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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Must-Read Character Development Advice and Giveaway: YA Author Robert Kent (aka the Middle Grade Ninja) and ALL TOGETHER NOW

Let me make something clear: I'm not a huge fan of scary books. Serial killers, psychotic/vengeful ghosts, gratuitous violence a la Quentin Tarantino: not really for me. I'm a weenie who gets spooked by Stephen King novels, and I have trouble reading them even though I know they're written by a master of his genre. But while Robert Kent's All Together Now is a suspenseful book within a horror-type genre, it doesn't deter me in the same way. It's full of zombies, and those things aren't actively trying to be evil~ they're just...zombies.

Ever since reading Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I've gotten the occasional hankering for a zombie novel. It’s a curiosity thing now, because Smith’s book shattered my preconceptions about the genre. His take on Jane Austen’s classic was, in my opinion, clever with a wonderfully Austen-ish voice. Likewise, Robert Kent’s All Together Now: A Zombie Story is a cleverly-constructed and skillfully-paced young adult novel with depth.

Let me make something else clear: this is a pretty disgusting and violent book, as in, it has lots of gore. But it also has heart and character development. What's that? You're "just not a zombie novel fan"? Give Robert Kent's All Together Now a read anyway because YOU WILL LEARN SOMETHING ABOUT WRITING (and with a Kindle price of $.99, it's an easy purchase choice). And you can read the first chapters HERE for free!

Okay, interview time (Leave a comment on this post to be entered in the paperback giveaway)
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1      How did you come up with your protagonist, Ricky, and tap into his unique young adult voice and perspective?

Every character requires a slightly unique process just as every story has its own unique challenges, or if you prefer, opportunities for solution:) Typically the way I work is I start with an interesting situation and figure out the right character to put in that situation. The more ordinary the situation, the more extreme I make the character to interest the reader. A driver’s license exam is boring unless the person taking it is drunk or blind or both, whereas a crashing plane is interesting whoever’s onboard. In the case of All Together Now, the zombie apocalypse is such an extreme situation that I made the characters as ordinary as I could so, hopefully, the reader relates to them even if they don’t relate to being chased by shambling corpses.

The first character that came to me was Chuck as something about a 6-year-old zombie boy broke my heart. To work, the book needed to be written as a journal and I wanted to write about a setting I knew to tell as much truth as I could since zombies are an obvious lie:) Therefore, I needed a character that believably cared for Chuck, was a good writer so the journal entries didn’t suck, and who lived in small-town Indiana and would be enough of an everyman to gain the empathy of readers.

Roger Ebert once said of The Exorcist that the characters were interesting because they didn’t want to be in a horror story and I’ve never forgotten that. Characters waiting around for zombies to attack aren’t three-dimensional. So I put Ricky and Chuck in an already bad situation by having their mom leave before the start of the story. From a plot perspective, there’s no reason for me to do this, but I thought complicating their lives before the zombies came would make them more believable and empathetic once they were being chased.

That’s the basics anyway. From there, I let the characters act on their own so that they reveal themselves to me through their actions in the story. For this reason, I never plot too tightly as that would force the characters and I like it when they call the shots (even if it leads to extra chapters I hadn’t planned on). After about 60-70 pages together, I had a pretty good sense of who Ricky was, so I finished the book, then rewrote those first pages:)

2.    In addition to a high-stakes, action-based plot and plenty of zombie gore, there is a philosophical bent to the novel that debates whether it is to be better healthy and alone, or to give in to the very human need to be “all together now.” Where did the title come from and what does it mean to you?

Well, since you asked such a direct question, I’ll give you the honest answer: the title came from a copyright issue:) I always wanted the philosophical bent because for me that’s what separates zombie stories from each other and keeps the genre interesting. When I read a zombie book, I want lots of zombie action as that’s what I paid for, but I’m hoping the author will use zombies as a metaphor for something more as that’s largely what makes a story distinct—otherwise, why not just play Dead Island instead of reading a story?

I always knew the ending and I always knew I wanted the book to be about my own fear of conformity. Originally, in a key scene in the book, I had a congregation of Christians sing “Where No One Stands Alone” as that song is particularly manipulative and creepy as it’s all about true believers longing to be together in death. Well, it turns out that of all the hymns I reference in the book, that one’s copyrighted and I couldn’t get permission to use the song, even though I’d written arguably the most crucial scene in the book around it.

