Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Misunderstood Phrase

Justine Larbalestier has a post up called Write What You Know, NOT! in which she claims that the old adage "write what you know" is "rubbish."

I don't think the phrase "write what you know" is rubbish, at all. It's misunderstood, is what it is.

When I was a teenager, I hated being told to write what I knew. It made me incredibly angry. I lived on a small, rural farm, and I most definitely did not want to have to write about cleaning the barn or feeding the heifers or whatever the hell my father had out in the second barn at any particular time. I felt the teachers were trying to control me when they told me to write what I knew. They were keeping me from writing the mysteries, spy stories, and comedies I liked to read. My mother always told us, "The whole world can't be wrong and you right." I can distinctly remember thinking that I would show everyone that they were wrong and I was right and that I could be a writer without having to write what I knew.

Fast forward twenty freaking years, by which point I had published two short stories and one essay. I caught the attention of an editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons and began working on a book of short stories about aliens. The basic premise of the collection involved aliens dropping in on two suburban brothers who were left to deal with them on their own because their mother was too busy to notice there was anything unusual going on.

I had to come up with material for these stories. I had given my older son a birthday party with an Olympic Games theme. So I did a short story about a birthday party with an Olympic Games theme and had an alien crash it. He was wearing an outfit based on one my younger son wore when he was a toddler. The older boy did a science fair project on pulleys, so pulleys figured prominently in another story about an alien. I did a story about a dinosaur and an alien because the younger boy had a pair of shorts with dinosaurs printed on them that I just loved. (I did have a thing for his clothes, didn't I?) I used the neighbor's dog in a story. We had friends who were musicians, so I made the parents musicians. My husband plays the guitar, so that was their instrument.

After the book was published, an acquaintance said to me, "Loved the book. It was so real. It was about things that really happen." A lightbulb literally went off over my head. I didn't think the poor woman believed in aliens. I knew that she was talking about all the details that came from my life as a suburban mom. I thought, Oh. That's what they meant.

I realized in a blinding flash of light that writing what you know means writers have the option of turning to their lives for the details they need to describe characters and settings and to come up with plot points. That's dramatically different from having to write only about what has actually happened to you. Writers' lives aren't strait jackets. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads forcing them to write about that babysitting experience in 1986, or their grandmother's wake (though I do have a pretty good wake story) in '91, or every up and down in their marriage.

But when you need a town for a setting, being able to use one you know sure beats having to come up with one from scratch. And it can end up sounding a lot more realistic, too, because it's based on something real. A school building you remember, the camp your uncle owned, the house you lived in when you were in first and second grade, jobs your family members have held, the vicious dog that used to live next door, the food you ate on vacation...the barn those heifers you had to feed were kept in...all these things are things you know and can use. Any way you want.

Larbalestier talks about doing research for books. When you do research, that becomes something you know. You are then writing what you know.

My life is so intricately woven into my books that someone reading them could end up knowing so much about me it's frightening. And, yet, I've written two books about aliens and am working on a third. I've written about people who have lived a life dedicated to environmentalism to a degree I can only imagine. I've written about a lot of boys. The books aren't about me.

Because I still hate the expression "write what you know" I prefer to think of what I do as writing who I am. Whatever you want to call it, it has never kept me from writing about anything I wanted to write about. On the contrary, it has made all my writing possible.

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A Little Late For Me

a.fortis at Finding Wonderland directed me to something called One-Pass Manuscript Revision at HollyLisle.com. Now, once (or if) I ever get back to work, I'll be slogging through...ah...the nineth...draft of a manuscript. (I am not bragging.) Now is not the time to tell me I could have done it all at once.

However, what I find particularly interesting about Holly Lisle's revision process is that it begins with theme. I've been thinking about theme and its significance a lot this fall and winter, and it makes a great deal of sense to me right now to begin with that.

Maybe next time.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Thrilling


I am definitely a Suzanne Collins fan. I liked all but the last of her Underland books. And I found the actual game portion of her The Hunger Games exciting, an excellent thriller.

However, this book has been discussed on listservs all year. It's being talked about as having award potential. I just don't see it.

