Harry Potter - The Experience

I have returned from Florida in August to a swampy heat in Northern New Jersey that matches the Orlando and Boynton Beach sweat levels. We hit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure this time, with one a la carte day in Disney's Magic Kingdom because the family was seriously Jonesing for the mouse. But this isn't about the mouse. This isn't about the Simpson's or Mummy ride at Universal. This is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. All I can say is ... dude. They paid some serious attention to detail when they built the place.

When you walk in the joint, you first find yourself in Hogsmeade station. You must provide your own posing kids, however.

The Hogwarts Express

The station timetable
Once you're in Hogsmeade proper, there's loads to see.

Zonko's Joke Shop

Hogsmeade Shopping
Zonko's has a mix of their traditional items as well as some of Weaselys' Wizard Wheezes, but I suppose since they only had room for Hogsmeade, and not Diagon Alley, where the Weasely boys' shop exists, I won't complain. There were supposed to have been Pygmy Puffs, but it appeared as if they were fresh out.

Puking Pastilles - yum
The ol' extendables
More shops. Even the simple storefronts had living window displays, from quills that magically wrote on parchment themselves, to self playing cello's.

Just a storefront, but the window displays were alive
Honeydukes - Yum
And inside Honeydukes!

We got a Godric Gryffindor card

Pepper Imps

Yes, you read that right.

Cauldron Cakes!
Then, we have Dervish and Banges. The deal is you can either go in the backdoor, or head into Ollivander's first, which is connected inside. And just outside is the Owlery, where you can mail your letters, Hogsmeade postmark included.

The back entrance

Wizard Chess, anyone?

Neville's Gran apparently shopped here

It seems wrong to be able to buy one

Need a quidditch set?

Inside Ollivander's

The Owlery - Owl Post, don't you know.

Somebody got a howler!
And then there's both the Hogs Head, where the beer is cold, and the Three Broomsticks, where the feast is hearty, and the butterbeer comes in two types - frozen and frosted. There are owls and house elves about, so keep your eyes on the shadows.

It's a Hogs Head

It's an actual non-animatronic Hogs Head

A feast at the Three Broomsticks
We are getting very, very close to Hogwarts now. Let's go for a quick ride on a hyppogriff first, and see what we see.

Hagrid's Hut

Buckbeak, a.k.a. Witherwings
Hoggy Hoggy Hogwarts. 

Mirror of Erised

Potions classroom down in the dungeons

Keeping the mandrakes under lock and key in the greenhouse

The portraits move and talk!

The Sorting Hat

The house points hourglasses seemed a bit lame, though

What the pictures don't show you are the headmaster's study, where Dumbledore warns you about the differences between what is right and what is easy; nor the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where Harry, Ron and Hermione explain what's about to happen. These holographic images are amazing, but don't appear on camera, likely due to the flash. Curses, you flash. My son snagged a picture of the Fat Lady portrait on his phone, thought. As for the Forbidden Journey ride through the castle... it breaks a LOT. But we rode twice, once after waiting 90 minutes, and once after 30. It's really, really cool. You sit in this bat-like contraption with your feet dangling, and zoom through the castle and then outside through the castle ground, into the middle of a quidditch match, and then every which way, trying to avoid dementors, while not losing your lunch.

There are also some performances going on outside.

The girls of Beauxbatons performing

These folks can sing. So can the toads

What a great experience. It would naturally be even better if it wasn't ridiculously crowded, but at least it wasn't the opening month. My son got himself a snitch and a dragon, and both kids purchased their very own wands at Ollivander's. I snagged a Gryffindor scarf. As Ron would say, "Seriously good haul this year."


We're off to see the wizard

Just a quick note to say we're heading down to Universal Studios Orlando tomorrow. I cannot wait to check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I can almost taste the butterbeer ... think I'll have mine frosted while waiting to procure a wand at Ollivanders. Lunch at the Three Broomsticks should be good, and maybe a morning pastry at Honeydukes. I wonder what the kids will buy at Zonko's or Dervish and Banges. Methinks mine own wallet will be lighter.

I'll take loads of pix, and post some up here when I get back. Until then... Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain.


A Vacation is Indicated

Last week seemed to race by, and this week is dragging. I mean, seriously dragging. The day job, a.k.a. the thing that pays the bills, is a pressure cooker at the moment. We spend about eight or nine months preparing for and recovering from three months of insanity. Those three months get underway in a few weeks.

