Friday, November 29, 2013

Book hoarding

"Do you know what they call people who hoard books?
--Lisa Scottoline, My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space

I love any quotation that justifies the acquisition of more books.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A quiet week

I caught a glimpse of some commercial tie-in with Catching Fire that referred to the rewards of the victors, or how great it is to be a victor, or something like that. Which made me groan. I haven't seen the movies and really hope they're not painting the Hunger Games that way, as a cool competition that is great to win. Spoiler alert, but the point of The Hunger Games series is that nobody wins the Hunger Games! Even those who "win." We might begin to suspect this when we first meet Haymitch, but the victors we meet in Catching Fire--with their collective misery, anger, and fear--leave no doubt. And the trilogy is not about a battle between good people and evil people ... as we learn, the rebels are just as capable as the Capital of torturing prisoners, sacrificing innocent young people, and picking corrupt leaders. The good-evil battle is within us, not outside us.

Anyhoo, climbing off the soapbox now! One of my favorite holidays is coming up; Thursday is Thanksgiving in the US. I'm looking forward to this day of rest, quiet, and blessing-counting. I really do have so much to be thankful for. I hope you do, too. :-)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Revealing character through pressure

I've never been a big fan of "reality" TV competitions. I caught a couple of seasons of Survivor--mostly because I knew one of the contestants--but other than that, the only such show I've watched regularly is Top Chef. For some reason, I find it relaxing to watch people figure out how to, say, create an upscale lunch out of a piece of celery, an avocado and a can of tuna.* And the writer in me, who deals with creative challenges all day, thinks, "Well, at least I don't have to solve that problem."

Also, I find that while there is plenty of competition among the contestants and occasionally outright nastiness, the "cheftestants" generally treat one another better than contestants on Survivor. The main reason, I think, is that the chefs don't vote one another out of the contest; a panel of judges does that. Therefore, they don't have to spend all that energy plotting how to stab one another in the back.**

I much prefer when the conflict involves how to keep a fire going in high wind, or how to get a lot done in a short amount of time, and my favorite challenges are about preparing healthy foods that taste good (after all, as one of them once said, it's easy to make something taste good by throwing a lot of butter into it; what do you do when that isn't an option?). You get to see who can think on their feet, who has the deepest toolbox, and how people respond to criticism.

Every season, I'm surprised by the way people react to the pressure. The facades crumble, and some people shine while others get petty. Some people cry and others laugh. Some hug the people around them while others lash out.

While watching an episode the other night, it reminded me of how to use pressure in fiction--not only to create tension and move the plot, but also to reveal character. It's not realistic for characters to respond to every crisis with cool perfection and steely genius (unless maybe you're writing James Bond--but he's already taken). Let your characters get flustered, make mistakes, blame their troubles on someone else, cry, explode, and then--sometimes--pull a rabbit out of a hat.

*Not an actual Top Chef challenge, but you get the idea.

**I do wish that these shows didn't feel so beholden to the Survivor model of eliminating one contestant every week. We don't get to know the ones who leave early that well, and it's painful to see a favorite pack it in midway through the season. This has led to all sorts of challenges where previous contestants are brought back or given extra chances. So why not have a format where they don't get voted out each week, but instead accumulate points during the season, and those points determine who goes to the finale? It would be more like a sports season, with people competing for playoff spots. But I digress. Which is why I stuck this in a footnote.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Literary pilgrimages

If you've read Laura Ingalls Wilder's On the Banks of Plum Creek, you probably remember the scenes that took place in the creek itself. Plum Creek was a water source and a place where the children played. It also had a darker side: You probably remember the leeches, and the time that Laura nearly drowned in the springtime, when its waters ran fast and high.

In her book about visiting the places that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about (The Wilder Life), Wendy McClure describes her own visit to Plum Creek:

"I was going to wade in the creek. Others were doing it ...  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described. ... that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I knew the book was true.

"... A little girl about seven years old was standing on the bank. She'd stopped short when she saw me, and I could tell she was trying to reconcile her sense of Laura World with the strangely crowded reality: here was Plum Creek, but here was this lady, too. Over the course of the trip there'd be other little encounters like this ... where everyone's reveries bumped up against one another. ...

"As we walked back to the car, I could see other people trying to have their private creek moments, children and adults alike, everyone standing in their little rings in the water."

This scene made me think about the power of books. While the popularity of the Little House books (and thus the Little House pilgrimage spots, like Plum Creek) has no doubt been helped by the long-running TV series based on them, what people try to reach when they stand in their little rings in Plum Creek is almost certainly drawn from the books. The books made us feel what it was like to wade in Plum Creek in a very immediate, direct way that couldn't be duplicated on TV.

