Monday, January 31, 2011

Yes, I Know What She Means

I've just started following what is for me a new blog, Annie And Aunt. I loved this quote from one of Aunt's posts--"...the precis makes it sound worse than it actually might be."

On the other hand, it may be just as bad as it sounds. There's no way of knowing.

So How Did That Internet Sabbath Thing Work For You, Gail?

Well, I stayed off the Internet all day yesterday. (I was on briefly Saturday evening, though I didn't blog.) I was off the computer all day yesterday, for that matter. I like being disconnected, as I knew from my most recent Retreat Week. But did staying off the Internet mean I was able to do anything more meaningful with my life?

My hope had been to spend a few hours working on my office, which has been in need of help for probably...hmmm...maybe a year? Or two? I have the heaps of stuff problem that so many people have. In the past I've dealt with it, put it all away, and then the piles grew again. What's causing this to happen, I believe, is multiple works in progress, which I try to keep handy by keeping them layered all around me. I've been trying to move toward some kind of open filing system so that I can easily put my hand on the notes and research for different projects. But there are all those piles to get through to decide what I need first. We're talking the equivalent of an archaeological dig.

So that was what I wanted to do with all the free time I expected to have on my Internet Sabbath. But, you know, we're suffering through a snowpocalypse here in New England, and we're expecting snowmaggedon later this week. Tomorrow morning, actually. So I ended up part of a work crew yesterday, trying to prep for that. Prepping being moving some snow so we'll have room for more. At one point I was on snow shoes so I could get to the top of a snowbank and work on whittling it down.

I ended up with maybe an hour of work in the office. If I continue with the Internet Sabbath and am able to work on that project for an hour a week, I figure I should have the office just the way I want it by the time we are ready to move on to the contemporary Alpine retirement ranch.

Where it will be time to start organizing an entirely new office.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Yeah, I'm Going To Do That Sabbath Thing, Too

Mitali Perkins had a discussion going at her place on the impact of loving the Internet on individuals. In my case, a major part of the impact is distraction from work I'd really like to do.

Fortunately, I love self-help, whether it works for me or not. My next attempt at helping my self with my Internet love is going to involve trying Mitali's plan regarding observing the Sabbath by disconnecting that day. One day a week. I don't expect that I'll accomplish anything major that one day. However, I went without the Internet for a week this past month while doing the retreat thing and not only was it not at all difficult, during my first day or two back at home my feelings about the Internet were similar to my feelings about food when I'm not hungry--gee, I don't really need this, but it's here so I might as well eat it. The pull wasn't all that great. I wasn't starving for the Internet.

So my hope is that the Internet will be less of a distraction for me on Mondays, if I'm not gorging on it all weekend long.

We shall see what we shall see. Though you shouldn't expect to see me this Sunday.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Comedy Central And Me

Anyone notice the new Comedy Central logo?

The old logo, which I believe Comedy Central used for ten years, was created by Santiago Cohen, who also did the covers and illustrations for my books My Life Among the Aliens and Club Earth.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We Might Call It A Sophisticated Mystery

I am not fond of traditional problem books, which I see as validating themselves because they are about something really, really important. A problem. I particularly dislike those books that pile on problem after problem to make sure we all get the point about how serious they are. Jellico Road by Melina Marchetta involves a lot of problems. To make matters worse, when a librarian friend saw me leaving with the book, she told me she'd cried over the ending. That is not my idea of a recommendation.

I didn't cry over the ending of this marvelous book, but I came damn close.

The many problems the many charcters in Jellicoe Road suffer through are not there to instruct us on how people should deal with their trials. Instead, they are there to support character and plot. They explain why characters behave the way they do, and each ordeal is literally part of the plot in this story of a tough, witty, capable seventeen-year-old girl who appears to be alone in the world but most definitely is not. Taylor appears to be caught in an age-old battle among three groups of teenagers--the private school students like herself, the Townies, and the Cadets who are just in the neighborhood for a few weeks. Really, she is in paradise, a pardise that is slowly revealed to her along with the story of another group of students, Townies, and Cadets who had lived in that very spot nearly eighteen years earlier.

This is a demanding book. The story of the earlier kids is told by means of a manuscript that Taylor has been reading out of order. It takes time to work out those kids' relationship to each other. We have to also work out what they have to do with Taylor, something that I was sometimes able to figure out before she did--but in the most satisfying way.

There are also multiple mysteries here. In addition to Taylor's personal mysteries and the mystery surrounding the earlier teenagers, there is a serial killer at work here, maybe some arsonists, and a tunnel keeps coming up. Everything is resolved, nothing is forgotten.

