22 June 2010

Junk Food Lit Doesn't Lead to Healthy Reading Choices

As many know, I have no problem stepping on the sacred toes of others. I get mine stomped on a few times as well, and I actually enjoy the game. As I teach my students, if a person cannot justify or explain why he/she does something, then perhaps he/she shouldn't be doing whatever it is.

So, I'm about to stomp on someone's sacred toes, and if you feel I'm about to stomp on yours, pull on your steel-toed boots.

I disagree with the following illogical argument:

Well, the Twilight Saga may not be the best written series, it may even have its flaws, but at least it's getting kids to read.

Let's restate this bit of daft logic another way:

Well, Hustler magazine may be pornographic and degrading to women, but it's getting young males interested in photography and female anatomy.
These two statements are prime examples of the "I Give Up Trying and Will Just Let the Kids and Popular Media Decide for Themselves because It's Really too Hard to Be a Parent and an Adult because the Kids May Think I'm not Cool" New Age / Modernistic Philosophy.

Giving in to the false conclusion that popular bad literature is fine as long as it gets kids to read is like saying that Twinkies and Happy Meals are acceptable children's diet because they get kids to eat.

Twinkies and Happy Meals are not gateway foods to Healthy Cuisine any more than the Twilight Saga is a gateway series to Of Human Bondage or Beowulf or The Art of War.

A kid whose diet consists of junk food like Twinkies and Happy Meals will seek out other junk foods.

In the same vein (and, yes, the pun is intended), kids whose reading fare consists of prose doggerel like the Twilight Saga will seek out other junk writing.

Twilight is little more than a 1960s romance comic + Dark Shadows vampire soap opera.

I first broached this idea on my Facebook page, and I got a response that perhaps the Twilight Saga was encouraging kids to write.

Well, yes, that's true, too.

Absolutely nothing wrong with imitation--highest form of flattery--even Shakespeare took ideas and motifs from other writers--even very, very bad writers.

I, too, imitated my favorite writers when I was a child and young teen and began writing stories that imitated their tales--Poe, Hawthorne, Crane, Shakespeare, Maugham, Cooper, et cetera.

And I got the bulk of my ideas from Classics Illustrated comic books--yes, I read the comics' version of the great writers when I was quite young. This series led me directly to reading the complete classic works themselves when I was older.

When a student talks to me about what he/she is reading and it's junk-food lit like the Twilight Saga, I don't chide or discourage him/her from his/her choice.

Rather, I try my best over a period of time and through discussion of literature to guide him/her in a better direction by suggesting writers such as Cynthia Leitich Smith, Laurie Halse Anderson, Neil Gaimon, Robert Newton Peck, et al.

And I've been successful in a few cases. Kids have actually come up to me and said, "You know, Mr. G, I don't know why everybody likes Twilight. I just read Eternal, and it's great!"

God bless Stephanie for her success.

However, don't equate pop culture fandom with the bridge to bigger and better works of literature.

Let's accept the Twilight Saga and other pop culture junk-food lit for what it is and guide kids to the better writers and stories out there.

After all, a Twinkie or a Happy Meal every now and then won't kill anyone, but a steady diet is not good.

And a steady diet of doggerel prose will create a generation of intellectually diabetic, right-brained obese, and spiritually malnourished readers who don't know any better.

See you on the bookshelves.

Larry Mike

PS: Do you remember when Stephen King called his books the Big Mac and fries of literature? At the time, he thought he was just making a cool statement about his popularity, but he has regretted making the statement as it actually equated his good work to junk food.

12 June 2010

The Conversation of Books over Time

I never heard the expression "the conversation of books over time" until my virtual friend Cynthia Leitich Smith introduced me to the phrase.

I had written to ask her if she would participate in an online conversation/interview with our newly formed Shortgrass Children & Young Adults Writers group and also to tell her about my latest project, NEVЯLAND

She accepted the invitation, but she also noted that my project NEVЯLAND
sounded like a couple of other books.

Normally, this wouldn't have bothered me: I know that the concept of "original" ideas is a faulty concept.

But, still, the idea of NEVЯLAND seemed so fresh and novel to me that I had it in my head that absolutely no one had come up with such a unique idea.

Then Cynthia guides to me to a couple of books written years ago that are similar to mine.

I was quite saddened, indeed, even crestfallen.