I couldn’t find a public domain song that worked as well as that one (the lyrics include  quotable gems such as “I don’t know a thing in this whole wide world that’s worse than being alone” and “Oh Lord, don’t hide your face from me”). So the simplest solution was to write my own hymn and I could make it as on point as I liked.  Having my congregation sing “after we’ve died, left our mortal coil behind, we’ll rise up and not be alone” is perhaps too on the nose, but I liked “All Together Now” as an imaginary song so much I changed the title of the book. It didn't hurt knowing that my friend Mike Mullin’s book Ashfall ends up at the top of a lot of lists because it begins with an ‘A’:)

3.    There is no doubt that this is a young adult novel that really deals with Ricky being on that vulnerable teenage line between childhood and adulthood. His inner thoughts, him taking responsibility for zombie-fied brother Chuck, his attraction to his co-escapee, the flashbacks to family issues….it’s just done so well (in fact, I got in touch with Robert when I was halfway through this book to tell him that I’d be buying the paperback of this book for my 16-year-old stepson, who will love it). Why did you choose to make this a young adult novel?

Actually, I originally attempted this one as a middle grade book, which now strikes me as an insane notion. A couple chapters in, I realized I wanted to write about truly violent zombies and I couldn't figure out how to make that work in a kid-friendly book, but I still wanted to take on the zombie apocalypse from a younger perspective. YA authors can pretty well get away with anything, though I think I’m testing that limit with the content of this novel. And teenagers are the perfect characters for a story about fear of conformity. No one is more aware of their forced socialization than a teen stuck in high school.

4.      In some action-based stories, character development can take a backseat to plot, which results in a highly entertaining book with two-dimensional characters. That’s not the case in All Together Now, which has well-rounded characters. How did you go about fleshing out Ricky, Michelle, and Levi (‘fleshing’ out? Get it? Ah, zombie humor) when they were in such a tense situation?

I believe people in real life show us who they are through their actions more than they what they say about themselves.  I try to take the same approach with my characters. So when I start any story, I usually have some idea of the beginning, middle, and end, which predetermines some character attributes (gotta have a hero), but I let the characters dictate how we get there as much as possible. Their decisions and the reasons they make them tell me who they really are, despite who they may think they are.

I keep some character notes, but I’ve never believed in writing out a character outline ahead of time for the simple reason that if I met Ricky in real life, I wouldn’t have those notes and I wouldn’t know anything about him until he told me (assuming he was honest) or I saw him act in a certain way. I could spend forever telling the reader who I think Michelle is, but I feel it’s best to just tell the story and let them pick up on the character clues and form their own impression the same way they might do if they met Michelle somewhere.

That being said, I did more than 20 full revisions to All Together Now and sought out a lot of feedback from early readers, my critique group, my agent, and multiple editors, which gave me time to smooth a lot of rough edges.

5.      Talk a little bit about the novel’s approach of journal entries and how you used it to increase tension.

The nice thing about journal entries is they allowed me to jump around in time so I could reveal details from the story’s future in the flashbacks. We know Chuck is destined to become a zombie from the second chapter on, but I never say how he became a zombie, which was a lot of fun in the flashback scenes in which he’s still alive. I put him in harm's way frequently because the reader knows I have to kill him sooner or later. Having Ricky write the journal in real time also allowed me to break up the past with tidbits about the present to keep suspense going in multiple timelines. I doubt this is an approach I’ll try again as it got a little complicated, but I think I pulled it off this one time:)

6.      What, if any, zombie novels or movies did you draw inspiration from?

For this novel, I drew a great deal of inspiration from Stephen King’s Home Delivery, which is my favorite short story of all time, zombified or otherwise, and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (naturally). The TV show is great, but I’ve reread the graphic novels four or five times through and I never get tired of them.

I actually modeled the plot after the series run of Lost. There’s no smoke monster and we’re not on an island, but the story starts in the present surrounded by tension and mystery, flashes backward intermittently to inform the present, and towards the end flashes forward to build suspense in the present. J.J. Abrams may use one too many lens flares, but the man knows how to tell a compelling story:)

7.      Okay, the zombie apocalypse is upon us: give us a rundown of your best personal defense (key locations for survival, weapons-of-choice, etc.)

First, I’d head to a liquor store and get plenty of whiskey, some potato chips, and a pack of cigarettes (I quit long ago, but if zombies attack I’m no longer worried about cancer).

Second, I’d head to a library or a quiet place where I can charge my kindle. Then I’d eat, drink, and be merry rereading my favorite books until the zombies found me, at which point, I’d hopefully be feeling good enough not to mind dying so much:)

8.       What are you working on now?

I’m polishing a novella called Pizza Delivery, which is another horror story that will be available by May, and I’m halfway through a rough draft of All Right Now, which is a companion novella to All Together Now to be available sometime before October. And this summer, I’ll be releasing my first middle grade novel. Oh, and if my schedule allows, I’m also planning to release a western in the coming months:)

Thank you, Robert! 

