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Archive for January, 2009

On inauguration day our mid-morning at the residency was partially cleared so we could watch the event.  Imagine around fifty children’s authors in a room, sitting on 70’s furniture and surrounded by shelves of geopolitical business books, watching a TV screen slightly larger than a laptop.  Got that image?  Good, now erase it.

I was talking with people about how we tend to remember where we were the day something horrible happened and use it as a memory peg, but so often those memories outnumber the good ones.  It isn’t like you can plan on a tragedy like an assassination or a terrorist attack, and part of why we remember where we were in those moments is that our brains go looking for some sort of grounding.  It’s a part of the story we tell ourselves, the narrative we need to find in order to maintain perspective.

But the good days, the good moments, the things we can see coming, everything blends together leading up to that moment and trails off afterward.  The memories of those good times don’t anchor themselves so much as they come screaming from the distance, gain volume, and then fade away the way a supersonic jet might pass through our consciousness.  It’s like the memory’s version of the Doppler effect, where it wells up and floods past without really stopping to affix itself to a particular event in time.

It was later in the evening, after dark, after dinner, when the moment came for me.  It is what will cement itself as the primary image of the day Obama was sworn into office, the thing I remember perhaps most of all:  large, cold, upper-elevation-formed snow flakes.

inaugural night

distinct and large
the gentle glitter
coated marshmallow banks
in a sugary crystalline shimmer
with a sea glass wind chime tinkle
against a moonless midnight ocean
of blue

on a cold night
full of warm celebration
the moment
fell
in twinkly tears of joy
preserved
for far too long
in the heavens

You have to understand, it wasn’t just snow, it was snowflakes about a quarter inch across, their architecture perfectly visible from a distance, so cold that they didn’t immediately melt when you caught them in your hand.  It was a fairy tale snow for the end of a day that deserved a moment all its own.  When generations yet born ask me what I remember about January 20th, 2009 I might talk about heckling a man in a wheelchair by singing Darth Vadar’s theme, or olive green gloves, flubbed lines and big bow-tie hats, but it will be the image of that snow that outlasts them all.

Poetry Friday?  Yeah, I’ve heard of it.  Hanging out over at Adventures in Daily Living this week.

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Every time there is an award ceremony someone is always upset their favorite book/movie/president didn’t win and then whines about how it’s unfair, how the real winner was robbed, or how, clearly, the judges wouldn’t know a winner if it bit them in the ass.

This isn’t gonna be like that.

The ALA 2009 Youth Media Awards wew announced this morning at the ALA mid-winter conference in Denver, an event akin to the Academy Awards for the kidlit world, though nowhere near as brash.  In a simple ceremony that lasted under an hour (Motion Picture Academy, are you listening?) the American Library Association doled out its annual awards for the Caldecott Medal, the Newbery, and all the others people may (or may not) have heard of.  As always, there was buzz and speculation leading up to the event where the winning and honorable mentions are announced in breathless anticipation to a room full of librarians and an internet full of interested parites.  And as always there were surprises among the expected.

I’m not going to recount the winners here, nor is this going to become a political discussion about what did, didn’t, or should have won.  After a trip to my local indie bookstore, some careful consideration, and a shower I have come to see as clear as the morning air how these awards need to be fixed. Fixed implies there’s something broken, and there is.

When the awards are announced there are very few people who know in advance which books are even under consideration.  Publishers may get an inkling that something is up when calls are placed the day before on behalf of the committees asking for the contact information of an author so they can be, uh, contacted.  So outside of the committee members the first notion that a book is about to win trickles through less that 24 hours in advance.  That means that even the most ambitious of publishers isn’t really going to get a head start on priming warehouses for demand and sending books back to press.

This is key, because what happens is that on the day the awards are announced few booksellers have a majority of the winners on the shelves, much less in quantity.  There then comes the mad scramble to secure books from distributors, or calls placed on print runs, and a fickle buying public becomes too impatient to wait for something they want right then.  Interest in books wane, and then a book buying public just assumes to wait until a paperback edition with a little foil emblem appears or their local library finally gets a copy.

But there are solutions.

1.  Announce the shortlist a month in advance

Hollywood doesn’t get a lot right, but they understand how to make Awards work for them.  They announce their shortlist a month in advance of their ceremony, which gives studios time to flood movies back into theatres and wring some more money out of them.  They create interest, and people like to feel as informed as the Academy in these things.  Then, when the winner is announced, they can argue the merits, agree or disagree, and generally feel like they were part of the experience.