In The Hunger Games a ruling elite suppresses twelve districts it defeated in war by selecting two teenagers from each one (in a scene very reminiscent of The Lottery) and forcing them to fight to the death in a televised reality show. Seeing their kids murdering each other on television is supposed to show these folks that they have no hope. At the same time, the ruling class in the capitol city finds the games wildly entertaining.

I find this premise very...random. There just doesn't seem to be any compelling reason for anyone to have hit upon this particular device for breaking the will of an opponent.

I think I have trouble accepting the premise because I don't find the world of the book very well defined. The story takes place in North America sometime so far in the future and after so horrendous a war that the United States no longer exists or even seems to be remembered. People no longer use recognizable names. In fact, some names sound very Roman, as if the culture has been thrown into the past.

And yet they still have reality television?

A lot of things in this book just didn't work for me. The government of this society can create entire little worlds for the games to take place in and then turn them into theme parks for the wealthy instead of reusing them for the next games. It can control the weather, for crying out loud. It needs the Hunger Games to control a downtrodden population? I don't think so. The games appear to have been going on for seventy-four years. That's at least three generations. In that time the society hasn't changed in any way? How big are these districts that need to be controlled? What's going on in the rest of the world? What's with the girl who is introduced but never dealt with?

I'm guessing we'll see her in book two of what I've heard is going to be a trilogy.
In spite of all my reservations about the world building in this book, I am more than willing to admit that once the games in The Hunger Games begin, readers are in for a thrill ride. That's plenty of reason to read it.

The Hunger Games has been nominated for a Cybil in the Fantasy and Science Fiction YA category.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tintinologists?

I have to admit, my interest in Tintin is limited to the fact that a young relative was a big fan a few years back. In fact, he learned the splendors of interlibrary loan because of his love of Tintin. I, myself, am not a tintinologist.
Nonetheless, I read all of A Very European Hero in The Economist.

Link from the child_lit listserv.

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Ho! Ho! Ho!

Early Christmas morning I had two dreams totally unrelated to the day. In one either I'd written a play based on one of my books or someone else had. It got terrible reviews. In the other, someone wrote one of those memoir/something else books that was totally about what a poor job I'd done writing The Hero of Ticonderoga.

I am desperate to get back to work tomorrow.

In more upbeat Christmas news, I received a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, a copy of E. B. White's Writings From The New Yorker 1925-1976, and a gift card to an independent bookstore.

I thought I bought and gave enough books as gifts to keep the publishing world afloat for another year. But maybe not.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Books Have After Lives

Sometimes when you have books out in the world they live their own little lives even when you're not being particularly literary because you've been making candy for days.

This week I learned that Saving the Planet & Stuff received a mention in an article called The Text Generation: Fiction That Incorporates Digital Communication by Melanie D. Koss, which was published in the September issue of Book Links. The article was about books that "include...tools of communication, both as snippets embedded within or completely replacing a conventional narrative structure." Planet was included because the main character uses e-mails and Instant Messenger. It was categorized with Books for Older Readers, which is exactly how I see it. It was published for ten year olds and up, though.

This was great recognition for Planet. Unfortunately, it's...out of print! This is a case of a book living it's own little after life.

I had planned to try to find a paperback publisher for it this year. I didn't even get started on that, though I did get the rights to the book reverted to me, which is actually as close to being on top of a situation as I ever get.

I am enjoying the recognition Planet received because I'm not attached to any concept of in print...out of print...print this...print that...

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Turning To Children's Books For...Comfort?

I don't know what it is about well-known children's titles that seems to beg for this kind of treatment. But, you know, they do.

My favorites were the old-time classics, Lassie Can't Come Home and The Pauper and the Other Pauper.

Thanks to the child_lit listserv for this one.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No Matter What I'm Doing, I Can't Wait Until I Can Do Something Else

Christmas seems like such a good idea at the end of October and beginning of November when it is still in the future. But when I have to spend a lot of time (I'm a slow writer because I'm just plain slow) shopping for presents and then wrapping them and then making candy and cookies and pet de soeur and tourtiere, even though everyone here hates the latter and I don't actually like it but damn it once a year I'm going to feel as if I have some kind of cultural identity...

Where was I going with this? I remember.

