Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

Thanks so much to Marcia Hoehne for nominating me as a kreativ blogger -- I am to name seven things I love, then pass it on to seven people. I think I will have to search for seven folks to pass it on to, (I checked a few blogs, and most of the blogs I read already have been nominatated), so I may do that little by little. Here are seven things I love:

1. If you talk to me for more than fifteen seconds, what I love more than anything in the world are my kids. I was the one who said I was going back to work after the baby was born, checked daycare centers, and put in for just a six week leave from my teaching job. My first born in now working on getting his driving permit, and I am still home every day when he comes home from school. I can't imagine ever being without them for more than a few hours.

2. I think secondly, I would have to say I love writing. Because as much as I love my kids and my husband, when they drive me nuts, and they do (my boys decided last night that studying for midterms was a huge waste of their free time) I escape everything by writing. I almost go into a trance when I write, crazy as that might sound, but everything else in life drops away when I am working on a scene in a story. It's almost like a drug for me.

3. Of course, with writing goes books. I am happiest at the library or in a bookstore. I don't get that same sense of being in another place when I read as often as I do when I write, but it's similar. I have so many boxes of books in my basement I wonder if it's normal. Then that passes, and I order more books...

4. I really like to cook. I like the whole aspect of it: shopping for the ingredients, preparing it, serving it. I especially like to cook and feed my kids. I even like growing the food in the summer.

5. Speaking of cooking, I have to say the all time most perfect food on the earth is chocolate. I sometimes teach and tutor Spanish, and I have to thank those Aztecs for coming up with the refinement of the cocoa bean. There is chocolate stashed all over my house, and my daughter said to her brother the other day when he discovered a Cadbury bar, "Don't eat that; it's Mom's stress chocolate."

6. I really like having friends. Right now, it's so hard for me to maintain friendships. I work four days a week, and my husband works on weekends so unless folks want three kids (and by kids, I mean one flexible child and two frequently surly teenagers) tagging along to social events, it's difficult for me to do anything socially.
For some weird reason, the majority of my friends are childless so it's not like they want to go to a water park or do anything that would encompass kids. So I really value the little time I get to spend with friends.

7. I would have to say music here -- I don't watch too many movies and I can't stand tv, but I do have music all over the house. And I have to mention animals -- I can't imagine a house without music, books, animals and kids (or mess, laundry, and dishes either), so I am going to cheat a little bit here and include music and animals in the same number because I have to mention them both. I don't think there are actual rules to these things, and so far I haven't met any blog police, so I think it's okay to do a combo for my last pick.

Now the trick is to find seven folks who haven't been tagged -- (and why do I keep thinking of dwarves?)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Teen Political

I might be the only person in America already sick of the Obamas. I just don't care what they are eating or wearing or thinking: I just want him to fix stuff that's wrong. My kids watched the inauguration almost all day at school. The teachers kept saying, "It's historic," and of course we all know what the nine and ten year olds in my daughter's class were thinking: "Great, no work." My teenagers said some of middle and high school kids were taking bets as to whether or not someone would attempt to assassinate him. (When I nervously asked if they had contributed their lunch money toward such an awful wager, they looked at me and laughed. "Mom, are you nuts? They had hot pretzels today.")

I guess I think 150 million could better be spent on literacy programs or childhood vaccinations or even animal shelters. Do the people in D.C. really need more parties like that? I feel like I could see clips of the last ten presidential balls and not be able to tell which era it's from. Washington D. C. seems to breed a particular brand of beefy political male who stuffs himself into a party suit then twirls around the floor with his Barbie-gone-middle-aged wife. They all just have this look about them. Maybe that's just what really rich, disconnected people look like. Or maybe it's the Botox, I can't be sure.

I know how crabby I sound. And that's precisely why I don't discuss politics with my kids or their friends too much. Actually, almost never. But I did listen to the political teenspeak around my house this weekend. Here are my favorites:

Girl, 16 -- "Imagine having Obama's ears and not having them done? I definitely would have gotten them done instead of getting a car. Maybe instead of college."

