid from his first two books, as an 18 year old slacker, three years after his girlfriend moved to Europe and he sort of let himself go. He now works in a b-rate ice cream place, may or may not be graduating with his class, and spends most of his time hanging around with his assistant manager, who claims to be Satan and serves as Jeeves to his Wooster. There's a full draft of it now, and we've been going through and revising it.

But what should we DO with it, anyway?

There's really no market for books like this. It's a humorous boy book in which no one gets shot or blown up. A few years ago there would have been a market for something like that, but for a book like that to find an audience these days, it pretty much has to be written by John Green. We have a lot of friends TRYING to sell books like this, and even if an editor wants it, all they're hearing from sales and marketing is "we could sell this if it were by John Green, but since it's not...."  John is sort of lucky - in the post-Twilight world, he's a YA writer that it's still socially acceptable for boys (and smart, left-of-center kids in general) to be seen reading. Boys were always a tough market in YA - it's not that they don't read, but when they hit "ya" age, they tend to gravitate more towards adult sci-fi/fantasy/horror and graphic novels. And who can blame them? The YA section is still "The Twilight Section" these days. Even most of the books that AREN'T dystopia/paranormal romance are marketed mainly to the girls who read those.

And if someone DID publish it, we don't think there's any chance they'd actually MARKET it as "a novel for young adults who worship the devil." The chain stores would probably tell them they wouldn't order any unless they removed all references to the dark lord from the cover, title, and description. And then they probably wouldn't order it anyway (getting them to carry a boy book by a midlister is a real trick these days - we'd need to have a movie version coming out or something before there'd be any demand for it).

The obvious choice, then, is to just put it out as an e-book. But there's a danger that "once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." Will it make it harder for us to get traditional publishers (and good contracts) for our other books if they think we're willing to just throw things out for no money upfront? And who's going to edit it? And who'll READ it? These stories you hear about people selling tons and tons (or, well, gigs and gigs) of ebooks are the exception, not the rule. What sales Adam and I get tend to come about mainly because of our good reviews reviews in the trades. We wouldn't get reviewed in the trades at all if we put it out ourselves.

And is it really better to put it out at all, or is it more fun to just tease people about it? It can be like those albums that bands record and are rumored to be masterpieces, but that, for some reason, never actually get released, and become the stuff of legend, even though they're really just okay? Not releasing this it all lends it a kind of air of mystery, doesn't it?


Anyway, the book is in revision now, and the title is either Satan's Parents' Basement or Are You There, Satan? It's Me, Leon. The Holy Quests, who did the "theme song" for Sparks, are recording a whole EP of songs connected to it which we could offer as a free download.

Or maybe we'll just keep it all on our hard drives and let you all stay curious. Muhahahaha.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Great Battle

Adam Selzer and I have long had a challenge: we both had books out on November 8, and whoever's book  sold the fewest copies upon launch had to mow to the other guy's lawn.

I think Adam is winning so far, though my book got a lot more critical attention than his. So it's SORT of a draw, but probably more accurate to say that he's winning so far (going strictly by Amazon rankings and store availability).

Either way, though, the subject is kind of moot, since neither of us actually has a lawn.

School library journal has put out their review of Sparks, btw:

ADAMS, S. J. Sparks: The Epic, Completely True Blue, (Almost) Holy Quest of Debbie. 258p. Flux. Nov. 2011. pap. $9.95. ISBN 978-0-7387-2676-2. LC number unavailable. 

Gr 8 Up
–Debbie, a junior, has been in love with her best friend, Lisa, for five years. In fact, she has created an entire set of interests and religious beliefs as a way of remaining by her side. But when Lisa suddenly gets a boyfriend, Debbie realizes that she needs to figure out who she really is and what she really wants. With the help of two unlikely sidekicks, she sets off on a quest of hilarious adventures where she receives her first kiss, makes some great new friends, and figures out how she wants her life to look from then on out. A funny and quirky coming-of-age novel, this book will appeal to teenagers who are a little bit on the outside looking to find their places in the world.
–Sharon Senser McKellar, Oakland Public Library, CA

There's also a blog review up here:
"S.J. Adams’s descriptions are so vivid and precise it feels like you’re reading in Technicolor."
"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SPARKS giveaway!



SPARKS hit shelves all over today. Enter the HOLY QUEST giveaway! 

In the book, Emma and Tim go on Holy Quests for their made-up religion, Bluedaism. Some goals on their "holy quest checklist" include: 

"Find someone in Des Moines with a Scottish accent" 
"kick old ladies' butts at Bingo" 
"shake hands with someone who has the same name as a former US president" 
"pee in the 18th hole at the golf course" 
"plant a pressed ham at the governor's mansion"
"convince a guy with a bad combover to shave his head"
"touch something from ancient Rome"
"find a guy in a suit and tie at George the Chili King"

Suggest a new holy quest goal of your own to us at staff@smartalecksguide.com and be entered in a contest for one of five free copies! Bonus points if you actually complete the goal!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I Beat Up Adam Selzer

Just a few days until Adam Selzer and I have our new books out out.

