Sunday, March 16, 2008

Maybe Some Day I'll Try to Write a REAL Book

Today's Washington Post Book World has a terrific piece by Lois Lowry, "The Writing Life: In Which a Chronic Liar Grows Up to Be a Celebrated Children's Author." Lowery's article on her childhood proclivity for creating "fiction" is funny and enlightening, a celebration of storytelling in its purist form.

The accompanying sidebar, "Lois Lowery: Making It New," written by Maria Arana, details Lowery's biography and her prolific writing career as evidenced by her 30 published books, including two Newbery winners.

A full page in the Post Book World devoted to a children's writer! Heaven on newsprint for someone like me.

Er, until the second-to-last paragraph of the sidebar, in which Arana for some reason feels compelled to ask: "Has she ever contemplated writing a novel for grown-ups?"

Huh? Am I being sensitive or does that question discount this woman's vocation (and avocation) of writing for children? Why do some people, including perhaps this Washington Post Book World reporter, seem to think "real authors" must write for adults?

Bravo to Lois Lowery for her response to this bit of idiocy: "I'm doing something far more valuable, writing for someone who is wide open -- aged somewhere between 10 and 14. I'm preparing kids to enter the difficult world of contemporary times."

One wonders if Lowery had to bite her tongue to give that answer. She is a better woman than I.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I Just Didn't Connect with It

I really, really wanted to love Looking for Alaska. Because, well, almost everyone loves it, and because it won a Printz Award and because John Green seems like a nice, funny guy and has a great blog.

Writers are always hearing from agents and editors that "I just didn't connect with your work." And now I know what they mean. John's writing is great, the voice authentic, his theme intriguing. But, I just didn't connect. (Actually, John may be one of the few writers in the world never to have been told that ... apparently he sold Alaska to the first editor he submitted to, which is another reason I know I really should love this book.)

I think there were three main reasons I didn't connect.

  1. I hate pranks. Pranks play a large part in the book. And granted, the final prank is a hoot and is pulled off beautifully. But I cringe at TV shows and movies with pranks, and I felt that same discomfort here.

  2. I generally shy away from dark themes. I've never been a big Coen brothers fan. Disliked Fargo. Hated No Country. So you see where I'm coming from. Alaska has lots of humor and light moments, but let's face it, suicide (or, I should say, potential suicide) is dark, no matter how you frame it. This is not to say I never enjoy reading serious or dark books, but that generally is not my preference, so I'm sure that had something to do with my overall reaction to the book.

  3. The ending made me very, very unhappy. Not because it wasn't satisfying. Not because it didn't work. Not because it seemed contrived or inappropriate or unrealistic or any of those things. No, the reason I hated the ending is because Green ends with his main character writing a school essay exploring the meaning of life and love and friendship ... and that's how I was going to end my current work in progress! Now I'll just seem derivative. So I have to think about whether to stick to my plan or change it. Waaaah! (Ah, well, great minds... LOL.)

Now, please do not take this post to mean that you shouldn't read the book. John Green probably has more writing talent in his little finger than I have in my whole body, so by all means take this "review" with a couple/few grains of salt. My main point here, as indicated by the title of this post, is to reinforce to myself and maybe to others that those six little words, "I just didn't connect with it," might mean just that. And just because one editor or agent or reader didn't connect doesn't mean no one will.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I'm Married to a Grumpy Old Man

Joe has always been grumpy, and proud of it. But now he's officially old, too.

I have a few good years left in me before I get there, thankfully.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Random, Funny and Slightly Twisted

Thanks to the folks at Digital Camel for turning me on to this gem, since I do enjoy poking fun at myself now and again (and be sure to check out #21 while you're there).

And to Shari Green for pointing to this video of an impressive, albeit slightly disturbing, improv stunt.

UPDATE: OK, one more, discovered via my favorite blogging trio over at Disco Mermaids. I've never been a big fan of the original Garfield comic strip, but this version works just fine.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

It's a Start: Work in Progress Edition III

Welcome to the third edition of It's a Start: Work in Progress. This edition will take a look at five "entries."

If you'd like to submit your novel's beginning for a future post, please go ahead and leave the first 8-12 lines of your MG or YA work in progress in the comments section or send me a Personal Message via the Verla Kay Blue Boards (where I am known as LindaBudz).

Once again, the disclaimer: I'm not an agent or an editor and have no real standing to offer these critiques. My opinion may not reflect the opinion of anyone else in the kid-lit world, much less publishers, so please take my comments for what they are ... one person's reaction.

