Thursday, December 19, 2013

Missing May - and How to Be Careful Not to Miss with Your Audience

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I'm really getting tired of bringing this up every time I read a Newbery medal winner. I've now read 21 and a third of the books feature an orphan as the main character.

I get it. Clearly no experience would be more unimaginably traumatic for a child than the loss of a parent. It is understandable that an author would want to delve into such rich territory. Unfortunately, in most of the books I've read so far, it feels like a device.

This makes Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (1992) more unique. The main character, Summer, is - wait for it - a pre-teen orphan. She is passed around from relative to relative before ending up with Aunt May and Uncle Ob. However, this book does something most of the other orphan-starring books fail to do - it actually confronts death and the impact it has on the main character.

Like the orphans in so many of the other Newberys, Summer doesn't deal with the death of her parents. She does, however, confront the death of Aunt May. More to the point, she has to address the effect it has on Uncle Ob. Summer, along with her friend Cletus, accompanies her uncle on a journey to hopefully bring him some closure. Summer's concern about her uncle and helping him get his will to live back is what ultimately drives the story.

The book was a quick read (I consumed it in just over an hour), but consequently comes dangerously close to not giving the reader closure. I certainly won't spoil the book for others, but I grew concerned as the ending approached because the story didn't feel finished yet.

It can be a challenge for a writer. It definitely served as a reminder for me as a writer to have a clear sense of not just where a story is going, but where it is going to end. An ending doesn't have to be a shocker or a tear-jerker or even completely satisfying. However, a reader does need to feel a sense of closure - that something hasn't been left out of the story. Missing May comes close to missing that point.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Walk Two Moons - and the Art of Telling Two Stories

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Walk Two Moons (1994), by Sharon Creech, is a Newbery medal recipient which - like seemingly every other Newbery winner - focuses on a girl coping with an absentee parent. I wish I could stop railing on this, but I'd like to see the Newbery committee acknowledge other challenges in the lives of teens and tweens. Anyway, that shouldn't be part of my commentary on Walk Two Moons.

Here's the description of the book at

"Walk Two Moons is the story of thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle from Bybanks, Kentucky, whose only wish is to be reunited with her missing mother. As Sal travels with her Gram and Gramps across the country to Idaho, she tells them the “extensively strange story” of her friend Phoebe Winterbottom, Phoebe’s disappearing mother, and the potential lunatic that comes knocking. Sal also reveals to the reader another story — her own."

As my latest project, Abigail's Atlantis, also strives to tell two stories simultaneously, I was intrigued by the novel's structure of having one story unfold within another. Gram and Gramps are quirky, lively, and heartwarming - and eager to hear their granddaughter's tale as they trek across country to let Sal discover why her mom left. The book does an admirable job jumping back and forth between the stories. Sal's telling of Phoebe's story is really Sal's way of expressing her own fears and doubts and wonders.

My biggest qualm with the book is its need to build the story around characters keeping secrets. Even though Sal's father and grandparents know what happened to Sal's mom, they don't tell her. If they were honest with Sal, the premise of the book largely falls apart. As is usually the case, they do so in the name of protecting her, but I had a hard time not just seeing it as a ploy for writing the book.

As such, I learned some important lessons as a writer. Two stories can be intertwined very successfully together. However, it is important to recognize that techniques like having characters keep secrets can leave a reader thinking, "Why didn't they just tell her?" I want to tell a story that doesn't leave the reader asking, "Well, if this happened, wouldn't that kill the entire story?"

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lois Lowry's The Giver: What Does Your Writing Give to the Reader?

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Anyone who regularly follows my blog knows I have been on a quest to seek out and read all the Newbery medal winners. This is no easy task, considering the award has been given out annually since 1922. Since May 2013, I've plowed through about 20 of them. Lois Lowry's The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) is my favorite so far.

Lowry creates a supposed Utopia in which the threat of individuality has been stripped from society in favor of "Sameness" (think George Orwell's 1984). The story centers on Jonas and the coming-of-age ceremony which happens when kids turn 12 and are given their "assignments;" that is, the jobs that have been selected for them.

Jonas is tasked with becoming the society's new Receiver, which means the Giver will transfer his memories - both the good and bad - which are being shielded away from the general public.

Clearly the thought-provoking nature of the subject matter makes for rich territory. It also has generated a certain amount of controversy, although as Lowry herself says, she isn't sure why. She considers the book to be highly moralistic and notes that when the book has been challenged, it is in a vague way.

Of course, this is also why it has been my favorite of the Newbery books I've read so far. The book makes the reader (no matter what age) think. In my own writing, it challenges me to remember that the ultimate goal in writing is to give the reader something - maybe it is just entertainment, maybe information, maybe inspiration. In the best of worlds, a book accomplishes all three. The Giver is such a book.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Maniac Magee and the Fine Art of Getting Through This Crazy World

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Jerry Spinelli's 1990 book, Maniac Magee, is set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Two Mills, which is racially divided into the East End (black) and West End (white). The title character is an orphan (! - see nearly EVERY OTHER post on the Newbery-winning books I've read) who finds himself on the "wrong" side of town. Although he is white, he is taken in by the Beale family, who are black. When others disapprove of his presence on the East End, Maniac heads out to find another home.

Throughout the book, Maniac Magee moves from one place to another, even living for short spells with Mars Bar, who hated that Maniac Magee beat him in a foot race, and John McNab, who could strike out everyone but Maniac. Most amusingly, he lives for awhile in the buffalo pen at the zoo. He is also taken in by Earl Grayson, a groundskeeper at the zoo and a minor league pitcher who was the last to strike out Willie Mays.

Maniac Magee's method of dealing with this crazy world is what propels the book. He deals with bullying and racism by simply not acknowledging them. Instead, he excels at being who he is meant to be.

It makes for a different angle for a protagonist. He is important to know that Magee is deceptively passive. He isn't really sitting back and just letting things happen - he's steering the outcome of events precisely because of his choice not to react. Ultimately it teaches me as a writer to know that a novel's main character might not actually be the catalyst behind the main action of the story. While a character's actions in a story often drive the plot, the character's reactions are what drive its heart.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Penguins and Portals: Chris Baty Discusses the Origins of NaNoWriMo

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For those not in the know, November is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo (learn more at I participated last year and wrote the first draft of my just-published Otter and Arthur and the Round Table.

The idea is to write a very rough draft of a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. I'm participating again this year with the intent of penning the rough draft of Abigail's Atlantis, my story of a 12-year-old girl who visits her grandparents at Topsail Island, North Carolina, for the summer. She helps her grandfather at the sea turtle rescue center where he works - and finds what she thinks is a connection to a modern-day Atlantis.

The point of this post, however, isn't just to plug my projects, but to talk about NaNoWriMo. I had the privilege last night of being one of roughly sixty people to see Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Originally from Prairie Village, Kansas, he was back in town to offer a history of how the organization came about and where it has gone.

