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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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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