Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Some Bloggy Bits

Through the March Carnival of Children's Literature at Jenny's Wonderland of Books, I learned that James Joyce wrote a children's book. (Submitted to the Carnival by Book, Booker, Bookest.) I wonder if it includes any epiphanies?

In Hardcover versus Paperback Redux, Justine Larbalestier talks about the difference in sales for a couple of her books. Read and think.

Check out the new blog The Kids' Book Corner from independent bookseller Suzanna Hermans. I know there must be blogs out there from booksellers, but I was having trouble finding any last summer. Another country heard from!

Today's Training Report: One piece for the 365 Story Project. Filled out a form giving permission for the use of a photo that makes me look much younger. Just barely began to research some more markets for short stories and essays.

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Child Readers Of Science Fiction

Farah Mendlesohn has a terrific article in the March/April Horn Book called The Campaign for Shiny Futures. Oh, and look! You can read it. (Sheila, you want to read this.)

So many seriously thought-provoking things here that I don't know where to start. I will just say that I'm going to be thinking about didactic books quite differently from now on. At least, I will if they're didactic science fiction.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Werlin World

I spent an interesting week and a half reading Nancy Werlin novels. The three books I read might be described as thrillers with troubled teen protagonists. The troubled teens bring gravitas to the thrillers and the thrillers bring narrative drive to the troubled teen stories. It's a good combination.

The first one I knocked off was Double Helix, which was, you might say, serendipitous because it played right into my father fixation. Nancy says of the book at her website, "In particular, it's a father-son story. And that, rather than in news stories about genetics, is where the novel had its start...Originally, I imagined a triangle in which two men, Jonathan Samuels and Dr. Quincy Wyatt, struggle for the soul of the novelís hero, eighteen-year old Eli Samuels. Which manís influence will form Eli? I wondered. To whom will he pledge his future and his loyalty?"

Yes! Yes! I originally saw the triangle as two father figures fighting for a young guy. At one point, I was finishing up doing something so I could go back to reading to see which Dad won. But that's oversimplifying because as Nancy also says, one dad had it all over the other one.

At various points while reading this book, I thought I knew what was going to happen next. And I did. But not entirely. Every time there was something just a little different and unexpected.

Next I whipped through Black Mirror. While reading this one, I wondered if the main character wasn't a little too troubled. Her personal problems seemed to keep her from understanding what was going on for way too long. But that may have been the point. She's not Nancy Drew. What was going on around her was apart from her. In fact, she doesn't have anything to do with ending the criminal activity. In terms of her personal story, the real climax comes from the revelation that occurs after the thriller storyline is done. And the really important revelation isn't whodunnit (though we learn that) but who the victim really was.

Black Mirror included an interesting secondary character whose identity I figured out early on. I liked him and his relationship with the main character, but while I was focusing on him, I totally missed what was really going on with two other characters. What was going on with them was realistic and worked, it was just a pleasant surprise to me.

While I'm not fond of what I'll call locked-inside scenarios, Locked Inside includes my favorite main character of the three books. The book included the same abrupt (in the good sense of the word) surprises I'd come to expect after reading the two earlier ones. I started reading and thought, Oh. This is going to be a gaming story. But, then, wham! It wasn't. This is also the book that made me say, "Holy #@!!" right out loud.

As I was reading these books, I kept thinking of Ruth Rendell's stand alone novels. (She also does a series of police procedurals.) The New York Times said of Rendell's books, "Ms. Rendell's central characters are frequently in a state of intense anxiety." In the three Werlin books I read, the central characters are anxious. They are, in fact, close to being traumatized by loss, whether recent, expected, or in the past. The NYTimes also said that "Rendell's books depend on precision of detail." Each of these Werlin books involved a completely different character background--science, Buddhism, gaming--requiring entirely new material to provide details.

Rendell fans talk about looking for the "new Rendell" or "picking up a Rendell." I imagine YA readers some day talking about Nancy Werlin's work in the same way.

Today's Training Report: Two entries for the 365 Story Project. Began charting story arcs for same. Two manuscript submissions, along with a little submission research. A little work on cleaning my desk.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Who Would Have Thought This Subject Would Come Up Twice In My Lifetime?

A couple of weeks ago, J.L. Bell did a post at Oz and Ends called Parable? No, Just Full of It about someone back in the 60s who interpreted the Wizard of Oz as a Parable on Populism.

Therefore, I couldn't help but notice yesterday when NPR did a piece on the very same subject. I didn't catch the whole thing because I was...er...ah...cleaning a shower stall...but the NPR site has links to both the original Parable on Populism essay and to Money and Politics in the Land of Oz by Quentin P. Taylor, who was interviewed for the Morning Edition segment I was listening to while mindfully scrubbing tile.

Should I ever find the time to read those essays, I may actually finally understand late nineteenth century populism, the subject of my final exam essay for eleventh grade history.

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"I still don't know what else to do"

Michael Schiavone has a neat piece Must I Write? in Glimmer Train Bulletin 22.

I've Decided I Just Can't Do This

This morning I started to read a book by an author whose work I really want to like. It was witty, and it looked as if the basic premise was clever. Everything looked promising. It looked like a go, right?

Except the book opens with shopping and talk about boyfriends.

I know there are people who like that stuff. I respect other readers' tastes. Go for it. Read all the shopping books you can find. Myself, I can't even stand looking at catalogs anymore, forget about reading books about people who buy things from them or anywhere else.

I might have been able to take the talk about boyfriends if it hadn't been combined with shopping.

