Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Project Mulberry

Project Mulberry (Clarion, 2005)(ages 8-12) is Linda Sue Park's latest novel and her first to have a contemporary setting. Seventh grader Julia Song and her best friend Patrick are members of Wiggle (a sort of 4-H type organization), have always done projects together and want to do one for the state fair. For once, they're at a loss for an idea - their houses and families won't accommodate livestock. Then Julia's mother suggests raising silkworms, which she did as a child back in Korea. While Patrick is enthusiastic, it strikes Julia as "too Korean" (she also has some hilarious issues with kimchee). Their problems mount when they discover that silkworms only eat mulberry leaves, and there's only one source in town...

Interspersed between chapters are conversations between Julia and author Park that provide insights into the author's writing process. I will confess that I was somewhat skeptical when first told of this, because I thought it might detract from the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief. Having read it, though, I have to say that it doesn't and, more, think it serves the story by illuminating the character in a fresh and engaging way.

Altogether, an unusual and charming take on animal husbandry, friendship, growing up Korean American, and the process of writing a novel.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Just because it happened doesn't mean it's realistic

Seriously. (Note that I'm talking about fiction).

This is sort of a corollary to "write what you know." I often hear beginning writers opine that "but that's the way it happened." "How it happened" is often how first time novelists write or are inspired to write (at least for a first draft), which gives rise to the oft-repeated sentiment that first novels are often at least semi-quasi-autobiographical. (Or at least more so than subsequent novels).

But, globally speaking, "how it happened" is not a legitimate criterion. Just because something actually happened that way does not make it realistic for a novel. This may be counter-intuitive, but someone (I want to say Dr. Johnson) said that it's easier to believe (in?) the impossible than the improbable. This is true. Most of what happens in people's lives that we think "would make a great novel" falls in the category of the improbable. I tend to agree, and therefore advise that it's usually best to shy away from "how it happened" and go with "what you know."

"What you know," of course, need not be a limitation (see post below on Research), and telling "how it happened" is kind of, ahem, disadvantageous (also possibly litigious), anyway, because, after all, what we're writing is fiction. (That which actually happened can inspire, but the author's imagination should lead, not follow).

There's this story I read somewhere (I can't remember the source, so don't vouch for it) that Lawrence Olivier was once told about how Dustin Hoffman prepared for roles. There was one, in particular, for which Hoffman supposedly deprived himself of sleep for something like three or four or five days. When Olivier met Hoffman, it is said, he told Hoffman, "My dear fellow, why don't you just try acting?"

In a similar vein, to beginning novelists, I would recommend "simply making it up." (Unless, it's a memoir).

After making sure you've done your research, of course.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Happy Easter!

This Easter we are having dinner with friends and listening to The Messiah, by G.F. Handel. (For the record, notwithstanding that The Messiah is often played at Christmas, the Hallelujah Chorus is a celebration of the Resurrection, not the Advent.)

FWIW, I have the CD with Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, which is somewhat somber compared to the one with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Georgia Children's Book Awards

Loudly let the trumpets bray! (In a quiet, dignified manner, of course).

NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO made the nominee list for the Georgia Children's Book Award for 2005-2006.

Many thanks to the Peach State and congrats to all the other nominees!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Research is for the background...

Okay, as a title, it's a little cryptic, but here's what I mean: No matter what you're writing, even if you consider yourself well-versed in the subject, you will need to do research, and you will find out all kinds of fascinating things. You should include none of these in the actual novel unless it is necessary, essential, and absolutely required to the plot. Period.

Why? Anything else will make the novel feel like it's there to teach, rather than tell story and will instantly cause the reader to put down the book or, in extreme cases, throw it at the wall. (But, Greg, you say, isn't the point of children's literature to teach? No.). Also, in many cases, information that is new to you will already be so well-known to the character that they won't even comment on it -- tossing in the added stuff will not ring true to the character.

Here's an example: Suppose I were writing a novel set in Austin, over Labor Day weekend. I have my characters, native Austinites (call them Artemis and Athena) go into a mall and they happen upon an Abercrombie and Fitch store (For those who don't know what Abercrombie and Fitch is, it is a store from somewhere in the northeast which makes a catalog showing WASP-y college-age persons not wearing the clothes the store sells.).