The Memoirs of Shadows (Young Adult), by Dhonielle

I know I’ll never be free. Grand-mère told me the summer after the shadows came that they’d follow me for life. She let me inside her forbidden room, the one she always shooed me and my older brother Devon away from each summer when our parents sent us down to Louisiana . Sitting inside this room with a blue-draped doorway, she lit bumpy, finger-like candles and sticks that smoked and ashed, clogging the dark room with scents which made my head float in air water. I was only twelve when I watched my Creole grandmother drop bones from a bag and pray, waving her heavy hands in the air, all the bangles and bracelets she wore jangling; her fluffy white hair billowing around her like storm clouds trapped on top of her head; her skin the color of the pistachio shells buried in her pocket, reddening beneath candlelight.

Her wrinkly hands spread the little bones out on the table and I fixated on the cataract in her left eye overtaking her brown pupil. I’d been afraid to look at those bones, for fear that the animal from which she retrieved them would somehow rise again on that black covered table, the bones reassembling themselves, linking together, finding one another and the animal would hiss and leap from the table, eventually slinking away somewhere in the house. I remember her saying, “Petit, those shadows you see are things God left behind. You know when he created the world. Keep quiet about them to keep them safe. You’re a special girl.”

Wow, this piece has such a distinct mood ... the lyrical writing, the imagery, the voice and the subject matter all combine wonderfully to create a sense of "shadowy" foreboding. Nicely done!

In general, literary stuff isn't my bag, so you can take my criticism with a grain of salt. I guess my main thought here is that I'm hoping the next paragraph is going to bring us back to the present, or to the time when the story that's about to be told occurs. I feel like most of these two paragraphs are backstory, though since they're interesting backstory, I don't mind. But I would want to get to the current story pretty quickly. I also want to find out soon how old the MC is now.

Which brings me to my only other issue: At first I thought that first paragraph was discussing two separate things: (1) the summer after the shadows came and her grandmother told her they'd follow her for life and (2) one time when she was twelve and her grandmother did a reading of the bones. It wasn't until I read it over again that I realized it is all one scene. I think maybe you could take out "I was only twelve when," which to my mind signal a shift in scenes, and work in the fact that she was twelve some other way.

Overall: Gorgeous writing. Makes me want to think about giving literary YA another look!

Afterside (Young Adult), by Lisa

Mateo Santiago crouched in the grocery store basement and watched the rat he'd failed to trap slither behind some potato sacks. He unfolded Mama's letter of hopeless dreams from his pocket, smoothed it out and read it one more time. Last night, meaning to throw them both away, he'd crumpled it in his pocket along with the poster for the poetry slam in Mainville. How could he tell Mama trouble had found him just like Esteban?

Noche crept to his side on three legs and rubbed against him, purring like an idling truck. Mateo dug out a few meat strips from his apron pocket. "Aqui, un poquito." The cat nibbled daintily and licked his palm with its rough tongue.

Mateo rubbed under Noche's chin. She purred louder. "Tío will kill me if he finds out I'm feeding you. If I don't come around anymore, how will you eat, you lazy cat?"

Ray's hoarse voice called down the stairs. "Matty! Dude, you down there? You better come up. There's people here lookin' for you."

OK, that last quote took us beyond the 12-sentence limit, but I left it in there because the language works so beautifully in contrast with the first few paragraphs. Again, we have great writing and voice. And lots of strong verbs: crouched, slither, smoothed, crumpled ... all in the first paragraph! I'm intrigued to know what trouble has found Mateo ... who are these people who are looking for him?

I'm sort of digging for something to criticize here, so this is kind of picky, but "letter of hopeless dreams" took me out of the scene a bit. I had to think about what that might mean, and I'm still not sure. I think maybe it would be better just to say "letter" for now and then later we can learn more about what's in it.

Overall: Makes me long to be back in your crit group so I can read the rest, Lis!

Blue (Middle Grade), by Heather

"Are you sure that it is safe?" asked Prince Nicholas, gazing up the trunk of the large tree.

Kelly sighed and impatiently pushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. "Yes, I'm sure. Don't be such a wimp."

"I'm not a wimp," Nicholas said, frowning.

"Then prove it. Race me to the top of the tree," Kelly said, shooting a challenging look at her cousin.

"Fine," said Nicholas, resolutely straightening his shoulders as he stood in front of the tree.

Kelly took her place on the opposite side of the tree. "Ready...set...go!" she said, and the two began climbing.

Starting with dialogue can be tricky business, but I think this works. "Are you sure it's safe?" sets us right down into some good conflict. Makes me think something bad is going to come of this tree-climbing race. Which is good! Get those characters into some hot water and keep them there. I'm also starting to get a sense of these characters ... one a bit more cautious than the other, which you've done a good job of showing us rather than telling us.

