Be sure to check out the fantastic blog posts at the November Carnival of Children’s Literature, hosted by MotherReader. There are tips for reviewers, bloggers, parents, teachers, librarians, writers, readers, and lifelong learners. Surely anyone reading this blog fits into at least one of those categories.
While I was writing The Sky Village (the first book in the Kaimira series), I did feedback sessions with some Chicago-area classrooms, sharing an early draft of the story and chatting with them about it. The co-author of the series and I went along with another person from Star Farm, who facilitated the discussion while we (the writers) took notes.
We identified ourselves as writers at Star Farm, but not as the authors of The Sky Village… not until the last session, when we provided pizza and did an author Q&A session.
Note: we encouraged the students to draw/doodle/scribble on the manuscript, and it resulted in some great pictures, some of which I’m including in this post.
I was a bit worried about not disclosing our identities as authors of the series until the last session, but it worked out great. It was a nice surprise for the students, and they understood why we did it.
Why did we do it? We wanted the discussion to be as honest as possible, and we thought the students might not be as critical with the authors in the room. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but the students were honest about what wasn’t working in the story. We were able to go back and do a spit & polish on the manuscript, and the next draft was so much better shinier.
The first couple of classes we did, the students were only given a chapter to read, and they read it during class, and then we had our discussion. This setup didn’t work so well. While some of the kids devoured the chapter and become very engaged in the conversation, others were too distracted to finish or to concentrate on the discussion. But the main reason it didn’t work is that it’s hard to talk about a small part of a story. It’s like trying to have a class discussion about a corner of a painting.
So for the next sessions, we took a different tact. A sixth-grade English teacher we know rounded up about forty volunteers from her classes, half boys and half girls, and they read the entire manuscript and spent their lunch hours with us to talk about it.
Group A read the manuscript in three parts. We met with them after each part to discuss the book. We’d discuss theme, plot, character development, pace, point of view, and a number of other sixth-grade-English topics suggested by the teacher, as well as questions that helped us see how the kids were seeing the story.
The second group read the manuscript in its entirety, and we did a series of discussions afterwards, with mostly the same questions. The exception was that we could ask Group A questions like “what do you think is going to happen next?” which was very enlightening.
This time the formula worked. This series of sessions was some of the most fun I’ve had working on this book. The kids were amazing. They were sharp, and got so deep into the story that I started to see things that were there but I hadn’t even noticed. Their feedback really helped the book become better.
I think the secret to how well it worked was:
- The kids volunteered to participate.
- From the beginning, we made it clear we were inviting them to help us make the story better.
- Though we had a list of question we wanted to cover, we always let the conversation go where it needed to go. Some of the best discussions were the result of tangents.
- We left our egos at the door and respected the students as equals, with every intention of taking their feedback seriously. That’s not something you can fake, and it really raised the level of the dialogue.
- We encouraged them to draw and write on the manuscript, which yielded even more valuable notes, as well as some fantastic sketches.
A question that yielded some of the most interesting responses was “What makes The Sky Village different?”
Some of the answers (taken directly from my notes):
- “The beasts and robots fighting each other makes this book not like any other fantasy story. Reminded me of Avatar and Spirited Away.”
- “The book is a really interesting idea, unknown world, didn’t know of any stories with the same atmosphere.”
- “It’s a different idea of fantasy. It doesn’t take place a long time ago, but rather in the future.
- “There are humans, beasts, and meks, all interacting.”
- “It falls into the fantasy genre, but it is a different sort of fantasy in that it has less to do ith magic than with new technology.”
- “It was different than other fantasies. All of the ideas related to each other…there were a lot of different ideas.”
- “The action starts right away. There’s no long buildup.”
- “This fantasy has elements of science fiction.”
- “Most books are in the past or some nameless present, but this book feels more real—and for once, we have something that has nothing to do with swords or wands.”
- “The story combines the mythical with the futuristic.”
I enjoyed these sessions so much, I’ve been trying to set up more with teachers in the Chicago area, and possibly elsewhere. If any teachers are reading this, I’m interested in suggestions for how to make these sessions as interesting and valuable for the students as possible. I want to make this a regular part of the process while I work on the next four books in the series.
Yes, I know there are a lot of tags. I want to make it very easy for people whose books were nominated to find out, and tagging is a good way to do it.
There are 94 nominations in the Fantasy and Science Fiction category. I’m a judge for this category, and I’m looking forward to digging in, once this list has been whittled down a bit by the nominating panel.