If the ALA were to toss out a shortlist of TEN titles for each category six weeks in advance of their mid-winter conference, publishers would have a heads-up AND the opportunity to reposition these books for holiday sales.  What’s key here is that by announcing the titles up front they generate interest in titles for time on both sides of the award, where now they only score that interest after the fact.  Publishers, librarians, distributors, and booksellers would then be able to help guide readers (and buyers) toward titles that have been pre-selected as possibly the best in the field.  This isn’t as easy to do after the fact.

With books in stock up to the day of the announcement, booksellers are then able to best capitalize on the awards and keep customers happy, rather than sending them away feeling like a book that wasn’t available was too obscure to be on hand.  This perception cannot be underscored enough, because if a consumer goes into a store unsure of an unfamiliar title to begin with and they discover it is not available they will be less inclined to seek it out.  Conversely, studies have shown that if a person puts an item in their hand (or has one put there for them by a bookseller) they will be something like 70% more likely to purchase it.  Say what you will about the noble art of reading, books and publishing is also still a business and anything that encourages sales encourages reading and vice versa.

The reason for ten titles is so that the ALA can still award a winner and three or four (or five) honor titles and still maintain some mystery around which book will win.  It also generates controversy about those that don’t, because controversy is still talk, and talk is like advertising, and books could use all the PR they can get.

2. Drag the president into the fray

Why do the winners of the Super Bowl and the World Series get to meet the president and book award winners do not?  Why can’t the president make a public acknowledgment of the shortlist in advance and then meet personally with the winners in a public ceremony with the press as part of his platform on literacy?  I don’t have the pull or the president’s ear, but someone has to, and for a guy who featured families reading to their kids at least three times in his paid political announcement it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities for this Obama guy.  Seriously, what’s the cost of something like this?  Nothing?  And what does it do for reading and publishing to have a president give the same amount of face time to writers of children’s books as he will for overpaid sports “heroes?”

3. Oprah

No, I’m not kidding.  I was working in a bookstore when Oprah’s magazine debuted and there was a small, one-paragraph article about a book called The Four Agreements among all the ads and fluff.  That mention in her magazine generated over half a million sales of that book in one week following that mention.  Prior to that the book hadn’t sold fifty-thousand copies in its previous two years.  That kind of power can be scary in the wrong hands but so far the big O has used her powers for good and not evil.

So why not a Oprah Book Club for kids, an O Jr.?  She could give some kidlit authors the same coverage she gives to jokers like James Frey and be promoting literacy at the same time.  Once a month she throws out some quality fiction for middle grade, YA, and picture book readers.  Then in the early part of the new year she does a show (or magazine feature) on the books nominated for the pending awards.  Instant interest, books flying off shelves, and more importantly, young people reading.

Ten years ago if I could have traveled into the future of today I would have slapped myself for saying such a thing, but Oprah cannot be ignored.  She has proven herself to be a champion of books and despite what anyone might think of the person, the advocate for reading that is Oprah cannot be denied.

It doesn’t seem likely that any of these three fixes will be put into place, but any one alone would be almost enough to send a seismic ripple through the publishing world in a good way.  Set aside the question about whether or not books or ebooks are the future of publishing, there will be no future without readers and the place to generate that interest should come from those most passionately concerned about literacy.

For those intersted in the results of today’s announcement you can go to the ALA’s unfriendly site and sort through the individual winners here, or sit through the entire webcast, or just wait a few months until the  books finally arive at your local bookstore with their little foil medallions attached.  If you still care.

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Have a good semester.

Will I see you at breakfast?

When does your shuttle come?

I already miss you…

For the stragglers among us — and I am among the stragglers simply because I got a short nap in after dinner — the pull to call it a night and do our last minute packing is in defiance of our refusal to let go.  We admit how hard it is on our families and loved ones to lose us from our lives for so long, and I can’t help imagine that first time a lunar orbiter circled the moon and communication went dark.  There was no reason the astronauts wouldn’t complete the orbit unaffected, and yet those moments where communication was completely blocked left mission control back on earth worried about the safe return of the mission.  Here we are, emerging from the dark side of our moon, our residency concluded, our command bases anxiously looking forward to our safe returns and complete debriefings.

We have called this environment many things, including a retreat, a place to recharge our creative batteries, and a hothouse.  Like a hothouse, we grow quickly under artificial conditions and the fruits of our labors are larger than normal.  We live together and eat together and work together, and when the time comes we scatter back to our non-hothouse worlds and attempt to make sense of it all.

