Never underestimate the insight of a third-grader

Can I just say how much I adore third-graders? Okay, I’m thinking of one in particular–my friend, Muriel–but I used to teach third grade, so I feel I have the hard evidence and personal experience to say unequivocally that third graders rock!

Okay, maybe I should provide a bit of background… I had finished rewriting my humorous chapter book, The Year of the Guinea Pigs, intended for just this wonderful age-group. Sure, my critique groups enjoyed it and were very encouraging, but I wanted to hear from someone in my target audience. So I asked my friend John if he could get his daughter to read it and offer feedback. I e-mailed him the file across the country—from California to New Hampshire—and awaited a response.

That was Tuesday evening. Thursday morning I received a fax with Muriel’s handwritten notes in the margins of my manuscript—comments such as “I like the suspense in chapter one.” When  something wasn’t clear, she remarked “hard to follow.”  She noted parts she found particularly funny and details she liked. She even found a couple of typos and suggested a small addition. But my favorite comment was in response to a sentence that foreshadowed trouble ahead. Next to it was a simple “Oh my.” That oh my was the perfect way to let me know that she got it.

If Year of the Guinea Pigs gets published, I will thank the writers in my guinea pig critique groups, but I will send the first copy to my third-grade editor, Muriel.

What’s wrong with quiet?

Last night Deborah Underwood was one of three panelists who spoke about the book biz, read excerpts from their work, and shared their journeys to publication, including high and low points, at January’s Kid Lit Salon at Book Passage (Corte Madera, CA).

It’s always interesting to hear the different ways authors get published, and learning that successful authors have been rejected even more than I have is often the encouragement I need to keep going. It’s common to hear of a book getting turned down several times before finding the right publisher. And it just points out how subjective this business is when you know that both A Wrinkle in Time and Harry Potter got more rejections than anything I’ve ever submitted. But Deborah Underwood told us a story about her current bestseller, The Quiet Book, that put an ironic twist on what children’s authors run up against every day.

Deborah was waiting for a concert to begin, and she noticed the different kinds of quiet that preceded the concert: the low, hushed tones in the audience when the show was about to start; the polite, respectful quiet while the musicians tuned their instruments; and that moment just before the music starts that is absolutely silent. Out of this experience sprang a charming book about all the different quiets—a perfect bedtime book if there ever was one.

But many editors at many publishing houses were not convinced that a book depicting and celebrating various versions of quiet was marketable; they labeled it “too quiet.”

The term quiet in itself is a descriptor authors have come to fear in an editor’s critique. High concept, celebrity authors, movie tie-ins—these are the phrases more likely to get attached to big advances and a share of publishers’ shrinking promotional budgets. The best one can hope for with a quiet book, I’ve been told, is it could fall somewhere on the mid-list. (Think summer blockbusters versus low-budget independent films with limited showings.) Publishers claim they can no longer afford to take a chance on so-called quiet books.

What’s wrong with quiet?

Well, apparently nothing, as Underwood’s book on the New York Times bestseller list clearly demonstrates. Take that, all you high-concept celebrity chasers with relatives in the toy industry. Quiet is good. Quiet sells. The people have spoken, quietly, with their pocketbooks.

The Curious Story of a Brave Attempt to Review Twain’s Autobiography

If you have seen the brick of a book that is only the first of three volumes, you may suspect that perhaps this reviewer did not read Mark Twain’s autobiography from cover to cover, and you would be correct. But having read sizeable chunks of the introduction, a few of Twain’s false starts, and at least 40 pages of the actual autobiography—which starts on page 201 in the 799-page volume—I can say that each section of this important historical and literary document warrants its own review, but that seemed excessive. And so I will recount the writing of yesterday’s review in much the same way that a great portion of Twain’s autobiography is about writing his autobiography.

I am lucky enough to be friends with the person who designed the book for UC Press, Sandy Drooker—lucky for many reasons that do not even pertain to obtaining a copy of the book to review. Sandy lent her copy to my husband, Dave. At that point I still had a relatively luxurious two weeks to read the book before my self-imposed deadline for writing the review. My mistake was failing to mention this rather last-minute plan of reviewing said book to Dave, who lent it to his sister before I knew it. By the time he called his sister, she had lent it to their father down in Redwood City. By request he brought it with him on a visit to my sister-in-law, who surrendered it to my husband when he retrieved it from her three days ago.

So, dear reader, my review is merely a taste of the collected dips I made in the four and a half hours I allowed myself to absorb what I could from this tome that was 130 years in the making.