"Where they waded in the shallow water a footprint would not stay. First a swirl like smoke came up from it and wavered away in the clear water. Then the footprint slowly melted. The toes smoothed out and the heel was only a small hollow."--Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

I picture all these readers converging on Plum Creek year after year. What people try to capture when they stand in Plum Creek is an experience they first imagined when reading a book. Each standing in his private ring in his own reverie, communing with an author who now lives on through her books. Taking an experience off the page, and back into the real world it was drawn from.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A kind word

I was on a panel of authors who have written books about bullying, along with K.M. Walton and Allison Whittenberg, at the Lansdowne Public Library. We had a great discussion with a lot of audience participation.

One of the topics that came up was the many ways in which bullying can occur. It's not just the cliche of the big kid taking the smaller kid's lunch money; it's not just punching and shoving and name calling. There can be an online dimension to it. But there are also all kinds of social games that go on: selective inclusion and exclusion, shunning and isolation, elaborate alliances. Allison Whittenberg and some of the audience members had some hair-raising real-life examples. As social beings, we are very sensitive to the disapproval of others. Even those of us who are loners prefer voluntary solitude to enforced isolation and rejection.

One librarian said she tries to make the library a safe place, but given everything kids face today, she wonders if her efforts are any more than a drop in the bucket. K.M. Walton said, "Kindness matters," and also that the only way bullying ends is through the cultivation of empathy. I said that during the period when I was bullied the worst, a kind word could help carry me through a day. That librarian will help people, whether or not they ever tell her so.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Follow the brain or follow the heart? A guest post by Brent Hartinger

When I saw this item in Brent Hartinger's newsletter, I asked him for permission to repost it on my blog, which he graciously granted. It's not just about a movie; in fact, it's more about the whole artistic process, and the paths we take in trying to bring our work to others. I think it captures perfectly the choices authors face, the factors we have to weigh in making those choices, and how important it is to have supportive people in our corner. Many writers will laugh knowingly at the line about how "there's no market ..." and how wrong that prediction can be.
(And by the way, if you haven't read the Russel Middlebrook books, which start with Geography Club, I suggest starting!)

They Turned My Book Into a Movie. What Does It All Mean? (by Brent Hartinger)

They’ve turned my 2003 novel Geography Club into a movie. It’ll be released in selected theaters and on VOD on November 15th, and people have already started asking me how it all happened and what I’ve learned from the whole experience.

What did I learn?

The story starts when I graduated from college and decided to try to make a career writing novels and screenplays. It was the early 90s, and one of my first books was a young adult novel about a gay teen named Russel Middlebrook and his misfit friends. It was an extremely personal topic for me, because I had been a gay teenager, and I had also co-founded one of the United States’ very first gay teen support groups, in 1990.

Cameron Deane Stewart (right) plays Russel Middlebrook.

For ten years, I (and later my agent, Jennifer DeChiara) tried to sell the book to publishers. A lot of editors wanted to buy it, but ultimately I heard the same thing over and over again: “I really like this, but the accountants at my publishing house tell me there’s no market for a book about gay teenagers.”

In early 2001, a brave editor at HarperCollins named Steve Fraser bought the book, even over the objections of the accountants there, who were just as certain as everyone else that the project would flop.
The book finally came out in early 2003. Two weeks after it was released, it had already gone into a third printing. In other words, all those accountants and all those publishing houses who said there was no market for a book about gay teens? They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.

Andrew Caldwell is Gunnar

Because the book was a hit, I was given the opportunity to write lots of other books. I even turned Geography Club into a series, the Russel Middlebrook Series.

Better still, we had a lot of movie producers interested in developing the first book as a feature film or TV series. Different companies optioned it and took it around Hollywood. But this was long before Glee, and time and again, the answer was, “We really like this, but there’s no market for a movie or a TV show about gay teenagers.”

It got to the point where the producer said to me, “I literally think this thing has been rejected by every studio, network, and financing company in town.”

But two producers, Frederick Levy and Bryan Leder (and later, their producing partners Michael Huffington and Anthony Bretti) wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. And finally, ten years after the book was published, they got the movie made — with pretty much a dream cast too (including Hairspray’s Nikki Blonsky, Suburgatory‘s Ana Gasteyer, Glee‘s Alex Newell, The Lying Game‘s Allie Gonino, Scott Bakula, and a bunch of up-and-coming young actors).
Me on the set of Geography Club, the movie

Even better, the finished movie’s quite good. There’s even talk of doing the sequel, The Order of the Poison Oak, as a movie too should the first movie prove to be a hit.