Emerging from the dark side, artificially accelerated… these attempts to explain the process and environment always seem to fail.  And it the end, much like a party we don’t wish to leave, it’s yet another bittersweet moment that we will treasure and process and store away for future use in our writing.  Twenty-four hours from now we will either be home or well on our way that direction.

Home.

It’s that thing we talk about the entire time we’re here.  About what we do at home, what we will do at home, what’s awaiting us at home, what we’re looking forward to at home.  No matter how much “important” work we do here at the residency, no matter how focused we are, no matter what, we are always mindful of home. A hothouse is not a home, neither is a lunar capsule isolated from all contact with the rest of the world.

There’s work to do, and for that we must go home.

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It’s a totally different city, two totally different dudes, and yet it appears that these conversations keep popping up everywhere as if part of the collective unconsciousness.  I was downtown in Vermont’s capitol city getting some quarters and Nutella (can’t properly do laundry in a dorm without both) and as I was passing I caught just this snippet from a couple of local Joe’s.

Joe Rock: Am I an ass to who?

Joe Paper: That’s not what I said.  I said Are you an ass-man, not Are you an ass, man.

Joe Rock: Oh!

Isn’t it a wonderful thing what punctuation and intonation can do with the English language?

Once again, twice in less than a week, twenty-something guys engaged publicly in conversation over the most sublime of topics.  And, again, without any sense of shame or embarrassment that others can hear them, or that perhaps they might find themselves judged accordingly.

Okay, listen, I’m a guy.  I’m not saying I didn’t participate in my share of conversations like this.  In fact, I recall having this very same tits-or-ass conversation with some friends of mine… when we were 12 years old and hanging out at Boy Scout camp safely several hundred miles away from anyone who could hear us.  Twelve would be an appropriate age for hormonally-challenged males to be considering the deeper issues of life.  Twelve would make sense of mermaids and the first blush of body fascination.  But to still be having these conversations in your twenties strikes me a type of social retardation, or perhaps a prolonged state of immaturity. And pathetic.

Can I blame this on vapid entertainment, on television shows that sexualize the world and make it okay at the same time to remain in a state of suspended maturity?

Joe Rock, Joe Paper: you’re both asses. And hardly men.

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Well, here we are nearing the midway point through the residency and oddly I find myself jotting down little poem-like things when my mind wanders.  In the event there are grads or faculty who are wondering: No, my mind is not wandering during your lectures.  Just before or just after, perhaps, or in those moments after breakfast when I’m killing time before having to trudge across the snow-covered lawn in sub-zero temperatures.

I make no claim for these being good.  I’m not even going to say I truly understand what has driven them.  First up, some wordplay based on the possible meanings within a single word chosen at random from an ad in a local free newspaper.

matchsticks

the match sticks to the flame
sticks to the match sticks too
the flame sticks to the match
too stuck to each other too
stuck to the same to the heart
to the flame to the match to
the thing that is same that is
the match that sticks the flame
that sticks to the match that
sticks.

That was the afternoon of the fist day, actually.  The next day I was toying with a pair of words in my head — horseflies and homefries — and I thought I had something there.  I was thinking something ranch and cattle, and maybe  it had something more to do with the cafeteria food.  But then this came out:

the ayes have it

horseflies do not
(but should they?)

cowpies are not
(how could they?)

standbys
(forever)

wiseguys
(not ever)

blind eyes cannot
(so unseeing)

hereby wasn’t
(anti-being)

farcries will not
(nobody heeds them?)

goodbyes aren’t
(who the hell needs them?)

There’s more, but it isn’t finished, and it sort of changes the pattern in a way that almost makes it look like it belongs in another poem.  So I’m going to keep working on it and perhaps that will show up next week when I’ve just gotten home from residency.

Finally, for this one I have to set the scene.  It’s late and I’m thirsty.  I go to the vending machine but I’m denied.  I cross campus and try another machine, denied again.  The next thing I know I’m singing in my best Tom Waits voice.  Somehow I doubt Tom would contemplate anything so banal, but it amused me to no end:

the tom waits impromptu

the vending machine
won’t take my money

won’t tug bills
won’t swallow coins
the vending machine
won’t take my money

just looking for a little of that
pause that refreshes
the vending machine
won’t take my money

taunting me with well-stocked rows
of untouchable recyclable soldiers
the vending machine
won’t take my money

droning a maniacal counterpoint
to a fluorescent display case hum
the vending machine
won’t take my money

I did eventually procure a lovely beverage, thank you, but I’m still singing about the cranky vending machines.

