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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

When Peachtree Publishers agreed to publish “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” my first question was, “Can we do an audio book, too?” Happily they said yes. As a storyteller, I’ve done over a dozen audio recordings of my stories, and was looking forward to doing the audio version of the book.

How hard could it be?

Well, harder than I thought. Also deeper, and more exasperating, and more interesting. I learned a lot from doing the recording, and will use what I learned it in my future recordings. The process of doing the audio version has also changed the way I look at the story and the characters in it. Now, working on a major edit of the second book, I’ve applied all that to the writing process. Recording the audio version has, I believe, made me a better writer.

Not that it’s easy. First, I should say that I also served as recording engineer and producer for the recording. I am a better artist than I am an engineer. The final product sounds good, but I know that another more seasoned engineer would have been a lot faster than I was. I will never confess how many hours it took. Good engineering requires meticulous work and I’m more of a big picture guy –  not so good on the details. Keeping track of which track is being recorded, adjusting levels, making good edits, and simply pushing the right button requires a lot of attention. I got better at that. Still, I’m not in danger of becoming a type A person.

In terms of performance, my biggest challenges were pacing, character, and keeping to the written page. Those aspects kept me going back for one more take, trying to get it right.

My mind works overtime, and pretty quickly, and one of my biggest challenges in the studio is to slow down. An outside ear helps with that – reminding the performer to take his time. But I didn’t have that. With me, hunkered down alone in front of the microphone, and pushing the buttons in solitude, I constantly had to redo passages. Rilke wrote, somewhere, “Meaning comes when images have time to ripen in the mind.” Who knew he was speaking about audio books?  Finally I took some advice from my pal, engineer extraordinaire David Correia – I hung a sign over the microphone – “SLOW DOWN!!!” I still have work to do on that (and not only in the studio), but I got better at it.

The voices for the characters present another challenge. I had no intention of being Jim Dale, the magical voice of the Harry Potter audio books, able to develop a distinct voice for each of the hundreds of characters he represented.

But I did need to distinguish different characters and have a very approachable, believable voice for the narrator. “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” is told in first person by Charlie, and so in some sense, all the voices come through Charlie. I don’t think it would do to have complete personification for each character. Over the course of the recording, the characters became more and more clear to me – and that will serve me well in the following five recordings.

In the process of the recording, I found myself thinking a lot about how much emotion we should put into a performance. As a storyteller, I am aware that it’s really the words doing the work – if we fill each passage with emotion, or too much character, we don’t leave room for the audience to hear the words being spoken. Many times, a more neutral delivery is called for – being emotional doesn’t really help the story. There’s a fine dance required in balancing the emotional undertones of the characters and the meaning of the words. Generally, a narrator’s job is to get out of the way, and let the words do their work without emotion. Characters can be more emotional, but even when a character speaks, a reader needs to be careful about over-acting.

One of the greatest challenges I faced was to say exactly what I had written. I was reminded by the publisher that every word in the audio had to be in the book. As a storyteller who tells any story differently at any performance, and as a writer who never quits editing, this was beyond excruciating. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a famous painter who had to be searched before he went into any gallery holding his work, for fear that he might be bringing his brushes to make some adjustments. Through the recording process, I was reminded that reading text out loud is a very important part of writing. Over the course of the time spent in the studio, I became even more convinced of the importance of  rhythm in language.

There’s much more to chew on here – I’m only scratching the surface. I’m particularly interested in the difference between hearing a book and reading it, and wonder how the method of intake influences the reader/listener’s perceptions.

Any comments about all this are welcome.

Here’s the first chapter of the audiobook of “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year.”

Charlie Bumpers vs the Teacher of the Year Chapter 1

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On September 1, my new book, Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year, comes out on Peachtree Press. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about the book and my process.  Here’s a video trailer about it.

It’s the first in a series of six books that will be coming out every season (fall and spring) for the next three years. So far, so good, with a nice review in Publishers Weekly, and it’s a  Junior Library Guild selection.

Here are several  things I’ve learned. They might not be true for all authors, but I know they’re true for me.

1) Books take forever. They take forever to write. They take forever to edit. They take forever to get accepted. They take forever to edit again. They take forever to come out.

There is some author somewhere (Nora Roberts, I guess) who thinks of a book one week, writes it in the next three weeks, and has it published by the end of the year.