When I've been deeply involved in a writing project, so much so that maybe we've been eating hot dogs a couple of times a week as well as store bought cookies, I feel very excited as I approach the end because I think that means I'll be able to take a break and maybe buy us some real food and clean that nasty stuff out of the shower stall. Now I've been treating Christmas like a job this past week because I couldn't stand having it hang over my head anymore. I've been deeply involved in that. As I approach the end of the holiday marathon, I'm longing to get back to real work. I'm getting all kinds of ideas for projects I've been thinking about for years and haven't been able to get to. The various word processors I've been working on this fall look very good to me right now.

I can't wait for Christmas to come and go.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Is It Magical Realism? Is It A Graphic Novel?


I have been a bad Cybilista, not keeping up with graphic novel posts the way I'd planned to. So today I am doing penance by discussing The Savage by David Almond, which has been nominated for a Cybil in the YA Graphic Novel category.

The Savage is the story of a boy whose age I'm not sure about, though he seems a little on the young side for a YA to me. Soon after his father dies, he starts writing a story about a savage kid who appears to come to life so that he can deal with a bully who has been tormenting his creator.

Does he really come to life? Did his author commit the acts in the night instead of the savage?

While this story seems a little familiar to me, it is very well done. Child readers may very well find this storyline very intriguing. What's more, the book is relatively short. The draw of the story combined with the unintimidating length of the text could make this book a real draw, particularly for less enthusiastic readers.

I first became acquainted with David Almond's work when I read Skellig while doing a little magical realism study. Just as The Savage involves a child who has experienced the trauma of a parent's death, Skellig involved a child who was experiencing the trauma of a sick younger sibling and a move to a new home.

One day after doing my magical realism reading, I was supposedly doing a bookstore appearance but really just hanging out with the bookseller because she had very few customers and didn't make a single sale the two hours I was there. The bookseller had a background in some kind of therapy. She said that when books involved "magical elements" with a character who had experienced some kind of trauma, said books were not considered examples of magical realism. The magical elements had to exist with no possibilty of them being explained as an emotional response to a traumatic event.

I don't know if she was right, but it was an interesting point.

Anyway, getting back specifically to the book at hand, The Savage is heavily illustrated by Dave McKean, who also illustrated The Graveyard Book. While there are more illustrations than I'd expect to see in a regular novel here and some of the pages could be described as being broken into panels, I really don't see this as a graphic novel. There's way too much text and the illustrations illustrate. I don't think they carry any of the story.

Fuse #8 did a lengthy review of this book earlier this month, complete with many links to other reviews and miscellaneous information.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

The Newbery Wars?

I've been chatting, so to speak with a couple of people about the interest general papers have been showing in Anita Silvey's School Library Journal essay on the Newbery Award. Yesterday I realized these "Is the Newbery doing its job?" articles remind me of the Mommy War pieces you used to see in the '90s. They were feature articles that were designed to be divisive and polarize women into two camps--working versus so-called nonworking mothers. The Newbery articles seem similar to me, an attempt to set up Newbery detractors and supporters who can then gather into opposing camps. Conflict is newsworthy and presumably sells magazines and papers.

I can't see this going very far, though. For one thing, though children's literature does inspire volatile feelings (children's titles make up a big part of banned book lists), those feelings are nowhere near as personal as those enflamed when a person thinks her parenting skills are under fire. Whether or not I'm a good mother will determine how successful I am at getting and keeping my genes in the gene pool. We're talking primal here! Whether or not I think last year's Newbery winner was any good? Eh.

In addition, we're told over and over again that people aren't reading. The number of people who know what the Newbery is and which book won it last year (ah...ah...Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!) is nowhere near as great as the number of people who have given birth.

So, really, I think this is a conflict that's going to sputter along but never erupt into a real war.

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In Case You Want To Know...

...how to blog, check out How To Blog at Slate. Pay particular attention to "Add something new" and the bit under "Write casually but clearly" about not going on too long.

I was going to go on about that for a while, but it doesn't seem appropriate now, does it?

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Still Interested In One Of These Subjects

This fall I mentioned here that I can still recall a book I read when I was young about a woman who disguised herself as a man so she could fight in the Civil War. Well, I'll Pass for Your Comrade by Anita Silvey is a nonfiction book on the subject. With pictures! Check out an interview with the author at cynsations.

By the way, The Washington Post recently carried an article about Silvey's article in School Library Journal about the Newbery medal has lost its luster. I hope no one does an article on the Washington Post article about the School Library Journal article because, really, I think this topic has been wrung pretty dry.

