Friday, August 30, 2013

Those Pesky Parents by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

One of the things you realize, when you start immersing yourself in middle grade literature, is the phenomenon aptly titled on Goodreads as "The Dead Parent Society of Middle Grade Fiction." A great proportion of fiction for this age group consists of orphans (Harry Potter being the best and brightest example of this), and there is a thriving sub genre of what I call "boarding school fiction."

The reasons for this are plain. Middle grade readers want kids their age to be the stars of their own stories. They are cutting loose the parental strings, and heading for the promised land of independence. They are solving mysteries, being superheroes, and defeating evil wizards. No one wants a pesky parent to step in and solve things--or even pop up and say it's time for bed.

[Side note: My formative years were in the early 1970s, and I keenly remember going off with my brother and friends, riding our bicycles into the woods and horsing around there for hours. My mother didn't seem to turn a hair at this. Modern parents, myself included, probably can't imagine allowing our children such freedom. We are way more structured and timetabled, which has inevitably led to the type of parenting commonly referred to as "helicoptor."]

I get it. We want to be free of fathers' tail fins, and mothers' motors. But personally, I get a little tired of all the corpses littering children's literature. That's why I felt that a novel like R.J. Palacio's Wonder was such a breath of fresh air. It was salutary to come across loving parents, who were suffering along with their child as they made the decision to send him to school so that he could learn to deal with the world.

Perhaps there is hope for parents in middle grade after all.

What are some of your favorite MG titles in which parents are NOT dead, or absent in some other way?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Never Too Old for Read-Alouds

Most of you already know I teach high school English. Two things I strongly believe are missing from today's high school curricula are character education and teacher read-alouds. When kids are in elementary school, we know they need to be taught and reminded of how to treat others. We know they love being read to and that it's good for them at that age. At what point do those things cease being important?

From my high school classroom perspective, I know without doubt that my students still need and can benefit from both lessons. We all remember how difficult some of the social structures in high school can be - the lines are clearly drawn, territories painfully obvious. Character education should be a critical part of daily learning for teens.

But what about reading? We all know what reading does for kids. I know from first-hand experience how much all teens love to be read to, but especially teen boys. Surprised? It is the best way I know of to get non-reader boys to fall in love (or back in love) with books. A couple of years ago, I read aloud two chapters of The Lightning Thief in my lower-level, at-risk class. The students in that class were all below-grade-level readers who claimed they HATE reading. After that, my son's collection of Percy Jackson books made its way through almost every student, all boys. Last year the same thing happened after I read chapters of Artemis Fowl and The 39 Clues. The beauty of it is, it doesn't require me to read the entire book--just a few chapters and they're hooked. Gotta love it.

According to Mem Fox, "Most people, if asked the best time to read aloud to adolescent boys, would probably say never! But they would be wrong."


Better Than Life by Daniel Pennac is a book about reading aloud to older children:
Its focus is adolescents, mainly boys, who've been turned off reading altogether. In an elegant and moving manner, Pennac explains how he switches his students back into loving books and reading. What's his secret? Reading aloud.

How do you feel about reading aloud to older children?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fear = Freedom by Hilary Wagner

I think, as burgeoning writers, it's extremely easy for us to get bogged down in fear. We fear we're writing about something that's won't be well received, or something that's been done to death, or we're writing too much for the market, or not enough, or worst of all, that our book will be boring and not one soul will be interested in reading it. I think that's my biggest fear, that my work will be boring, but even still, I use that fear to work harder. I use that fear to forget about the market and write what I want, but because by the time whatever I'm writing is finished, the market will have changed, so who cares. Write and be free. I'm still fearful, but I'm free. If I fail, I fail my way.