How good is this book? It's good enough that its weaknesses don't stop the narrative drive. Why don't the adults in the book tell Taylor more about her life? Everybody seems to know and to be keeping things from her. Isn't the manuscript a little contrived? Isn't the crisis at the dorm at the end of the book a little over the top? Hey, let it all go, and enjoy the ride.

Jellico Road might be a great crossover book between traditional mysteries and mainstream literature. The mystery will engage mystery-loving teen readers, and the quality of the writing will make them want more of the same.

Plot Project: Several times in the book, Taylor talks about what she wants. More. More from everybody. Is this a case where the author gave her character something to want and then came up with a plot by throwing in stumbling blocks to getting it? I don't think so. Come on. More? Plus there are too many threads here for something so simplistic as roadblocks to happiness to have kept things running. My guess is that this is a book that started with a situation. You've got this group of kids involved in this elaborate war that in reality is a game that enables them all to interact together, and they start learning about another group of kids who were doing the same kinds of things twenty years before. From there the plot is all about revelation. One revelation leads to another revelation and then another.

Not Everyone Gets Jane

Laura Miller defends Jane Eyre over at Salon.

The issue at hand is an article at The Telegraph in which this guy says that Jane Eyre is a heroine because she's all about getting a man whereas Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair (which I read a lifetime ago) has other fish to fry and is thus a hero.

I agree with Miller that Jane Eyre is not a romance and that the significant issue in the book is not that (spoiler!) Jane gets Rochester in the end, but that she rejects him earlier for principle. Keep in mind also that Rochester isn't a traditional romantic lead who wins his lover back. He is left physically impaired at the end of the book (some have suggested that this is his punishment for his earlier behavior) and Jane returns to him out of a belief that he needs her. As, indeed, he does. He needs her care now, not just her love.

Not a typical happy romantic ending to a book all about a woman getting her man.

Monday, January 24, 2011

"Activities that keep boys inside like reading, writing or thinking are not suitable role models for young men."

A couple of days ago, Pen and Ink left me a link to one of its posts How To Write For Boys And Girls. Blogger Lupe Fernandez had found what is supposed to be an article written in the 1950s on writing for children.

It's hard to pick a favorite line, but "Never have a girl romanced by a foreigner, especially greasers, scratch-backs, potatoes, pachucos, fruitpickers, or braceros" is a definite contender. I've never heard any of those expressions, except for greaser, of course, which I wasn't aware had any kind of ethnic connection. I thought it was sort of a style, like goth.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Complications Book

Behemoth is the second in the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Though I liked the first book, Leviathan, I found it somewhat "mechanical," seeming "to be manufactured of parts that would be recognizable to someone who had done much reading." The second book seems like...hmmm...not exactly manufactured filler, but manufactured complications. The complications book in a series. It also seemed odd to me that the book is called Behemoth when the behemoth is quite a minor part of the book. I don't think it's mentioned until around the halfway point, though I can't swear to that.

But, you know, other readers are loving this series. Check out the fan art.

Plot Project: Protagonist Alek wants to be archduke and end a war. Protagonist Deryn wants to serve on an airship, even though she's a girl, and now she wants Alek, too. Behemoth seems to be all about keeping them from getting what they want. So this series does seem to follow the give-characters- something-to-want-and-then-keep-them-from-getting-it plot generation plan.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Do Kids Really Like Reading This?

I've been thinking recently about two well-known traditions in children's literature. One involves including "improving messages." This goes back to the day when children's literature was seen as an opportunity to educate rather than entertain. You still see books that are meant to instruct or to improve values, particularly in what are known as problem books. The second tradition involves orphaned protagonists, or at least protagonists who are as good as orphans because the adults in their lives are neglectful, uncaring, or absent for some reason. Yes, you see a lot of that in problem books, too, but you also see it in adventures. I can recall jokes in my suburban mommy crowd about dead moms in Disney movies. Children were, and are, "orphaned" in children's books so that there are no parental figures to keep them from doing things. If Harry Potter had had a strong, caring guardian, things would have been very, very different for him.

Two bloggers have raised questions for me about how child readers feel about these scenarios.

In one of my Old-Fashioned Girl posts last month, I talked about the book being " hardcore nineteenth century instructive, improving literature for the young" and wondered if "children can tolerate preaching a lot better than adults can." In a comment, Beth from Library Chicken said, "As a kid who liked old books, I had tons of experience with navigating past shoals of instruction while reading...I think any kid who reads widely soon learns to ignore chunks of message."

And I think that's probably very true. If you read a great deal, at any age, you recognize that if you get through this yammering stuff, you'll get to something good later on. You know that because you've been there before.

