Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Is This The Writer's Craft?

You know how yesterday I said I'd like to talk about the writer's craft if I ever have to speak before a group of writers again? Well, thanks to someone at the child_lit listserv I just found Space Dweebs, children's writer Kristine Franklin's blog. After taking a look at what she has to say, I may think twice about giving any how-to advice in front of an audience.

I find this blog very difficult to navigate, but if you can work your way back to the Jan. 30th post, she begins at that point to discuss Betsy Byars' ten commandments for writing middle grade fiction. These are commandments Franklin heard Byars discuss at a conference. In front of an audience.

Now, I know that Kristine Franklin has written more books than I have, and she just finished a first draft in two weeks. (I just started one this afternoon.) And I know that Betsy Byars is a tres famous children's writer. But though I certainly agree with many of the commandments--making sure the child main character solves the problem in the story, for instance--they are phrased in such a formulaic way as to make writing an absolute chore. On top of that, the phrasing also suggests a lack of respect for readers. She's always going on about kids not having patience for this or that, kids are used to TV so they have to have action, kids won't this, kids won't that.

I was left feeling that I want to go out and break every one of those rules.

Visitors to Space Dweebs can read about Franklin's experience writing her new book. She says she uses her ten commandments with the first draft. Now she's getting started on the revision process.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Retreat Ruminations

My presentation to the folks at the Whispering Pines Writers' Retreat on Saturday was about writing who you are and writing child-centered children's literature with a little bit of creativity theory stuff mixed in. I had never been to a retreat before and decided to talk about things that mattered to me. However, now that I have been to a retreat, if I'm asked to do something like this in the future, I'd like to talk about something related to craft, as writer folks like to say. Meaning I'd like to give an instructive how-to talk.

About what, though? What does a writer talk about in front of working writers who have been to writing retreats, writing workshops, and writing courses? What does she talk about in front of writers who have M.F.A.s in writing for children and young adults? What does she say that they haven't all heard before? Kathy Dawson spoke about something that I didn't know about, but I'm at a loss to come up with something.

I probably shouldn't be worrying about this since I've only been asked to do something like this once in ten years. I've got another ten years to come up with a topic. In the meantime, I should just live in the moment.

Just About Over The Graduate School Thing

Today I was thinking about graduate school again. I actually took a graduate class about four years ago. I enjoyed it, and I did well. Seriously. However, the reading and writing for the course (on essay writing) took up all my writing time. All of it. I didn't write professionally for the entire semester.

I've heard rumors that the Vermont College program requires more than 20 hours a week of work, which would take a healthy bite out of my workweek. I've been told that the work can be my work, but still. Then there's the 12-day on-site requirement. I know I was all excited about being with other writers at the retreat, but that was for a weekend. And I had a really nice room. With a private bath. What are the chances of that happening in a dormitory in northern Vermont?

So then I was thinking about doing something closer to home. And maybe doing something on writing in general, not something specific to children's writing. I happened to hear an advertisement on the radio for the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University, which I knew offered some kind of writing courses because I knew someone who did the program years ago.

Now Wesleyan University sounds very...uh, private and exclusive. Here's the thing about their Graduate Liberal Studies program, though: If I read the website correctly, if you have a pulse and a bachelor's degree, you can get in. I think their requirements have actually gone down because I looked into doing this program ten or twelve years ago. At that time you had to write a three-page letter and have a degree. Now you have to have a degree and prove you've had your shots.

You know the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to belong to any club that will have him? This kind of program is probably my only shot at going to graduate school because I've never taken the GREs. The GREs require math. I tolerate humiliation well, so I can accept whatever crap score I get on the math portion. But my question is, what am I supposed to do during the two or three hours that I'm actually supposed to be taking the test? Because I can guarantee you, I'm not going to be answering those questions. So I need this kind of graduate program. And yet...

Then, finally, whenever I read descriptions of graduate courses, even the ones on writing, I can barely make it through to the end of the paragraph. These things sound mind-numbing. I look at the descriptions, and I think, They're kidding, right?

So I'm just about over my desire for higher learning. If you see me on any college campus, you can assume that I'm lost.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Back To Normal

I'm back from my weekend retreating with the New England Society of Childrens' Writers and Illustrators at Whispering Pines. I felt more excited and stimulated about work than I have in a long time. I feel somewhat uncomfortable saying that since my workday involves doing pretty much whatever I want so I really ought to be excited and stimulated all the time.

Still, there is a great deal to be said for for eating three meals a day with people who do the same thing you do, who read the books you read, who are interested in what you're interested in. I spoke with other authors who have also been experiencing a big downturn in school invitations. I spoke with authors who had suggestions for organizations to contact regarding said school presentantions. I had a big discussion at breakfast this morning with a graduate of Vermont College's MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and by 9:00 AM I wanted to go to graduate school.

The urge to go graduate school comes on periodically. It will pass.

I was the first speaker on Saturday morning, which was good because I didn't have to listen to the other talks and go "Ah...do I have time for a rewrite?" I did just fine. I did not forget my script and have to run back to my room...up an enormous, never-ending hill...to get it as I did in the nightmare I had the night before.

Kathy Dawson, Associate Editorial Director at Harcourt Children's Books, gave a great presentation on how writers create fear in their writing. I'm not just saying she was great because Kathy was my editor for eleven years while she was at G. P. Putnam's Sons. (Years ago, Kathy and I bonded over The X-Files. This weekend I kept meaning to ask her if she's watching Bleak House because Gillian Anderson plays Lady Dedlock.)

