Monthly Archives: March 2010

Who Needs Fiction When You Got Mountains?

I spent a long weekend on Orcas Island, holed up in a private and utterly comfortable cabin on the water with stunning views of the Puget Sound and Mt. Baker… when the clouds cleared long enough.

This is the third trip I’ve taken to the island. Each time, I gather all my papers before I depart with smug determination that in this area of stunning beauty, I shall write.

Orcas Sunrise

There’s just one problem. As the Guardian books blog points out, a life of comfort in a gorgeous corner of the world tends not to produce much writing of merit, if any writing at all. On all three trips, my intentions ebb. My word counts dribble. My desire to write is replaced with this strange thing that must be contentment.

Why write when you can sit and stare?

Orcas Sunset

I did read a lot over the weekend though, that scenery lends itself to reading, lots of it. I could stare out there all day. Though lesson learned: If writing is the goal, then apparently I should book a trip to some hovel, complete with cockroaches and multiple forms of mildew in the bathroom.

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No More Hardy Boys, Enter Golden Age of Kid Lit

The day I realized that my stories are best suited as middle reader fiction was perhaps the only true epiphany I’ve ever had. I was working on short stories, all of which naturally emerged as quirky tales that soon grew to novella length, populated with creatures and other characters who were characters in both senses of the word. Kids popped up often too. Then one day I read an interview with a kid lit author in Writer’s Digest, whose name I’ve since forgotten, and the proverbial light bulb went on. They’re not short stories. They’re kid’s books.

Then I realized that I hadn’t read a kid’s book in decades. Easily fixed, in the years since I’ve read a huge swathe of kid’s literature. I discovered a world of amazing books, often with challenging subjects all of which are simply told and clearly written. While I have my gripes with Harry Potter, there’s no denying that he has indeed done much to make this a grand time to be scribbling for kids. The Los Angeles Times recently went so far as to proclaim our day a golden age of young adult fiction. The numbers back up this assertion. While adult hardcover sales dropped 17.8% during the first half of last year, kid’s hardcovers are up 30.7% in an otherwise stagnant economy.

Kid’s books quite obviously appeal to a lot more than just kids. Why?

There’s no pretension. The literati claim that it’s lowbrow to read mystery, nerdy to read science fiction, and downright inexcusable to be caught reading romance, but they no longer offer any such restrictions on kid’s books. This is one of the appealing things about writing kid’s fiction, and probably why so many adults enjoy reading it. There’s no literary scene where the beauty of the words alone is expected to carry the novel. No one blames the readers for failing to be smart enough to recognize “good” books. The pages turn quickly; sense of accomplishment builds.

Kid’s fiction needs to have strong characters, gripping plots, and exotic settings. The same elements we find in the classics. If Dickens were to publish Great Expectations today with dear Pip, we know what shelf it would end up on. This is also why the classics and kid lit make great movie fodder. And there’s no need to break books down by genre. Kid’s books are kid’s books. They can all sit quite happily next to each other on the same shelf. Twilight, which has sold more than 85 million copies, doesn’t need to figure out if it’s horror or romance. It can be both.

Perhaps this is even the answer to obesity in America. If kid’s books have become fashionable for grownups, how about we make the kid’s menu next in line. Mac and cheese anyone?

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Barnes & Noble Nook, Rest in Peace

You can’t help but feel sorry for the Nook. It launched to so much fanfare back in October, was heralded as a Kindle Killer with its color screen, and almost instantly sold out for the holidays. Then in January along came iPad, and all talk of Nook ceased. Chatter about iPad competition is all  Kindle. No mention of the poor Nook, though admittedly Kindle Killer is way more catchy than Nook Negater.

The iPad continues to gain speed. It just went on presale and apparently sold a gazillion units, and the number of ebook apps in the iTunes Store now outnumbers the game apps. Is there no stopping this iPad monster?

I was a little surprised when I went into my local Barnes & Noble to see a poster announcing that the Nook was “now available.” (It ships in three days for free from their website too.) I always thought one of the advantages of the Nook was that you could play with it before you bought it, but after this store visit that seems unlikely. There was a sad display with a television that looked like it was made in 1970 playing a video about how wonderful the Nook was, set at whisper quiet volume. No one was at the booth, and it all had an abandoned feel. Why would we want one of them Nook things when you can look at all them real books?! It’s no wonder that Barnes & Noble is already waving the white flag. They’ll soon launch an ereader app for the iPad.

So, it seems the days of the Nook are indeed numbered. And what is it with ebook readers and adult-themed names: Nook, iPad, Kindle. Come on guys, you can do better.