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He started it in San Francisco in 1999. He tapped his friends to help with his crazy new idea and 21 people signed on board. It was up to 140 by the next year and ballooned to 5000 by the third year. Now in its 15th year, there are more than 300,000 participants as well as 1000 classrooms.

Baty possesses the rare talent of being a writer who also knows how to engage an audience. He talked about his own love of books and how they inspired his imagination. He shared how he loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and would go into the closet at home and search for a portal.

He relayed this experience to writing and how that opens a portal to one's own mind. He also joked about interviews with authors where they are asked questions like, "Where did you come up with the idea for the penguin?" and how the response was inevitably, "The penguin found me." As silly as he said that sounded, he realized how true it was once he began writing. Once the penguin found him, he knew the writing portal was open and would never close again.

Thanks, Chris Baty, for opening the portal for so many of us. Let the penguins rule!

Found: One Penguin. Considered Armed with the Ability to Inspire.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

The Midwife's Apprentice: The Role of Mentor and Student in Writing

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Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice (Clarion Books, 1995) won the Newbery medal in 1996. For anyone who's followed along on my journey through the Newbery winners, you won't be surprised by my eye roll here. This is yet another orphan story.

The orphan in question is a girl who starts out with the less than hospitable nickname "Brat" but gives herself the name "Alyce" later in the story. Her tale is set in Renaissance-era England, starting with her inauspicious "home" sleeping near the dung heap. She is taken in by the local midwife, Jane. While Alyce learns to become her apprentice, the relationship leaves her feeling more worthless than worthwhile so she eventually sets out on her own.

The mentor-student relationship is almost as common a theme in Newbery books as the orphan concept. It makes sense; a child without parental guidance must seek supervision in some manner. However, I am tiring of the unlikable teachers with which these main characters are so often saddled. It isn't that the mentors must be likable characters, but it is important that the main character transforms as a result of the relationship. Sadly, in a story like this, the character does grow, but would have done so faster and more successfully under someone else's tutelage.

The lesson I take from this book as I work on Abigail's Atlantis is the relationship between 12-year-old Abigail and her grandfather. While I present him as slightly gruff, he is also intended to be likable. The important factor to keep in mind is to make sure that there is some conflict which pushes Abigail and the action forward. That, however, does not have to be a sour relationship with a mentor figure.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Otter and Arthur sequel coming soon!

image from Merlin BBC series as posted on

The sequel to Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone is coming soon! Here's a sample from Otter and Arthur and the Round Table:

Chapter 8: Stonehenge (an excerpt)

Once we were a safe distance from Morgan’s castle, Ferdinand landed so we could reposition ourselves on his back. “That was incredible!” Dindra whooped. “Do you two live like this all the time?”

Ferdinand and I smiled at each other. “To be honest,” I confessed, “it has been awhile since we’ve had any big adventures.”

Dindra looked bewildered. “King Arthur? Camelot? Merlin? Flying on a falcon’s back?” She patted Ferdinand. “How could life ever be boring?”

“Well, it just got interesting again recently,” I answered over my shoulder. Dindra, who had her arms wrapped around my waist, squeezed a little tighter and smiled.

* * *

We arrived at Stonehenge just as the sun was rising. “That,” said Dindra breathlessly, “is the most amazing sight I’ve ever seen.”

“No people – and few animals – get a bird’s eye view of this,” Ferdinand replied. Dindra and I laughed.

The stones were as tall as four men standing on each other’s shoulders. An outer circle wrapped around five sets of larger stones. A vast empty field surrounded the massive monument. “How do you think humans moved those huge rocks?” Dindra wondered aloud.

I shook my head in amazement. “I don’t know. Just think, though. The same creatures who made this also invented war.”

“Sometimes it is hard to believe people think they’re smarter than us,” Ferdinand added.

He floated down and landed on one of the larger rocks in the center. I smiled upon seeing the two people who gave me hope for humanity: the sleeping figures of Arthur and Merlin. They had set up camp in the middle of the stone circle. A few glowing embers lingered from a campfire and two sleeping horses were tied to a smaller rock nearby.

As I pondered some clever way to wake Arthur, Merlin sat up and looked straight at us and smiled. He seemed pleased, but unsurprised to see us.

Ferdinand flapped down and Merlin patted him on the head. “Good morning,” the wizard said. “You two must have had quite the adventures.” Then he noticed Dindra. “Make that three.”

“Who are you talking to, Merlin?” Arthur sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Otter!”

I rushed to the king and gave him our traditional thumb-hug greeting. “What happened?” he asked. “What took you so long to get here? Are you okay?” Before I could answer, he raised an eyebrow and said, “I see you’ve got a friend with you.”

I introduced Dindra and told Arthur and Merlin how she saved my life. However, I was focused on the urgency of our situation.

“We have to get back!” I exclaimed. “Lot’s going to attack Dragon’s Head and take over Camelot!”

Merlin smiled, looking unalarmed. “Sometimes when the perceived need is to hurry the best solution is to slow down.”

I was annoyed with Merlin for staying so calm. He’s probably had a vision of what’s going to happen, I thought.

He offered no explanation. Instead he gazed up at the orange hue slowly conquering the grey nighttime sky. “I believe I shall go for a ride. I’d like to enjoy the onset of this glorious day. Arthur, perhaps you can share your new idea with Otter.”

Arthur stirred the coals of the campfire. Dindra and I settled down on a nearby rock.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Arthur asked as he took a seat and gazed up at the stones surrounding us. “I bet you’re wondering why Stonehenge was built.” Dindra and I shook our heads and Arthur continued. “Merlin told me people think it is a place for healing or studying the stars.” He paused and got a serious look on his face. “Otter, this is where my father is buried.”

”Is that why Merlin brought you here?” I asked.

Arthur nodded. “My father saw Stonehenge as a symbol of power and strength. That’s the kind of ruler he wanted to be. However, here’s my idea.” Arthur pulled his pack toward him. “Dindra, you’ll be interested to know it was Otter who made me think of this.” He pulled a loaf of bread out.

I scratched my head. “Bread? That was my idea? How’s that going to make you a better leader?”

“No,” Arthur laughed. “I thought you two might be hungry.” He tore off two chunks and handed them to us. “This was Otter’s idea,” he said, retrieving a piece of parchment. He laid it down and smoothed it out. It was a sketch of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was my idea?”

“Well, Stonehenge looks like a giant table to me. It reminded me of your first visit to Dragon’s Tail. Your uncle called a meeting of all the mouse village residents at a round stage. It’s how I’m going to lead Britain.”

“From a round stage in a mouse village?” I munched on my bread and stared at Arthur.

