Archive for November, 2010

Basically, my thinking is this: Fiction needs to find its rock and roll roots and become relevant again. And by ‘relevant’ I mean to a teen audience who surf the perpetual wave of contemporary music and movies and can peg their formative years to those cultural memories. And by ‘again’ I mean ‘for once’ because I think this is where fiction fails teen and young adult readers.

I have fellow kidlit scribe Vivian Lee Mahoney to thank for the line of thinking that led me here (though I meander quite a bit in my thinking). While taking an initially reluctant listen to the Justin Bieber phenomenon among her daughters she recognized that beneath the banality the lyrics spoke to her girls, as do the songs of Taylor Swift.  In the end of her post she opened the floor to the world to talk about the songs that spoke to them. I couldn’t resist adding my own but I also got to thinking.

Popular music can have such a strong effect on us emotionally, depending on our age and the frame of reference from when we first hear it, but it’s so powerful that even Hollywood knows how to bend its power. I think it’s overused, but if you’re watching a film set around 1969 and you hear the Rolling Stones “Gimmie Shelter,” its opening melody picked out on the guitar over an ethereal chorus, you know the world you’re entering is going to have an apocalypse moment because that’s what the song captures. That song is steeped in the Vietnam war and world-wide protests and the hangover from the Summer of Love, and if you don’t get a tiny shiver every time Merry Clayton’s voice cracks in the middle section of that song then I don’t know what to tell you.  The point is, the song is of its time, about its, encapsulates its time, and manages to remain listenable to this day after decades of airplay.

Three generations of listeners can identify “Gimme Shelter” and enjoy it.  Name one book from the same era that does that today.

I can hear the arguments.  That rock and roll songs are short.  That musical hooks are catchy enough to be memorized after a single listen. That they benefit from repetition.  All true points.  Books have never been, and were never meant to compete with, rock and roll or pop music.

But I’m not wondering if maybe that’s a mistake, that maybe the problem with fiction and literature is that insists of forms and formulas that speak less and less to modern readers and, as a result, the audience for fiction is drifting away. Everyone agrees that fiction is important, and that books will continue to exist in some form or another through the digital revolution, but what about the readers?  Will fiction become the rarefied domain of intellectual adults, a sort of cultural snobbery that looks down its nose at those who cannot be bothered to recognize its superiority?

Something that comes up often in my own writing is struggling to identify what my characters want, or what they think they want, and what they get as a result of the conflict between those two wants.  When we talk about what teen readers want from fiction we speak in terms of genres or character types but we never seem to figure out (as perhaps they haven’t either) what they want in terms of form.

What sort of music moved teens in the 1780s? Where they sneaking in the side exits of the concert hall to hear the latest Mozart, or where they lingering around the pubs digging that hip adaptation of a folk song about John Barleycorn by Robert Burns?  Music had its high and low back then, its classic and its pop, just as there were many forms of music being made in the 1950s before Elvis came along.  The modern song is little more than a watered down version of the chorale, church hymns, which themselves also inspired classical music to take flight and grow into symphonies.  The hunger for the new in music is always there taking new shapes as the generations demand them.

Why doesn’t this happen with fiction?

The Beats may have been the last literary movement to capture the attention of the younger generations. After that you see counter-culture authors like Heller and Vonnegut and Thompson tilting at windmills, but nothing so unified as a movement. The closest thing we have these days are fantasy and horror (cum romance) series that have as their unifying element the ability to be popular and garner huge sales and be turned into blockbuster movies. Is this really all young readers want from their fiction, mass conformity is serial form?

I can’t explain it, I can’t articulate it, but I can feel it.  Somewhere, just below the surface, like the haunting opening chords to a song, there’s a literary shift bubbling up.  It’s story, it’s fiction, but it speaks to youth and reinvents what we know as storytelling in an entirely original way.  Like the birth of jazz, the one true cultural invention of American art, somewhere on the horizon is a lo-fi rock and roll literature that’s about to spawn a full-blown literary rebellion.  Like that first time a song truly spoke to you, this literary venture will speak to a generation who will have to put up with old people complaining about “all that noise” while culture marches on. It will catch on and give birth to its own Elvis, its own Beatles and Stones, its own new subgenres.

I only hope that when it comes I’m smart enough to recognize it and not be one of those out-of-touch old farts yelling at the kids to turn it down.

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Those following last Tuesday’s #kidlitchat on Twitter might understand the inspiration for this poem.  Basically, in a conversation about what websites and communities we use the subject of keywords the netted huge results were “psychic” and “zombies” (though my post on substituting characters for swear words brings in a steady dozen hits every day).  So it was thrown out there that we should all do a psychic zombie post to drive traffic.

