Thursday, September 30, 2010

Second Grade Word Pictures

A week ago, I visited three second grade classrooms (including Mighty Mite's) to talk about being an author and writing with descriptive words. According to the thank-you notes I received, I think they had almost as much fun as I did:

I like your mini computer a lot!
I think it's cool you wrote a chapter book!
Thank you for teaching us how to be a real world author.

and my favorite(s)...

I learned to use new words.
I rushed home and started writing.

I promised the second graders that if they wrote me a word picture of their favorite stuffed animal or pet, using their five senses and descriptive words, I would post it on my blog.

People, you are in for a serious treat. These story gems are tears-running-down-face funny and some are borderline poetry. Check out the tabs above for the talent in Mrs. Burman, Mrs. Shears, Mrs. Caldwell's classrooms. And thank you to the students, teachers, and parents for allowing me to share their work!

Good job, kids!*

*Spelling and punctuation have been preserved

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Takes Work

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. - Benjamin Franklin

A friend recently told me, "This creative stuff is hard." (she was endeavoring to write and was surprised how hard 500 words can be)

Writing is hard work.

Writing something worth reading is even harder.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I slogged through revisions that took far longer than they should. I expected to whip through a chapter and send it off to the Coven (my crit group is gamely named the Coven of Scribblers). It was taking twice as long as I expected, and I didn't meet my personal deadline (hopefully today, ladies!). But part way through I realized there was a reason why these particular words were taking so much longer than the 6,000 I had zipped through the previous week.

This chapter was important. Key. Vital to the plot, the characters, the emotional heart of the story - everything that made this novel worth reading was found in microcosm in THIS chapter. And so it had to be just right. It demanded more from me as a writer.

I took a deep breath and gave myself time to do justice to the words. So I could write something worth reading.

When is writing hard for you?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview with Debbie Topolski - Artist Entrepreneur

Debbie auctioned off this image as a part of the SCBWI Chicago Area Illustrators’ Network show and silent auction to benefit the Art Creation Foundation for Children in Jacmel, Haiti which suffered, like many organizations, as a result of the earthquakes there. 

I met Debbie Topolski on the way to the airport (SCBWI* conference in LA), where we discovered a mutual love of Big Bang Theory and obscure SF trivia. I also found she's one of those tremendously interesting people to chat with, as well as being a great supporter of SCBWI.

*I highly encourage you to join your local writing organization. SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Illinois region is filled with helpful and enthusiastic fellow-writers. My local conference was great last year, and I'm planning on going again in November. SCBWI also provides a network for authors once they publish to get their books in front of teachers and librarians, as well as many other resources.

This double-page spread is from Debbie's dummy of Rafter. Her final art for Rafter will be at the PWD Illustrators’ Display that will be held during the lunch break on November 13 (SCBWI-IL). 

Today's interview is a bonus post, continuing on from Art Appreciation Week, wherein Debbie shares a bit about herself and her work.

Me: Although I met you at the SCBWI LA conference this summer, children’s illustrations are just one of the many things you do! Can you tell me a bit about the other ways you use your artistic talents?
Debbie: Keeping me “in lattes” Having studied a multi-disciplinary field like architecture, I think one is always multi-tasking their craft. I’ve used my skills in design concept, industrial design and architectural illustration; for corporate identity imaging such as artwork for logos, convention booths, and packaging; and in promotional pieces for communities and clubs. I still do this type of work to keep me “in lattes”, so to speak! I’ve always had a sense of whimsy in my illustrations and felt that they might be well-suited to children’s book illustration. This is a discipline in itself and I’ve so enjoyed studying this art form as well.

Me: You wrote an article in the 2009 Prairie Wind, SCBWI Illinois’ local chapter newsletter, summarizing last year’s regional conference. It was an amazing conference and I can’t believe I had to travel to California to meet a fellow Illinoisan! At that conference, you were working on your picture book Baker’s Dozen. What’s the status of that manuscript? Did you do both the writing and illustrating?

Debbie: Busted! While working on Baker’s Dozen in  Esther Hirshenhorn’s Newberry writing class, she again encouraged me to “write the book you need need to write – NOW!” Rafter is that book but was too personal a story to express at the time. It took me a year of studying picture book making and attending conferences and classes to find the courage and confidence to express myself whole-heartedly.  I just completed the dummy in July and brought it to Los Angeles with me.  I got the story down on paper and put it out there - literally - in the Portfolio Showcase. It still needs work and I have to complete a few pieces of final art, but I feel a terrific sense of accomplishment having done this much so far.  I am going to submit one of these soon-to-be finished pieces to the 2010 Prairie Writers’ Day Illustration Display.  I hope you’ll all look for it at lunch on November 13th! As for Baker’s Dozen, I am going to exhume it’s story-line and characters. They took a trip to Italy last fall as (5) original finished pieces for the Illustrators’ Exhibition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, held in March 2010. Now that they’re back and well-rested, the images are informing the manuscript as much as the manuscript informs the images.  I will resume work on it with all the encouragement, critiques and classroom advice I received before setting it aside. I am still in love with my characters, but I’m not totally convinced that it is still a picture book. I’m going to pursue it and let it evolve to dictate its own format by and by.  Good storytelling is the key, whether it is expressed in chapters, a 32-page format, on an i-Pad or up on the Silver Screen. As long as I am true to the story, I think this Yuletide tale will entertain audiences as much as it does me!

