One Reason I’m Glad I Don’t Write Children’s Books

Or don’t write them any more, to be specific . . . My co-author and I started out in middle grades and YA, but moved on to writing for grownups (and for any kids tall enough to reach the bookshelves on their own, which was how we ourselves were raised – any book we could get off the shelf was acknowledged to be fair game*) a few years before the explosive growth of social media made being pecked to death by chickens inundated by critical commentary a fact of life.

It can’t be helped, I suppose. Nowhere else in publishing are there as many gatekeepers and barrier-builders between the writer and the intended audience as there are in children’s literature – and because by and large the gatekeepers, and not the intended audience, are the ones spending the money, nowhere else do the gatekeepers get listened to so intently. And the gatekeepers want a lot of sometimes mutually-exclusive things. They want the books children read to be relevant – relevant to exactly what, can change whenever the wind blows. They want the books to have diversity and inclusiveness and representation – but not necessarily too much of it, or of the wrong people. They want the books to put forth good moral values – all sorts of moral values, defined in all sorts of ways by all sorts of groups who frequently can’t stand each other. And they want books to be challenging, as if being a kid weren’t hard enough by itself without having your recreational reading turned into some kind of spiritual or mental calisthenics.

And these days, every gatekeeper – every social activist, every moral missionary, every concerned parent – has a Facebook page or a Twitter account and is primed to post. Given that saying anything – anything at all, including nothing – is capable of whipping up at least one portion of that vast crowd into a froth of wrath, it’s amazing how many writers for young people nevertheless keep on trying to get their stories into the hands of their actual intended readers.

God knows, if I had reason to feel that no matter what I wrote, somebody would want to drop the internet on my head, I wouldn’t be nearly so well-behaved and gracious as most children’s and YA writers have to be nowadays.

*It’s also the way we raised our own children, on the grounds that – in our opinion, anyhow – we turned out all right.

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Not How It Used to Be

This weekend, this year’s Worldcon in Kansas City announced the winners of the Hugo Awards – and the results were reported as news in a variety of non-fannish outlets, from the Guardian to Slate.

‘Twas not always thus.  Within the living memory of fandom,* the science-fiction community could carry out its debates and fanfeuds without anyone else caring or even noticing, because in terms of literary respectability, sf was a pariah genre, ranking well below mystery fiction or even westerns.  (Only romance fiction ranked lower on the respectability scale, possibly because it suffered from the added stigma of girliness.)  Newspaper and television reporting on sf conventions was heavy on the “look at these people in their funny costumes” factor and light on “listen to these people talking about everything from literature to politics.”

These days, we can’t count on that comfortable obscurity any more.  Science fiction and fantasy have become dominant storytelling modes in both film and television; mainstream authors are working with science-fictional and fantastic tropes more and more often, and doing a better job of it than they used to – sometimes, they don’t even try to pretend that what they’re writing isn’t sf or fantasy, which is another big change; the President of the USA is a Spider-Man fan who’s been known to engage in lightsaber battles on the White House lawn and to flash the Vulcan salute.

And it’s hard, sometimes, to let go of the habits and defensive reflexes from days gone by, before the geeks and nerds took over the earth.  But we’re fans.  We can adapt.

*Taking, as one does, oneself for a yardstick – I can remember being told by the writer-in-residence instructor of a creative writing class, back in my undergrad days, that I was “wasting my talent” writing science fiction.  (Everybody else in the class was writing “coming of age in the South” stories.  My position on that was that having come of age in the South and survived the experience, I ought to be exempt from having to write – or, for that matter, to read – about it afterward.)

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A Trio of Links

The Folger Library is sending Shakespeare’s First Folio on tour.  It’ll be making one stop in each of the fifty states, including Hawaii and Alaska; you can find your state’s Shakespeare stop here.

Also, a reminder for writers who might want to transform lived experience or known history into fiction:  Fiction has to be believable, while reality is under no such constraint.

And finally, an interview with one of the many authors over the decades who have been Carolyn Keene, about writing Nancy Drew novels.  Full disclosure:  I’ve never been Carolyn Keene, but I have been one-half of Victor Appleton.  Twice.  And I can vouch for the truth of this article.

My only beef is with the interviewer and/or the editor on the Slate end of things, who persist in referring to the author as a “ghostwriter.”  She was not – and doesn’t call herself one.  A ghostwriter is writing under the name of, and in the persona of, an actual person who is the purported author of the book.  Sometimes this is a flagrant pretense, but sometimes it’s for a good reason – if, for example, the “author” has an important or interesting story to tell, but absolutely no writing chops whatsoever.

At any rate, a writer for the Nancy Drew books, or the Tom Swift books, or any of a number of syndicated properties, is not a ghost writer.  The proper term for what they’re doing is writing under a house name – so-called because the name “Carolyn Keene” or “Victor Appleton” or whatever is owned by the publishing house, not by the writer of a particular book.  Which is how I can have in my personal library a Tom Swift hardcover from the mid-1920’s that used to belong to my father, and a couple of Tom Swift paperbacks from the early 1990’s that were co-authored by me and Jim Macdonald.

And “Victor Appleton” wrote them all.