Now, Artemis and Athena likely will be wearing whatever their fashion preference is that allows them to be comfortable when the temperature outside is in the mid-nineties. This is because summer in Austin lasts until about mid-November. However, going into A&F store, they will notice that the clothes on display do not include anything they could possibly wear for warm weather, and instead, include a lot of wool and thick, long-sleeved cotton sweatshirt-type garments. (Actually, this starts happening in late July).

Apparently, the reason for this odd phenomenon is that the fashion industry is based in the northeast, where they have these things called "seasons" and apparently do not believe in regional marketing (Hint to any clothiers reading this: you could make a fortune by shipping all your leftover summer stuff down south and not bringing out your fall line south of the Mason-Dixon until around December)

Now, I admit this is a lot of information. If I'm writing a scene, in which for some reason, the only thing that is important is that Artemis and Athena know that A&F sells winter clothing during September, how do I handle it?

There are several ways.

1. Artemis and Athena walked into Abercronbie and Fitch. Artemis was looking for a new pair of thong sandals. All she could see, though, was wool and winter boots lined with fur!
"Ugh," she said. "I don't believe it! Why can't I get summer clothes?"
"Oh," Athena replied. "It's because the fashion industry is based in New York. People up north are already wearing jeans and sweatshirts. They don't realize it can still be as hot here even in November as it is up there in July."

Here we've learned a great deal but at the expense of stilted dialogue (the "dialogue of great explanation" is almost always to be avoided), but we also have an unrealistic setup--Artemis, being a native Austinite, would already know about the wool and fashion phenomenon.

2. Artemis and Athena walked past Abercrombie and Fitch without pausing. They knew that after July, the only thing you could buy there was wool. As early as midsummer, the New York-based company had shipped all their back-to-school clothing to all their stores across the country. Because the company's home, northeastern market suffered dreadful winters, and even autumn was not necessarily free of frigid temperatures and freezing rain, they maintained (and brought out early) an extensive line of warm woolen and thick cotton clothing. Apparently, they didn't realize that temperatures in Austin during November could be as hot as those up north in July.

This one doesn't have that awkward dialogue problem, but is all that information really necessary?

3. Artemis and Athena walked past Abercrombie and Fitch without pausing. They knew that after July, the only thing you could buy there was wool.

Better, but is July significant?

4. Artemis and Athena walked past Abercrombie and Fitch, ignoring the wool.

Now, in this one, I've imparted several things: 1. The clothes at A&F came from a sheep; and 2, Artemis and Athena know enough about it to bypass the particular store.

The only thing I haven't done is explain everything to my reader. Should I? Only if I don't trust my reader.

To be continued. (Sorry, have to go to the airport and pick up my wife's cousin.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Frequently asked questions from beginning writers...

(1) How do you know what kids and teens (hereinafter, collectively "kids") like?

I don't. I know what I like. Writing to what you think kids will like is ultimately counterproductive for at least the following reasons: (i) What you perceive "kids will like" could simply be wrong, in which case your efforts to pinpoint that which kids will like will have been a waste of time; (ii) your efforts to write "what kids will like" will take your focus off story, i.e., the craft of writing, which is ultimately the most important thing you can do; and (iii) often I hear "kids like it" when people mean "my kids like it," which may be true and valid but anecdotal is not universal.

Also, note that, in the three or four years before Harry Potter came out, publishers were telling writers they weren't going to publish fantasy because "kids don't like it." Now, you can't receive a publisher catalog without them touting the "next" Harry Potter.

Finally, realize that the statement "kids like it" is as much a null statement as is "adults like it": Kids are not a monolithic bloc (think, Borg collective, if you will); they are less experienced than adults, not necessarily less intelligent or diverse.

(2) Do you have to dumb down the language when writing for kids?

No. Well, in one picture book manuscript I decided not to use the word "tesseract." (If you don't know what a "tesseract" is, it's been too long since you've read A Wrinkle in Time.). But in any event, picture books are a different case.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 13, 2005

How to write a novel...observations...part 1

A phenomenon I've noticed since I've become published is of serious, talented, and/or accomplished writers (both published and unpublished) who are terrified at the idea of writing a novel.