He is not taking it well. He is rocking back and forth, obsessively checking Google Blogs and and his Google alerts, eating so much candy that I think he'll probably need insulin, and pacing back and forth (more so than usual). I'd say he's done at least a half marathon just inside of HQ today alone. By the end of the week he'll have paced so much he could have made it to Carbondale.

If, you know, he had any reason to go to Carbondale.

So, I did what my contract as Smart Aleck Staff manager says I'm to do:

I beat him. I beat him up but GOOD.

You see, in all this "anti bullying" stuff we're doing in YA lit these days, no one's really telling the bully's side of the story, except for the usual bunkum about them being scared and alone deep down. Well, sometimes, I'M a bully, and it's not because I'm scared and alone deep down, it's because Adam Selzer is driving me nuts and needs the snot beaten out of him.

He's on the couch now, with a steak over his eye. A minute ago he said, "Thanks, Sij. I needed that."

"You'd better believe you did," I said.

"Your book is going to outsell mine," he said. "I concede."

"Hey," I said, as I poured him a ginger ale. "Mine's in paperback. Easier sell. And it's got good trade reviews."

"I don't have BAD trade reviews," he said. "I just don't have any for this book yet. I did get that one on goodreads that you told me about."

Adam doesn't go on goodreads. It's blocked at HQ. But I saw one review for his new book, and it was a rave. Really, a rave. But reviews from goodreads, blogs, and trades don't really sell books, anyway. Not really. Last year Adam was on AM radio, and after 60 seconds of talking he'd had more than 10x as many web page hits as he got from all the bloggers talking about I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It combined.  He didn't get many from being on NPR last weekend, though.

He's got about half an hour before he has to go out and do a couple of ghost tours now, so that'll get him out of HQ for a while. Long enough for me to hide the candy, though. On Tuesday morning, the two of us will probably trek around to the many indie book stores in Chicagoland to see if our books are on the shelves. And I'll probably end up beating him up again at the end of the day. You should have seen how bruised he was the day that Smart Aleck's Guide came out.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In My Mailbox

In my UPS store box came a pair of copies of the final version of SPARKS!




In my mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by my butt.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Am I Hipster?

The first real, official copies of Sparks arrived at Smart Aleck HQ.  One of the interns flipped through and said "man, you listed the bands you had on your playlist in the acknowledgements? You're a hipster."

I got indignant. "No I'm not!"

I looked around the room. "Oh, you're definitely a hipster," said Adam Selzer, the boss. "I'm sure glad I'm not you!"

"Like you're not a hipster," I said. "Didn't one of your blog posts get tagged as 'hipster' on Reddit a few weeks ago?"

He gulped.

We make fun of hipsters around here a lot. Adam's movie, At Last, Okemah! made fun of them a lot (though it played primarily TO hipsters). In fact, you're hard pressed to find anyone in town who will claim to be able to stand hipsters.  But the truth is, whether we like it or not, we're hipsters here at Smart Aleck HQ - or, anyway, we'd qualify as them in most cities. We're still listening to indie rock in our early 30s, at an age when most of our old friends don't like "that awful new stuff." We live in a big city, use MacBooks, and have a record player.  We take the train. We hang out in coffee shops.

But by Chicago standards, we probably don't. There's not a single mustache in evidence at HQ, nor a trucker hat. We don't go to parties or clubs, and have seldom been seen in a hot new restaurant (even though they pop up on block now and then). We watch sitcoms. None of us precede our name with "DJ." We are not under any illusion that we have any notion of what's cool and what's not these days. In fact, I'd say that most people around here think of us as hopelessly dorky.

I like to think that we're hipsters in the classical, 1950s sense around here. We're more "bohemian" than "hipster," really. Granted, most of the bands on the "Ragged Glory: Debbie Does Detention" playlist were popular indie bands once (Moldy Peaches, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats) but they've probably been absorbed into the mainstream enough now that I'm actually losing hipster cred by mentioning them.

But then again, we live in downtown Chicago, a pleasant walk from the "hipster corridor" of Milwaukee Avenue. We have a skewed sense of what makes one a hipster and what doesn't.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shrunken Heads at HQ

I hate it when Adam, boss of the Smart Aleck's Guide, starts up a new collection. Especially when it's shrunken heads. This month, it's shrunken heads.

I guess someone gave him one as a tip after he ran a ghost tour, and, well, he got the bug. Now HQ is a disaster area. The heads are one thing, but they each come in a REALLY large box (you wouldn't think they would, but they do), and they're all full of styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, and plastic sheets.

And, yeah. The heads bother me. I keep feeling like they're going to start talking and telling me things I don't want to know.