I copied this list from the Cybils 2007 blog
written by Sally Heinrich
Lothian Publishing (may be an imprint of Hachette Livre Australia)
Buy from Amazon | Buy from Booksense (your local independent)
I often refer to myself as a children’s book writer who wishes he was a linguist. It’s mostly a joke, because I wouldn’t likely give up my job to get a PhD in Linguistics. The part that’s true is that there is nothing that triggers my geektitude more than language. Give me a sentence to diagram and I’m a happy guy. Talk to me about the nuances of translation, and you’ve got my attention. Tell me I can create a fantasy language on the job, and not only will it be tolerated, but it will be a valuable addition to the overall project… and you can just put my picture next to the dictionary entry for pleased as punch.
I didn’t get into Klingon or the Middle Earth languages as a teen, but I was obsessed with Nadsat, the futuristic slang used in A Clockwork Orange. It’s basically English with some funkified Russian thrown in, and a bit of King James and cockney rhyming slang for flavor.
For example, charlie refers to a chaplain, from a Charlie Chaplin switcheroo ala rhymy slang.
Droog means friend, taken directly from Russian.
Horrorshow means good/well, from Russian khorosho.
And even more recently, I was fascinated for a few seconds by the kitty slang used in the lolcats translation of the Bible, partly because it’s an interesting example of a true internet slang, collaborative and decentralized the way a slang should be, and partly because it’s dang funny.
Genesis 1:1: Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.
So yes, I am creating a language for Kaimira. My modus operandi is to do a ton of research and then wing it. I studied linguistics as an undergrad, and I’m fairly familiar with Spanish, Latin, German, and Chinese, and also with how English has evolved from Old English, and a tiny bit familiar with French, Japanese, Portuguese, and Sanskrit.
I’ve found a few useful resources I thought I’d share:
Wikipedia’s list of constructed languages
Essays on Language Design, by Rick Morneu
I’ve done some of the construction already, the basic framework, but I’m just getting started. Wish me luck.
When the twins came (a little over three months ago), I pretty much stopped reading for a while. I just couldn’t spare the hands. And when I go for while without reading, I start to become a different person. Even my dreams are different.
So finally I started again. I’ve mastered two enabling strategies:
- Audio books. The Chicago Public Library lets you check out audiobooks from their website. It’s the coolest thing since the invention of cool things. You just download it and the download expires after two or three weeks. So now I have all kind of books on audiobook, all free and all legal. I don’t even need any hands for that.
- One-hand baby hold. I’ve finally mastered the safe one-hand baby hold. I can hold a baby comfortably (to me and her) in one arm and turn pages with the other arm. Of course, there are times when I need yet a third arm for the unexpected, but it’s better than nothing.
So, here is what I am reading:
Erec Rex: The Dragon’s Eye, by Kaza Kingsley. I’m loving it so far, even more than I expected, but I won’t get into specifics until I’m finished. I got a signed copy at BEA, of this and the next book, Erec Rex: The Monsters of Otherness.
The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex. I got a signed copy of this at BEA as well (along with a drawing of a boov). I absolutely love the humor on the website, so I decided I’d read it. My only worry is that I may be missing out on the full effect, having an advanced reading copy. I’m thinking that if it’s nominated for a Cybil, then I’ll get a real copy (I’m one of the judges for scifi/fantasy), so I’ll just read it again.
The Softwire: Virus on Orbis, by PJ Haarsma. I listened to the first two chapters on audiobook (read by Nathan Fillion). I’m hooked already, but the problem is that only three chapters were recorded, so now I’ll have to go buy the book. I guess that was the whole idea. I met PJ at the kidlitosphere conference in Chicago and found out we’re both Candlewick authors, and he told me about the game he’d developed for the series.
I know the train’s pretty much left the station on this topic, but I wanted to jump on board anyway with my hobo bag and two cents. And it’s also an excuse to show some of the fun pictures that have resulted from the frenzy.
I followed a fascinating discussion on the child-lit listserv about Rowling’s obligations regarding gay characters, and a related discussion about whether Rowling can even make that decision for readers.
On the one hand, the discussions made me feel a bit like I was back in my old litcrit classes, which I did well in, but which always made me feel like I’d left my gravity boots at home.
If something isn’t written into the story, can it be a true part of the story?
What is an author’s obligation when dealing with something that’s politically charged?
