Monthly Archives: October 2011

Get Off Your Soap Box: Literacy

I have a few soap box issues.  Namely child welfare and literacy.  Now, child welfare is a pretty big soap box and can include things like food, shelter and literacy, which means I very likely have stacked my soap boxes on top of each other.  Not a good thing if I ever need to climb down.

Which is exactly what I’m doing this week.  I am finally getting off my soap box and doing something about the things I believe in.

LITERACY

This could be my biggest soap box issue and likely stems from Eldest’s struggles with dyslexia.  It could also be from watching adults settle into a life of poverty and crime because they never reached their potential due to their own struggles with reading.  Or, it’s possible that my desire for a literate world is due to the fact that I’m a writer and firmly believe that everyone deserves the pleasure of escaping into a good book.

Regardless of why, I have a big literacy soap box.

 A Few Horrifying Facts

  • Libraries recycle their books that they unshelve or that don’t sell at book sale fundraisers.  Last year, my local library recycled three pallets of books.  Recycled, not recirculated.  As in trashed.  Never to be read again.  Wasted.
  • Books are expensive.  Yeah, I know.  Even discounted books cost more money than some people have.  In some ways, reading is a luxury.  A rich person’s hobby.  Don’t believe me?  Consider this choice: feed your kids or buy a book?  How about this one: pay rent or buy a book?  Read a book or take a shower?  Jeans or words?
  • Go to the library, you say?  Well, a lot of families living pay check to pay check work when the library is open.  And when they are not working, they are raising children–which includes grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and homework.  Not to mention, not all towns have libraries.  And not all people have reliable transportation.  And public transit costs money.
  • Illiteracy is symptomatic and genetic.  Okay, not 100% true, but if Mom doesn’t read and there are no books in the house, what are the chances that Junior will read?  If Dad is functionally illiterate and can’t read a bedtime story to Junior, there is no positive behavior for Junior to model.  Literacy, or the lack thereof, is a vicious cycle.
  • Poverty and crime are linked to literacy levels.  Pages of statistics support this.  I would like pagest of statistics to celebrate the success of communities sharing literacy, instead.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  Because I’m getting off my soap box.  Right now.  I’ve finally put my brains to good use and said, “Self, who has the least access to books?”

To which I answered, “People who can’t afford them.”

And where will I most likely find people who can’t afford to read?  At the food shelf.  If you can’t buy milk, you sure as heck can’t buy a book.

So, how did I get off my soap box?  I spoke with the director of our local food shelf about putting a bookshelf in their building.  I have a gorgeous oak bookcase that has nowhere to reside in my home.  It will look stunning filled with free books.

Additionally, I have boxes of books in my basement that I’ll never read again.  Hardcover and paper back alike.  Romance, mystery, thrillers, poetry, memoirs, westerns, YAs, middle grade, adult…all just sitting there in darkness.  Over the next few months, I will cull them and rebox them to take to the food shelf.  When people come in, they can add some brain food to their bags.

I’ve also talked with our librarian.  After our annual book sale, the remaining, gently-used books will also grace the shelves in the food shelf.  If–if–our food shelf can relocate to a spot big enough to house these books.  But that’s a whole ‘nother soap box and one I’ll be looking into.  If the food shelf fails to be a viable option due to financial/space issues, I have an alternative in mind.

So, dear readers, is literacy a soap box issue for you?  If so, how do you actively address this need?  Share your tips with other like-minded folks.  If you haven’t considered being actively involved until now, what ideas do you have to get off your soap box and make a difference? 

What do you think of the food shelf literacy program?  If you’re willing to contact all the right people and get one started in your area, give us a shout out in the comments.  We’d love to cheer you on!

My challenge for the week: if you are passionate about something, don’t just talk about it.  Get off your soap box and do something.

 

Dark YA: Catalyst or Cure?

Currently in the news: a 10-month-old baby is missing, a 23-year-old woman was slaughtered and her unborn baby harvested, a high schooler was shot while eating lunch.

We openly acknowledge these events because of the public way in which they were committed.  If we had a choice, we would scrub these memories from our minds and go about our own lives oblivious to the pain others have suffered.  Not because we don’t care, but because it scares us to do so.

Dark YA takes this a step further.  It dares to dig into the hidden.  It probes into dirty secrets and spills the details in a way that makes our stomachs churn.  Some readers embrace it, while other feel the need to challenge it.

Categorically, young adult novels that deal with serious topics fall under great scrutiny.  They are frequent targets of challenges by parents, politicians and religious leaders.

I’m not exactly sure what makes a book dark.  By my best guess, Dark YA is visceral.  It often makes the reader feel uncomfortable or unsettled because of the topic and the raw nature in how it is presented.  It is almost always emotionally disturbing.

