Thursday, February 26, 2009

Something Queer at the Library

Do you remember the "Something Queer" mysteries by Elizabeth Levy? These young mysteries feature two girls named Jill and Gwen, and I remember that one of them owns a basset hound, and one of them keeps tapping on her braces when she contemplates clues. Anyway, Something Queer at the Library is actually one of the titles, and I thought of the book the other day when I ran into, well, something queer at the library.

I love libraries. A feeling of well-being descends on me when I enter one, as if I've been able to step out of the everyday world of cares and into a pause. I get excited about research, about books I know I'm going there to get, and about books I'll just stumble upon. Even so, these days I usually put my books on hold online and just pick them up at the library -- or, to 'fess up completely, send my husband, who goes absolutely willingly. In fact, he and the library ladies have a running joke about how I've sent him over to pick up my books yet again. Once I showed up to get my own books, and they were shocked. I think they were disappointed, too. :) So now I tell DH (these are his initials, actually), "You have to go get my books, dear. It's you the library staff want to see."

But the other day I was in the library. It's a good date place for DH and me, and we were due (for a date and the library). First, I browsed the YA section. It's smaller than the MG section, so I feel like I can get a better overall sense of what's there. So what's there? More books and authors that I have never heard of than ever before. Browsing those shelves, I felt hardly different than I felt as a new writer starting out eleventy-nine years ago. "Wow, I've never heard of this book." "Wow, who is this writer?" "How can I read as much as I read and feel so far behind?"

In the MG section, it's harder to find new books among the old. But amid well-known titles and old favorites I did find a number of more recent books and authors that I've never heard of. In no time I had gathered a stack too big to carry, as is my wont (no queer experience there), and taken them to the checkout desk because when my arms are that full, where else can I go?

And yet I'm reading what percentage of what's being published? 2%? Twenty years ago, reading a professional article about books or talking books with another writer or avid reader was apt to yield a lot of common references --kind of the way English Lit students get Shakespeare references or biblical students get Bible references. Now, if another children's writer asks me if I've read such-and-such by so-and-so, I'm not only likely to say no, I'm fairly likely to say, "I never heard of it."

Maybe I need to go back to the library more often and see the actual shelves. But the really queer thing at the library the other day was that I almost decided I prefer to hear about new titles online and just put them on hold at the library. Because it's getting harder to dig them out of the myriad of physical books, which I'm rather nonplused to find so unfamiliar after all this time in the field.

The times they are a-changin', but this change is really, well, queer.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Expletives and More!

Okay, this must be a really juicy post, right? Indeed, without a doubt, to be sure, the expletives will fly. In brief, they already have.

Mostly, we think of expletives as cursing or profanity. I date myself, but if you remember when the Nixon tapes were publicized in the '70s, you'll never forget the phrase "expletive deleted," or cease to connect the word to that event. But the "more" in this post's title means more wordplay, and rhetorically speaking an expletive is a word or phrase that interrupts a sentence in order to emphasize what's being said. I am, in fact, going to eat that entire carton of triple fudge caramel sundae delight. "In fact" is an expletive meant to call attention to what the speaker is planning to do. Clearly, his story is a pack of lies; he's going to get arrested, of course. That sentence has two of them: "clearly," and "of course." I found expletives rather useful when making a point with teenagers while allowing them to save face: You will, I trust, return by 10:30 with the car in pristine condition. Of course, if you use too many expletives you may encounter more than social disapproval; to tell the truth, they tend to pad your writing. Clearly.

Another interrupter (boy my manners stink today, don't they?) is the parenthesis, and that one also means more than we typically think. The term can refer to the actual word, phrase or sentence that is placed within another sentence to offer a brief explanation of a point, not just the marks sometimes used to set it off. Parentheses are usually set off with commas, dashes, or -- yes -- parentheses, just to make things a tad more confusing. They are meant to be an addition, not a necessity, to the sentence that contains them. Frankie flunked four classes -- history, English, lunch, and study hall -- and his daddy took the T-bird away.

And we think we know what an apostrophe is, don't we? Although I seriously doubt they teach the punctuation mark in schools today anymore, but I digress. An apostrophe isn't an interrupter that explains, it's one that stops the present action to do something else, such as address "dear reader" directly. This is often done for the purpose of asking the reader to consider something or breaking something to him gently. We may think use of apostrophe is old-fashioned, but authors such as Jeanne Birdsall, in The Penderwicks, and Kate DiCamillo, in The Tale of Despereaux, use it: Did anyone think then about the Garden Club Competition? Did anyone hesitate, vaguely remembering what they'd been told over and over -- stay out of the gardens that day? No, no one thought or hesitated . . . (Birdsall, The Penderwicks). Reader, as teller of this tale it is my duty from time to time . . . (DiCamillo, Tale of Despereaux).

