Archive for January, 2010

I spent the better part of last fall (and the holidays, and quite a bit of January) working up my required lecture for my graduate residency.  So much anticipation and anxiety for that forty-five minutes of me talking in front of my peers, and it washed over me like a swelling tide that hardly seemed like five minutes had passed.  People seemed to like it.

“The Boy Book Manifesto: A Six Point Plan Toward Making Books More Boy-Friendly (and why we, as writers, should care)” wasn’t so much a political screed as it was a general outline of the sorts of things boys tended to respond well toward in their reading.  Speaking to a group of published writers and graduate students in the field of children’s literature, over 95% of them women, I felt a little like I was treading on dangerous territory; after all, shouldn’t boys be able to appreciate a well-written book without being pandered to? And how dare I suggest that it falls on writers to be more proactive in reaching, building, and maintaining boy readerships!

But my lecture was an exploration in understanding that most puzzling of questions: what, in a quantitative way, do boys want from their reading?  In seeking out answers I found a whole bunch of data about what boys are drawn to, what sort of topics can hold their attention, and was able to come up with a list of general ideas that could be incorporated into a writer’s approach to storytelling.  That list was originally ten points that, due to time limitations on the lecture, I had to whittle down to six points.  It seemed a shame I couldn’t include them all, but some of those points could have been an entire lecture themselves.

Many suggested that I could rewrite the lecture as an article, and encouraged me to do so.  I admit, I probably could, but honestly?  My heart isn’t in writing about boy books any more, I want to actually write some boy books.

So I’ve decided to break up my lecture into manageable chunks and try to present it as a series of blog posts.  I can already see that I’m going to have to modify some of the sections for “print” but otherwise the first parts will be pretty close to my original lecture.  Beginning next Thursday, February 4th, and for each Thursday after that I’ll be posting another section of what I think I’m going to call Building Better Boy Books.

I realize that by saying “better” the implication is that boy books out there aren’t as good as they should be.  You know what, sometimes they aren’t that good.   And while the general focus will still be on the creation of boy-friendly books I found that the information helped a lot of parents and teachers better understand the reading preferences of the boys (and men) in their lives.

So I think I’ll start gathering the ingredients and start tossing them in the blog pot.  The stirring will begin in a week.  Hope to see y’all then.

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six word memoir

I missed the memoir lecture on the last day of the last residency of my MFA career.  I did not want to miss it, but last-minute graduation details propelled me to make some decisions.

In preparation for the lecture we were asked to come up with a six word memoir.  At least I think this was the request.  I don’t remember anyone talking about it before or after the lecture.  Perhaps I dreamed it.  But before I left for the residency, just before I drifted off to dreamland, I did sort of come up with the following:

stubborness +
impatience =
late bloomer

You have to read the symbols as words, and I thought that even if it was fairly reductive (and others will have to vouch for the accuracy) it works as a word problem as well.

I’m still steeping in the last bit of residency and gearing up to start my new post-grad life on Monday.  I can’t help thinking of the line Evil uses in the movie Time Bandits when he’s complaining about how the Supreme Being wasted his time during the creation.

If it was me, eight o’clock, day one, lasers.

That’s how I feel about every new project going into them.  No messing around with shrubberies and pill bugs.  Big things from the beginning.  Bam!


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we journey home. we
ignore phone. we

fuzzy head. we
sleep like dead. we

transcribe thoughts. we
outline plots. we

cherish sweat. we
publish yet?

Yeah, I went there.  Apologies to Gwendolyn Brooks.

Part of me knows that returning home from the VCFA residency means at least a day of readjustment.  Some have to jump right back into work and suffer the jolt of real world like a case of concentrated emotional jet lag. For those of us who can ease back into things it’s still quite disorienting, not unlike the feeling on the first mostly-normal day after a long sickness.

The lines above came to me while shopping for groceries.  One of my classmates mentioned sleeping like the dead last night, another about catching up on email… things flipped around a bit in my head and found their way into Ms. Brooks meter.  I don’t pretend to fully understand how and why my brain works.

So as we VCFAers emerge from the fog of our Germelshausen, some of us never to return, back into a world of cheese sandwiches and pause buttons and emotional trajectories, there is a bittersweetness.

We are forever of two homes, but only one is real.

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frog and toad are enemies

(Warning: the following post may be inappropriate for young children, or those who love Frog and Toad)

There is a tradition at VCFA.  Actually there are many.  In fact, traditions keep getting invented with each residency.  Pretty soon they’re going to have to add days to the residency just to fit in all the traditions!

Like I was saying, during the dance – or party, or prom, as prefer to think of it – there is usually a theme and a writing contest linked to the theme.  The theme was Western, as the Old West, as in shoot-em-up.  I wasn’t able to put together The Man With No Name costume I wanted to do back at Halloween, but that’s okay because I don’t think I could have done anything but pose if I was wearing that get up.

But the contest, right.  So we were asked to have two characters in children’s literature have a Western style showdown.  It seemed easy enough but I couldn’t find the right characters.  After our faculty dessert night last night I had been mulling it over.  What two kidlit characters would be natural (or unnatural, as the case may be) enemies fixin’ to gun one another down.  Of course, as a writer, I needed to go looking for a reversal of some kind.  So I start thinking the opposite of enemies is friends, and what two friends would make for natural enemies?

Well, Frog and Toad are friends.