Nancy Mercado, an editor with Dial Children's Books, spoke about things she's learned about working with books that apply to writers as well as editors. Nancy very bravely gave me an ARC for Defining Dulcie by Paul Acampora even though she has picked up on the fact that I may very well be the Simon Cowell of the kidlit blog world. I've got a blog, Nancy, and I'm not afraid to use it! (Actually, she's probably in luck. I'm reading a really awful adult book. Whatever I pick up next is going to look so good.)

Today, we heard a presentation from illustrator Nicole Wong. I was particularly interested in her education. I'm interested in how artists study art, anyway, because it then raises all kinds of questions for me about how writers study writing.

Susan Burke, associate editor with Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ended the retreat with a talk about the five things she looks for in books, which just happen to be five things writers ought to be paying attention to in their writing, anyway. She had something particularly interesting to say about pacing.

I was struck by something as I listened to the editors this weekend. When I am at various on-line writer hang-outs, I am always hearing that editors don't edit anymore. Having worked for so long with Kathy, I definitely know that isn't true in her case. Nancy talked about encouraging Paul Acampora to send her more and more of Defining Dulcie before there was enough of a book to talk about editing. And Susan talked about working with an author for three years on a novel. What I was hearing this weekend was very different from the rumbling and grumbling I get in other places.

Another good reason, perhaps, to attend a retreat every now and then.

The Whispering Pines Retreat is an annual event, with many writers coming back year after year. Many of the writers who attend are already published. All the work I heard was sophisticated even when it was in early draft form. Writers who attended had the opportunity to submit a writing sample for review by one of the editors and then meet with them for feedback. I didn't hear of anyone who was unhappy with the editorial assistance they received.

In case you can't tell, I am very up on Whispering Pines.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

And You Thought It Couldn't Be Done

Dean Dad has a great...uh...composition?...comparing Curious George and Brokeback Mountain called Men in Hats. Beware of a spoiler, though I can't say it was a major surprise.

I hope I never wrote anything like that when I was in college. Maybe I should burn those old papers I've kept. If I could find them.

Thanks to Blog of a Bookslut for the link.

My Big Weekend

Tomorrow I leave for my first writers' retreat. My only retreat experience to date involved a bunch of Congregationalists in the middle of the woods with a case of wine. They were up until one o'clock in the morning, and then got a little ugly the next day regarding their caffeine addiction, which appeared to be a requirement for church membership. I have no idea what we were supposed to be doing. There was some praying, but nowhere near as much as you'd expect. Needless to say, I left early.

Anyway, on Saturday I will be giving the talk I blogged about yesterday. The stage will be mine. Every breath I take will be interesting, as Rusty DeWees would say. I will sound commanding, as my sambumnim would say. I will live in the moment. Yada yada yada.

But first, tomorrow night I will take part in some sort of first page critique. First pages will be read aloud and two or three editors and myself will critique them. This sounds a lot like American Idol to me. If so, I absolutely do not want to be Paula. Randy maybe. But you all know me. I hate everything. I will have to be Simon.

I will try to get pictures.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oh, My Gosh! This Guy Is Talking Directly To Me!

I have been obsessing recently about a talk I have to give at a writers' retreat this weekend. Oh, who am I kidding? I've been obsessing about it since Christmas.

Well, something interesting just happened in relation to my obsession. On Jan. 24th or so, I blogged about The Young Writers Project in Vermont. Geoff Gevalt from The Young Writers Project e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago, which is a long way of saying I went back to their website recently. And I discovered an article by one Rusty DeWees.

Now, I'd heard of DeWees before because he's well-known in Vermont for a character he created called The Logger. I never paid much attention because I associated him with redneck humor, which I find very cliched. I'm going to reconsider this guy because his article on writing funny and performing spoke to all the anxiety I'm feeling this week.

I've spoken before groups often enough to know that what you say is only a part of what you're doing up there. You have to sell what you're saying. You've got to perform. Sometimes I can pull it off, sometimes I can't. No rhyme or reason.

I found DeWees' description of how he memorized a character for a performance very helpful. He said:

"To memorize Liddle’s description and characteristics for performance, I add a healthy dose of my own rhythm. When we hear a good impressionist, it’s the rhythm of the subject that our ear first recognizes and tells us, “Yes, I recognize that voice.” So when I write, especially for comedy, I write keeping rhythm and cadence in mind as much as I can."

This makes sense to me because as I've been practicing my talk (Yes, Virginia, I practice all my presentations. I practice if I have to do the readings at church.) I've noticed that I have an easier time with portions that do have some rhythm or intensity to them.

"The moment you walk on stage, or up to a microphone, is the moment your story starts," DeWees says, "and it’s also the moment you become interesting to your audience. Every breath you take is specific to you; every breath you take is interesting."

I'll try to remember that. It seems that if a speaker really believes that when she stands up to speak that that's got to help her.

More DeWees Wisdom: "In performing, don’t be afraid to fail. If as you walk across stage you unintentionally trip and fall, commit to it. Trip and fall better then you’ve ever tripped and fallen before. Try to make your trip and fall so memorable, the audience will leave the theater exclaiming, “Yes the singers were great, but did you see that story teller guy trip and fall? I’ve never seen a better trip or fall. He must have studied.”