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Fannie Hurst: Highest Paid Writer in Her Day, Now Mostly Out of Print

Fannie Hurst in 1932, portrait by Carl Van Vechten.

Fannie Hurst in 1932, portrait by Carl Van Vechten.

I first heard of Fannie Hurst through a Zora Neale Hurston television biography. She was mentioned briefly as someone who encouraged Hurston to write early on, when she was the highest paid writer in America.

Who?

A quick search revealed Fannie Hurst to be quite the character. Her first short story “Ain’t Life Wonderful” was published in Reedy’s Mirror in 1908, while she was still in college. She went on to write seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, and three plays. Her stories, many of which appeared in Saturday Evening Post, were adapted into 30 movies.

The list of interesting tidbits only begins there. Hurst was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1915, she secretly married pianist Jacques Danielson but lived separately from him, insisting on a woman’s right to maintain her own name and residence. A radio show that she hosted was one of the first to openly discuss homosexual issues and concerns. And yes, at one time, she was the highest paid writer in America. She’s rumored to have received $1 million for her novel Great Laughter from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, and went on to leave that amount to Brandeis and Washington Universities upon her death in 1968.

Yet today, her books are almost entirely out of print. How could an author once so popular be virtually unknown today? Shouldn’t a figure with Hurst’s radical political views be particularly of interest to a contemporary audience? A quick eBay search revealed no shortage of her books. I popped for four purple library hardbacks, which arrived a couple weeks later with a distinct musty odor.

I dove into Lummox from 1923. The novel follows Bertha, a Scandinavian immigrant who is a bit too big boned for her own good and who constantly gets in trouble through no fault of her own. It’s a gin soaked story set in the back alleys of New York, contrasting the lives of the working class with that of their upper class employers. Bertha becomes pregnant by one of her employers, and is forced to quit her job. All good so far, a slice of America that was washed away with furniture polish in the 1950s. Perhaps this is why Ms. Hurst was forgotten? Her stories dealt with subjects that the post war era would rather forget, like those forbidden movies from pre-code Hollywood.

Then, I stumbled over this metaphor: “To Bertha, who felt but could not say it, the lovely ellipisty of that head was like putting an egg whole in your mouth and then feeling it slowly come out.” Okay, kind of works. But then a few pages later the head-as-egg-in-mouth metaphor returns. And then it does again.

And then this:

The climb was rocky and the running back and forth, from the hampers in the van to the remote spot on the knoll, twisted her ankles and strained her back and once, scaling the top, she fell and barked her shin and passed sandwiches over gay shoulders with her eyelids stung with the heat of the held-back tears.

I’ve read that sentence–yes, it is all just one sentence–20 times, and still have no idea what’s going on. Yes, picnic. Sandwiches spilt, it seems. Tears, and happy shoulders.

I trudged on though, finally stopping at page 172. Admittedly this is a climactic moment where Bertha has tracked down her son, who she gave up for adoption a few years earlier. She is outside the large, stately house of his adopted family. And gets caught up in what I assume is a parade, very convenient to have a parade around when you need one:

She stood wedged, her elbows pinned to her hips. The window. She could not, could not look, but the tail of her eye kept tattling. There were heads and halves of bodies out of it. Flutterings. One head was very bright. It caught the light in pools, like the silver ball of the major domo. She fainted a little standing up there. Just let go, and the crowd sustained her of its denseness.

The pulse of the living wall that held her–it sang against her–it wakened her–she leaned out–the major domo was walking past. Roosevelt then, standing up in a motor car and flashing and bowing, with the light on his spectacles and his teeth and his cheek bones. There was a man who felt the little vibratory messages run in and flashed them out again, broadcast! He was like a magnet with them and the nap of the crowd rose up to his passing! Cheer! He stood as he rode, always smiling, and always with the light on his spectacles and his teeth and his cheek bones.

Smiling! Bowing! Bowing to the window! Bowing to the window! Her eyes would not lift, but the tail of her glance kept knowing. The Colonel bowing to the window. The Colonel and that very bright head that caught the light in pools.

The crowd began to loosen. A disintegrating snowbank. It was frightening to feel the support withdraw. The Colonel had passed. It was easier to move. She was going to look. She had found the strength to look. It was hard to breathe and to swing her heavy burning eyes just a little upward–there!

But the heads were withdrawn and someone was jerking down a shade. The window stared over at her blandly. A slap in the face.