Me: When did you join SCBWI, and what drew you in to all the work you do with the organization?

Debbie: Two years of selfish behavior After attending my first SCBWI network meeting in Oak Park two years ago, I remember telling my husband that I had found ”my tribe”.  I felt at home for the first time in a long time. I was –and continue to be-so consistently invigorated by this dynamic, talented and generous group, that I soon realized that I selfishly wanted to spend as much time as possible in its glow!  I accosted Esther at an event the following winter and told her that I was upset that I had not yet been asked to help out.  Happily, that was all it took to get on a task for the 2009 ALA Conference! It was especially meaningful then, later that month when I attended the 2009 Summer Conference, that Lin Oliver should refer to the SCBWI as “the tribe.”  Now I just need to keep working at my craft so I don’t get “voted off the island”!

Somehow I don't think you'll get voted off any time soon! 

Thanks for stopping by Ink Spells and sharing your work with us! You can check out more of Debbie's work here, and be sure to look for her work at SCBWI-IL' s upcoming Prairie Writer's Conference in November (if you're a local)!

This image from Debbie's picture book manuscript, Baker's Dozen.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Raising Boys who Read

An article in the Wall Street Journal made me want to jump up in my kitchen and cheer. But that would be slightly embarrassing and also not very useful, so I'm blogging about it instead.

Thomas Spence, father of six boys and founder of Spence Publishing, opined that boys would read more if they were less distracted by video games and that the gap in reading between girls and boys can be traced to the rise of boys-who-game and girls-who-don't.

             AND or OR ?

You really need to read the whole article, but the underlying premise is that there is no magic involved in making sure boys read beyond putting books in their hands and limiting screen time*. This is an idea that Ink Spells has as an article of faith - that putting the right book at the right time in the right little hands can make all the difference in the world.

*This also validates my desire to keep a bonafide gaming system out of the house. Full disclosure: we play computer games.

But like any good parenting technique, it doesn't happen just once on Tuesday, July 2nd, and all of a sudden a reader is born. As any parent knows, if you want it to stick you'll have to repeat it. Again and again and . . . you get the idea. My 12 Tips for Reluctant Readers talks about different ways to keep doing the same thing over and over - reinforcing literacy in your home.

Spence also rails against gross-out books as pandering to the lowest common denominator of boys and leans toward homeschooling and a virtual ban on gaming in the home.

I don't believe you need to go that far to make a huge difference in boy literacy. I do believe that you need to "meet boys where they are," but mostly in terms of reading level and attention span. This is as true for reluctant readers as it is for advanced readers. And an occasional dalliance with graphic novels (or gross-out books) is not the end of literacy in a young man's mind. Likewise a few hours of Lego Indiana Jones or Civilization IV is not going to eliminate any desire to read. But books have to pervade your home as much as the electronic delights.

As I mentioned in an interview recently, stories are like air for children: they need them to survive and to grow. If you put stories in their hands, children will become just as addicted to Artemis Fowl as they are to the World Tour of Crazy Machines II.

And once they get started, those grossology books will never be enough (witness my fav new tween bloggers, and their lament that their favorite books were too short). Their minds will crave more, and if you keep feeding it to them, they will grow up to be the civilized men that Spence refers to.

I can't think of a loftier goal.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Apple Happiness

Worm Burner and I made this lovely apple pie. He was in charge of the apple picking, ingredient measuring, and crust pinching. I manned (womaned?) the rolling pin and the apple slicer. Together we made quite a team, not to mention dessert.

There's a lot of literacy skills and math that goes into an apple pie. That giant cookbook was definitely not written at the fourth grade reading level, and the difference between a tablespoon (big T) and a teaspoon (small t) is substantial when you're talking about nutmeg. But Worm Burner managed to plow through it and the result was a slice of fall happiness.

Worm Burner is as skilled with the power tools as he is in the kitchen. I'm thinking he's going to make some lucky girl a fine husband some day.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Deciding What to Write

How do you decide what to write?