Take Unwind, for instance.

“Well-written, this draws the readers into a world that is both familiar and strangely foreign, and generates feelings of horror, disturbance, disgust and fear. As with classics such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, one can only hope that this vision of the future never becomes reality.”–Kirkus Reviews as found at Amazon.

In Unwind, Neal Shusterman tackles the very heavy issue of right to life versus the right to choose.  Abortion is settled in a way that satisfies both sides, but is unnerving to the reader.  His solution is unthinkable.  Thankfully, however, authors like Mr. Shusterman are not afraid to write about taboo subjects.

Yet for every great review these books get, a negative reaction will surface because some people believe dark YA encourages bad behavior and experimentation.  They blame certain books for the emergence of homosexuals in our communities.  For the romanticism of cutting.  For the acceptance of eating disorders and the escalating numbers of teen suicides.

I beg to differ.  I firmly believe these dark topics have always been a part of the human race.  We’ve just chosen to push them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist.  We scrub them from our memories, because to remember is to care and to care is to take action.

Incest, domestic abuse, theft, rape, alcoholism, drugs, teen pregnancies, homosexuality, religious persecution and bullying–these things have been around since recorded history in some form or other.  We are just now giving our kids the means to understand and cope with the experiences in their lives.

Dark YA?  Yeah, it most definitely serves as a form of therapy.  It is the chance to acknowledge the fear, anger, shame and impotence that haunts our children today.  And, most likely the adults who read it.

These books don’t encourage poor choices.  Rather, they validate that we are not alone, that we are accepted and that we can survive.  In my mind, Dark YA is a message of hope for a better future.  It is a call to action and change.  It is balm for our wounded souls.

What says you?  Do these hot button topics belong in YA?  Why or why not?  How do these books stimulate poor choices?  How do they encourage, inspire and motivate?  Is Dark YA the reason for our social ills or the therapy our kids need to overcome a dark existence?

Curious minds want to know.

Author Loyalty

This morning, Dear Hubby started packing.  His hunting gear taunted our geriatric lab as she watched him pile guns, boots, jackets and shock collars.  She got herself so worked up, she was foaming at the mouth and quivering by the time Eldest lifted her into the back of the truck.

Truth be told, I feel that way about certain authors and their new releases.

While I never camped out in front of a book store for two days, it nearly killed me to wait for each new installment of The Hunger Games trilogy and The Bartemaeus Trilogy.  I’m still drooling for Bitterblue.  Likewise, I darn near gave myself hives waiting for the release of Jackson Pearce’s Sweetly.

Back in the day–when our family didn’t have a television set, we lived smack dab in the middle of cornfields and our only library was the teeny traveling bus visiting from lands unknown–I had no clue when my favorite author of the time would release her next book.  Scholastic book orders were my literary life line.

One day, I’d open the book order and see the cover for the first time.  Descriptions didn’t matter.  The author’s name did.  At home I’d meticulously fill out the book order and drop my ninety-nine cents in an envelope.

My method of book-buying has changed.  Now I keep very close tabs on the authors I adore.  I know when their next books will be released and have preordered some because I’m impatient and me-centric when it comes to reading.  I’m also fiercely loyal to my beloved authors.

Give me a great book and I’m  yours.  Give me two and I’ll grovel at your feet.  I’d even exchange my first born for your next release if I thought you’d want a 17-year-old who looks like my hubby.

In some ways, I’m an author stalker.  I’ll buy e and dead tree versions.  I’ll follow you across genres and age groups.  I’ll even buy your nonfic when it comes out–and I don’t read biographies.  But only if you deliver.  Otherwise, your paper back will be tucked into a box in the basement, only to come out for the library book sale fundraiser.

Dear readers, do you have a bad case of author loyalty?  If so, which authors do you love and why?  Are you willing to genre hop with your beloved author or are you more apt to find a replacement the moment BA writes outside your preferred reading list?  What kinds of things make you ditch your BA in favor of a new beloved?

Curious minds want to know.

*Also, check out our MAD review of Want to Go Private? to get the teen perspective of Sarah Darer Littman’s engaging novel on cyber predators.

Turn Your Novel into a Literary Destination

Yesterday, I took a few mug shots of my kids.  We’re in the process of getting their passports, and it got me thinking how books are passports to exotic destinations.  They take us on adventures unimaginable, with friends we never knew existed.  They show us horrors we never want to experience and provide us with experiences we are lacking in our every day lives.

As writers, we create these worlds.  We toil away beside characters we love and resolve conflicts in foreign kingdoms with new age technology.  We sweat blood and cry caffeine tears in the hopes that someday, somewhere, somebody will stamp our books into their literary passports.

