Sunday, May 17, 2015

Can you tell me what you get, what you get from Sesame Street?

I Am Big Bird came to the Brattle Theatre this weekend. So did the filmmakers, star Carroll Spinney, his wife Debra, and Oscar the Grouch. And lots and lots of Bostonians.

The audience for the sold-out showing was composed almost entirely of adults--several decades' worth of adults. After all, Sesame Street's been on for 46 years. And I have no doubt that pretty much everyone in the room had grown in many ways since they were in the show's target audience. (When a passerby sounded amused at the length of the line for Big Bird, the woman behind me had some choice words that she probably wasn't using in preschool.) And the movie and Q&A made it clear that Spinney, along with his sense of wonder and understanding of children, has had plenty of adult concerns and joys, an utterly adorable marriage foremost among the latter. Big Bird and Oscar aren't always on our minds, not even on Spinney's. But when we were on the subject, the bird's and the show's importance was clear.

THIS is why I do children's books, I found myself thinking.

When we were little, Big Bird was a comforting presence for many of us. He was friendly, he was always there, and he showed us that it was okay to ask questions. At the same time, Oscar showed us a bit about how humor worked, and maybe let us imagine what it would be like to behave in ways we would never really behave. When we got slightly older, maybe we felt a little smarter than Big Bird and Oscar. Seeing that Big Bird still needed reassurance from adults and that Oscar needed some manners was comforting, too--it was okay if we still didn't have all the answers. And while they were at it, Big Bird, Oscar, and their buddies helped us learn some letters, numbers, and remarkable words.

Some people cried at I Am Big Bird. Whatever we took from Sesame Street in our earliest years, it's still in our brains, held there by a kind of emotional attachment inherent in young people who want to see the same characters over and over and over. For me, at least, the same is true of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein books, and Baby-Sitters' Club books, and books about redheads walking ridgepoles, all of which shaped my personality and my interests. That's why good content for children is important in all sorts of media. That's why I want books to be a place of comfort, why I care what children see while they're being entertained. Oh, and Sesame Street has consistently rocked that whole representation thing while being fun and educational all at once, so forgive me if I laugh at the idea that diversity doesn't sell.

Come and play. Everything's a-okay.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A long-overdue announcement

Dear readers,
I want to thank you for your perpetual patience with me as I clung to the desperate delusion that children's books were a legitimate pursuit for a self-respecting adult. At long last, I have seen the light. Read, write, and engage with children's books? If we allow adults to do that, we might as well let them express joy or tell them it's okay to view the world as a place with new things to discover.

My next project will be a collection of four hundred essays on why life is bleak and why we must accept it. Essay titles so far include "Death," "Taxes," and "Parks and Recreation Is Over Forever." I hope you'll continue to follow this blog as I preview these essays and pontificate on why, if I had a lawn, the younger generation would be morally obligated remove itself from it.

I owe my thanks to the good people of ImPress for inspiring this decision. Check out The Horn Book's website today for the unveiling of ImPress's inaugural list.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Diverted: A Bostonian dystopia

It was dawn. It was time for the Waiting.

Three hundred thousand were Waiting. Some waited for Buses, some waited for Trains that would become Buses. Some tried different routes, and some gave up hope and called Ubers. But many remained.

Most remembered the days before The Big One. The days when roads had lanes in two directions. The days when, with a glance at a watch and perhaps a touch of an app, they could predict when their journeys would end. But remembering didn't help. Remembering didn't raise the wind chill, or lower the mountains so you could see what was coming, or add room to the Snow Farms. Remembering did nothing to end The Waiting. The Powers talked about solutions, but they were no match for the most powerful entity, a being that wasn't even human: President Snow.

But if you Waited long enough, the Arrival would come, almost surely. And if it did, you stood a chance. You might be left on the curb, one of the Unfit--it was all in the luck of where you lived along the route--but you might move on to the next phase: the Squeezing. Recorded voices gave reminders: "Please move toward the back to make room for others." Sometimes, you were the Chosen One: you could move a few inches and give another person room. (Sometimes, you didn't even know it, because you had headphones on.)

You might turn on the others being Squeezed, or you might band together to try to guess where you were if the windows were clouded. Whatever the details of the voyage, you would arrive. But the story wouldn't end, for the end of the day would provide a sequel: The Return.

*Disclaimer 1: My own experience has been inconvenient but nowhere near dystopian.
**Disclaimer 2: This is totally derivative of/an homage to The Toast.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Writing in coffeeshops; or, sometimes clichés come true.

