Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to Swim with the Sharks

This writing / computer publishing business was made for me. There are  many reasons for this, and I'm going to list a few here:

1. Don't have to wear nylons
2. Don't have to wear a suit
3. Don't have to wear high heels

Another facet of online publishing that is perfect for me is the lovely, gorgeous niceness of the online writing community. I'm so bad at being mean; I'd make a terrible cutthroat executive. Now, I'm not saying that all executives are mean or cutthroat. But my experience in the world of finance and business ( I watched a season of The Apprentice) tells me that having that tough edge in the business world is an admirable  quality. Being able to "go after  someone" is a good thing.

See, that's just not me.

When I'm flying high on Twitter and Facebook, though, meeting new authors and editors, I try to fit right in with the general sense of decency and camaraderie that prevails. There is a pretty famous thread that was being passed around a few weeks ago in which an Indie author had a meltdown on a blog because of a decent review she received.  The author objected to the few suggestions that the reviewer gave her, and she had a serious poo fit online. She ended up getting blacklisted by a chunk of other authors, editors, and potential readers.

Now, that shows that it's not all peace, love, and Bobby Sherman out there. Sometimes editors and writers have to give bad reviews, probably the most difficult job we have. In fact, I just got a tough review from an author that I really respect. He was hard on my book, but he did it in a respectful way that let me know he read the entire work.

I respect that guy more than ever now. It's easy to write a glowing review - it's much harder to read the whole novel and give specific recommendations. Furthermore, I know that he gave me that review in order to support me, and because he expects more from me. Which is a huge compliment. Thanks - you! You know who you are! 

Which brings me to my last point. I don't think we need to be cutthroats out there to each other, because we have (or we should have) a constant critic within ourselves. My friend who reviewed me told me that we should always be aiming for the very best we can do with each finished book, and with the next book we should strive to be even better.

I like that. That I can do.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Anything by Enid Blyton

Oh, sure, she was formulaic and so, so politically incorrect. In short - she was a product of her  time; she won't be chosen for a Book Club anytime soon. 

But the  joy of Enid was the way she could create adventure that enthralled young readers, volume after volume. Her books were exciting and also comforting at the same time. Reading one of her books, you knew that  the Bad Guys would get theirs, and that the protagonists would have lots  of adventures AND good food along the way. 

And what food it was! ginger cake, sardines, new potatoes, bread with butter - although sometimes, she had to rely on tins to feed her characters. They ate pineapples, biscuits, more sardines, potted meat, even butter - all out of  tins. The canning business owes a huge debt of gratitude to Madam Blyton.

Her Famous  Five series and The Secret Seven are huge, but it was the Adventure series that grabbed me as a child. Dinah, Philip, LucyAnn and Jack - I loved those kids. They were stranded inside hidden Welsh mountains, deserted Middle European valleys lined with secret caves, and kidnapped by more Bad Guys. They joined the circus. They went to sea. They stowed away in planes.they had fabulous pets.

In The Circus of Adventure, they have an unwelcome guest, whom they call Gussy:

‘Why do you have hair like that then?’ said Dinah. ‘You look like a girl. Why don’t you get it cut?’ 
‘Yes, that’s a good idea,’ said  Philip, putting a card down. ‘We’ll go into the village  tomorrow and  see if there’s a barber.  He’ll cut it nice and short for you, Gus.  You’ll get a crick in your neck,  tossing your hair about like that!
‘Yes.  Good idea! We’ll have it cut tomorrow,’ said Jack, grinning at Gus. 
Gus surprised them. He flung down his cards, stood up, and went scarlet in the face. ‘Short  hair  is  for  boys like you,' he said, scornfully. ‘It is not for me.  Never must I have my hair short. In my country always it is the custom for such boys as me to wear their hair long!’ 
 ‘Such boys as you!’ echoed Jack. ‘What do you mean? You’ve got a very high opinion of yourself, my lad. You may come from a rich family, but you act like royalty, and it won’t do. You’re not a prince, so don’t try and act like one. It only makes you ridiculous.’
Gus drew himself up to his last inch. He threw back his hair once more. ‘I am a prince!’ he said,
dramatically. ‘I am the Prince Aloysius Gramondie Racemolie Torquinel of Tauri-Hessia!'