I've decided my next novel will be MG, but that's as far as I've gotten.

If you're writing your first novel, you probably haven't given this much thought - you're caught up in the love of your story, and that is fine.

If you're a teacher or librarian or parent, you probably think, I wish more writers would write MG fiction for boys, or a real-issues book for girls about friendship, or a YA book that doesn't set my hair on fire.

If you're an agent or editor, you probably think, I wish writers would send me the next Hunger Games series and help me pull the publishing industry out of its funk.

I wish I had an agent* just to get their advice on this question: What book should I write next? 

*I'm working on this ...

Should I try that idea for an MG fantasy for boys that I love? MG fantasy for boys is hot right now, but who knows how long that will last? Should I write that MG SF book that is singing to my heart, even if the market for it may be limited? Should I write that epic 5-part military SF series that tempts me, but I can't imagine being able to sell it?

I've heard many agents say Write what your heart wants and Tell the best story you can. But the truth is that I have MANY stories to tell, and not all of them are equally salable. So what do you write to break in to an industry that is notoriously difficult and subjective?

I have more question marks in this post than periods (almost).

What middle grade story would you like to see written?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Tween Blog

You've heard me rave about Reading Teen, a blog where some rockin' moms and their teens read and review YA books, with an eye to providing content descriptions for parents (and kids) who want to know before they read.

Well the junior whippersnappers are getting in the act with Reading Tween, where middle grade kids are reading and reviewing books. How cool is that?

Reagan, AnnaBanana, Bran and Drew, Adrien and Austin - You guys rock! Keep an eye on these junior bloggers for some kid's eye views of the books and movies they love.

p.s. You can find them on the sidebar for easy reference -->

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fall Book Giveaway

I'm taking part in a Fall Book Giveaway that you aren't going to want to miss. I'm giving away a copy of my book Life, Liberty, and Pursuit, but there are literally hundreds of books being given away on this Hop! So just click through on Mr. Linky and enter!

To win a copy of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit just leave a comment below. Life, Liberty, and Pursuit is a young adult love story about a college-bound girl who falls in a pool, the Navy recruit who saves her, and their struggle to choose between following their dreams and daring to love.

More about Life, Liberty, and Pursuit on Goodreads and the book website.
And while I'm at it, here are some of the latest cool things happening with the book:

A 4 star review of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit at the Fire and Ice Blog

Life, Liberty, and Pursuit now avaible for Nook and Mobipocket

The awesome Sherie Larsen interviews me on the Graffitti Wall

So join the hop and win some books!

And leave a comment below to be entered to win a copy of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit! (NOTE: Only for residents in the U.S. CONTEST ENDS WED 9/29)

UPDATE: And the winner is ... Kristina Barnes! Thanks so much to everyone who entered. Kristina, I will be shipping your copy of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit to you shortly!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MG and YA Book Placement on the Shelves

This interesting article from a children's editor (Ms. Whitman) on SFWA (Science Fiction Writer's Association) talks about how people are still unclear about the differences between Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA), but as these genres grow in importance (to publisher and bookseller bottom lines) they are getting more attention. She points out that the difference between MG and YA is content driven, not necessarily the age of the characters.

I like her idea of splitting up "younger" and "older" teen material on the bookstore and library shelves, and think I might suggest that the next time I cruise into my local B&N. She even suggests using MPAA ratings as a guide for authors and publishers in determining the target audience for a book! Now that's an idea Ink Spells can really get behind!

Would you like to see an "older" and "younger" teen section in the library or bookstore?

Do you think the "middle grade" section (or "young reader" as it's called at my local Barnes and Noble) should have a similar breakdown, so that Captain Underpants isn't shelved next to Harry Potter?

Or do shelvings in the library or bookstore not influence your book selections?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why E-books Will Win*

I downloaded Mockingjay at 12:23am the day of the release. In my pajamas.

If my friend Adam Heine (*title credit belongs to him) had a Nook, I could have lent him my copy, rather than having to wait weeks for it to ship to Thailand

And I lent my copy of The Forest of Hands and Teeth to my niece in Wisconsin, without having to pay shipping. We chatted about it on Facebook (also Mockingjay. All her friends were Team Gale, so I gave her Team Peeta support).

It's small things like these, and big things like saving money on lower e-book prices, that make e-books full of win.

But it gets better.

A Wall Street Journal article reports 40% of e-reader owners read more than they did before owning an e-reader, and buy 3.3 times as many books.

THREE times as many books! That, my friends, is the salvation of the publishing industry I've been talking about.

Should you jump into the e-reader frenzy now? That's a decision between you and your pocketbook, but you may want to wait, as prices and options change at a dizzying pace. I've been telling friends and family to hold off for the Holiday electronic gadget rush, when supppliers are likely to put forth their best offerings.