I do not know that person. I am not that person.

I wrote the first draft of Charlie seven or eight years ago. It was in the hands of a number of editors who politely demurred. It sat on one editor’s desk for two years. I rewrote it numerous times, on the advice of editors and friends and agents. It was accepted and then the publishing house that accepted it died. It found another publisher and editor. And then I got to edit it again.

I began to feel singled out. Why me? This is ridiculous! And then I started talking to other authors. They all nodded, “Yup. Happened to me.” Not so special, evidently.

I don’t really want things to take forever, but I will admit (when tied down and approached by someone brandishing terrifying implements of torture) that the finished product I hope you will hold in  your hands is much better than the one I started with. Believe me – I know who this kid is, and I like him a lot, and I wouldn’t like him as much if all those people weren’t involved. The book is better for the time it took – although I wouldn’t mind cutting the process by a couple of years. Which I guess I get to do, since the second book is due to my editor next week.

2) It takes a lot of people. My book is a child and requires a village. Or at least about thirty or forty people. Again, the smart writer does not need this, maybe – although if I look at any acknowledgement page in any published book, I see there are many idiot writers that require help just like me.

I need readers – a lot of them – people with different skills from mine. And I take all of these people’s names in vain because of the things they say or suggest or intimate. Behind their backs, I call them idiots and fools. I do not say these things to their faces, since I need them, and will need them again. My name is on the cover, but that is a shabby egotism which will not stand to scrutiny.

3) The book you’re working on is yourself. I won’t get too spiritual about this, but there’s a discipline required here, and this long arduous process has tested me about as much as anything else I’ve done. Failure is possible (Even after it comes out!). Success is never assured. Few things are under your control. Mostly, what you control is whether you sit down and write.

In the meantime, I have a book coming out that I’m proud of, and that I’ve read over so many times, I pretty much have memorized. And another one in process.

Call me lucky.

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With Barbara Robinson in 2011

With Barbara Robinson in 2011

It’s been a rough week. We lost Robert Greygrass, a great Native teller, and Toshi Seeger.

And Barbara Robinson. It’s her I’m thinking about this morning. She was a writer of very distinct voice for children, and I feel lucky I got to know her and spend time with her.

Barbara is best known for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, which millions have either read or seen – especially as some elementary school play production.

Her writing was pithy and honest and real. And very funny. The first line in “Best Christmas Pageant” is really one of the great openings in any book –

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” 

That line would worry adults afraid of anarchy, but it has the ring of truth. And lets you know you’re in for a good story.

I think my favorite book of hers was “My Brother Louis Measures Worms.” It’s about a quirky but functional family, and its genius is in showing children trying to make sense of an adult world that doesn’t make much sense. When the parents are too busy to take him somewhere, Louis, the eight year old drives himself. Then keeps on doing it. Strange and inappropriate relatives come to visit. Reading about the Lawsons is like a visit to the house down the street that your parents weren’t sure you should visit. But you did.

When I had decided to to write books for kids, I was looking for my voice, and coming across Barbara’s books was a godsend. She wrote the way I wanted to write about things that seemed real and immediate. Like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Roald Dahl (okay – he’s a little more fantastical, but…), she didn’t speak down to children, and didn’t pull punches about how confusing life could be for kids, but still wrote with tremendous heart. Maybe her Ohio upbringing (born about 100 miles from where I was) made me feel some kinship. I’ve reread her books a number of times when I want to remind myself of how I want to write.

It could be argued by some, I suppose, that Barbara’s books are at least as much about kids as they are for them. There’s an irony and sophistication in her writing that is pretty subtle, and the stories take place in a setting that would be hard to find today – just as would Cleary’s Klickitat Street. In today’s world, the books might be viewed as nostalgic, but I know Barbara wasn’t interested in nostalgia. In Robinson’s world,  the kids roamed freely through the streets, and things seemed a little gentler, but her books deal honestly with the emotional lives of children. It’s what I try to do.

I met Barbara two years ago at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Nebraska. We had a blast together and her personality and view of the world were what I had always imagined. We traded some e-mails and letters afterwards and it made me feel like I was some part of a literary tradition reaching back to Twain.

I was glad to have known her, and very sorry I won’t see her again.