I decided to give up after just two and a half short chapters. But then I started thinking--what if I had to write a book about shopping...with or without boyfriends? What if, say, a gun was held to my head? How would I write about shopping? I thought maybe I could have zombies run through a mall. Maybe some kind of battle there. A spaceship could land on the roof. A mummy princess back from her mummihood could go shopping and run up a huge credit card bill.

I've tried to recall if I've ever written anything at all in which shopping figured in even a marginal way. I think the kids in the aliens books went to the grocery store. In one of the earlier drafts of the never-ending story, the main character and her family went to the mall, but I think most of that scene took place in a food court. Plus, that whole storyline was dropped, probably because shopping just isn't that interesting. Or I should say, I sure can't think of any way to make it interesting.

I think I may have had characters talk about having been shopping. If I've ever written any scenes in which they are actually shown shopping, I've repressed it.

So, anyway I'll be reading something else later tonight.

Friday, March 27, 2009

I'm Close To Snapping

So the ninth draft of the never-ending story has almost been perfected--two chapters need to have the changes moved from the hard copy draft back to the computer--and I'm at this point where I'm feeling that this book is so predictable. Will anyone be surprised by anything? Do they need to be surprised?

And what is this thing, anyway? Is it a problem book with a thriller twist even though the problem is one that no one will ever, ever have? Is it a family drama? Is it funny enough? Does the little device I use to give the third person narrative a voice work, or is it just plain annoying? Will people get that all the jeezum crows define a particular character and bind him to his mother, that they define the setting of the story, or will they go, "Huh?"

And what about the ending? A few years ago I read a blog or livejournal post about one of my books in which the blogger/journalist said my ending activated his gag reflex. That kind of thing doesn't bother me, except that I could see what he meant. I like a...hmmm...maybe...transcendent?...ending. Something a little bit intense, that shows a character's evolution.

That's not another way for saying sappy, is it? Jeezum crow! I'm not sappy, am I? I hate sap!

I'm hoping that the predictability I'm feeling is due to the fact that I've written parts of this thing nine times. It's predictable to me because I've written it nine times. I think I've read it before because I have.

And as far as the ending goes, I'm still working on it. I'm thinking about maybe having zombies land in a space ship in the last paragraph. That wouldn't be sappy.

Yeah. That could be the way to go.

I'm going to go lift some weights. That will make me feel better.

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Number 40 Actually Made Me Laugh Out Loud

50 Reasons No One Wants To Publish Your First Book by way of Oz and Ends. Thank you so much.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Inspired To Write

This is testing week at the ol' dojang, and at black belt class last night we had three people testing for first dan black belt. At our school, we have to write an essay each time we test for another black belt rank. So last night sabumnim read aloud from one candidate's essay. First dan essays tend to be about how taekwondo has changed us, its influence on our lives, etc. And the selections read last night dealt with those topics.

This morning after my regular class, one of the other students who was testing for black belt last night told me that she wanted to take a writing class. "Beth's essay last night--it expressed the things I wanted to say and couldn't."

I was both touched and impressed by that. I've wanted to write since I was in fifth grade, and I always wonder about people who suddenly, well into adulthood, suddenly become interested in it. In this case, I would say that last night's experience left this black belt newbie feeling a need to communicate. During her testing period, the need feels so great she wants to take a writing class in order to be able to do so.

Today's Training Report: Finished the line editing I've been working on this week. Now I need to move all the changes onto the manuscript on my hard drive.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Could Theme...Or Lack Of...Be The Problem?

I was pulling out of the grocery store parking lot today and thinking about...theme! I was thinking about how I think about theme so much more with my work these days. And I've also been thinking recently about sending out some short stories again this spring.

So thinking about theme + thinking about short stories = wondering if I haven't been more successful with selling short stories because I wasn't paying attention to theme. I wasn't thinking about what those stories should say about how we live.

Of course, the fact that some of them had too many characters and too much may have been going on in others could be a factor, too.

Today's Training Report: One piece for the 365 Story Project. A couple of chapters of the never-ending story edited.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Registration Is Open For Readercon

Readercon is coming to Massachusetts on July 9 through 12. Cecil Castellucci and Ellen Klages are among the confirmed guests.

Today's Training Report: Only one and a half pieces completed for the 365 Story Project and one and a half chapters of editing completed on the never-ending story. Did finish that business e-mail and send it out, though.

Mondays are hard because I'm not deep into anything. It's like starting something new. Every single week.

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Gone, Gone, Gone. And Going?

There's probably not much point in discussing the state of newspaper book review sections anymore. In case anyone was in any doubt, CNN.com's article Newspapers fold as readers defect and economy sours pulls together the numbers on the newspapers that are just plain gone (and others that may be going), forget about whether or not they're reviewing books.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sending You To Another Blog

I just did some catching up with Shelftalker and found three particularly interesting posts.

Adult Authors + Kid Lit = Often Imperfect Fit?

Awards That Went to the Wrong Books.

And the post that really raked in the reader comments? Who Are Your Literary Crushes. Notice the votes for Harriet Vane. Barf.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

I Think You Have To Hand It To Oprah

I have a family member who appears to be making it her personal quest to keep the magazine industry afloat because she's subscribing to a bizarre number of the things. Recently, she's added O, The Oprah Magazine. It seems like a pretty generic mag to me, except for one thing--the Reading Room section, which in the March issue goes on for five pages and includes short write-ups on twelve books and a Books That Made A Difference piece by Sarah Vowell. That one includes five more titles. And there's a piece elsewhere in the magazine by and on Sandra Cisneros.