Naturally, I had to make it even more of a challenge to myself.

A pending trip to New Orleans is on my mind these days, and with it thoughts of the psychic and zombie occupants that haunt the shadows of the only American city that feels most like Europe.  Mash it all together, add rhymes, voila.

Psychic Zombie

Please sit down, have no fear,
Zombie know why you come here.
Fame? Fortune? Romance bad?
Me see future very clear!

Mediums, they all wrong,
Tell you that you heart not strong.
Hold chin up, don’t be sad,
Zombie see you living long!

Finance woes make you cry?
Money now fall from sky!
You think Zombie make bad call.
Tell me, why would Zombie lie?

See you think “Maybe fame?”
Can be very tricky game.
Look inside crystal ball…
Everyone soon know you name!

Give me palm, let me see,
Lines there show you destiny.
This for love, long one here.
Match from heaven I foresee!

Hate you job, want to quit?
Zombie say “You go for it!”
Yell at boss, have no fear,
You get job that’s better fit!

Candle help, incense, too.
I can light these both for you.
Only cost little more,
Protect you with this juju.

Session done. See? No pain!
Zombie say come back again!
Pay in front by the door,
Please deposit your own brain.

Based on a true story, just don’t ask which parts.

Zombie say: “It Poetry Friday.  No need psychic to know good thing!  Check out over at Scrub-a-Dub-Tub!  Mmm. Remind Zombie of poem Mama Zombie sing…

Three Zombie in tub
Dinner tonight is stew!

Zombie make jokes!

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is this real life?

Until recently it never occurred to me to think about realistic YA as a genre in trouble.  Then the ever-marginally important Barnes & Noble decided to “break out” YA into Paranormal, Extra-Crunchy, Unleaded, and a catch-all for the genre that isn’t, Realistic Contemporary.  It was apparently a big deal because I kept running into it all over the place on the tubes and wires.

But one chain’s marketing and displays do not a trend define. At least not directly.

Anyone remember the Fearless series, the story of a girl “born without the fear gene?”  Francine Pascal?  Well, I remember it because one day ten years ago I was asked to make sure the series got its own designated shelf in the YA section.  You would think that if a series merited an entire shelf to itself then it must have been the crest of a YA tsunami i girl-based action-adventure stories.  You might also think that the sales figures would have justified that one-eighth of the YA section (these were the early days of the YA breakout) but no, we strip-returned this series through at least two cover design changes.

Okay, I’m not being dense.  I recognize that there’s a lot more interest in YA romance and fantasy and whatever you define paranormal to be, and that it seems that contemporary realistic fiction is waning, but I think the reason why has more to do with what is going on elsewhere rather than in fiction.  Specifically, I think Reality TV has poisoned the well of realistic fiction because that has become the new cultural measure of what constitutes realism.

Coming of age stories?  If they don’t look like Jersey Shore, then how realistic can they be?  Humor?  Can a contemporary YA story truly be as inappropriately funny as 30 Rock or The Office, shows teens watch and enjoy?  Of course not, because the raunch and political incorrectness of TV are not what fiction (and, dare I say, literature) are all about, but it does raise the level of expectation in the reader.

So while those of us in the kidlit community are discussing the merits of realistic contemporary fiction for YA – questions of voice and character and how to include a romantic elements without leaning too far into the void of the romance genre – the question I keep asking myself is: do YA readers even care?  If the growing genres/trends are in high-concept escapism, and the realistic is drifting further from “reality” and more toward the literary archaic, is there really such a thing as realistic fiction for YA?

If Contemporary YA quietly disappeared tomorrow would teens even notice?

And it would be a quiet disappearance, because what was the last non-media marketed (like Alloy Entertainment products) piece of realistic fiction has done as well as Twilight or Hunger Games?  I know it isn’t and shouldn’t be about commercial success, but for a market that deals with teens commercial success is what they know and what drives their interest.  Teens are incredibly savvy consumers, and social status isn’t measured by this great little piece of writing that might one day be a classic as much as it is by being one of the first who saw the movie on the weekend it opened with the largest box office receipts in history.  They didn’t see the movie for the money, they just helped the film earn it, and I guarantee you that film wasn’t the teen equivalent of Eat Pray Love.

So in acknowledging the rise of certain YA genres, B&N has inadvertently defined the negative space around teen reading which has become the realistic contemporary graveyard.