Which is all by way of saying -- if you want permission to use expletives and interrupt in three or more distinct ways, look no further than your standard English grammar guide. Who'd have thought Language Arts was such a racy subject? :)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Tax Man Cometh

It's that time again. See, I said there'd be arithmetic in this blog.

I've always done our family's taxes. And for a while there I did them for extended family, too -- kind of a Gilbert-and-Sullivan "sisters and her cousins and her aunts" type of thing. (Well, not quite that inclusive.) Ever since my high school economics teacher taught an entire mandatory unit on filling out your own federal income taxes and said there was no reason for individuals (as opposed to businesses) to pay to have their taxes done (and the forms were much worse then, and forms 1040A and EZ didn't exist), I have done them. Even in the writer's world of 1099 forms and Schedule Cs, I do them. Even though Schedule C implies I am a business and could, under Mr. Wilson's rules, morally qualify to hire somebody, I do them.

So -- does your desk look like mine? Do you do your taxes on January 2? April 14? Do you pay a professional or twist a family member's arm so you can escape all this? Have you invested in the software, unlike me? Has writing income changed your tax experience from better to worse, or the other way?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

It's no wonder that Impossible by Nancy Werlin was a National Book Award finalist. This novel, a YA fantasy filled with suspense, romance, and real love on many levels, I found almost impossible to put down.

Plot summary: Lucy Scarborough, seventeen, is the beloved foster child of Soledad and Leo, best friends of Lucy's insane mother, Miranda, who comes around every once in a while acting strange and singing the ballad "Scarborough Fair." Discovering some completely lucid diary pages from Miranda's teen years in her room, left especially for her (and believably not discovered earlier), Lucy learns that Soledad and Leo had also opened their home to her mother as she awaited the birth of Lucy, and that the Scarborough women carry a terrible curse: For generations, each has been raped at the age of seventeen, given birth to a daughter at eighteen, and immediately thereafter gone mad. Because Lucy was raped by her prom date (and can't explain why she'd felt someone else had possessed his body at the time) and is already pregnant, the pages are more enlightening than traumatic -- though comparing this sane, caring Miranda with the insane character we see is traumatic enough. The curse can be broken, Miranda tells Lucy, if she can fulfill the three tasks given in the song: (1) make a shirt without any seam or needlework, (2) find an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand (water's edge), (3) plow the acre with nothing but a goat's horn and sow it all over with one grain of corn. If Lucy does not succeed in all three tasks before her child's birth, she'll become the captive of an evil, magical elfin creature, just as every woman before her since the untrue Fenella Scarborough spurned his love untold generations ago.

Of course, Lucy does succeed, and her solutions are so satisfying because they're both ingenious and accessible. In fact, I was able to figure out #3b (the one grain of corn) well before the end, and make a decent stab at #1. One thing I love about this book is the research the characters do. Genealogical research, for example, to prove whether the known facts of the Scarborough women's lives show insanity in each generation. They study everything out, yet aren't afraid to believe supernatural elements are at work. Though not without facing obstacles, one by one they learn all they can about each task and figure out how to accomplish it. And with #3, as we might guess, Lucy must race the Stork to the finish.

But the main subject of this book is love. Lucy succeeds, in more ways than one, because of the veritable army of love behind her. Soledad and Leo; her best friend, Sarah; the young man who loves and marries her, Zach; even Miranda; do all that they can and more to love her, stand up for her, help her, and in Zach's case, reassure her that her baby will have not only Soledad and Leo but a father and seventeen more years to get the tasks right if the worst happens to Lucy. Despite the horrendous problems the characters face, readers will hardly be able to help longing to be a part of such a selfless yet real group of people. Lucy's flat refusal to consider abortion is believably motivated; Miranda did not take that way out and neither will she. Even the boy who raped her and promptly died in a car accident is forgiven, as Lucy realizes that for every Scarborough woman who was ruined, an innocent young man was also possessed and then destroyed.