When I became a "writer", I was pitifully ignorant to the publishing world. I had no clue about the market...heck, I didn't even know there was a market. I thought if a story was good, really good, it would get published. I had no idea about the uphill battle that was in front of me. I had no idea what a query letter was and how hard one would be to write. I had no idea that I'd be rejected nearly 200 times before finally getting an agent to notice my work. I had no idea how tricky things would become after getting published and how even well published authors (and I mean well published) have books that will never see the light of day. Yes, it's true, not everything a well published author writes is made of solid gold. :)

Long story short, it's never as easy as people think it is and every step in this industry can be a treacherous one, maybe not for your career, so much as your sanity. When I talk to kids and even adults about the publishing world I always start off with a particular letter. I think it's very telling when someone of a certain stature feels the exact same emotions you do. That fear, that feeling of doubt, is what makes each one of us unique, but unified. We all want to share our original thoughts with the world, yet the prospect is uniquely terrifying. If you're experiencing that doubt right now, please give the below letter a read. If anything, you'll realize you're not alone and and it's okay to be afraid. We all are.

Advice for Beginning Writers:

Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world. 

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words. 

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances. 

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story. 

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium. 

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer. 

I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe." 

"Why?" I asked. 

"Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor." 

It wasn't too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier. 

 She told me it wouldn't. 

--John Steinbeck, 1963

Monday, August 26, 2013

Do At Least Two Things At Once, by Matthew MacNish

I'm not sure the many-armed statue of Shiva is the best image to represent this post, but it's important to use open licensed images, so it's what we've got.

Anyway, today I want to discuss one of many revision techniques I use. That is, for lack of a better term: do at least two things at once. And I don't mean multi-tasking, though the photo may imply otherwise. What I mean is, while reading back through a manuscript, and revising it, one thing I try to focus on is making sure that every scene accomplishes at least two things. Here are some examples of goals that scenes can strive for:

  • Furthering the reader's understanding of a character
  • Furthering the reader's understanding of the world
  • Describing the setting
  • Foreshadowing a coming plot element
  • Echoing a past plot element
  • Speaking to theme
  • Ramping up tension
  • Purposefully slowing down (or speeding up) pace

There are dozens, if not hundreds more, and I would love to see more examples in the comments, but I'm sure this list is enough to make my point.

Of course we all know about the four rhetorical modes of discourse: exposition, argumentation, description, and narration. While argumentation isn't much used in fiction, sometimes, depending on point of view and narrative distance, two of the others can be done at once. But that's not really what I mean either.

Whatever the method may be, and certain methods work better for certain types of scenes (dialog vs. action, for example, or inner thoughts vs. description) the point is to try to make sure that every scene exists for more than one reason, and that it accomplishes at least both of those goals (hopefully more than two, but by having a rule of at least two, I find that helps me decide what to trim).

I wish I could share an example from my own work, but I've got nothing published except for some very short flash fiction/vignettes, and they don't really follow the same rules as longer stories. Hopefully this technique makes enough sense to be understood without an example, but feel free to share one if you have one (or more goals that scenes can strive for)!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Word Collecting by Shannon O'Donnell

"Stay alive, refreshed in language! Listen to little toddlers bopping metaphors around the room like balloons. Let language zip and lean, sound can lead you, be surprised as you are writing. I play with words every day and I am going to play right now. It takes me where I need to go, into the real content, and into serious hard places, too. Experimenting means anything goes. We need to keep doing that on our pages if they are to keep glittering and waking us up."
~ Naomi Shihab Nye
Don't you just love that quote? Naomi Shihab Nye is a brilliant wordsmith. "Famous" is one of my favorite contemporary poems. In fact, I used it in a post a couple of years ago on my own blog HERE.

Ralph Fletcher is one of my favorite writing gurus, and I have never mentioned him here at Project Mayhem. In addition to being a wealth of writing and writing-teacher info, he is also a collector of words and phrases. When he hears something interesting or memorable, wherever he is, he writes it down and adds it to his collection. One of my favorites I found in his book, Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft that Sparks Writing. He overheard a three-year-old girl on a tricycle yell to her father on a park bench, "You stay with your sun, Daddy. I'll ride with my wind."

Other nuggets from his collection include:
  • Overheard at a bar: "Mothers raise their daughters and love their sons."
  • His brother: "A knife will cut you until it earns your respect."
  • His son: "Daddy, could you really get in a barrel and go over Viagara falls?"
  • Shared with him by a 5th grade teacher about a student: "There is April the month, and there is April Ham Lincoln."