Nathan Bransford has a still timely primer on the e-revolution, if you're timid about dipping your toes in the water.

But I was surprised how many people I know who have already jumped in with both feet: our soccer coach, who charges his Kindle off his laptop on long business trips; my niece in Wisconsin (above), where the whole family got their own Nooks; my hairdresser with a gorgeous iPad that makes me drool with envy (she uses it for school).

Of course, e-books and e-readers have problems. I occasionally forget to recharge, which is annoying when I want to read right now. I'm one of those people who lurks and peeks over your shoulder to see what you're reading, which is really impossible with an e-reader without having the cops called on you.** And of course there's compatibility issues with readers and formats, but I expect that to all settle out in the coming years.

**that never happened, I swear

While e-readers may be carrying us into the future, this doesn't mean the e-pocalypse is near. In fact, I think e-readers will soon be considered an obvious (in retrospect) next step in the constant forward march of progress (if you don't believe me, see this hidden link between e-readers and sheep).

And the really cool stuff is yet to come:

This future is so bright, I need sunglasses.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Power of Imagination

Introducing myself as an author: cool

Showing kids my mini-laptop and Nook gadgets: fun

Talking about writing and word choice with bunches of second graders: highlight of my month

The kids wanted to know how long it took to write my book (6 mos) and I told them how I revised it many times and had three editors to make sure it was all correct (they are learning about revisions in class). We talked about how authors very carefully pick their words so that they paint a picture in reader's minds. And I walked them through an exercise where we used our five senses to come up with word choices to describe our favorite sport. It was a challenge to describe how soccer smells ("like grass") or how dancing tastes ("salty"), but it was tremendous fun.

My favorite part came when I read a descriptive scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. We're on platform Nine and Three-Quarters and Lee has just lifted the lid of a box in his arms ... "the people around him shrieked and yelled as something inside poked out a long, hairy leg."

Just one of the fantastic throw-away tidbits that J.K. Rowling has in her books.

We had talked about how words paint a picture in your mind, but that the picture may be different in each person's head. So, I asked them, "What's in the box?"

A purple cat.
A rat with a long tail.
A dragon.
A monkey.
A hairy cat.
A tarantula (this is the one I always thought, too).

The imagination of children never ceases to amaze me (seriously? purple cat? I never saw that coming).

Teaching Writing, the 7 Year Old Way

I'm giving my first writing seminar!

Ok, so it's to a class of second graders - what, you were expecting Harvard? (I'm not even sure if Harvard has a creative writing program.)

Later this fall, I'll be stopping by Worm Burner's class to talk about writing and publishing a book. Well, Mighty Mite got wind of this, and being the proactive Mite that he is, told his teacher his mom is an author and that she should come talk to his class. Mighty Mite is 7 years old, cute as a button, and can get away with stuff like that. (I am SO in trouble when he becomes a teenager.)

Of course, you can't just talk to one class of 2nd graders, you must talk to all three classes of 2nd graders. (Please, twist my arm some more.)

So today I'm teaching about 70 second graders about descriptive word choices and how an author goes about getting a book published.

Wish me luck!

UPDATE: See results here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Because Sometimes There's Too Much Seriousness ...

Picture credit

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Picture credit

Back tomorrow with the seriousness . . .

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where are the Adult Heroes in Kidlit?

Today's books for kids have child protagonists the same age as their readers (or a couple years older - kids like to "read up").

It wasn't ever thus.

Fairy tales, the children's fiction of yore, sometimes featured children, but just as often had adult heroes (and villains). While children's fiction should by definition be books that appeal to children, today's books seem limited to stories about children.

But children are fascinated by Spiderman and Superman and King Arthur and Luke Skywalker, and the last time I checked, none of these characters were children. These stories are written about (supposed) adults, but they are most certainly written for children.  But step away from the comic books, TV shows, and movies, and children's literature is bereft of adult (main) characters. In fact, there's an unwritten rule that not only must the main protagonist be a child, the child must be the one to solve the story problem.

Thank you, Harry Potter.

Of course there are adult mentors in kidlit (where would Harry be without Dumbledore), but they aren't allowed to take center stage. They aren't the heroes of the story, and more often than not, the adults are bumbling, evil, or dead.

Note that none of the above superhero stories originated in the last 30 years. It's almost as if children are expected to be their own heroes these days, rather than dreaming of growing up to be heroes. There's some fundamental shift in thinking here, but it has only occurred in literature. The fact that adult heroes live on in comics, movies, and TV leads me to think that children still crave these adult heroes.

So why have they been banished from books?* Especially when kids are obviously interested in more than that?