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Getting Ready For Valentine's Day

Christmas tends to be an endurance test for me. Looking forward to January is what gets me through it.

This year looking forward to Valentine's Day helps, too. Here in New England Kids Hearts Authors Day will be held on February 14th. Authors and illustrators will be making appearances across the region in independent bookstores that morning.

Authors and illustrators and independent booksellers still have time to sign up.

Planning for the new year is the best way to avoid a post-Christmas letdown.

By the way, Kids Heart Authors Day is the brainchild of Mitali Perkins.

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Pick A Topic And Stick With It, Gail

Today I did a writing process talk for two fifth grade classes, using The Hero of Ticonderoga, which some of the students are reading as part of a history unit, to illustrate points. I usually talk about using personal experience in writing when I visit schools, so this was all new material for me. My talk was a rough draft, as I explained to the class.

The teacher who contacted me had requested that I speak about journals and revision, which I did. The talk went well enough, with lots of questions and teachers sounding appreciative. However, I had overplanned for the time allowed and had to hurry to end so that the kids could have a few minutes to ask questions before they had to get on their buses.

I was dissatisfied, though I don't think anyone else was.

As I was driving away, I decided that the mistake I made was trying to cover more than one topic at a time. I should have done only one thing, expanded on it some more, and finished early.

So now I have what we could still call a rough draft as well as a plan for two new presentations. Whether or not I ever get around to completing them remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Was Tricked


I've got books overdue at the library so it's time to stop talking about me and start talking about some reading.

Have you ever read one of those incredibly unbelievable books about a newly orphaned kid who has to go live with horrible relatives? The aunt and uncle are cartoons and the cousins are nasty? Well, when you start reading 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson, you might think you've stumbled into one of those horror stories, except the aunt and uncle are lovely people and the cousins are right out of The Penderwicks.

And you know how sometimes kids' books will have an adult character, usually a man, who's wise and experienced and gives advice and kind of makes you want to heave? 100 Cupboards has a character who you might think is going to turn out that way, except that he's kind of a misfit and not at all who he seems to be. (I never saw that coming.)

And, finally, don't you find it totally fake the way kids in books do stupid and dangerous things as if they have absolutely no sense of self-preservation at all? 100 Cupboards has a girl character who is so foolhardy--in a well-developed way--that you'll believe that she'd follow someone through a hole in the wall even though she doesn't know what's on the other side. Her little sister becomes quite feisty toward the end, too.

100 Cupboards is about a boy whose parents have disappeared while traveling so he has to go stay with relatives he doesn't know. In his attic bedroom he finds 99 doors that lead into different places, which his just-plain-folks Kansas relatives didn't know were there. Or did they?

I'm not a fan of high fantasy. Witches from alternative worlds leave me cold as a general rule. But Wilson sort of led me into that by starting his story in the very real here and now. So I was committed to the "real" characters by the time the witch appeared.

An interesting point about this book: It has one of those cardboardy kinds of covers with the cover illustration printed upon it so there are no front and back flaps. There's no flap copy to give you an idea of what the book is about.

Every now and then I like to read a book I know nothing about. And in this case, if I'd known the book included a witch, I would probably have put it back on the shelf.

100 Cupboards is the first book in a series. The second book, Dandelion Fire, will be published in February.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Life Imitating Art

I've been reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Basically, it's the story of a teenage girl in a dystopian future North America who is taking part in a reality TV show in which 24 teenagers have to kill each other off until the show is left with a winner.

I'd been finding the book somewhat disappointing because people have been raving about it all year, even though it wasn't published until this past September. The premise is random and weak for me, the world isn't very well developed, and the first third of the book is all preamble to the thriller/adventure.

But, finally, after around 148 pages, I've gotten into the thriller/adventure part. The book has finally taken off. There's all kinds of strategizing going on. It has become very involving.

How involving?

Well, tonight I was at my taekwondo class. A couple of black belts were testing for rank advancement. When we have students who are testing, our master will often, at the end of one of the classes, tell everyone to jump them. It's all good clean fun.