Only one plot point gave me pause, and it occurs at the end. This is a definite SPOILER alert. Close to finishing the plowing and sowing task, in horrible weather, well into labor and with the tide rolling in, Lucy is visited by the creature she knows as "The Elfin Knight." He almost charms her into quitting by telling her that if she goes with him, Zach and her baby will be safe. Lucy even drops the plow momentarily before picking it up and continuing on. Later, having returned to Zach and given birth, she is again visited by the Elfin Knight who entices her to accompany him because of the bargain she made. What I don't buy is that Lucy truly believes she made a bargain. She never agreed to anything. This attempt to keep Lucy's victory up in the air till the very end doesn't work, in my view. The Elfin Knight's ploy is too obviously just that, and as Zach declares, "The curse is broken. And there is no new bargain. If that weren't true, you wouldn't be here trying to convince Lucy to come willingly." Even so -- to the extent that the Elfin Knight is betting that Lucy will interpret her temptation to give in as the actual deed, this plot point does make some sense and illustrates another theme: Temptation isn't the same as doing the deed, and intentions aren't as important as actions. Impossible is one fantastic read.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's Goof-Off Day

Okay, I'm swamped and could use a breather. You too? This little time waster game of skill will indulge your love of words and exercise both your eye-hand coordination and reaction time. This is what I tell myself when I am excusing my procrastination no lie.

Ready for some addictive vocabulary-building behavior? Click HERE.

Do let me know if you hate me now because you can't leave the thing alone have fun.

Revealing your score is optional. Anybody game? ;)

Monday, February 9, 2009

What Makes a Story Original?

Twice lately I've seen novels called "original." Since that's a quality any writer would like his or her stories to have (has "their" been officially accepted as the singular gender-neutral pronoun yet?), it makes sense to do some thinking about how we can achieve it. What makes a story original?

Some argue that there are no truly original stories left, that they were all told long before anyone currently living was ever born. I think that's true in the sense that most stories can be fitted to one (maybe sometimes more than one) plot form: the quest plot, the adventure plot, the rescue plot, the revenge plot, the rivalry plot, and so forth. Not being a great plotter myself, I have two books on plot patterns that show how to spot the bare bones of a particular type of plot, choose a basic skeleton that best fits your idea, and flesh it out with your own characters and events. The books overlap in their advice to some degree, but they also differ on how many plot templates exist and what they should be called. From Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Homer to Melville to Dickens to Austen to Sophocles to Hawthorne to Henry James to Shakespeare *inhales*, and no doubt to Faulkner, example after example is cited to prove the authors' point: If the plot exists that doesn't fit some pre-existing pattern, good luck finding it.

Others argue that of course there are original stories. No realistic story about computers could be written before computers existed. No American literature could be written until that one-of-a-kind nation, the USA, was born. Besides that, many suggest, originality lies in character, emotional accuracy and voice, not necessarily in plot.

I think this is one of those issues where the "sides" aren't sides at all, and both have a piece of the truth. If you accept the idea that there are certain types of stories that resonate with human beings and those types are likely to be finite, which I do, you conclude that originality doesn't lie in developing a new, never-used plot pattern. On the other hand, if you pick up a book like The Hunger Games and marvel at the storyline, you know plot plays a role in originality. This book gives at least one clue to an original story, I think: it takes a fairly new phenomenon, reality TV; adds a current political problem, a sense of division among Americans; and spins them out into some plausible conclusions. It asks "What's new? How might that new thing change over time? How might it turn ugly?" When seeking an original plot, another question to ask might be, "What's the story behind ____?" Impossible, by Nancy Werlin, which I will be reviewing next Monday, asks the question "What's the story behind the ballad 'Scarborough Fair'?" The quest for originality challenges the writer to ask -- and this is broader and more elusive than any one example -- "How can I think outside the box?"

Let's turn to character. This is like the plot issue, in a way. Though everyone in the world is unique, and theoretically so can our fictional characters be, many psychology experts agree that there are four basic temperament types. Just four. They're called by different names and may be broken down into varying numbers of subtypes, but the four main types are readily identifiable from one system to another. Everyone, unique though he or she (they?) may be, is one of four types. How do you move from a type to an original character? I think you do it by tuning into that person's emotional truth and being sure to express it. For example, in Rex Zero, King of Nothing by Andrew Clements, Rex speaks some lines that nail his emotional state in a specific way. Waking up one morning he says, "I feel smart, just like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard gives him a diploma. Morning is like a diploma." What an original way to express the newness of morning -- as commencement. Rex describes a wobbly smile as "a smile with training wheels." This kind of care taken with specific language to express thoughts and feelings in turn creates the original voice.

So -- what do you think? What makes a story original?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Outside Editorial Development -- The Wave of the Future?