Does the author even have the authority to say what’s true and what’s not about her story?
I wriggled my way out of litcrit and into creative writing for a reason, and for the same reason I don’t want to get tangled up in these topics. Nothing against them — I did find the discussion to be (largely) smart and interesting. But it’s just not the angle I’m primarily interested in. And a post by Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book, summed it up nicely and pithily enough for me.
But I do want to add a couple of things to the overall discussion.
First, it’s important to read the actual transcript of what Rowling said. Context matters.
She said “My truthful answer to you… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.”
She seems to be leaving a door open for readers to bring their own interpretations to the character.
However, she then went on to hammer a number of nails into the story. With each “announcement,” with each pound of the hammer, she closed off avenues of imagination for her readers.
This is the second thing I wanted to talk about.
Rowling also did this with the epilogue in Deathly Hallows, which is why you find entire communities of devoted fan fiction writers making a pact to ignore the epilogue — essentially removing it from canon by mutiny — and writing their own epilogues.
I understand the impulse of a writer to stay in control of the story. The idea of fans making it their own can be unnerving.
But (in my humble opinion) when you are dealing with today’s generation of readers (particularly the younger ones), who are accustomed to inserting their own will into the media they consume, a good story belongs at least as much to the fans as to the author. A good story needs open spaces for readers to stick their own flags. It needs unwatered seeds, unfollowed threads, and characters with potential that transcends the author’s own imagination.
And a good story needs an author who admires and respects what the readers bring to the story.
After all, when an author describes something in a story, she is not transferring her own experiences and images into the minds of readers. It’s impossible, no matter how many adjectives she uses. Rather, the author is trying to make something flower inside the reader’s mind, from the reader’s own experiences and images, from the reader’s own soil, water, sunshine.
The author can hope that the image that flowers in the reader’s mind is similar to his own. Or he can hope that their version is even richer, more personal, more powerful.
If an author can’t control even how a reader sees a particular scene, it seems vain to attempt authority over so many plot threads.
The Harry Potter series had enough open spaces to spawn a fanfic leviathan. My personal feeling is that Rowling should have left it to her fans to continue filling in the blanks.
Finally! The book cover. Of the book that I’ve been working on. For the past very long-seeming time.
I’ll post it here soon, but until then, go over to Amazon and click on “see larger image.”
Today the twins are three months old. I’ve been meaning to write something about the experience of them, but in the jumble of clichés and Frequently Asked Questions, the friendly advice and expert articles, and the straight lack of time to let thoughts settle, I’ve been unable to focus on what this whole thing has really been like.
No one reads this blog but Izzy and Joi, and sometimes my mom, so it’s a good place to take a stab at writing about it.
Here’s what I think it’s like:
It’s like a cross between having a very, very dearly beloved pet, and hosting a very tiny, elderly foreign man. Times two.
Beloved pet. You know how, when you have a pet you are really attached to, you just can’t wait to get home and see them? It’s sort of like that, but stronger. Whatever bigness and greatness you may have accomplished that day at the coal mines, it’s nowhere near as rewarding as making a baby smile. They are smiling now, and it doesn’t take much to make it happen. And it’s the coolest thing in the world when it does. Every time. It doesn’t get old.
Tiny. They were born about half the size of regular babies, and they’ve only recently become normalish sized. But a normal sized baby still makes for a very tiny foreign gentleman.
Elderly men. Complete with multiple chins and male pattern baldness. I don’t think they’re going to start looking like little girls until their baby hair falls off and they grow some little girl hair. Don’t get me wrong… they are cute. But in that miniature elderly gentleman sort of way.
Foreign. They don’t speak English, and they don’t seem to understand anything we say to them, though they do often grin politely while we’re talking to them. But as their hosts, we are obliged to decipher their needs. We want their stay to be a pleasant one, and so the burden of communication falls on our shoulders.
I imagine some sort of stork-run baby exchange program, and that my babies are in some foreign land, confounding their host family with strange noises and gestures that I would be able to understand completely.
My secret agenda has been for their first word to be aaarrgh! (with an optional “shiver me timbers”), complete with one eye closed and ugly pirate face. They’ve got the face down when they work it, but the noise they make needs practice. But in the past couple of weeks I’ve decided I should get serious, so I’m throwing in the occasional bit of Middle English, Chinese, and Klingon.
That’s a joke. The Klingon part, anyway.