Selzer loves them. He's even mounted a few of them onto Barbie doll bodies to make his own "2 Broke Girls" action figures. With shrunken heads. He has them set up in his own "Williamsburg Diner Action Playset."

And he's not even AROUND headquarters much these days. He's always off running tours, interviewing the grandchildren of serial killers (he got invited out to help exhume one the other day - Gd only knows what he'll bring back from THAT trip), tromping around arboretums, occupying large banks and having milkshakes in the burbs with his wife and Claudia Gray.   Meanwhile, we here on the staff are left in a mess of shrunken heads, trying to work on the new guides and dealing with the blowback from someone calling him a hipster on Reddit, and there're only three weeks until Sparks comes out (on the same day as Adam's new one, Extraordinary).

#OccupySmartAleckHQ.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Random Passage from SPARKS

Here's a section from Chapter 8 of SPARKS, which will be out via Flux early next year or late this one. Here, the "holy quest" takes Debbie, Emma and TIm to Mid-Iowa Lanes, a local bowling alley where lots of holy quests seem to take them:


The inside of Mid-Iowa Lanes smelled like cigarettes and shellac, and the walls were covered with paintings of guys with mustaches holding bowling balls. Everything in the place was a shade of brown, orange or yellow, except for the glowing pink and blue neon lights that were set up here and there. There was a bar where people were drinking -- and it wasn't even four o'clock. Speakers in the ceiling were blasting “Don’t Stop Believing” way too loudly.

"I never realized how dirty this place looked," I said.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" asked Emma, as we stepped inside. "A place unsullied by the present standards of design."

“Or cleanliness,” I said.

"They haven't even changed the music since about 1989," said Tim, reverently.

"That's the beauty of a bowling alley," said Emma. "There's nothing classy, modern, or sterile about these places. And wait ’til you see the bowling alley skanks who hang out in the arcade!”

Tim started singing a song about bowling alley skanks to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing.”

“And we mean ‘skanks’ in the nicest possible way,” said Emma. “They’re good kids.”

We started walking down along the area between the bar and the lanes themselves, and I looked around at the people. There were a whole bunch of guys in ugly shirts bowling. Most looked sort of grimy, even from a distance. There were a lot of comb-overs in evidence.

I wondered why none of these men were at work. It wasn't like there could possibly be that many professional bowlers in suburban Des Moines.

Besides the actual bowlers, there were a handful of people who looked like they were just
hanging around. A few guys in tattered overcoats sat by the bar. Five or six old black guys were lounging by the pool tables, laughing and joking.

Everyone there looked sort of grotesque, like they were covered in a thin layer of cigarette smoke or something, as though Megamart was selling bottled cigarette smoke as a gel, and everyone had smeared themselves with it because they weren’t allowed to smoke in public anymore. Maybe they'd hung around the bowling alley so much that that weird smell got into their skin and was never going to go away.

It was just a bowling alley, but I'm not sure I'd ever seen anything so scary in my life. This was not the sort of crowd I was used to traveling among without being surrounded by the Lisa and
her friends.

There was no sign of Norman or the Fellowship anywhere.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

One month until SPARKS

One month to go until SPARKS!

I'm pleased to announce that Adam and I will both be at the Teen Book Fest in Rochester this coming May. Which of us does more panels depends on how Sparks does vs. Adam's Extraordinary, which comes out the same week.  Mine is in paperback, and his is in hardcover, so sales-wise, I expect to mop up the ol' floor with him.

The first few reviews have trickled and, and, to my delight, have NOT dinged me for using pop culture references (to the extent that Full House still counts as pop culture in 2011).  I know Adam got hit a lot for the pop culture references in I Kissed a Zombie  - many reviewers made a point of saying that the book won't age well, since it has a number of pop culture references. Most of them are to Leonard Cohen and Cole Porter, which will be no less dated in 2030 than they already were in 2010, but never mind.

Somehow, word has gone around that you should never refer to pop culture in a book, because the book will be dated soon if you do. Actually, the REAL rule is "never use pop culture to show how hip you are, or rely on it as a means of getting the reader to feel a rapport with your narrator."  Your book will be dated in a few years anyway. The world marches on. And which idiots are we pandering to if we write our books strictly for readers who expect everything they read to seem like it was taking place two weeks ago?  Personally, if I read a book from 1965, I expect a Beatles reference. If the main character in a book that takes place that year doesn't have an opinion about the Beatles, they're probably dead inside.

All books date. Every paranormal romance and dystopia will be dated in ten years, after the crazes have died down. Most likely, after ten years, hardly anyone will read them.

But Roger Ebert recently said that the biggest problem with a ten year old movie is that it isn't thirty years old. The same is true of books. Some of these books will become "period pieces" that continue to connect with readers from across the decades.  But what good book have you read recently from 1981 that truly seems like it could have been written this week?

I like to rant about this stuff. I think I've already done it once or twice on here.

