Posts Tagged ‘#kidlit’

Unstrung Harp

From The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (©1999):

On November 18th of alternate years Mr Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel.’ Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.

I’m only one guy, and I’ve never even published a book, but I’m gonna suggest that the best way to begin writing a novel is not this way.  I don’t know.  You do you.

Personally I use a completely different arbitrary and stupid method: I try to come up with the perfect first sentence.  For weeks I have been devoting drive time, shower time, time between hitting the snooze button, and break time to composing the line that will make kids everywhere beg their parents to buy my book.  The problem is I haven’t really developed the plot structure, yet, or even fully established the world where it takes place and all of the rules, so….

The last book I wrote I began by the seat of my pants, and it wasn’t until I was 4-5 chapters in that I was forced to stop and create an outline for the plot structure.  Then when I had finished the book, most of those first chapters got deleted, rewritten, or both.  Very little of that seat-of-the-pants stuff remains.  But it was good exercise and gave me lots of background material that helped flesh out the characters in later drafts.

For the sequel (currently in progress), I already knew most of the characters — certainly the main one — and I started with a complex plot outline before I even thought about writing the first chapter.

With the new book, though … I’m eager to get started and reluctant to build the foundation.  That’s bad, right?

Imma gonna have to get on that outline and background before I go any further, for sure.  But it’s fantastic to feel the enthusiasm and passion again.

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Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave or possibly just awoken from a prolonged coma, you will have noticed that all of the literary genre’s have come unstuck. Once upon a time they were pretty straight-forward: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, horror, mystery, western, and “mainstream.” There were books for adults and books for kids, broken into books for little kids (board books, and storybooks) and books for big kids (Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club). And like old-time manners, these genres and age groups kept politely to themselves and did not step outside of their own social circles.

Then Something Happened, and the genres started to mix and mingle and breed offspring which had their own ideas and demanded to be recognized. Horror and fantasy got pushed aside by paranormal and magical realism, while science fiction shelves became segregated into military, post-apocalyptic, and space opera. Today there are hundreds of genre “grandchildren” to be found (biopunk, cyberpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, and steampunk are all established genres).

And of course children’s books age categories went through a similar evolution: pictures books, early readers, and chapter books for the little kids, and “juvenile” and “teen” gave way to lower middle grade, upper middle grade, young adult, and new adult.

The mixing continues. Today you can find historic fantasy, comedy space western, and paranormal romance.

The challenge of coming up with something original seems a bit daunting. I have been scribbling down notes for a new series of adventure books for a lower middle grade audience (because they can be shorter), that has a steampunky feel to it. Well, fantasy steampunk. Contemporary fantasy steampunk adventure. Ahem. The thing about steampunk is that is has definite adult conventions, such as buxom women in leather bustiers, dark alley murders, and lots of absynth. Naturally, none of these things have a place in books written for 7-10 year olds. I discovered in my research into children’s steampunk that there are not very many books written like this. To be sure, steampunk is very popular in the young adult market, where those adult themes can make an appearance, but not for “children.” This means two things: there are few examples I can use for inspiration and guidance, but it also means this is a largely untapped market, if I can find the right balance.

There is certainly a great deal of material left to work with in the steampunk genre. Kids love the idea of building elaborate gadgets – have you been to a toy store lately? Kids love any kind of machine that goes – fast cars, flying machines, rockets, submarines, walking tanks, you name it. I do not intend to set this in Victorian England, which is the gold standard for steampunk, however I have seen plenty of examples of people being transported to parallel worlds or alternate timelines where technology is more primitive or electricity and fossils fuels are unavailable.

I just happen to have this contemporary fantasy world laying around (from my daughter’s and my Fae-born series, where descendants of the fearie-folk live among us). In the third book were were planning to have the classic fae of old descend upon the earth when their faerie realm is unlocked, resulting in a war. It would enhance that storyline and perfectly set up the new series to have the fae’s magic and presence in our world completely disrupt our modern technologies. If you take away electricity, that pretty much kills everything – vehicles, the power grid, communications, even nuclear and solar power. What you have left is clever clockwork versions of traditional gadgets. Lots of steampunk relies on crystals for power. Our hero will have access to magic. And LEGOs. And comic books full of superheroes for inspiration. Imagine an 8yo inventor with a cape and a jet pack (powered by a flying spell), and goggles that let him see through walls. With faerie assassins and gangs of goblin thugs to fight, as well as mysteries to solve with clever gadgets.

Meet Thomas Brökkenwier, the Gadgeteer.

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Okay, I’ll admit I’m trying to up my cred as a children’s author by inventing my own word. Spread it around.

