About a Boy: Crossing the Gender and Morality Lines

They say you should write what you know. Though I grew up with brothers, a father, and many uncles, and have had a number of guy friends over the years, I don’t pretend to know how guys think. Half the time I looked at my brothers as alien life forms when we were growing up. (Okay, yes. They felt the same way about me.) So whenever I have authored or coauthored a nonfiction book for boys or with boys as the main characters, I have had to do some research.

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m writing a middle grade novel. Framing the personality of one character, a boy who makes life miserable for my female main character, has proved challenging. I don’t want to strike the wrong note with this kid—i.e., making him a one-dimensional bully. We’ve seen plenty of those, haven’t we?

Some writers suggested using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help shape a character’s personality. I took the test as if I were my character and gleaned the ESTP designation—“Extraverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving (Extraverted Sensing with Introverted Thinking)” according to the Personality Page website. If you follow this blog at all, you might remember that I wrote a post on how I felt about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator awhile ago. (Click here for that post.) So I don’t have to tell you that the ESTP designation didn’t really help me understand my character any better. (Well, I guess I just told you.) The results felt too much like an armature without clay or the blueprint for a robot. Please don’t take offense if you swear by Myers-Briggs. Using this personality scale simply didn’t work as a character builder for me.

While I realize that a character is empty until I fill him or her with whatever personality I can provide, I needed my character to go “off the grid” a bit—to have less of a “ready-made” personality. In that way, he would feel more “alive” to me.

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Not this or this . . .

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. . . but this. Real. Alive.

I started by mining my memories for interactions with my brothers, male cousins, friends at school, enemies at school (like boys I’d fought in middle school), and boys in the neighborhood who were just acquaintances. Of course, back in the day, we didn’t have texting, social media, group videogame play, and other ways of communicating that kids today have. But our interactions had some similarities with those today: hanging out in parks; playing sports together; working on theatrical productions; serving on projects; being bullied.

That’s why I’m glad I have kids in my life: nephews; the children of friends; kids I’ve taught in Sunday school. They share their experiences with me even as we talk about videogames, movies, books, etc. For example, I once talked to a kid for over an hour about every Zelda game ever made. Because of that conversation, he felt he could trust me enough to tell me his worries about school.

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Other than the fact that they annoy their parents and siblings from time to time, the kids I talk to are basically nice kids who are not the bullying types. But in some ways, that suits my purpose. They help me to remember that sometimes people show different faces to different people. A kid who bullies others at school might not be thought of as a bully at home, especially if he’s nice to his grandparents and always takes out the trash.

As I continued to research, I cast my net wider: listening to kids in public places like malls, movie theaters, and museums. But you can see the limits of that tactic already. I run the risk of looking stalkerish. Yet watching them throw tantrums, laugh loudly and disruptively, and behave like, well, normal, has been helpful.

So imagination has to bridge the gap. (You knew I’d get to that eventually.) Imagination, free writing scenes that will never appear in the book, and soliciting feedback from beta readers all help to put clay on my character’s armature. The beta readers (which include some of the guys I mentioned in the first paragraph) are especially helpful, because they point out clichés and other blind spots.

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Not the betas I mean.

But in the end, it all comes down to spending time in the skin of my character, even when he behaves unpleasantly. I don’t have to agree with his actions. I just have to make them plausible. Going beyond the stereotype helps me remind readers that everyone is more than what he or she appears to be on the surface.

What’s the most challenging aspect for you about writing a character who is the total opposite of you?

Wooden art figure from polyvore.com. Robot from I, Robot found at irobot.wikia.com. Tween boys from howtoparentateen.wordpress.com, thehabarinetwork.com, and thelipkinsgroup.com. Bettas from worldofcutepets.blogspot.com and life.umd.edu. Scarecrow from commons.wikimedia.org. Link from dan-dare.org.

Much Ado About Middle Grade Books

A really helpful blog post by my good friend Sharon Van Zandt—“Hemingway’s Way”—and my recent review of several manuscripts for a venue I cannot name at this time prompted this post. You can get to Sharon’s post by clicking on the post’s title. Sharon mentions a tool I used to check my WIP. But I’ll talk more about that later.