My advice is to approach the book the same way that Twain wrote it: read something that strikes your fancy for as long as you feel like taking in at that moment. By design, it’s not chronological, so there’s no risk of losing momentum or forgetting crucial plot twists. Experience the book at your leisure. After all, it took Twain thirty years to write it and a hundred years to get it published. You would have to be crazy to try to read it in four and a half hours.

Twain’s Many Attempts to Write Autobiography Finally Pay Off

 The curious thing about Mark Twain’s much-anticipated autobiography isn’t his insistence that it not be published until 100 years after his death. The curious fact is that it got written at all, especially if you took him at his word: “I’m not going to write autobiography. The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself.” 

Twain wrote short bits that looked suspiciously autobiographical beginning as early as 1870, but didn’t label anything as such until 1877 at the age of forty-two when his friend John Hay told him that an autobiography ought to be written at forty, since “man has at that age succeeded or failed; in either case he has lived all of his life that is likely to be worth recording.” A sobering thought to be sure.

Getting started on his autobiography did not give Twain difficulty—he began in earnest several times—but he abandoned it repeatedly, sometimes after only a week, for other projects. In a three-paragraph piece titled “The Latest Attempt,” he describes what he feels is the best way to write an autobiography:

Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

 He tried various methods of getting his story on paper, including the recording phonograph which had recently been invented by his friend, Thomas Edison; but the bulk of what now constitutes Twain’s autobiography comes from dictations conducted 1906–1908. He found that dictating to a stenographer allowed him to create something that sounded more like talking. Shorthand notes were typed up and given back to Twain for editing, and he allowed copies of pages to be marked up by other readers as well, creating a cache of over 5000 pages, some duplicates with notes from as many as six other hands. All versions of these pages were filed with no clarification as to which ones constituted the final draft. These factors made publishing Twain’s final book a huge and complicated job. So it is lucky for those left in charge of the Mark Twain Papers that they had a century to figure it all out.

Narrative should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across… a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around … but always going…Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made.

This volume is a delight to flip through casually or to peruse more seriously, whether it’s the story of how the book came to be (laid out in the introduction), the chronicling of his many attempts to write his autobiography and his ever-changing philosophy on such an endeavor, or the vignettes he refers to as “Scraps.” Just don’t go into it thinking it is a straightforward, chronological account of Twain’s life. But do make the trip.

Whitewashing history or providing a comfortable alternative?

Nothing stirs up more controversy in the publishing world than censorship. Publishers Weekly recently ran a story about a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, in which the “n” word is replaced with the less offensive “slave.” (“Indian” is also substituted for “injun,” but there is hardly a hullabaloo over that.)

Purists claim that a masterpiece should not be altered, and that such tinkering strips the novel of its authenticity.

Supporters of this revision point to hard statistics: schools all over the country have dropped this title from reading lists to avoid conflict over the objectionable word.

Purists insist that Twain’s novel must be read in the context of its time, and the language provides fertile ground for discussions, teachable moments that shed light on history and attitudes prevalent in the American South.

Supporters claim that this edition is not to replace the original but to supplement it, allowing younger readers to benefit from and enjoy this important text when they otherwise might not have that opportunity.

The argument continues, and both sides will no doubt demonize the other long into the future. Whether it’s a matter of comfort, principle, or practicality, the end product is likely to be that the upcoming generation will be reading Huckleberry Finn, either in its more sanitized version on official school reading lists or because banned books hold an allure that other (unbanned) 19th century books don’t.

So no matter who claims a moral victory in this ideological battle, the winner is still the young reader who might not have read this American classic at all had it not been for this new edition and the controversy surrounding it. And I imagine that wherever he is, Samuel Clemens is chuckling at all of us.

For full article see

Another post on New Year’s Resolutions, really?

Okay, I know it’s already January 7, so it’s pretty late to be bringing up the idea of a  New Year’s Resolution, but I have a good reason. Really. I had planned specifically not to make a resolution. So it’s not like I forgot or that I was procrastinating. I had made a conscious decision not to make one.

And then I read Nathan Bransford’s blog on New Year’s resolutions, and I couldn’t help myself. I think it’s because his goals caught me off guard. I haven’t been a writer all that long, but I know that typical writers’ resolutions are all about getting published: write at least an hour a day, submit something, send out a new query letter every week, BIC (Butt in Chair), etc. But Nathan talked about getting to a higher number on his stationary bike and resisting delicious Mr. Burrito. It made me want to come up with resolutions just so I could post them in his comments. Talk about hastily concocted goals…Does that make me incredibly shallow or just a pathetic joiner?

No, don’t answer that…