I understand what he means. I don't trip and fall in front of groups, as a general rule, because I don't move around that much. But I have accidentally dropped some material I wanted to cover or misspoken. If I can run with it instead of going nuts, I can save the moment.

"When on stage, breathe, relax and be yourself 100 percent. If you put barriers up, and most of us do when we’re in front of an audience, you become something other than your true self, and you become less interesting."

I think a speaker could easily carry that sentiment too far. However, I've always had a thing about waving my hands when I speak, going way back to childhood. I don't try to control it when I'm speaking in front of a group. I let it go. Trying to control it would be too distracting, anyway, and might make me appear stiff. In addition, the gesturing gives some intensity to my presentation.

In my dreams, at least.

I may make a copy of DeWees' article and take it with me this weekend. He'll be my own personal coach. You know how Sasha Cohen will have someone pumping her up just before she goes out onto the ice tomorrow night? Rusty can do that for me.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

And Now For Something For Much Older Kids

Today's book falls into the category of an adult title that YAs will like. Especially if we're talking about expanding the YA category to include people in their early twenties. The characters in The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt are college age or graduate students. Very twenty-something.

Okay, what is Rangergirl about? Marzi is a waitress in a coffeeshop filled with wall murals painted by an artist who disappeared at the time of an earthquake back in the 80s. She is also the creator of a comic book, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. Plus, she is getting over a nervous breakdown.

Slowly it becomes obvious that something is wrong in Dodge...I mean Santa Cruz, where the story takes place. Strange things are going on with a number of Marzi's acquaintances, regulars at her coffeeshop. Marzi is sort of the lynchpin to everything.

Now, along the way I figured out a couple of things that were going to happen, though maybe not exactly as they happened. This is not a complaint. I'm not saying the book is predictable. I figured things out in a satisfying way. Not everything, though. There was one neat surprise for me at the end.

The expressions "cowpunk contemporary fantasy" and "cowpunk neo-western yarn" appear on Pratt's website. Do you have to know much about the old west to enjoy the book? I don't know. I don't know if I know a lot about the old west. I grew up with a father who insisted we watch TV westerns three or four nights a week, and now you can't find TV westerns any night of the week. I can't tell if I know more or less than the average person about the west. Or about the mythic west, which is probably more to the point. But dang it, I liked this book. Even though it dragged a bit in a few places, mainly when the characters were sort of into college romance mode.

Romance is boring! Give me strange adventures any day!

The Internet Is Buzzing Today

Everyone is talking today about the Kate DiCamillo article in The New York Times. People are raving about her new book, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

I hate to be crass, but what I'm going to mention is that her publisher is putting up $300,000 for a marketing campaign for the book. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. I just don't know what the average marketing allowance for a kids' book is. I'm guessing it's a lot less than $300,000, though. Her publisher, Candlewick Press, is doing a first printing of 350,000 books. (I do know that's big.) So they're spending nearly a buck a book for marketing.

I wonder about marketing. Certainly, marketing is necessary. You have to get info out about books or readers won't know they're there. On the other hand, marketing drives up the price of books, and the expense of all kinds of books, even paperbacks, could go a long way to explain why sales aren't all that terrific. And on the third hand, don't we all know about bestselling books that had huge marketing campaigns behind them even though the books weren't all that good?

We do.

DiCamillo is well-liked. Personally, I enjoy the story of her life, her wandering around a bit before she settled down to writing. I wish her well with this book. But I wish the book could do well without so much money going into making it do so.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Picture Books For A Change

Some of you may remember that the last time I was in Vermont I tried to visit The Flying Pig Children's & Adult Bookstore, but it was closed. Again. Well, one of the owners, Elizabeth Bluemle, was interviewed in Publishers Weekly about her new book My Father the Dog.

The Flying Pig seems to be very well-known. This is inspiring because the store is tiny. I mean really tiny. And it's located at a cross-roads well outside Burlington. I've never actually found Charlotte, the town where it is really located. By the way, in Vermont it's pronounced shar LOT.

Thanks to The Misrule Blog for the link.

I've been reading about The Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems for quite some time and finally stumbled upon a copy today. The story didn't grab me, though I can definitely understand why a very young child would be attracted to this tale of a lost treasure found. What did blow me away, though, were the illustrations. All the people in the book are cartoons that are superimposed onto photographs of the real world. So it appears that these cartoon people are...um...real...because they're wandering around in the real world.

I must admit, that was very cool.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

YA Lit's Attractions

Yesterday I was talking about Scott Westerfield, who has a book reviewed in the most recent Horn Book. On Westerfield's FAQ page he discusses why he's been writing YA fiction recently instead of adult. (He has five adult books but hasn't written any since 2001.) He hits on many of the same reasons Patty Campbell talks about in Drowning in Success in The Horn Book.

The turnaround in YA publishing in the ten years that I have been publishing children's literature is remarkable. Back in the mid-nineties, the general feeling was that teenagers didn't read or at least they didn't read YA fiction. Middle grade novels were a better market. Now adult writers are writing YA because that is where the money is.

