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Archive for June, 2010

I’ve written and scrapped this post three times now, and while common sense would suggest that  should probably scuttle the topic for good, I cannot.  Talk of branding and authorship is stuck in my craw and I have to spit something out before I choke on it.

The topic was raised recently with a quasi manifesto written by YA author Maureen Johnson on her blog, which was further discussed on Coleen Mondor’s blog Chasing Ray, and later tossed around on Twitter as one of the weekly #kidlitchat discussions.  Aside from the fact that all this discussion has diffused our creative energies the thing that I keep coming back to is why we constantly feel this need to label, explain, define, and codify the creative process to the point of making it easier for commerce.

The largest issue concerning branding and authorship, as I see it, is the fact that the actual definition of branding means different things to different people.  For some it’s about marketing, a shortcut to being able to identify a product with an expectation.  To others, the brand is simply a definition of a flavor, a way of setting an author and their work apart from others.

The path to branding gets further muddied when emerging writers are told they need to identify, know, and exploit their brand.  At conferences the idea of branding gets tossed about among suggestions for creating a website and getting yourself connected on social networks like facebook and Twitter.  Establish your brand, essentially.  Maureen Johnson’s answer to all this is, essentially, To Thine Own Self Be True and stop worrying about brand.  To editors and agents the dictum is: Be More Like Maureen Johnson and Be Out There.

The flip side is that unpublished authors are told, sometimes explicitly,  that a writer cannot build a saleable brand if they don’t specialize in a particular genre.  I have talked to writers who actually have said they are afraid of the ideas they have for YA and picture books because they feel it will make it harder to position themselves as middle grade authors.  Once established in your field you can “experiment” with little fear of sullying or diffusing your brand.

What I’m beginning to see is that authorship is beginning to take on the uglier aspects of cinema’s auteur theory, wherein an author is best understood by the themes that run throughout the work of a single person in what is generally agreed to be a collaborative art. Writing is not, generally, as collaborative as film but the desire to utilize the author’s name as a calling card for expectations is right up there like the name above the title on movies.  Sell the author (or auteur), establish the brand, move the product.

In the 1950s when French critics (and future directors) put forth the auteur theory they were attempting to raise film to an art form worthy of the sort of analysis given to literature and other fine arts.  As the theory goes, the films of Alfred Hitchcock could be identified by the stylistic elements and themes of paranoia, voyeurism, the guilt of the innocent, and dangerous ice queen blondes.  While these elements are certainly recognizable over his five decade career what is most interesting is how many different writers were involved with these films.  The auteur theory gives the writer little or no credit in the collaborative process because, in the end, it was the director’s “vision” on the screen and thus the fruits of their “authorship.”

As proof of the auteur theory’s durability you can probably name five Hitchcock films, and perhaps the stars of those films, and not name the screenwriter for a single one of them.  My undergrad degree is in film and even I have a hard time remembering the screenwriters of Hitch’s films.

But as the argument for authors is that their brand lets readers (and editors and agents) know what to expect, the other edge on that sword is the same as film-director-as-auteur: there is a presumption of sameness from project to project that acts as a limiter to what the writer is expected to produce.

Maureen Johnson may espouse this idea that the writer need not worry, and that branding isn’t something to consider, but she also has not built her career as a writer across genres and formats.  In “being herself” both in books and the way she presents herself on Twitter she has, inadvertently or by design, established a brand that is as easy to recognize by her readers as Coke is to soda drinkers.  We are trained to seek out products that appeal to us and we expect those brands to remain loyal and true.

But as we are taught to appreciate the subtle emotional branding differences between Coke and Pepsi, their formulas differing only slightly in order to establish copyright, they are interchangeable as colas.  You can be part of one brand’s “generation” or assume the superior posture of the other’s being “the real thing” and still not be able to define the differences.  You must actively seek beyond recognizable names and read deeper into the packaging to find true variation: colas that use cane sugar taste radically different that those that use corn syrup, those that don’t artificially color their drinks are clear, and so on.  But without this branding for superiority in the market we come to accept there are only two choices (like our branded politics) and will grudgingly accept the other if our preferred brand isn’t available.