I had ensnared myself in my own self-made trap of ego and self-importance and made the blatant assumption that a story about the disappearance of adults as happens in NEVЯLAND was mine and mine alone.

Within minutes, I set my mind on dropping the project entirely and resume my YA dragon fantasy (which I had stopped because NEVЯLAND seemed so innovative and refreshing).

I became angry. I became depressed. I sat down with my wife and had a conversation about continuing or stopping the project all together--voiced in all the seriousness as one would if talking about getting a divorce.

I had known from the beginning that my idea for NEVЯLAND was not entirely original: Lord of the Flies, Home Alone, Peter Pan, and many other works had explored the idea of a world where Children are left on their own without the supervision and restrictions of adults.

However, NEVЯLAND was a fresh, bold look at this idea. The idea had gripped me like a long-lost lover, and the thought of letting go was devastating to me.

All because Cynthia told me about two other books she had read. I looked up the two books Cynthia had referenced. Egad. She was right.

Then as I read the synopses and even the first chapters of the books, I began to realize that NEVЯLAND, while similar, was quite different in conception and execution.

NEVЯLAND still had life.

I feverishly rewrote the first chapter--which had been written in third person from Laynie's point of view--to make it better and more unique than the two examples I had just read.

Now NEVЯLAND would be told in first person by Laynie.

Suddenly, new life was breathed into the story and the original flame and passion I had felt as I outlined the first book of NEVЯLAND engulfed me once again.

Then I got a very kind and needed note from Cynthia:
There's something called "the conversation of books over time." People make this huge deal out of ideas that are "totally original" and there really is no such thing. It's about what you bring to the circle of storytellers, stretching back to the first fires. Hm, that's sounds awfully poetic, but you see my point. If there was a wholly original story, NYC publishing would have no idea what to do with it, there would be no market, and people would probably remark on the author's stability/sanity.
I've never had Cynthia as a writing teacher, but as a virtual friend, she has been inspiring, caring, and motherly.

I met Peter S. Beagle in the fall of 2009, and he related the story how he felt parts of his best-seller and classic The Last Unicorn had plagiarized The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney, which Peter had read as a child.

After The Last Unicorn was published and Peter realized the similarities between parts of his book and Finney's book, he wrote to Finney, telling him he wasn't trying to plagiarize Dr. Lao.

Finney wrote back to tell Peter that he was amused and told Peter not to worry about it, this happens quite a bit to writers.

Even Cynthia said she had a similar experience with her first novel:
The year my first novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME came out (and was in ARC), Carol Lynch Williams released CAROLINA AUTUMN. Both books are about girls who're photographers, healing after the death of a loved one (best friend/sister) and each chapter opens with a journey entry. The novels have a LOT of similar elements. But the executions are different. You know who noticed? Me and Carol.
Just recently, a NEVЯLANDer (those who are members of the NEVЯLAND Facebook Group page) said that NEVЯLAND had the same elements as a book called The Girl Who Owned a City published in the 1970s--another book with a similar story line I had never heard about.

This time, I just laughed.

Creative minds really do think alike, and story-tellers have been telling the same eight or nine stories since that first campfire.

As Cynthia so aptly and soothingly put it, it's what the story-teller brings to the campfire that's sets his/her story apart from the other, not the parts of the story.

After all, how many vampire stories have been told since Dracula or flesh-eating zombie movies been made since Night of the Living Dead or dystopia novels since We, Nineteen-Eighty Four, and Anthem?

From this point on I promise myself not to worry about originality of story but concentrate on originality of voice and bringing a different set of eyes to the campfire to awe those sitting around the embers.

See you on the bookshelves.

Larry Mike

PS: The very, very first story I ever wrote was a "novel" of ten pages when I was 9. It was about a t-rex that washes up on a beach and it spits radio-active fire and about the scientist named Mike who saves the world by killing this dinosaur. I had just seen Godzilla on the local Chiller horror show the week before. At that time, I didn't care that my story was similar to Godzilla--I just wanted to tell one hell-uv-a good story. And I've come full circle now.

08 June 2010

Getting in Touch with My Inner 13-year-old Feminine Side

As NEVЯLAND began to form in style and structure, I immediately decided to write from the viewpoint of a junior high school girl.

I really didn’t think much about it at the time because the Character came naturally as I thought about the story, but I’ve been asked by several why the protagonist is a 13-year-old girl.