So three of us women were told to attack this teenage black belt. The other two women were a few ranks below me. In fact, I was the same rank as the young girl who was testing. I should have been the dominate force in the group. (The dominatrix?) But I hung back. In truth, I'm not much of a sparrer, anyway. But in this case, I was thinking, Let this lively little black belt trash these two. That will thin the pack, and her energy will be depleted while I'll still be fresh.

Then the whole class was told to attack the guy black belt. I really hung back then. There were a lot of teenage boys in the class. Let that higher ranked black belt deal with these kids, I told myself. This crowd needs to be cut down to size by a lot.

The black belt student is always supposed to be on the side of righteousness and help others in need. Doesn't sound as if that would last long for me if I found myself in a dystopia.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Keeping A Journal


This week I'm going to be speaking in a friend's classroom about writing process. One of the things she was particularly interested in having me discuss was using journals. I've been keeping what I've called an idea journal, a writer's journal, and a writer's workbook for decades now. However, I've never spoken on the subject. So when I was in Reading Fool's library last week and saw Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits by Samara O'Shea, I took it home as a little prep.

I ended up just skimming Note to Self because it's about those personal, intense journals that Note's publisher describes as "life-altering," "soul-enlightening," and "transformative." I had a life-altering experience in a parking lot once, but not so much with journals.

When I was in high school, I kept reading about writers who kept journals. Since I believed writing was my career path, I decided I should keep a journal, too. I wrote one sentence one evening. I was underwhelmed. I may have even been bored.

At any rate, I thought that was the end of keeping a journal for me.

Then when I was a sophomore in college I took an expository writing class. I didn't learn much in it but the instructor made us all keep idea journals. All we had to do was write down one idea for a piece of writing each day. I was off and running.

I think the pour-your-heart-onto-the-page kind of journal didn't work for me when I was young and doesn't attract me now because I'm not terribly interested in raw experience. What interests me is what I can do with that experience. What does it make me think of? Can I see a dramatic situation in it? If not, can I impose one on it? Can I combine that experience with something else to create a totally new situation?

Raw experience is sort of static, I think. Just writing down what happened to me today reminds me of a family member who got a video recorder back in the 80s and drove us nuts with it. He'd record us at some family event and then make us all stop what we were doing to go into the living room and watch what he'd just taped. He was, essentially, bringing our lives to a stop so we could relive the last few minutes through the miracle of technology. We'd live, and then he'd rewind.

A journal in which I'm just writing about getting up, working out, eating a sandwich at my mother's apartment, going grocery shopping, coming home to put up the Christmas tree, vacuuming, and making dinner is just rewinding and reliving a day that is already over.

But a journal in which I start playing with ideas for a Christmas essay in which various family members announce while trimming their tree that they hate particular ornaments, they've always hated them, they think the ornaments look like mutants, and they want to use them for target practice isn't rewinding but living a whole new moment. It's a moment in which something new is happening--an idea is being expressed. It's a forward-looking moment instead of a backward-looking moment because the idea has potential to become something even if nothing ever comes of it.

I don't think I'll talk to the fifth-graders about any of that.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

The More Things Change, They More They Stay The Same

"Back in the mid-19th century, literary magazines promoted themselves by putting the nastiest reviews they could get on their covers. Both the targets' friends and their enemies rushed to buy them, to pore over every word in Village saloons and coffeehouses. A century later, there was Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman battling it out on Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. Now that the novel is, in Strauss's words, "a much diminished thing," the Internet might just have to take up this promotional slack."

Ah, those were the days.

That's probably my favorite paragraph in Bloggers Vs. an Author: No One Wins , by Kevin Baker, in The Village Voice. The article describes the "Net reaction" to author Darin Strauss's description of his experience on a 22-city book tour, which he, himself, blogged about.

People really don't like to hear writers say anything negative about the writing life. A few years ago, a young woman wrote an anonymous article in Salon about her disappointment because her very well-received book didn't sell better than it did. She took a bit of a beating on the Internet, too.

I think many people, whether they hope to become writers themselves or not, have a fantasy about writers--a fantasy that involves fame and fortune. They just do not want to hear that the general public barely knows who the vast majority of writers are and that most writers can't support themselves with their writing, forget about taking care of a family. Those are facts of life, but to voice them is viewed as complaining because, damn it, J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer are rich and famous so why don't you other writers stop whining?