So what’s the take-away from all this? Listen to your heart, not the nay-sayers? Never give up your dreams?

Maybe, but the fact is, if certain people hadn’t been willing to move heaven and earth for me and my projects at key points in my career, my book and the movie never would have happened, and right now I’d probably be asking, “Would you like fries with that?” That’s kind of sobering when I think about it.

But if I’ve learned anything at all over the years about selling books and making movies, it’s this: there are really only two ways books get published and movies ever get made:

(1) Create a book or movie project that everyone thinks will make them a lot of money. This is a lot easier said that done, since you never know what other books and movies will be flops and hits right around the time your project is being pitched. Talent counts for something here, but I think this is mostly just timing and luck.

(2) Create a book or movie project that at least few people feel really passionately about — so passionately that they’ll keep working on it even as everyone else tells them they’re crazy, that it’s certain to flop, and that they’re wasting their time.
Basically, the choice is: go with your brain or go with your heart.

On a movie set at 5 AM
On one hand, going with your heart is trickier: do you really want to devote years of your life to a project that a lot of editors and producers won’t even want to read? On the other hand, it’s a lot easier than trying to predict exactly where the crazy pop culture market and zeitgeist are headed. All you have to do is ask yourself: what exactly do I personally feel the most passionate about? What project would I desperately like to see that doesn’t already exist?

If you’d asked me my opinion earlier in my career, in the midst of all the rejection for Geography Club the book and later the movie, I would have said, “Do strategy number one! Go with your brain! Write that dystopian zombie-vampire book! There at least you have a chance for success! Strategy number two is for suckers and fools!” (And then I would have added, “Would you like fries with that?”)

But I’ve been in the business for a while now, and I’ve seen editors and producers get very excited about my work, only to lose interest when the project didn’t turn out to be an instant hit or get immediate financing.

I also think it’s very interesting the only movie projects I’m associated with that are actually getting made – Geography Club and another film I wrote that will hopefully be filmed next year — are the passion projects. In other words, strategy number two.

Justin Deeley plays Kevin

There’s another benefit to choosing strategy number two: you’re working with people who aren’t just in it for the money. They’re in it for the passion. Which means — at least in my experience — they’re far less likely to be jerks. Since you end up so intimately involved with these folks, and since your words and your career are so closely associated with them, this not a small thing. I’m very proud to call these colleagues my friends.

The screenwriter William Goldman once famously said about Hollywood, “No one knows anything,” and it’s probably the most accurate thing ever said about that town (it’s completely true of New York publishing as well).

No one knows anything. Sometimes a project flies high, sometimes it completely flops (and usually it lands somewhere in that infuriating middle area in between).
And no matter what anyone says, no matter how much money they spend or who is involved, no one can predict for sure which projects will be successful and which not. That’s what makes a career in the arts so frustrating — and also so magical.

Making movies and publishing books are ultimately businesses: they exist to make money. As a result, a lot of the people in those industries like to talk like success is all about the brain. They want to believe they have some control over the money they’re spending.

Do they? Maybe. But in my case, success turned out to be all about the heart.

For more photos from my Geography Club movie set visit, go here.

Copyright © 2013 Buddha Kitty Books, All rights reserved. Reposted by permission.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Memorizing poems

"He then said something which impressed Holt as being profound ... 'Memorize a poem and you own it for life.'"
--James A. Michener, The Drifters

There was (still is, for all I know) a cafeteria in Yosemite National Park where you paid at the entrance and then were free to eat all you wanted. One of the cashiers would amuse himself by asking questions of the customers on their way in. He seemed to ask a different question each day. I don't remember what he asked now, except that one of his questions was, "Can you recite a poem?"*

As it turned out, I could. Thanks to William Carlos Williams and his talent for brevity, I was able to pull an entire poem out of my memory bank, beginning with, "so much depends ..."

I may have a couple of other poems rattling around in there. And I can also recite the first stanza of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," along with random stanzas from other poems by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, etc.

I get the impression that memorizing poems used to be a much bigger part of American education than it is now. I believe I was only required to memorize one poem in school (Part 1 of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Half the class had to know Part 1, the other half had to know Part 2**). I wouldn't be surprised if children now don't memorize any at all. And I suppose that most people don't see the point; if you want a poem, you can just look it up, right? Especially now when people have access to the internet almost everywhere, even when they're on the go.