“No,” he chuckled. He waved his arm at the huge rocks surrounding us. “One person didn’t do this alone. If I want to unite Britain, I can’t do that alone. I’ll invite knights and leaders to Camelot to work together. We’ll sit at a round table. At a rectangular table, someone sits at the head and automatically seems more important. At a round table, everyone is equal.”

Hmm… can’t do it alone. An idea was brewing about how I could get Excalibur back.

Check out details about the first book, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone at You can buy it here:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kira-Kira: What Gives a Book Its Glitter?

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On the first page of Kira-Kira the main character, Katie, explains that the word means "glittering" in Japanese. As the book jacket says, Katie sees the world as glittering through the eyes of her older sister, Lynn. It doesn't take a genius at sketching out plots to guess that this is a sure sign that something will happen to Lynn. In the interest of not spoiling the book, however, I will leave it at that.

Instead my focus is on how to give a book its glittering quality. What makes it special? What makes it stand out above others? Certainly good writing, solid characters, and an intriguing story all contribute. There is, however, another ingredient which really makes a book shine. Imagination.

I believe a book is better when it has a fantastical element to it. What do I mean by that? Well, I'm a sucker for a very realistic story - with a twist. Craft a solid tale which feels real and throw in something quirky and you've got a good chance of hooking me. I cite John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany as an example. It is one of my favorite books precisely because it creates a world of believability around a have-to-see-him-to-believe-him character.

This leads me to the challenge of Kira-Kira. As regular followers of this blog know, I'm on a mission to read all the Newbery winners. Kira-Kira won the Newbery in 2005. For me, however, it lacks glitter. It is a well-written story, but it feels so real that it reads more like an autobiography than fiction. It may be that author Cynthia Kadohata isn't writing from personal experience at all. Maybe she imagined all the events in the book. My take, though, is that too much reality is, well, too much. I want something magical, something imaginary, something fantastical. I want the glitter. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Out of the Dust: The Importance of Research

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Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (Scholastic Press, 1997)is my most recent read in my quest to conquer all the Newbery-award-winning books. At the onset, I was pretty certain I wasn't going to enjoy it. The book is written in verse and I'm not big on reading poetry. However, I quickly became engrossed in the story. It helped that there wasn't a rhyming, sing-songy pattern to the writing and I was able to read it mostly as prose.

The story is set in the Dust Bowl during the depression. As is often true of a good story, this one worked for me because it did such an excellent job transporting me to a particular time and place. I still have to point out that in the well-established Newbery tradition, this book focuses on an orphaned coming-of-age girl. At least this book makes the loss of Billie Jo's mother a part of the story.

For my own writing, the lesson I take away is the importance of research. Hesse wasn't even alive during the depression or the Dust Bowl era. For this book to work, though, she clearly had to do a phenomenal amount of research so that it felt authentic.

With my latest project, Abigail's Atlantis, research becomes pivotal on two fronts. 12-year-old Abigail learns all about sea turtles while visiting her grandparents at Topsail Island for the summer. That brings about its own amount of research, but on top of that I am learning about Atlantis because of the parallel Atlantis-set storyline which will mirror Abigail's.

When researched properly a story - like Out of the Dust - becomes intriguing because the setting feels completely natural and real in the context of its story. In fact, while an author should have the basic story in mind from the onset, the writer should welcome whatever twists and turns the research may add to the story. It will make the journey more authentic.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The View from Saturday: Making Your Story a Fresh Idea

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Uh oh. On page 31 of E.L. Konigsburg's The View from Saturday (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1996), I was hit with a sense of dread by two lines: "He was talking about turtle nests. Turtles had brought Grandpa and Margaret together."

Konigsburg's book tells the story of the four sixth graders who comprise Mrs. Olinkski's Academic Bowl team at Epiphany Middle School. The book explores how the four friends ended up together by devoting a chapter to each of their back stories. Twelve-year-old Nadia's back story involves a trip to Florida to see her dad - and spending time with her grandfather and his new wife on the beach looking for sea turtle nests.

So why would this cause dread? Because my latest project is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who goes to spend the summer with her grandfather looking for sea turtle nests.

Certainly there are differences. My book, Abigail's Atlantis, will focus on many different aspects of the sea turtle's habits and use it as the context for the entire story arch, not just integrate it into a single character's one-chapter back story. Still, there's a sense of discouragement when the idea you thought was original turns out not to be.

For anyone who has read through my journey through the Newbery Award winning books, they know I've harped on how often orphans are at the center of these books. The key, of course, is that the task of any writer is to bring a fresh spin or perspective to a story, even if it is one which has been told before.

In writing two King Arthur-themed books so far (Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, Otter and Arthur and the Round Table), I have had to work hard to navigate this path. With Abigail's Atlantis, I already was tasked with coming up with a fresh spin on another topic. Now I have to find a way to give a new look to the sea turtle side of the story as well as the Atlantis side.

Note: for those who haven't read the book, this video collection of seemingly disjointed images and quotations won't make a lot of sense. However, in context, they capture the main themes and plots of the book.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Criss Cross: Unanswered Dreams of Longing for Something Big to Happen

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My latest read in my quest to plow through the Newbery award winners is Criss Cross (2005) by Lynne Rae Perkins. It ranks as one of my least favorites so far.

I'd like to think I'm smart enough to see the merits of a book targeted toward kids, but I'm apparently missing something - like characters, a plot, and action.

The book primarily tells the story about Debbie, a teenager who is wishing for something big to happen as her summer kicks in. It doesn't take long before the reader is also wishing for something big to happen. But nothing does.

In fact, by the second chapter, the story shifts to Hector. At this point, the reader is thrown into confusion over who the main character of the story is even going to be. When we get side tangents delving into the circle of other teens surrounding Debbie and Hector, the result is a muddied storyline where I found myself having to read back to keep characters straight.

In the end, the story leaves its audience with this unsatisfying reality: "Maybe it was another time that their moments would meet. Maybe it would happen in a few days, or next week. Maybe it would happen when they were fifty. But just now they had missed, and the jet trails of the crisscrossing moments left an awkward vacuum in their wake."

Slice of life is okay; many a quality story is built on such a concept. Following teenagers through a summer of hanging out is fine, too - if we see real struggle and not just a few unrequited crushes here and there. Ultimately, Perkins has left an awkward vaccum in the wake of her readers. Like Debbie, I wished for something big to happen, but it never did.

The latest book I'm writing, Abigail's Atlantis, tackles a similar task of following both a female and a male character as they are just entering young adulthood. Criss Cross will help me keep in mind that I need to draw the two characters with clear-cut dreams and ambitions and give them strong stories in which to pursue them. Is it too much to hope that I can be more successful at doing so than a Newbery-winning book?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bud, Not Buddy: Wanna Win a Newbery? Write about an Orphan

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Bud, Not Buddy (1999) by Christopher Paul Curtis is my latest read in my endeavor to plow through the winners of the Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature.