While reading how Strauss found himself getting drawn into a pissing match with other bloggers, I kept thinking about all the advice that moms have been giving out for centuries. Mainly, "Ignore them, and they'll go away."

They may have been on to something.

On the other hand, as the article's author suggested in the paragraph quoted above, these days an Internet pissing match may pass for book promotion.

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Nature Books For Kids

I spent a chunk of my afternoon sitting in the waiting room of a very green ear, nose, and throat specialist who was checking out a family member's hearing. I'd brought a library book but left it at someone's home. So I spent my time reading the office magazines.

In addition to learning natural ways to keep mold from growing in my bathroom, I discovered that Audubon Magazine carries book reviews, including book reviews of children's titles.

One Day Left...

...to bid on the Hunger Mountain Holiday Fundraising Auction. "All purchases are charitable in support of Hunger Mountain's non-profit mission to bring readers outstanding creative work by both established and emerging writers and artists from around the world." (Hunger Mountain press release.)

In addition to manuscript critiques, limited edition letterpress broadsides are also available. Bidding on those begins at just $19.99.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I'm Getting Into The Concept Of Work For The Sake Of Work

It's a damn good thing I've been getting into this mental state of working for the sake of working rather than for whatever other reasons people work because who knows when I'll publish anything again?

Link via Children's Writing Web Journal.

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It Did Grow On Me


This fall I've been hearing quite a lot about Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. When I finally got hold of a copy, myself, I felt a little let down.

Skim is a goth girl Wicca wannabe in a private girls' school. She and her best friend are those outsider girls you always see in teen movies and, well, teen books. Skim and her best friend get on each other's nerves and grow apart. Skim falls in love with a teacher. Someone commits suicide. A popular girl is also depressed. Skim and the popular girl have something in common.

I felt that this wasn't a particularly original situation or storyline. However, I will admit that I finally got drawn in to the story. I just can't say I was bowled over by it.

I wonder if this is a YA book that really is best appreciated by YAs. I certainly believe that depression and misery are part of adolescence, but now that I'm no longer an adolescent, myself, I tend to find that scenario trite. A teenage reader of this graphic novel may very well feel that she's stumbled onto Truth. I found the teacher/love interest, Ms. Archer, who kisses Skim and then abandons her, damn close to a predator, and at the very least creepy. I had a feeling, though, that she was meant to be more benign than that. My jaded grown-up eye may have just perceived her differently.

Skim is nominated for a Cybil in the YA graphic novel category.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Here's What Caught My Eye

A couple of things that caught my eye while I was catching up on blog reading:

the excelsior file has a really interesting post on a children's picture book version of an adult book about homelessness by Paul Auster. Doesn't the idea of picture book versions of adult novels sound promising? I mean, you could go anywhere with this.

Colleen at Chasing Ray did an all things Alice post. I now know the sequel to Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars is out. I seem to have missed that.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

And You Think Things Are Bad Now. It Could Be A Whole Lot Worse.


I'm going to say right up front that as a general rule, I'm not terribly fond of apocalyptic novels. They tend to be very similar, I think. Everything's dreadful. People are suffering. Humankind usually brings the whole thing down on itself through messing with nature, religion, war, science, global markets. Somehow it's my fault.

In the graphic novelIn the Small by Michael Hague we're brought down by a mysterious blue light. After the light is gone, all of humanity (or so it appears) has shrunk. How will people survive when almost every creature on the planet is larger than they are and evidently carnivorous? Personally, I was impressed by how many family pets had been waiting their chance to turn on their human masters.

The survival aspect of the story is interesting and moves along quickly. However, the main character, Mouse (that's got to have some kind of meaningful significance) Willow, has premonitions or visions that make it possible for him to know just what needs to be done. What's more, as he's leading a group of co-workers from his father's office out to the 'burbs, he runs into one of those stereotypical street people who also has visions. Street guy's visions mesh very nicely with Mouse's.

The whole vision thing seemed out of place to me. It seemed like a quick and dirty way of giving a teenage boy a leadership position. His sister back home is quite a mighty sprite, and she doesn't need any visions.

Though some of the human figures in the panels seem a little roughly drawn, I don't think that's unusual in graphic novels. This is a color novel with glossy pages.