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Minnow Leads to Treasure, by A. Philippa Pearce

This week I have posted  books where the  main character is a girl, so it's time for a book with a boy. The Minnow is a canoe that David Moss finds at the end of his garden after a storm. The boat actually belongs to Adam Codling, who lives with his Aunt Dinah and who is about to lose his house.

Adam has a clue to the family treasure, though, which is hidden "somewhere near water." So Adam and  David take The Minnow out on the river all summer, making for gorgeous, golden prose describing the boys' adventures.

The old edition I have is a hardback with illustrations by the immortal Edward Ardizzone. His cross-hatch style illustrates the juxtaposition between exciting adventure and peaceful summer atmosphere perfectly.

David and Adam are true boys, thinking about food and adventure and their boat, the Minnow. They have to earn money to paint the ship and then take it into  the river; all the while they are trying to puzzle out the meaning of  the Codling Riddle:

"When Phiilip came to the single rose
Over the water,
The treasure was taken where no one knows
None but my daughter."

And there  are side plots, like the acquisition of several kittens, and whether Adam can have a cat at all, since he and his aunt are desperately short of money and about to lose their home.

'Every day now David spent his  afternon with Adam Codling working on the canoe. Every afternoon he stayed to tea with Adam, until Mrs. Moss grew quite worried.
"Why don't you ask him to tea here, David? It's hard on Mrs. Codling to be always giving you tea - I know your appetite.
"But we can't work on the canoe here, Mother," said David.
"That canoe!" sighed  Mrs. Moss.'

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H.White

White is famous for his masterful retelling of Arthurian Legend in The Once and Future King, but his book Mistress Masham's Repose is a little hidden jewel. The  action takes place in Malpaquet, a huge estate that is gradually tumbling down.  ("The house had 365 windows, all broken but six...") Maria lives there with her dreadful governess and guardian, Miss Brown, who is up to No Good.

While Misss Brown is laid low with a headache, Maria rows to a island on her estate and discovers, in an old Temple, a living colony of Lilliputians, who ran away from Gulliver when he brought them back to England. After some huge misunderstandings, Maria befriends the Lilliputians, and they help each other regain freedom and dignity.

Maria is a real kid - making big mistakes, loving and hating with all her heart. Her friend the Professor is an old man with a white beard, who is silly and wise in turns. The cook, Mrs. Noakes, is her friend too - an ancient retainer who rides her tricycle through the long hallways of Malplaquet with her old dog, Captain. And the house itself is almost a character; the chapter where the Professor goes in search of Maria through the  Drawing Rooms, bed chambers, water closets, and halls of the estate is fascinating.

In describing the villains of the piece, Miss Brown and the Vicar (aptly called Mr. Hater,) White brings out the full force of his sly humor:

'Both the Vicar and the governess were so repulsive that it is difficult to write about them fairly.

The Vicar ... had rather pouting bluish lips, and he walked upright and slow, giving a faint humming noise from the back of his nose, like a bee...

Miss Brown...must have had some mysterious hold over him, for it seems impossible that he would have chosen her freely, considering what she was. Her nose was sharp and pinched...but the rest of her was podgy. When she sat down, she spread, as a toad does on one's hand.'

The Professor is a wonderful creation too. When Maria goes to him with a Lilliputian woman and baby, complaining that they won't do anything and won't eat and aren't any fun, he has this reaction:

'He stuffed his beard in his mouth, rolled his eyes, and glared. Then he unrolled them, liberated the whiskers, and looked haughtily up on his visitor.
"Why should she be fun?
"Why should she do anything?
"Why should she eat?
"Is she yours?"'

The Lilliputians speak 18th century English and call Maria "Ma'am, Y'r honor, Madam, Miss."

And Maria herself is wonderful too:

"She lay face downward in the punt, looking over the stern into the deep water. Her knees, and most of the front of her, were green with slime, the water from the bailing  scoop had run up her sleeve. She was happy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beyond Anne of Green Gables

L.M. Montgomery has a rightful place among authors of classic children's literature. As a girl I devoured the entire series of Anne books, relating heart and soul to the red-headed orphan who was accidentally adopted by a shy farmer and  his sharp-tongued  sister.