PREINFORCE. It means foreshadowing. Only, the thing is, “foreshadow” isn’t actually very descriptive or evocative of it’s function. I just feel like, as writers, our own tools ought to embody our art, and not simply be flowery. Amiright?

So. Russian author Anton Chekov is famous for having said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The point he was trying to illustrate is basically don’t put anything in your story that does not eventually serve a purpose. This concept is known widely as “Chekov’s Gun.”

In broad strokes, this is an excellent rule.  But Chekov was talking about plays, not novels. In novels, writers often add a line of dialogue or a sentence of description simply to evoke a mood or to create a beat in the pacing.  There will inevitably be things mentioned in a novel that are never revisited.  Particularly in this age of writing in anticipation of the eventual sequel.

The other thing about this kind of thinking is that it occasionally leads a writer to make up a reason to justify something they really like earlier in their book, just so they can keep it. I’m not too proud to admit that this exact kind of thinking led to the villain in my and my daughter’s WIP.

But this is not actually the same thing as foreshadowing. The art of foreshadowing requires a skill for thinking backwards every bit as much as thinking forward. In fact, to be really effective, the actually event you are foreshadowing should be fully established in all its glorious minutia before you go back and sprinkle in all of the supporting details. The process of adding in those details on a later pass is what I call “preinforcing.” Like all good words, it means precisely what it sounds like — you are reinforcing in advance. Burying clues along the way that do not look like clues.

That’s the difference between foreshadowing and preinforcing. With foreshadowing, a writer puts something in their story in anticipation of a later event which has not yet been written. Or, as I’ve already talked about, they put in something that they later decide to expand upon. Preinforcing, on the other hand, is deliberately preparing your reader to properly experience an event you’ve already written.

How does one do this?  Well, the fact that all of the details are already in place makes it much easier to be subtle. Foreshadowing before you’ve written the later scene must necessarily be done in broad strokes. Whereas going back and seeding subtle details is really only possible when the tiny details have been established. Then, you can evoke a mood or a color or a scent early on which will fit in so smoothly that it never suggests it is planted to foreshadow some future event.

In our WIP, our main character discovers in chapter 15 that she is descended from trolls. One of the qualities of pure-blood trolls is that sunlight turns them to stone. Having established that, I went back and preinforced this by giving her a sunburn and flaky skin, which she is still experiencing when she puts 2 and 2 together. I preinforced that by having her forget to put on sunscreen and worrying about her skin in the previous scene. And I preinforced that by having her mother tell her not to forget sunscreen because she burns so easily, way back in chapter 1. In every one of these cases, those little bits of additional information fit perfectly into the tone, mood, and pacing of the moment. In the middle scene, she has decided on the spur of the moment to sneak out of the house, hop on her bike, and ride across town to confront her nemesis. On the way, she realizes that in her haste she forgot to put on sunscreen and on top of everything else she’s going to have to deal with a sunburn. Later, when she is depressed because things did not go well, she sullenly scratches her sunburned arm and notices the flaky skin. So when she starts to pile up the evidence that she is troll-born, her sensitivity to sunlight has already been well and subtly established. It is not something that had been presented early in the story like a pistol displayed on the wall.

The best foreshadowing is the kind you never see coming. And to achieve that, you have to set it up carefully and deliberately. You can do it in advance, but to do it with finesse it is usually better to go back and add it.

Say it with me: “Preinforce.” Spread the word.

James ScottJames A. Scott

I, for one, am disappointed when someone makes a blanket statement such as “I just don’t see how non-white characters fit into my book.”  But I recognize that every book is different and reflects the deep thoughts of the writer.  It also reflects the limitations imposed on the writer in terms of that person’s personal background and perhaps in the worst case upbringing.

On the other hand simply putting diverse characters in a story willy-nilly can, as you pointed out, can cause even more problems.  I prefer to leverage a character’s outward appearance to further my stories in terms of hidden themes or perhaps illustrating an in your face fact.  This is not an easy subject but it must be explored.  As you can imagine, I want to show characters of color, especially those of African descent, in areas outside of the usual sports, entertainment, inner city stuff, etc.  Aside from encouraging “black” kids to take up the sciences, I consider this to be a huge untapped market.

One may think that diversity should be used only if it is part of the story.  But what if the character is the vice-chairman of a large  international bank and we are not talking about him being arrested for driving a fancy car in an upscale neighborhood?  So why should the author “color” him black?  Well, one reason is to access that untapped market. A more noble reason is to educate your readers (both black and white combined) that such a person actually exists.  It’s an unpleasant fact that we humans tend to pay more attention to characters who look more like us, than not.

But the question is how does one do this without being patronizing or inaccurate or stirring up a hornets nest.  Fortunately, for me in the science fiction world, I have a lot of tools at my disposal.

