Why Being Weird Can Sometimes Work

When I was in third grade, I was told that girls were scared of bugs. At least the boys at school who ran up to me with grasshoppers in hand believed that. But I wasn’t, which put a damper on their enthusiastic decision to chase me with said grasshoppers.

I watched the boys visibly deflate as I calmly looked upon the terrified grasshoppers clutched in their fists, instead of screaming and running. Some of them thought I was weird because I was not afraid. Others wanted my friendship, because I was not afraid.

What they hadn’t reckoned on was me having an older brother who inspired me to collect grasshoppers. Between us, we filled a jelly jar with them. (Mom was not thrilled.)

You probably realize by now that I was a weird kid, driven by curiosity. For example, I wondered why grasshoppers hopped. Why did they spit a brown liquid that looked like the tobacco juice my elderly tobacco-chewing relatives spit? (I know. TMI.)

(Apparently, others called this liquid “tobacco juice” too. Look here.)

Years later, after I had been an adult for a while, a publisher specializing in educational resources needed someone to write curriculum for elementary school-aged kids about insects, amphibians, and other animals. Guess who was asked to write it. Yep. Weird me.

Sometimes weirdness has unexpected benefits.

Lately, I’ve been viewed as weird for not having cable or even a working TV. Nowadays, books are my TV. Well, books and YouTube videos about Pokémon, movies, or new toys.

   

This is what’s on TV these days.

Being without a TV has helped me to better understand the characters in a book I’m slowly working on. I have more time to think about the questions I have concerning their lives and motivations.

Being without a TV also has enabled me to work on my paper crafting. For example, I’ve decided to do the same scene in different seasons. Winter (below right) is mostly done. I’m working on autumn now. I’m taking liberties with the colors, however. Instead of having a gray bench with a snowflake throughout the seasons, I decided to change the bench for each season. I need to draw and cut out hundreds of leaves to scatter on the autumn scene. After that, I will tackle spring and summer.

Some might view this activity as weird. But who knows where this weirdness might take me in the days to come.

In what way(s) have you been designated as “weird”? How has being weird worked for you?

Grasshopper from freeimages.com. Grasshopper in a jar from commons.wikimedia.org. Other photos by L. Marie.

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The Prism Effect

When I was a kid, I was given a prism to use in one of my science classes in elementary school. I thought it was the most awesome thing ever. (Yes, this was way before cell phones were invented.) We discussed Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with light refraction. As it passes through one object to the next object, light bends. Newton used prisms in his experiments.

As an article here mentions

Newton was the first to prove that white light is made up of all the colors that we can see.

In science class, we duplicated Newton’s experiment with a light source, cardboard, and a prism. (Yes, this was back in the day.) I don’t have photos from that experience. But this one comes close.

The white light containing the color spectrum makes me think of something else: a blank page. I see that confused look on your face. Let me explain what I mean. First, let’s switch out the phrase color spectrum and insert words. Now, think of a blank page as something containing all of the words that can be seen—wonderful, colorful words describing vivid images. A prism is needed for those words to be seen and understood. The writer is the prism that helps others see those words.

My mind turns on odd things sometimes. This was something I was thinking about recently. 😀

If the writing aspect doesn’t fit your life, think of the prism analogy this way. Our minds are prisms. We often take whatever is beamed into us and show the world the result. For example, let’s say we hear a lot of negative comments. Such a drab view of life might result in a negative mindset that spills over in our dealings with others. We tell everyone, “This is how life is—drab.” But unlike an actual prism, we have a choice as to what we do with what we’re given. We can either show the drab colors and say, “This is how life is and always will be,” or we can show something else: the colors of hope. Even if we can’t see them yet. By this we say, “This is how life can be. And it starts with me.”

For someone like me who is prone to depression, the latter is a challenge. But I’m still willing to give it a shot. How about you?

     

I saw this rainbow months ago while standing outside of a grocery store. A rainbow is a nice example of refraction.

Prism image from 924jeremiah.wordpress.com. Refraction experiment image from myscienceacademy.org. It is from an MIT YouTube video. Blank page from imgarcade.com. Rainbow photographs by L. Marie.

Check This Out: How The Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

With me on the blog today is the always lovely Kate Hosford. She’s here to talk about her latest picture book, How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, which was illustrated by the amazing Gabi Swiatkowska. This book, published by Carolrhoda Books in March 2017, is too delightful for words.

  

Check out the book trailer:

Now, let’s talk to Kate!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Kate: (1) I love the tea set that my grandmother left me.

Kate’s grandmother’s Spode china

(2) When I studied in India during college, I loved drinking chai on trains.

Indian chai at the launch party at Books of Wonder in New York

(3) This summer, I got to drink tea at the Buckingham Palace Garden Café, where they have really nice paper cups.

Fancy to-go cups

(4) My new favorite place in New York is the Japanese tea house, Cha-An, where they have wonderful Matcha and a great selection of desserts.