Meanwhile, back at Smart Aleck Staff HQ, we're busily preparing the first four Shakespeare guides to launch next month, and running drills for what happens if Adam gets followed home by a ghost after one of the ghost tours that he's now funning 6-8 times per week. He's going tromping around in some of the most notable supposedly-haunted spots in town, flashing lasers around, and digging up information about long-dead serial killers. Ah, Halloween! When a young man's fancy turns to blood.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Adam's back in the ghost tour biz

...which means we here at the Smart Aleck's Guide have to prepare for the worst. Proton packs are at the ready.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Good marks from Publishers Weekly!

"Touching and humorous....Debbie and her offbeat cohorts are nuanced and authentic"


See full review at Publishers Weekly

Friday, September 23, 2011

first SPARKS review

In an upcoming issue, Kirkus will call SPARKS  "original and appealing....a kinetic and well paced comedy that just might win a few converts…"

This is the first review I've seen, and a good review from Kirkus is always nice to get (they're known to be rather curmudgeonly). It lists the release date as Nov 1, which is a week earlier than I'd thought, and means that I can call off my beef with Adam Selzer, whose new book was to come out on the same day as SPARKS. He's the captain of the Smart Aleck Staff.

ETA: Nope, still Nov 8th. So the fight is still on, Selzer!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Adam Selzer unwraps mummies (probably)

Now and again, Adam Selzer will pick a classic book or play or something and try to work as many references to it as possible into his current book, just to see who notices. There are shout-outs to Our Mutual Friend all over I Put a Spell on You, and his new book, Extraordinary, is loaded with Music Man references. There's even a Wells Fargo Wagon (full of unicorn poop).

And his "Satanic YA" novel that he's been tinkering with is full of Moby Dick references.

Now, let me explain something: Selzer is a guy who gets REALLY into what he researches. When he was reading Moby Dick, he got the bug and decided to go harpoon a whale himself. And how would he do that, here in Chicago? Well....let's just say that no one from the Smart Aleck Staff is allowed to show our face down at the Shedd Aquarium anymore.

And now he's working on a section about Victorian "mummy unwrapping parties" for The Smart Aleck's Guide to Grave Robbing.

And seeing how much gauze he has leftover from his recent sinus surgery...

I guess we haven't been kicked out of the Field Museum yet, but I suppose it's only a matter of time before every museum in town has our picture in the box office with the words "do not sell to these hooligans" above it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Oh, goodness

Adam, boss of the Smart Aleck Staff, has just announced that he intends to bring tying onion's to one's belt back into fashion, and that we all have to help.

Headquarters is going to smell INCREDIBLE.  We put out two new Smart Aleck's Guide ebooks, then Adam rushed out a book on Chicago ghostlore in time for Halloween, and now I think he's at loose ends. Nothing to do but work on fiction and try to bring fictional retro fashions back. This does not bode well.

But we drill for things like this.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sparks Trailer!

Here's the video trailer for SPARKS, coming November 8 from Flux Books.





You can also see it, and download the song from the background, on the new downloads page.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Trailer Stills

Here are some stills from yesterday's trailer shoot:
Julie Kostynick as Debbie and Ava Raddatz as Emma Wolf.  We filmed this scene at the same high school that was used for Mean Girls, just to say that we did. It probably won't make the final cut.

Emma and Tim (Tyler Streb) kick old ladies' butts at bingo.


Bluddha, the current mascot of the Church of Blue (it WAS Emma's car, but you just can't have a deity that stalls out on you every day).


Emma and Tim complete their Holy Quest Goal of finding someone with the same name as a US president by meeting Andrew Johnson, who is just THRILLED.


Keeping an eye on Adam today - he's reading up on mummy "unwrapping parties" that were popular in the Victorian era, and something tells me he's going to want to try it out....but we drill for this sort of thing around here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Ragged Glory: Debbie Does Detention playlist

From the feverish days of trying to write the first draft in two weeks back in 2007 through two weeks ago, when the last of the edits were finalized, the RAGGED GLORY playlist has been the heart and soul of SPARKS. I took the term from Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, who said they wanted their TV show, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, to have a sense of ragged glory in their DVD commentary. I want all of my stuff to have that, too. They borrowed the term from a Neil Young record.

Over time I've added a bit to the list, so some things are from post-2007. But now you can listen to most of it yourself on spotify!

Click to open spottily behold the ragged glory!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Three months out...

Just a few months until SPARKS is unleashed upon the world. I turned in all of the last round of changes and fixes on Monday morning, wrapping up four years of work on this project. The last song to be added to the "Ragged Glory" playlist was "Chesire Kitten" by SJ Tucker (she pronounced SJ as "Sooj." I go by "Sij.")

We're knee-deep in work for the video trailer(s) now. I wonder if Flux would mind if we ended by saying "Flux Books. YA Lit with 50% fewer dumbasses than the next leading brand..."

