Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Neil Gaiman being awesome

If you can possibly squeeze it into your day (try listening to it while doing dishes, like I did), the twenty minutes this video takes may very well be some of the most valuable you could spend.
This is a commencement speech delivered by Neil Gaiman to the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts. It is amazing and funny and inspiring and anyone who is hoping or trying to live the artist's life should hear it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The myth called "free time"

I've been seriously wishing I could bilocate lately, except I can't imagine what that would do to my brain. Still, the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day is frustrating.
Now, I'm able to spend lots of time with my little girls (they're already growing up so quickly!) and writing squeezes itself in nicely most days. By some miracle even more mysterious than bilocation, my house even stays decently clean most of the time.
But then there are the things relegated to "when I have a free moment." These include: resting, weeding the garden, watching movies, reading all the books I want to, learning more languages, advanced cooking/baking (I so want to learn to make a souffle), knitting, sewing, and so on.
The problem is, no moment is really free. Every time I start to do one of these things, I question whether I shouldn't be doing something better with my time.
So I cheat. I do multiple things at once. I might not be tackling souffles yet, but you can often find me baking cinnamon bread or apple pie with the girls, while listening to an audiobook. Or knitting while watching a movie in French (that should count towards learning another language, right? ;). As usual with blogging, I am typing this while nursing the baby.
The one thing I can't seem to ever make time for: rest.
Any suggestions?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lessons in writing from an artist

I love being married to a man of many skills and interests. For those of you who don't know, Mark is a professional award-winning violin maker, an award-winning writer, an award-winning artist, and his hobbies range from stained glass to blacksmithing. (He also performed under John Williams at the Boston Pops for a special concert when he was a teenager. Seriously.) He can make or fix pretty much anything, I get the best Christmas presents ever, and we have an abundance of interesting books filling up our shelves.

Now, art for me is a hobby--one at which I am trying to seriously develop my skill, but a hobby just the same. So I wasn't expecting to pick up one of Mark's drawing books and spend the next three hours devouring every word. But that's what happened recently when I happened upon Juliette Aristedes' Lessons in Classical Drawing. Wow. Honestly, I learned as much about writing from this book as I have from any writing book.

Take these few lines, and see how well they apply to writing:

On correcting work: "The ability to self-correct, in any field, is a challenging skill to master. In fact, it is an attribute of genius. As you carefully measure...you are training your eyes to draw more correctly.... Slowly, through careful checking, you will begin to see patterns of where you are consistently prone to veer off in your own unique way."

On perspective: "Looking at a drawing after a little time has passed will give you a fresh perspective and make it easier to assess what needs to be done. I know from experience, however, that this clarity of sight can result in panic and a lot of hastily made corrections.... Create a list of everything that jumps out at you as wrong.... Rather than making hasty changes, you can use the list to methodically and rationally make improvements."

On revising: "...most work gets better, not by magic or willpower, but by a series of strategic revisions, improvements, and corrections made throughout the development of a work."

See what I mean? Even if you have no intention of ever drawing, at least find this book at your library and read it. It's astounding how closely related the arts are, and how the discipline you must foster is exactly the same.

And while we're on the topic of art, if you happen to be in the Connecticut area, you can see one of Mark's paintings at the Scranton Memorial Library in Madison, where it is on display as part of the Madison Art Society's annual juried exhibition through May 31. You'll recognize it as the one that looks like me. ;)

P.S. Mark doesn't like it when I brag about him, so can we just keep this post our little secret? ;) We're about to celebrate the 8th anniversary of the day we started dating...so I've been all gushingly sentimental and very grateful. I hope you don't mind.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again