I can't decide if the build up is worse than the actual busy months themselves. It sure feels like it this year. Of course, thinking this way will jinx it up real good, and as bad as I think it is now, it's about to get worse. A lot worse.

Knowing how crazy thing are about to get, and with the kids about to go back to school at the beginning of September, we usually pile into the family truckster and head off to Wally World. Forget eMail. Forget the Blackberry. It's time to recharge ye ol' brain. We're splurging this year and actually jetting to Florida. Jetting sounds so much snootier than flying, doesn't it? Then again, we're going on JetBlue, so it's not exactly hoity-toity. Hopefully, we won't have a flight attendant lose his or her mind. But, if we do, it'll be exciting!

Also, this time it's not Wally World, but Universal Studios Orlando. The Harry Potter lines notwithstanding, I can't wait to ride Forbidden Journey, taste a frozen Butterbeer, and maybe get lucky and have a wand choose this wizard. The Simpsons ride looks to be mighty cool as well. I know I'll ride Spider Man and Men in Black about a million times and then Poseiden's Fury at least once. Actually, having read the entire Percy Jackson series since I last went to Universal, it'll have a whole new meaning.

Writing-wise, well.... While Urban Mythos is out with a couple of agents (one partial, one full - yay me!), my creative mind is slacking off a bit. I attended WriteOnCon, which was brilliant. I've been spending a lot of time on YALITCHAT (another awesome thing), and have put myself on vacation from the WDC YA critique group until September.

My sasquatch notebook will be traveling on vacation as well. This trusty composition notebook is the bed upon which Urban Mythos was conceived. I'll be fleshing out my next novel on the plane and by the pool at the hotel. Soon, trusty green notebook, soon we'll be together again. And yes, one way or another, this next novel will have Zombie Mermaids.


What I learned at WriteOnCon

WriteOnCon is a fantabulous kid lit writing conference hosted by Jamie Harrington, Elana Johnson, Casey McCormick, Shannon Messenger, Lisa and Laura Roecker, and Jennifer Stayrook. The 2010 version (and they say there will be a 2011 version as well) featured numerous writers, illustrators, literary agents and editors, with some terrific panels, videos and live chats. The things that were wicked cool for those of us lucky enough to participate included:

a) It didn't involve luck at all. Just register
b) It was free
c) You didn't have to travel anywhere. Actually, this might have been even better for the agents and editors who normally have to hall themselves across the country.
d) You didn't have to choose between events. All the videos, chats and articles are still there today.
e) Critiques!!!!! query critiques. 1st 250 word critiques! 1st five page critiques!!!
f) Contests. Seriously good ones, too.
g) Awesome content.
h) Networking opportunities with folks from around the world

Probably one of the most equal-opportunity critique opportunities was the Live Chat from literary agent Natalie Fischer, where ripped through a pile of queries and gave live feedback on each. When she ran out of time, she continued on Twitter. I must say that 140 words on Twitter was a perfect way to obtain concise feedback on my query, and it helped me an absolute ton.

So what did I learn? Let's see if I can remember. It is Sunday night after all, and I got about three hours sleep last night.

  1. Literary agents and editors have a pretty well defined list of genres they universally cringe at when reading queries: vampires, werewolves, angels, and dystopian governments are among them. By the way, I critiqued an interesting five page excerpt on WriteOnCon that involved a dystopian government run by vampires. My guess is that the related query will engender strong feelings one way or the other -- double cringe or "wow, that's unique."
  2. There is a saying. "RTFM" a.k.a. Read the F&!k*ng Manual. This applies to querying. Follow the submission guidelines and you will, surprisingly, position yourself well ahead of many queriers. Yes. You will have made it to the starting gate without shooting yourself in the ankles.
  3. Never give up.
  4. Voice is probably the most important part of your novel. 
  5. Plot can be fixed.
  6. Voice is equally important to your query. 
  7. If you've submitted your first draft, they will know.
  8. Write your own queries. 
  9. Gerbils should not write queries.
  10. Don't write queries from your character's point of view. 
  11. If the agent or editor does not understanding your query ... that's bad.
  12. Support the publishing industry. Buy books new. Borrow them from the library. (Libraries buy more of a book if the circulation for said tome is high.) 
  13. Book trailers should be short.
  14. As an author, having thousands of followers on twitter is great. But following thousands of people makes it obvious you aren't interacting personally with your audience.
  15. Everything you do on the internet - blogs, tweets, facebook, etc. - is public. Your potential audience includes literary agents, editors, librarians, and the book buying public. Don't be negative.
  16. Snarky for snarky sake misses the point. 
  17. Voice = Tone + Style + Audience
  18. Honesty is critical. Kids have an acute BS-o-meter. 
  19. Like it or not, kids curse and have sex. You don't like it? See #18.
  20. If your novel makes the agent or editor think, I can't put this down. I need to know what happens. -- You will likely find success.
And the Awesome Explanation Award goes to Jennifer Laughran from Andrea Brown Literary Agency, for defining the difference between urban and paranormal fantasy.