The last book in the series is my favorite. Rilla of Ingleside isn't really about Anne; it's the story of Anne's daughter, Rilla, and  how she grew up in Canada during the First World War. Canada was one of the first countries to send troops to Europe, and girls like Rilla had to wait for the  newspaper  every day to get news of their brothers and sweethearts.

In the first book, Anne was a wonderful creation - she never stopped talking, or reading, or writing. Later in the series, however, she seemed to fade from view, becoming a sort of an invalid while L.M. relied on minor characters and side stories to push the series along.

With Rilla the author had a true, solid theme. The horror of the war, the desperate wait for news, the war efforts at home, the political views of the pacifists, and the daily privations (no flour, no butter, no sugar) are fascinating to read. And Rilla's own story is well-developed - she starts as a rather vain, very pretty, quite silly fifteen year old girl who becomes a woman by the end of the book.

There is a love story, told at third hand, since Rilla's beau has to go to war, after all. There is a war baby, whom Rilla volunteers to raise. And there are the usual minor characters, such as "Whiskers-on-the-Moon" and  Susan Baker, the housekeeper.

'WARSAW has fallen," said Dr. Blythe with a resigned air, as he brought the mail in one warm August day.

'Gertrude and Mrs. Blythe looked dismally at each other, and Rilla, who was feeding Jims a Morganized diet from a carefully sterilized spoon, laid the said spoon down on his tray, utterly regardless of germs, and said, "Oh, dear me," in as tragic a tone as if the news had come as a thunderbolt instead of being a foregone conclusion from the preceding week's dispatches. They had thought they were quite resigned to Warsaw's fall but now they knew they had, as always, hoped against hope.'

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

1001 Pageviews!

I'm celebrating by dressing in harem pants and telling a really, really long story.

The Railway Children, by E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit is justly famous for The Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Story of the Amulet, and the Enchanted Castle. I chose her as my first spotlighted author because she was a thoroughly modern woman of my favorite era, the turn of the 20th century. She believed in votes for women, she rode a bicycle in trousers and she earned her own living with her writing.

Her most personal book was The Railway Children, based on a dreadful period in her own life when her husband was put in jail.

I'm lucky enough to have an old edition. Here is the cover:

I must add a peek inside. Can't you just smell the old paper and leather?

In the beginning of the story, Phyllis, Peter and Roberta live in the city with their parents in a secure, comfortable home. Their father, however, is arrested, and they must move with their mother to the  country and learn "how to be poor."

Their new house is right by a railway, and of course they explore the trains, the tracks, and the country station. While their mother earns money by writing stories, they are free to run about the countryside and  meet the Porter, the Station Master, and their own "Old Gentleman."

There are lessons in this book, but Nesbit never clubs the reader over the head with them. Instead, they are hidden like nuggets of gold in a thoroughly entertaining story, with characters that are completely believable.

Nesbit's greatest creations were her children. Instead of being pious little caricatures like Little Nell, they are real kids who make mistakes. Peter won't share his most beloved possession, a toy train engine. Roberta, the oldest sister, loses her temper and causes her brother to be quite seriously hurt. And the youngest sister, Phyllis (called Phil) always has one bootlace coming undone:

' "Hurry up," said Peter, "or we shall miss the 9:15!"
"I can't hurry more than I am doing," said Phyllis. "Oh, bother it! My bootlace has come undone again!"
"When you're married," said Peter, "your  bootlace will come undone going up the church aisle, and the man that you're going to get married to will tumble over it and smash his nose on the ornamented pavement..." '

It should be obvious by now that I love trains, and I love this book.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Frightful Fritz and The Good Herbert

After I had a kid, I started to notice a disturbing trend. Everything for children, it appeared, had to have some sort of educational application.  For example, Genna watched Noggin, a channel for kids with no commercials. (Yay for Noggin!)

When we began watching it, I was entranced by the cool, peaceful programming, the little moose who introduced the shows. A few months later, however, the Noggin channel began sticking up a list of Learning Objectives for each show.

Certain shows were easy. Dora the Explorer "Exposes children to foreign language and cultures" as well as "Teaches elements of counting and reading." The problem was, Genna didn't LIKE Dora. She thought the show was too predictable; she preferred 64 Zoo Lane, which featured different animals talking in British and Australian accents having different adventures.

The Learning Objective for 64 Zoo Lane was "Children will learn about inter- and intra-personal relationships."  Now, you can just tell they were reaching with that one.