Now that the main body of work on SPARKS is done, I'm going full time on the new launch of the Smart Aleck's Guide series. You can help us get launched at kickstarter.com!


Monday, August 1, 2011

Theme from Sparks

A new band called The Holy Quests came by Smart Aleck Staff HQ to record some incidental music for the book trailer we're putting together for Sparks (using one of Adam's old songs). The trailer is going to be GREAT! We've got a really cool cast lined up. Here's a free mp3 of the "theme song."

New York Rain (Theme from Sparks) by scapegoat95

Friday, July 22, 2011

Excerpt from SPARKS

Emma backed out of the garage, pulled onto the street, and stepped on the gas, saying “praise be to Blue, and hallelujah!”

Tim looked out the window as we started down the street. "I'll bet no one in heaven still says 'hallelujah,'" he said. "It's probably like saying 'gee golly' on Earth."

I chuckled for the first time in hours.

"Where are we going, anyway?" I asked.

 Emma slammed on the brakes and pulled over onto the side of the street, in front of a yellow house where a bunch of little kids were playing out front. The kids stopped and took a step backwards when Emma stopped the car, like they thought she was a stranger who was going to offer them candy.

“Shit,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of that. I was just veering in the general direction of George the Chili King.”

“We should at least get the checklist out,” said Tim.

He opened the glove compartment and started digging around. “We have a checklist of things to do, see, or find on Holy Quests,” he said. “Some of them are quests in and of themselves, some are just things to do along the way.”

“It’s like playing Auto Bingo,” said Emma. 

Tim handed me back a sheet of paper. I looked out the window to see the kids decide Emma wasn't a threat and go back to playing, then read it.
HOLY QUEST GOAL CHECKLIST

1. Find and play a “Love Tester” machine.
2. Locate a guy with the same name as a U.S. president and get his autograph.
3. Talk our way into getting to the top floor of the Principle Building (801 Grand).
4. Plant a Pressed Ham at a place patronized by old ladies (or at the Governor’s Mansion).
I looked up from the list. 

“What’s a pressed ham?” I asked.

“It’s where you press your butt cheeks up against a window 
when someone’s sitting on the other side,” said Emma. “We did it at an old lady place, but we should really hit the governor’s mansion, too. Branstad deserves it.”
       “No objections from me,” I said.

I looked back down at the list. 

5. Drink six shots of straight espresso each.
6. Find a waitress named Irene, Wanda or Rhonda.
7. Go inside a teacher’s house.
8. Acquire a statue of a monkey.
9. Find the grave of Tim’s great great great grandpa Harry.
10. Convince a guy with a bad comb-over to shave his head.
11.  Find someone who has a Scottish accent.
12. Touch something from ancient Rome.
13. Pee in the 18th hole of the Waveland Golf Course.
14. Find a guy in a suit and tie at George the Chili King.
15. Shake hands with a bowler who has bowled a perfect 300.
16. Win a game of Bingo (and act all arrogant about it, like Bingo hustlers, yo).
17. Fill Heather Quinn’s shoes with whipped, sour or shaving cream.
18. See a naked person of each gender (live and in person) in the same place at the same time (hands off, Emma!).
19. Break something expensive.
20. Witness a girl-on-girl kiss in which at least one participant has never kissed a girl before (boy-on-boy also acceptable).


All but the last three on the list had check marks next to them. 
       “So you guys did all these things?” I asked.
      “Yeah,” said Emma. “That’s actually our fourth list, too. Some of them take a while, but we meet interesting people, find interesting places, and do amazing things along the way.”
      “Some of these kind of seem like they’re breaking the ‘don’t be an a-hole’ rule,” I said.
      “Maybe a little,” said Emma. “But mostly it’s being a jackass, not an asshole. There’s a difference.”
      “Like when we stole all those Neighborhood Watch Signs,” said Tim. “That sort of toes the line, but proving they didn’t really mean anything seemed like a good idea at the time.”
      “And we’re giving them back,” said Emma. “Our holy quest for spring break is to find really cool places to put them up.”
      “What did you touch from ancient Rome?”
       “They had some old Roman coins at the coin shop on Fleur Drive,” said Tim. “That one was easy. The hardest one on that list was actually finding someone with a Scottish accent in Des Moines.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “No one emigrates to Iowa.”

”That last one works out perfectly,” said Tim, as he took the list back. “Debbie can kiss Lisa at the end of the night. Who's the patron saint of goal setting?"

"Christ, I don't know!" said Emma. "But blessed be the name of whoever the hell it is, huh? I’ll bet we can do all of those last three things tonight.”

“Anything can happen on a night when you finish off a holy quest checklist,” said Tim. “Especially if you knock three of them off to get there.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “To be totally honest, I think the odds that she’ll end up kissing me tonight are about a million to one.”

“Gotta have faith,” said Tim. “Blue will provide.”

“Still,” I said. “Naked people? Where would you find those?”