Don't be afraid to eavesdrop, collecting nuggets like these ones for your own "collection". Then, when the language play in your MS feels a little dull, you'll have a fun source of inspiration. And I recommend anything and everything written by Ralph Fletcher. He is my greatest source of writing wisdom and inspiration!

Do you have any fun nuggets to share?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Oh, Those Maddening Morals! by Dawn Lairamore

When it comes to morals in kid lit, the agents, editors, and industry professionals I’ve heard address this issue seem to be in agreement—don’t do it! Or, more specifically, don’t do it in a way that’s obvious or preachy. If you’re going to have morals in your story, it should be done so subtly, young readers shouldn’t realize they’re being taught a lesson.

I understand the logic behind this. Kids are constantly being lectured—by parents, relatives, teachers, and other adult authority figures. The last thing they want when reading a book is the author lecturing at the them, too, especially if it’s a book they picked up for fun.

While I personally like stories that have a moral to them, I agree it shouldn’t be thrown in the reader’s face. One of the best examples of a subtle moral I’ve read comes from The Trolls by Polly Horvath. (If you haven’t read this award-winning book, by the way, you really should. It’s a great middle-grade read—clever, quirky, hilarious, with some extraordinarily memorable characters.) Aunt Sally has come to watch Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee while their parents are out of town, and although she has been left with strict instructions to make them eat their vegetables, Aunt Sally surprises them by giving in to their disdain for the green beans served at dinner. She decides to eat them all herself. Since there’s only a limited number of green beans in the house, she points out, shouldn’t they go to the green-bean lover instead of the green-bean haters?

But over dinner, as Aunt Sally tells a hilarious story about a health nut relative obsessed with eating his vegetables (fiddlehead ferns, to be exact), she seems to be having a great deal of fun eating her green beans. She makes walrus tusks out of the them, eating one out of each side of her mouth at the same time. She scratches her nose with a bean and pretends to use a pair of them as knitting needles. She tilts her head back and drops beans into her open mouth like clothespins into a bottle.

The kids take notice that she’s having so much fun. By the end of dinner, they want green beans, too. But—oh dear!—Aunt Sally’s eaten them all.  The kids are now so desperate for green beans, they try to think up ways to get more.

Aunt Sally points out there are no more beans and suggest they have some ice cream instead, but the children frantically search the kitchen shelves and the fridge and the freezer for green beans. The chapter ends with them pleading with Aunt Sally to shop for more beans tomorrow.

Now Polly Horvath could have had Aunt Sally gone the expected route and lectured the kids about the importance of eating their vegetables, trying new foods, getting a balanced diet, etc., but Horvath is far more clever than that. And although there’s never an explicit lecture, there is the definite sense that Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee have left this chapter having learned a lesson. They won’t turn down green beans the next time they end up on their plates. It’s hilariously and beautifully done!

How do you feel about morals in children’s lit? Are there any books out there you feel handle this issue particularly well?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

7 Things to Do When You’re STUCK

She's hollering: "Stuck, Mom! Stuck!"
If it’s crossing your mind that I’m writing this post because I’m stuck … then, you’re right. Or at least, it feels like I’m stuck because the answers aren’t coming to me as fast as I’d like.

And yes, that IS my daughter in the picture (about 15 years ago). And yes, I did extricate her --AFTER I ran inside, grabbed the camera, and snapped this picture. (It was before cell phone cameras.)

When you are stuck – on a first draft, during revisions, or even in the planning stages – here are 7 things you can do that have helped me get unstuck:

1. Open up Twitter and/or Facebook and stare at the feed. Refresh lots of times. This is not procrastination. It’s surfing for ideas. Sometimes the most random comments, links, or videos suggest something to you.

2. Write a long email to one of your critique partners explaining the dilemma – what you need to do but can’t do and why you can’t do it this way and why it won’t work that way. Then delete the email when your lengthy explanation of the problem produces its own answer. Be sure and send thanks to your CP, because without him/her, you wouldn’t have written the email.

3. Draw a flow chart of possibilities. If you take the story in THIS direction, what will be the consequences? The positive benefits to plot development? The roadblocks to making it all work out? Now try a different direction? What will be the consequences, benefits, and roadblocks to doing it this other way? Which path serves your story?