My fear is that we're heading towards a didactic future, where entertainment is like some children's stories from the Victorian Era. I'm talking about the type that featured Frightful Fritz and The Good Herbert. My lord, they were boring.

I'm not certain that a story has to teach a lesson. I think kids just want a story and loads of adventure with it. Furthermore, while they are reading that story, they will learn something about intra-personal relationships, whatever that is, as well as a host of other things. They will learn a lot of vocabulary (studies show that kids who read are exposed to tens of thousands more words than kids who don't) as well as the workings of language.

All of that will just happen naturally.

I'm not knocking educational toys and books and shows; I just don't know that they ALL have to be that way. And I'm afraid that if they are, kids will get turned off to books that hit them over the head with an obvious message.

With that in mind, this week I'm going to discuss several books from my childhood that exposed me  to the magic of storytelling and made me want to become a writer. Feel free to suggest some in the comments section.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Steampunk, the Night Watchman, and Strange Objects

When I wrote The Nightwatchman Express, the plot centered around a strange device called the Crown Phoenix. It was an antique typewriter that an offstage character had turned into a mechanical version of a quantum computer.

Even though I intended to move time and space with my Crown Phoenix, I had to have an authentic starting point. This started my research into early keyboards and typewriters. I was amazed at what I found; the machines themselves were beautiful and ingenious.

The Hanson Typing Ball was perfect for my story. It's spiky, like a hedgehog, and the paper is held by a curved plate underneath.

This machine is beautiful as well as serviceable, and I felt it fit the story. The device in real life was developed in 1870. This was a bit early for my series, which is set in 1905 - 1908, but I reasoned that since Miriam, my main character, found the writing ball among her dead father's things it could have been hanging around for a while.

I changed the name to the Crown Phoenix, since the name Hansen Ball was a bit dull.  I also added a bit of machinery to the Ball so I could hide some quantum computing bits in its innards. In that  respect the Crown Phoenix was an amalgam of the Hanson Ball and a typewriter like the Bar-lock 6:

I love the top portion of this machine; it almost looks alive, like a mechanical beast. To add to the coolness, it rhymes with Warlock. Bar-lock appeared in the 1890's and was followed by a succession of other Bar-Locks, some with rounded rows of keys.

There were  other typewriters that I found enchanting: the spiky Blickensderfer, the rounded wooden Hammonds, the almost alien Lambert 1. You can see these and other machines at places like the Martin Howard collection.

In order to bend time and space to my will in my books, I had to modify the existing machines with some soft science and mathematics. I wrote a short story describing that process, a prequel to The Night Watchman Express, and I'll describe the math and science involved in October.

If you like typewriters, then check out these fonts. They are  designed by Richard Polt, and each one is based on actual typewriters. He  allowed me to use one for my covers, so he gets my vote for Cool Typewriter Guy.

Writer's research is always fun, and to extrapolate  from what you discover in a creative way is addictive. Next up : gramophones and bathyspheres!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What do writers drink?

If you read Hemingway or Fitzgerald, you'd think we were all sitting here swilling bourbon and gin while we scribble our stories. My observance has been, however, that most current writers are more interested in the caffeine spectrum.

I, for example, must have my fresh pot of tea, duh™ (thanks, Charlie Sheen!) There are many writers out there who join me, not the least of of whom is Stephen King. Apparently he has breakfast with his wife, Tabitha, and then takes his fresh pot to his desk where he works for three hours.

There are  probably others who go a healthier route, drinking spirulina or wheat grass juice. So, my question for all writers and readers out there is:

What beverage do you keep on your desk?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Coming Out of the Closet

A few months ago if someone asked me what I did for a living, my response was either, "I'm a housewife of New Jersey" or "Oh, I'm a stay at home mom." I never mentioned that whenever I had a minute, I sat at my computer and bashed away at the keys, writing stories.

Ever since my book was published by Fantasy Island Book Publishing, however, I don't say that any more. My response is, "I'm an author." People are always interested (fascinated, even) when I tell them what I do. They ask about my book, The Night Watchman Express. They want to know about the process of creation. They want to know how I got started, and how I stuck it out for over 150,000 words of text.

And then something else happens.

