Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Liar, writer. What's the difference?

I'm always getting to books after everyone else has discovered, analyzed and written about them. This time it's Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The one of the cover conflict fame (I couldn't resist using the before and after versions here, because the before is just so wrong).

If you don't know the premise of Liar, suffice it to say Micah is the ultimate unreliable narrator. She promises to tell the truth, but you're never certain whether or when she has. Even when you finish the book. It's a delicious mind-bending mystery.

You should read it if you haven't.

But one of the things that intrigued me was how Larbalestier plays with the very heart of being a writer. She lets Micah tell us the tricks of storytelling (or lying, if that's how you want to look at it) straight out. Early on in the book, I noticed what a wonderful job the author did with sensory detail that made scenes come alive. Then further on, Micah tells the reader that's how to make a story convincing -- not just good details, but how they're delivered. "Let them tease the information out of you. Lightly sprinkle it. One detail here, the smell of peanuts roasting; one there, the crunch of gray snow underfoot."

And again when Micah admits to (or seems to admit to!) having made up a character in the book. "I wanted to see if I could do it: invent a person. Make them believable. Real. Whole." I was struck with how that's what we do as writers of fiction. Micah's core question is the one we are always asking our readers: Do you believe me?

It's odd that two almost completely opposite books like Liar and Maggie's Monkeys could both strike me as being the stories of writers at work. (My observations about Maggie are explained a little bit here.) But I guess we're all always writing about ourselves in one way or another.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rockin' robin

I've been playing around in Twitter lately, and it's been an interesting experience for me as a writer in a few different ways.

One is the obvious: 140 characters. I think of myself as a fairly succinct writer, but that limit can be ... well, limiting. Especially if you add a link. It's challenging to say something that might be relevant or informative or funny in so few characters. I've been experimenting and am happy that I have a very small audience as of yet so that I don't have to worry too much about sounding inane or arch, which can be a consequence of trying to be clever. At least when I do it.

Another thing that's fun to explore in that arena is voice. Twitter is very casual and, particularly since I follow mostly writers and editors, there are a lot of people who are talented at using that voice to good effect. I find I really like what I encounter there. It feels welcoming, comfortable. Some people today bemoan the loss of formal writing skills, and I know what they mean, but I find that when done well Twitter is strong writing.

I'm not saying that every Tweet is a pearl of writing. But if you care about writing and try to do it well, Tweeting is harder than it looks. It's been fun to begin exploring its limitations and strengths. (I realize that talking about Twitter like this probably makes me sound unimaginably old and out-of-it to anyone under 40, but I'll just have to own that. I don't have a smart phone either. Let me make it clear, though, I'm in the Jackson Five generation of Rockin' Robin, not Bobby Day.)

Has the first novel entirely in Tweets been published yet?

I have some additional thoughts about Twitter as a tool for an author and how I use it vs. how most people use it, which I'll save for later. But if you're a writer who hasn't checked it out yet, I say do it. I'm @swellbooks.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A quiet book

I was browsing new picture books at one of my local indie bookstores a few days ago and picked up The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Renata Liwska. As the promo materials note, "There are many kinds of quiet -- from first one awake quiet to top of the roller coaster quiet."

The book is very minimal and understated, a catalog of different kinds of quiet. But between the carefully chosen examples and the expressions on the animals' faces, it conveys a huge range of emotions. I loved the complexity and variety the author managed to get across in such a simple format and so few words.

There is don’t scare the robin quiet. Others telling secrets quiet. Thinking of a good reason you were drawing on the wall quiet. Bedtime kiss quiet. And lots more. This is a perfect bedtime book. Very sweet.

(I noted that the book creators'  names weren't on the front cover. That would be hard for me if I were the author -- would love to know the story behind that decision.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I never get tired of this

New review today for Maggie's Monkeys on the Young Readers blog. Becky wrote:
I found this one to be a cute book, a funny book, with some heart! I loved the story of this one. How a brother and sister can not get along, and yet, when it really matters, when it really counts, they can be there for one another.
She also encouraged readers to look for the pink monkeys, which I love. I really advocated for there to be monkeys on the pages somehow, despite the fact that Jack can't see them. I'm so happy with how Abby Carter brought my characters to life and am glad readers also appreciate what she accomplished in illustrating a book with invisible characters.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Absolutely true diary of a part-time critic

It happened again this week. I belatedly read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,  the National Book Award winner. I'd seen nothing but rave reviews for it and had been meaning to get to it for a long time.

And I liked it. Junior is a very sympathetic protagonist and his troubles are real. It was a welcome trip into a world I know only from the outside.

But I didn't love it. Just as when I read When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead's Newbery winner, I wasn't as blown away as I'd expected. (My reaction to that book is here.) In each case, I thought the book was good. Very good even. But to me each was marred by a certain self-consciousness. Maybe it's because I'm an adult and a writer, but I could see the man behind the curtain. In Alexie's case, I could feel the author's need to make me understand life on the rez. As well as the effort going in to making the book funny and poignant.

I'm happy to learn more about life on the rez. But my sense of the storyteller distracted me from the story, kept it from feeling as real as I wanted it to. I wasn't able to be immersed in that world. As a result, some things didn't ring true. (When Rowdy uses the word nomadic repeatedly at the end, for example. It made an otherwise believable character seem like a mouthpiece for the author.)

The truth is, I'm not blown away very often. I'm still capable of being caught up in other worlds. Of closing a book and realizing I didn't notice the author's technique. Even when the book has gotten a lot of attention and awards. (One example that comes to mind is Looking for Alaska by John Green, which I felt warranted every word of praise it got.)