“That’s no problem,” said Emma. “I mean, if the night is winding up and we haven’t done either of them we’ll find something to break, and Tim and I’ll get naked behind a bush or something before you talk to Lisa and kiss her. I’d hate for either of you to have to see my fat ass, but we’ll do what we have to.”

“I’ll survive,” said Tim. “I saw already saw it when you planted the pressed ham at the coffee shop. I didn’t die.”

Emma laughed. “I think the old lady who was sitting at the window almost did. She sure screamed loud enough.”

“I’m putting that goal on the next list, too,” said Tim, “but this time the governor’s mansion is a requirement, not an option.”

“Look out, Governor Branstad!” said Emma.

“I still don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never even seen a naked guy before.”

“Well, all the more reason, then,” said Emma. “That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Trying new things?”

“We’re not saying it would straighten you out to see someone’s shlong or anything,” said Tim. “But seeing people naked is like, a life experience thing that everyone ought to do.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Does it even count if I’m the one who sees the people? I’m not Bluish.”

“Anyone coming along on the quest is qualified,” said Emma.

I nodded. “As long as I can keep my clothes on.”
“Oh, you totally can,” Emma said. “We wouldn’t make you do anything you weren’t comfortable with. But if we cross off all three of these tonight, anything can happen. I’m willing to get naked to get us to that point.”

"So, how much time do we have?" asked Tim. “You know when movie they were gonna see starts?”

"Not off the top of my head,” I said. “They had other stuff in the afternoon, but they were going to two of them, so they’re probably at, like, 7 and 9. Angela might know for sure. Let me call her.” 

I reached around behind me for my backpack -- and felt nothing.

Oh, God.

I thought back, and realized I hadn't had it in detention, either. Or in the class before. Or in the bathroom. I’d been in such a haze, and everyone else had been so much into spring break mode, that I hadn’t even thought to pull out a text book. I must have left it at the lunch table when I ran out in a hurry.  

I always do things that. Lisa used to joke that I’d lose my butt if it wasn’t attached.

My chest started to tighten. My guts felt like they were going to come climbing out of my throat. My breathing got really short. My backpack had the list of reasons I was not just a wacky sidekick in it. Including the Big One. Which I had stupidly not written in code or something. 

And now someone else had it.

“Oh, crud,“ I said, starting to shiver. “Oh, crud, crud, crud.”

"What?" asked Tim.

"My backpack... I think I left my backpack at the lunch table! It had my phone... and a list of reasons that I’m not just like Kimmy Gibbler from Full House...”

"So, if whoever has the bag opens it, you're outed?" asked Tim.

I nodded. “If Norman reads it, he’ll tell Lisa and everyone else in the world. And she might feel like she has to prove to him that she’s not gay, too…”

If Lisa found out that I liked girls from me, she’d probably be okay with it, at least. I mean, I didn’t think it was really likely that she’d turn out to be in love with me, too, but she wouldn’t throw a Bible at me or anything. A couple of the ACTs sponsors thought that having gay marriage be legal in Iowa would the end of the world, but Lisa said she didn’t really have a problem with it. I don’t think much of any of the kids in ACTs did.

However, if Norman had my bag, and he found out and told her before I could, he’d probably tell her not to hang out with me anymore. I hoped she’d have the sense to tell him to go to Hell, but she was stuck so far up his butt she could barely see out.

Emma turned back to me and put a hand on each of my cheeks.

“Breathe.” she said. “Just breathe a second. We have this under control.”

I tried to breathe. It helped a bit. Hearing her speak so confidently didn’t exactly reassure me, but it kept me from going into total panic mode.

 “Who do you think might have it?” asked Tim.

”Lisa probably picked it up after lunch,” I said. “Do you have a phone I can use?”

Emma passed me back a phone and I dialed Lisa’s number, but there was no answer. Just her voicemail:

“Hi, this is Lisa. If you’re being chased by a bear, hit the pound sign, then hang up and run in a a zig zag pattern. Otherwise, leave a message.”

The phone beeped, and I said “Hi, Lisa, it’s me, Debbie. I’m on a friend’s phone. Do you have my backpack? Call me at this number, okay? I really need it back.”

 I thought maybe I could call Angela or something, since I needed to know if she knew what movies Lisa and Norman were seeing anyway, but I didn’t know her number. Lisa’s was the only one I really knew offhand. I mean, I never actually dial people’s whole numbers. They’re all saved in my phone. 

I called my own phone, hoping that whoever had it would answer, but it went to voicemail, too.

"Can we just go to Oak Meadow Mills, where Lisa lives?" I asked, handing Emma her phone back. “Her mom might know where she is. And she might have dropped my bag off at her house.”

"Perfect," said Emma. "And Quinn probably won't be heading that way, so it's extra perfect."

“Sounds like a quest has fallen right into our laps,” said TIm. “The Quest for Debbie’s Backpack.”