Is this seriously the way we want to think about the craft of storytelling, about writing and about what it means to be an author?

The lasting result of this brand-think is that an author of breadth and depth is considered a liability, because their brand cannot be easily sold or exploited, which in turn limits what is available to us as reading consumers.  What bothers me, then, is the expectation that what is perceived as “success” is that which can be replicated like a factory product; books thematically or stylistically similar to one another that do not challenge readers expectations or threaten them with the confusion of true variety.

When I think about what I like about certain authors do I find that it usually is with their style of storytelling.  I assume it is because I have been trained to expect that from authors.  But I was also trained as an artist and within the fine arts there are two distinct paths one can follow.  Artists can, like photographer Ansel Adams, become the master printer of wilderness landscapes, so much so that the occasional portrait by Adams literally shocks because it seems “out of character” to us; or, as with artists like Picasso or Hockeny, move through different “periods” of their output as they strive to explore new horizons, giving followers a chance to grow and change their perspectives along the way.

What branding is for authors feels more to me like Warhol’s factory churning out silkscreen prints on canvas of palatable pop culture.  One hit book is always welcome, but something that can be spun off into a series is even better.  It’s the “If you like this, then you’ll love this” approach, with writers looking to find ways to take the stories they feel compelled to tell and forcibly lay them into molds.  Like packaged titles, with their market research and stable of anonymous writers churning out melodramas according to the style book, brand identity becomes the tail that wags the dog.

It isn’t enough that authors remain true to themselves, they should be deliberately and consciously confounding expectations and moving as far a way from branding as possible.  They, we, need to be on the edges of the frontiers not only telling the stories that matter to us, but giving readers cause to hack through the overgrowth of complacency and into new worlds. We need to stop demanding that writers all march along the paths that are known but to go beyond Frost’s less-traveled roads and actually blaze entirely new trails.  It’s not about social media and e-publishing, it’s not about knowing our personal brand or getting pigeonholed, it’s about looking at our storytelling as a creative art, as something larger.

The dictum is that a writer must write what they know, and write the stories they need to tell.  I’m beginning to believe this path of thinking, while true in many respects, has led to a dead-end of writer as a factory laborer.  There are much bigger issues that aren’t being discussed but our energies are being consumed with false concerns like branding.

The old joke is that no one gets into writing for the money, so lets stop adopting the business models of marketing, quit focusing on appeasing the business cycles or second guessing the next trends.  Instead let’s see if writers can find their way back to their shamanic roots, become the storytelling healers of their tribes, and increase the diversity of voices rather than the delusional heterogeneity of brand monoculture.

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So it’s finally over, my eighth grader has graduated.  And while I sit here between writing projects she’s still sleeping off her after-party and however long she stayed up past midnight looking at the graduation pictures everyone posted on facebook.  She had her moments and experiences, and I’m sure she had a great time.  She had her bittersweetness over losing some friends who were moving away, but in all I know she’ll have her memories of the experience.  The 80s songs they sang during the ceremony.  The deal she got on the graduation sun dress she wore (compared to the expensive dinner-dance dress she bought at the same time).

Those are her memories.

But last night the parents of the graduating class had a separate party while our kids were having their own party nearby.  We talked about our memories and shared experiences from watching our kids move through the education system, the trials and tribulations of friendships made and tested.  Being adults we also talked about things that currently interested us, like World Cup and recent movies we’ve seen and all the other filler we drag out for parties.

Including this idea people have when they hear I’m a children’s writer that I am constantly sopping up the kids experiences to use in my next book.