If you have the answers, please leave them in the comments below. :)

*I'm not counting book adaptations of movies and TV

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ink Spells talks Justin Case: School, Drool and other Daily Disasters

September 14, Tuesday

Do you have a child who worries? I do. He’s been worrying since he was two. I worry that his worrying will keep him from having fun, playing with other kids, and trying out for the swim team.

I think it’s contagious.

I talked before about Rachel Vail’s adorable book Justin Case: School, Drool and other Daily Disasters, when I met this inspiring author/speaker at the SCBWI conference. I wish I had this book when my now-nearly-twelve worrier was entering third grade, as Justin does. Through a series of hilarious journal entries, we live the life of an eight year old worrier as he fends off rebellious stuffed animals, schemes to get a dog (even though he’s terrified of them), and finds a way to survive the year without his best friend in his class. Along the way, he discovers that bravery means not letting your fears get in the way.

RL: 5.2 CSM: n/a Rating: G Content: gentle, fun book about life in third grade

I love the way this book allows kids to get inside the head of epic-worrier, Justin Case:

September 8, Tuesday
Tomorrow is the first day of third grade.
Mom said to focus on the bright side.
Well, Xavier Schwartz is not in my class this year. That's bright.
No. It's not helping. I'm still focusing on the dark side.

As well as bringing out the real-life triumphs of life as a third grader:

November 7, Saturday
I scored!
Holy cannoli, I scored the winning goal in soccer today!
Dad picked me up and spun me around and around.
He thinks the extra practice somehow made the difference. I will never tell him that I was actually trying to pass the ball to Sam and just aimed it badly so it arced into the goal accidentally.
It is a secret I will keep as long as I live.

Dark Omen (nearly twelve) gamely read this book, but it really was a bit young for him. The reading level is an impressive 5.2 (for a book about third graders), so I think it is a great find for young advanced readers. With its light-hearted innocence and story of triumph over fears large and small, I heartily recommend Justin Case for worriers (and their parents) ages 8+, or even younger – because worrying has no age limit.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Gendered Writing

Does my gender affect my writing?

I think the answer has to be yes, with the qualifier that all different aspects of who I am influence my writing. I'm a mother, an engineer, and a rabid fan of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Does this impact my writing? Yes. I'm a wife, an elected official, and a sucker for deep philosophical issues. Does this impact my writing? Yes. 

This great article in Writer's Digest goes one step further and talks about how men and women write differently. Women tend to write softer, more soothing prose, and [approach stories] from an emotional standpoint. Men tend to write more action, more muscular prose, and tackle stories that "get the job done."

[I struggled (there it is again) to come up with a softer verb (approach) for this sentence, whereas tackle just rolled off my fingertips. I think I write like a boy.]

These are of course generalizations and don't apply to every male and female writer.

But we also write what we like to read, so if you want to appeal to both male and female readers, it's good to understand the differences and apply them critically to your work. I also think understanding this issue is important to writing realistic male and female characters.

One thing I noticed about The Hunger Games was that while Katniss was a girl, she thought and acted like a boy. This is completely believable because her family was dependent on her to "get the job done," and that facet of her character is part of what allowed her to be the hero(ine) of the story. Part of what made her "think like a boy" was that she rarely considered (at least directly) her feelings about an issue, but rather described the consequences.

An example* of this is when soft-hearted Peeta (a boy) mocks her inability to recognize her own feelings. After Katniss relays a story of conniving to acquire a goat for her younger sister, who adores animals and whose life she saved by volunteering for The Games, he says, "I can see why that day made you happy." She replies, "Well, I knew that goat would be a little gold mine." He drily responds, "Yes, of course I was referring to that, not the lasting joy you gave the sister you love so much you took her place in the reaping." I think this austerity, or perhaps lack of awareness, of feelings (and a whole lot of flying arrows and mayhem) made the story attractive to male readers as well as female readers.

This doesn't mean that male characters can't feel plenty of emotion. I like the way Holly Black portrays Cassel, the teen male lead character in White Cat, as having plenty of emotions, but describing them as consequences. When Cassel is stuck on a roof, in danger of slipping and falling off, he doesn't think this scares the heck out of me or I've never been so scared in my life. He thinks, I need to find a way down, preferably one that doesn't involve dying, while the shaking in his hands makes it tough to keep his grip. You feel the emotion, but it's action focused, giving it appeal for both boys and girls. This is also simply good SHOW not TELL storytelling.

Evermore is an example of the extreme opposite of this - not only do we know the thoughts of the lead female protagonist, but because she's psychic, we know the thoughts of everyone around her as well. This leads to a lot of phrases like touch is too revealing, too exhausting and everything was pain, and misery, and stinging wet hurt on my forehead. Even if male readers made it past the cover (unlikely) they wouldn't last through the first chapter. However, gauging by the popularity of Alyson Noel's books, female readers are slurping it up.

