Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).

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blog rebranding update and story excerpt

This summer–probably in July–I will finally be making the official, no-turning-back shift to the Hufflepuff Leadership blog. (Consider these past few months a soft opening.) In order to do that, I need your opinion. The colleague who will be helping me with the design is asking what I want the site to look like. Well, I know I want it to incorporate black and yellow and a badger; beyond that, I’m not sure. So here’s my question: Are there any blogs whose layout you admire? The topic is beside the point; I’m asking about things like fonts, use of white space, text organization, etc. Please let me know your favorites by commenting below.

And now, I’m going to take advantage of this time when my blog still doesn’t have a clearly-advertised focus and use today’s post to add to my work in progress, a road trip buddy sad comedy set in the zombie apocalypse. Every once in a while, I like to share a bit of this story with you (see an earlier excerpt here). Not into zombies? That’s okay; there aren’t any in this part of the story. Are you into Italian restaurants and/or mother and son reunions? Good, then you should keep reading.

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The restaurant looked (small and dim) and smelled (like a friendly ghost of garlic bread) just as Sam remembered it, except that the chairs and tables had been pushed back against the booths, leaving space for air mattresses and sleeping bags. Sam’s mother leaned over one of the chairs, bandaging a young man’s forearm. She was facing away from the door. Unlike her husband and son, Anna Larson was willowy. Her hair, which she wore in a braid like her immigrant great-grandmother must have worn hers, was nearly white, but the flannel shirt and faded jeans she wore gave her a youthful look that was surely unintentional. “Hey, Mrs. Larson,” said the man in the chair, gesturing toward the door with his free hand.

Anna turned around and saw her son, who was wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Sam.” She strode toward him and hugged him. “We didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” she said, her voice muffled because her mouth was pressed against his ear.

“That’s what Dad said,” Sam said on a shaky exhale, pulling back to get a good look at his mother’s face. “And you’re…?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m getting to be a nurse again. It’s been–well, since you were born.” She turned around. “I think this is one of your old friends? He shot himself in the arm during target practice. We’re all learning here.”

The young man stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

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Well, there, I introduced my new character, which was my goal. If you’re interested in learning more, let me know!

motif or obsession

This past weekend, I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and during a session on monologue-writing, which ended up being more generally about principles of characterization, we were asked to write short descriptions of the people represented by faces that the presenter showed on the screen.  Then we had to pick our favorite, sketch a picture of them, and write a monologue using beginning, middle, and ending lines given to us by the presenter.

I drew this guy:

I said he has one Hispanic parent and one white parent, he is approaching 30, and he is passively annoyed that everyone considers him a harmless teddy bear.  His name is Manny, but as I was writing his monologue, in which he gets defensive about the fact that he illustrates comic books for a living and hardly ever leaves his apartment, I realized that he was basically a biracial version, with a somewhat different childhood trauma, of the character I’m always writing about–usually named Sam.

When I started writing about this character, I was in high school, and so was he.  He was called Sparky Melloy back then, but his real name was Samuel.  Then, as now, he was blond-haired, chubby, quiet, self-effacing, and sometimes funny.  Back then, he was obsessed with Dr. Pepper and often wore baseball caps backward.  Now, he prefers Coke (his tastes have matured) and only occasionally wears a baseball cap, forward.

There was a period a few years ago during which I departed a bit from this general profile.  The guy I wrote about during this time shared many of Sparky/Sam’s features, but he was a musician with dark curly hair–he was Jewish, sometimes–who was both older (because I was older too) and angrier than his previous manifestations.  Sometimes he had a fraternal twin brother.  This guy was different enough from Sparky Melloy that I gave him a different name, Adrian.  But the basic character was still there.

At some point, I got rid of the fraternal twin brother, who was a jerk anyway, but I gave Sam (for that is now his permanent name) a best friend, a curly-haired, easily annoyed musician named Adrian.  But this Adrian is a skinny redhead, and I totally jettisoned the Jewish part, mainly because I have no idea how to write from a Jewish perspective.