I think this notion ranks up there with the idea that there is a special muse that visits writers and uses them as channels for stories, and the assumption that publication is a shortcut to the millionaire’s club.  Any funny anecdote I deliver about my girls, any observation I make about how they use social media, instantly falls into the category of “I bet you’ll be able to use this in your next book.”  I can’t simply be a proud parent, or a supporter of my girls efforts in the classroom or on the soccer field, I am constantly flipping the handicam in my head and recording their every moment to exploit down the road.

What’s odd is that everyone knows the “write what you know” but assumes that without the proximity of kids that I couldn’t write about them.  Indeed, where else would my ideas come from, how else could I record the necessary details, emotions, and situations of children’s literature without a back catalog of my girls’ experiences at hand?

Simple: I have my own memories.

Obviously anything from my own past is filtered through the analysis of experience, through years of recounting those stories or simply remembering what they felt like at the time.  I don’t just think back to my own graduation from junior high and say “Hmm, which memory can I turn into a middle grade novel?”  In fact, it often surprises people that I start with a theme and find a way to marry it to a seed of an idea and build from there.  As I flesh out the story, yes, I tap into my younger self for guidance on how my friends and I behaved, how we thought and spoke, but I also am mindful of a contemporary audience and have to overlay my experience with both the modern and the universal while building against the theme.

Just as all my characters are a little bit me, all my stories have small fragments of my personal memories forming and shaping them.  And, yes, whenever necessary I will tap into the things I see and hear my kids and their friends do and say.  I don’t retell their stories, or lift their dialog, though I will capture those moments that might help me give the story verisimilitude.

More often though what happens is that something happens – the kids get into an argument, or something happens at school – and it triggers a memory in me that get me thinking.  Sometimes its a question of trying to understand what I was thinking in the moment of that memory versus what I later learned about the situation, and sometimes it’s the old line Stephen King used to explain how he wrote “The Body,” the short story that became the movie “Stand By Me.” When asked how much of the story was true King explained that there came a point in his memory where he said ‘I know this happened, but what if this happened instead?’  The ‘what if’ became the story.

The ‘what if’ is the thing people don’t get.  To them it visits in the night and whispers in the writer’s ear, sprinkled magic dust on their keyboards, and lets the writer take the credit.  Really, all that writers – any creative artist – does is never shut the door on their childhood sense of self-amusement.  Kids learn how to recount a story, then they learn how to embellish, add timing and character and voices, and finally how to invent them from whole cloth out of the strands they have been collecting and weaving.  Some do it better than others, and some have to be taught how to do it, but somewhere along the way this ability is pushed out in favor of more “practical” pursuits.  Those who can retain that young storytelling sense into adulthood appear to others as possessing some special ability. Either that or they simply steal stories, dialog, and ideas from their kids.

How else is a grown adult able write for children and young adults?

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Once again the girls have come home with their letters from the school talking about the grade-wide book that was chosen for required summer reading along with a catalog of titles to choose from to fill out the remaining minimum requirement of five books.

The problem: summer reading is not required by the school district’s curriculum, much less the state’s.

But that’s not how the letter reads, it’s not how the teachers present it to the kids, and it’s not how the kids see it.  To them it is an annual requirement that threatens to impose homework upon their summers.  Few parents question this requirement, and whenever the need for summer reading is questioned in general the response almost assuredly is that without it there would be an educational “slide” as kids reading muscles atrophied over the course of twelve weeks.

The problem: if summer reading is that necessary to prevent serious backsliding, why aren’t schools in session year-round?

Much like the requirement itself, there is an illusion presented to children in giving them book lists to choose elective titles from.  For the better readers the lists are compiled of books they have either already read, or are beneath their reading level and thus less interesting; for the weaker readers the lists serve as an exercise in calculation, a question of combing the list to find the shortest books that require the least amount of commitment and effort. That either of these options somehow prevents a slipping in ability is never addressed in the documentation for summer reading.

The problem: is this really the sort of message we want kids to take away about reading, that it comes from a list that, in its attempt to be all-inclusive, actually leaves little room for kids to get excited?