The book bits in the Reading Room have some real depth and breadth, too. They include what's described as a "naturalistic novel" by Philip K. Dick, the new bios of John Cheever and Flannery O'Connor, a volume of short stories, and a mystery.

And some of these bits are written by people like Jonathan Lethem, Francine Prose, and Amy Bloom. That's not too shabby.

While book reviews seem to be disappearing from the face of the Earth, one publication is doing its little part to bring titles to the attention of its readership.

Today's Training Report: Got two pieces done for the 365 Story Project and feel that I'm getting back into that groove. Also started writing a business letter. Business letters are very time consuming for me. Very angst-inducing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Island Of The Blue Dolphins Meets The Admirable Crichton


Nation by Terry Pratchett is set in an alternative nineteenth century world where an enormous wave washes away all the residents of an island except for a young boy, Mau, who had been about to pass his manhood ritual. He is now alone. Until, that is, he finds Ermintrude (who, quite understandably, decides to rename herself Daphne). She is a young member of the British royal family who is washed onto Mau's island home, the only survivor of a ship that was destroyed by that same wave. Daphne brings with her orderly so-called civilization. She is well-mannered and ladylike, as one would expect from someone of her station, but she also has a trained, scientific mind. She is familiar with both Darwin and Agassiz.

Mau's tremendous loss triggers a crisis of faith. You could say that Daphne helps him find another belief system.

This is a novel about the place of religious belief, something I don't think I've seen a lot of in YA fiction. (That might be what His Dark Materials is about, but I couldn't understand the second two books in the trilogy.) Occasionally Mau's spiritual quest got a little deep for me, too, but the humor and terrific characters got me past those points.

For a while I was concerned that this was going to be a rant against evil Europeans destroying other societies. Not that there isn't plenty of historic precedent for that, but it is a subject that has been done before. Pratchett, however, goes in another direction.

Nation is one of this year's Printz Honor Books

Today's Training Report: I fell behind on the 365 Story Project so I could immerse myself in the never-ending story. So today I tried to bring myself back up to speed with that by trying to track a character I want to do something with soon. I also made a hard copy of the draft I finished yesterday. I always edit a hard copy. I'll leave that for next week because drafts should sit like stews and sauces.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Coming Next Month

One of my more interesting reading experiences from my first year as a Cybils panelist involved Hellbent by Anthony McGowan. McGowan's second book, Henry Tumour won the Booktrust Teenage Prize in England. In April, the book will be published in this country as Jack Tumor.

Now, I can understand a U.S. publisher changing the spelling of "tumour" to "tumor." We are a Puritan nation, after all, and we are offended by the profligate use of vowels. But what's with changing "Henry" to "Jack?"

Today's Training Report: Finished that last chapter, in spite of doing a six-mile hike that left me with no buzz at all. I started revising this book a year ago, started two drafts before finally finishing this third one.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I See Father Books...And They Don't Know They're Father Books

Read Roger has a post today in which he briefly questionsthe difference between books for youth and books for grownups: is there a difference and what is its nature? Since I've done some writing about that here lately, I thought I'd mention it.

Plus, Roger talks about listening to To Kill a Mockingbird. I've been thinking about that book recently because there's a lot of buzz about it here in central Connecticut. A stage adaptation is playing in Hartford.

I read Mockingbird twice, once in my early teens and again as an adult. When I read it as an adult, I saw it as a father worship book. So much so, that when I was writing The Hero of Ticonderoga, I physically modeled the attorney father of one of Tess's friends on Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Deborah's dad was Tess's fantasy father, and I see Atticus as being a fantasy as well.

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Pick Up A Book And Start Reading Again, Gail

Down on yourself about work? Feeling inept? Incompetent? Maybe a little humiliated?

I've got two words for you--endorphin rush.

I've been moping around for a couple of days, boring my family to death, because it appears that I misread a book that I then blogged about. At length. You can read about this situation in the comments section of this post. Spoiler alert! That's why I'm not writing about it here (the risk of spoilage). Besides, I'm actually writing about something else here.

Anyway, I was feeling very distressed about this because I am supposed to be able to comprehend a mystery novel, for crying out loud. (Unless it's something like this. I will admit, I have only the vaguest idea what was going on with that one.) I was feeling inadequate. Stupid.

Yeah, that's right. I don't have anything bigger to worry about.

So, today was taekwondo day, and I'm at my class this morning. The instructor asked me to work with another student on joong bong defense. I've been working on joong bong defense for, maybe, five years. It takes a while, but I find it doable because it's orderly and involves memorizing an attack and a defense. Ten of them, so far. It's not like sparring, which I am terrible at, because you have to respond to random attacks--you have to process what your opponent is doing and come up with a response, within seconds, and then keep moving.

However, when you are trying to teach a skill to someone, especially someone who is having trouble with it (and these things aren't easy), randomness comes into play again. The student makes mistakes. The student gets confused. I get confused. I make mistakes.

We didn't get very far, and I had to let the instructor know that I was...ah, how was I putting it earlier? Oh, yes. Inept, incompetent, and inadequate. He's a lovely young man and said he'd take over. I should go put my gear on because we were sparring this week.

In case you don't recall, I mentioned earlier that I am terrible at sparring. So I'm walking across the dojang to my gear bag thinking, I can't read. I can't do joong bong defense. Now I've got to spar. I'm going to be crawling home on my stomach.

Au contraire!

Sparring went fantastically! I had a great training partner who doesn't usually train in the morning class, though I'd seen her around before. We were perfectly matched! Which is awful to say because she was six ranks below me. In my defense, though, she was taller than I am. But it was as if we were both at a level where we could each challenge the other without overwhelming her.