Matcha with something sweet at Cha-An

El Space: How did you come up with the idea for this picture book?
Kate: At first, I simply had a vague idea about a queen going around the world and drinking tea with children from different cultures. But after several revisions, the story became about a lonely, pampered Queen who thinks she is searching for the perfect cup of tea, when she is actually searching for friends and meaning in her life. In the final version, tea still has a multicultural function in the story, but it is also a metaphorical device for tracking the Queen’s emotional state. Gabi Swiatkowska did such a great job showing the Queen’s many emotional states not only as she learns to make tea, but as she learns how to do other things as well, like snuggle a kitten.

El Space: This is your second collaboration with illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska. What was your process for working with Gabi? How long was the process from writing to production?
Kate: Gabi and I met in an illustrators’ group in 2000, back when I was doing illustration. We were good friends before we became collaborators, which was probably helpful. This book has a complex emotional arc, with the Queen making a bit more progress in each place she visits, but then backsliding to her old haughty ways at the beginning of each visit to a new place. Gabi did an amazing job of conveying all the emotional complexity in the book. Sometimes I offered opinions that Gabi took, and other times, she would stand her ground. I have learned that when Gabi stands her ground, she is always right!

Gabi and Kate at their launch party at Books of Wonder

I started this book with my faculty advisor, Uma Krishnaswami, in 2009, when I was getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I sold it to Carolrhoda Books in 2013, and it came out this spring. In my original drafts, I had the children in each country giving the Queen little gifts, and acting deferential. Uma encouraged me to “turn colonialism on its ear,” and create child characters that are completely unimpressed with royalty. This is when the book really came together. When the children treat her like a normal person, the Queen begins to evolve emotionally.

Interior illustrations © 2017 by Gabi Swiatkowska

El Space: Favorite tea? What, if anything, do you take in your tea?
Kate: I drink a lot of peppermint tea and honey, lemon tea and honey, green tea, and chai.

El Space: In a discussion of why picture books are important, Kwame Alexander said

Picture books are the great experience equalizer. We don’t have to leave the comforts of the beds in the rooms of our houses, and yet we can still travel through time and place and circumstance.

Erzsi Deak said

Picture books are also the groundwork for understanding innately how Story works, as the reader anxiously turns the page to see WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Why do you think they’re important?
Kate: Oh there are so many reasons! I agree with everything that Kwame and Erzsi said, and here a few other reasons as well:

Picture books can create intimacy. Often picture books are read out loud, either by a teacher or parent. This sort of intimate experience allows the child and adult to bond over the book together, which then gives the child yet another reason to continue reading.

Picture books hone a child’s ear. When picture books are read out loud, they allow children to hear the rhythms and cadences of beautiful language, which hopefully makes them want to read more.

Picture books are good for the brain. The child who is seated next to a picture book reader is synthesizing the words on the page, the language of the reader, and the illustrations. The constant toggling back and forth between these elements is stimulating and complex, forging the neural pathways that are essential for increasing intelligence in a young child.

El Space: Name a favorite picture book from your childhood. Why was it a favorite?
Kate: Probably my favorite book was called Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix. It is a gorgeous, eccentric book about an old lady who lives on the top of a hill with a Magical Mouse, a Brindle London Squatting Cat, a Yak, and an alligator. One day, the Magical Mouse predicts that the town below will be endangered by thirty days of rain. It is then up to Alexander to make the treacherous journey into town to warn the mayor about the rain. The book’s illustrations are just spectacular, and I loved the fact that this eclectic group of animals lived with the Old Lady.

The cover where the Old Lady is serving tea

Strangely, I didn’t realize until I just reread the story that tea plays a rather important role in the book. The Old Lady gathers her friends every day in the drawing room for tea, she nurses Alexander back to health with ginger tea when he returns from warning the mayor, and at the end of the book, when the mayor comes to honor the Old Lady for saving the town, she gives the medal to Alexander instead, and invites the mayor and her animal family to tea.

  

The Old Lady, nursing Alexander back to health with ginger tea (left); the mayor, having tea with the Old Lady and her friends at the end of the book

El Space: What will you work on next?
Kate: A poetry collection about how brilliant the octopus is! I read Sy Montgomery’s incredible book, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonders of Consciousness. and then was lucky enough to meet Sy and interact with her namesake, Sy the Giant Pacific Octopus at the New England Aquarium. I also want to do something funny related to the life of a classical musician. This is a bit of a challenge since most of them had really difficult and tragic lives. However, Jonah Winter was able to do it in his fabulous picture book, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven, where he tries to figure out how Beethoven could have moved five legless pianos to 39 different apartments. It’s such a unique topic, and his treatment of it is wonderful.
I’m also very excited about a picture book I have coming out next spring with Abrams called Mama’s Belly. It’s about a little girl waiting for her sister to be born, and wondering if there will be enough love to go around. (Spoiler alert: There is!)

    

Thanks, Kate, for being my guest!