I wonder at times if summer reading isn’t designed to make parents feel better about their children’s education, a way for schools to look like they’re being proactive in helping kids learn and excel and be better prepared for the following school year, and has nothing to do with kids.  Unlike during the school year, when texts are discussed and analyzed in class, there are usually nominal reports attached to summer reading.  For the required grade-wide book, those students who haven’t read it in advance find it is discussed during the first week of school where there are opportunities to “get caught up” and cram-read it then.  They are not punished for failing the one thing “required” of them and they are quickly brought up to speed with the rest of the class.  Never have I heard of a student who had problems or was held back during a school year for failing to do his or her summer reading.

The solution: stop telling kids they are required to do anything for the summer – repeatedly.

You can view this as a “trick” if you want to, but if you want a surefire way to get kids to do something tell them pointedly not to do it.  Forbid sixth graders from reading YA books over the summer, especially specific titles, and watch the libraries have a run on those books as kids scramble to find out why.  Granted, the titles would need to be choice titles with rewards for the curious, but the word of mouth would do what no summer reading list could.

Another solution: if going cold turkey proves too radical, stop assigning titles and instead assign kids to explore and read as many genres as possible.

I would much rather kids explore the types of books they don’t normally get in school, if for no other reason than to show them that there are books without ALA medallions on them.  I think kids are smart enough to know what interests them and aren’t given enough credit to choose interesting titles without having their reading lives micro-managed.

As for the older kids we don’t really teach sci-fi or mysteries or horror in the schools, but does that mean they shouldn’t know they’re out there? In the days before summer reading – yes, they existed, I lived through them and survived – we used to read Stephen King and Jackie Collins and Frank Herbert on our own.  I found Raymond Chandler and went on tear reading all the Marlowe I could.  I read a few of Fleming’s Bond books as well.  If I were a teen today I think I’d spend a summer reading Elmore Leonard.

Yet another solution: assign summer reading that requires the reader to take action.

Yesterday on the Guys Lit Wire blog I suggested Hoyle’s Rules for Games as a perfect summer reading book for boys. With that book, a deck of cards, maybe some dice, a kid could have a pretty good time filling in all the empty hours of a summer learning dozens of new ways to learn strategy and tactics.  Logic and luck have plenty of lessons to teach, and there’s the added bonus of the book providing lessons in following rules and directions. And gambling.

But it could just as well have been a book on filmmaking.  Or a book on science-based projects, or on website design, or any how-to book on any subject.  I would much rather see a kid spend a summer mastering model rocketry, from design to execution complete with a notebook documenting their triumphs and experiments, then see them plow through a meaningless list of titles, selecting the four least-offensive on offer with nothing gained in the experience.

The ultimate problem: summer reading smacks of lazy education.

Like busywork, summer reading’s potential rests in the individual, and far too often it is presented as just another hurdle in an education system that looks to teach kids to achieve artificial goals rather than learn strategies for real and critical thinking.  Reading for pleasure, yes, that’s good, but assigning pleasure reading turns it into a passive activity – one kids repeatedly call boring.  Again, kids are smart enough to see that summer reading is another thing to get through and they approach it with that same lackluster approach they take to a mundane worksheet.  It isn’t a question of assigning activities to the reading but finding a way to make the activity of reading as something desirable, something to pursue.

Required summer reading kills both the summer and reading.  With all the recent hoopla over kids being over programmed and not having enough unstructured time to explore themselves and the world around them, I’m not convinced there are any real benefits in assigned summer reading.

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Yeah, the movie Jaws.  If you want to know why Hollywood is so formulaic and puts out crappy product, it’s because of Jaws.  The blockbuster mentality?  Jaws.  The idea that books have strict-on-sale dates?  Jaws.  Why high-concept books like Twilight are more popular with publishers then a story with realistic characters behaving, well, realistically?  Jaws.

Wait, what? I hear you say.  You blame a movie for the the way the publishing industry works?  That’s just weird.

Nope, that’s the Jaws effect.