Then just yesterday I saw a post from last month at The Spectacle relating to those orphaned main characters I was discussing above. Parker Peevyhouse asked, "How is a young reader affected by reading a story in which all of the adults are missing, incompetent, or antagonistic?"

I immediately thought of Beth who had said, "I think any kid who reads widely soon learns to ignore chunks of message." I'm guessing the same is true for the orphaned main character cliche. Experienced child readers probably know that the good stuff will be coming up later and just blow past the dead/lost/lousy adult set-up.

Reading is an independent, free-wheeling activity for anyone. I'm particularly loving the idea of adults putting all this effort into creating moral tales or carefully beginning a plot with another funeral and child readers just ignoring the same old, same old and sucking up the juicy stuff.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bartimaeus Is Back

The November/December 2010 issue of The Horn Book carried a starred review of The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel by Jonathan Stroud. I was both delighted and surprised.

I was delighted because I am a fan of the Bartimaeus Trilogy, particularly the third book, Ptolemy's Gate. I'm surprised because Ptolemy's Gate was a very popular book, and I would have thought a new Bartimaeus book (The Ring of Solomon is a prequel.) would have received some pre-publication buzz. I didn't hear any.

However, the book was just published in November, and a quick check of blogs suggests it's being talked about now.

Good luck, Bart.

Oh, and here is a neat little Bartimaeus adventure to hold you over while you're waiting to get hold of his new book. It certainly made me happy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oh! So That's What Twain Meant!

Lots of talk about a new edition of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn that eliminates that racist word that many of us don't even want to use in print.

While I like to thank that I am anti-censorship, pro-First Amendment, and all those things a writer should be, I have some discomfort regarding the language in Twain's works. Mainly this is because a good number of years ago I read an account of an African American father suing his local school to get The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed from his son's class curriculum. This man could recall what it was like to be a black child sitting in class while a white woman, representing society, stood at the front of the room reading "nigger" over and over again, all the time telling everyone what a great book Huckleberry Finn was. He felt demeaned, and he didn't want his son to have to go through the same experience.

I thought, Where the hell does someone like myself get off telling someone who has lived that that he shouldn't be offended, that he is wrong? I had a friend, a white, middle class woman from my book club, who said of a similar situation that the African American objecting to Huckleberry Finn was, indeed, wrong because the book was "a classic."

A classic? What kind of argument is that? Why should that make a black man recalling a painful experience from his childhood feel better? Why should he accept subjecting his child to a similar situation because the book involved is a classic?

The classic argument just doesn't hold any water with me.

I recall finding Huck Finn somewhat boring when I read it in high school. In fact, that's my major recollection of the book. When I reread it as an adult, I wasn't overwhelmed. And the ending! That nitwit Tom Sawyer comes into the picture at the end, and he and Huck are just dreadful to Jim--after all that fine, caring man had done for that boy.

I found that very difficult to take until about forty minutes ago when I read A High School English Teacher on Huck Finn's Bowdlerization. This interpretation makes all the sense in the world to me. I was right. The ending of the book is dreadful. But that's the point. No matter how good Jim was, Huck was still Huck.

So, thank you all you folks who have been discussing the most recent Twain upheaval. As a result, my understanding of Huckleberry Finn has deepened. I have a much better grasp of what Twain was doing with his use of the word nigger, too.

I still don't have the nerve, or perhaps arrogance, to tell black family members that they have no business being offended by it, though.

The Internet Doesn't Make Me Do It

I am constantly struggling with my craving for novelty, which the Internet helps me feed. Nonetheless, I do recognize that the problem is me, so I enjoyed Stop Blaming the Internet.

Monday, January 17, 2011

And If You Can Write, You Can Write. Period.

Among the professional material I managed to read during Retreat Week was the November/December, 2010 Horn Book. To be perfectly honest, I started it in the car on the way home and finished it on the treadmill this morning.

Now that I have that mind-numbing detail off my chest, we can get to Anita Lobel's marvelous article I Did It Sideways, adapted from her 2010 Zena Sutherland Lecture, which was included in this Horn Book issue. Lobel has lived a fascinating life in a dramatic and arty mid-twentieth century way. One of the fine aspects of her article is that I think it really gives a reader a handle on how an artist's life becomes part of her work.

In addition, Lobel tells a wonderful story about going to the movies with some art school friends to see Laurence Olivier's Henry V. With them was a young woman who spent her time in the theater filling a sketchbook with "very skilled horses drawings." Lobel goes on to say of her, "When it came to putting an emotional spin on a picture with horses, though, her work was not so good. 'If you can draw, you can do anything,' was something I often heard in drawing class. That is really not so. If you can draw, you can draw. Period."