"Editorial development is increasingly taking place outside publishing houses." This is a quote from the website of namelos, a new firm formed by a respected group of children's book professionals including Stephen Roxburgh, Carolyn Coman, and Joy Neaves, many if not most of them with ties to Boyds Mills/Front Street, especially the now-shuttered NC Front Street office. Altogether, the staff has a host of experience in editing, art direction, publicity, agenting, teaching, and writing. They offer development services to authors and illustrators, even editors, agents, and publishers, to make a book everything it can be. The advantages, they say, are that the writer gets editorial guidance (and honesty, if they feel the project isn't marketable); agents and editors get more fully developed, high-quality submissions; and the writer/artist receives the company's help with submitting to agents and editors "with a few well-placed emails and phone calls." Alternatively, namelos can and will guide you toward the goal of successful self-publishing, offering their "editorial, design, production, subsidiary rights, sales, and marketing support."

Outside editorial development, they say, is "evolutionary and inevitable" in these times when publishers must cut the costs associated with getting books in print. The concept is certainly interesting, and the idea that these reputable people are in your corner with ongoing editorial help (to the extent that you want to purchase it) and networking -- networking! -- is more than a little appealing. So -- what do you think? Would you welcome the chance to get this kind of editorial help before you ever submit to agents or editors, and then get help with submission too? Would you balk at paying a fee for such services? Could this be the first step in a major change in how the industry works? Will namelos become overworked and then copycat companies spring up whose credentials will be harder to assess? Are the higher costs of publishing being passed along to the arguably poorest people in the chain -- writers and artists? Do chime in!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Book of the Semi Month Club

I saw The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd and thought, "Yippee, a mid-grade mystery!" I picked it up eagerly, and was not disappointed. Though I didn't swallow it in one gulp, I came as close as I could.

Plot Summary: Ted and his older sister, Kat, receive a visit from their cousin, Salim, who is about to move from England to NYC with his mom. Salim has never ridden the Eye, a huge observation wheel in which people riding in sealed pods get a twenty-five mile view (on a clear day) of London in all directions. As the kids queue up to buy their tickets, a strange man approaches and almost forces a free ticket on Salim. Though somewhat nervous, Ted and Kat decide they'll save their money and that Salim should accept the free ticket since this may be his last chance to ride. The siblings track their cousin's pod as the Eye makes its thirty-minute revolution. The pod opens -- all the pods open -- and the riders emerge. No Salim. No Salim at all.

Besides the fact that this is a fine locked-room mystery, the characters are as strong as the plot. Ted has an unnamed "syndrome," which to this untrained eye sounds like mild autism or some relative thereof. His hands flap when he's nervous, and he has trouble with eye contact. He counts how many pieces of "shreddies" he eats for breakfast. He's obsessed with weather, though this is at least partly his passion for the science of meteorology. His brain runs "on a different operating system," as he puts it. His sister coaches him in the nuances of body language, and he has memorized a "five-point code" given to him by his neurologist for reading facial expressions, because that's the only way he can figure out people's feelings. Each time someone smiles, Ted reminds himself that this means "he and I could become friends." At certain moments, everyone laughs, and Ted says, "I didn't know what was funny but I laughed too." But -- after dismissing a number of wild theories such as his cousin spontaneously combusted --it's exactly Ted's "operating system" that helps him work out what happened to Salim.

Kat grows as a person, too. She starts the story obsessed with her Hair Flair catalogue, ditches school, and says things to Ted like, "Get stuffed, you creep," because Ted is incapable of not speaking the complete truth when his mouth opens. Yet she becomes Ted's full partner in solving the mystery of Salim's disappearance, playing the brave, action-packed role to his mastermind. She is the only one who will listen to Ted's ideas, as the adults keep brushing him off with, "Shush, Ted, now's not the time." And because she does listen, she becomes every bit as responsible for the last-minute victorious outcome as Ted. The way Ted sees it: "When I talk to people about something I've found out, they don't listen. When Kat does, everybody listens."

As the solution to the mystery unfolds, we discover that Salim's operating system is pretty clever as well. Throw in Salim's dramatic mom, Aunt Gloria; a few more run-ins with the mysterious ticket benefactor; and the police inspectors; and we have a cast of colorful, believable, enjoyable characters who illustrate a number of themes about Difference -- that two people who are very different just might be two halves of a whole; that some differences, such as transatlantic moves, may be harder to negotiate than we think; and that the "different" in "different operating systems" may well stand for "superior."