So, where are these passports that honor our long hours and days and characters and scenes?  Where is the proof that such incredible worlds exist beyond our keyboards and how do we invite others inside our words?

In short, how do our manuscripts become destination spots for eager literary travelers?

Cat’s Passport Guide for Writers

Create a unique destination.  Few people want to visit an uninhabited island devoid of food and water.  As writers, we must build all-inclusive resorts for our readers.  Plot, character, yada, yada, yada.  We have to have it all, or nobody will book a flight.  We also have to provide something unique along with all our other amenities.  If our novels sound, feel, smell and taste exactly like the book it will be shelved next to…?  Seriously, what’s the point of trying out a knock-off resort author?

Customer service, baby.  Few people shell out cold, hard cash to stay at a resort where they wash their own dishes and dodge trash on the walkways.  Get rid of typos, cut down on wordy sentences and dispose of purple prose.  All those things detract from the experience and rarely garner repeat business.  Bad customer service = bad business.

Know thy audience.  A five-star resort with adult only beaches does not attract middle class families with small children.  Likewise, a water park resort with ice cream stands every fifty feet will surely turn the noses of prospective honeymooners.

Books must fit on bookshelves and in book clubs.  Librarians need to know where to place your masterpiece so it receives the best circulation possible.  “But, but, but, I have a crossover, multi-genre, space-opera, noir adventure for middle graders that everyone from age 8-80 will love,” you say.  “With hot cowboys telling fart jokes.”

To which I say,  “It’s doubtful this conglomeration–placed willy nilly within the historical romances–will be picked up by stay at home moms looking for an exotic escape while the kids are at school.”  Sexy cowboys or not.

Very few books have genuine cross-over appeal.  They are the exception, not the rule.  And breaking into the vacation market with an unknown is risky business.

Make connections.  Travel agents are great at directing customers to hot vacation spots.  Advertisements in the right magazines catch readers’ attention.  Discounts and deals make potential travelers feel good about their purchases.  A personal touch, a bit of history, a quiet sense of comfort.  These things effectively draw people to certain resorts.

Whether we self-pub or use travel agents and traditional publishers along the way, the key to booking sales is tasteful visibility–to the right audience (as proven by number 3 above).

Lastly, don’t brag.  Vacationers love to spill when they return from a fabulous island hop.  Their word of mouth often sells others on the same resort, while their pictures frequently entice on-the-fence travelers to pack up their bags.  Not so with the resort owner–who lives in this exotic locale–who can’t shut up about sipping frozen drinks while you literally freeze in sub par temps.  Not so much when her weekly vial of cornmeal beach sand arrives in the mail just as you vacuum your kid’s daily deposit of pea rock from your front rug.

It is unbecoming of writers to oversell themselves.  Let your novel speak for itself.  Then sit back and let your satisfied customers rank your book with five stars, making your story the hottest literary destination around.

Are you a frequent flyer, buying books to support the industry while getting a better handle on what is available?  Do you know your competition and strive to provide unique characters, settings and stories?  Have you ever been surprised to see similarities between your manuscript/idea and pubbed books?  How do you reconcile that within your own writing?   Which similarities can make a novel?  Which ones can break any chance of every getting published?

Curious minds want to know.

Unlock your inner flamingo!

Yesterday, Kana Tyler shared a beautiful story about the flamboyant flamingoes that migrated to her yard as a child.  If you haven’t read Kana’s Notebook, I urge you to take a peek now.

As it is, I’m borrowing her beautiful flamingo stamp and passing along her words of thanks to you.

 Dear Readers, thank you for following my blog.  Thank you for taking time each day/week/month to share my journey.  Whether you’ve subscribed to my blog on purpose, stumbled across it while looking for pictures of trees or popped by after seeing me around the blogosphere (and wondered who the heck I am), I appreciate your support.  Knowing I’m not alone in my journey through the woods means the world to me.

Dear Commenters, thank you for sharing your perspectives on my blog.  It lets me know my words make an impact, however small, on somebody’s life, somewhere.  Every comment leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy inside, as if a flock of flamingoes have greeted me with the morning sun.

The incredible writing community could not be possible without you.  You and your fellow writers, bloggers and friends.  If you love and value your readers and commenters, please Flamingo them in whichever way you choose.  If you would like to be a member of my Flamboyant Flock, grab the badge and display it on your blog.  All I ask is that you give credit back to Kana for her whimiscal artwork and fabulous message.

Which reminds me.  Thank you, Kana, for creating such an inspiring gift to share with friends, family and fellow bloggers.

And now I’m curious: why do you comment on blogs?  What holds you back from signing your John Hancock?  Why do you read them in the first place?