Here’s what I know about Sam: He writes and illustrates comic books for a living and is quite successful.  He’s single and thinks he probably always will be, mainly because he doesn’t think any woman will ever be attracted to a “fat mental patient” like him.  (He spent one night in a psych ward, 10 years ago, after he attempted suicide and Adrian saved his life.)  He grew up with a severely depressed mother, a father who couldn’t talk about emotions, and no siblings.  Sam himself is on medication for depression, but he’s not a depressing person to be around.  He’s creative, kind, sometimes surprisingly witty, and usually a calming influence on people around him.  Life is hard for him, but he doesn’t want to die anymore.  And, in the story I’m writing right now, he’s surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Generally, when we see a character, theme, or symbol recurring again and again in an author’s writing, we call it a motif.  I think Sam may be an obsession.  I don’t know if he represents me, the person I want to be, or the person I don’t want to be–maybe all of the above.  I kind of have a crush on him.  I know, it’s weird.  But those of you who are writers–or who at least make up stories in your head–do you know what I mean?  Please share.

what I would say if I were on Talking Dead

Sometimes I think about what I would say if for some reason I became famous enough to sit on the celebrity couch in Chris Hardwick’s fake studio apartment.  Lately, the guests (and Chris) have been doing fairly well at focusing on The Walking Dead instead of promoting their own work and making dirty jokes.  But there are some topics nobody has broached that I think need to be addressed.

  1. Negan is not a good role model or even a cool guy.  I made this quite clear in my post from a year ago entitled why I hate Negan, so I won’t belabor the point now.  At the time, I said he was an engaging character, but now I find his swagger contrived (which it is, of course–it’s a post-apocalyptic persona) and his relentless unkindness, even to his own terrified followers, almost unbearable to watch.  Yet convention attendees are still dressing their little kids up in Negan costumes.  It’s troubling, to say the least.  I wish Rick (or anyone, really) would kill him ASAP–next Sunday, preferably–but I’m sure he won’t die until the end of this season, if even then, because he seems to have surpassed Darryl as the darling of ratings.
  2. The most interesting characters are the people who seem to have nothing to offer–the ones considered dead weight or even liabilities according to the masculine contribution-value paradigm I wrote about in another post.  Sure, we need people like Rick who have gun skills and leadership abilities, and people like Carol whose past traumas have made them tough, but we also need people like Father Gabriel, who had to go through a serious worldview shift in order to even comprehend what was happening, and people like Eugene, who concocted the (end of the) world’s biggest lie because he was so afraid of being cast out or killed by people he knew were more capable and prepared.  People like these latter two, perhaps my favorite characters right now, provide a necessary non-majority perspective and are able to empathize with others who aren’t brave or bad-ass and yet have worth just by being human.  (Well, Father Gabriel is able to empathize.  Eugene’s not great at people skills, but he’s improving.)  I often think back to Dale in Seasons 1 and 2 and that bewildered look he would get, which I affectionately refer to as The Dale Face.  Dale clearly was having trouble reconciling his understanding of the world with the horror he was seeing around him.  I would have the same trouble, and I’m glad to think I would.  The people who aren’t troubled by the zombie apocalypse are the people who scare me.  And even some of our most confident and capable characters have had to go through periods of retreat and reflection–Morgan, most notably, but also Rick when he went through his gardening phase.  (By the way, I was annoyed with all the fans who mocked “Farmer Rick.”  Besides processing his own grief, he was also creating a sustainable food source for his community.  Since when is that a bad thing?)
  3. King Ezekiel, his tiger, and his kingdom have turned this show into a bizarre mashup of a gritty, hyper-realistic road story set in the near future and a faux-medieval high fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, and I love it.  He’s the best thing that’s happened to this show in a while.
  4. Please, someone, wash and cut Carl’s and Darryl’s hair.  I can hardly stand to look at them.

a creative writing experiment

I have posted fiction on my blog before, but it’s always been previously-composed pieces that I’ve had the chance to revise.  Today, I’m going to try something different: Right here, in the next half-hour, I’m going to write a section of my in-progress zombie apocalypse story.  It could be horrible.  Let’s see what happens.