Jaws is the father of the blockbuster movies, a high-concept thriller that was very deliberately handled to maximize its profits and effect. It was the first film to use the wide-release platform of flooding theater screen across the country all at once, and it’s release date was chosen to coincide with the beginning of summer.  It was the movie with the first huge media blitz campaign.  It was, essentially, when the first business majors became players in the entertainment industry. And once it proved to be hugely successful, everyone wanted a piece of the action.

Is it a film of lasting artistic merit?  We could debate that, but I don’t happen to think it is.  Gripping story and compelling characters?  Not really.  Magnificent display of manipulation of the public, both inside and outside of the theater, into believing they had to see and like this film?  Absolutely.

In an earlier time Jaws would have been considered an exploitation film, the kind of shock schlock relegated to second billing at a drive-in theater.  It presents a basic fear – shark attacks in this case – and magnifies it into the form of a menacing monster that must be destroyed.  In the 1950s it was nuclear attack and communism that found its way into the movies, generally via alien invasions.  In 1975 our government was in a shambles following Watergate, the Soviet Union was still very much a Cold War threat, and the alien invasion we feared came in the form of a shark.  This was much scarier than that Cold War stalwart, James Bond, whose featured villain in The Man With the Golden Gun was a man with three nipples.  Hardly scary at all.

The minute the rest of Hollywood saw the green pile up, everything changed.  Movies were scheduled to open on specific days so that marketing departments could maximize the effect of the release.  Certain movies were purchased specifically with an eye toward summer in mind.  Soon the studios were unable to claim specific weekends for themselves and would begin to go head-to-head on specific dates, and the rush for an opening weekend box office became a sign of winning.  Multiplexes were blooming like weeds, and Hollywood rushed to coordinate nation-wide distribution.  And in that rush to maximize profits as quickly as possible, distributors would increase the number of screens in an attempt to earn back the film’s costs in as short a time as possible.  These days it isn’t unusual for a movie to open on 1500 to 2000 screens; Jaws opened on just over 450 and went to 675 by mid-summer.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry was plodding along the tortoise to Hollywood’s hare.  Books were released, reviewers read them and published thoughtful reviews, titles climbed up and down the bestseller list.  Or not.  As a product the book was never seen as something with an expiration date, and sales could be steady for a much longer period of time.  Word of mouth and critical acclaim could build, as it used to for movies before the time of Jaws.  It used to be that you could count on a film still being in theaters for a month or two after initial release, but witness how hard it is to find a movie these days two weeks after release.  You’re almost better off waiting for the DVD in many cases if you don’t see a new movie by the second weekend it’s out.

Publishing wasn’t Hollywood and they never laid claim to being Hollywood.  Many of their products made for some lucrative movie adaptations – like Peter Benchley’s Jaws – but that wasn’t their purpose or motivating spirit.  Publishing lived for the word, and the story, and the ability to present the best of those two things combined.  Money, yes, money, of course they were in it for the money, but not in the same vulgar fashion.

And then the publishing houses started to become acquisitions.  People saw them as fallow money farms waiting for seed money and support.  Why, they’re an established form of entertainment and collector of people’s discretionary spending, they could certainly be maximized like any other entertainment industry, right?  Like movies?  At least the business majors thought so.

The bottom line became king.  In order to ramp up marketing, strict on-sale dates became more the norm.  Big chain bookstores jumped in to cut deals that would help the corporate owners of publishing houses maximize their returns on new releases by treating them like movies: featured placement in stores, lots of copies available, more co-op advertising.  And like movies, six weeks later, those books were off the shelves unless they were bestsellers, in which case they were treated to a special place in the stores.  Midlist and backlist, steady income streams for publishing in the past, became little more than filler to bulk out stores so the general public would be lead to believe they had entered a business offering them many choices.  Few people browsed the shelves, waylaid instead by displays of newly released books placed in high traffic areas.