A couple of thoughts: First, we know Nicholas is a prince, which made me wonder what Kelly is. She must have some sort of noble title, and I'd like to know what that is.

Second, most of your dialogue tags follow the same pattern, which got repetitious for me: "asked, gazing"; "said, frowning"; "said, shooting"; "said, straightening." I would just delete the tag on a couple of those. For example: "Then prove it. Race me to the top of the tree." Kelly shot a challenging look at her cousin. "Fine." Nicholas straightened his shoulders. If you have the action follow the quote, we know who's talking and don't need the tag. (And in that last sentence, I don't think we need "as he stood in front of the tree" since we already know he was gazing up its trunk.)

Overall: Hard to tell from this small snippet, but it seems as though you have two engaging characters, and I want to know what happens when they get to the top of that tree.

Triple Threat: A Theatre Novel in Three Acts (Middle Grade), by Steve

Act One

Permission to Audition


I was in kindergarten the first time I ever saw Duncan Kirby. He was on stage dressed in a penguin suit, tap dancing with eleven other five and six-year-olds in a Sunday matinee of Mr. Popper’s Penguins at the Fremont Gap Community Theatre, better known as FGCT, over six years ago.

That was the day I decided to become an actor.

My name is Wyatt Appleby. I’ll be twelve as of 10:42 today, Friday, August 24. Monday I start sixth grade at James Van Allen Middle School here in Fremont Gap, Iowa, home of the University of Western Iowa. Go Cougars!

And I am in love.

There’s no girl involved. No, I am in love with Theatre. Theatre with a capital T. (And an RE at the end instead of an ER.)

I won’t give Duncan all the credit, but seeing a kid my own age so talented, I pictured me on stage, too. Every time I saw him in a show I wanted it even more.

Well, well. Wyatt Appleby is something else, isn't he? What a voice. I love that he knows exactly what time he turns twelve. I love that he spells Theatre with a capital T and an "re" at the end. I love that he decided to become an actor at the ripe old age of six. And the way he proclaims he’s in love … he clearly has a flair for drama. Terrific!

My thoughts, fairly picayune: (1) I’d save the “better known as FGCT” for later in the story. Got in the way a bit for me here in the first paragraph. (2) I think in that last paragraph it should be “I pictured myself….”

Overall: Not sure what a "theatre novel" is, but so far, so good! I definitely want to continue reading about this kid. Regardless of the plot, the theme, the story arc … your writing and voice are enough to draw me in. (Of course, the plot, theme and story arc all do need to be there in the final analysis.)

Declaration (Young Adult), by Cyndy

This isn't my story. Senior year, I was just the girl that scribbled in the back of the room. I wrote for the school newspaper, Dragon's Fire, reporting on homecoming preparations, chess club, the demands for more student parking on campus. The job came with the title Editor-in-Chief, one of those nobody positions that looks great on college applications.

My real claim to fame was being Abby's best friend. She and her boyfriend, Big John, were First Couple at Massey High School. Head cheerleader. Captain of the football team. Luck, or maybe Fate, had seated me behind Abby on our first day of kindergarten. People don't think much about those little things that day to day change the course of your life. But that friendship made me an insider for the next thirteen years. It was the reason I knew all the players in the drama to come. Big John and Abby. Siggi. Crazy Sam. Benji Franks.

It was Benji who told me: "Marcy, there are the immovable, the movable, and those who move. And in addition, there are those who move nothing more than a pencil, but who may be the strongest movers of all."

So, although this isn't my story, maybe it is my story to tell. And here it is: the events, the personalities, and maybe some commentary on life at Massey High as it unfolded that year. As I remember, it all started in Ms. Wheatley's Honors American Revolution class.

OK, this one went beyond my 12-word limit too, but hey, it’s my blog, and I can bend the rules when I want.

I can tell right off the bat I’m going to like Marcy. Partly because of my journalism background, I’m sure, but also because she knows her place in the world. She’s not a mover or a shaker, but she hangs with people who are and wants to report on them. An unusual viewpoint for us to hear a story from and one that intrigues me.

The writing here is great, very clean and clear. I think my only question is this: Although Marcy sees herself as a “reporter” in this tale, will she also have a stake in it? Because readers don’t care so much about things that happen, they care about the people they happen to. If Marcy is our narrator, I think it will work best if we see that she will in some way be affected by the outcome of events in the story.

Overall: Exceptional writing. I would definitely keep reading.

Thanks to Dhonielle, Lisa, Heather, Steve and Cyndy for allowing me to give my reactions to their first sentences. I invite all visitors to leave your own thoughts in the comments section. Continued best wishes for your works in progress!