And now back to some paperwork.  I am in school, after all.  Looks like Poetry Friday is hanging out over at  Karen Edminsten‘s place this week.

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The process of picking an advisor begins with what we jokingly call sped dating.  Actually, we don’t pick an advisor so much as we limit the possibilities from among the many.  And I guess it technically begins long before the speed dating, as we spend the early days on the rez in a casual frenzy pumping fellow students for information on the advisors we might be considering.

It’s an information exchange worthy of Cold War espionage.  You need quality intel, so you need to trust your source.  You need to branch out of familiar sources and hunt down those you might only know casually.  Who did you have last semester?  How did that go?  I had So-and-so.  Yeah, it was good, it went like this… Then you catch a glimpse of conversation nearby, you shift your attention, listening for an in to crash the conversation yourself.  You reevaluate unfamiliar and contrary sources  I don’t know that I trust this person’s opinion, but maybe they’ll have a contrary view that will help round out the picture, or maybe even add something I hadn’t considered.

So many ways to triangulate the intel.

Next, you need to gather material first hand.  You visit faculty at assigned meeting places.  You toss out where you are and what you’re hoping to work on.  They counter with their working methods, strengths, possible suggestions.  Like a mating ritual, a flourish of color and a flash of feather, a call and response.  Five minutes, ten tops, get a feel for the situation, trust your gut, move on to the next one, do the dance all over.

After having done the ritual twice before there are people you can automatically rule out, people you’ve interviewed before, people you simply need confirmation on one way or another.  There’s usually one stand-out but it’s best not to put up hopes because therein lies madness.  The process, you are constantly told, is arbitrary, yet you’ll end up with the person you need.  No one believes this, even if it’s true.  It makes no sense.  Why bother to interview and select people only to have the final decision be so arbitrary?  You’ll end up with one of your choices, but if you truly end up with the person you need would that still be true if you listed those people you truly did not want? Would the fates make the necessary corrections?  Would an intervention take place?

Dating over everyone reconnects their conversation, moving and thinking forward.  Who did you interview?  Who are you thinking about?  Who would be your first choice? Our choices are collected by lunch, decisions made and discussed by the faculty by dinner, and we learn sometime later in the evening.  Then will come the official greeting, a proper first date, a course plotted, and an agreement for a future date.  Is this any way to become a writer?

Yes.

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There’s a good chunk of the residency devoted to Workshop, that place were groups of us hang out and get work critiqued for a good hour or so.  The groups are artificially random – that is, there are a balance of genres and people at various stages of the program with little else to connect them – spread out over the course of the coming week or so.  Usually two folks are reviewed at each Workshop except for the first day, which is all about laying out ground rules for the group in addition to one critique, and the last day, which includes the last person and a summary of the Workshop experience.

Guess who drew the first critique for his Workshop on Wednesday.

A year ago when I started the program I think I would have plotzed had I gone first.  I think most first semester students would, which is why a second or third semester goes first.  Of course now that I’m up I’m totally cool with it.  There’s a certain amount of anticipation that comes with waiting for your turn, and the further down the list your turn is the worse it feels.  You sit throgh all the other crits hearing people’s opinions, their thought processes, the way they think, and you cringe at every misstep you hear as it applies to your own piece.

My first semester, throughout the rez there had been a sort of running theme about prologues; What is the point and purpose of a prologue, does it detract from the story, are there certain rules that apply, are they even necessary? As we get to read a section of our Workshop piece before being critiqued and get to address prefatory remarks (before being forced to remain silent for an hour while everyone else talks about your work) I announced “Okay, I get it.  The prologue chapter has to go,” which saved me having to cringe through fifteen minutes of that discussion.

The advantage, of course, is that you get the crit out of the way before the group really gets its footing and can lay into you.  It isn’t so much a question of setting a bar (though it could be depending on the piece) as it is that this group is still trying to sort through their dynamic while talking ablout your work.  This means that there’s a slight leaning toward the personal perspective rather than the academic one.  After four or five critiques people are referencing various lectures and comments previously made and a real reaction to the piece at hand is like mining gold buried in the iron pyrite.

So tomorrow then, I get to hear what this group of folks thinks about my crazy YA story about a couple guys who try to get out of a Community Service requirement at their high school.  I’m already bracing mself for some misunderstandings about the protagonists (there is more than one), the narrative voice (not set yet), and the fact that I’m writing it as an ensemble peice.  Hopefully I won’t be too devistated to post the reaction a couple of days from now.

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