A couple weeks ago, I had my first chance during this crazy year to engage in one of my favorite activities: bookstore browsing. We live five minutes away from the lovely R. J. Julia Books in Madison, CT; Mark dropped me off and took the girls for a stroll (we do bring them with us often, but Mama’s-bookstore-time is a special occasion for Papa-bonding-time); I indulged in a serene ten minutes of drooling over all the new books that have been released since my last visit.
I wandered over to the middle grade section, scanned the shelves. Then...I saw it. It wasn’t even facing out, but it caught my eye and set my heart pounding. I pulled it down and gaped at the cover. Just then, an employee walked by and asked if I needed help finding anything. I shook my head. Obviously the right books were finding me already.
In all seriousness, this is only slightly overdramatized. The book was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It had happened: someone had finally written a sequel to one of my favorite childhood books. And not just anyone: Frank. Cottrell. Boyce. I know he’s not quite as popular here in the U.S. as in the U.K., so let me put my admiration for his writing into words this way: if someone offered me a fully-paid trip to England to meet J. K. Rowling, I would take it--then I’d get off the plane and take a taxi to wherever Frank Cottrell Boyce happened to be signing books so I could tell him how amazing he is. (He is conveniently signing books somewhere so I don’t have to seem too creepy...) His writing is incredible. You would be hard-pressed to find any MG writer with a firmer grasp on voice, humor or poignancy. (Plus, I think he’s extra cool because he has seven children that he and his wife homeschool--and their field trips involve going with dad on his research trips--how neat is that?)
With those kinds of expectations, the book itself was destined to fall short--but it didn’t. It opened with a first-chapter full of the best kind of quirky characters, unexpected twists, and bucketloads of perfectly-timed humor. And it just got better from there.
One of my favorite aspects about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again was that it maintained the original book’s loving, though irreverent, treatment of family life. Both books are, at their hearts, about family. About the joy of just being together in a world that would tear you apart to your barest bones. About sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but always trying to be there for one another. About the difficulty that ensues when a whole slew of individuals are thrown together by nothing more than blood and genes, and how they ultimately wouldn’t want it any other way.
If you haven’t read the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you will still enjoy this story. But I’d venture to guess you’d enjoy it more if you did familiarize yourself with Ian Fleming’s original. The two books together would make a great gift for any reader--even a reluctant one--or yourself.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Crazy-long list of great books for boys

The single question I am most often asked by those who know I love books is: “Can you recommend any good books for boys?”
Of course I can. :)
The following is a list of books appropriate for boys over 6 and under 13 (that is, I’m not including anything truly YA, though older readers will still enjoy many of these), encompassing a variety of genres and reading levels within that range. For your convenience, I’ve noted genres after each title, but I’ll have to leave it to your judgment to determine reading level, since every reader is different. I’ve known eight-year-olds who loved The Hobbit, for example, and adults who found it too difficult.
There are probably some glaring omissions, but I’m only including books I’ve read and enjoyed (and remembered!). If there are other boy books you’ve loved, I’d be grateful if you’d share the titles in the comments!

In no particular order, then:

Tintin, by Herge (series; adventure; graphic novel)