But that is the very question to ponder. Is there an advantage to having a poem inside you, living in your mind--not just on a page?

I don't really believe in lots of forced memorization. I don't think there's much value in just reciting words without comprehension or emotional attachment. But there might be value in memorizing a poem you love, or reading a favorite poem so many times that it takes up residence in your mind.

*Our access to the food did not depend on our answers. My husband could not recite a poem, and he still got to eat. ;-)

**This is what I can still remember without looking it up: "It is an ancient mariner, and he stoppeth one of three. 'By thy long gray beard and glittering eye, now wherefore stopp'st thou me? The bridegroom's doors are open wide, and I am next of kin. The guests are met, the feast is set. May'st hear the merry din!'" And of course the famous lines: "Instead of a cross, the albatross/About his neck was hung" and "Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." I'm not looking these lines up, so they may be slightly misquoted. But hey, I learned this thing mphmf years ago and haven't looked at it since!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Humor in YA

Yesterday I made one of my offhand comments on Twitter about how I wished there were more humor in YA novels. (It seemed to me there used to be more, and maybe I was waxing nostalgic.) Sometimes on Twitter I'll get a few comments or retweets, but I think it's safe to say this particular tweet got more of a response than anything else I've ever said there. The overwhelming sentiment was, "Yes, please!"

There was also some discussion of why we all think there isn't enough funny in our teen lit. Here are just a few of the thoughts others shared:

@BethanyRobison (Bethany Robison): I think maybe funny is just really difficult to do well?

@jackiedolamore (Jaclyn Dolamore): For me it's that the funniest things are very specific and you have to know the world SO well but you also have to convey that to the reader. Like, you all have to know. That's hard.

@crissachappell (Crissa Chappell): I think humor = the character sees absurdity in the world.

@MissWendyD (Wendy Darling): Even books that aren't specifically humorous could use some levity, you know?

@EyeonFlux (Brian Farrey-Latz): I see very, very, very little humor in my inbox. So "fewer people write it" could be one reason. Also: humor VERY subjective.

@justinelavaworm (Justine Larbalestier): I've been told multiple times: funny is for middle grade.
Funny middle grade books sell better than funny YA ...

@cindysku (Cindysku): middle grade readers are growing up and they still want funny.

@rebekahswm (Rebekah Weatherspoon): do we need to maintain the illusion that teens are all moody and tortured?

@TLT16 (Teen Librarian Toolbox): I feel like sarcasm & snark are represented, but where is the slapstick? The No More Dead Dogs? The LOL?

But of course, there ARE humorous books out there, and people also shared recommendations in tweets, DMs, and email. I'm going to list the authors whose names were brought to me as examples. I will provide this caveat: I haven't read all these authors, so I don't know if I would find them funny. I don't know if you would find them funny. And not everything they've ever written may be humorous. Also, "humor" may mean anything along the spectrum from subtle hints to a sprinkling of jokes to a riotous laugh-fest. But someone somewhere found these authors funny enough to recommend, so you might want to check them out.

I've added a few names that came to my own mind, but I'm sure I'm missing names. So feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Randa Abdel-Fattah
S.J. Adams
Jesse Andrews
Andrew Auseon
M.G. Bauer
Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman (co-authors)
Robin Benway
Josh Berk
Lauren Bjorkman
James P. Blaylock
Libba Bray
Ed Briant
Jessica Brody
Meg Cabot
Don Calame
Ally Carter
Cherry Cheva
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (co-authors)
Dave Cousins
Brent Crawford
Tash Desborough
Kerstin Gier
Maureen Goo
John Green
Sandy Harper
Brent Hartinger
Rachel Hawkins
Shaun David Hutchinson
Geoff Herbach
David Iserson
Maureen Johnson
Julie Klausner
Steve Kluger
Justine Larbalestier
Lindsey Leavitt
David Levithan
Sue Limb
E. Lockhart
David Lubar
Carol Midgley
Sarah Mlynowski
Jaclyn Moriarty
Blake Nelson
Emil Ostrovski
Robin Palmer
Kimberley Pauley
Frank Portman
Sarah Rees Brennan
Louise Rennison
Andy Robb
Meg Rosoff
Jess Rothenberg
Rainbow Rowell
Leila Sales
Medeia Sharif
Holly Smale
Andrew Smith
Leah Spiegel
Natalie Standiford
Jonathan A. Stroud
Courtney Summers
Sloane Tanen
Kristin Walker
David Yoo
Allen Zadoff
Meredith Zeitlin

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What writers do

In 2011, my story "Confessions and Chocolate Brains" appeared in the anthology Truth & Dare. In the story, a boy gives his girlfriend chocolate brains (with peanut-butter filling) as a present. It's a medically-themed present, because they are both planning to become doctors and live happily ever after. As you might guess, the "happily ever after" is jeopardized, because stories must have conflict ... but it's not jeopardized by the chocolate brains. The girlfriend loves the chocolate brains.