That recollection just jumped off the page at me, because I think it's true of writing, also. So often I've read books that were well-written. But something just wasn't there. Being able to write isn't enough. You have to be able to do something more, and maybe it is just "emotional spin," as Lobel says.

Here's another mind-numbing detail for you: Years ago Anita Lobel and I had dinner together in the sense that we were in the same room. We weren't seated at the same table, and we never met, but we were breathing the same air and eating the same food. I am ashamed to say that at that point I only knew her as an artist who had been married to Arnold Lobel, whose Frog and Toad books were greatly loved at Chez Gauthier. (And still in our attic.) Clearly Anita Lobel is a great deal more than someone's wife.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Does A Retreat Week Change Anything?

Well, I am feeling a bit more relaxed after my week of yoga, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing (barely), and professional reading. I've had enough life experience to know that won't last long, but I'm trying to do the zenny thing and live in the moment so I can enjoy it while it's here.

Professionally, what did Retreat Week do for me? Well, I did read a couple of articles on story bibles and outlining that I've sort of mashed together. I'm thinking that if I keep an outline of what I've written as I write it (kind of what I believe engineers call an "as built") that could function as my story bible. There's something to try that could change something.

I also started going through a directory of short story markets. Man, that's an overwhelming topic. But it could make a difference down the road.

And then there was an article that will be helpful some day when I have time to revamp the website. That will certainly be a change.

But only time will tell.

Friday, January 07, 2011

And Here We Go

Unless I stumble upon some fascinating bit of info that I must discuss with the world, I will be missing in action until the 15th is Retreat Week. I will be retreating.

I Love It When I Know What They're Talking About

The new issue of The Horn Book includes an article called YA Fatphobia. The author, Kathryn Nolfi, mentions Big Fat Manifesto, a book I found extremely interesting, twice.

Very readable article about a tough issue.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Comment Challenge

I've signed up for the 2011 Comment Challenge. I did so even though when I did it a couple of years ago, I got tired after a couple of days. Plus, I'll be on retreat next week and not doing anything on-line, if I can help it.

But I'm feeling a little more social than usual, so I'll be doing it--sort of--in spite of all that.

I might have to go pack soon, so I don't know how much commenting I'll be doing tonight, either.

Oh, well.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Not Seriously Funny, But A Few Good Moments

I think the guy with the weird hair has a couple of good lines (well, at least one) in How Twilight Should Have Ended, which is only fair because he had nothing in the movie. When Edward puts his finger on Bella's lips and says, "Don't talk," I thought he was going to continue with, "I hate it when you talk."

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

And Then Patty Said, And Then Roger Said

Over the years, I have enjoyed many of Patty Campbell's articles for the Horn Book. Many of them. I was very sorry when she left the magazine. I was particularly impressed with her last column.

Imagine my delight when I found that Roger Sutton had interviewed her for the September/October 2010 issue of The Horn Book. And guess what the resulting article is called--An Interview with Patty Campbell!

The interview was great. There was lots of talk about defining children's literature vs. young adult. I think I've made it clear here over the years that I love definitions. There was also a question about "coming-of-age" novels, something I pretty much hate but enjoyed reading about because don't we all enjoy reading about things we hate? Roger and Patty also talked about the presence of YA books for older YAs, and "the recognition of a growing adult audience for YA lit," which, Patty says, outsells "adult fiction by a large margin." In response to that, Roger said, "I wonder if this will age YA books up even more, as publishers seek to capture an adult as well as a teen audience." Now, I really loved reading that because I've wondered that, too, but I've never seen anyone address the issue before. It just seems so obvious to me that YA could pretty much disappear as publishers try to make it more and more desirable to adult readers with money to buy books. But what seems obvious to me is often much less so to others

Really, it appears you just can't go wrong reading an article either by or about Patty Campbell. And lucky us, she has a book out that collects many of her essays, articles, and columns, Campbell's Scoop: Reflections on Young Adult Literature.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Great Illustration Of The Difference Between Adult And Children's Literature

The day after Christmas, PBS ran a production of Framed on Masterpiece Theater, which I just finished watching today. The TV film stayed pretty close to my recollection of the book. What was incredibly--incredibly--fascinating about it was that the book is a children's book. The film is a mainstream adult production.

While I can't recall every moment by the book, of course, it appears to me that all Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote both the book and the adaptation, did differently was focus on the adult museum character in the movie, while he focused on the child character in the book. In an essay at the PBS website, he says, "The film just became a thing of its own — less about the little boy who narrates the book and more about the love story between the grown-ups." Last week I wrote about how theme can make the difference between an adult and YA book. Here it's a matter of character making the difference between a story for children and one for adults.