Boy , 14 - "Wow. His wife is like bigger than he is."

My Son, 14 - "You think he voted for McCain? Could they find out?"

My Son, 16 - "So they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want? There's a chef there all the time? That would be awesome."

My Daughter, 10 - "On their birthday, his daughters' friends get to sleep over at the White House. So how far do we live from there?"

Boy, 15 - "Did they give him a new car? Does he get to keep it after he leaves?"

Girl, 14 - "What's a brace of birds? I saw that on the news. It sounds scary like the birds are crippled or something and they're going to, you know, eat them."

Maybe because I see the future lolling about my living room and trying to sneak onto the ten year old's Wii, I have an entirely different outlook on America's future. It's still filled with all those corny words like bright and promising; it's just a whole lot less expensive and a whole lot more amusing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Supermarkets, Seniors, Sort of Random Observation

I spend a lot of time, at least three hours a week, inside supermarkets. It's the closest thing I have to a community: I know when the cashier's baby is due, say hello to the butcher, and know which days to avoid senior discount. I don't have anything against seniors, it's just that they take 47 minutes to pick out bananas because they confuse standing in a spot with having bought deeded real estate.

Anyway, it scares me a little that I know so much about the people in the supermarket. But I console myself with the fact that I cook a lot, and there are usually about half a dozen people at the dinner table. Plus, I need things like Milkbones and laundry detergent.

Usually, I go during the day with one or two of the kids. But last night, I decided to do night shopping. The kids had a ton of homework, and after plowing through a lot of it, everyone went to their separate corner of the universe and I had a free hour. Well, sort of free. I probably should have folded wash or dusted or done something normal, but that's just not me, so after I cleaned up my daughter's art project (fairy feathers and glitter glue) I decided to sneak out of the house and get the shopping done. Here are the random observations from this expedition:

1. Even though people claim my family is from Viking stock, I cannot navigate by the stars. In fact, I make a left by the "haunted house" off Route 9 to get to the store, and at night, you can't see an abandoned house because it has no electricity. I drove right past the turn off. (400 years ago my descendants wanted to reach the balmy shores of China and ended up ice farming in Greenland)

2. The day people are far less creepy than the night people in the grocery store. The night crew kept playing weird songs like Ruby Tuesday followed by the theme from Rocky which was jarring. It was like musical selections from the rehab center.

3. Really, really old people wearing a BlueTooth scare me. This lady was easily 88 - easily - sort of stooped over and she had a BlueTooth in her ear at 9:30 at night. Who would be calling her? She moved with the speed of sleep, so I can't imagine she was vital to the functioning of anything, especially at 9:30 pm on a Tuesday. So why couldn't I stop looking at her? I kept wondering if it was a Christmas present from a well meaning grandchild that she had confused with jewelry.

4. Meat looks alive after 8 pm. I couldn't go near the meat case. (This is partially due to the fact that my daughter won't eat food "that ever walked or swam" and that phrase came back to haunt). Also, the guy holding the large, sharp butcher knife reminded me of Charles Manson. Bad combination.

5. It didn't occur to me until I was almost home that other people in the store might be looking at me and wondering what I was doing in the store. That was particularly important as when I got home, I discovered I had shopped the entire time with a glittery fairy feather dangling from the back of my jacket.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Being Realistic About YA

There is a large group of people, and I would venture to say that most of them are either YA authors or editors, who keep saying that YA is real literature. I agree with them, of course, and I agree with them mightily.

But last night I went to a different "TEEN ZONE" at a new library, and I found books with titles like "Boyaholic" and "Confessions of A Teenage Stud" and "Boys Who Bite." Now, if I pretend for a minute I am not a YA author, that I don't really like a lot of the folks involved in YA publishing and say those titles to myself, I have to admit it sounds a lot like advanced comic book writing. That might make you mad, but that's what I admitted to myself last night.