In the Small has been nominated for a Cybil in the Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novel category, though the publisher describes the book as young adult. Since the main character and his sister, the other big figure in the story, are teenagers and there are no major child characters in the book, young adult seems a more appropriate classification to me.

Parenthetical.net reviewed this book back in October.

Michael Hague was interviewed on In the Small at Newsarama.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

You Can Ask Santa For A Manuscript Critique

Hunger Mountain, Vermont College's literary journal, is conducting its fundraising auction. Steve Almond, Louella Bryant, Norma Fox Mazer, Carolyn Koman, Kathi Appelt, and Louise Hawes are all offering critiques of YA fiction. (Number of pages varies.) Kathi Appelt is also offering a picture book critique.

You may remember Kathi Appelt. She was a finalist for the National Book Award just a few months ago.

I'll also mention Thomas Christopher Greene's crique offer because I know his sister-in-law and nephews. Hey, it pays to have connections with me.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Plan! I Have A Plan!

The end of last week I finished what was going to be the third to the last chapter of the eighth draft of the book I've been working on for just about two years now. I was ready to get started on the next to the last chapter. I had material to revise, but I couldn't seem to do anything with it. I finally realized that that was because the ending was rushed. The thing just wasn't coming together properly. My old enemy, plot, was getting the best of me again.

That was Friday. I wasn't happy, but I've been writing long enough now to know that at some point, something would come to me. I would have a breakout experience, and it would probably come over the weekend when I wasn't struggling in front of a computer screen. I wasn't filled with joy over the prospect of being up in the air like that because something was very wrong with the manuscript, but I wasn't filled with despair, either.

Well, sure enough, it happened. It didn't come in a flash of light. The idea sort of evolved. But what finally came to me was that I could change one minor character and that would change the plot. I would have to change things all the way back to chapter one, and I'd have to bring this guy in earlier. I might have to bring his big scene in much earlier, which would mean some restructuring.

And that, folks, means another draft. Yup. A ninth draft.

It's a great relief to know what I'm going to do. I so love having a plan.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Not What I Expected From Shirley

Shirley Jackson's main connection to YA literature is probably through the short story The Lottery, which many students read in high school. I think it's considered attractive to kids because it's scary and surprising. So a lot of readers think, "Oh, Shirley Jackson. Creepy." As Jonathan Lethem said in the Salon article Monstrous Acts, "An unfortunate impression persists (one Jackson encouraged, for complicated reasons) that her work is full of ghosts and witches. In truth, few of her greatest stories and just one of her novels, "The Haunting of Hill House," contain a suggestion of genuinely supernatural events". That is definitely the case with the short story collection The Lottery: Adventures of the Daemon Lover. (This is the original title of the 1949 book and it appears that way on my old paperback published in 1969.)

What struck me about these stories when I reread them last month is that many, if not most, of them are about women. Specifically, they're about women's lives. I'm not talking about a writer making some kind of feminist statement with her writing. (Though her story Elizabeth might be of particular interest to feminists.) I'm talking about a writer showing us women's experience during a particular point in time and in a particular place--mid-twentieth century America. The women in Jackson's stories live extremely claustraphobic, narrow lives. They are almost always referred to as Mrs. Something or Another or Miss Something or Another. They are thus defined in terms of their relationships--or lack thereof--with men. How often do we see Mrs. or Miss or even Ms. used these days the way Jackson uses those honorifics? She creates a very definite feeling of oppression with them.

Jackson's female main characters in these short stories are almost always alone. They are also often trapped emotionally in some way. And many of the stories involve a city woman who has moved to the country, where she is, once again, isolated and trapped.

The Lottery appears at the end of this collection, which is a very good place for it. After having read the other stories, The Lottery doesn't seem all that surprising. Instead, it fits in rather well with Jackson's other stories of women trapped in worlds from which they cannot escape.

It's still scary, though.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Shirley Jackson Broke Us

The Lottery Big Read at bookshelves of doom petered out short of completion earlier this week. I think the problem was two-fold:

1. Short story collections don't generate a lot of narrative drive that makes readers want to move on and see what happens next because what happens next has already happened, and then you have to start over. As my cousin Bobby once said, you have to commit the same amount of energy to getting to know characters, setting, and situation whether you're reading a short story or a novel except that with a short story, by the time you're up to speed, you're done. It hardly seems worth it.