Don’t get me wrong, I write realistic contemporary fiction for middle grade and YA, but I am constantly asking myself if it’s enough to write the stories I want to tell.  Are these stories based on characters in contemporary, realistic settings really the sort of thing a kid wants to read?  When they can flit around on the internet in their free time, play video games on their phones, and prefer to watch television shows with grown adults who are as old as (and older than) their parents behaving like immature idiots, is there really any room for books that portray characters their own age, behaving normally in familiar settings, told with care and craft?

No, seriously, I’m asking.

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There is a blog called Letters of Note that is getting more and more of my attention lately. I’m not really big on reading people’s letter and private diaries, and tend to become quickly annoyed at the editorial invasion that comes when they are compiled into book form.  Artists’ diaries and sketchbooks are an occasional exception, but just as often they show why some of their unseen work went unseen – the editorial decisions not to share with the public usually have some sound reasoning.

But Shaun’s blog highlights a single letter at a time, but a different person, and in these highlighted posts they play more like a quick peek backstage before moving back to one’s seat in the audience.  And sometimes, as the fates design it, you can learn something about yourself in the process of hearing other people talk about the things that are important to them.

Things with Walt Disney’s name on it are going to always tug at me for a number of reasons too complicated to explain here.  Ask when we meet and I’ll give you the nickel and dime tour of my Disney thoughts.  Suffice to say we share a birthday and I once, long ago, fancied myself an animator-to-be.  So when I stumbled onto an older post called How to Train Animators, by Walt Disney I was naturally curious.

It is interesting to see how even before Disney began making feature animated films he was laying the foundation for the quality and craftsmanship his company has long since been known for.  Much of what’s in the letter sort of tumbled along until I reached one passage that caught me cold.

Comedy, to be appreciated, must have contact with the audience. This we all know, but sometimes forget. By contact, I mean that there must be a familiar, sub-conscious association. Somewhere, or at some time, the audience has felt, or met with, or seen, or dreamt, the situation pictured. A study of the best gags and audience reaction we have had, will prove that the action or situation is something based on an imaginative experience or a direct life connection. This is what I mean by contact with the audience. When the action or the business loses its contact, it becomes silly and meaningless to the audience.

In trying to understand comedy, specifically why people are drawn to different types of comedy and what we do and do not find funny, I’ve never been able to explain why some things rubbed me the wrong way.  Within slapstick comedies I can enjoy the antics of Buster Keaton but not Charlie Chaplin.  And how can Lucille Ball be the nation’s most beloved comedienne while I feel an almost palpable disgust with her antics?

It’s the connection.  I don’t connect because there’s no sub-conscious association.  I Love Lucy, from the moment I first saw her as a boy, was an endless collection of such obvious idiocy that I couldn’t relate to how any human could be so stupid.  (I have the same problem with The Office, by the way, in addition to much of what passes for comedy these days).  Chaplin’s appeal came from people who at the time, like Chaplin, were foreigners in a New World trying their best to make their way, where Keaton was a cerebral dreamer who was always improvising to make the best of his situation. I could connect with Keaton because he was in a constant state of creation and exploration.  Without that connection the contact is gone and it becomes meaningless.

In my writing I’ve noticed that so much of the humor comes from characters who are attempting something creative, some execution of their thinking, flawed as it may be.  Character and humor are intricately related, and it’s important (I now realize) to make that connection clear with the reader.  In my previous thinking about boy humor I came to understand that boy characters never intentionally say or do anything funny – to do so would be “inauthentic” and come of as stilted and unfunny.  This might explain why I’m so disappointed in many middle grade humorous books, those that rely on characters behaving ridiculously to the point where the humor is obvious and heavy-handed.

It’s a question that ultimately comes down to not selling the audience or the reader short when it comes to humor.  It can’t just be funny, in needs to be grounded, and it shouldn’t insult the intelligence of the reader.

I now have a note for myself when I go into revisions on my current WIP: does the humor connect, or is it I Love Lucy?

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I get weird thoughts in the shower.  Some people sing, some dance, some just stand there and let water serve as their yoga, I get weird ideas.  Like the idea that playground rhymes and children’s ditties need to be updated.  “Ring Around the Rosies” is so… 14th century, don’t you think?

I was also thinking about all these magazines at the checkout stand, and how there’s an industry dedicated to photographing well-known people and finding ways to knock them down.  So-and-so has three months to live!  Missy X caught cheating on suffering hubby… again!  Seriously?  We don’t have better things to spend our resources on, there aren’t better ways to spend our time and money?

And during the election season the problem gets magnified when the “news” programs get involved is sorting out the different layers of dreck.