To state the obvious, books aren’t movies.  They are consumed at different speeds.  They offer a wider and more subtle assortment of subjects and styles.  Unlike movies where people share their favorite parts, readers share entire books.  They form social clubs around the books they’ve read.  The gobble up the adventures and savor the literary and it isn’t necessary to interrupt your life to read a book on the day it’s released.  You can, of course, but publishers aren’t taking the book away from you if you don’t get around to reading it for a week, or a month, or a year.

That said, there are books (and series) who seem to capture a zeitgeist and ride it like Pecos Bill on a rattlesnake, whipping up frenzied readers who have come to expect their entertainment to serve as the next big thing.  Those books, chosen for their mass appeal, become the new Jaws that excite the market and send publishers and editors looking for the next blockbuster title.

E-books may change the landscape a bit, perhaps eliminating the distinctions between front- mid- and backlist, sending publishers back to their founding business models of multiple streams of income rather than constantly relying on exploitable trends to carry the house.  Actually, I think the future of the publishing industry may lie in its roots; small houses that specialize in what they published, and plenty of them. Far, far from the Hollywood business model and from the troubles they’re facing right now.

So, yeah, for all that I blame Jaws, the motion picture.

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While I am sure I’ve run across The Bechdel Test somewhere in my past life as a movie reviewer, it’s only recently that it’s popped back into my frontal lobes but this time with a twist – does the test apply to middle grade and YA books?

The Bechdel Test originated in the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel.  The “joke” in one particular strip from back in 1985 was that a character only watched movies if they met the following requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man

There is a corollary point that says the female characters must also have names.

Though there are websites dedicated to discussing these guidelines all you needs to do is think of that last movie you saw and ask yourself if it meets the requirements.  This past weekend I saw Prince of Persia with my girls.  The answer for that movie is “no” to number one, which renders the other two points moot.

Okay, we know Hollywood can be a cesspool when it comes to how it treats women on- and off-screen, but what about publishing?  What about books for kids?  Does the Bechdel Test apply, and should it?

It’s no secret that something that has been bothering me for some time now are stories with a boy protagonist who can’t seem to function without the aid of a (sometimes contentious) girl sidekick.  The problem isn’t that she’s a girl, but that she always solves the riddle or has the answer the boy needs in order to complete his goal/mission/project/assignment.  She serves as a compliment, she completes him, if you will.  And it’s safe to say that if she wasn’t there, front and center in the story, there’d be no girls in the book at all.  Given the choice, I’d rather the author not put a girl into the story at all; at least then I wouldn’t feel like they were adding a character to appease a false sense of gender equity.

A quick look at the books in my bedside TBR pile shows that almost all of them fail the Bechdel Test.

But I look at my daughters, and the kids playing in the streets and on playgrounds, and the boys and girls are keeping separate camps.  Occasionally there will be a group with a token member of the opposite gender in it, but just that one.  As kids get older, when the groups get more mixed, they tend to pair off either romantically or at least in even numbers to avoid the awkwardness of being “the fifth wheel.” While there may be anecdotal evidence to support mixed groups of boys and girls they aren’t as previlent in real life as same-sex groupings.

So are books supporting the norms of the world they inhabit, or are the expectations of readers formed by the stereotypes they get from movies and books?  It’s the old nature vs. nurture question again.

I find I really have to work to stay conscious of not relegating the female characters I write to supporting-role status.  Part of it comes from writing boy characters in first-person, where a boy wouldn’t necessarily be privy to conversations between girls.  The other problem is that short of writing ensemble stories it can be difficult to provide enough secondary character arcs (and conversations) that don’t bog down the narrative, especially in comedies.

I’d be curious, dear reader, if you could name off the top of your head one book that you love that does and one that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.  My touchstone, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, doesn’t really pass because the kids don’t really talk to one another.  And I might have to check this to see if my memory is correct, but I’m fairly sure that Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me does pass the test.

So I guess the question stands: for children’s literature, does the Bechdel Test apply, and should it?

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