(it's important to note the covers here as well - although White Cat has a boy on the cover, he's fully clothed - down to gloves, which are important in the story - and he's holding a cat. That's a cover that both boys and girls can carry. Likewise with Hunger Games, a truly gender-neutral cover. The Evermore cover targets its female audience with a female face and flowers.)

The above examples are taken from young adult lit, mainly because all the breakout middle grade books are written in a way that appeals to both sexes (Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket), or are slightly more boy-centric in their writing style (Artemis Fowl, Leviathan). I've heard publishers say that girls will read boy-lit but boys will not read girl-lit, but I think this only happens in the extremes of these categories. And girls are as unlikely to enjoy extreme-boy-lit, as boys are to read extreme-girl-lit.

There's nothing wrong with writing stories that speak directly to the heart of a boy or girl (or man or woman). And stories that target only one gender can get away with using language that only appeals to that gender. But I would love to see more stories for children that appeal to and are accessible to both genders. Stories that have action, but aren't a barren landscape devoid of emotion. Stories that speak to our hearts, but doesn't mire us in a lot of navel-gazing introspection. And stories that use language in a way that doesn't exclude half the children of the world.

The first step is understanding how writing is affected by gender; the second step is intentionally using it in your work as a writer.

Do you think your gender affects your writing? And if so, how?

*I remembered this scene and used the search function on my Nook to find it again. Which kinda rocked.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is Your World Masculine or Feminine?

And how strange is that question? The World is The World, right?

Not exactly.

Ever since 7th grade Spanish, I've known that some languages associate masculine and feminine with items that in English are not gendered. A chair is just an inanimate object in English, but in Spanish it is la silla (feminine) and in German it is der stuhl (masculine). Just reading those words, you can feel the difference. La silla feels like a silk brocade sofa, over-stuffed and opulent. Der stuhl sounds like something I would use to reach the glasses on a high shelf: functional, utilitarian, probably made out of sturdy wood.

This fascinating NY Times article looks at the impact of language on how we think about gender, spatial orientation, and even the causal reality of our world. It amazed me to find how different languages impact the way its speakers think, not so much constraining them to think in a certain way, but narrowing their focus, emphasizing one set of features over another. Spanish speakers will emphasize the "manly" features of (masculine) bridges such as strength, whereas Germans will think of (feminine) bridges as more slender or elegant. English speakers are probably just hoping to get across without having it collapse.

Being a writer, a crafter of words, all this makes me think about how English has a certain egalitarianism to it that I never appreciated before. I can make my bridges burly and strong or shapely and artistic, and my language does not constrain me one way or the other. I can make my work as Masculine or Feminine as I wish. Which makes me wonder if my gender impacts my writing...a subject I will tackle on Monday.

But in the meantime, do you write (or think) in a different language? How do you feel that impacts your writing in English?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cat Solves Printer Problem

From the IT Department of Feline Intelligence:

I don't normally do videos but this one makes me laugh out loud. Every. Single. Time.

If you have some cat-funny to share, leave a link in the comments!

Also: I'm posting over at the Scribbler's Cove on Intentional Reading, or how I use reading to improve my writing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Boy Characters in YA and MG

Are boys stereotyped in YA (young adult) and MG (middle grade) books?

There's been a rash of discussion on the blogosphere about stereotypes of boys in YA lit (The Sweet One, The Bad Boy, The Nerdy Guy) and the subsequent lack of boy readers of YA, as they avoid the aisle of pink-kissy-lip covers like a toxic spill. The amazing boylit writer (and YA herself) Hannah Moskowitz has a fascinating discussion of The Boy Problem on her blog (also: check her out, she's awesome).

This got me thinking about boy characters in MG. Do we stereotype them as well? I don't think they serve as cardboard cut-outs, the way boys often do in YAlit, simply because MGlit seems more designed to appeal to boys AND girls. In fact, if you expect to have high concept, broad appeal books in MG, you had better have both male and female lead characters that are strong in their own rights.

Harry Potter: Where would Harry be without Ron and Hermoine?
Artemis Fowl: Artemis is counterbalanced by a rocket-powered fairy girl (Holly)
The Red Pyramid (Riordan's latest): Brother and sister dynamic duo, with alternating voices
Leviathan: Prince Alex arguably isn't even the lead, because so much of the stage is stolen by derring-do Deryn
Lemony Snicket: Bookish brother Klaus is meek compared to inventor Violet and biter extraordinaire Sunny

There are certainly some books without major female leads (Percy Jackson comes to mind), but I would say on balance characters are more likely to be boy/girl teams than solo boy adventurers. These examples happen to be fantasy/science fiction, but they are drawn from the bestselling MG books, which I think speaks to their broader appeal. I don't read a lot of real-life MG books (Frindle), but while those seem to have more girl lead characters, they also don't tend to be the breakout (read: super popular) books.