Calamity Jack, by Shannon and Dean Hale, illustrated by Nathan Hale (graphic novel; adventure; fantasy)
Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznik (sort of a graphic novel; historical)
Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie (fantasy; adventure; literary)
Missing on Superstition Mountain, by Elise Broach (series; adventure; family)
Masterpiece, by Elise Broach (animal fantasy; art; contemporary)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming (adventure; humor; family)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (adventure; humor; family)
Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (humor; family; contemporary)
Framed, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (humor; art; family; contemporary)
Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (humor; family; contemporary; science fiction)
Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry (contemporary; family life)
When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton (historical; family life)
The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling (fantasy; literary)
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (fantasy; literary)
Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neal Gaiman (fantasy; mythology; literary; adventure)
Ben and Me, by Robert Lawson (historical; animal fantasy)
Mr. Revere and I, by Robert Lawson (historical; animal fantasy)
Captain Kidd’s Cat, by Robert Lawson (historical; animal fantasy)
I Discover Columbus, by Robert Lawson (historical; animal fantasy)
Mr. Wilmer, by Robert Lawson (animal fantasy)
Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey (humor)
Centerburg Tales, by Robert McCloskey (humor)
Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Florence and Richard Atwater (humor)
Redwall, by Brian Jacques (series; adventure; animal fantasy)
Dr. Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting (series; animal fantasy)
The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden (series; animal fantasy)
Stuart Little, by E. B. White (animal fantasy; literary)
The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary (series; animal fantasy)
Henry Huggins, by Beverly Cleary (humor; family life)
Henry and Ribsy, by Beverly Cleary (humor; family life)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (humor; fantasy)
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, by Roald Dahl (humor; fantasy)
Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl (humor; fantasy)
The Witches, by Roald Dahl (humor; fantasy)
James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (humor; fantasy)
The BFG, by Roald Dahl (humor; fantasy)
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (series; adventure; mystery)
Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer (series; adventure; fantasy)
The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (series; adventure; fantasy)
Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain (historical; literary; adventure)
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (historical; literary; adventure)
The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain (historical; literary; adventure)
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis (series; fantasy; literary; adventure)
The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien (fantasy; literary; adventure)
A Season of Gifts, by Richard Peck (historical; humor; family)
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster (fantasy; humor; adventure)
Men of Iron, by Sir Walter Scott (adventure; literary; historical)
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott (adventure; literary; historical)
The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter (adventure; literary; historical)
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson (adventure; literary; historical)
David Balfour, by Robert Louis Stevenson (adventure; literary; historical)
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (adventure; literary; historical)
Crunch, by Leslie Connor (contemporary; family life)
Holes, by Louis Sachar (contempoary; historical; humor; adventure
The Schwa was Here, by Neal Schusterman (humor; contemporary)
My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George (“roughing it” adventure; nature)
On the Far Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George (adventure; nature)
Frightful’s Mountain, by Jean Craighead George (adventure; nature)
Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett (fantasy; humor)
Truckers, by Terry Pratchett (fantasy; humor)
Encyclopedia Brown, by Donald Sobol (series; mystery; humor)
Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes (historical)

If you’d like more specific recommendations (such as: “My son is a quite young, but advanced reader, so what should I give him?” to which the answer is: “A hug. And Redwall.”) feel free to send me an email. Seriously, I love answering questions like that. :)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

On bookworthiness

In my experience, there are two kinds of "still-gotta-lot-to-learn" writers. There are the melodramatists, whose prose is so purple it looks like it's trying to hide in a field of violets. These writers are really fun to critique, and I mean that in the best possible way. 98% of the time you can point to the flowery bits and they'll blush and say, "I know..." and strike out the adjectives. Their failing is a direct result of the virtue of recognizing beauty. Purple prose is often beautiful--it just doesn't fit into narratives as often as we'd sometimes like. If you use it selectively, it makes the rare moments shine.
Then there are those in the "writing should be realistic" camp. No purple prose here. No adjectives. But sitting through a reading of this kind of new writing is excruciating. I once (a long time ago) listened to about twenty minutes of a "story" in which the main character ate breakfast, took out the trash, said hello to her neighbors and looked at their dogs. Nothing happened. After another critiquer gently pointed this out to the author, she responded, "But it's true. I'm writing about a real person and that's what happened."
I wish I could make a big poster:

Just because it happened 
doesn't mean it's interesting. 

Some things just aren't worth writing about. Okay, that's not quite true. They may be worth writing about, but you'd better be careful to write about them in a way that's unique or beautiful if you want your readers to care about it.
To be fair, I'd have to hang this poster by my own desk. One of the problems with writing really early in the morning is that sometimes, when I'm running on about four hours of sleep, I write prose that seems like it's trying to lull me back into slumber. I often have to go back later and cut out boring dialogue or random going-from-one-place-to-the-next bits that get in the way of the scene.
I'm lucky, though, because I have a five-year-old daughter. Five-year-old girls, it seems, are natural boring-ness detectors. This morning Lucy and I were telling a "back-and-forth" story--it was the fourth in a series of such tales, and I was getting a little burned out. It went like this:
Lucy: Once upon a time there was a girl named Flora who was so tiny that she wore dresses made from flower petals.
Me: Flora was very hungry. She thought, "Hmm, I sure wish I could have a hamburger."
Lucy stopped me right there. "Um, Mama," she said, "Hamburger sandwiches do not make stories more beautifuller. Now we're going to have to start all over again."