Around midnight, they were driving through a string of townships north of Pittsburgh.  Butler and Cranberry passed by quietly, with only an occasional glimpse of a roaming figure in the dim space just outside the light of the high beams.  In Evans City, Adrian felt compelled to say out loud that this was where they had filmed Night of the Living Dead, even though he knew that Sam knew.  He laughed hysterically–like a person literally in hysterics–at the irony.

They had gotten out of Sam’s apartment without encountering anyone, living or dead.  Everyone had been at the riot at Sheetz.  “Want to go get an MTO?” Sam had joked.

“We have a cooler full of food; I’m not risking my life for a hot dog,” Adrian had scowled, too intent on his task to get the joke, as he brushed past Sam and started to run down the emergency exit stairs.  “I guess it’s a good thing you just went grocery shopping,” he hollered from two flights down.

They had taken Adrian’s car because it was less junky than Sam’s and because Adrian liked to feel like he was doing something productive.  They had decided to go north because the first exit they had come to was a road going north.

After a while, they came to a Family Dollar, one of those Family Dollars that seems like it has been dropped from the sky onto an otherwise godforsaken stretch of roadside.  It was glowing eerily in the darkness.  “There might be supplies in there,” said Adrian as he pulled off the road.

“There will definitely be zombies in there,” said Sam.  “We should take weapons.”

They looked at each other.  Neither Sam nor Adrian had ever fired a gun outside of a video game.  Then Sam thought of something.  “I have a little knife that I use to sharpen charcoals and pastels.”

 


All right, that’s it for now.  Not a whole lot happened, but I think there were a couple of good moments in there.  Stay tuned for more.

 

Let’s talk about the zombie apocalypse.

Classes started at my university today, and even though I’m not even teaching on Mondays, right about now I’m really relating to that song in Fight Club, “Where Is My Mind?”  (See my post from the beginning of the spring semester, “This is my brain on the first day of classes.”)  So in honor of not having a functioning brain—but also because I’ve been working on this particular project lately—let’s talk a little bit about my zombie apocalypse story.  I’ve been going to a creative writing group and getting some awesome feedback, but I’d love to hear your thoughts as well on a key issue: the title.  My working title for the story, which I eventually want to turn into a screenplay, is “Sam and Adrian in the zombie apocalypse.”  That’s nice for helping me find my Word document, but that’s about the extent of its usefulness.  Here are some other titles I’ve considered:

  • “Jungleland,” as in the Bruce Springsteen song.  It evokes the proper sense of chaos, but that song is very much about a city, and my story takes place mostly on rural roads and in a small town, so the title may be misleading.
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness,” an ironic reference to the central plot device: a man is running out of his antidepressant medication and is searching for more in a world where there are no doctors and most pharmacies have been depleted by looters.  But this title could also be confusing; I can just see audience members grumbling, “I thought this was the movie where Will Smith solves the Rubix cube!”
  • “The Road to Hibbing” because roughly the last half of the story takes place in Hibbing, Minnesota, the hometown of Bob Dylan and also of one of my protagonists.  (The first half is about getting there.)  The title accurately describes what happens, but I think it sounds a bit too whimsical.  It also makes me feel like Irish ballads should be playing during the movie trailer.  That’s not really the musical tone I’m going for.
  • “Life Is Hard,” which is going to be a recurring line in the story.  (It also gives a very subtle nod to a line from a Bob Dylan song: “Life is sad, life is a bust.”)  Effective, but a bit heavy-handed, perhaps?
  • “Sam’s Town,” as in the Killers album.  The name of my character who grew up in Hibbing and returns to his hometown is Sam, so again, an accurate description.  However, this title might lead to more disgruntled viewers—this time, people who were expecting to see a Killers tribute (though I do like the idea of using one or two Killers songs on the soundtrack, along with Dylan and Springsteen).  A similar option would be “Sam’s Home”; I like this one because it can be interpreted two different ways.  I think of this story/screenplay as, among other things, a supernatural twist on the “30-ish guy moving back in with his parents” plot, and “Sam’s Home” riffs on that a bit.