First, let me ask you this: When you think of the primary audience of a middle grade book, what age group comes to mind? (If you’re an adult like me who reads middle grade books, maybe you think of yourself. Ha ha! If so, you and I should have ice cream together someday.) Do you think of middle graders—sixth through eighth grade? Makes sense, right? Middle graders—middle grade books.

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Here’s where life throws a curve. Middle grade books are for kids in third through sixth grade—kids 8-12. Yes, some middle graders read middle grade books. But young adult books are geared toward middle grade to high school-aged kids—a wide range of readers.

Remember the books you loved as a kid? Middle grade books are typically shorter than young adult books—around 30,000—50,000 words (longer for fantasy books). There are some exceptions, as you’ll quickly note if you’ve read the books in the following list.

Some Middle Grade Books
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

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Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
• The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
• The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

28187   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Holes by Louis Sachar
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

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Magic Marks the Spot by Caroline Carlson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera
Under the Mermaid Angel by Martha Moore

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And many, many others. There are some exceptions to the rules. The Harry Potter series is an exception, because it evolved over time. Its audience spans from children to adults. But this series started off middle grade.

I’m writing a middle grade book with an eleven-year-old protagonist who is about to turn twelve. I don’t pretend to be an expert on middle grade books, so I seek help whenever I can. The tool Sharon’s post mentioned provided one kind of help. It assesses the grade level when you copy into the tool an excerpt from your work.

When I copied several of my paragraphs into the tool, they were assessed at the third and fourth grade levels, which is fitting for a middle grade book. (Whew!)

Another help: the Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, which gauge the ease or difficulty of a passage read in English. Because of these tests, many periodicals and books have been assessed at a sixth grade level. Many middle grade books have a lower readability level than that. Again, there are some exceptions. Classic stories, crossover stories, some fantasy stories, and other stories meant for family reading might score higher.

Recently I read a few middle grade manuscripts with a high vocabulary (around the eighth grade level) that included F-bombs and other profanity, romantic relationships (including the desire for sex), and long passages of introspection. The inclusion of these items shows a lack of understanding about what’s considered appropriate for a middle grade book.

I don’t make the rules. But I’m tasked with enforcing them. And what became apparent to me very quickly was that these authors probably had not read many (or any) books geared toward the age level for which they claimed to write.

Do you know any musicians who never or only seldom listen to the music of others? Sounds ludicrous, right? Yet writing is a discipline that some feel they’ve mastered simply because they’ve written a story, all the while claiming they “don’t have time” to read books. (Or they don’t need to read, since “everyone” can write.)

Want to write a middle grade book? You might start by reading middle grade books—as many as you can get your hands on. Study the pacing, characterization, rhythms of dialogue, and the plots. Check online for the requirements for middle grade books, particularly word count and subject matter. Just because your favorite author could get away with a 90,000-word middle grade book that doesn’t mean you automatically can! And don’t forget that kids like to read about kids older than them, but still close in age. So though your protagonist might be 11 or 12, your core reader might be 8 or 9.

Click here for an excellent post by Marie Lamba on the difference between middle grade books and young adult books. Another good post is by Malinda Lo (click here for it) and this one by Judith Rosen. The latter mentions a bookstore that delineates middle grade fiction books as books for middle graders. :-)

Click here for a great reading analysis post by Shane Snow.

What are some of your favorite middle grade books?

Book covers from Goodreads and Pinterest. Ice cream from smartcanucks.ca.

“Too Noble to Be Cool”?

At first I planned to ditch this post, but changed my mind and finished it anyway. So here goes.

Charlie-Hunnam-King-ArthurAn Entertainment Weekly article on Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in an upcoming film directed by Guy Ritchie, got my hackles up, especially with comments like this:

Arthur has a bit of a Superman problem: He’s too noble to be cool or dangerous, and he’s rarely conflicted. (Sullivan 23)

In order to make him “cool,” the filmmakers decided to tweak Arthur’s origin story to make him a “streetwise” orphan ala Oliver Twist. I can’t help but notice how making someone “cool” usually involves putting that person in the theft/smuggling trade ala Han Solo, Aladdin, Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled, or, come to think of it, Indiana Jones. He didn’t just “borrow” those artifacts from those temples, y’know. (Yeah, yeah. Archaeology. Blah blah blah. But it really depends on your cultural viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

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For some, a character is interesting only if he’s the bad boy or at least has an edge to him. In other words, if the character is an antihero. I call this the Han Solo Syndrome. Though I have a soft spot for Han Solo, Flynn Rider, Aladdin, and Indiana Jones, I’m wary of the proposed revised history for King Arthur. While the filmmakers have a right to do what they want with this film, an attempt to revamp the King Arthur story flopped in 2004, as the article pointed out. I don’t fully know how Ritchie & Company will adjust Arthur’s back story for this movie. Entertainment Weekly gave only a few hints (like the fact that the new Arthur will be raised by three prostitutes).