I've ranted on this before, but it bears repeating - if only because Newbery winners can't stop repeating the pattern. What's with book after book being about orphans? Apparently the committee which decides Newbery winners loves stories about orphans.

In this case, you can't get past the first paragraph of the book flap before you know this is a story of a ten-year-old motherless boy in depression-era Flint, Michigan. Bud (not Buddy) is determined to find his father, who he believes is jazz musician Herman E. Calloway.

Newbery committee biases aside, one can't blame the author for focusing his story on an orphan. He tells a strong story where the main character is a determined boy who doesn't let the hard knocks of his life get him down. When Bud finds the man he thinks is his father, he is immediately embraced by the jazz musicians who have formed their own sort of family.

I didn't get a chance to see it, but found out this had been turned into a children's play and was done at The Coterie, a children's theater a mere 15 minutes away from me! It is interesting in that my post about the Newbery-winning Holes by Louis Sacher, focused on how that book was turned into a movie. I would have liked to seen how Bud, Not Buddy fared as a play - and the Coterie has a reputation as one of the five best children's theaters in the country. In any event, here's there blurb about the play:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Holes: How to Convert a Book to a Movie - Without Creating Major Plot Holes

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It is a popular pastime to rip on movie versions of books. The general consensus is that the movie jettisons large chunks of the book to fit the story into a two-hour time frame. What is often forgotten in this common complaint is that there are plenty of examples of books which have been made into great movies. In fact, some of history's most acclaimed movies were adaptations of books - Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, and The Wizard of Oz immediately spring to mind.

Louis Sachar's Holes (1998), also a Newbery winner, certainly isn't at that level. However, it is a nice example of a solid book which was transformed into a solid movie. Surprisingly, in my quest to read the Newbery award-winning books, this is the first (at least that I know of) which has been made into a movie. As I read it, I couldn't quite imagine it as a movie. As soon as I finished the book, though, I pulled up the movie on YouTube (you can view it at the bottom of this page). I was pleasantly surprised.

A movie can't do everything the book does. This is where most people criticize movies. However, movies can do things books can't. Often people are disappointed that the characters on screen don't look the same as the pictures created by the words in the book. A movie, however, can convey a huge chunk of information with one scene that might take pages in a book.

A movie also must typically add more dialogue and, in the case of Holes, the ending was altered. The key, though, is that Louis Sachar wrote the book and the screenplay. It keeps the movie from taking on a completely different tone, despite some of the differences between the page and the screen.

A movie cannot duplicate the book experience - and it shouldn't be expected to. If done correctly, however, it can complement the original and add dimensions not explored in the book. Holes is therefore a success - as a book and a movie.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Single Shard: Building a Character One Piece at a Time

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Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard (Clarion Books, 2001) is the ninth book I've read in my exploration of the Newbery winners. This is my favorite yet.

Tree-ear is an orphan in 12th century Korea. He lives under a bridge with Crane-man, a crippled homeless man. Tree-ear dreams of being a potter and believes his wish will come true once he gets an opportunity to work for Min, the most noted potter in the area. However, Min works at a very slow pace and seems incapable of showing gratitude for the hard work Tree-ear does.

When an emissary from the king visits the town, all the potters are hopeful that they will get a commission. Such a coup can provide work for life. While Min is clearly the best potter, the commission goes to a rival who has just learned a new technique.

However, the emissary gives Min a chance to learn the technique and bring some pieces to the palace. Min says he could not possibly make such a journey, but Tree-ear offers to make the trek on his behalf. I won't spoil the ending, but I'll say that the book had me crying tears of joy and sadness. The resolution isn't without setup, but it still had elements of surprise.

My focus on reading the Newbery winners is on what lessons I can glean for my writing. Tree-ear exhibits profoundly admirable traits - patience, a willingness to work hard, a refusal to give up, and steadfastly holding on to his dream - that are essential to anyone longing to be successful at anything.

From a writing standpoint, Shard also reminds the reader that while conflict is important to a story, it doesn't have to grow out of the main character's flaws. In fact, I found myself rooting for Tree-ear because he was so deserving of having his dream come true.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dead End in Norvelt: Avoiding Story Killers

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I'm now nine books into my endeavor to read the Newbery-winning books. Jack Gantos' Dead End in Norvelt (2011) follows the fairly traditional pattern of focusing on a pre-teen protagonist coping with family issues in a small town. As usual, there are plenty of quirky characters populating the story.

Among the more notables in this tale are Ms. Volker, the town's obituary writer who has to dip her arthritic hands in hot wax before using them, and Mr. Spizz, who pines for Ms. Volker and rides about town on an adult tricycle. While the town's original founders are dying off around them, these two are determined to be the last Norvelt originals standing - and that includes outlasting each other.

The pre-teen Jack Gantos (yeah, the main character has the same name as the author) is recruited to help Ms. Volker write obituaries. It is his only escape from a summer-long grounding.

This is where the story sets itself up for several seemingly unneeded distractions. Jack is grounded for plowing down his mom's corn field, but he did it under the instruction of his father. The plot device left me angry at the mom for an unfair and over-the-top punishment and I kept wondering how it helped the story that Jack was grounded for an entire summer.

It reminds me of a frequent question writers must ask themselves, "Does it serve the story?" Now, let's be clear. I'm not one who subscribes to the idea that everything that happens in a book must serve the plot. In fact, the colorful details which may not have anything to do with a story's outcome are what keep most people engaged. People don't read just to learn the outcome. They read to see the journey unfold along the way. They read to uncover the delightfully quirky traits of characters.

However, giving a story twists like the main character having the same name as the author and having the poor kid get grounded for an entire summer can create distractions. The lesson is to look for ways to add color, but not in ways that take readers out of the story.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The One and Only Ivan: Making Characters Unique

With seven Newbery-award-winning books under my belt already, I finally read the 2013 winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

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I've joked in previous posts that clearly the trick to winning a Newbery is to write a book about a tween or teen uprooted from his or her home because of some family tragedy. Applegate's book puts a spin on this formula - a gorilla named Ivan is uprooted from his home because of some family tragedy.

Ivan has been part of a mall circus exhibit, the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, for 27 years. He has accepted his fate, but when Ruby, a baby elephant arrives, Ivan decides this is no place for an animal to spend its life. He concocts a plan. He is going to free Ruby so that she can grow up in a zoo with other elephants.

Applegate creates a unique character by telling the story from the first-person perspective of a gorilla. To that end, she has written in a short, choppy style with chapters rarely lasting more than a couple pages, and sometimes just a couple sentences.

The lesson for my own writing is to find a way to make a character unique. That isn't always as easy as writing from the persective of a gorilla, but uniqueness can be achieved because of a character's unique circumstances or unique perspective. In Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and its in-progress sequel, I have been able to tell the story of King Arthur from the perspective of a mouse. As I write my next story, Abigail's Atlantis, my challenge is to find what makes the main character unique.