Gail's Attempt At Creative Nonfiction

VerbSap has my essay A Night at the Dojang up now. Scroll down to the Nonfiction/Creative Nonfiction section. And, no, that's not me in the illustration at the top of the screen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What Every Author Dreams Of Hearing

I have finished reading the January/February issue of The Horn Book, a major accomplishment since it's only mid-February and not, say, April. Among the stand-out articles for me was one by Nell Beram called Mickey's House. Evidently, Disney Press has an imprint called VOLO (I couldn't find much about this on-line), which publishes book tie-ins for some of its shows on the Disney channel, like Lizzie McGuire and That's So Raven. Berams says that the texts are all adaptations of televised episodes.

Let me pause here to say I've never understood television tie-ins of this nature. I can barely see the point of "all new adventure" type tie-ins.

But let me continue. Beram says of these books, "...at the risk of disappointing those of you who hoped I would annihilate these titles, I must report that, flawed as they are (and certainly not as good as the shows they're based on--and that's not damnation with faint praise), they aren't that bad. While not especially well written, they're not horribly written either. I've read countless non-TV-tie-in books that are far worse: sappy, precious, humorles, windy, flaccid, inert--crimes of which none of these VOLO titles can be said to be guilty."

Yup. Definitely some quotable stuff there to use on the next Lizzie McGuire cover.

On A More Positive Note

Patty Campbell had an article on the popularity of YA fiction in the same issue of The Horn Book. She had many, many interesting things to say in Drowning in Success. So many, in fact, that I started to make a list but was afraid to give away too much of another author's work. I'll just report this: YA sales are supposed to be up twenty-three percent since 1999 while adult sales are down a little more than one percent in the same period.

Go read the article yourself. Patty Campbell's articles for The Horn Book are always worth reading.

Tomorrow--What Looks Good In The Reviews

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

More Evidence That Backs Up My Point

I discovered Leda Schubert this morning at the child_lit listserv. When I visited her website I was struck by two things:

1. Her book Here Comes Darrell is illustrated by Mary Azarian someone whose work I've loved for years. In fact, I think tonight I'll go look for my copy of A Farmer's Alphabet.

2. At her website, Leda says that people have been buying Here Comes Darrell as a gift for the "Darrells" in their lives, the people who do their snowplowing, trash pickup, etc. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The publishing world really ought to get on board with the fact that adults read picture books.

I was going to make a Larry, Darrell, and Darrell joke, but I'm from Vermont, and I'm a little sensitive about the whole Larry, Darrell, and Darrell thing.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Book That Is Not Gail Proof

It feels so very, very good to be part of a group, to like what other people like, to get the point that everyone else seems to get. To not be the outsider.

I know because I read and enjoyed Boy Proof by Cecil Castelluci . Knocked it back in just twenty-four hours. Though the reviews from the important journals posted at Amazon are not raves, I'm hearing from librarians at Adbooks, where Boy Proof was discussed for the past couple of weeks, that this book is circulating. Some of the readers at Adbooks were having trouble getting hold of a copy.

Sure, for long-time readers like myself, Boy Proof is a little predictable. I knew on page one what was going to happen at the end. But it was an excellent ride, even if I did know the final destination.

The author portrayed sci-fi fans in a much more positive way than we usually see them in the media, which was certainly a plus. Her main character, Victoria, who has renamed herself Egg after the heroine in her favorite sci-fi movie, has a very strong voice, angry and unhappy and wry at the same time. She is a definite outsider, a status that is self-imposed in her case.

One drawback to the novel is that I don't feel we're ever really shown why Victoria is so alienated. In my experience, uber-fans who feel alienated are made to feel alienated because others belittle their interests. That wasn't the case with Victoria. She could have had a group of some sort for each aspect of her life. Sci-fi,photography, special effects, studying. She had caring, though flawed, parents.

I think she was a realistic character, though, and I've actually known at least one young person very like her.

Here is an interesting aspect of the book: it's another story about a tormented gifted adolescent. While I am certainly sympathetic to the problems of highly intelligent young people, I've had enough of reading about them. However, I enjoyed this book so much, I didn't even notice that she was another smart girl until some of the other readers at Adbooks pointed it out.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Very Good Point

In a TimesOnline article entitled Why I'm one of the great unread Carol Sarler responds to the Brit writers who were so keen on kids reading classics. And really dull ones at that. Though Sarler claims to have been at the top of the class in English during her school days, she also claims she doesn't read now. This is due, she feels, to the reading she did as a student.

"...we read the books, we were tested on them and we passed or failed accordingly. Reading books was, therefore, the stuff of school in exactly the same way as was trigonometry or chucking a javelin — and since leaving my esteemed seat of learning, I am as likely to curl up with Jane Austen for the fun of it as I am to flirt with a cosine or risk the wrong end of a spear."

I'm not sure if she's suggesting that she (a mother of a grown daughter now) rejected reading as teenage rebellion and never got over it, and, if so, if she rejected everything she else studied in school, too. Or, if so, how that's working for her.

Later in her commentary, however, she makes a very interesting point:

"...her [Saler's daughter] coming late to the books she loves highlights that which Mr Motion [who is famous round the world for suggesting school children read Paradise Lost and The Wasteland] failed to recognise: that the eminent works he so sternly recommended were written by adults, for adults — further, that to press them upon children in an environment in which they are used for the testing, marking and assessment of those children might, in the end, do a lifetime’s disservice."

I'm not touching the part about testing. But her comment that many books we consider classics were written for adults is an excellent point. Now we could argue forever about what is an adult and when is one mature enough to really, really enjoy Paradise Lost. But, how much can we expect kids to connect with books that were never meant for them in the first place? And, since I believe all reading is about the reader connecting with the writer...Well, you can see why I think book selection for English classes is delicate work.