4. Lie on a pool float staring at the sky and let the randomness of your journey around the pool jar ideas loose from your mind. A hammock or a swing also might work, although it’s not quite as random a movement and doesn’t have the same effect (for me).

5. Ask a CP who’s read your manuscript to write questions for the character most responsible for your state of stuck-ness. Answer the questions from that character’s POV and find out what’s going on in his head. Yes, you could write the questions yourself, but you’re stuck, so how will that help? The point is to get an outside person’s perspective on your plot, your character, and your problem.

6. Seriously consider that you’ve made a mistake – not at this point in the manuscript, but earlier. Back up to the last point where you were really sure about the plot and look at where you went from there. Did you take the wrong path? Present things in the wrong order? Have your character behave in a way that doesn’t make sense? Your DELETE key may be your solution.

7. Go read a book in a different genre and audience from the one you’re writing. If you’re struggling with a MG contemporary fantasy, go read about an adult book about an assassin in a steam-powered society on an alien world – or zombies on the Titanic. If the book holds your attention (in spite of your preoccupation with your own stuck-ness), figure out WHY, then figure out how you can do something similar in your own genre and for your audience.

And please don’t judge me for taking that picture. It was the third or fourth time she’d inserted her head through those bars. Really, was she expecting a different outcome this time?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Times They are a Changing - Kids' Lives in 2013

We writers for middle grade aged readers try to portray contemporary characters accurately in our fiction, but it takes careful work not to confuse our own memories of being children with the actuality of kids’ lives in 2013. Yes, kids are still kids, and friendships and family relationships haven’t changed all that much, but day to day life has changed. I’m always fascinated by museum displays of artifacts from different time periods, those everyday objects common then, but largely gone now, and with them, the time people spent using them. How many kids these days have sling shots or decoder rings or even baseball bats?
My observations only deal with what I see in my world, which is largely made up of suburban middle class families, so the following won’t hold true with large parts of the U.S., and certainly not of the bigger world. I thought it was important to consider these things though, because when I write a collection of characters, I want them to seem as real as possible. So here are some of the differences I’ve noticed in many kids’ lives now versus even ten years ago:
Luckily, kids still play with Legos. Legos made up an important part of WILDFIRE RUN and I based that on knowing just how many kids were and are obsessed with them. Kids still play with other toys too, but toys are competing with other distractions and scheduled lessons and practice.
There is more time on organized sports and more concentration on doing just one type of sport. It used to be that soccer or swimming had a season, and when the season was done, the child was done with it for the year. Now, even ten-year-olds can and do play soccer or swim all year on leagues and elite teams. If you have a character intensively involved in one of these sports, you’ll have to figure out to work in the time commitments in your stories.
The same holds true with dance, gymnastics and ice skating. For example, by the time a dancer is about twelve, there is quite a lot of pressure from most dance studios to commit to coming two or three times a week, and to participate in extra shows or competitions. Skipping a practice is greatly frowned upon, and kids are supposed to manage their homework so they don’t need to take a night off from dance to study.
Family involvement in sports is often a requirement as well, as parents coach and sell snacks and monitor their offspring at all day meets. I’m always trying to figure a way to get parents out of the picture when I’m writing a story, but parents are far more present now than they used to be, especially in sports.
When kids do get together for some free time, what they do in that time has changed too. Group video game playing is a very common activity, particularly for boys. It used to be years ago, a kid who wasn’t good at basketball or baseball could often feel left out. Now it’s the kids who don’t have the latest video games or who aren’t good at them.
Then there is youtube. A group of kids together with a computer will often end up watching youtube videos as a social activity. I was just recently clued in to the existence of youtube stars, ordinary people with entertaining vlogs who have collected huge followings.
There are more ways for kids to find things that interest them. While you can view the time they spend on the internet as a curse, for some kids, it opens up a world to them they might not have discovered otherwise. I know kids who have become fascinating by cartooning, writing fan fiction, making short films, learning how to decorate cakes, even making their own chain mail for fun, all by discovering other people doing the same thing on the internet.
These things are only a few observations, and I know I’m missing many. So if you are writing contemporary kids, what else have you noticed about their lives now that could add believable details to your stories?
~ Dee Garretson

Friday, August 16, 2013

Diversity & naming your characters, by Yahong Chi

There's a reason why I chose a French class student list for that image up there, and you can guess why by taking a peek at the title of this post. Need a hint? It's the first word.

