Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Who’s an Expert?

“I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of."                               
Clarence Darrow

A writing colleague confessed she does not give writing/publishing advice, because she does not feel she has the expertise.

 I, on the other hand, don’t have much expertise, but never shy away from giving advice. I began my career as the Opinionator at the age of five, when I explained to my mother at some length why her bachelor work-friend Bob will never get married. Bob didn’t listen to me, and married the love of his life, Edith, only a few months later. But my mother said I expressed myself well, and could have a future in this sort of business. The opinion business, that is.

Is it lack of humility, or simple delusion? I think in my case both are contributing factors, but the main driving force is a sense that there’s not enough knowledge in the world, no matter how much I studied, that would make me infallible. In the meanwhile, why not share what I think I know?

This is my excuse for this blog, for my books, and for continuing to give and take advice with gusto. I hope to always be gaining expertise, but never become an expert.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fiction or Nonfiction?

"Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." - Mark Twain

My late father used to tell me that fiction is much more truthful than so-called factual writing. It goes deeper and frees the thinker/writer to share their truest insights.

I, ever his contrarian progeny, argued that this is just a fancy way to justify spending many hours reading about others’ flights of fancy, endless conjuring, and an excuse to play. In this dialogue you could say I played the grownup and he was the kid who made excuses for why he didn’t have to grow up.

I used to write short stories. The stories were fictional but based on bits of reality and, even more, on bits of fictional stories I have read. I was playing with story telling. But all the while I felt there was something not quite respectable about this sort of thing.

Historians- now here were the real explorers of human reality. They had a lot of homework, too. They studied and gathered and painstakingly put it together. My father was a writer, a poet and a historian. It was the latter that earned him a living as a teacher. 

He had lived a life that itself was an epic chapter of twentieth century Jewish history, surviving the Holocaust and fighting for the establishment of Israel all before he was twenty-one. He was urged to write his memories. He refused, saying, “Autobiographies are exercises in truth-twisting and self-justification.” Another way of calling these nonfiction books, essentially, lies.
The first version of what became The Voice of Thunder was a short story for adults, largely nonfiction. I was careful not to stray from what I remembered. I was careful not to go too far afield from what I had seen with my own eyes. I was careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings. I was so careful, that it was not much of a story.

Many years later I went out on a limb, took a few elements from the old story, and made a fictional story for children. This time, because I had already decided I will write a fictional story with characters that weren't there or weren't as I described, the story came together with some deeper and surprising insights. Surprising to me, the writer.

When I expanded that story to a novel for pre-teens, the process of adding fictional characters, have them speak and do things I had no idea they could, was nothing less than shocking. Where did this come from?

I was finally telling the truth, while the story was much more fiction.

This time, too, you were right, father.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Let’s Re-name Middle Grade Novels

DF: “You look so happy, almost glowing.”

Me: “Well, I have a reason. I just finished the first draft of my very first middle grade novel. I didn’t know I could write anything of that length and take it to the finish line.”

DF: (after a long silence, looking perplexed) “Why would you write a so-so novel? Why not write a good one?”

A few years ago I had this very conversation with a dear friend who, one will rightly surmise, is not a writer. She could not fathom such joy at having completed something of middle-grade when one should have at least attempted a finer grade.

I have since seen this confusion in places and people I thought knew this publishing industry term. Is middle grade meant for middle school? (No, middle school years are 6-8 grade, or 11-14 year olds.) Is middle grade just the younger end of young adult? (Not really, though overlap is natural in literature.) Is middle grade the same as chapter books? (Fifty years ago it would have been. Now chapter books are shorter, meant for second and third graders, and precede the reading of novels. But middle grade novels often have chapters, as do novels for all ages.)

And the worst of all- are middle grade novels just the not-so-good, genre formula fiction, sold in the supermarket? (Well, some qualify. But this is not what “MG = middle grade,” as a category in publishing, refers to. Not even a little.)

The short answer is that middle grade books are aimed at ages 8-12, or grades 3-6, once “the middle grades” when elementary school went from first to eighth grade.

And middle grade novels are the first real novels children will read. The Newbery committee honors the finest children’s literary middle grade novels. They can be as short as 20,000 words and as long as 80,000, Harry Potter and other outliers on both ends not withstanding.

My published novel for middle grades is at the shorter end of this spectrum. The first draft I finished that day went on to have many revisions, and, after being published, it even won and award. The Moonbeam Children's Book Awards called the category “Pre-Teen.” Not a mention of “middle grade.” Awards are for good books, not so-so ones.

I like pre-teen. I think the choice of wording is perfect: descriptive, informative, and less likely to be misunderstood.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Trashing the Successful

Now that the brouhaha has worn out its welcome, I feel like reflecting on our unfortunate tendency to go on the abusive mode towards those who have been successful.

I wish I could recall who said this: “Jealousy is when you wished you had what someone else has. Envy is when you wish you had what someone else has, and you don’t want them to have it.”

This fits with the notion that envy may be the root of all wars.

When it comes to people who succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, we see the backlash coming. It’s not enough that we haven’t, they shouldn't have, either.

Envy may be green, but it isn't pretty.
©Shelagh Duffett

The sad thing is that every writer alive has had these fleeting feelings. If you haven’t wondered how J. K. Rowling did it, you are not honest with yourself. Most of us know these feelings are wrong-headed, and most of us don’t think this way. We may feel frustrated, but we don’t rationalize it.

After Lynn Shepherd’s post imploring Rowling to stop publishing appeared, a mini backlash in the form of retaliatory one-star reviews of Ms. Shepherd’s published books appeared on review sites. Seems her maladious stream is infectious. Those posts, too, were a sad testimony to our spiritual failure.

Like Rowling, Shepherd is a very good writer. There was no need for such smallness.

Lynn Shepherd’s third mistake, after putting outright silly statements about writing for children being an inferior art form and making any sort of statement about books she admits to not have read, was to conjure a world where someone else’s great success has robbed her of her own. In that world there are a finite number of gold coins and someone else has taken hers.
Not in my experience. Let’s get off the bandwagon of vilifying our planets’ most successful citizens.