I just love the way British papers show so much interest in children's literature. Either I'm reading the wrong American publications or this kind of thing just doesn't happen here.

Thanks to ArtsJournal.com for the link.

Speaking Of Classics I Haven't Read

I'm not reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens. My exposure to that worthy gentleman's work has been somewhat limited.

No, I am watching Bleak House on PBS. And liking it rather a lot.

I'm afraid this is a case of someone using technology to get her dose of literature in a different format. (As we were discussing yesterday. Though I think the writer who suggested different formats for books didn't have Dickens in mind.)

Happenings In Kidblogosphere

Here in the Bonny Glen is having a carnival this coming Monday! A blog carnival of Children's Literature. Tomorrow is the deadline for submitting a post in order to be part of the carnival. (A sideshow?)

I know exactly what I'm going to submit. I'm a writer. That's what I do. I submit things. Everywhere. All the time.

Thanks to Chicken Spaghetti for the link.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Something Different On An Old Subject

"But maybe this will at least mean that publishers might start cutting back on their fiction lists, which have become completely out of control."

That was how Roger Sutton ended his Feb. 7 post at Read Roger.

It caught my eye because I've been reading about too many books being published for quite some time. The argument goes something like this:

1. Publishers don't want to let nonblockbusters build an audience because they don't want to pay property tax on the books while they are sitting in their warehouses.

2. So books get only a few months before they are last seasons news and, before long, sent off to be remaindered or, worse yet, pulped.

3. Then the publishers have nothing to sell so they have to rapidly buy more manuscripts to turn into books, which

4. They won't let build an audience because they don't want to pay property tax on them and so on and so forth.

It's a cycle, folks.

Plus, somehow there are a lot of books being published, period. Everyone wants to write a book. Or write several.

So I am constantly reading, "Too many books are being published! That's what's wrong with publishing today! We must publish fewer books! That would fix everything!"

That argument goes that if fewer books were being published, there would be fewer books and authors competing for review space and shelf space in stores and libraries, and the finite number of readers wouldn't be spread so thin over the infinite number of books.

However, never have I seen anyone make any suggestions about which books shouldn't be published. When I see authors make these kind of comments never does one of them volunteer to fall on his or her sword for the sake of the publishing industry and give up writing. (Don't look at me.) The pundits all know what should be done, but no one has any ideas about how to do it.

Until now.

Jeanette Winterson in an article called Her Word on The Times Online makes what might be called a modest proposal.

"Too much is being published. It is time to use new technology to slim the bloat," she says. "It is no shame to find other formats for publications that should not be books at all."

Now, her essay was a little rambly, and she did put me off at first with this: "First, we stop publishing books that needn’t be books. People who don’t really read don’t really need books — so let them have Jordan and Becks in lots of other ways. Audio, animated-audio, that is, audio with pictures — is just about right for most celebrity publications."

That sounded just a little bit witchy and nondemocractic in the small "d" sense of the word for my taste. But then I recalled going to the bookstore last summer to look for a book on writing short stories. I found one. And a couple of shelves of books on screenwriting. And more and more I'm seeing writers conferences, like the one I mentioned yesterday, including screenwriting in their panels and workshops.

And then I recalled the animation I see on-line.

What she's talking about is already happening. Writers are already trying their hands at nontraditional forms.

So, the point I'm laboriously drawing near here, is that maybe not everybody has to write a book. Maybe all the creative effort that's going into novels and nonfiction could go into other things--movies and television and videogames and animation and things I don't know about. The creative desire can be nurtured, it just doesn't have to produce a book.

Am I suggesting a dumbing down of culture, mass illiteracy? Not at all. Though I'm obsessed with reading,myself, I am not so arrogant as to believe that everyone should hold it in as high regard as I do. We readers do tend to be an elitist bunch. Again, to quote Winterson: "Remember that mass literacy wasn’t even discussed until the 19th century — reading the way we read now has not been around for long and may not be the way forward."

I am a student of history. Nothing stays the same. Cultures evolve. If we evolve toward a culture that accepts "other formats" as Winterspoon puts it, we can trim the book publishing bloat without cutting people out of the creative process.

Hey, at least it's a step beyond "There are too many books being published!!"

Thanks to ArtsJournal.comfor the link.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Boy, Did I Need This

I woke up this morning to find an e-mail from VerbSap accepting an essay of mine for publication. The essay was one of those I worked on during National Novel Writing Month last November. It's also one of the few nonpromotional things I've been able to work on since November. It's a great load off my mind to feel I've actually written something. And what's more, it's something someone wants to publish.

When the essay is up at the site, I will post a link.

Local News

Ah, it's late winter, early spring and time for writers' conferences again. Graduate and undergraduate creative writing students from the four Connecticut State University campuses, along with outstanding student writers from the state's high schools, are invited to the Fourth Annual State-wide Writing Conference at Western Connecticut State University on Saturday May 6. On Sunday May 7, writing workshops will be open to the public.

Where were the student writers' conferences when I was a student?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

My Mind Is Turning To Comfort

I am still a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If you think I was whining yesterday, let me just say that today was quite a waste so do not get me started.

However, I have been thinking about comfort books. Comfort books for children, in particular, because this past weekend I read Sam Pig and the Dragon by Alison Uttley.