I came out of there with a buzz on like I haven't had after class in years.

And on the way home I said, You're going to the library, Gail! And you're getting books. You're getting hard books. And you know what else? You read that father/child storyline into that book, right? Okay, do something with it! This spring, after you finish your big project and are working on small ones, you're going to write that weird father story you've been thinking about for eight years! And then you're going to write that message-from-my-forefathers essay. And it's going to be brilliant! And you're going to submit it somewhere!

Yeah! Yeah!

I'm telling you, just remembering it is bringing the rush back.

Think of this post as your Shaker and curling post. Without the Shakers or the curling.

Today's Training Report: I revised about four pages of the last chapter of the never-ending story. I'm within paragraphs of being done. This denouement is very different from the last one. I'm focusing very much on theme. I never used to think about theme much at all when I was writing. This is new for me.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

My Family Feels...Something...For Me

A family member just shouted from another room to see if I'd heard of Diary of a Wimpy Kid because The CBS Evening News was doing a story on it. So we watched it together, and he heard that the series has something like 29 foreign editions.

He looked at me and said, "Twenty-nine!" Then he looked very sympathetic. I think.

You...Me...Training Partners

And I'm going on some more about my day out with the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

So, on Saturday I saw what are becoming my Salon friends--Loree Griffin Burns, Terry Golson, Melissa Stewart, and Dana Meach Rau, for instance, though there are more faces I recognize. This time, though, I also met a new person out in the parking lot, Jo Knowles. (In fact, when we were leaving, I almost hit her in the parking lot. Hey, I said it was just almost.)

Anyway, after a number of us, you know, just sort of mentioned in passing how our obsession with the Internet seems to be a whole lot more powerful than our obsession with our craft, Jo offered a story about how she and another writer who lives on the other side of the country control their wandering minds by checking in with each other off and on each day, setting goals together, and sort of keeping each other honest, so to speak.

Now, I have heard before of writers using this kind of relationship to do the very thing Jo and her friend use it for. However, I often have to hear the same thing a number of times before it registers with me. On Saturday, as soon as Jo explained what she does, I thought, "Training partner."

I will spare you the details of my two-year (more or less) relationship with my taekwondo training partner, Valerie. (Actually, I'm saving it for an essay.) I'll just say that sometimes I understand things much better if I can connect them to something I already know and like. (I have to use metaphors and analogies a lot in order to get along in life.) So while I no longer have my own personal training partner at the dojang, I understand training partners. And it appears that I like training (a term I use loosely, by the way) a whole lot more than I like staying on task at work.

So I'm getting myself a writing training partner. And the writing training partner is going to be this blog. I'm going to be keeping track of my writing statistics here. I'm not doing any goal setting or long-range planning because that's not how I train. I just get up and spend an hour to an hour and a half a day on some random physical activity. That's the way I'm going to manage my writing stats. I'm just going to keep track of the work I'm doing, whatever it is, because it will force me to work enough so that I have something to report that won't humiliate me. I use the term "humiliate" loosely, too.

Some of you may recall that I did something like this a couple of years ago when I was working on the first draft of the book I am still working on. Well, what can I say? Now I'm trying it again. We'll see if it takes this time.

Now, if you're a writer who would like to experiment with a writing training partner, go ahead and post your statistics, whatever they are, in the comments to my posts. I am not a competitive trainer or writer. Be zenny about whatever you have to report.

Today's training report: I revised the next to the last chapter of the ninth draft of the never ending story and got started on the last chapter. While this is rather a lot for me, I must admit that the chapter didn't require the kind of extensive overhaul that, say, the chapter before it did. A chapter that took me at least a week to revise. Also, I didn't allow myself to visit any news sites until afternoon when I was almost finished with the chapter.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

You Might Not Want To Wait For That Lightning Strike

So, as I mentioned in my last riveting post, yesterday I attended a NESCBWI salon. Nancy Poydar (who used to teach in Concord, Massachusetts--If I'd only known I would have badgered her about Transcendentalists!) and Nancy Werlin (the first National Book Award finalist I've ever eaten lunch with) were the speakers.

The Two Nancies' subject was Building a Career as a Children's Author/Illustrator. What was particularly interesting is that they both discussed whether or not authors should expect to be supporting themselves totally with their writing, and, if so, at what point in their careers that might happen.

There's a lot of misconceptions about the kind of money writers make and what might be considered a successful book. I've heard writers say that we have a right to make a living doing what we want to do. This was discussed quite frequently at a writers' community I once belonged to. I've also read about disappointment over sales that were actually pretty standard, even good. On a more personal level, I've had a guy tell me his wife was planning to write a book to generate some extra income while she was on maternity leave, believing generating extra income with a book would be that quick and easy to do. I also had a friend suggest that my writing was paying for the addition we were building on our house a while back. (No, but I once was able to buy a couch.)

I think, myself, that the belief that writing is a living, forget about a path to riches, probably is a result of the success of writers like Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham in the '80s and, of course, in kidlit, J.K. Rowling in the '90s. It seems as if there are a lot of bestselling authors, but only if you don't realize how many authors are out there. Once you realize that there are supposed to be in excess of a hundred and fifty thousand books being published every year, you begin to understand how many writers there must be and what a small percentage of them become wildly successful. As someone said at lunch, it's much like being struck by lightning. It doesn't happen often.

That's why very, very successful writers get a lot of press--financial success in writing is rare, making it newsworthy. Again, like being struck by lightning.