If you read that story and also liked the chocolate brains, you may be pleased to see this little item in the Computer Gear catalog: gelatin molds that are brain- and heart-shaped. And when I say heart-shaped, I don't mean a valentine. I mean an anatomical heart. Click on the link to see some actual molded, quivering gelatin products. I'm only sorry I didn't see this before Halloween, because just imagine the zip that a gelatin brain could have added to a Halloween party! (By the way, I'm receiving no compensation for mentioning this. I mention it entirely for my own amusement and, I hope, yours.)

But a writer's life is more than glitz, glamour, chocolate brains and organ-shaped gelatin molds. I found the following gem in Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk, and I think for "poet" you could substitute the more general "writer:"

"Once, when I was asked, 'What is the main thing a poet does?' I was inspired to answer, 'We wait.'"

Friday, November 8, 2013

Blank pages

"'I find that there's a redemptive quality,' he said, 'just in sitting in front of that blank piece of paper.'"
--from The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris

Hmm, redemptive.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lessons from biographies

I probably do more mental critiquing of biographies than of any other type of book I read. I've never been a fan of the bio that starts waaay back with the birth of the subject's grandparents, and I wish more biographers would start with the novelistic convention of bringing us into the action that the subject of the biography is best known for, and then gradually working the earlier history into the narrative. I also find myself wishing for more creative plotting and formatting. Although a life is lived chronologically, a biography need not be presented that way. Also, every year of the subject's life does not deserve equal space in a bio. Some years are more eventful and significant than others.

Whenever I critique books, I also turn the points of the critique back onto myself and my own work. I'm not writing biographies, but I can still push myself to think beyond chronological sequencing, to start at an interesting place (which is not necessarily the protagonist's birth or even the start of his/her day), and to compress or delete the slower times in the characters' lives.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


My friend Kelly and I were talking about writing the other night (as we often do), and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) came up. Which led to this blog post.

NaNoWriMo, the pursuit of 50,000 words in a month, can be an inspiring burst of creativity, or it can inspire some bad habits. One trick to increase word count is sentence-padding. "He crossed the room" becomes "He decided to go from one side of the room to the other and so he walked over there."

NaNo rewards the second sentence more: It's longer! More words! But it's not a better sentence.

My suggestion to anyone who is tempted to pad a story is: Don't. It's better to finish November with 40,000 good solid words than with 40,000 good words and 10,000 bits of padding that have to be yanked out later.

If the padding is unconscious--if you find yourself, as I do, inserting "just" and "really" and "very" without thinking--then fine, don't stop and pull them all out now. Let it flow. NaNo's about flow. I only advise against conscious padding, the deliberate addition of unnecessary words. It can develop bad habits, and even though these crutch words can be deleted later (I should know; I've deleted scores and scores of "justs"), it's simpler not to use them in the first place.

Happy writing!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The inside joke

In a week of increasing darkness (both literally and figuratively), it's been a pleasure to find one of those books that reminds me why I love reading and why I love reading YA.

That book is David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing. I could talk about the way Levithan calls to life the voices of the generation of gay men who were lost  to AIDS, or how he manages to develop two characters who spend the entire book in a record-breaking kiss (which becomes, after several hours, a test of endurance, since the terms of the record require constant standing, no bathroom breaks, and little to no nourishment), or how he weaves in the stories of several other characters. But I want to share just one little excerpt:

"'Pancakes,' [Neil] says. 'I think we need pancakes.'
This time, Peter knows what's coming, and joins in. They both start jumping up and down on one leg, yelling, 'I-hop! I-hop!'
We are such wonderful idiots, Peter thinks."

To me, that scene captures so beautifully one of the best parts of a longtime relationship: the inside joke. The way we become wonderful idiots for each other; the silly things we do that nobody else would understand. The point of the inside joke is not only to make the other person laugh. It's to acknowledge a shared history and reaffirm a shared present. It's a way of saying, I am so happy with you; I am so happy with us.

source of recommended read: bought