A few years ago, a friend of mine kept asking me if I'd heard of Sam Pig. It was a book she had read with her children, and she seemed quite taken with it. She finally brought the book over--months and months ago--and suggested I read it to see what I thought.

Well, I think that Sam Pig is one of those English country stories that are charming and restful and comforting. My family had one called The Teddy Bear Gardener. The Teddy Bear Gardener worked in his garden, ate some biscuits (cookies), and, if I remember correctly, went to bed. That was it.

We wore that book out.

Adult comfort books are all over the place. Mystery, romance, fantasy, spirituality, nineteenth century novels and anything else a particular reader finds...well, comforting. But I think children stick to mundane things that reinforce the comfort of their routines.

And that's why many children--and their adults--become so attached to these older English stories in which animals play people doing every day things. We liked Beatrix Potter, who was from an earlier period than Alison Uttley, who started publishing in the 1930s. My personal Potter favorite was that hedgehog who did laundry. Can you guess why?

Sam Pig and the Dragon is interesting because it breaks out of the mundane mold a bit. Sam Pig and the other pigs do run-of-the-mill things like picking berries and playing the fiddle. And they live in a little house. But in this particular book (part of The Adventures of Sam Pig series) Sam accidentally wakens a dragon who went into hibernation around the year 100 because the Roman's were annoying him. He was supposed to sleep for 2000 years, figuring, correctly, that the Romans would be gone by then.

Sam overcomes his fear, and the dragon becomes part of his family's domestic arrangements. Ann Pig stretches a clothes line over him and hangs her laundry on it so it can dry in the heat from his breath. (A clothes dryer!) And their woodland friends play on the dragon's back.

If the dragon hadn't started eating cows, they could have gone on like that forever.

What could have turned into a horror story, goes quite the other way. Sam takes the dragon back to the forest, plays a lullaby on his fiddle, and the dragon goes back to sleep. "Not till the year two thousand or thereabouts would the Dragon waken again."


But in the meantime, Sam Pig has taken care of the problem and life goes back the way it was.

In a BBC Radio production, Uttley's biographer, Denis Judd said her books remain attractive to readers because they involve "another sort of world," "a reassuring world," where there is always a "friendly paw to take the child to safety."

I think the same could be said of all these late nineteenth and early twentieth century stories of animals who wear clothes and eat biscuits.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Perhaps I'm Just In A Bad Mood

Last year I began planning to get more involved with marketing my book, Happy Kid!, which is coming out in May. (That's not a plug. It's totally pertinent. Really.) So I read a book on book marketing, and I made a marketing plan the way the book told me to. I started looking for ways to get my name out more. I sent the marketing plan to my editor, along with some little gifts to distribute to the people at the launch meeting. (I should be able to explain what a launch meeting is because I read that marketing book,but I must be repressing it or something.) I sent the gifts because I'd read somewhere that that kind of thing will make the people at your publisher remember you. Now I feel very manipulative and embarrassed about doing that. Sleazy, in fact.

I wrote a press release back before Christmas and started sending out arcs and photos with the release. (Oh! I started working on the photos last spring! And they still stink!) This last month I've been contacting bookstores and continuing to look for places where I might be able to get Happy Kid! reviewed or get some press for myself. And I've been working on a forty-five minute talk I'll be giving at a writer's retreat later in the month. I also have to work on another hour presentation (different topic) for next month. (Oops. I still have to make a motel reservation for that one.)

I'll be paid for these speeches, but they are still part of the publicity push I'm doing for this new book. I feel I need to push harder for this book because the last one didn't sell all that well, so I'm trying to help the next one along so publishers will consider me a desirable author.

I am a publicity whore, and I am sick to death of it. I am tired of calling bookstores, having people act all excited to hear from me, and then never contact me again. I am tired of doing Internet searches for newspaper addresses. I am tired of looking for schools to contact in selected areas. I am tired of reading about how other authors who are nervier and cooler than I am did it. I am tired of the whole thing.

I want to go back to work. I want to get started on a bunch of new projects. Dear God, I want to do research.

So imagine how thrilled I was to read The Case of the Mystery Writer's Brand, which is about James Patterson. It's not about James Patterson the writer, it's about James Patterson the "brand."

Law professor John Deighton, who has written a "case" called Marketing James Patterson, says, "I see his success as a sublime integration of operations and marketing. Patterson understands that if you want shelf space you need to publish a lot of books; that you need a production system with more than one author; and that you need to mind the brand."

What? I'm confused. Are we talking about something like The Stratemeyer Syndicate? Because I don't think I'm physically up for that.

It may just be the wrong moment for me to be reading this kind of thing. I'm definitely at the point where I'm beginning to feel that we care more about selling books than we do about writing them in the first place. A few years ago, I met a woman who was trying to write her first book. She had a long way to go. A long way. And yet, I heard she had marketing gimmicks planned to submit to publishers with the book that hadn't been finished.

I know it's naive to think a good book will sell itself or find an audience. And, truly, I don't believe I'm above hustling my own books. I'm not very good at it, but I'm definitely not above it. I just feel that we've got our priorities wrong. We should be spending more time on how to create our products than how to marketing them. We're not just putting the horse before the cart now. We're putting all our effort into building carts and not giving nearly as much thought to the horses that are going to pull them.