In almost all of these examples, the girls run against type - they are inventors and pilots and sassy sister/fairy/friends. But what about the boys? Well, they are almost uniformly orphans, but that is more plot device than stereotype, I believe. Harry is average in intelligence and kinda nerdy in a pleasant sort of way, but has a special destiny. Artemis is an evil (sort of) genius that has a soft heart. Percy is dyslexic and gets in trouble a lot, but is also loyal and has a special destiny as well. Alex is argumentative and a bit snobbish, but noble and valiant.

Looking at all these great characters, I'm having a hard time seeing a stereotype. Having a "special destiny" is practically required for fantasy books, and being an orphan frees you up for adventure. They are uniformly brave, but I think most heroes need to be. Perhaps the common thread is that all these boys are outsiders, ostracized a bit from their peers and misunderstood by adults, but ultimately saving the day (with their girl sidekicks and often an adult mentor).

Is this bad? Are we missing a boy character type that needs to be brought out in MG fiction?

The one thing I haven't seen yet is a breakout book with a girl as the strong lead character, even if she has a boy sidekick (ala Hunger Games in YAlit). But I think we're heading in the right direction as girl characters get stronger roles (also Byrne Risk is my personal attempt at moving that trend forward).

What tropes do you see in MGlit, either in boy or girl characters?

p.s. The lovely Sheri Larsen has interviewed me over at The Graffiti Wall, where you can WIN a copy of Life, Liberty, and Pursuit! And be sure to check back with Sheri next month, where she's hosting a Paranormal Writing contest, and I'll be offering a critique as one of the fab prizes!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Head Rush

If you haven't heard about the new spin-off of the Myth Busters show, Head Rush, well you need to check it out!

Kari Byron does an awesome job of talking about the science behind the wildly popular (at least in my house) Myth Busters experiments, where stuff gets blown up, shredded, pressurized, and melted, all in search of busting myths like Is Shooting Fish in a Barrel Easy? and Can Roaches Really Survive a Nuclear Explosion?

Tell me you don't want to know!

Head Rush even surpasses Myth Busters by achieving my own personal trifecta of awesome: 1) it's science, 2) you blow stuff up, and 3) it's run by a girl.

OK, maybe I'm a little biased in that last one, but still.

My boys can't get enough of it, which I think should put the lie to boys not being interested just because a girl is involved. Frankly, I think that's why my husband watches it too.

I believe this equally applies to books - just because a main character in a book is a girl does not automatically make it toxic for boys. Even the young ones.

Would your kids, whether girls or boys, like Head Rush?

Monday, September 6, 2010

And Thus Begins The Revolution

Me: Hello?

My dad: Happy Birthday! I got you a birthday present, but it's going to be late because it was back-ordered. It's a book.

Me: Books are good. Yanno, you wouldn't have that problem with an e-book (thus diving into our perpetual e-book discussion).

My dad: Yeah, you're never going to convert me to those. I like my paper books.

Me: Give me two years.

My dad: Huh? No. You'll never change my mind.

Me: Two years. I'm just warning you, yanno, so you see it coming.

My dad: Look, I'm reading these two books right now and you can't even GET them as e-books.

{we look them up; sure enough he's right}

Me: Well, six months ago, I couldn't get my kid's books on the Nook. When I came out to visit {last month} I loaded up the Nook with all kinds of books for all three of them (ages 7-11).

My dad: Really? Kids books?

Me: Yeah. So, I'll give your Vietnam-war-analysis author another 6 months or so. He'll have an e-book by then.

My dad: Well, I don't really buy books - I just get them from the library. I sign up for them as soon as they come out and check them out when they come available.

Me: You know you can borrow e-books from the library, right?

My dad: Really?

Me: Two years, Dad. I'm just sayin ...

My dad: We'll see ...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ninja Wordle Skills to Improve your Writing

This funky post is dedicated to the BBQ party weekend blog-hop suggested by the fabulous KarenG. So join the party and hop along to visit some new blogger friends.


For those who haven't encountered Wordle yet, it's an online service that takes your manuscript (or website or blog) and turns it into a graphic representation, where more frequently used words are drawn larger. Below is the Wordle for Byrne Risk.

Naturally, your character names are going to be most common (or at least they should, unless you're using a strange narrative form without proper pronouns), and common words like "the" and "and" are ignored.