A writing career, as both Nancies pointed out, isn't something that will support most writers. It's something most writers are going to need to support with either other kinds of work or help from family members. Writing, I'd like to add, is also a choosen lifestyle. You want books, writing, other writers, study, your writing space--to name a few things--in your life. This is part of what you're supporting.

Writing is not a bad career. You do have to build it, though. You have to support it.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Life And Welcome To It

I am so glad I've finished going on and on about my recent reading. Yes, it was getting old for me, too. I milked that line of thought dry. Besides, today I went out to a New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators salon, so I want to go on and on about that for a while.

Here is why it's good for writers to mingle with their own kind every now and again:

I heard a story today about a writer who was on a train one Sunday and saw something that she could use to fix a problem she was having in the book she was working on. But the next day, she started coming down with something. Since she knew she had a presentation to prepare for the next weekend, she decided she'd better work on that before she became seriously ill. She spent the whole week sick or doing prep work, unable to act on the train material.

I cannot tell you how many times something similar has happened to me. Ideas come from all over, but you just can't get around to doing anything with them.

Then another writer talked about reading professional articles, keeping up with her professional listservs, and finding that a week has passed and she's done little real writing.

Yeah, that could have been me.

A companion at lunch talked about both of her kids finally starting school full-time and how little she finds she's getting done while they're gone.

Yes! Yes! That was me!

One author described writing on a secondary computer that's not connected to the Internet, that's not even in the same room with the Internet computer, in order to control the lure of the Web.

Done that, too.

I don't know why finding out other people have the same problems you do is so satisfying. I know misery is supposed to love company, but don't we all want to be uniquely miserable?

Not me, evidently. I'm much happier knowing that today there was a room full of writers in Massachusetts who do a lot of the same things I do.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Plot And Summing Up

We do love plot. A cliche regarding plot goes that genre fiction is plot driven while so-called literary or mainstream fiction (which some people now contend is a genre, itself) is character driven. In the Gauthier world view, all the traditional elements of fiction (plot, character, point of view, setting, and theme) should be balanced. Integrated even.

Easier said than done, of course. But what isn't?

An important point to remember about plot: There should be a cause and effect relationship between each plot point. A causes B to happen and B causes C, etc. so that once the climactic moment arrives, readers feel that, of course! What else could have happened! If there is no causal relationship between events, you don't have a plot. You have a list of random things happening.

Plot thoughts about this week's study subjects:

Toward the middle of The Dead Father's Club I felt things had slowed down a bit. I'm not talking obvious gaps or leaps in logic. I just felt, Kill him or don't, kid. But by the end of the book, I was sneaking time from work to keep reading.

I think this was a case of the plot, as well as character, supporting one of the book's themes--determining a correct course of action. A character contemplating murder should linger over the decision.

You have to read fifty pages of The Beekeeper's Apprentice before Sherlock Holmes and his young partner, Mary Russell, take on their first case. That seems like a long time for a "plot" to get going in a traditional mystery. And right in the midst of the book's most serious case, the main characters take a detour to Palestine. What? They're going to Palestine now? I thought. Or at all, for that matter, since it seemed totally unrelated to what was going on in that plot.

But The Beekeeper's Apprentice has a great deal to do with character. Those first fifty pages are all about creating Holmes and Russell. As for the trip to Palestine, that's all about defining Russell both as a young Jewish woman and as a woman who is committed to memory. While leaving Jerusalem she recites part of Psalm 137, including the lines, "If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither, May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you." This book is supposed to be an account by an elderly woman who does, indeed, remember not only Jerusalem but the companion/father/partner of her youth.

Some of my commenters have suggested that they associate strong plot with kids' fiction. That could very well be why adult mysteries often serve as gateway books for teenagers moving on to adult books. Plot is important to mystery. Neither The Dead Father's Club nor The Beekeeper's Apprentice are slaves to plot. But plot is woven in with other fictional elements, particularly theme and point of view, which should help young readers dipping their toes into adult works appreciate their balance.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Theme

Ah, theme. Theme is a gnarly thing to discuss because so many people think it is a moral lesson. Bah! I spit on moral lessons. Theme, in the Gauthier world view, is an abstract idea about how people live their lives around which a writer constructs a concrete story. That abstract idea doesn't necessarily involve telling readers how to live. It may just raise questions about how we live.

Some themes occur more frequently in books written for specific age groups. Common YA themes, for instance, will often involve: How we separate ourselves from our families; how we are like/different from our families/peer groups; what will we do with our lives; what do we believe in; what will become of us--Pretty much anything that relates to setting out on our lives and moving toward adulthood without actually being adults.

So adult books that include but are not necessarily limited to YA themes may be of interest to YA readers. At least, that's my argument.

Determining theme, of course, is more of an art than a science. For instance, in one of this week's study subjects, The Dead Father's Club, a possible theme could be how we determine a correct course of action, since young Philip isn't really all that keen on offing Uncle Alan but feels he ought to because Dad's ghost is insisting upon it. That definitely fits into the YA theme scheme of determing what we will do with our lives. But another theme could certainly be children's responsibilities toward parents. When is enough enough? Again, this would fit in with YA themes relating to how we separate ourselves from our families.

Yesterday I was talking about Mary Russell in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, who is a nonYA narrator because she is, technically, an old woman recalling her late adolescence, with adult knowledge of what is going to happen. Though Russell has a great voice, it's not the YA voice teen readers are accustomed to. I suggested this might not be a deal breaker because of theme.