Advantages to writing in coffeeshops:
  • Coffee. Duh. Or, more often, tea and something dunkable. Some sort of treat that makes you look forward to work time a little bit more.
  • Going somewhere. This means that if it's cold, you still get some sun on the way, and if you work on revisions for most of the day, you don't sit on your couch for most of the day. If you're a short-burst writer like me, you can do a short burst at home, and then a short burst while you're out, and maybe even another short burst when you're home again.
  • Listening to podcasts on the way. If they happen to be potentially inspiring author interviews, even better.
  • Creating a space that's just for writing (and dunking). You made the effort to come here; you have a certain amount of battery time left; you're going to focus. Bonus if the wifi isn't good.
  • Now that you're a cliché, you can get past wondering if the other coffee drinkers are curious about what you're writing and just write. None of the other laptop-bearers clamoring for seats have ever asked me if I think I'm the next J. K. Rowling or if print is dead, and I'm fine with that.
  • Actually, my experience is that strangers sharing space in coffeeshops are nice and considerate.
Disadvantages to writing in coffeeshops:
  • Strangers' conversations can be interesting, darn it.
  • Sometimes when you're writing, you want to act out the characters' physical motions to make sure you're describing them realistically. And when you're surrounded by other people, you may have to reign yourself in. Especially when one of your characters is kissing her food.
It makes sense in context. I swear.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Revising. Or as the kids say, #amrevising.

For the first time in a while, I'm in a phase with this manuscript where the ball is in my court. As I've mentioned, the next step of the process is to work on revisions suggested by my agent (yup, still both weird and fun to say). Carrie sent me an editorial letter that I think really got at which elements are the heart of the story, and which elements aren't helping in their current form and should either be developed or removed. Several of her suggestions were large enough that they would require a lot of work, and of course, in a novel, everything affects everything else. That meant that on the first read of the letter, although I did a lot of nodding because the suggestions made sense to me (and even felt relieved at the idea of letting go of some things), I also felt like my brain was spinning as I figured out where to start.

Well, these revisions are still a work in progress, but I feel much more like I have a plan, so I thought I'd share the process that seems to be working for me. I'm sure it will be helpful to me on future manuscripts, but I hope it's also helpful to other revisers out there.

The first thing I did was read the letter a whole bunch more times. One thing I appreciated was that a lot of its suggestions were phrased as questions or choices. As in, here's something that needs to be addressed, and you could go in this direction... or in that direction... I agreed with Carrie's insights, but I also felt like there was room for discussion. I responded to the letter, partly for her benefit and partly for mine. In most cases, I gave an answer in general terms about how I planned to address the issue. In a few cases, I said that I'd see what seemed to make the most sense while I was revising.

Once I knew the significant changes I planned to make to the manuscript as a whole, I made a scene-by-scene outline. For each scene, I wrote a sentence or two about what, if any, major changes would be necessary. Then I added some smaller considerations to the ongoing list of revisions I've had all along, everything from "make sure this relationship is consistent" to "stop making characters nod all the time."

Then I started a new draft in Scrivener. (I've found Scrivener super-useful for organizing one frequently-changing draft, and a little more unwieldy for balancing multiple discrete drafts, but it's working.) The step I'm working on now is to go through each scene, migrating what text I can from the earlier draft and changing whatever I've noted on the revision outline. I'd say I'm close to halfway through this part, though it's hard to estimate because chapter breaks have changed a bit. Some of this work is just copying and pasting, some of it is small adjustments, and some of it is rewriting scenes or parts of scenes to account for a character's presence or absence or to make events happen in more exciting ways. Once I have the bones of a new draft, I'll attack the list of smaller considerations, which is organized roughly from largest to smallest (a trick I learned from a workshop at an NESCBWI conference).

Although I don't have an official deadline, there is someone waiting at the other end now, which hasn't always been the case for my creative writing. That makes me feel a lot more accountable for doing this work, and having a plan in place means I can say to myself, "Okay, this weekend you need to get four scenes into the new draft." This time is also serving as a valuable reminder of something I already knew: that the more often I sit down to work on a manuscript, the easier it is each time. Cory Doctorow was right: Don't be ceremonious.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I have an agent!

I've said before that gratitude is a major theme for me this year. That continues to be true. Another theme? Stupefied amazement.

Back in April, before I had any clue of how much else would change in the near future, I submitted a middle grade realistic novel to Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson, at the encouragement of my friend Susan, who was an intern there. And then I started work on another manuscript, and then I started working at The Horn Book, and the submission, to some degree, moved to the back of my mind. (Mostly.)

Fast-forward to last month, while I was settling into my new job, learning lots, and occasionally worrying that "the dummy" people kept talking about was me. (See? I make magazine production jokes now!) A very sweet email arrived from Carrie, who asked if I was still looking for representation. Many emails later, I find myself in possession of her very thorough and insightful editorial letter. I'm really impressed with her ideas for revisions; as I often hear authors say in situations like this, we've clicked.

For the uninitiated, what this means is that I'll work on revisions with Carrie's guidance, and when we both agree that the manuscript is ready, she'll send it out to publishers. It does not mean I'll have a book deal tomorrow. It does mean that the manuscript will get closer to being publishable, and will then be seen by people who might have a real interest in publishing it. It means that these characters I've grown to love may really meet the imagined readers I've also grown to love.

That'll do, 2014. That'll do.