For example, I address the topic of race in HEAVEN’S ANT FARM with a rather different tact.  In this story, I tell of a Holy Nuclear War in Heaven, a result of religious intolerance.  Only 5500 survived the war by living underground.  When the descendants of the 5500 finally emerged from their subterranean hideout 1000 years later they were all the same color — light golden tan.

Turning diversity upside down by making  everyone the same color with a radioactive melting pot is perhaps a strange way to address the challenge.  By the way, it’s a challenge that doesn’t go away in the story.  Point is, diversity in our stories is an underutilized tool to guide our readers to explore the world around them and remind each and every one of them that they can do anything they set their mind to achieving. Something I consider important in kidlit.

Diverse Hands Holding The Word Diversity

You may have read my post three weeks ago on diversity in children’s literature. If you did not, I essentially paid lip service to the cause, then made excuses for why I didn’t think it applied to my daughter’s and my book.

I got a lot of feedback.

I had one conversation with a delightful woman who insisted that I was absolutely correct to refuse to include gay people in my middle grade novel, because they were perverse and no child of any age should be subjected to conversations about sex. Over the course of our cordial debate I completely changed my attitude about diversity in children’s books.

Before, I felt like the movement was perhaps a little over-pressuring. I was offended by the notion that as white writers, if we didn’t include people of color in our book – regardless of the subject matter – that we were part of the problem. Perhaps we are. I won’t argue it; I’ve put down that particular banner, now.

My argument, with regards to our current book, was that the cast is very diverse already, even though almost everyone is white. The characters in this book range from German to French to Cockney to Swiss, and they have the accents to prove it. Isn’t that diversity? Well, yes it is. But if you are the parent of a Middle Eastern child looking for a book to give that child which will make them feel included, whites from Europe are really no different from whites from America. I argued that to simply make some of our characters Hispanic or black or Asian merely to be diverse was as bad as stereotyping; one should only include people of color if their inclusion makes sense, or if their color is integral to the story.

But then I started discussing with my “fan” the merits of creating a picture book with two gay parents. The example was a book about a married lesbian couple taking their child to the zoo to see the various animals. I argued that there was absolutely no reason such a book should not be written, and that the inclusion of a married gay couple was in no way perverse or sexual, and was just as valid for any child to read as one with a traditional couple. I had just seen a very cute commercial about some Star Wars themed soup in which both of the male parents took turns feeding their son soup while impersonating Darth Vader: “I am your father!” It was adorable. And while homosexuality has nothing at all to do with soup or Star Wars, I found the commercial to be an important one. A child of gay parents can see themselves very positively in that commercial. And children of traditional parents see a segment of our culture that is real – and there was no sex or perversion implied (unless the viewer is unreasonably bigoted).

So why not rewrite some of our own characters into people of color? Well, I thought about it. And while the reasons I gave in my earlier post were premature and not well-thought out, I stand by our decision, and for a very good reason. Many – even most – of the characters in this middle grade fantasy are sinister. There is a limo driver who is descended from imps – sort of a poor man’s jinni, characterized by horns and a tail. Like all of these kinds of characters in our book, we made them be from the same culture that created the myth. Imps (and jinn) are Middle Eastern. But we felt uncomfortable giving our slippery and underhanded imp character an Arab accent. We have a ogre, whose people are known for hunting and eating children. Should we have made him black? I almost made our brownie (who is a servant) black, but was cautioned that that particular combination invited offense. We did make our jinn black and gave them a subtle South African accent. We set up the jinn as characters of great power who might choose to join either the good side or the bad side, then had them join the good side. And my main character and her best friend are white. Changing either one of them would require a major rewrite which I am not prepared to do at this point. But almost all of the peripheral characters mentioned in the story are black or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern.

So, are we part of the problem? I hope we aren’t. But we also aren’t willing to add to the problem on purpose by reinforcing stereotypes. Bottom line: Diversity in kidlit can go too far. But how far is too far? Much farther than I thought before.

Finger pushing enter button of keyboard

So, about five weeks ago my daughter and I received a Revise and Resubmit request from our dream agent, on our middle grade fantasy manuscript. And because she is swamped with school, I have taken on the task of making all of the revisions and resubmitting the manuscript when ready.

I told the agent we would have the revised manuscript back to her in eight weeks. I finished the revisons a week ago. It is a struggle to resist sending it off so we can get to the part where she signs us.