According to Hunnam,

You need to see a character grow, and you need conflict. . . . If somebody is walking around with noble aspirations and then they find out that they’re King of England, wonderful, but it’s all a bit boring. . . .

I agree with him about the need for growth and conflict. But the “boring” judgment call shows a sadly one-note view of “good” characters. I’ve written about this before.

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Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur

“Too noble to be cool”? “Boring?” The issue seems to be with the notion of the heroic archetype. I’ve seen this archetype challenged more and more in our so-called “enlightened” age. When I was a kid, we used to call a virtuous person a “goody-goody” if we wanted to make fun of him or her. If we don’t believe anyone can be that selfless and noble, we might say the same. But what’s really needed is a better understanding of the strength and complexity of good.

Since the EW article focuses on a guy, I’ll concentrate on guys. I know some really good guys—men and teens with faith and ideals. But not a single one of them constantly walks around humming and thinking “noble” thoughts about kissing babies and rescuing puppies. All of them struggle with temptation, fear, doubt—the usual stuff. None of them claims to be perfect. They make mistakes. Yet they strive to be good husbands, good dads, good friends—good people. Doesn’t sound boring to me.

Would anybody call soldiers, fire fighters, police officers—people who rush into danger and protect others—“a bit boring”? Yet the people in these professions work toward what’s good. Many have a strong sense of justice and a need to help others. Yes, there are some bad apples according to current events. But for the most part, you’ve got people who put themselves on the line for others. Many of us know people in these professions. We see their foibles as well as their bravery. Good fictional heroes can be like this. (I’m thinking of Spider-Man, Green Lantern, and Luke Callindor, Charles Yallowitz’s hero in Beginning of a Hero.)

An author’s job is to develop characters a reader will find compelling. I grew up loving the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. When I was a kid, I read T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King. I never found it boring nor did I find Arthur “too noble to be cool.” He made mistakes and sometimes doubted his leadership; yet he strove to do the right thing. I find that compelling. But the filmmakers seem to think he’s not macho enough, and hope that Hunnam and his hotness will make Arthur an action hero. (Okay, the photo on the magazine cover makes a convincing argument.)

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The jury is out on whether or not I’ll see the new King Arthur movie. I’m not sure when it’s due out. The actors are still in the process of filming it. The only question I have for anyone adapting the story of an existing character is this: If you find that character to be boring or uncool, and have to make a whole bunch of changes to make him or her more interesting, why adapt the story in the first place?

Sullivan, Kevin. “The Sword and the Stone-Cold Fox.” Entertainment Weekly 31 July 2015: 20-27. Print.

Charlie Hunnam from hypable.com and femalefirst.co.uk. Flynn Rider from tangled-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Harrison Ford as Han Solo from solidsmack.com. Once and Future King cover from Goodreads.

Do You Speak Geek?

Recently I had tea with some friends who live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but are in the States on a visit.

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As is usually the case with the people I know, the conversation turned to Marvel movies. Pretty soon we were off on a discussion of various subjects: Comic-Con; Joss Whedon; Firefly; Harry Potter (books and movies); Lord of the Rings (books and movies); The Hobbit (book/movies); Hunger Games (books and movies); X-Men movies; Doctor Who (and the various actors who have played the Doctor); Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series; anime in general; Wujiang (where one of the friends and I taught English years ago); Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki films—you name it. All in the space of 75 minutes.

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A guy sitting at a nearby table stared, then shook his head in an amused way as he listened to our conversation. Perhaps it sounded weird to him. Or, perhaps he could relate to it.

That same day, I had dinner with another group of friends. We talked about linear algebra (don’t worry—I didn’t have much to say on that subject), physics, Half-price Bookstore, videogames, the gathering and dissemination of information; middle grade and young adult books; graphic novels; writing science fiction and fantasy; grad school programs; indie publishing; and other subjects.