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I have a contest on my web page related to my new book Lost and Found.  It’s to identify this critter that showed up in the twisted mind of Adam Gustafson and on the pages of the book:

This is all well and good, but what is really astounding to me is the variety of responses I’ve gotten about what the critter is. For example:

As a veterinarian, I can certify that this animal is a most excellent example of a partially albino Badgerterrierius wingedcorvidium.     What’s quite interesting about this particular individual is that it JUST might be one of the few leaders of the radical animal liberationist group, International Chimeras Unite!, which you can tell by the position of its right arm and paw, preserved in the very typical greeting of the group: the outstretched (and outraged) claw.
Given the fine quality of this specimen, I can only surmise that it must be one of the few honored and revered leaders of this group.  Here’s why: International Chimeras Unite! has long been known to, upon the untimely death of one of its leaders (HBC–hit by car, RTA–road traffic accident, SBH–shot by hunter, ARG–ate rotten garbage), skin, stuff, and preserve their leaders, on a lovely wooden base.   Historians of ICU tell of one particular leader, Marcus “Skunk-face” Multipartzum, who was known for his fierceness in battle, his bravery in the face of all things putrid and stinky, and his short-but-lovely flowing tail.  His preserved body was known to be stolen by the arch enemies of ICU, National Organization of Female Sheep and Deer with Normal Taxonomy (NoEweDoeNT) during their infamous ‘Abolish Body Diversity!’ crusade.  I suspect that this might be that very same statue, and leader.

At that’s only one of them. Many more you can read here. At first, they were all so good, I suspected that some insanely creative writer, like Salman Rushdie or a back-from-the-dead Italo Calvino, was bored and spending his time writing on my off-the-beaten-tracks web page. But no, Michele, our office manager reassures me, these are coming from all over. More depravity than I ever imagined. I am terrified and comforted at the same time!

It’s hard to admit that someone is funnier and more creative than I am, but my insight from this is that you all are a lot weirder and smarter than I ever imagined. I bow in your general direction.

And if you haven’t entered, it’s not too late to get weird with us. Contest ends on the 24th. Go here.

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A. Bitterman - children's literature curmudgeon

My friend Pete Cowdin runs one of the best children’s book stores in the country, the Reading Reptile, in Kansas City. He’s smart and funny, and obviously a little weird, since he’s a big enough fool to run an independent bookstore (and for children no less) in these days of the uncertainty of marketing the printed word. I walk in that store and it’s like a liberated zone – things slightly askew, more like his family’s living room (which is very askew) than a business. Pete’s my go-to guy about good books for kids – he was onto Harry Potter before Scholastic picked it up, knew Lemony Snicket was going to be a big hit, and suggested Rick Riordan’s series to me years ago, long before anyone thought about making a movie about Percy Jackson.

Pete’s alter ego is a curmedgeon named A. Bitterman, and he looks at the world with a jaded eye. I recently got a piece from Pete (or Mr. Bitterman? Hard to tell sometimes…) about the future of bookstores and I asked him if I could put it up here. Long for a blog, but worth the read.

If you like it, or think about this stuff (I do), then there’s an interesting article in the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein, who started the Library of America series, on the future of books, Publishing: The Revolutionary Future.

DIGITAL BURN: the Remaking of the Independent Bookseller
(more…)

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J.D. Salinger, YA Novelist

Through an inexplicable set of circumstances, this letter has fallen into my hands, and I think it only fair to share it with my friends.

February 6, 2010

Mr. Jerome D. Salinger
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Salinger,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, Catcher in the Rye, for consideration. We receive thousands of submissions, and apologize that it took fifty years to reach this point in our deliberations.

We love your writing, and think you show great promise. After a careful reading, our twenty-two year old intern has commented and we agree with her observations.

Perhaps you committed an oversight  in submitting your manuscript to the adult fiction department of Random Grouse. This is, quite clearly, a young adult (YA) novel, and should be considered by Random Grouse’s YA division, not the adult division. There is a current backlog there of seven years, but we think they are in a much better position to market your book. There is nothing to be ashamed of in having written a YA novel – the market is a good one, and we think that a book like yours will find a place on the shelves of many middle school libraries, and even a few high school collections. Many YA novelists have gone on to successful careers in the world of adult fiction, when they move on to a more mature subject. You will agree a pimply, callow high school boy is not the stuff that holds adult readers.