One of my favorite papers to teach is the argument paper. The goal is to convince your reader of your point. Since most of the kids I teach are young adults, they have a tough time with the middle section where counter arguments are proposed. I had one girl, she was about 20, who could not write on the topic of girls not being permitted to play football because she could not think of a counter argument. When I suggested some, she got upset and asked for an alternate assignment. I tried explaining that to defend an opinion, you have to state and disprove common counter arguments.

I think that's pretty much how it is in life, too. There's a lot of cheesy writing in YA, and there's a lot of brilliant writing. But you have to at least comprehend why people might go to the YA shelf anywhere, read those titles, and move on.

In addition to the acne/angst novel, there is the vampire issue. I am not a fan of vampires, though I must admit at the age of twelve or thirteen I alternately wanted to marry either Bram Stoker or Dracula. That was kind of the pinnacle of vampire love for me, and I don't think anyone has come close to his level of writing since. I find vampires especially cheesy, and they abound in the YA genre. I'm not up on the differences between werewolves and vampires, they sort of seem like cousins, but I do remember reading really, really bad novels involving werewolves when I was in middle school. I read them because my friends did, and the writing was, unbelievably,more dreadful than the cover art. (They were the kind of books you hid inside your "Discovery Through Science" textbook during study hall)

But I accept the books that center on acne angst and blood sucking spirits; I just don't think they can be successfully defended. I have trouble accepting bad literature in general, but it exists, probably, because kids like it. It's sort of like Chucky Cheese's for the younger set -- it's a stage you can't wait to pass.

So when people say sensitive things to me like, "Have you thought of writing a real novel? You know, like for adults?" I don't get all huffy. I understand what they see on the shelves and the assumptions they make. It would be hard not to understand that.

On the other hand, I have never been aware of so many people who want to write YA, or who are reading and commenting on YA, and I think that's the key: the genre is improving. Some of the YA stuff I've read recently has been spectacular in every regard, and the title and cover art have been PBS level rather than Fox News.

Watching the genre get better is a lot like raising a teen: you have to hope for the best while you wait for a lot of stuff to fade away.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Reunion Voice in YA

I had time over the break (break for the teachers, I made enough pizza rolls and bagel bites to feed a sub-Saharan village)to look over some of the manuscripts I tell people I'll never get a chance to read. I explain that I teach writing and don't want to see any additional typed pages in my spare time. But writers are either gamblers or terrible listeners and they send them anyway. Usually, I glance at them and put them on the recycle pile. But with one kid sick the entire break, I got sort of bored and snooped through a few of them.

One of the reasons I dislike looking at manuscripts is because if I were an editor, I would send back acute observations such as: I don't like this and I don't know why. Something's just off...

Mostly, I can't articulate why I don't like someone's work, but I'm pretty good at saying why I do. You can guess which category most of the manuscripts I get fall into. But this time was different: this time I could put my finger on exactly what was "wrong" with the three manuscripts I leafed through. They were all YA, and the voices were, to borrow a highbrow editorial term, daffy.

Somewhere out there this snarky, sarcastic, wise cracking, semi cynical teen voice has emerged, and it's just awful. After a few pages, you recognize the the voice of an adult looking back on his/her teen years. I call it the "reunion" voice, that nostalgic remember-how-we-were-then voice, full of poignant memory and a kind of subtle admiration for your younger self. It's really fine for reunion weekends, but teens would tolerate it for about two pages before moving on.

The part that bugs me about about these stories (and you were thinking you already knew what bugged me) is that so much else about them had potential. The plot was well thought out, the characters were involved in intriguing situations, and there were truly funny scenes. It's just that the voices were not authentic, and that kills a story before it begins.

It's really hard to pin down what makes for good voice in a story. In the movie, Juno, when she says, "Silencio, old man," while buying a pregnancy test, I thought,
"Yik. Wrong." Most teens I know verge on hysterical if their hair straightener shorts out. But in Napoleon Dynamite, when he figures out his salary at the chicken farm and says, "That's like a dollar an hour..." it just sounds right. I can't explain why, but I can say that if the voice is right, probably a whole lot of other things about your manuscript are, too.