[Edited 17/08/13]

It has been a common practise for non-Western families to name their children common Western names so as not to ostracize their poor children in school, and to allow them to adopt a presentable name to ease their way into Western society. But more and more, I'm seeing students bearing (both with pride and with resignation) names of their own ethnicity, of their own culture—at least here in Canada. As multiculturalism moves away from being a fad and toward being an unquestioned part of society, names that would previously have made their bearer a bullying victim are now being normalized.

I'm not talking about exotic spellings (how many ways can we think of to spell "Caitlin" "Kaitlyn" "Catelyn" anyways?). I'm talking about names like "Churan". Like "Kalika". Like, hmm, I don't know, like "Yahong".

"Churan" and "Kalika" are actual names of POC (people of colour) kids I am acquainted with, and seeing how I am Chinese, I could list you a dozen Chinese acquaintances who have chosen to keep their original names rather than take the "easy" way out and go for a more "socially acceptable". Why are those words in quotation marks? Because—good news!—now other kinds of names are socially acceptable too, not just Molly or Abigail or Heather or other "white-sounding" names.

But wait! you say. What's wrong with POC kids having commonplace names? And I say: nothing. I am certainly not condemning any parent who chooses to name their kid "Jacob" or "Edward" or "Bella". Rather, what I'm saying is: if you're going to include a POC character at all, make sure you get them right. This includes making decisions on what kind of name to give them, just like you decide on any character's name. (Pro-tip: Do not use "Wang" as a Chinese boy's first name, when it is predominantly—as in, approximately 99% of the time—a last name.)

Writing diversity might be harder than normal, since we all tend to default to white male characters (check out Megan Crewe's great post on defaulting to white male characters). But is that an excuse for avoiding diversity? Well, in the words of Ellen Oh: "Being called a racist is nowhere near as painful as dealing with actual racism." We all can stand to be a little more thoughtful when it comes to diversity. So why not start with the names?


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Book World by Caroline Starr Rose

My reading life began with a picture book called The Littlest Rabbit. I would solemnly quote the first page, “Everybody is bigger than I am,” entertaining my family by (unknowingly) speaking the truth about my place in the big, wide world. That world placed limitations on what I could do and where I could go, but the book world — my world — was simultaneously about discovery and adventure, safety and familiarity, a place I could set the rules and make the boundaries, carry the flashlight and lead the way. My book world was a place I could revisit as often as I wanted, relaxing in the steadiness of treasured words and friends.
In that place I encountered Little Bear and his birthday soup, Timmy Tiptoes and his terrifying entrapment in a tree, and Pooh and Piglet singing through a snowstorm (tiddley pom). I devoured books about Aslan, that lion who wasn’t safe but good, and Laura, a girl who lived so very long ago bears and panthers lived outside her door, and a penny in her Christmas stocking was worth celebrating. There was Ramona (a girl who said exactly what she thought, bravely doing the things I didn’t dare try on my own), Nancy Drew, and the boy wonder, Leroy Brown, who figured out the most puzzling mysteries and put the world to rights. There was Anne Shirley, who imagined and dreamed and long for puffed sleeves. And Arriety, with her Borrowed name and cigar box bed.

I loved Charlie, with his hard-won golden ticket in hand; Taran, the pig boy turned hero; and Edmund Dantes, the innocent imprisoned in the Chateau D’If. Doctor Doolittle and Scarlett O’Hara. Guy Montag and Mary Poppins.

I learned about the Holocaust while reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about the middle ages while reading Katherine, and the French Revolution while reading Desiree. I learned about heartache alongside Jody when he lost his beloved Flag. (Rereading The Yearling as an adult, I ached in a new way — as a parent watching a child face hardship for the first time). I learned compassion reading Follow My Leader and Mine For Keeps.

“I am a part of everything that I have read,” John Kieran said, and my life echoes this truth, for who I am is richer, broader, and kinder because of my book world and the characters who’ve met me there.

What books have shaped your Book World?