It is the challenge all writers must undertake - give readers a new experience through the uniqueness of the character, the circumstances, or perspective. After all, if the story isn't unique, what is the point in telling it?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Graveyard Book: Location, Location, Location

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I've knocked off yet another book in my continuing endeavor to read the Newbery award-winning books. This time around it is Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book (2010). As with the previous Newbery books I've read, I focused on what I can learn in my own writing from this book.

The opening of the book leaves a toddler abandoned thanks to a grisly murder scene. He wanders out of his out, losing his diaper along the way, and ends up at the local graveyard. While the scenario is preposterous, it sets up one of the more interesting settings I've read in the Newbery winners so far. The boy (nicknamed "Bod" for "Nobody") ends up raised by a collection of interesting ghosts and undead creatures. While he appreciates his home, he longs for a life among the living - and he wants to find out what happened to his family.

However, we are left wondering through most of the book why Bod's family was murdered and when the answer comes, it is abrupt and unsatisfying. As for Bod's dream of a life outside the confines of tombstones and crypts, this is also undermined by the author. Gaiman clearly relishes describing the world of the dead and ends up making the world from which Bod wishes to retreat more interesting than the one to which Bod dreams of going.

Thus the lesson I learn about writing is to make setting and location an important part of the book, but not one which overwhelms the story. My latest project, tentatively titled Abigail's Atlantis, will delve into the ocean and the famous lost underworld city. It will become crucial to make sure that while I try to capture the wonder and awe of such a fabled location, I don't do it at the expense of creating a moving and involving story.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Higher Power of Lucky - Are Newbery Winners Just Lucky?

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I'm now six books into my effort to read at least a healthy chunk of Newbery award-winning books. I'm enjoying the reading, but am starting to feel the repetition - a point I already noted in my last post on Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder.

I want to be careful that my comments don't come across merely as sour grapes. It isn't interesting to listen to a writer whine how "I can write just as good as they can. Why do they get all the lucky breaks?" I want to make it clear that these books have been, by and large, above average books. I'd rank most of them 4 stars out of 5. That's they thing, though. These are supposed to be the absolute cream of the crop - the best of their given years. I'm not quite seeing it.

The problem is NOT that each book individually is not worth the effort. The problem is that I'm starting to feel like, "Isn't this the same book that won the award the year before?" That's because the stories are remarkably similar. Apparently the Newbery selection committee is quite enamored with stories of tweens and early-tweens thrown into self discovery because of significant family upheaval.

In The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (2006), the protagonist lost her mom and is now in the care of her father's ex-wife. Like some of the other Newbery winners, the setting is a small town - in this case, Hard Pan - a California desert town with a population of 43.

Susan Patron discusses The Higher Power of Lucky

The argument could be made that there is no such thing as a new story, only a new way of telling it. Still, while each of the Newbery winners I've read so far have individual merits and nuances, when taken as a whole, it is hard to escape their similarities.

So what role did luck have to do in these books' successes? Well, luck is often viewed as being in the right place at the right time. However, one doesn't generally just happen to fall into these kind of circumstances. One has worked to put oneself in such circumstances, whether knowingly or not. In the case of Newbery-winning authors, they may have been published in the first place because someone knew someone in the publishing field. The book may have found its way to the Newbery committee members' hearts because of some other connection.

Luck, however one defines it, does play a role in success. However, Newbery-winning authors are not talentless hacks who just knew the right people. These are good authors with solid stories who happened to write the kind of stuff that appealed to the right people. Congrats to them for that - and good luck on their next projects.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Year Down Yonder - and Another Novel from Me a Year from Now?

This is the fifth book I've read in my exploration of Newbery-award-winning children's books. A definite pattern is developing. Like Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me and Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest, Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder explores the life of a girl making sense of life in another era. Like Manifest, it also helps if the story involves being displaced from one's family while they try to get back on their feet financially.

The cynic in me says that apparently to win a Newbery all I have to do is mimic this apparently tried-and-true formula. I must admit, though, that these books have inspired me to write a tale in a similar vein. Hopefully my motives remain, however, to serve the story first and foremost and not shoot for some lofty and unlikely dream. My newest story idea is that of a 12-year-old girl who spends the summer with her grandparents at Topsail Island in North Carolina. While helping Grandpa at the sea turtle rescue center he runs, the girl helps rescue a turtle with a tracking device. The device leads her on an interesting journey - and the possible discover of Atlantis.

Sea Turtle Hospital in South Padre Island, Texas

In the Newbery winners I've dissected thus far, the real story behind all of them is the journey on which the main character goes. The character doesn't actually do any traveling, but learns about herself because of the people around her. In Peck's Yonder, Mary Alice's year with her grandmother opens her eyes to just how much Grandma takes care of the people in her town despite appearing very gruff and unapproachable.

Book Trailer

My greatest lesson in all this is to 1) create an interesting story and 2) populate it with interesting characters. Hopefully, let's say a year from now, we'll see if I've accomplished that with my Atlantis-themed book.

Richard Peck on Writing

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Crispin...and Other Stories of Boys of Unknown Origin

In my effort to familiarize myself with Newbery-award-winning books, I just polished off Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The book, the 50th by the author Avi, explores the life of a peasant boy who must deal with the death of his mother and then fleeing the only village he has ever known after being accused of a crime he didn't commit.

His journey pairs him with a juggler known as "Bear." The man takes Crispin under his wing as a sort of apprentice, but it turns out the man will also lead Crispin to find out the identity of the father he never knew.

As now happens with every book I read, I inevitably find similarities to my own writing. In this case, Crispin shares a common storyline with Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Avi's story focuses on an orphaned boy coming of age in medieval England and being led to his destiny with the help of a wise, but sometimes mysterious, man who takes a special interest in the boy. That, of course, is also at the essence of the origins of the story of King Arthur as Merlin guides the boy, unaware of his true identity, to his destiny.

While such commonalities in stories might suggest a lack of originality, there is another interpretation - good stories aren't necessarily original. They just find a way to put a fresh spin on the familiar. That may happen in the portrayal of character (I particularly enjoyed Bear), description of setting (I loved the detailed descriptions of the town of Great Wexly), or the ability of an author to capture a world set in another time.

As I slog through the second draft of Otter and Arthur and the Round Table, the sequel to the Sword in the Stone book, I am reminded of these challenges. I am telling a familiar tale, but must keep an eye on how to bring a freshness to the story via my characters, settings, and era. It certainly doesn't guarantee me a Newbery award like Avi got, but then I've got another 48 books to go before I have his resume.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village - and Mastering a Single Voice in Your Story

In my exploration of Newberry winners, the 2008 winner, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, has me baffled. It is not my intent to read the Newbery winners with a smug "I can write better than that" tone, but rather to see what can be learned from these award-winning works.