I’ve written from the feminine viewpoint before but not for an entire novel let alone a series. My Universal Monster series has a strong 17-year-old female character and at least 1/3 of the series is told from her point-of-view, but she had to share the stage with two 14-year-old boys, so I didn’t spend the whole time with her.
 Originally, my lead character was 12-years-old and named Rianne Pfaltzgraff. Rianne was a 12-year-old student I knew when I taught middle school in Norman, Oklahoma, and I’ve always thought her name unique and have wanted to use it in a story for quite some time.
After I had outlined the first book, though, I realized that the lead character’s voice came from a 13-year-old named Laynie Price. Laynie is a student who just graduated from Altus High School, and one of my favorite all-time students and people.

As I outlined, I began to realize that the lead character was more like Laynie than like Rianne, and the name was changed.
I also realized the lead character had to be 13-years-old, a teenager, so she could take more of leadership role in the novel, have a stronger voice.

Viewpoint, voice, character—these are all writers’ jargon for WHO TELLS THE STORY.
Since beginning NEVЯLAND, I’ve thought about the possible reasons why the protagonist is female.

Remember, the following reasons are POST selection and didn’t consciously come to to the forefront of my mind until after I had outlined and written the tale.
Perhaps my subconscious selected the feminine voice – it’s deep and dark in there, and I don’t much like exploring my subconscious as I’m not too sure I’ll like what I’ll find once there.

So, here’s why I think the teller of NEVЯLAND is a 13-year-old girl.
  1. As a student and teacher of classical literature, culture, and mythology, I know and teach that Women have played a dynamic role in making the Human Race the dominate species on Earth.
  2. The earliest gods were Female—Women are Creators—Life comes from them. The oldest carving we have of a religious nature is a Female god.
  3. Men are, basically, destroyers. Although Men create, they create to confine, to produce, and to destroy: cities, machines, weapons. Men don’t necessarily create to produce life but to secure, sustain, and secure life.
  4. A female character is more apt not only to find a solution but to want to find the answer as to why all everyone over 18-years-old has disappeared.
  5. Sociologically, philosophically, and genetically, Women are nurturers and healers. Women have a natural disposition towards healing the body, mind, and soul—because Women see the body, mind, and soul as One whereas Men have a tendency to compartmentalize the three as separate but connected entities.
  6. One of the most over-looked and earliest strong female characters is Isis—who ventures throughout the world and even the Underworld to find and resurrect Osiris. If you haven’t read the story of Isis and Osiris, you must, especially if you’re a male writing from a female character’s point-of-view. All throughout the story, Isis only wants to save her beloved Osiris, and along the way, she saves the world and gives it the gifts of life and hope. She doesn’t even want to take revenge on Seth, who is the instigator in destroying Seth. She leaves Seth to wallow in his own misery.
  7. And then as the story progressed, a scene flashed in my mind like a migraine lightening strike:
    • You see, as of now, the series is five books.
    • The first book begins with Laynie at 13-years-old on the day everyone over 18 disappears and what happens during that first year.
    • Each book that follows concerns one year in Laynie’s life, what happens to the remaining children, and the explanation as to why everyone over 18-years-old has disappeared.
    • The last book takes place the day before Laynie turns 18-years-old.
    • Yes, everyone who turns 18 continues to disappear.
    • Laynie knows she will disappear the next day.
    • The remaining children call the disappearance “Rapture”—but no religious connotation is necessarily implied or explains the story.
    • Laynie has grown up in the past five years more so than a “normal” teen would in the “normal” world.
    • She now knows the WHY of the disappearance, understands it, and agrees with it.
    • She is making her final preparations for her Rapture the next day.
    • Here’s the lightening strike: She is writing her memoir for her daughter.
    • Suddenly, Laynie has a daughter—a seven-month-old daughter who will be left to the care of others when Laynie disappears.
Laynie giving birth was nowhere in the original planning of the story—her daughter just appeared as I was thinking about the last book and how to wrap up the story.

The relationship and bonding between a mother and her child is the glue that holds the universe together. A mother has a relationship with her child that a father cannot imagine nor imitate—no matter how much we evolve socially and men take on more of a rearing role of children.

A mother leaving behind her child begs for solution and resolution, and it pulls at the heart of any person.

Such a theme is not possible with a lead male character. A father leaving his child is sad but is does not have the devastating potential of a mother who leaves a child—of a child who is left without a mother.