The way I see it, an R&R is actually a whole series of tests … or opportunities. Of course the agent is looking for a perfect manuscript, or at least a marketable one. But not only that. An agent is also looking for a client she can work with, a client who gets her and a client she gets.  A client who understands deadlines, follows directions, accepts criticism as well as praise, and who can read between the lines. So when an agent says, “It might be better to relocate the character’s development elsewhere,” it helps to understand what she means and to be able to make that happen in such a way that it satisfies her issues with the manuscript.

I’m pretty confident I’ve addressed every one of her concerns and criticisms, and the revisions and additions all support these changes and improve the book. It took a lot of planning and late nights, but I think I’ve pulled it off, and I think the agent will like the results. But here’s another opportunity to impress: turning in the work early, exceeding expectations.

The extraordinary thing about this agent is how remarkably fast she has responded. She requested our full manuscript the very next day after we sent her the original unsolicited query. And one week after we sent the full she replied with an R&R, complete with extensive notes. Given that the consensus in the writing community is generally that an R&R request means an agent is quite likely to sign a client, I am understandably eager to put this revised manuscript into her hands as soon as possible.

The only problem is … I haven’t actually read the new manuscript, yet. Not as a whole, not in order. Not with a fresh perspective.  And the easiest way to turn off an agent is turn in a manuscript with bigger issues than it had before the revision. Or, you know, typos. But before I could read it again I needed to take a week off from this project and stretch my creative legs. I read a book by another author. And it was glorious. It had brand new words and everything!

But now I am back to our book, and I am about halfway done with the readthrough. So far I’ve only found a handful of very minor things to change, and not all of them related to the revisions.  A couple of tiny consistency mistakes, and so on.  But I haven’t gotten to the big changes, yet. I’m hoping I can get through the rest of it over the next week. And, barring any huge issues, I will be ready for the Resubmit portion of the R&R two weeks early.

Not a moment too soon.

Diversity in Kidlit

Posted: October 7, 2015 in Writing
Tags: , ,

colorful hands

There is a rising trend in children’s literature — in all fiction, actually.  The inclusion of diverse characters.  Characters of color, LGBT characters, characters with all variety of economic backgrounds.  I think it is not only important, but crucial to expose our children to the notion that people of color, etc. are a normal, equal part of our world.  Because too much of our popular media (movies, TV, books, cartoon, music) either ignores diversity and assumes everyone is white, or puts those people in a bad or stereotypical light.  And I believe much of this comes from the works of non-traditional people themselves, just so you don’t think I’m pointing a finger.

Like it or not, our kids live in a world where gay people and Muslim people and homeless people share their classrooms and playgrounds. And if you’re like me, I don’t want my children to grow up thinking in terms of “us” and “them.”

But…

These are children’s books and movies and so forth, and I also don’t want my children (or anyone’s children) to be force-fed morality stories.  Kids should be allowed to have fantasies and adventures without a token transgender wizard or a random Asian space alien.  My own story, for example (which I am co-authoring with my daughter) is bursting with diversity. Our book features elves and dwarves and pixies and dryads as well as goblins and ogres and gremlins and imps.  And I will be very resistant to anyone who tells me I “must” make one of my elves gay, or one of my ogres Jewish.  You can’t make me.

The thing about every “movement” is that there are gaps and over-reactions.  Most of the people and organizations trumpeting about diversity in books are not militant about it.  But some are.  And some are only interested in certain kinds of diversity.  I read a rant by the founder of one group that tried to tell me I was the problem if I was white and didn’t go out of my way to include non-whites in my story.  But my daughter’s and my book includes people from France, Germany, Ireland, England, and Sweden. So those aren’t diverse enough?

I understand this is a real issue.  And it has been going on in America since before the days of the minstrel shows.  I remember Sambo’s Restaurant when the little boy in all of the murals was black, then suddenly he was East Indian when stereotyping black people went out of fashion (but stereotyping other people of color was still fair game).  But if you’re going to get on a soapbox about treating minorities fairly and appropriately, then you should include all minorities. And you should understand that they are minorities because there are fewer of them as a percentage of the population than your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  Every classroom in America is not a miniature United Nations. And it’s not a sin to be white.

Moreover, making a character Hispanic just so you can feel like you’re being inclusive is not helping the issue.  Is there any reason for your character to be Hispanic, in particular? Does that fit with the rest of your story? If your story takes place in Maine and you turn Ed into Edwardo just so you can jump on the Diversity bandwagon, are you not edging into “token” territory?  Oh, and if he does fit, you don’t have to make him love spicy food and telenovelas.  Just saying.

One last radical thought.  Children’s books are for children.  Children are smart.  And they are natural mimics.  My daughter’s and my book is for readers from 8 years old and up.  And I don’t feel like 8-year-olds need to be exposed to anyone’s agenda, political or otherwise.  I think it’s okay if most of the people in our book are white.