You'll have to excuse me. I've got to go tell my computer guy that he needs to make me some new postcards to send to Audubon Centers. I'm planning to try to convince them that they really need my last book,Saving the Planet & Stuff, for Earth Day.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Kidlit Connection to World Events

The turmoil in the middle east over cartoons published in Danish and European newspapers has a very definite kidlit connection.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald (and a couple of blogs my computer guy, who has very little to do, found), the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons we've all been hearing about after learning that a children's book author was unable to find an illustrator for his new book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

The illustrators were concerned that Muslims would take offense if they created images of the prophet. The 2004 murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by someone who claimed to be acting out of religious conviction after van Gogh made a movie on women in Muslim society was weighing on the mind of at least one of the artists.

After learning of the children's author's problem, people at the newspaper Jyllands-Posten and some other Danish publications began to consider "How far should Denmark go down the road of self-censorship?" Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons we've all been hearing about, and the rest is rapidly becoming history with a capital H.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Struggle To Be Open-Minded

Deborah Wiles won me over with her book Each Little Bird That Sings, but it was a close call. Wiles' book is serious Southern eccentric, and I find Southern eccentric a stereotype that I grew tired of a long time ago.

I realize my response to this kind of thing may be due to the fact that I am a cold-hearted New Englander. Or the south may just be too far away from my reality for me to accept.

True, I do have a cousin named Junior, one of my aunts was once married to a man named Stubb, and I'm told I used to have a Great-uncle Boy. But as a general rule, we in the frozen north don't saddle our off-spring with names like Edisto and Florentine, Comfort, Tidings, and Declaration. (Comfort and Tidings are siblings in Each Little Bird, off-spring of Joy.) We prefer names like "Blackie" and "Brownie" for our dogs to names like "Dismay." The New England child has not been born who would describe a closet as smelling "like opportunity" the way Comfort does in Each Little Bird. And though we love our mothers, we don't go rattling on and on about it, even in our own thoughts. Though I've heard that grown men call their mothers "Mama" in the south, here in New England, no mother would allow her child to use the word past the age of, say, eighteen months.

I know that southern novels are written by southern writers, and I assume they know whereof they speak. I just can't take it. So, really, there was a lot to annoy me in Each Little Bird That Sings.

What I liked, though, was the main character, Comfort's, despair, not over the deaths of her elderly relatives, but over the erosion of her friendship with Declaration. Comfort's family had been running a funeral home for generations, and she could accept death and she could accept that you have to grieve over the lost of a loved one. Betrayal and rejection are another thing. Though I may be reading a little into the book, it seemed to me that Declaration was moving away from Comfort toward other girls (stereotypical "mean" girls, to be honest) because she just couldn't accept who Comfort was any longer. She couldn't accept that Comfort was part of a family business that worked with the dead and grieving. To be rejected because of who you are...man, that's rough.

I also liked Comfort's poor cousin, Peach. (There's another one of those names.) Peach is a heart-breaking character, one of those misfit children who really do show up in real life, even here in New England. In appearance, behavior, and temperament, they just can't fit in. Other children and sometimes even adults are put off by them. I've known kids like Peach. Everyone has known kids like Peach.

I very much appreciate that Comfort was filled with anger and bitterness, and she didn't just roll over and forgive. I appreciate that Wiles goes for a realistic ending instead of an easy, heart-warming happy one--which she could have done.

I think this book probably gets a lot of attention because it deals with death. And it does that well. But for me what raised this book up over my personal objections to it was not the lesson on death but the portrayal of the children's struggles with living.

Friday, February 03, 2006


I found this article on short stories through Metaxu Cafe, a litblog network I joined after I saw all my kidlit friends were joining it. I'm not a hundred percent sure how Metaxu works. I found the short story article (originally published in The Guardian) through a post from a literary magazine called The Angler, which appears to have launched almost minutes ago. However, the post in The Angler seems to have originally been posted at something called Catch and Release. Get it? The Angler? Catch and Release?

So, when you include Metaxu, this short story article by William Boyd, who I had never heard of before, went through four steps to get to me.
I have not read it yet, but who knows? It could be just the thing I've been looking for to make me a short story writer.

And it took four steps to get to me on the Internet. Makes you think.

If you go to the Feb. 1 post for Young Adult Writers Who Blog, you will note that Robyn Schneider will be "teaching an online course on how to write the edgy YA novel."

I found two particularly interesting things about the course description:

One--They are going to read two edgy YA novels from the following list: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, It Girl #1, Looking For Alaska, Be More Chill, Gossip Girl # 1, Gingerbread, Empress of the World. The two books from that list that I've read--The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Looking for Alaska--I found predictable. Though I guess you could say they were predictable in an edgy sort of way, if by edgy you mean sex and drugs.

Two--The students will be "working on or about to start a novel for 15-and-up." I found this really interesting because I've read elsewhere that some publishers are interested in raising the definition of YA into the early twenties. I can understand wanting to address books to college-age and just-out-of-college people. I don't know that there are a lot of books out there that deal with their interests and age groups. But I don't know if expanding YA so it encompasses kids twelve or thirteen up through early twenties is the way to go.

The interests of a twelve year old are dramatically different from those of a twenty-one year old. Especially since publishers, librarians, and booksellers already are not on the same page with their YA definitions. Everyone seems pretty comfortable classifying books anyway they see fit so that Sea of Trolls, with its twelve-year-old main character on a journey can be considered a "teen read" just like Looking for Alaska, with its somewhat older characters enjoying an adolescent sex and smoking fantasy.