I’m not sure whether to be thrilled that such writing can lead to riches–even my own terrible scribbles can be no worse–or dismayed with how arbitrary fortune is in the writing business. Fannie Hurst remains a fascinating figure though, and who knows, one day I may muster up the courage to come back to her purple books with my tattling eyes. Could look. Look!

More on Fannie Hurst:

Wikipedia | Jewish Virtual Library | Jewish Women’s Archives

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What’s Wrong with Readers Today?

A post last week by one of the editors I follow is still rattling inside my brain. It went something like: If only there were more people interested in good books. My writers work so hard and ultimately they’re read by so few. I heard similar things when I worked in a bookstore. Stuff like: There should be more readers who appreciate fine books. The bookstore struggled financially, yet the fiction buyer there refused to stock romance. Why? They’re not “good” books. This type of thinking is often at the heart of the dire predictions about how ebooks will annihilate everything. If those fancy devices have flashing gizmos and video games on them, who will ever read “serious” fiction?

If people aren’t reading today, which is debatable, let’s not blame the readers themselves or the gadgets they use. How about we blame the books? Yes, some classic fiction can be a tough, yet rewarding read, but that fiction needs to speak across decades, if not centuries. Books today should be produced for a contemporary audience, one that multitasks and has cell phones and videos available on demand. For kid’s literature in particular, books need to fit nicely in between bouts of texting. Books need to be written with all this in mind, not wish that it was 1930 again. And books that speak to contemporary readers, particularly kids, can both inspire in their own right and pave the way for the likes of Dickens or Tolstoy or Melville.

While sales often don’t indicate quality, there’s no question that there’s lots of great fiction out there–some of it even romance–that’s written, bought, and read today. Books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and The Invention of Hugo Cabret go one step further, bridging the gap between the visual and the word on the page. And they sell quite nicely. What’s wrong with readers today? Nothing. If there’s a problem at all, it’s with the books.

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Why I Heart J.K. Rowling

Last week I gave Harry Potter a hard time. This week, I’ll defend him (or at least his creator).

I first became aware of J.K. Rowling while working at the University Book Store in Seattle. It was a tough time, I had moved back to the States after being out of the country for six years. Seattle was great, but after living in London, Berlin, Phuket, and Sydney–it wasn’t all that exotic. Also, my non-fiction publisher who had paid the bills for the last six years, fell apart. I had to find some other way to earn a living, and desperately wanted to focus on fiction. Enter University Book Store, and a major pay cut. I remember waiting for the bus one night after work, thinking that I had gone from living all over the world and writing books to working in a glorified retail job. And… I was about to turn thirty! Where had things gone so wrong?

I got a lot of writing done, still have 600 pages of my stab at a thriller about domestic terrorism. That novel fell apart too, long before 9/11, which is a good thing as it never would work in today’s world where terrorism means something entirely different. With all that thriller stuff in the works, I had no time to read Harry Potter. It was also the time when the internet was starting to explode. There were wild predictions that the novel was dead, and it scared the crap out of me to be dedicating so much energy to an art form that would soon be swept away.

J.K. Rowling showed I had nothing to worry about. The first Harry Potter book had been out for a while and done better than expected, though still not yet reached the top of The New York Times bestseller list. The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was staggered. It was published in the US a full eleven months after the UK release. This was before many people had heard of Amazon, and it gave the U Book Store an opportunity. They ordered a bunch of the UK books, which were all sold at lightning speed, and put on hold. Part of my job was to staff the help desk, with the reserved books. A parade of kids came in with their parents to pick up these coveted books, ecstatic that they’d be amongst the first kids in the US to read the second Harry Potter. I always made a point of putting the book in the kid’s hands, not the parents. Their faces said it all. I doubt I’ve done anything since then that’s resulted in such spastic happiness. These kids loved just the sight of that book.

I knew then that despite all the proclamations of destruction, if kids could still get that excited about a book, the novel would be just fine. And of course, from there the series went on to take over the world, give a much needed booster shot to publishing, and to bring a caveat of respect to kid lit. Ten years later, the idea is being flouted again that the novel is in jeopardy with the rise of ebooks. No way. There will always be readers who love to conjure stories in their heads, and want nothing more than black text on white to do it.

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Short Story Writing Tips from Ray Bradbury

It’s a Friday and the sun is actually out in Seattle, so cutting straight to this Ray Bradbury video that’s chock full of tips for the short story writer. There’s three that jump out at me. One, keep a large blow-up dinosaur in the living room. Two, don’t wear pants (or at least very big ones). Three, and perhaps most important, drink a six pack of Coors straight from the can. These tips aren’t specifically called out, but they are shown–and we all know that the real art of the story is in the telling, not the showing.

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