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Time for a Spot of Shameless Self-Promotion

It’s drawing on toward the end of local summer, hard as it is to believe with the temperature and the humidity being what they are – but here in far northern New Hampshire the first hints of color are showing up in the trees, so fall can’t be far behind.

If you’re one of those writers who took advantage of the long summer days (or the long winter nights, if you’re in the other hemisphere) to finish your novel or your short story, now is the time to think about whipping that first draft into better shape.

As a quick look up at this blog’s title will show, I’m here to help you.  My standard rate is a flat fee of $1500 for a standard-length (80,000-100,000 word) novel; for $100 I will edit your short story or the first 5000 words/first chapter of your novel.  Details are available here.

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A Movie For The Rest of Us

The other day, for reasons having more to do with a desire to get out of town than anything else, I found myself watching Bad Moms at the Rialto Theatre in Lancaster, New Hampshire.  And I am here to tell you that this is a movie that is far better than it needed to be.  (My expectations going in were low, mostly because it was billed as coming from the team that gave us the – in my opinion – entirely unnecessary bro-comedy The Hangover.)

The second screen at the Rialto used to be the storefront next door, until the theatre acquired it and retrofitted it with a screen and modern theatre seating for about 45 people – a much smaller venue than the main theatre (which has old-school seats that date from the Fifties, or possibly even the Thirties, and also has the largest screen north of Franconia Notch), but a cozy one.  When I was there, the house was sold out, and the theatre operator said afterward that it had been selling out every night.

Counting my husband/co-author, I think there were three male persons in the audience.  The rest of us were female, with all age ranges represented (somewhere, the Triple Goddess must have been laughing with delight), arriving not just as singletons, but in whole gaggles.

And make no mistake – we, and not the guys, were the film’s target audience.

If most movie critics are dissing this movie . . . well, I think it’s pretty fair to say that they are not this film’s target audience.  After all, it doesn’t serve any of their usual purposes: There’s none of the explosions-and-excitement of an action flick; it doesn’t get you seriousness-and-sensitivity points like the cinematic equivalent of a literary novel; and it’s definitely not most guys’ idea of a date movie.

Bad Moms is, in fact, the distaff equivalent of a bro-flick (sis-flick? maybe.)  If the narrative arc of your typical bro-flick involves one last wild irresponsible fling before settling down into respectable-but-boring adulthood, the narrative arc of a sis-flick would appear to feature a breakout from respectable adulthood into a wild irresponsible fling.

(This trope is older than you’d think.  In the 1700s, the lord’s wife ran off with the raggle-taggle gypsies,O,  and if in some of the earliest versions she and the gypsies all met a bad end, it wasn’t long before the story took on a more cheerful configuration.)

What makes Bad Moms more than just a funny movie, though, is the hard truth at its core:  The modern world does its best to set moms up to fail.  It’s not acceptable for a mother to be adequate at the job, getting the maternal equivalent of a “gentleman’s C” if at the end of the day the kids are fed, washed, healthy, and out of jail; it’s not even enough to finish with a solid B+.  In the school of modern motherhood, it’s straight A’s or nothing.

Obligatory writing reference:  The funniest humor almost always has a piece of hard truth at its heart.  That’s what gives the humor its weight and striking power, like a snowball with a rock in the middle.

Bad Moms knows a true thing about modern motherhood, and calls it out for the rigged game that it is – and that is why all us moms at the Rialto laughed out loud and kept on laughing.

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Altered States Once More

If you don’t like Barnes and Noble, Altered States of the Union is also available from Amazon and Kobo.

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Altered States of the Union

The anthology Altered States of the Union has been released.   Read our short story, “Gertrude of Wyoming” in its pages.

Buy one!  Better still, buy a dozen.  They make excellent gifts!

If you don’t want to go the paper route, it’s available in all the usual electronic formats.

Gertrude of Wyoming

by

Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald

The train from New-York slid into Bishop Brook International Station in northern New Hampshire at nine in the evening. Trudy gathered her carry-on luggage, then walked across the platform to the customs booth for her transfer onto the shuttle train to Pittsburg Village on the other side of the border. It had been a long time since she’d been home to the Republic of Indian Stream, and under other circumstances she might have been looking forward to a few days of nostalgic relaxation before the meetings that were the real reason…

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Up and Over

Another entry in Jim Macdonald’s continuing series of posts featuring songs from the 1844 Whig Songbook.

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Grand National Whig banner.


THE TARS WILL MAN THEIR GALLANT SHIP.

Tune — “Washing Day

The Tars will man their gallant ships,
And fling the canvass free,
Again unfurl the “Bunting stripe”
And cheerily put to sea,
They’ll heave, and weigh, and stow, and pull,
And sing and hoist away,
They’ll hoist, and hoist, and hoist, and hoist,
And hoist in Henry Clay.

The Carmen long to see the loads
Of merchandise arrive,
For then the wharves, and streets and roads,
Will be a busy hive,
They’ll back, and pack, and pile and lash,
And drive and cart away;
And cart, and cart, and cart, and cart,
And carry in Henry Clay.

The press foretells a brighter day,
To cheer the Printer’s breast
They’ve turned the world the other way —
There’s Sunrise in the West!
They’ll set and impose, correct and revise,
And print, and publish away,
They’ll publish, and publish…

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