In The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Mary Russell's family is dead. This is what you might call the ultimate separation from family. She accepts a new family in the form of her chosen father, Sherlock Holmes. She "chooses" a father (or falls over him on the first page of the book) who is her intellectual equal. Thus we're dealing with a character who is working out how she is like her "family." As Holmes' protege and an Oxford student she is determining what she will become and moving toward what she will do with her life. At the same time, as a theology student and a Jew who embraces her culture, she differentiates herself from chosen dad. Then, of course, since The Beekeeper's Apprentice is a true mystery (The Dead Father's Club isn't), one of its themes deals with the restoration of order, a love of which crosses over between young and adult readers.

Does theme trump voice when considering crossover potential for young readers of adult books? My guess is that it will depend on the reader.

Off the subject note: It has occurred to me that an adult reading this book who couldn't care less about Young Adult literature, might see themes relating to accepting parental responsibilities, parental love enhancing the parent's life, etc. As I said, determining theme is an art, not a science, and themes might be like communists in the 1950s--under every bush.

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Does This Sound Like The Makings Of A Kids' Book To Anyone Else?

I thought Elf Detection 101 at Slate was a joke. But I was able to find more on elves in Iceland elsewhere.

I don't write fantasy, but, man, if I did I'd be studying Iceland right now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: Point Of View, Voice, And Distance

The kidlit publishing world loves, them, their first-person narrators. They're all over the place in children's and YA books. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a first-person point of view is a quick and dirty way of creating a strong voice, something that's also liked in kidlit. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Who doesn't enjoy reading a book with a strong voice, whatever your age? In kidlit, first-person narrators sometimes sound a lot alike, though. You've got your smart girls, your wise-ass boys, your angst-ridden teens, your smart, wise-ass girls, your wise-ass, angst-ridden teens, your precocious smart, angst-ridden kids of either gender.

To be fair, it's hard to come up with anyone who hasn't been done before--a lot.

Related to point of view and voice, at least in my mind, is distance. One of the defining elements of a children's or YA book (to my knowledge, anyway) is that the action is taking place now. Those first-person narrators are living their experiences as they are relating them to us. Adult characters recalling their childhoods usually appear in adult books because there is an adult sensibility at work. These adults are now distant from their childhood selves. The adult narrator has knowledge of what happened after the events in the story, which child narrators living in the moment do not.

All of this relates to the adult books I'm talking about this week. They both use a first-person narrator with a strong voice. Their narrators are quite different in terms of their distance from the events they're relating to us, though.

The Dead Father's Club's eleven-year-old first-person narrator, Philip, uses a very strong voice that speaks to us in a sort of stream-of-consciousness manner. We're not talking Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse stream-of-consciousness here. But Philip doesn't waste any effort on quotation marks for dialogue or apostrophes for contractions, and his mind does tend to jump from one thing to another. This appeared to me to be an attempt to duplicate the thinking of a child. I'm not sure how successful the author was with this, because I can't recall how eleven-year-olds think. Does this narrator sound like a child or does he sound the way adults think children sound? Don't know.

Philip is, though, both funny and tragic. It seems to me that he could serve as a gateway narrator, a child leading teenage readers, particularly students of Hamlet, into the world of adult mainstream fiction.

Mary Russell of The Beekeeper's Apprentice also has a very powerful, first-person voice. She is very distant from the World War I era story she tells, though, since in an "Author's Note" she indicates that she is now in her nineties. She makes it clear that she is dealing with memories. The very first words of the first real chapter--"I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes"--indicate that this story is not happening now. And her knowledge of what is going to happen definitely has an impact on what she tells us, as when she says when introducing a case she and Holmes take on, "...had Holmes...not allowed me to participate, God alone knows what we would have done when December's cold hit us, unprepared and unsupported." Russell knows what's coming, and it's bad.

Mary Russell, whether the elderly story teller or the teenage protege of Sherlock Holmes, is an extremely intelligent and highly educated individual who speaks in the elegant, sophisticated manner of another age. She is no Georgia Nicholson or Holden Caulfield wannabe, that's for sure. Why would the book she narrates be of interest to young readers?

Because point of view, voice, and distance are not the only things that attract readers to books. You also have to consider theme. And tomorrow we will.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Adult Books For YA Readers: What's With Mysteries?

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, one of the two books I'm stuck on this week, is as much a character study as it is a mystery. But it most defintely is classified as a mystery. It is spun off from the Sherlock Holmes mystery classics, after all. While my second book, The Dead Father's Club, is main stream fiction (its original material is Hamlet, remember), for me it developed a mysterious element. While I accepted the truth of what dead dad had to say at the beginning of the story, I began to wonder if he was all that reliable. Did Uncle Alan really do him in? Is he really a bad guy?

Child readers are notorious mystery lovers, and adult mysteries are often bridge books into adult reading, as Jen Robinson has said. (I kind of like the expression "gateway books," myself.)

Why the attraction to mysteries?

I think kids find mysteries comforting. At the beginning of very traditional mystery novels, the social order has been disrupted. A body has been found in the library. Jewels have been stolen. Someone has disappeared. At the end, the social order has been restored. The perp has been tracked down. Justice has been done. Things go back to the way they are supposed to be. What a relief.

Kids are instructed to stay in line. To be fair. To follow the rules. They have been taught to maintain order. They're comfortable with order. This may be a factor in tattling. What, exactly, is wrong with tattling? Why do we dislike it so much? All the tale bearers are trying to do is restore the order we've taught them to maintain.

With a mystery novel, kids can safely explore a disordered world because it's not the world they actually live in. The detective restoring order at the end of the story provides a satisfying conclusion. The world goes back to the way kids have been taught it should be.