Essential Writing Tool: Totems

National Novel Writing Month is right around the corner.  Literally.  It’s just seven days north and one day east.  Because, of course, the sun rises in the east and next Tuesday morning will find me glassy-eyed, caffeine injected and doggedly working to get my first 1,667 words done on my newest WIP.

I’m as prepared as I usually am for this crazy writing endeavor.  I have a working title, but no genre.  I know I’ll be penning a young adult novel, but I have no clue what, exactly, it will be about.  I also have my totem.

My writing totems act as mascots.  For instance, in 2007, my NaNoTotem was an elephant.  I had never heard of totems before, and my writing buddies all seemed to have one.  Then one day while shopping, a teeny elephant called to me from the grocery store bin.  Ellie, named after the elephant in my novel, Surviving Serengeti, became my first writing cheerleader.

She hung out on my desk in 2008 while I wrote Losing Time, and I believed she would simply be my official writing totem forever and ever, amen.  Imagine my surprise when a tiny carved bear demanded to join Ellie in 2009 while I penned Whispering Minds.

I found him while visiting our National Monument on a research trip for my YA novel.  I knew I needed a solid Native American perspective and found a wonderful stone carver to share his thoughts with me.  While looking for a book to further my research, I saw this bear.  Not a big deal, except I couldn’t seem to leave without purchasing it.  In Indian culture, the bear represents introspection, something I didn’t realize until much later.  Yet, I couldn’t have deliberately bought a more perfect totem for my psychological thriller than him.

And then the plot bunnies came.  A stuffed marshmallow peep joined Ellie and my bear for NaNo10 when my young MC unwittingly unleashed plot bunnies into her very practical world.  Hopefully, The Mixed-up Manuscripts of Martin Niggle will become the first in a chapter book series.

Hopefully, I will win my cheesy NaNo11 certificate with Haarper.  Writing 50,000 cohesive words in thirty days seems like a stretch, but I thrive off the quick deadline.  It seems to boost my adrenaline and my muse.  Which is good, because as of today, I still know very little about this year’s novel.

A giant (in terms of relative size to the real thing) stuffed E.coli will join the ranks of my NaNoTotems.  He was a Christmas present from my little brother and sister last year.  He hung out on my windowsill as a reminder for my kids to wash their hands.  He’s cute in a creepy kind of way and somehow wheedled his way into my novel.

Thanks to my Big Sis for downloading Germs, Genes and Civilization onto our shared kindle account, I got snookered into reading the history of infectious disease and its impact on society.  Yeah, I know.  Not typical light reading, but a fascinating book and very well written.  I would actually recommend it for any historical fiction writer–whether they write about genes and germs or not.

All of a sudden, the germ of an idea hit and Haarper was born.  So was Coli.

Isn’t he cute?  Aren’t they all?

Do you think I’m weird for having an entire cheerleading section of random objects while I pen my novels?  If so, I assure you, I’m quite normal.  Or at least as normal as many other writers across the globe.  If you don’t believe me, check out this post on Writing Superstitions and Rituals to see just how unsilly my totems are.

Comparatively speaking, of course.

Who cheers you on when you write?  Do you think having someone–anyone/thing–keeping a watchful eye on your progress is motivating or terrifying?  How do you reconcile your fear of not finishing when people actually know you’ve started a new project? 

Curious minds want to know.

Flashback Friday: Spell Check Mad Libs

As a kid I loved playing Mad Libs with my sister and friends.  The silly party game could be why I enjoy writing so much.  It might also be responsible for my love of lyrical prose and my inability to outgrow quirky juvenile fiction.  It quite possibly is the reason so much description creeps into first drafts these days.

But I’m not here to bash adverbs and adjectives.  I’m here to tell you a secret.  Spell Check plays Mad Libs with me every time it edits my posts.

For instance, my post on Youngest getting into a playground scuffle?  SC wanted to substitute trousers for tusslers:

…the two trousers made see-ya-at-school-tomorrow faces at each other.

Seriously funny stuff, right?  Not to mention a-w-k-w-a-r-d!

Or how about this one?  (You may need to click on it to see it better.)

Yeah, it kinda cracked me up too.  SC insisted that marinating is not a word and begged me to exchange it for laminating…or worse.

My Little Sister cheekily donned her editor’s cap and fixed my post so I wouldn’t be embarrassed about my manuscript marinating in public.

Spell Check Mad Libs.  Gotta love it!

Did you play Mad Libs as a kid?  What other silly games did you play to occupy your time and stretch your imagination?  Do you think certain games may have jump-started the passions and hobbies you have today?

Curious minds want to know!

*”My Dream Man” from The Original Mad Libs, copyright 1988