On Thursday, I met a friend and her sister for coffee. The conversation turned to my job, and they asked about what I did. Then both of them began to talk about their own writing. My friend confessed that she wrote poetry. Her sister said she was thinking of writing a book reconciling new motherhood with her current field, anthropology.*

Today the same thing occurred. I was at a lunch, and when I mentioned my writing, a man told me that his daughter spent her time writing flash fiction.

I never got this kind of insider knowledge when I mentioned my housewife status.** I think that writing, or at least the act of creating something, is a topic that everyone can relate to at some level. Perhaps most  people have been struck by an idea while they were showering, or making pancakes, or driving their kids to school. Perhaps that idea is something that they know would make a great story, if they sat down and worked on it.

And perhaps that is the difference. Ninety percent of the people, having been given that idea, will let it sit in the recesses of their imaginations. It is the ten percent*** who act on those ideas, who sit at their desks and start writing or typing - slowly at first, with lots of stopping and crossing out of words, then getting faster and faster - who will accomplish the act of writing a short story, a novella, or a complete book.

I'm enjoying coming out of the closet. I was embarrassed at first, but now I'm more comfortable talking about my work and explaining what it is that I do, now that I see that the interest in my book is genuine. I also love listening to other people as they come out of the closet, describing what they write when they complete that wonderful equation; Butt + Chair = Written Work.

*Her new baby was really, really cute, by the way.

**Not that there is anything WRONG with that; 'tis a noble and difficult job.

***These numbers are completely made up.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Harry Potter and the Digital Age

It's hard to believe, but J.K. Rowling's series isn't available in e-book format yet. In order to read about Hogwarts, readers still need to go to a book store or library and procure seven big volumes.

I have the entire set on my book shelf; I bought the ones printed in the UK, since I wanted her original language. The Scholastic books are Americanized - Mum has become Mom, etc. But do you know what? When I get the money, I'll buy the entire Scholastic series too. I love JK that much.

Nothing against real, solid books. I love them. I've said it before, and I'll say it again now - there  is nothing like the feel, the smell, and the aura of a new book. Or an old secondhand book. Or a library book. Fellow readers will know what I mean when I say that the experience of walking into an old  library or a new bookstore and seeing all those books, all those possible worlds to explore, is pure  luxury.

But let's say that I want to go to China. I'm a YA author, and I want to pack some inspiration. Am I  going to fill my suitcase with JK's books? Not with present airline regulations and pricing.

I could put in The Last Good Knight by Connie J. Jasperson, or The King of Egypt by J.J. Makins, or Children of the  Elementi  by Ceri Clark, or - ahem - my own book, The Night Watchman Express. They are all good long reads - and they are in e-book format, which means I can have them all on my Kindle or iPad or even a laptop. And, if JK does decide to go "e,"  then I can have all of Harry, Hermione, and my fantasy boyfriend, Ron, as well.

It's a leap of faith to go to cyberspace with a book. There are wolves out there. I understand that the  stakes are far higher for Ms Rowling than they are for my little offering. But I think that it's time.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Vent Post

We all need a vent once in a while. Feel free to add yours in the comments section; you can be assured of my sympathy and fellowship.

Last Monday night we got back from skiing. On Tuesday we went to a funeral; since my in-laws are  Italian, it was  an all-day affair.

Wednesday I got to go and stand in line in the DMV to get my license renewed. So, that was a blast.

On Thursday I finally had some time to catch up with my sequel to The Night Watchman that I'm writing, as well as copious emails and reviews and edits that I had to do. In the middle of all that, I got a call from a hospice nurse that my mother, who has Alzheimer's, was in a very bad way, and I should "prepare myself for the worst."

It's hard to work after hearing that; later my sister went to visit mom at the assisted living place where she lives. Mom was FINE.

On Friday my mom's house sold --- maybe??? Don't know; I'm still waiting for a call from the real estate agent. That whole thing required loads of faxing and emailing.

Over the weekend, I went to see mom, took my daughter to Girlscout Camp for sign up as well as a birthday party, and snuck off to Target to buy a gift for that birthday party. Because, I had forgotten all about the birthday until a friend called my to carpool. 

What am I forgetting? Right - laundry, cleaning, cooking, and raising a six year old. Well, today I get to relax, at least - in the dentist's chair, getting a crown.

PS - My ski bag is still packed, sitting where I dumped it a week ago.