LEAVE A COMMENT FOR ROBERT/ME TO BE ENTERED TO WIN A PAPERBACK COPY OF ALL TOGETHER NOW! The winner will be emailed on Tuesday, March 11th. *UPDATE: The winner is KIMBERLY!! Congrats!

ALL TOGETHER NOW: A ZOMBIE STORY-
Fifteen-year-old Ricky Genero is writing a journal of the zombie apocalypse. His high school has burned to the ground, his friends are all either dead or shambling corpses roaming the earth in search of human flesh, and his best friend died saving his six-year-old brother Chuck from a zombie horde. When Chuck is bitten and infected with the zombie virus, Ricky must travel among the walking dead in search of a cure.

Robert Kent holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. He's a member of a writers group called the YA Cannibals and he runs the popular and mega-informative blog Middle Grade Ninja, which has tons of agent/editor/author interviews.

26 comments:

  1. Thanks for having me and for your very thoughtful questions.

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  2. While I have the Pride and Prejudice one sitting around somewhere for future reading, I am not into the whole zombie thing. At all.
    I'll swing by later for the interview. Time to take the kids to school.

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    1. Didn't think I was into zombies either, but I really enjoyed Robert's book! My teenage stepdaughter started hanging "How To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse" posters in her room a few years ago, which was one of the reasons I gave the genre a try :) Have to keep up with what the kids are into and all that jazz ;)

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  3. Interesting approach of using journal entries to forward the plot - such a creative idea.
    I must admit that I'm not sold on zombie novels, so you can leave me out of the draw. But congratulations to Robert on being published!

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Beth :)

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    2. Thanks Beth. I've got a warm and friendly middle grade book coming this summer with absolutely no zombies. They're not for everyone:)

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  4. Some great stuff about character development there! Thanks, Robert and Jess. My reluctant zombie read that I ended up loving was Hannah Mocowitz's ZOMBIE TAG. It's wonderful when a writer is skillful enough to pull someone into a genre they wouldn't normally read.

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    1. I haven't read Zombie Tag~ I'll have to give it a try! My creepy/scary tolerance is better with middle grade (e.g. I just finished Lockwood & Company and loved it!).

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    2. I'm adding Zombie Tag to my list. I don't usually care for stories about little girls and their horses, but authors at my blog have convinced me to read some good ones over the years. Something new is always worth trying.

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  5. You wrote your own hymn - clever.

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  6. Great interview. You totally have me intrigued about the book now. I'm just not into gore. I'll have to think about this one though. :)

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    1. In all fairness, there is a lot of gore in the book. I try to warn people up front:)

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  7. Interesting interview! Great quote from Ebert about the Exorcist. I never thought of it, but it does make the characters more interesting.

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    1. I'm sorry Ebert's not around to write reviews anymore. I learned a lot about storytelling reading him and I'd love to know his thoughts on new movies.

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  8. That was awesome advice from Robert, and I completely agree with it. I love horror, write it, and I bet his book rocks! (Can't be in the giveaway since I live in Egypt though.) I'm wishing him great success! :)

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  9. I'm shocked I find this book interesting - but Robert you've done it for me :) Sounds quite fascinating. Great interview!

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  10. What a great interview! World War Z was the first ever zombie movie I watched. I'm usually not a fan of that genre. But I loved that movie, mostly because of the characters.

    Interesting that he doesn't do character interviews/worksheets before he starts. He learns character as he goes, much as a reader will learn as she goes. Fascinating.

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    1. I used to use character sheets, but I found that if I really liked something about a character's back story, I couldn't let it go. The plot may not demand that my character have once nursed a sick bird back to health, but if I know he did, I'll unreasonably contort the plot of the present story to flashback to it:)

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  11. Awesome interview. The book sounds great. I love how he says he doesn't really do a character outline ahead of time because like in real life you don't know someone when you first meet them - very cool thoughts on that. :)

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  12. I like his thoughts on letting characters develop organically as he writes. And the ordinary situation/extraordinary character and vice versa, that's a great approach.

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  13. Sounds like an interesting book, and thanks for the interview! Like you, I'm not usually into scary or gruesome stuff. I haven't read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I've read The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and actually enjoyed it (well, except I was a bit annoyed at the ending, but that has nothing to do with the type of book LOL).

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  14. First of all I have to say the cover is awesome! I love the interview too and am waiting forward to read this book!

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