“If Blue or whoever it is hid my backpack just so we could have a quest, I’m moving to Minnesota and starting my own damn religion,” I said. “One whose whole purpose is to wage war on Bluists.”

"We could use one of those,” said Tim. "It'd be great if we could be oppressed a bit. It'd really bring Bluists together."

"All two of us, yeah," said Emma. “Don’t worry, Deb. Blue wouldn’t pull that kind of crap on you.”

“Can we just go?” I asked.

“Of course.”

And she took off through the streets of Cornersville Trace. We pulled away from the school, past De Gama Park and through the "historic" part of town near the mall and my house. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Buzz Cuts: An Essay for Pride Week

(originally posted at The Hate-Mongering Tart)


As a student at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Georgia. I was not exactly bursting with school spirit. In fact, I spent a lot of time imaging that I had a "doomsday button" on the corner of my desk. But I certainly hated Brookwood, our rival school. It was a more affluent school, with (I swear) chandeliers in the cafeteria and a nearly undefeated football record. I competed against a lot of snobs from Brookwood in debate tournaments. I remember one girl lamenting "we didn't win a single trophy last time... you don't understand. We're BROOKWOOD. That does NOT happen." Even now this sort of makes me want to hit myself (or her) in the head with a text book.

I was the only person at South who worked at the Fuddruckers on Scenic Highway in the spring of 1997. Everyone else who worked there went to Brookwood. They were not keen on having to work with someone from South - especially one who was rumored to be gay.

My job at Fuddrucker's was "Guest Service Relations," a position so useless it no longer exists. Most of my job was refilling salt shakers and giving customers someone to complain to - and they had plenty to complain about. It was not a well-run place. It did a lot to spark my life-long prejudice against managers.
 
I was only an employee there for a couple of months, but looking back it seems like I was there ages. Of the other employees, the one I liked best was a long-haired, no-good kid who said that his parents were kicking him out the day they turned 18 so they could start recovering. Most of the other employees thought he was a heavy metal-loving Satanist. In reality, he was a classic rock guy; he and I spent a lot of time quoting "Only the Good Die Young" by Billy Joel and getting on the intercom after hours and pretending to be God ("Attention Fuddruckers...this is God...I urge you all to take up Buddhism....")

I was also said to be a devil worshipper, and had the added fun one of being three people there was who was widely rumored to be gay. All three of us had a hard time with it, but we didn't band together in a show of solidarity or anything. In fact, the three of us genuinely hated each other.

The first guy was one of my fellow Guest Service Relations workers. He spoke in somewhat of an effeminite voice, so much so that I was pretty sure he was gay myself. I remember that he called napkins "napoupons," for some reason. He had an interesting trick for dealing with accusations of being gay: when accused, he would offer to kiss any girl who happened to be present. For some reason, this deflected all doubters. "I thought he was gay," one girl said, "but he'll kiss any girl any time."  Apparently, this girl was operating under the impression that gay men will shrivel up and die if their lips touch those of a girl.

Guy #2, a cook (I think) exhibited similar stereotypically "gay" mannerisms, but deflected the rumors by being the most homophobic sumbitch alive. This two month period when I worked with him happened to be the period when Ellen Degenerous came out of the closet, so the subject of whether all gay people were going to hell came up a lot. He was quite insistent that they were.

I remember one girl trying to defend homosexuality to guy #2. I jumped into the conversation right around the time he said "There's no such thing as gay love. It's not love, it's perversion!"

"No," she said, "sometimes..."

"You're not supposed to stick things in that hole," he said. "It's wrong. It's why being gay is a sin. It's disgusting and perverted."

"Well, guys and girls do the same thing," said the girl. "Is being straight a sin?"

He continued to act disgusted.

I don't remember anyone's names from that place (just the faces and occasionally a first name), so I can't look any of them up. However, I would not be at all surprised to find that both of those guys were happily out of the closet now.

Personally, their reasons for thinking I was gay revolved around two things (besides the fact that I didn't go to Brookwood): 1. I didn't think all gays were going to hell and didn't join in on the "it's disgusting" chats, and 2: I had curly hair.

"It's natural," I said. "It's not like I put it in curlers or anything."

"Mine is, too," said another guy. "But I do the right thing and cut it off!"

I noticed that a lot of the guys there - really, almost everyone but the long-haired guy - had a buzz cut. Anything but the GI Joe look was un-American. I can only guess what these guys would have said about the Beatles' haircuts a few decades before.

It got a bit uglier than just being picked on - one guy even took to chasing me around with, knives following me out to my car, and generally stalking me. Most of the staff (including the girl who'd defended homosexuality to guy #2 and had seemed friendly enough) helped him out. The manager wouldn't fire him, even after he did things that resulted in me getting hurt and threatened to do worse. 

Once when he threatened to kill me, I alluded to the fact that if I made one phone call, he could end up in jail "and find out what a real gay guy looks like."