An adult mystery that follows that pattern provides young readers with familiarity--the pattern itself. It also gives them the impression that the adult world is orderly like theirs. Grown-ups aren't supposed to do certain things, just as children aren't supposed to do certain things. If adults do them, justice will be done, and the adult world will go back to the way it's supposed to be.

A lie, of course, but that's beside the point.

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Looking For Adult Books For Younger Readers

I am frequently attracted to adult books with child and YA protagonists. I'm very interested in how books with those kinds of leads end up being published as adult lit versus kidlit or vice versa. I'm also interested in whether or not those adult books could be of interest to nonadult readers. I think it was at Read Roger that I once read that one of a YA librarian's responsibilities is to lead adolescent readers to adult books. I'm certainly not a YA librarian, but I do like the idea of books that will lead kids into the grown-up world. (Because the adult world is such a terrific place and everyone should want to be here, right?)

I recently read two fine adult books with child-ish characters. Oddly enough, they're both books that jump off from older works. (This isn't all that odd, because I like those kinds of books. It's a little bit odd that I happened to read one right after the other.)


In the first, The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig, poor eleven-year-old Philip Noble is haunted by his dead dad who insists that Uncle Alan did him in because he wanted the pub and Philip's mum. In order to save dad from an afterlife with something called the Terrors, Philip needs to avenge his death by killing Uncle Alan. Very good book that I would have enjoyed much, much more if I knew more about Hamlet, upon which it is based. I'm not even sure I've ever read the original source material, though I did realize that Philip's fish being named Gertrude is a joke.

The second book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King, was recommended just a couple of weeks ago by Jen Robinson. The beekeeper of the title is Sherlock Holmes. His apprentice is Mary Russell, a young woman in her late teens with whom he develops an intense father/child relationship.

Both these books could be of interest to YAs, though maybe to older, more sophisticated readers--and not because young Philip is always going on about mum getting sex from Uncle Alan and the questions that are raised in The Beekeeper's Apprentice about Holmes' willingness to disguise himself in women's evening gowns and the content of the photograph of him at a Turkish bath. Voice, theme, point of view, and some other stuff I'm interested in discussing with a captive audience as well as some subjects I may not have thought of yet, should all be considered when determining which audience is most likely to go for a particular title.

So over the next few days, Gail is going to make like Mary Russell at Oxford and do a little study of these two books and how they could engage teen readers. You have been warned.

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Hey, Isn't It Poetry Friday?

Forgive me. But isn't poetry always in good taste?

Yeah, you guessed it. I found this at Bookslut.

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Seven Years For Original Content

Is another anniversary reason to celebrate? Or are we just talking about being another year closer to death? I'm on the fence on that one.

During the seven years I've been maintaining this blog, I've published four books, three of which I wrote during this period. That's somewhat surprising because I'm better at perseverance (I've been here seven years, after all) than I am at speed.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Perhaps Professionalism Isn't The Way To Go

I have always made a big effort here at Original Content to remain professional in subject matter if not in tone, style, what have you. As a blog reader, myself, I've never been interested in reading about where other writers have been shopping for clothes, what they made for dinner, their favorite television shows (especially of the reality variety), their favorite musicians, their birth experiences, favorite or otherwise, etcetera, yada yada, you get my drift. I don't have time for that stuff in my reading and have always assumed no one else does, either.

I have been noticing over the last few years, though, that writers who blog in great detail about shoe styles, give critiques of evening serials (Yes, 24 is lame this year, whereas Lost is incredible), and follow a team sport, have serious followings. For instance, look at the number of comments Justine Larbalestier (my stalkee) received for this post about Oscar fashion. Oscar fashion--isn't that like shooting fish in a barrel? And then get the comments for this post about cricket. Who even knows what the hell cricket is?

So, I've been thinking, I have to come up with some fascinating interest to blog about that will engage my readers here and encourage them to become...my followers. It can't be shopping, because I only go out on those mally-type marathon trips every two or three months, and I just refuse to go on about what's on sale at Shaw's. (Though next week's circular came today and was most impressive.) It can't be shoes, because I don't expect to be buying any for a couple of years. (Limited material.) While I cook and bake, it's nothing to write home to mom about. (Seriously. She's not interested. In fact, I'm pretty sure she doesn't like it when I bring her things I've made.)

Better possibilities: Shakers. I used to be really interested in Shakers. That could do it. And curling! I have a cousin who curls! That would take care of the sports fans out there. What about this? I drive a hybrid. I could keep you updated on best mileages. For instance, once last year, when I was coming home from a school appearance in Vermont (a professional connection, too), I was getting thirty-six miles to the gallon. Don't think that sounds like much? I have four-wheel drive. Yeah. Think about that.

That mileage thing could be the way to go because you guys could all post comments about your best milage with your cars.

Yup. That could be the personal interest that makes this blog start humming.

Thinking About Going Back To School?

My very long-time readers may recall that I've considered seeking a master's degree in some kind of writing. For years I thought about this. I've finally just about lost interest because 1. I'm pretty sure almost any master's program is going to require me to take at least one course I couldn't care less about; 2. the one graduate course I took (and enjoyed) took up all my writing time; and 3. I'm getting into self-study. The whole do whatever you want whenever you want thing really appeals to me. Plus, you can sort of understand things however you want to. If you haven't quite got it right, who will know? Unless I start studying brain surgery, I'm safe.

If, however, some of you are still hearing the siren's call of an M.F.A., Cynsations has an interview with Sharon Darrow regarding the Vermont College Master in Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Cynthia asks the questions I'd want to ask if I were thinking about doing something like this. Which I'm not, of course.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More War! More Nineteenth Century Guys!


Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger (The Qwikpick Adventure Society) is an ambitious book. Its authors are interested in doing a lot of things--creating a twenty-first century main character readers will identify with, providing him with conflict in the form of an enemy, covering moral lessons, and teaching some history just to get started.

Stonewall Hinkleman is the twelve-year-old son of Civil War reenactors who has outgrown any enchantment he had with that activity. While at a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) he is transported back in time to that very battle, in progress. Also making his way back in time is another reenactor, one who hopes to change history. Stonewall has to stop him.

The historical portion of this book is its strong point. To be more precise, the battle scenes are its strong point. I found that interesting because, while I've visited a number of Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites, I'm not really interested in the military aspects of battle. I could care less which divisions were on what hill, when they got there, and how long they stayed. I'm interested in people.

Hemphill and Riddleburger provide Civil War era people of interest in Stonewall's ancestor Cyrus and the brothers Big Jim and Elmer. I was also quite taken with all the nameless men who stink because they've been marching for days, wipe blood from their faces, and fall down dead. Young Jacob who really doesn't connect at all with the white boy from the future is intriguing, though we don't see a lot of him.

I think Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run probably tries to do too much. The plot relating to the contemporary bad guy wanting to save the Old South, for instance, has trouble competing with the more powerful war scenes. The book has set itself up for a possible sequel at the Battle of Antietam. If Stonewall gets to fight another day, I'd love to see him more focused on the people of the past. I can see him going from battle to battle saving one particular character's sorry butt, enabling the guy to survive the war.

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run will be published next month by Dial Books.

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Saluting The Small

March, I learned today, is Small Press Month. How intriguing. Sounds like a possible study month for me, though I'm coming to it a little late.

For those of you who, like myself, suddenly would like to learn a little more about small presses, you can check out Poets & Writers' Small Press Database and The Modern Word's Small Press Spotlight. You might also be interested in reading that Against All Odds, Small Presses Prosper, though two months ago Small presses are taking a big hit.

And for a kidlit connection, the small press Purple House Press does reprints of children's books.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

A Joy To Read

I have to admit that sometimes I will pass on reading a blog post that strikes me as overly long. (What is "overly long," you may ask? I don't know, but I recognize it when I see it.) So you can imagine how attracted I was to this post from Nathan Branford-Literary Agent.

And I will quit writing now to avoid making this an overly long post.

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Read Across America Victim Of White-out

In Connecticut and a lot of other east coast states, school was cancelled today. That means Read Across America Day was cancelled, too. I've been rescheduled to read at my host school next Monday, though I'm not sure how big an event they're planning now.

This cancellation wasn't a crisis for me. In fact, I actually revised an entire chapter today, something I'm not always able to pull off. Great day.

However, cancelled events (which absolutely cannot be helped--life happens) can end up being a frustrating and even costly situation for some writers. If you're presenting to a new age group, for instance, it can mean days of creating content and a new PowerPoint presentation, as well as some run through practice. A presentation that big usually also involves payment. But if everything has to be cancelled, the writer loses days of work--both the days she spent prepping and the days she lost from writing because she was preparing for a presentation. If you're an author who actually makes a decent (or even adequate) income from your writing, a cancellation can be a bit of a financial blow. You can hope that you'll use the presentation some day, but you may not.

Fortunately, a Read Across America invitation only involves reading something you've already written. The biggest preparation I did for today was finding something in my closet to wear. And now I'll get to wear it next week. If only Read Across America came every week.

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The Low-down on ARCs

Liz Burns has a Shelf Space/Foreward piece on ARCS. I quote:

"Fantasy author Sarah Prineas illustrates how the difference between an ARC can be more than a misspelled word: "the ARC quite often is an earlier iteration of the book, so might contain a lot of sentence level and continuity errors and infelicities of prose that will be caught in a later copy edit. Another difference is that if a book has internal illustrations, these will often be either missing from the ARC or present only as rough sketches.""

This, people, is why librarians absolutely should not shelve ARCs in their collections. If the book is in ARC form, it's not done!

Liz will have more to say on this subject next week.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

And Our Final Winner Is...


The last Cybils nominee I'll be discussing this year is Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki with graphics by Steve Rolston, winner in the YA category.

Emiko was one of the two finalists that most clearly dealt with a teenage character and was also a complete novel. How very interesting that the other book that fits that description, Skim, was also written by Tamaki. The books, both published the same year, are very similar, right down to including a secondary lesbian character. But while Skim could be said to deal with generalized teenage angst, Emiko Superstar's main character is much more outer directed. She discovers a new interest--performance art--and pursues it. I think the character evolves far more than the main character in Skim does. In the event that you like to see main characters evolve.

It was definitely interesting to see an author take what was close to being the same basic outline and treat it quite differently.

Another interesting point about this book--it was published by Minx, which just ceased publication (I was going to say "went belly up," but that's so inelegant) in January.

So that, folks, is all she's writing on Cybils 2008. Enough is enough, wouldn't you say?

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Moderation In All Things

I've been getting spammed regularly these last couple of months. By the end of this week, I'll have seven years worth of posts archived here. I'll never live long enough to clean all the spam out of them. In fact, I just found spam on a bunch of the posts from my very first week in March, 2002.

So we've had to add moderation to the comments on all posts more than seven days old. Why seven? That's about how many posts turn up on the first screen, and I'll easily see if I have any spam there.

This will mean that late comers to the party won't be able to see their comments come up right away. However, it also means that I'll see their comments. Sometimes I realize that someone has commented on a two or three week old post, and I ended up missing it. So that, at least, will be fun for me.

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