Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Three Deadlies

The best aspect of being a published writer happens when someone writes to you and says how much they liked your book and how it has helped them in some way. It's also very handy when I am grilling one of my boys and he responds by saying, "Geez, Mom, what are you doing -- writing a book?"

As a matter of fact...

So there has to be a darker side, and there is: you get swamped with requests to read other folks unpubbed manuscripts. Initially, it's really flattering (and there are maybe two in your inbox in a month) I am the first to say writing a novel is

a) hopeful


b) hopeful

Of course I can't read them anymore. Most people who write, work, and have a family don't have the time to critique entire manuscripts, and I'm no exception. But I have read a few pages of them recently, just the first ones,because it's August and boring. There's a lot going on in the good department with writing, but the teacher in me has picked out three really consistent mistakes an awful lot of writers seem to be making. In random order, they are:

1. Dullness. Yikes. Death sentence. And the most common of the three deadlies.

Kids give you fifteen nanoseconds to interest them. Start in the middle. Let the school explode, then talk about how Doug had been bullied one science class too long and had always had an interest in dynamite. You can always go back and fill in the backstory later. You have to get them to WANT to know the backstory. And you have to do it fast. That may not hold true for adult stories, but YA/MG audiences are not known for patience.

And dullness goes for the writing, too. For some reason, maybe writers are striving for a casual approach in the dialog, there's a lot of "good as gold," and "black as night." Boring.

Here's a sentence I still remember from last year that Emma told me. "Mom, you have to cut off the crusts on these sandwiches. They taste like balloons." I remembered it because it's surprising.

If there is no fresh language and there are lots of cliches, no one will want to read it. Coat the characters and the actions in layers of irrelevant details and it will send everyone running, including agents and editors. You don't want to be a word slut and show everything you've got in the first few pages.

2. Beige Settings.

So much of YA takes place in the mall or the school, and it's THE MALL or THE SCHOOL, the generic one on the Disney channel. Give the place flavor. All schools and places have their quirks, strange characters, weird smells, an abandoned factory, a crazy neighbor, something along those lines. It helps the kids "see" the place. And they are still young enough to really, really like engaging all their senses to "see" --

3.Writer as Pastor.

I'm surprised at how common this is.

I did this once, and I thought it was soooo subtle. An editor at Carolrhoda picked it up (this was maybe five years ago) wrote to me and told me the story came close, but in the end she could sense the "lesson" through the story -- and she was sure kids would, too. It never works unless you are writing for vacation bible schools.

Right now, I'm reading Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson, and I think as long as you have a sense of humor and have seen a few B movies and you want to write with more freshness, that's a great book to start with. It is sort of strange and surprising, but I'm reading pages of it to my balloon-bread daughter and she thinks it's "not so bad for a boy writer."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Teradactyls Over D.C.

We just got back from Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg, Virginia. I really think the colonists had it easy compared to traveling in a mid size car with three kids in the middle of an August heat wave.

After a few hours of arguing, I began pointing out, “Look, see those nice families in the car next to us? They’re talking together and playing games with license plates and state capitals. Why can't we be normal like that?"

Philip interpreted this observation as a request to teach his younger sister the sound a teradactyl makes. Teradactyls used to be Philip’s favorite animal, back when he was seriously interested in dinosaurs. Emma, being a girl, missed that phase and was bored enough to make the screeching sounds along with her brother. (Christopher, amazingly, slept through this, though he was listening to his Ipod)

I forgot new batteries for the camera, so I handed Philip my phone and asked him to take pictures -- but he had to stop the teradactyl noises. We got some great shots this way:

That's the road we were on, or it might be The Baltimore Tunnel, and here's a bridge:

But at least the prehistoric screeching slowed down and we stopped arguing long enough to reach the hotel. They had a rooftop pool which the kids and I loved. Most of the people around us were speaking French or German and the kids were amazed that we were the only English speakers.

After the pool, while everyone was getting dressed, I decided to go down to the lobby to get some restaurant menus. I had on new clothes (no stains! no cat claw holes!) and I had just come from swimming, so I was feeling pretty cool in that elevator. I was thinking how we could pass for a normal, maybe even a civilized family. Elegant folks all dressed for dinner got on at each floor.

That’s when my phone rang. Except it didn’t ring: it screeched like a teradactyl. Right there, with all the international people in their evening wear, in a small, urban elevator, I heard Philip and Emma going ARRRRRRHCCCCCCCCARRRAGHHHGARRR or something like that. The sound came right from my new black purse that I had bought to go with the new clothes. I had forgotten how he liked to change his ring tone every ten minutes. I fumbled for the phone. No one said a word. They just got off the elevator and walked away. Actually, they walked a little fast…

Human Teradactyls:

Williamsburg was better. We had a bigger space which is always good for family harmony, and there was enough history and canons and things along those lines to interest everyone.

I did escape a demonstration on colonial weaving by sneaking off to this bookstore. Christopher got this shot as I broke free:

I really did want to buy some books and a lamp as souvenirs. I explained to Christopher the style I wanted to get, how it would look colonial, and we would have a reminder of the trip.

Christopher looked at me for a long minute. "Mom," he reminded me, "the colonists did not have lamps."

He thinks he's so smart.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Nature Girl Meets Her Nature

Since it’s August, most of us are thinking about vacations. We live on the Jersey Shore, so it’s not like we don’t see vacationers all around us. They are the families who look really, really stressed at the beach with little kids running around and plastic toys spilling everywhere. Since we live here, they are kind of a seasonal oddity to us along with ticks and mosquitoes.