I'm not really proud of that one, looking back, but it shut him up for a minute.

Meanwhile, he had his gangster-wannabe friends (one of whom went by the name of Boat Show) come in as customers to give me a hard time, and told me that I should refer to all other employees as "sir" or "ma'am." I never once did. These people were not knights of realm.

Eventually I told the manager to fire the guy right that second or I'd quit. He wouldn't, so I gave him my notice and found another job (this was the Clinton era - EVERY restaurant was hiring). I didn't really expect that the staff at my job at Po' Folks, which catered to hicks specifically, would be any more progressive, but the job at Fuddruckers sucked, the manager (who horrified me by saying "i see a lot of myself in you, SJ") was kind of an idiot, and it's just not pleasant to work in a place where people think it's funny when a guy chases your around with butcher's knives and expects you to call him "sir." 

On my last day, when I left the place for the last time, a handful of the employees gathered at the front door to shout "get out of here, you queer!" in unison as I walked to my car.

I sometimes wish I'd said something profound or something that made them feel a bit guilty, but my actual response ("fuck me running, you chickenshit bastards") was all I could think up at the time. 

I never saw any of those people again.  

Nor have I heard hide nor hair from the group in my algebra class who one day came to class in homemade "stay straight" t-shirts covered in slogans such as "we hate fags" and made plans to sing "Dixie" outside of the trailer that served as a classroom for a teacher widely rumored to be gay. They spent the whole class thinking up other hateful things to write on each other's shirts. Just to see how they'd react and register my disapproval, I suggested they add a swastika. 

They were baffled by this. Though these guys made no secret of being racist, anti-semitic, and anti-everything else, it had genuinely never occurred to them that being anti-gay was a form of prejudice, too. After all, the general consensus among people at that school was all that gay men were child molesters, or, at the very least, rapists who lurked in the shadows to prey on any man fool enough to go into a big city alone after dark.

In the middle of all this I did know one person who claimed to be bisexual - a young man who rode my same bus. He was also an outspoken neo nazi (though he thought the phrase was "hail Hitler," not "heil."), had purple hair and was operating under the odd misconception that he wouldn't have been forced onto the first train out of Berlin.

I was actually sort of friendly with another guy who claimed to be a Nazi, too. When you actually talked to him, you found that he didn't really follow the idealogy - he was just rebelling and looking for a way to fit in, really, and some local racist punks gave him a place. I thought it was important that people besides the other local Nazis be friendly to him. We liked some of the same music and I was able to point out the giant holes in his logic without seeming like I was threatening him. I wish I'd done more.

When I look back now at the people I sat with in other classes (who never missed a chance to rail against "fags") (sometimes using that exact word to quote their minister), I'm surprised at how many of the people I argued with seemed, in retrospect, like they were probably not being honest with themselves (indeed, I later heard that one or two had come out). I feel terrible for them. They were gay in a town where ministers apparently had no qualms about using the word "fag," and where people thought that gay bashing was no more "hateful" than Brookwood-bashing. Where local groups sent out mailers accusing the mayor of being a "sodomite." Of COURSE they tried their hardest to be dishonest with themselves - I can only imagine the stress they were under. Most people weren't getting online yet; finding friends among whom they could be honest with themselves was not an option, and must have seemed totally impossible. 

I ended up leaving the school after junior year and going to the local "alternative" school where the pregnant girls and burnouts went. I loved it there. It was a whole school full of freaks. Some kids there were openly gay. Others were openly pagan. There were rednecks there, too, but they weren't running the place like they seemed to at South in those days. There were no sports, no proms, no clubs, no social curriculum of any kind. It was like escaping to Wonderland to me. The school treated us like adults and expected us to act like it. We did.

Not every student has the option of going to such a place, but at least the internet gives us all a place to go. Everyone can find like-minded people going through the same things online, and watch TV shows where gay teenagers deal with the same things they're going through. At the very least, gay teenagers are being told that "it gets better" and there a million ways for them to find that they're not alone. 

We have a long way to go, but so many things happening today would have been unthinkable when I was in high school. Bills are failing to pass by one vote instead of thirty. There's a reason the anti-gay lobby is scrambling to get their laws and restrictions on the books now. They know that in another 10 years, they won't have a chance. The anti-gay brigade needs to decide what side of history they want to be on.   

As for those guys in high school, I can't find most of them online, but I know that at least a few are out of the closet now. The bisexual neo nazi from the bus is probably married with kids and working at the bank, and I hope the one from my chemistry class got it out of his system, too. "Boat Show" might still be a douche bag, but I'll bet he feels like an idiot whenever anyone reminds him that he used to think he was a real gangster.  I can't say for sure, because I honestly don't remember most of their names. And they probably don't remember mine, or the fact that I was a complete dork who only occasionally had the balls to stand up for myself or others. When high school ends, it ENDS. Thank god.

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