The following is what happens when all these thoughts come together in the shower.  To the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

Three Cheers

Create a popular hero,
Promote someone from a zero,
Create a national hero…
And ruin them in the press!

Let media do what’s best!
The public can do the rest!

Create a popular hero…
And ruin them in the press!


That last part, that’s the old “hip-hip-hooray!” Not sure it works.

It’s Poetry Friday all over the world. Catch a slice of it at Teaching Authors.

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creating the orange

On a college application for art school the essay question was the rather uncreative (I thought) “Where do your creative ideas come from?”  Everyone knows the answer to this: all creative ideas come from the ether, out of the blue, from thin air.

The problem with the question isn’t where they come from, but the work that is necessary to keep them alive once they arrive.  A better essay question would have been something that demonstrated that creative process, the old show, don’t tell.  You know, something like “If oranges didn’t exist, explain how you would go about creating one.”

I woke up this morning thinking “I can’t possibly write anything.  I just don’t have anything in me that can put words in coherent order.”  Basically, I didn’t even have an orange in mind, much less any idea how to create one.  A few hours later I had nine pages of new writing, a full chapter with dialog and a narrative arc and everything.  How the heck did that happen on an allegedly empty tank?

Chalk it up to that part of the brain the goes around creating oranges.

The generally accepted rule about writing is that it only happens when one shows up, just like any other job.  Alternately this is known as butt-in-chair time.  For the writer the job is words, in order, preferably in one that conveys a story that engages other people.  It is, in essence, creating oranges for a world to discover and enjoy for themselves.

That still doesn’t explain how it happens.

I think that everyone has the ability to access that part of the brain – let’s call it the Orange Segment – and as with any learned act becomes stronger over time.  No one is born with the ability to drive a car or build a skyscraper though intuition and predisposition may play a part in how we select the things we choose to dedicate our time to.  Those who are drawn to the Orange Segment will, over time, have easier access to the methods and procedures that allow for the creative act to take place on a regular basis. It operates in the background and has the uncanny ability to override conscious thinking.

It’s like a muscle memory that knows how to run the secret alleys and hidden paths of the brain blindfolded, able to get from point A to point B.  It’s the hero who can outrun the bad guys.  This morning the hero made it to the Orange Segment before the bad guys were even aware they have to stop him.

It was a good morning of writing.


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a couple of side dishes

Either somewhere in the recesses of my brain I don’t feel like I’m doing enough, or my creative brain is like a dog that doesn’t know when to stop eating.  In nothing succeeds like success I guess nothing exceeds like excess.

First on the block, Picture Book Idea Month, or PiBoIdMo.  A relative newcomer to the month-o-November writing parties like NaNoWriMo, PiBoIdMo is perhaps both simpler and more diabolical in its modesty: one picture book idea a day for an entire month.  Not a finished text, maybe nothing more than a character or a title.  How hard can that be?


Having spent the last three years dedicating myself to a new haiku a day during National Poetry Month I know that some days the ol’ idea factory can run as dry as a mouthful of sawdust in the desert.  But the goal is to keep the ideas flowing and maybe inspire myself to write some shorter book (shorter than novels) as a way of breaking up the huge chunks on year dedicated to single projects.

PiBoIdMo is an odd duck though in that it doesn’t ask for a daily log or public declaration.  There’s an honor code involved, and I get the feeling that people probably wouldn’t want to publicly toss around good (no, great) ideas for easy poaching.  But, but, but… sometimes you get an idea so odd, or funny, or simply perfect in some other ways that you just want to shout it to the world.  Guess I’ll just need to keep it buttoned up until the end when there’s a possibility to share my brilliance in exchange for fabulous prizes.

Or I could just write the books and get them published.  That would be the thing to do, yes?

Next is a collaborative blog that is something a little more… visual.  Earlier this year I reconnected with my friend Lynell, a surviving friendship from high school days, and over the course of months have come to a point where we both felt like we needed another outlet for our non-writing creative sides.  Ideas were tossed around and back in July (really?  four months ago?) we talked about collaborative space.  It isn’t fully refined and defined, it’s still very much in the toddling stages of development, but last week we starting tossing things out there and people have already started noticing it.

I’ve taken to calling it a “soft opening,” a term used in other areas to indicate when an enterprise opens for business before it’s official Grand Opening.  I doubt we’ll ever have an official Grand Opening, so no sense waiting for a formal announcement: go visit the vestibulum for visual diversions and other inspirations. Comments and followers greatly appreciated.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a picture book idea to conceive before knucklng down with some YA boys.

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