Geek Speak

By now, you might be thinking, So what. Why are you telling me this? Well, let me take you back to my high school years, where bullying took place inside and outside the school walls. Just the mention of any of the above subjects would have earned me the label of geek—not exactly a plus back then. You see, being called a geek was the first step to being bullied. So like other people who tried to fit in and avoid being bullied, I learned to downplay “geek speak” and bring up subjects that the cool people spoke about. Yet trying to blend in could not exempt me from being bullied.

In college, to fit in, my geek speak turned to Greek speak. The cool people pledged fraternities and sororities. Once again, to fit in—to gain those three Greek letters—I pledged a sorority. But I was miserable. I had yet to realize that the advice my parents gave me—“Be yourself”—was actually good advice.

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These days, I celebrate conversations like those mentioned above as the gifts they are. I can do that because I lived through that experience and was able to move on. But some who have been bullied in high school aren’t alive to celebrate their freedom to be who they are. It grieves me to think of the countless teens who dread each day thanks to those who make life miserable for them. They live under the weight of labels and other hurtful words. Some don’t see any way to escape the pain other than to end their lives. I wish they knew the truth the bullies would deny them: that they are precious.

So yeah. I speak geek. And I’m glad to do so.

Today, what, if anything, can you celebrate about yourself? What would you say to someone who is afraid to be who he/she is because of the harsh opinions of others?

Bee Content

I named this photo “Bee Content” to remind me of more good advice: be content to be myself.

Chiang Mai map from wildabouttravel.boardingarea.com. Sigma from prestochangodecor.com. Hello Kitty/Jordie photo and bee photo by L. Marie.

Enduring Love

white wedding cakes2I don’t know about you, but I grow weary of turning on the news or logging on to my ISP and hearing about the latest celebrity breakup. But the news media seems to feast upon those.

Okay. I get it. Bad news is considered news worthy. But is yet another breakup among the thousands we’ve heard about really news worthy since celebrities often break up with other celebrities?

You don’t have to answer that. I wrote that to preface how greatly refreshed I was to receive the latest TED Talks email, which featured this talk: “This is what enduring love looks like.” The presenters, Stacey Baker and Alec Soth, use photographs to discuss how couples met and remained together. You can watch that video below if you have a spare ten minutes.

I love hearing the stories of how couples met. I never get enough of those. I enjoy looking at wedding photographs and other captured moments of family togetherness like vacation photos. You can call me weird if you like. I don’t mind. I love engagement stories and those promposals that keep popping up on YouTube. Wondering what a promposal is? Click here.

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Okay, a promposal isn’t exactly a story of enduring love. And maybe some people go overboard yielding to the pressure of making a memorable promposal. But I love the sparkle in the eyes of the storytellers as they discuss how wonderful it was to be sought after and accepted.

A good story energizes me. The stories I most resonate with remind me that there are such things as love that endures, faith, hope, and redemption.

I’m not an ostrich by the way—trying to bury my head in the sand to hide from bad news. I’ve been through bad breakups. My family has weathered some awful storms. That’s why I gravitate toward stories of love that lasts. Because I already know what the alternative is like.

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Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV

Wedding cake from weddingphotographye.blogspot. Promposal image from alyceparis.com. Heart photo by L. Marie.

When Your Mojo Stops Mojoing: A Spa Day L. Marie Style

This has turned out to be one of those weeks when I’ve struggled to write anything of significance. Scenes I’ve written in my story have fallen flatter than the last batch of brownies I attempted. (Who fails at brownies made from a mix? Um, me that’s who.) Sigh. I had to be honest with myself: my mojo wasn’t mojoing.

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Some of this had to do with various points of worry that the week dredged up. The stress of those worries trickled into my writing, which added to the flatness.

Ever feel like that about your writing or other projects?

Some people turn to yoga or take a spa day to recharge. Since the cost of a spa was prohibitive, I had to DIM—do it myself.

Here’s how you do a spa day, L. Marie style:

First, spend a couple of hours with a friend at Ikea enjoying an ultra cheap breakfast, followed by a leisurely look at baby furniture. (Her unborn child will need it soon.)

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This was only 99 cents.