That's proving a bit of a challenge with Masters. It isn't a story. It is a collection of mostly monologues and occasional dialogues crafted by school librarian Laura Amy Schlitz. When her students were studying the Middle Ages, she took it upon herself to craft these bits for reading aloud.

Each piece focuses on one or two characters who live within a medieval village. Occasionally characters overlap as secondary references in other pieces, but mostly each piece stands alone. That means we get dozens of perspectives of what it is like to live in a medieval village - we hear from the blacksmith's daughter, the miller's son, the glassblower's apprentice, and the beggar. These different voices go a long way in fleshing out what a medieval village might be like.

The biggest strength of this book is also its greatest weakness - by giving voice to dozens of characters, there is no one character on which to focus attention. That means this becomes a good exercise in teaching children about medieval history and its people, but not such a great exercise in getting children to love the story itself. Because there isn't one.

I definitely learned an important lesson from this book - the value of researching another era to get the characters and setting correct. That is relevant to my Otter and Arthur books - both the already published Sword in the Stone and the upcoming Round Table sequel. For both of those books, I have read extensively about the true history of King Arthur as well as the popular legendary variations of his story.

However, in the end, the story comes first. My goal with those books was to follow the well-established Arthurian tradition of shaping the popular legends to my agenda. I want to deliver an intriguing story and important messages to kids within an Arthurian context, but am not aiming for historical fiction.

I'm also at the very beginnings of another project in which a mix of fact and fiction will become very relevant. My as-yet-untitled Atlantis-themed children's novel will tell the story of a 12-year-old girl spending the summer at the beach with her grandparents. She becomes fascinated with Atlantis when she and her grandpa rescue a sea turtle with a tracking device which leads to a seemingly impossible conclusion - that this turtle has delivered a message from the ancient sunken city of Atlantis.

I have already done extensive research on Atlantis, Poseidon, sea turtles, sea turtle rescue centers, and Topsail Island (the North Carolina setting for the story). My goal is to make the story feel as real as possible.

depiction of Atlantis from

This is all my way of emphasizing that research can be crucial to telling a story effectively. However, the story comes first. A book like Masters forgoes the balance in favor of showcasing the research without really telling a singular, unifying story.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Signing: Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone

Thanks to everyone who came out to my book signing at Shawnee Books & Toys! With more than 40 attendees and 18 book sales, it was a success. I did a couple of readings, signed books, and enjoyed mingling with friends, family, and brand new fans.

While the focus was on my first work of children's fiction, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, I also had a dozen other books with me.

Thanks to my wife for providing treats, including (of course) a cheese plate to go with the mouse theme.

I started out discussing the writing process and how the book came about. Then I did a couple of readings from Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

There were also a few door prizes and then I signed books.

Then I got a chance to hand out with friends and family!

Special thanks go out to:

  • my wife, Becky Gunn, for providing the treats
  • my writing group peers who turned out to support me
  • Nicole Cunningham, who took the photographs
  • my sons' Campfire group for making this their event of the month
  • friends, family, and fans who showed up to support me
  • and, of course, Shawnee Books & Toys for sponsoring the event!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Upcoming Book Signing: May 18

Event: Author Dave Whitaker will be signing copies of Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone.

Date: May 18, 2013
Time: 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm
Place: Shawnee Books & Toys
Address: 7311 Quivira Rd, Shawnee, Kansas 66216

You can sign up for the event on Facebook at Book Signing - Dave Whitaker - Otter and Arthur.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

When You Reach Me: Making Sure You Reach Readers with Satisfying Conclusions

This month I've launched my effort to plow through a healthy chunk of Newbery Award winners in my quest to get a bead on the best children's literature out there. I delved into Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest earlier this month (Musing Over Manifest and Mockingbird, 6 May 2013) and have now added Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me to the list.

With a whopping two under my belt now, I already see a pattern. These are slice-of-life tales. The main character in each book is a pre-teen girl learning to navigate the world around her, by understanding her family, making make friends, and grappling with the bigger pictures of life.

The two stories also involve mysteries. In Manifest, Abilene wants to learn about her father's childhood while in Reach Me the quest is to learn the identity of whoever is leaving secret notes. Manifest and Reach both engaged me in the overall stories and characters. However, the former did a little too much signposting and left me feeling a little letdown by the finale. The latter had peppered in the clues so that it all came together in the end, but I was still scratching my head a bit.

Rebecca Stead discusses When You Reach Me

I have integrated some mysteries in my own endeavors writing Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and now fine-tuning its sequel, Otter and Arthur and the Round Table. The lesson is to make sure the reader will 1) want to learn the outcome and that 2) the reader will be satisfied with the outcome once it arrives. This means that the reader must be well-invested in the characters and the story, but also that the ending comes across neither as too signposted nor as too much of a surprise.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Musing Over Manifest and Mockingbird

Most of my visits to the library involve my kids. This is a good thing because I end up browsing the children's section. Recently I stumbled across the 2011 Newbery winner, Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest. As stated on the Association for Library Service for Children website, "the Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year."

Having dipped my toe into the literary waters of middle-grade fiction with Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, it seemed appropriate to read some of the most celebrated works targeted at that age group. Manifest succeeds largely in that it is written such that it has as much, if not more, appeal for adults as it does kids.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird often sprang to mind. Manifest lacks the powerful theme of that classic, but resembles it in how we see the town and its people through the eyes of a young girl trying to better understand her father. The two books also resemble each other in that kids are central figures, but that doesn't make these children's stories. Mockingbird deals with heavy themes and circumstances suggesting readers be at least teenagers. Manifest is so rooted in giving the reader a glimpse of history that it would have limited appeal to pre-teen readers, which makes me question somewhat what criteria Newbery uses to define something as a "children's book."

The lesson for me as a writer is the value of telling a story which appeals to children and adults. Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and its in-progress sequel, Otter and Arthur and the Round Table, are much less sophisticated stories. I deliberately kept the language and the plot simple to keep younger readers' interest. At the same time, I worked hard to infuse the stories with themes, characters, and scenarios to which adults would relate. Did I succeed? You'll have to stay tuned for the sequel (due in Autumn 2013), but you can check out the first book here:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Writing Is One of the Defining Features of Mankind

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I had dinner with a friend last night and among our philosophical musings was the impact of written communication on mankind. I suggested it is even one of the core distinguishing features between man and animal. The oral tradition of passing stories on from generation to generation gave individuals the capacity to pass on information beyond their lifetimes. Writing took that even one step further - it allowed one to share information from beyond the grave without the risk of the details being obscured or altered.

The animal kingdom relies on instinct and generation after generation essentially teaching their offspring the same tasks which they were taught. There isn't the opportunity for some grand evolution where one generation is able to preserve the knowledge it acquired to allow future generations to build on it.