"Demented fairies roaming around in the subway shooting drugs and putting spells on people is urban fantasy. Some psychic chicks in a boarding school is paranormal."

*Gets down on knees and bows down in appreciation*

As I said, all the good stuff from WriteOnCon is still posted.  Check it out.


It's Tuesday and I've been interviewed

There isn't much going on today beyond hellacious times at work. Is that how you spell hellacious? Hmm. Anyway, WriteOnCon kicked off and I'm busy playing catch up on all the posts and chats of the day. The content is phenomenal. So far, I've read a number of fascinating items, but I especially loved this post on revisions from Kendra Levin of Viking. I'm also in the midst of catching up on the transcript of a live chat with Suzie Townsend from FinePrint Literary.

The other bit of news today is that the awesome Dorothy Dreyer interviewed me for We Do Write, a blog that interviews aspiring authors on their journey to publication. She did a fantastic job asking me questions that make me look good (or at least better than I usually do!) You can check it out here. There's even a picture of me with my eyes open. Gadzooks! Odds Bodkins! That'll do for the archaic expressions for today. Back to WriteOnCon!


Rachel's composition

This is my daughter, Rachel, who will one day accept a Grammy or Tony award. She's seen quite a few Broadway musicals and we recently took her to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. During intermission, she pointed to the musicians up on the elevated platform at the back of the stage and said, "That's what I want to do."

Rachel is all of eleven years old, and she composed the music and lyrics to Library Song. She performed it at the Rockaway Township Library Talent Show last week.

Many thanks to Mr. Mazzarella, her guitar teacher for helping her tweak it. She does have a "big finish" to this song, but as she herself stated, chickened out at the end. I personally like, "Thank you Boston!"

I'm awful proud of her.


The Creative Mind is Occasionally Deranged

Sometimes my imagination gets away from me and visits odd places. I've begun thinking about my next book, you see and my subconscious has conceived some interesting stories. More than once, I've mentioned my desire to write about zombie mermaids, and although I'm not sure I could sustain an entire novel on the subject, it could certainly form a part of some book. This is, as many have told me, downright weird. Guess what. I know. And I don't care.

Now and again, I consider writing a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel. Well, the ol' noodle got a smidgen out of control this time, and ventured into some dark recesses. What if... Oh, did I mention that all excellent stories begin with, "What if". So, what if some time in the future, people are living underground, in caves, or some other subterranean locale, because of a catastrophic nuclear war in which humanity tried to defend itself from an invasion by powerful and quite hostile aliens hell bent on setting up shop on earth. Sounds reasonable so far, right? Good. You're still with me.

Now, let's complicate things some more. The aliens are humanoid, and in general look very much like us. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. They live above ground, sheltered from the effects of nuclear winter through some neato technology. And ... there are actual humans living among the conquering aliens -- the rich, the powerful, the complicit. Naturally, the folks living under ground are the less privileged folk. Getting interest? Okay. Has this been written before? Maybe. Don't know. I haven't checked. It's all me, at the moment.

All right, this is where Mr. Imagination checks into the psych ward at Bellevue.

As a result of the war, there is little or no vegetation, and there is zero animal life, except for the well-off humans living above ground, and the less so underground. All the animals that had provided food for humans died off before the aliens could fix things up. Yet, topside, there are farms raising a form of animal upon which both the aliens and their human accomplices may dine. Periodically, the farmers descend underground, or wait for the poor folks underground to emerge looking for food, and then WHAM! Can you say, "Soylent Green is people!"

When I mentioned this idea to Rona and Rachel, they looked at me. Well, I was driving, but I could feel their eyes drilling into the back and side of my head. Rachel (my daughter), put it simply, "No, Daddy. You can't write that." Rona just said, "Uh, no."

I mean it is a combination of post-apocalyptic and dystopia, right? Right? Anyone? Hmm. Maybe I could slip in some zombie mermaids.