You can quickly see that I like the word "like" and seem to spend a lot of time "look"ing at my character's "face" and "eyes." I also appear to think diminuatively, using the word "small" to describe everything from rodents to computer screens. It's one of my default descriptors, which is quite handy in spotting places that need a few well-placed details. Just make sure you don't swap one commonly used word ("tiny") for another ("small"). Why is everything in my world microscopic?

Identifying your "overused" words is an easy way to find your MS weaknesses. I take the top 20 or so overused words, do a search-and-replace to highlight them, and then go about attacking those yellow jacketed offenders and converting them to more descriptive phrases. Or simply deleting them, which is often easy to do.


Under the Language option, you can view your actual word counts. And copy and paste them into Excel for further torment. Once you sort your words by frequency, it becomes easier to pick out the top over-used words, but now you can also identify the under-used words.

This is where the Ninja part comes in: look at the bottom of that list and you will find hundreds of words that are only used once in your manuscript.

Awesome author Linda Sue Park mentioned in her workshop that every unique word in your manuscript should be used at least twice. This isn't for your colorful adjectives ("massive" "terrified") or your common words that just happen to be uncommon in your MS ("configurations" "lady") but the unique words that are part of your world-building ("lepur" "murinda"). Linda Sue's point was that if the word is important enough to be used once, then it should be important enough to your story to use twice. This way, you aren't just throwing off random words with no meaning to your reader.

This list of single-use-words is also great for finding ...

  • unique spellings that somehow get past the spell check to create new and interestingly unique words ("blonde" which should be "blond")
  • inadvertent variations on spelling the same word ("spin-tronic" and "spintronic")
  • things you're pretty sure are a word, but you wouldn't want to hang your life on it ("proofed")
  • a few words you didn't realize were in your MS, but you're rather proud of ("rapturous" "hewn")

The only flaw is that Wordle doesn't account for capitalization or plurals, so you may have used "lepur" twice, but only once was it capitalized.

Be prepared to spend some time on this, as I had over a 1000 words that I only used once. However, weeding through those thousand "flags" allowed me to find and correct several (potentially embarassing) mistakes before my MS was sent out to agents.

I recommend doing this kind of search only when you're very close to submitting, as a last and final check.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ink Spells talks Dark Life

Science fiction has returned to middle grade, but it's gone undersea.

Dark Life is a fantastic tale set in a future where the seas have risen and life is crowded on land, but a new frontier has opened at the bottom of the ocean. Ty, a fifteen year old born on the ocean floor, fights undersea pirates and the onerous force of the Commonwealth's martial law to protect his family's homestead and one day claim land of his own. A topsider girl in search of her lost brother brings adventure and danger with her. This fish tale is filled with exotic Dark Life creatures and action more frenzied than a shark in chum.

RL: 4.8 CSM: n/a Rating: PG Content: Sweet kisses, Wild West violence, some blood

There is an innocent undertone of romance in this story, where women in the frontier are as uncommon and sought-after as the Old West. But a few sweet kisses are all that blossoms. The violence is Wild West style, with lots of action and vigilante justice threatening. The book starts with a blood spattered mini-sub, although whether the blood is human or sea creature is unknown.

While this book is technically "young adult" because of the age of the protagonists, it is clean enough that I consider it suitable for upper middle grade. The violence and kisses are mild enough to remain PG, but the story is probably best reserved for readers 10+. Advanced readers will enjoy the cool undersea creatures and all the tech that goes with deep sea exploration. With its fast pace and mystery, I heartily recommend Dark Life for advanced readers 10+, and avid lovers of boylit (including me).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Byrne Risk takes Flight!

I'm back and blogging! And really couldn't be happier. I was on blogging withdrawl meds there for a while.

But I put my blog-cation to good use: I finished the edits on Byrne Risk (my middle grade science fiction novel) and have flung it out into the querying world.

*deep breaths* *deep breaths*

This is the Chinese character for Tao, or The Way, a concept that figures prominently in the Mandarin-dominated culture-of-the-future in Byrne Risk, where a thirteen-year-old girl tries to save her clone caretaker from the Peace Police.

Pondering the Tao of the Publishing also helps to calm my querying nerves, but mostly I just like the way the character looks.

The amazingly talented K.M. Criddle, who visited Ink Spells during Art Appreciation Week, drew this picture of a murinda for me. Murinda are the small genetically engineered pets that Kate (the protagonist in Byrne Risk) uses for her cloning experiments.

Could he be any more cute?

Thank you, Marie!

I'll just gaze at this critter while I obsessively check the email box, I mean, move on to writing my other books.

p.s. I've joined a team blog called The Scribbler's Cove, filled with pirates, professional liars, and awesome. I'll be posting over there when the whim strikes me, for example today, where I further ponder the Tao of Publishing.