Titles are important, so I’ll probably be thinking about this for a while.  I’d love your feedback on these suggestions, along with other title ideas you may have.

my out-of-body writing experience

Ok, I confess to the charge of clickbait once again.  I didn’t have a true out-of-body experience.  But a weird thing did happen to me last Friday while I was writing.  Let me tell you about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the story, eventually to become a screenplay, that I am writing.  (Reviews of the eventual movie will probably call it “a funny and sensitive exploration of friendship, zombies, and clinical depression.”)  Last Friday at the end of my workday, I spent half an hour working on the death scene of Sam, a beloved (if only by me, at this point) character who I knew, from the time I conceived of this story, would have to die.  (Did you catch that echo of J.K. Rowling?  Not that I have any illusions of being able to tell a story like she can.)  I was writing from the perspective of the dying man’s best friend, Adrian, who is starting to lose it as he realizes there’s nothing he can do to save his friend.  About ten minutes into the writing, I started crying myself.  But after putting my hand over my mouth and taking a few deep breaths, I was able to go on writing.

The really weird thing happened a few minutes after that and continued through the end of my writing session: I forgot where I was.  I didn’t feel like I was a character in the story, surrounded by zombies, but I did feel like I was on a cracked, leaf-covered rectangle of pavement next to an abandoned Dollar General on a fall afternoon.  Then it got really, really weird: while I was still writing, I started going back into the dreams I’d been having the night before.  I couldn’t remember the details of them, but I definitely had the feel of them.  I hope you know what I mean by that because I can’t articulate it any more clearly.  It was as if I fell asleep but kept writing.  I know I didn’t lose consciousness because I was watching the clock the whole time.  It just seemed that my story, my dreams, and my present experience all merged.  When I got up to leave my office, I had a brief moment of confusion.  I do mean brief; it took no more than a second for me to remember where I was and what I was about to do.  But when I went outside, I felt as if it were a different day than the one before I had started writing.

There are some likely contributing factors that are very mundane.  I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, so I was tired.  And maybe I had woken up in the middle of a dream.  Also, when I went outside, it was raining, whereas it had been clear before—so no wonder it felt like a different day.

But I also think that I partly took on the persona of Adrian, the character whose perspective I was writing from.  I had already given him a number of my characteristics: he’s fidgety, he overthinks things, he wants to be a good friend but is easily annoyed by people, and he gets angry when he doesn’t know what to do or feels like he’s lost control of a situation.  So when I started writing about Sam’s death, I started crying, just like Adrian.  And then, as it became increasingly clear that Sam was going to die and nothing could be done, I started taking on Adrian’s mental state: just clear enough to continue having a conversation and understand what was going on, but numb to external stimuli.  And when I finished—I stopped writing at the moment of Sam’s death—I felt like something big had happened.  I felt I had gone through catharsis, the emotional purging that Aristotle writes about.

After that, I went to a weight-lifting class at the gym and forgot all about what I’d been writing, at least for a while.  I didn’t spend the weekend grieving Sam.  Don’t worry; I am quite capable of separating fiction from reality.  But I feel like I’ve joined an inner circle (which is probably pretty big, actually) of writers who have gone beyond emotional investment in their stories and had almost an altered-consciousness experience.

If you write or create any type of art, have you ever had a similar experience?  How about while reading or watching a movie?  Basically, I just want you to tell me I’m not a weirdo.