2. These particular short stories were originally published in the 1940s, and, personally, I find work from the forties and fifties dated in a bizarre way. I say bizarre because I've read short stories from even earlier periods that didn't bother me at all. For instance, I read Daisy Miller (set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century--I can't remember which) a couple of years ago and felt it connected very nicely with some contemporary YA novels I'd been reading. The Hunger Artist, published in the 1920s, didn't bother me, either.

But forties and fifties fiction seems so close to our own time but wrong somehow, as if we're talking about an alternative reality of some kind.

I did finish the book, though. More about that another time.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

For Those Of You Who Still Haven't Had Enough Of Twilight

A couple of interesting Twilight pieces:

No Twilight for Reading at The Book Whisperer. Donalyn Miller says, "If we want to encourage students to read, we must validate some of their less-than highbrow reading choices when they do. Hopefully, due to the popularity of event-books like Harry Potter and Twilight, this generation sees reading as part of their cultureŚright alongside Guitar Hero and Facebook."

I thought the "event-book" comment was particularly thought provoking.

What Girls Want by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. I can't say I read all this one. This is one of those "reading and me" kinds of personal essays, in which the essayist brings in all kinds of material about herself while discussing her reading. If David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell had written it, maybe I'd have been more interested. The essay's main claim to fame on my listserv is this line: "I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me." But all essays about and reviews of YA in mainstream, what you might call popular adult magazines include some variation on that.

The author, Caitlin Flanagan, has a bit of a reputation for being outrageous, anyway. Metaphorically speaking, she's kind of like Ann Coulter's more coherent sister, the one who got married and had kids after college instead of going on to law school and hanging out making jokes about politics with the guys.

Student Writing

I'm going to be giving a talk on writing process to some fifth graders later this month. The teacher I've been working with mentioned an author named Ralph Fletcher who writes books for teachers on writing. It turns out he also writes both picture books and chapter books.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Possible Christmas Present


Last week we were talking about Christmas purchases of overlooked books published pre-2008. Yesterday I bought three of the books I mentioned and added a fourth. This book wasn't overlooked when it was published in 2006, but, boy, are its handlers making things difficult for it now.

Back when this clever combination historical novel, scifi time traveler story, and English procedural mystery by Linda Buckley-Archer was originally published in hardcover, it was called Gideon the Cutpurse with a marvelous two-piece cover. I'm sure there's a technical term to describe it, but the best I can say is that the top, hard cover had a jagged hole with an eye on the page beneath so that it appeared that someone was looking through a hole in a board. The title and cover were both very striking.

Unfortunately, the character Gideon the Cutpurse wasn't the protagonist. He was also an adult. He was also a nice guy, but not particularly charismatic, which is what you want in an adult character in a children's book if you're going to name the thing for him. And while I loved the cover, I can't recall any scene in the book that it illustrated. It may not have had anything to do with anything.

So I can see why the publishing powers behind this first in a trilogy thought it might be a good idea to make some changes with the paperback.



However, they changed the name to the generic and forgettable The Time Travelers: Book One In The Gideon Trilogy. And the cover...seriously underwhelming. Okay, now we know there are kids in the book, which we didn't before. Still, it just looks like another time traveling story for kids, while before it looked like something special, though probably no one knew what.

This paperback also carries a blurb: "For kids who love Harry Potter." What? I guess if you take the attitude that Harry Potter is fantasy and if you think that The Gideon Trilogy is fantasy instead of science fiction and if you believe that all fantasy is alike, then maybe...No. No. It just doesn't work. And it does such a disservice to this novel. Harry Potter fans are going to feel misled and people who've had all they can take of Harry are going to avoid The Time Travelers unnecessarily.

Now, note that they're calling this series The Gideon Trilogy. I'm guessing that's to maintain some kind of connection to the original title of the original book. However, Gideon isn't even mentioned in the publisher's description of the second book, The Time Thief. (Which, by the way, has just come out in paper.) Does he have a big enough part in the books to warrant having the series named for him? (I plan to keep reading them, so I'll let you know. Get back to ya on that.)


The first book definitely was good. The second has been nominated for a Carnegie Medal. It would be a shame if this series gets lost in the confusion of name and cover changes and over-the-top blurbs.

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