Second, when you return home, watch movies like

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and call it “research.” After wishing you lived in Pixie Hollow and had a lightning bug for a friend, decide to watch something else, since that wish will not be granted. Binge on several episodes of the Pemberly Digital show, Emma Approved, a modern-day retelling of the Jane Austen classic. You can find it on YouTube. It’s like Clueless, except with adults playing adults, rather than adults playing teens. Each episode is around 5½—7 minutes long. If you’re like me, you’ll sigh over Alex Knightley and Frank Churchill for at least an hour, which is almost as bad as wishing you lived in Pixie Hollow.

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But third—and this is very important—procure some viewing snacks like

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These snacks are courtesy of a friend.

Fourth, work off the calories by getting plenty of outdoor time, traipsing among the flowers. Be sure to greet the bees while you’re there. They’re buzzing about, ready for their close-up. But don’t expect them to stay still if you want a photo. None of the bees I greeted did.

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These are blooming in the yard.

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These can be found at my local library.

Fifth, watch more episodes of Emma Approved. Consider whether or not you would want your life to be like the retelling of a Jane Austen novel.

Sixth, after dinner, try again to make that troublesome scene work.

Seventh, believe in yourself. While you’re thinking about how to make that scene work, crochet a flower for a friend’s birthday. Use it to remind yourself that if you can produce this, you can produce a compelling scene.

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What do you usually do when your mojo stops mojoing?

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Sad man from goodgeorgialawyer.com. Breakfast plate from ikea.com. Emma Approved logo from tvtropes.org. Other photos by L. Marie.

What’s the Deal with Pinterest?

Are you on Pinterest? Once again a family member—this time my sister-in-law—had talked me into branching out on social media. Which led me to Pinterest.

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For almost a year, I had a Pinterest board that I ignored. I didn’t quite get why I should use Pinterest. It seemed too simplistic. It also reminded me too much of scrapbooking—something at which I failed miserably. I still have a drawer full of photos I never placed in photo albums. So as a novice pinner, I didn’t have a plan. I repinned six photos culled from the ones sent by Pinterest because they looked interesting and had a vague connection to my high fantasy novel. I ran out of motivation after that.

Over the months, strangers from around the world repinned the same photo of dyed sheep from my board (see below). Pinterest kept emailing notifications like a persistent wooer. I wanted to say, “Shoo!” and close down my account despite the fact that some of the strangers began to follow that board.

Dyed Sheep

I was content to keep ignoring my board until a blogger I know wrote a post on how she used her Pinterest boards as inspiration for her book. That gave me an idea: perhaps I could do the same. But she had several boards. I didn’t understand why anyone would have more than one.

I had switched to a different WIP by that point and was stuck on how to proceed with it. Usually when I’m stuck on a project, I switch to another creative outlet: drawing, making 3D models out of paper, or crocheting—something visual and tactile. But this time, I turned to Pinterest. I had named my inaugural board Inspiration. Now I needed to be inspired.

When I was a kid, Pinterest was a notebook, some tape or glue, scissors, and a bunch of magazines out of which I cut pictures. In other words, Pinterest didn’t exist except through my physical labor. But as I think about the hours I spent cutting out magazine photos, I remember how inspired I was by the photos I found—inspired enough to hunt them down, display them in a notebook, and then write stories based on those pictures.

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After figuring out how to search for photos on my computer, Pinterest, or elsewhere online, I added to the Inspiration board, then started a different one—More Inspiration. (It was either that title, Inspiration 2, or Inspiration the Sequel. Do you see why Hollywood never hired me to title films?) I repinned eye-catching photos that made me feel something: joyful, nostalgic, or just plain awed. But I had added so many different categories of items on one board—animals, plants, etc. I was ready for a third board—Animals in My Books. That board led to a fourth—Plants and Trees in My Books. Are you sensing a pattern here?

So, what’s the deal with Pinterest? I would answer that question this way: it’s fun and easy to do. Adding photos to various boards gave my brain something it needed—visual reminders of possibilities.

Today I have 19 boards. And that novel I wasn’t sure about? I finished a draft that I’m now revising. While I didn’t value Pinterest at first, I’m glad I tried it. Sometimes the simplest tasks can lead to great breakthroughs in other places.

So, are you on Pinterest? What do you like about it?

Dyed sheep from themetapicture. Pinterest logo steadydemand.com. Construction paper, scissors, et al from mysheenvillage.com.