Because of writing, however, man has the power to continuously build on past knowledge. What becomes especially significant about that power is that it means individuals do not have to possess a vast knowledge of how everything in their lives operates. One person does not need to know how electricity or phones or computers or automobiles or centralized heat and air operate to benefit from them.

These human luxuries are directly attributable to writing. When someone makes a breakthrough in research in, say, medical technology, then he or she can record that information in written form. That allows others to absorb that information even after the initial writer is gone. As a result, a new person can take what the first person knows and add to it and transform it into something even more evolved.

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That age-old oral tradition of telling stories around the campfire has had another significant impact on mankind. It has fueled our spirit for storytelling. Not only has written communication allowed us to expand the ability to record and preserve the knowledge we've gained from past generations, but the creativity. At one time, a story told around the campfire would take on a different tone every time it was told because of the individual storyteller. With the advent of written communication, however, the person who wrote down the story had the power to preserve it in a form which would not be reshaped and recrafted every time it was shared.

The experience of creating and telling stories is arguably as essential to defining mankind as is the ability to record and preserve past knowledge. We are an enriched species precisely because we have learned to read and write.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Making Peace with Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace

close-up of Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace;
image from

It was only a week ago I wrote up my thoughts on rocker Pete Townshend's autobiography, Who I Am (Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am, 17 February 2013). I dove from that headlong into Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace. I won't go in to detail rehashing my love of both music and writing, but the skepticism in which I approach biographies or autobiographies of musicians. I'll just get right to the point - what did I get out of this book? More specifically, what did I learn about writing?

Having read this immediately after the Pete Townshend book, comparisons are inevitable. While Townshend's book was very linear, serving up a very straightforward historical account of the events of his life, Young jumps all over the place. The book reads a bit like a collection of stream-of-conscious essays. He will even jump around within a single chapter.

For example, in chapter 57 (one of the longer chapters of the book at a mere 13 pages), Young starts out with a story from his Buffalo Springfield days in the late 1960s. A few pages later, he's talking about David Briggs, who worked with Young on Crazy Horse and produced a number of his albums. After telling a story about scraping up the tour bus on a mountain road, the tale leaps forward into the mid-1990s for no clear reason. Young references rocker Kurt Cobain's suicide note which quoted a famous Neil Young line, "It's better to burn out than fade away." He laments Briggs' passing not long after then rewinds to 1990 to discuss some of the equipment he used when recording Ragged Glory.

Next up is yet another unrelated bit where he recalls recording with Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson in 1977. Before he even finishes that paragraph, however, he has already backtracked four years. It is a bumpy ride.

It is, however, an interesting one. Young relishes telling his stories and sharing his passion for cars and his hope for a new recording format (Pure Tone, later Pono) leaps and bounds ahead of mp3s. This is clearly a man who likes to create.

Stephen Stills and Neil Young,
image from

He also fondly recalls the people with whom he has created music over the years. This is not a tell-all where he's dumping on anyone. Despite his own admission that he can be difficult to work with, Young comes across very appreciative of the people who have been in his life. It is uplifting to read someone's life account with such a heavy dose of gratitude and appreciation.

At one point Young talks about Stephen Stills, who he worked with both in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He relays a conversation they had:

"We talked...about the difficult decisions in life around loyalty, loyalty to friends and loyalty to the muse, how sometimes there was conflict, where serving one meant not serving the other...It has not been an easy part of life for either of us...Stephen and I have this great honesty about our relationship and get joy from telling each other observations from our past. The past is such a big place" (p. 133).

Passages such as this reveal a side of Young which surprised me: he's a pensive, sentimental guy despite a public image of him which is more curmudgeonly. He acknowledges all this in one sentence: "I have traveled a long way along life's pathway and have become somewhat of a hard person to work for" (483). In the next paragraph, he says,

"I am trying to find myself again and reconnect with the values I had in the beginning, find the love in the music with others again, return to the camaraderie that we all enjoyed back in the day, respect others, have empathy for them, be considerate, love myself again, and through that, be more true to myself and others."

The concept of being true to oneself is what resonates with me most as a writer. Would I have preferred Waging Heavy Peace was a more conventional and chronological book? Yes. Would I have liked to see a stronger editor reign in Young's ramblings into more thematically-oriented chapters or at least sections within chapters? Yes. Do I want Young to change who he is to make those things happen? No way.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning Who I Am from Reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am

close-up of photo of Pete Townshend from his book 'Who I Am,' image from

Those who know me are well aware of two of my greatest passions: writing and music. While I have zero talent at the latter, I hope I have enough friends, family, and fans who would say I have something to offer regarding the former.

As a result, I would seemingly scoop up every book I could about some of my favorite musicians. However, my experience in reading biographies leans toward them feeling like long magazine interviews which merely report the events of some famous person's life without any real insight from the very person who is the focus of the article.

I'm even more skeptical of autobiographies. While the idea of hearing a musician tell his or her own story sounds appealing, the reality is that they are musicians, not writers. I'm happy to hear musical giants wail on their guitars or sing their lungs out. I'm not so sure they need to hole up and recast their personal journals into some format for public consumption. Let me reiterate: they are musicians, not writers.

Of course, there are those musicians who have great appeal precisely because of the literate storytelling they bring to their music. This is certainly the case with Pete Townshend, the chief songwriter for The Who. Here was a man who built his reputation on rock operas like Tommy and Quadrophenia. In his solo work, he continued to pursue more involved themes for his albums and often conceived them in broader contexts such as theater and film. Outside of music, he'd even worked with a publishing company, dabbled in music journalism, and written short stories and novellas.

I still approached his autobiography with caution. In tackling previous such works about musicians, I wanted hints about what inspired these people. What makes them iconic? Is it simply an overabundance of talent? A strong work ethic? A supersized ego that will accept nothing less than being revered by the world? Is it all just luck?

Instead, these books typically glorify of the decadent rock 'n' roll lifestyle. How much did I want to dive into another account of a gifted musician with a troubled childhood who carries out childish behavior throughout his adult life? Do I need to know, yet again, that rock stars seem predisposed to overindulge in drugs and alcohol to the point of ruining themselves? In case their substance abuse issues aren't enough, these narcissists sabotage their intimate relationships with a string of sexual dalliances and largely become absentee fathers.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, that's essential what I had determined. I was dismayed that Pete Townshend was, in fact, the stereotypical rocker with all these faults and a seeming unawareness or disassociation with the effect his behavior had on those around him.

Keith Moon, drummer for The Who;
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For example, those versed in The Who would see the death of drummer Keith Moon as one of, if not the, pivotal moment in the band's history. Townshend almost saw it as a mere bump in the road. As he confesses,

"I haven't been able to feel any great emotion when someone close to me dies. It's a terrible defect that makes me appear cold-hearted...In the case of Keith, my reaction was immediate and completely irrational, bordering on insane...I called a meeting with Roger and pressed him to join me in taking The Who on the road" (p. 309).