Of course, we want to go on vacation, too. While I was teaching and working on fall syllabi, I decided the kids should have some kind of vacation until we leave for Virginia in a few days. There’s a campground a few miles from us, so I went on a mining expedition in the basement and found a brand new tent. I remember buying this tent about ten years ago while in a postpartum haze with Emma strapped to me in one of those cotton papoosey slings. I had no idea what I was thinking at the time since I can barely stand in the yard for fifteen minutes before the bugs and the humidity get to me.

“What is that?” Christopher asked as I dragged it up from the basement.

“A tent. I think we should go camping.”

“Camping.” He looked at me for a second. “Mom, do you sit around and think up these ideas for us? And don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s like you’re getting early dementia. Your ideas are getting worse and worse.”

“I don’t have dementia because I want you guys to get close to nature. It would be good for you to leave your computer and video games for a night. I think you should consider it.”

“So now, exactly why do you want us to pretend we’re homeless?”

I never looked at camping in quite that way. But I decided to put the tent up in the backyard. Maybe if they fooled around with the tent back there, they would want to go to the campgrounds.

Now I have never put up a tent before, and this slept four so it wasn’t that big. Emma had a couple of friends over and we took the box and some poles out to the backyard.

We struggled for about half an hour. One of the girls looked at the box. “There’s a door!” she exclaimed, “I don’t see a door on this tent.”

“Maybe we have to cut a door,” the other girl suggested, “you know, just cut it out.”

“Really?” I asked, “I never saw anyone do that,” I said. "They just zip them, don't they?"

“I think the door appears magically once the tent is up,” Emma suggested hopefully. "Remember the closet to Narnia?"

I looked at Emma. “I think I better see if there are directions.”

Of course there weren’t. The box was nearly ten years old, and it had been snooped in a few times and there were no directions. I stared at the box for a few minutes trying to figure out what went where.

We were still out there without a tent when Philip and a friend came into the yard.

“Oh,” Friend said, “we used to camp all the time. I love putting tents up!”

After a few minutes, Friend looked at me. “Umm, you know why this isn’t working?”

We all looked at her blankly.

“You guys are putting the tarp up. This is only the piece you put up when it rains. This isn’t a tent.”

We did find the tent in another part of the basement. Philip and his friend put it up. No one went near it. It's still out there, now being used as a trampoline for our psychotic squirrels. I am waiting for that friend to return because I have absolutely no idea how to disassemble the thing.

We have found a lovely hotel in Virginia where you slide a card into a slot to get to your room.

I think that’s a really good idea for me.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

What Kind of Day at the Beach Are You?

The other day, we got our first chance to go to the beach this summer. I am admittedly at odds with this area and its Nascar-loving, small animal hunting denizens, but when I go to the local beach, I don’t want to live anywhere else. These are pictures of the beach about fifteen minutes from us:

I remember getting so annoyed when my adult relatives asked me to look at the sand dunes. Who wanted to do that when there was a beach with an ocean right there? I tried pointing out how amazing these places are to my kids. They responded with such a blank stare that I could hear mental tapping and the low whisper of: “When will she be done talking about sand?”

I think you can tell a whole lot about folks when you see them on the beach. My husband, the engineering type, is a logician. He reads the table they post about water temperature, tidal patterns, and the danger of rip tides before even putting the blanket down. I’m not sure what difference any of that makes; I figure out the water temperature and currents once I’m in the ocean - if I remember to think about that stuff.

Of course, he grew up inland so the beach isn’t home to him like it is to me. I grew up on a beach and never remember, not even once, having any kind of scientific table to consult before swimming. Then again, if people like me ran the world it would be a whole lot messier and way, way more bridges would collapse. I usually dump everything in a kind of territorial scatter and plunge into the water. Son #1 is like that, too. He heads straight for the water, only now, he makes sure he is really, really far from the middle aged lady in the bathing suit. When we bump into each other in the water, he nods at me and paddles away as if he has just spotted my dorsal fin.

Son #2 has become a herrmit crab. Angry that he could not spend the afternoon redesigning his myspace page, he sat with towels covering his head. I think he was texting under those towels, but he refused to budge off his spot. I did slide a juice box and some snacks under the towels which were silently accepted. (Please tell me that some day he won’t be fifteen anymore; I think he‘s been this age for three years…)

Emma is an arts and crafts beachcomber. She collects shells, “great rocks” (meaning weirdly shaped or super flat ones) and anything glittery or interesting. These usually get made into weird sculptures that she puts together with gorilla glue and acrylic paint. They look like mini gargoyles when she is done and we put them in the garden to keep the psychotic squirrel at bay. (He’s a squirrel who swings down from the branches and sits right near us when we are outside -- then he leaps back into the tree without warning and makes a screeching sound -- we never knew squirrels made sounds. They shouldn’t make sounds in case you’re wondering what he sounds like)

But most of the people on the beach are barges. I never understood this behavior, and I still don’t. They come down to the water in bathing suits, set up an umbrella and just sit there and watch everyone. I guess they watch crazy people like me shivering in the water. Occasionally, they turn their lounge chairs to or away from the sun, but they don’t get up too much. I guess everyone likes the beach, even non swimmers.

So what kind of beach visitor are you? A barge, a beachcomber, a plunger, a logician or a hermit crab?