I don’t know if my subconscious had all this in mind as my conscious mind began working out the plot lines for NEVЯLAND.

I’m sure my training, studies, and teachings of classical literature, culture, and mythology are swirling around in my subconscious like some sort of primordial soup just waiting for a catalyst to let it spew forth a story.

I learned a long time ago not to dwell too much on the whys, wherefores, and what’s-its of putting a novel together as I’m writing, to wait until after the novel is written.

I don’t really like thinking about why and how Story comes through me as I’m writing—I don’t have time—I’m too busy writing.

I’m not writing to be a teacher of writing but to be a teller of tales.

But, now that NEVЯLAND is well underway and is beginning to tell itself, I am beginning to reflect on the whys, wherefores, and what’s-its, and I am amazed at what I’m discovering.

See you on the bookshelves.

Larry Mike

PS: I know what you're thinking: If everyone continues to disappear, how can Humanity go on, survive?

Well, not "everyone" disappears when turning 18-years-old: Some are "saved" to begin again, and that's part of the secret and solution for NEVЯLAND, and you'll just have to wait to find who are left behind to start the world over again.

It's a sad happiness that Laynie is not one of the Chosen and will disappear on her 18th birthday and leave her daughter behind.

But, she understands and agrees. She is, however, essential to ensuring the Chosen are well prepared for the New Earth.

02 June 2010

God? Virus? Barney? -- Using Real People to Create Fictional Characters

One of my more inspirational--some say insane --ideas in promoting NEVЯLAND is the weekly "publication" of the Junebug Journal.

You can read it HERE
. I started as a photojournalist. I've published and edited two newspapers. The Junebug Journal is one way of reaching inside of me and doing something I enjoy doing very much.

I have to be careful, though, not to make the weekly newspaper look too professional. After all in the apocalyptic, non-adult world of NEVЯLAND, the Junebug Journal is published by Chad Chapman, Jr., the 17-year-old son of the disappeared publisher and editor Chad Chapman, Sr.

The weekly newspaper gives a real-world effect to my tale. It reveals background and sundry information about the characters, Junebug, Oklahoma, and gives a different personal insight into the terror and chaos the children are facing.

The newspaper contains some clues and teasers. This second special edition even has an ad for a tattoo parlor--after all, the paper has to pay for itself.

The newspaper allows an outlet for the minor characters, those who don't have a big role in the novel.

Another thing I did to try to achieve a more realistic effect as well as create a more realistic set of characters in a realistic world is to poll several dozen children from 11 through 14-years-old.

Two Altus Public School teachers graciously volunteered to pass out a survey I had written and have their students complete it.

The survey asked things such as age, size of family, if any new CPR and other first aid.

I also asked them a series of questions:

*What do you think happened to the adults?
*Who would you miss most if your family suddenly disappeared?
*What are the five to six biggest problems in a city where there are only Children and no Adults?
*What do you fear the most in such a situation?
*How would you solve some of the problems you think would arise in such a situation?
*Et cetera

I received some very interesting answers. Some were quite insightful.

I was surprised at a few students whose answers came very, very close to the overall plot of NEVЯLAND.

I was pleased as the answers of the students re-affirmed what I had felt as I outlined and began writing the first draft. In other words, I am on the right track.

So, I have combined the Jungebug Journal with the students' survey answers.

Combining the two has given the story an authentic voice and is helping me to stay focused on the real characters. These are real voices from real children, and now they are a part of my tale.

The latest edition of the Junebug Journal contains direct quotes from the surveys of the students--and, yes, one really did say that Barney had eaten the adults. I laughed when I read his response--that young man isn't going to be phased by anything or take much too seriously.

Further editions of the Junebug Journal will feature more real quotes from real students who have now been incorporated into NEVЯLAND.

When you write, don't isolate yourself.

Talk to people who are representative of your characters--in age, gender, appearance, disposition.

Ask these people how they would react in such-and-such situation. You don't' have to tell them you're writing a story, just bring the conflict randomly in conversation or relate it to something you've read in the news or on the Internet.

When you write, create a real fictional world complete with a newspaper, a radio station, local teen hangout. Invite your readers to participate in this real fictional world.

Creating a real world within your fictional world requires getting butt off chair and meeting face-to-face with real people. These real people are your characters, and they will help you to smoothly move your story along.

See you on the bookshelves.

Larry Mike