He writes that at the funeral "my eyes were hard and dry" (310). In the next paragraph, he's recruiting Kenney Jones, formerly of the Small Faces, to take over drums. Moon died on page 308. By page 310, he's history.

Townshend is at least aware of his aloofness. He addresses it again in regards to how he treats his family:

"I had always wanted to be there for my wife and children in a way that my parents were not always there for me. But the childish, devilish, selfish-sod-bastard artist deep inside me didn't give a toss for fatherhood - he needed freedom" (410).

With roughly 100 pages to go, I was perturbed. Townshend wasn't showing much in the way of redeemable qualities. He occasionally expressed regret about cheating on his wife when he was on the road, but he certainly didn't stop. He wrote about giving up alcohol and drugs and then falling off the wagon with a removed nonchalance.

I might have been able to forgive these indiscretions if I'd at least got the other element from the book I wanted - insight into the mind of a musical genius. The closest I got was a paragraph in the third chapter of the book:

I "was consoling myself by playing harmonica in the rain. I got lost in the sound of the mouth organ, and then had the most extraordinary, life-changing experience. Suddenly, I was hearing music within the music - rich, complex harmonic beauty that had been locked in the sounds I'd been making. The next day I went fly fishing, and this time the murmuring sound of the river opened up a well-spring of music so enormous that I fell in and out of atrance. It was the beginning of my lifelong connection to rivers and the sea - and to what might be described as the music of the spheres" (30).

The Who's 'Quadrophenia' used the sea prominently,
image from

This is pretty good stuff. It hints at what makes a musical genius tick. From there on, however, we get a pretty methodical account of how The Who came together as a band, how Townshend immersed himself in writing and recording in home studios, and struggling with bringing his ideas to fruition. There isn't a lot in the way of revelation as to why he became one of the biggest musicians on the planet. In fact, when The Who first launched, he assumed it would be a short-term thing and he could eventually go back to what he really wanted to do - art school.

This is also where I finally come to a point about writing. Be it a work of fiction or non-fiction (or my own rambling blog), a piece of writing needs an overall intent or purpose - a theme. Autobiographies tread dangerous ground in just becoming an outlet for someone to turn their scribblings in a journal into a book. In the case of Townshend's work, I would have liked more of a message. What did he learn from his mistakes? What inspired him? Give me some foreshadowing - after all, you know how this all ends.

So, in the end, I did learn something about Townshend, but I also learned something important about myself and what I want in my own writing. Be purposeful. Know your intent and make sure the overall work plays into that. I may have to revisit this blog and check myself on that very point. In the meantime, I'll just borrow the title of one of Townshend's songs to prompt you into asking of yourself, "Who Are You?"

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Coffee Table Books

The coffee table in our family living room is littered with reading material, both on top and underneath. Technically, only two of the vast pile meet the criteria of "coffee table book;" that is, books whose primary purpose is to give guests something to thumb through without paying a lot of attention to it. One is a collection of Doonesbury cartoons and the other is a homemade book collecting photos of my wife and 10YO's trip to London to see the 2012 Olympics.

There are plenty of "throwaways," meaning those materials that will only have a temporary home on our table before heading to the recycling bin. There's a USA Today newspaper as well as magazines ranging from The Smithsonian, Rolling Stone, Ranger Rick, KC Studio, and Q (a British music magazine). Mostly, however, the table serves as a cluttered catch-all for the family's collective readings.

My 10YO and I are chugging through J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring together while Mom has tackled Lois Lowry's The Giver with him and our 7YO. My oldest son is also reading Rick Riordan's The Lost Hero and Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret. My younger son has been reading Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson Fights Crime aloud to me while I have read Shel Silverstein's Runny Babbit to him.

My heavy interest in music is showcased by a couple of autobiographies. I've nearly finished Pete Townshend's Who I Am and Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace is on deck. When I'm just killing a few minutes, I dive into one of the collections of Chuck Klosterman, a music journalist noted for work with Rolling Stone and Spin.

Various "works in progress" squeeze their way into the piles as well. Right now there's a clipboard with my 7Y0's first illustration for a temporarily on-hold book, Wart and Scraggles. Last night, the rough third chapter of my Otter and Arthur sequel found a brief home on the table as I read it to my sons for feedback. My 10YO plans to bring his story, The Vine Clingers, home from school so we can type it up on the computer. It's bound to end up on the coffee table soon.

It all ultimately means one thing - we have a messy coffee table. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jekyll and Hyde: The Good and Bad of Writing

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I have just finished reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson's iconic novella first published in 1886. The story has become quite familiar to most - if not in its original context, in one of its many variations. The story has been adapted to multiple movies, theater productions, and other books.

For those not in the know, the essence of the book is that Dr. Jeckyll is a fine, upstanding citizen in London, England. Unbeknownst to anyone else, he conducts experiments to release his evil side, which takes on the persona of Mr. Hyde. All who encounter the latter are repulsed and when Hyde starts committing violent crime, he becomes a wanted man.

The book has largely become a classic on the strength of the idea of dual personalities existing within the same person. Such a state has psychological basis, which gives the story a certain amount of frightening realism. However, Jekyll's actual physical transformation when he becomes Hyde gives the book a more fantastical element as well. The story is a popular source for both monster and super hero tales because of the concept of two identities existing within one individual.

Conceptually, this is a great idea for a book. From an execution standpoint, however, the story has shortcomings. Any writer today has to tire of hearing one of the cardinal rules of fiction: "Show, don't tell." Rules, of course, are made to be broken and there are always examples of writing which is excellent precisely because the author set the rules on their ear.

In the case of Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson manages to make a mere 80-page story feel overlong. He devotes nearly the last quarter of the book to Henry Jekyll's written confession. Instead of letting the reader experience Jekyll's descent into madness first hand, we have to endure him telling us about it for 20 pages.

Part of the flaw of the novella is that it begs to be told from a third-person omnipotent narrator's perspective. However, the story is largely told from the perspective of Jekyll's lawyer, Gabriel John Utterson. This gives the book a serious flaw because Utterson does not know Jekyll's secret or even suspect. He is distressed by his client's actions - such as Jekyll giving everything to Hyde in his will, but never guesses what Jekyll is up to. Instead he assumes Hyde must be blackmailing Jekyll.

This means the reader does not get to witness firsthand why Jekyll does what he does - or how. We only get to read about it later. Obviously Stevenson wanted to keep the reader curious, wondering what the relationship was between Jekyll and Hyde. This could make for a shocking reveal when it turned out they were one and the same person.

However, this could have still been done, and more effectively, through a third-person omniscient narrator. It would have been a more captivating story if the storyteller knew what was going on, but only slowly parceled out the details.