So the question bothering me is, have I become a cynical or harsh reader? Have I lost the ability to put the critic aside and read as a reader? Are my expectations too high? Certainly I'm not able to produce books anywhere near this level, so is it jealousy? Or something else?

Why do I seem to be the only one who doesn't love these books?

Monday, March 15, 2010

This book's gonna be a good book

This is a great video by middle school students in Florida. I hope their energy is catching. (It's fun to look for books in the crowd. I think I saw Holes, Star Girl, The Giver, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Web editor

Okay, so I totally stole that title from the piece itself. But it's too perfect not to use.

This article in Slate called Hey, Charlotte, about that thing you wrote last night... by Dan McCoy is a riot. Wilbur gives Charlotte a bit of helpful advice about her writing.

It might sound familiar to anyone who's gotten writing advice:

"It's not as if I don't appreciate your efforts on my behalf. This must have taken all night, and it certainly looks beautiful up there, bedecked in morning dew and glistening. And—let's make this clear—I'm no writer... So, please, don't take this the wrong way, but I have a few notes."

But my favorite part was:

"As a sentence fragment, it lacks a certain clarity. What if someone took your unattached clause and hitched it to the word have, as in the sentence, "Have some pig"?"

Thursday, March 11, 2010

About the author

Yesterday I got an email from someone who told me she read my entire blog and found very little personal information on it. She was trying to write an introduction about me for an authors' reception this week and couldn't do it based on the blog. I was kind of taken aback, to tell the truth. I know I'm a private person, but felt like this is one place where I put myself out there a bit.

Reflecting on it, though, I realized she was right. I share my ideas and feelings here, but not much personal information. My thoughts were that the blog is about children's literature, not me.

But since I had to send her some sort of bio, I thought I might as well share it here too. Even if I can't imagine anyone finding it very interesting.
  • My "day job" is creating communications for KnowledgeWorks Foundation, which is working to spark innovation in education, particularly high schools. I do a mean PowerPoint.
  • I worked for many years as a corporate communications consultant, and my insistence on learning about the audience firsthand led me to such varied things as traveling on a towboat on the Ohio and working a commercial laundry collection route.
  • I'm an armchair genealogist, meaning that I have collected all the information on my family I could find on the internet and am able to report that I am a descendant of King Edward III of England. (No need to bow.)
  • For a brief period, I worked at Mademoiselle magazine, but unlike Sylvia Plath did not get a novel out of the experience. I did get to meet Dr. Ruth.
  • I never went to kindergarten, my favorite place is the beach, I'm allergic to bees, my biggest regret is not traveling more and my thumbs are double-jointed. But that's more than anyone would want to know.
Aren't things like that the hardest writing assignments in the world?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Great minds

I just saw this interview at Cynsations with M.T. Anderson on the subject of my last post. Not that he or the incredibly helpful blogger-interviewer Cynthia Leitich Smith (who has done a series of interviews on writing across formats) was responding to me. But it's interesting to hear thoughts on the subject from a National Book Award winner:

"After I write one kind of thing, I have a natural inclination to write something that feels as different as possible, to stretch myself in another way."

If you haven't read Feed or the first Octavian Nothing,  I recommend them. I haven't gotten to Volume II of Octavian yet. But I was surprised by how much I liked the first one -- as the synopsis didn't sound like something I'd enjoy. When a book outside your usual genres  or topic areas captures you, that's something special.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Age appropriate

A couple of times lately I've had a conversation with another children's book author about the age range we choose to write for. Among the authors I know, there are generally two types.

One type is drawn to and writes almost exclusively for a single age group, whether it's picture book readers, young adults or something in between. Many authors feel they are meant to write for one particular age, and some are just more comfortable with one particular kind of writing. It makes sense. The learning curve for different levels is steep. The style, length, voice, plotting, etc., are completely different from one age group to another.

The other type of author writes across all age groups or at least several of them. I fall into this category. I don't write board books or easy readers, but have put a lot of effort into picture books, chapter books, middle grade and YA. The only thing I've had published beside the picture book are stories in Cricket, which hits the middle grade reader, but I've written pretty extensively in all these age groups.

Lots of us in the latter group have noticed a trajectory in our writing. Our subject matter ages as our children do. We tend to write for the age group into which our kids fall at the moment. Maybe we're opportunistic, but we know those kids, their worlds, their concerns. At least when the kids are young, we also tend to read a lot of other books for that age group, so we know the field. Those are huge advantages.

I don't write exclusively YA now that Abbie is a teenager, and I wrote my first attempt at a YA novel well before Abbie was in high school. But I do feel more out of touch with toddlers than I once did and a lot more versed in the ways of texting and ACTs and homecoming dances.

That's all good, but it raises a question. When Abbie moves beyond what is generally considered the upper age for young people's books, am I finished? Do I start writing for adults, or do I move freely among the age groups because I've experienced them all?

I don't know, and mostly I don't think about it. (In general, I try not to think about Abbie reaching adulthood and leaving.) But I have noticed one trend that could counteract the problem of not having a child in the house. Some of my older colleagues are now writing books for the ages of their grandchildren...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ninja victory

Congratulations to fellow picture book author and blogger Corey Schwartz, whose new book The Three Ninja Pigs will be illustrated by Dan Santat and released by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 2012 or 2013.

Corey had a break of six years between publication deals (her first book, with Tali Klein, was Hop! Plop!) So there's hope for those of us waiting for that second offer.

Corey has been very generous in helping me get started in blogging. I'm delighted that she will be published again.