So, while we have to pass on your manuscript, we have forwarded your book to Delilah Scrum, a new editor (now a senior at Sarah Lawrence! Majoring in Communication!), at the YA division, and we certainly hope you hear from her.

With that said, I might note that we have several suggestions that might aid in the marketing of your book. Titles usually are chosen further down the line in the publishing process, but all of us believe that “Catcher in the Rye” is a rather obscure reference to a forgotten folk song; it will be hard to drum up excitement in the market. We suggest, “Don’t Be a Phony, Holden Caufield” as a possible replacement. It has the kind of snap young readers like.

Even though it is a YA novel, we think it might have a little more edge, too. Don’t forget, we’re competing with the new media! Underage drinking is one thing, but perhaps an estranged parent comes to him for help after some drug deal has gone awry  – that might add some interest! Does Holden have a distant cousin, a recent refugee from a war-torn country, engaged in the arms trade, that might show up pregnant on his doorstep?

And finally, we’re wondering if you have ever considered adding a vampire as a character. They’re hot right now!

Once again, we think you have a bright future as a writer for young adults. It is the one part of the market that seems to be expanding, and perhaps you should set your sights there.

Like, really.

Sincerely,

Flora Lipid
Senior Associate Assistant Editorial Consultant
Random Grouse Publishers

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Murder, sex and racism - too much for a nine year old?

Last weekend I saw a great production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Second Story Theater in Warren, Rhode Island. In spite of myself, having read the book numerous times, I found myself hoping, even believing, that Tom Robinson would be acquitted. No such luck.

I think the power of “Mockingbird” lies in its point of view – momentous events are seen through the eyes of a child. As such, they have much more power and effect than if they were presented from the point of view of some jaded adult.
But is this a story a kid can understand? Are their really kids like Scout – with so much fortitude and perception? What are they capable of processing?

After the play, I had a discussion with Janice Okoomian, a friend whose son was in the play (the kids were great – kudos to director Mark Peckham) and we talked about what elementary school-aged kids understood about the play. Initially, she watched her son Arek carefully as the play was in rehearsal, wondering how he would process and interpret the events portrayed– events which include murder, rape and the outward expression of a violent racism. She was unsure how much he would understand, and how much she would have to explain. How much should a kid know? Mark, the director, assured her after a couple of weeks of rehearsal that Arek “understood absolutely everything”. But even that presents a question – what does it mean to say he understood everything? Who does?

It left me thinking about what children can handle, and when they can handle it.

Arek is a bright kid, raised by very intelligent parents who treat him with respect. Thre’s a large amount of trust involved in letting a kid be in a play like “Mockingbird”. Still, it’s a lot for a nine or ten year old to handle. In that respect, Arek is a kid like Scout, growing up in the same environment as Scout – Atticus treats the children in his life with respect, dignity, and high expectations. In both cases, the children rise to the occasion, and are better for it.

But I’m thinking that a lot of this has to do with context – you don’t subject kids unnecessarily to gratuitous violence or cruelty, but when it happens, you make sure you’re there for them, helping to place those events and experiences in a broader setting. In the case of theater and story, the moral aspect of the work is incredibly important for a children’s understanding and ability to cope– one reason “Mockingbird” has such resonance with us is its incredible moral dimension. There is no outright victory for justice (a hard lesson for all of us), but there’s never a question of who the heroes are. This is not a cut and dried morality, either, but instead the difficult task of developing a sense of what’s important in life and standing up for it. In the case of “Mockingbird”, it’s Atticus’s explanation that “he couldn’t live with himself” if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson. Kids understand that much, and love Atticus for it – and they see what comes from acting on that belief. Being true to one’s self is no easy road, but Atticus Finch gives us a road map. I know more than one lawyer doing public service work who’s a lawyer because of Atticus Finch.

I also think that Arek and other kids like him (Scout included) will come to understand as much as they need to, and not more. When the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together, they’ll make a new puzzle. Hopefully, with our help.

Exposing kids to this kind of experience and engaging in the following conversation is challenging and time-consuming. And it’s a totally different approach from that of a mother a librarian friend told me about – the mom was upset that her children were reading Captain Underpants, but willingly took her first grade daughter to see Twilight.
What’s wrong with that picture?
She was no Atticus Finch.

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