Thanks to Child_Lit for that link.

And thank you, Child_Lit, for this link, too. Now I've discovered still more kidlit blogs, to say nothing of all those kidlit authors. I could make a career of reading these things.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

January Books

teenreads.com has its Cool New Books for January page up. Blackthorn Winter by Kathryn Reiss jumped out at me because it is so the kind of book I would have read when I was a teenager. Yeah, I was definitely drawn to murder back then.

What's A Reader To Do?

Speaking of murder, I just finished reading an adult murder mystery that was just terrible. Terrible I tell you. It got a good review in the local paper. When will I learn not to fall for those things?

What made the book so awful was the point-of-view. It was all over the place. Sometimes you were reading a first-person hard-boiled detective story, then you'd shift to a third person who was clearly a bad guy, though was he the bad guy? Then sometimes you'd jump to the mind of a female cop. And sometimes you'd go back in time to the third person point-of-view of the hard-boiled detective when he was a kid.

The point-of-view shifts were so awkward and clunky that the author sometimes used italics to signal them and sometimes actually announced a new point-of-view with the name of the new character.

Oddly enough, the plot wasn't half bad. This could have been a good book.

Why didn't I just quit reading it since I have other books piled up all over the house waiting for my attention? Like so many readers, I find it hard to give up on a book, hard to admit I've wasted my time. I've managed to cut my losses on a few books recently, but I wasn't able to this time.

Reading this book, though, made me think of Louise Doughty's Novel in a Year column. In Week Two she said to read and analyze bad writing so you could avoid it yourself. In that case, the book I read was a textbook.

Speaking of A Novel In A Year

In her fourth week's column, Louise Doughty says, "But in the meantime, I want you to continue to write freely and enthusiastically. Some of you are carrying on with the “day after my eighth birthday…” story, which is terrific. Others are pursuing different ideas."

Ah...does that sound to anyone else as if I should have continued writing past the first few sentences I wrote in Week One? I thought I was supposed to wait for...something...I don't know what.

But after reading Week Four's column I actually started a new file for this project on my hard drive and wrote another couple of sentences. I guess that's sort of like writing "freely and enthusiastically."

Oh, That Curious Little Monkey!

Opinion Journal (from The Wall Street Journal has an intriguing article on Curious George. The movie will be out soon, and this article reminded me of the kinds of things we were seeing in the press before The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe movie was released.

Anyway, the author, John J. Miller, says, "Earnest literary types have interpreted the first book as a barely disguised slave narrative. Have you considered that the man's weird outfit could be a send-up of a colonial officer's uniform? Or that George is brown and lacks a tail? (Lots of monkeys are brown and most species have visible tails.) Or that he is abducted against his will from Africa and brought across the sea to a foreign land where he engages in high jinks when the master is away?"

Actually, no, I never considered any of that. But thanks for bringing it up.

And thanks to Book Moot for the link. Book Moot has become a favorite kidlit blog and will be joining my links on my sidebar when I get around to telling my computer guy to do it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Maybe This Wasn't Such a Good Idea After All

I hate to pull an Oprah, but I'm having second thoughts about the "Books Every Child Should Read Before She Leaves Secondary School" list I started yesterday. Not the books on the list, just the fact of a list itself.

Philip Pullman said that we can learn all kinds of things from fiction, and I agree with him. But you have to seek this stuff out for yourself. Reading is a form of communication. Only you can decide who you need to communicate with. The prospect of imposing a list on anyone...

Nonetheless, one should finish what one starts. So here are a few more titles.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder because it's about the pioneer experience and the whole pioneer thing has had an impact on the American psyche.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry because the cowboy and cattle drive era--though in reality it didn't last all that long--has become part of the American identity. I chose Lonesome Dove because it's the only western novel I've read, and it did win the Pulitzer Prize. But, by all means, choose another.

Something by Raymond Chandler. His outsider heroes with personal codes of honor--very iconic. I found Fell by M.E. Kerr very Chandleresc, and I have a young relative who liked the whole series so much that he would snatch them out of the library basket on his way out the door to catch the school bus.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I thought several times before including this. I loved this book when I was a teenager, but I've read that African-Americans are not as entranced by it. They see it as a feel-good book for whites because the white family tries to help the African-American in the story but fails. The family then gets to feel virtuous for trying. When I reread the book as an adult, I didn't think it was so much about race as it was about daddy-worship. Not that there's anything wrong with a girl loving her father. The book is still a good one, it's about the American south, and God knows, like Catcher in the Rye, it has spawned a host of imitators. Why not read the first and the best?

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. A story of the American south from African-Americans' experience and a Depression-era story. And just a really good book.

A Native American book. I have to admit that I'm not terribly familiar with Native American writers. I liked Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King, but it's been a while. Plus, he's Canadian, which is like Native American Continent rather than Native American. Joseph Bruchac has a Native American background and is a well-known writer for young people, though I haven't read any of his books. I've heard him speak though. Very good.

So, altogether, I have more than 10 books. You can live a very fine life without reading any of these titles. But I think these books will give readers an inkling of how we came to be the way we are. And, more importantly, I don't think they will drive anyone away from reading. My hope is that instead of making readers feel "I've read Paradise Lost. Thank God that's over," they will encourage readers to look for more of the same.