And so I took the story of Toad trying to coax Frog out of hibernation as my jumping off point.  And this was what came out:

Frog and Toad Are Enemies
(featuring Miss Sally Mander)

Frog ran up the path to Toad’s saloon.
He pushed through the swinging door.
The bar room went silent.
“Toad, Toad,” shouted Frog,
“Git down here!”

“Bah,” said a voice
from an upstairs room.
“Toad! Toad!” growled Frog.
“You stole Miss Sally from me!
You took mah gold! I aim t’ kill you!”
“I ain’t here,” said the voice.

Toad stayed hid in the room.
It was dark.
His gun was missing.
“I’m-a count to three,” called Frog.
“Go ‘way,” said the voice
from the upstairs room.
Toad was crawling out the window.

“If’n you don’t come down,
I’m-a comin up,” said Frog.
“Suit yerself,” said Toad.

Toad tip-toed across the balcony.
He hopped down the back stairs.
Frog and Toad came face to face.

“Goin’ somewheres?” said Frog.
“Same place as you,” said Toad,
“But not today.”

Toad pulled a knife out of his boot.
Toad put the knife into Frog’s belly.
“See you in hell,” said Toad.

“Toad! Toad!” yelled Miss Sally
from the upstairs room.
“What happened?”
“Frog croaked,” said Toad.

Yeah, I went for the double puns (Sally Mander, croaked) but it fit, you know?  I tried not to get my hopes up on this contest, but I couldn’t help reading it in a sort of Western drawl just to get a feel for the sound of it.

It won.
And I got to read it in that drawl after all.
And it was fun.

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Though the residency is hardly over – heck, I don’t even graduate until a week from today – the element I worried about the most is now past tense: I delivered my lecture on boy books to my peers.

Due to some funky scheduling issues, I had the distinction of being the only event scheduled at an odd time, something I hadn’t noticed until it was pointed out to me.  At 1:05 PM I nervously took the podium,  opened my mouth, blinked, and it was an hour later.

If I had any worries about delivering a dicey topic to a hostile audience, it was foolishness.  Vermont College has the most open-hearted and welcoming participants around, and their words of encouragement and support was beyond anything I could have imagined.

As for the experience itself, the lecture, the overall feeling was a bit like a roller coaster.  Yes, that’s a tired metaphor, but it isn’t the ride I’m talking about, it’s the anticipation.  You get in line and you watch as the riders in front of you (the classes before me in this case) step up and get on.  You study their nervousness and excitement, and you’re still in the line when they get off hooting and hollering they survived.  Another class gets on the ride, you inch closer, and you can see the shift in their intensity, the way they reason whether it is better to sit in the front or the back of the ride.  What seemed like an impossible wait at the beginning has morphed into impossible anticipation.

Today was lecture day and I was in the front of the line.  At 1:05 it was my turn to take a seat and pull down the safety bar.  There was a lurch and the climb up that first incline, and then free-fall to the end of the ride that seemed over in a flash.  The ride ends, and while I’m leaving to the sound of applause I see the faces of those classes behind my class waiting in line, unable to imagine themselves at the front of the ride, unable to believe they will ever survive.

But we do.  We weren’t the first and we won’t be the last.

And it might be a while before we get the chance to ride again.

And that’s okay, too.

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final rez, day one

Has it been two years?  Two full year of writing and revising and reading and whatnot?

Day of of my final residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Ten days from now I’ll stand on that glorious old stage in front of the pipe organ and receive my MFA hood.  And after that it will be official: I is a writer person.

First day is always so hectic.  Hugs all around, everyone trying to fit six months worth of life into five minutes worth of explanation.  Like we’re not going to have plenty of time over then next week to talk.  Oh, wait…

This year there’s a small ice rink set up on the green.  And a sign in front that says SKATE AT YOUR OWN RISK.  I found it both amusing and inspiring for some reason.  This poem, for example, came to me while passing the sign this evening:

rink on the green

a line, an edge
that place where invisibility
meets the cold, hard reality
that is

thin or slippery
fickle in the ways of physics
the rink beckons
and asks that we calculate
the hidden danger of our amusements.

“skate at your own risk”
the sign says
as if life ever permits us
a free pass to skate
at someone else’s.

And so the residency begins

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How could I have forgotten to mention this?  The finalists for the Cybils have been announced, and in this horse race it’s anybody’s guess how it’s going to end up.  Except for the judges in each category, they have a pretty good idea how things are going to end up, but then they only figure it out a few days ahead of the announcements.  At least that’s my memory from participating in the last couple of years.

This year, however, instead of judging graphic novels I’m on the Middle Grade fiction panel.  Why?  Mostly because I spent the better part of the last year reading, studying, and finally writing a middle grade book so it seemed the most logical choice.  Call it an affinity, if you will.

That said, half of the finalist titles presented are surprises to me.  This is good because I hate going in feeling like I already know something about the book and have to separate that from my reading experience.  It makes the process of judging… cleaner?

That said, I will say I am disappointed that one middle grade book didn’t make the cut.  Anywhere.  Some felt it belonged in one category, others in another, and its final placement, I feel, is what killed its chances in the first round.  These things happen, I’m not surprised, and they are usually the backstory behind why certain “obvious” choices don’t end up winning in awards contests.  As disappointing as it might be, it’s a great object lesson for me as a writer to not be upset should anything I write ever end up “overlooked” for awards.

Anyway, check out the lists and root for your favorites.  I doubt there are any office pools like people do with the Oscars, but who knows?  Maybe some librarians out there are running numbers in the back room near the mending desk, hiding markers in retired checkout card pockets.

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