Take a look at this description of the book. And now read the description of the film. You'll see what I mean.

The film begins and ends with Quentin Lester, the adult. He is the character who evolves during the story. The kids still have the best action, but at the end we don't see what has changed in their lives. It's pretty much how the kids' actions impact Quentin that matters. The story has, indeed, been turned into an adult romance.

You can even see the difference when you look at the covers of the book and the DVD. The book has a child character on the cover. The DVD has two adults.

I have no problem with this, myself. I like the idea of an author reworking material in different ways. I don't know how I'd feel if I were going to sit down to watch the show with the kiddies after we'd all read the book, but since I wasn't doing that, I found the movie intriguing.

Years ago a friend showed me a short story she was thinking of submitting to a magazine running a contest for a children's story. I had to point out to her that her story was about the mother and not her kids, thus it wasn't a children's story. Whose point of view to concentrate on is a concept that some people have trouble with. I think reading Framed and watching the adaptation would be a wonderful case study for very new writers illustrating this very basic difference between children's and adult fiction.

If You Were A Chef, Would You Stop Eating?

Just about a month ago, The Spectacle ran a post called When Writers Don't Read. In it Parker Peevyhouse wrote about advice she's seen to writers that they should not read fiction if they write fiction. If you go back to the person who originally gave the advice, her reasoning was 1. Reading fiction takes from writing time; 2. Reading nonfiction of various sorts expands a writer's knowledge base (what she knows and can write about); 3. Reading fiction could mean that an author's work becomes derivative of another author's. Peevyhouse and her commenters didn't agree with this process.

While I think the original advice has legitimacy, I would argue that 1. Reading anything will take time from something else. If your writing time is very tight-- say, you have a full-time job--the time you spend reading nonfiction to expand your knowledge base will also take from your writing time. Omitting fiction isn't going to help you much here.; 2. Reading fiction adds to your knowledge base in terms of studying how other writers deal with the elements of fiction--how they plot, create characters and setting, how theme is handled, etc. For writers, reading in their genre is a form of study.; 3. No writer wants to be so derivative that it shows. Nor do most of us want to plagiarize, intentionally or not. But there are probably a finite number of styles of writing and most of us are going to prefer to write in a limited number of them--styles that we learned from our reading at some point in our lives and adapted to ourselves. So to some extent this is going to happen unless we've never read anything in our entire lives.

One of Peevyhouse's commenters mentioned children's writers who claim they don't read children's books. I think this is an example of problems developing from not reading in your genre, particularly when you're talking about writers who are new to the children's lit field. This is how you end up with people claiming they're writing for children because there are no kids' books like the ones they write. Given how many thousands of children's books are published each year each year, that's extremely unlikely. Ignorance of the field you work in doesn't inspire confidence in just about anybody.

The same must be true for writers in other genres. If you think you're the first person to write a novel about a woman coming to terms with aging and her children growing up and leaving home--and say so--you definitely should have spent some of your fiction writing time reading fiction.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011's Reading Plans

In order to make the most of my reading time, I've been thinking about doing some planning this year. What I've got in mind:

1. This morning around twenty after twelve I began reading The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. What I'm actually doing is rereading it, because while I enjoyed it the first time around, five years ago, I recall next to nothing about it. What's more, it's the first of the Discworld books, of which I believe I've read maybe half a dozen, and I've decided I want to read them all. Not all in 2011, but I'm getting started.

2. I heard about this To Be Read Book Challenge through A Novel Challenge. I have at least one family member--maybe two--who find my large number of TBR books disturbing. So I thought I'd toy with this challenge. I say "toy" because I didn't actually sign up for this thing because I didn't want to have to plan which twelve books I'll read this year. I'm starting with The Cartoon History of the Universe 3, which I received for Christmas several years ago. Then I'll see what happens.

3. Because of my mini-obsession with An Old-Fashioned Girl last month, I'm now interested in reading some books about Louisa May Alcott. Perhaps Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father or Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography, though I do wonder what "Personal Biography" means.

4. As a result of seeing Library of the Early Mind I'm interested in reading The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Mary Jane Begin, Stitches by David Small, and Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos. Actually, I've wanted to read Hole in My Life for a long time, but kept forgetting. Which is why I'm making this list.

5. And, finally, I want to read Curse of the Wolf Girl by Martin Millar because I really liked Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl. Seriously, if you're going to write paranormal, please have a sense of humor about it.

So, those are my plans as of now. Does anyone else have reading plans for the next year?