The fear of writing a novel is understandable. Writing a novel is nontrivial.

There are, I think, several aspects to this angst. First off, of course, is the classic tyranny of the empty page -- and it doesn't get emptier than the yawning chasm of a ream of empty sheets in your laser printer, especially nowadays with Microsoft and that annoying paper clip icon thing. Second, I think, is that you as a novelist do in fact "put yourself out there" emotionally to a degree other writers do not necessarily experience. (I've also found that a lot of people assume that you are at least one of the characters in your novel, which is somewhat true of all your characters; not to the degree assumed perhaps, but also somewhat unnerving.). You will encounter both of these terrors each time you sit down to write a novel.

But the conclusion I've reached is this: Novel writing involves making a multitude of decisions. The hardest thing in life, no matter what aspect, is to make a decision. Period. Think about it. You will angst over an important decision in your life: Whether to get married; whether to break up; when to ask him/her out; whether you should take that job; whether you should tell your best friend that person is not for him/her; whether you should buy that house, make that investment; whether and how you should discipline your child; whether you should break the rules; etc. The ghastly 1980s drama "thirtysomething" (you can't even find it on "Television without Pity") was enormously successful making much out of angsting over the trivial (Apple Jacks or Count Chocula?!).

But, here's the thing [John Tesh moment]: once you actually make the deicison, things are better. You simply have to deal with what comes. You don't have to imagine the consequences of what might have been, because something will be.

Guess what? Novel writing is all about that infinite tryanny of possibilities. When you write a novel, you can do anything. The question is, what? My advice is to pick one of the myriad of options, no matter what, definitely make a note of the possiblities you've rejected, and get on with it. Write. If it doesn't work, you can come back to it later. Always.

Also, if worse comes to worst, remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt:

"In the battle of life, it is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better.

"The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

They get paid to do this?

Birmingham University (the one in England) reports that "fizzy drinks" and "sports drinks" both cause "tooth erosion" due to the relatively high acid content. They recommend brushing your teeth.

When I was in Sixth Grade (circa 1978), I ran a science project on the effect of Coca-Cola on various materials. I put various objects (pennies, teeth) into Coca-Cola, dilute phosphoric acid (an ingredient in Coke), and distilled water. Conclusion: The Coke and the phosphoric acid dissolved the teeth and cleaned the pennies. Ergo, the danger ingredient was the phosphoric acid. I recommended brushing your teeth.

They stole my research! I want tenure!

I did reference the project in Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

I want to see a humorous novel from...

Gail Giles, author of a number of edgy (not hilarious) YA novels, including Shattering Glass. She's also got a wicked sense of humor: Here's her blog.

Also, Carolyn Crimi. She's the author of a number of hilarious picture books, including Don't Need Friends and has a great article on her site about celebrity authors (scroll down).

Until they get around to theirs, though, the Wilmette Public Library has a bibliography called "Comic Relief: Humorous Stories from Junior High Fiction." (And thanks to WPL for putting NINJAS on the list!)

Sunday, March 06, 2005

"Towards a European Definition of Veal"

In the category of "Fredddie would be appalled":

The European Union is soliciting comments from people so it can "harmonize" the definition of veal (No, really.). They're also trying to ratify a Constitution.

To be fair, I'm almost positive the FDA has something similar. Couldn't find it quickly, though. But here's a nifty little handout: SAFETY OF VEAL...from Farm to Table

Friday, March 04, 2005

Happy Chicago Day!

Okay, there's not actually a Chicago Day, but on March 4, 1837, the City of Chicago charter was enacted into law by the state legislature (thereby incorproating Chicago as a city). Population: 4,170. You can learn more here and here.

For the record, my high school had a larger student body. (When I graduated in 1985, we had about 4500; at its largest, the school had a student body of around 9000).

Also of note, the new building, built in the 1930s, has one of the largest art collections of any high school in the nation.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Happy Texas Independence Day!

Celebrate. Go to a museum. Read some Texas books!

On March 2, 1836, the Texas Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Convention held at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
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