And thank you to all who visited this blog. You can find How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

Want a curriculum guide for How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea? Click here.

You can find Kate at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

One of you will find her book in your mailbox or tablet. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. You could name your favorite tea as you comment. The winner will be announced on May 1.

Kirstea, the tea-loving Shoppie, gives Kate’s book five stars!

Book covers, author photo, interior illustrations, and book signing photos courtesy of the author. The Soul of an Octopus, Surf’s Up, and Pumpkin Time covers from Goodreads. Kirstea photo by L. Marie. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys.

Make ’Em Feel Something

A book I’ve been slowly going through these days is a writer’s craft book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. If you know anything about Donald Maass, you know that he’s a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts. He’s also written other craft books.

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Over the years I also have reviewed for publishers and other venues more manuscripts than I can count. But sometimes I found myself puzzling over why a manuscript didn’t work for me. Right off the bat, Maass’s book gave me insight with this quote:

When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it. (Maass 4)

Many times, I did not feel anything while reading a manuscript. Even stellar writing, Maass mentions, can be a turnoff if a reader does not feel anything while reading a story. So the point of Maass’s book is to help writers create the kind of stories that cause readers to experience the journey—not just read about it. In other words, the kind of stories that make readers feel something.

Part of that experience is fostered through helping to immerse a reader in a character’s emotional journey. Have you ever had a hard time writing an emotional scene? I have. Usually while drafting, I only scratch the surface, especially if a character feels a complex array of emotions. Consider how you felt on an extremely emotional day.

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So, writing emotional content does not come naturally to me. But Maass cautioned

While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t natural and easy. (74)

I want to get better at writing emotional scenes. This means I might have to rewrite a scene over and over until I break through the wall of resistance within myself.

Something else that inspired me to get better at writing emotional content is a quote from another book I’m reading. In one of the forewords to The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie, written by Tracey Miller-Zarneke, director Chris McKay and producers Dan Lin, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller wrote

When assembling these [LEGO] movies from the beginning, we always start with an emotional question to explore over the course of the story.

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They actually asked more than one question to shape their main character’s emotional arc. One of these questions was a what-if question. (I won’t share those questions, since doing so would involve a spoiler.) Sure, the filmmakers want to entertain people with their production. But also they want people to feel what the character feels along the way. This inspires me to carefully consider the what-if questions that are the basis for my character’s emotional journey.

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How do you feel when you have to write scenes with high emotional content? Is it easy for you? Hard? If the latter, what do you do to press onward?

If you don’t write stories, consider the last book you read that really moved you. Why do you think it did?

Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.

Miller-Zarneke, Tracey. The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie. New York: DK/Penguin-Random House, 2017.

The LEGO® Batman Movie poster from xemeston.ir. Emotions image from taringa.net.

What Is “Nothing”?

Image the following conversation. Perhaps you’ve participated in one just like it.

Mom (or Dad): How was school?
Son (or Daughter): It was okay.
Mom (or Dad): Just “okay”? What happened?
Son (or Daughter): Nothing.

As an astute parent, you know “something” had to have happened. After all, your child went to school and participated in classes. But for that child, “nothing” probably meant, “Nothing I was interested in” or “Nothing out of the ordinary.”

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Having given manuscripts to beta readers to evaluate from time to time, I have had a similar conversation with them.

Me: How was it [the manuscript]?
Beta reader: It was okay for the most part.
Me: Just “okay”? What happened?
Beta reader: Nothing.

Okay, maybe the conversation was not that curt. But over the years I’ve had beta readers mark certain scenes or chapters with the assessment nothing is happening here. Clearly, I hadn’t presented a bunch of blank pages to the readers. “Something” happened on those pages. But for the readers, nothing is happening here meant, “nothing out of the ordinary” or “nothing that helped develop the plot.”

Now, I ask you, when you read a book or watch a show, what would make you think, Nothing is happening here? Perhaps the following factors might resonate with you.

Tension and Pacing
The issue of “nothing” sometimes crops up when tension dissipates. Now, some breaks in tension are necessary. A while ago, I wrote a post on Ma space (you can find it here) which included a quote by famed animator Hayao Miyazaki on this subject. Ma space is an interval between two movements or sections. Miyazaki’s movies provide great examples of respites coupled with action scenes. However, some breaks in tension are detrimental to the story.

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For example, I wrote a young adult novel in which the heroine was accused of being a liar and had to vindicate herself by proving that she did indeed see what she claimed to have seen. (I hope someday you’ll get to read it.) One of my beta readers wrote nothing is happening here in a couple of the chapters. The issue was pacing. In one chapter, after being ridiculed by a crowd of people, the heroine declared that she was going off to find proof to back up her story—a scene of high tension. But instead of sending her on her way, I included two chapters in which she took a nap and then woke up to have a meal and overhear a conversation taking place between two characters. This conversation had nothing to do with the heroine’s plight. Nothing to see here, folks.

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Nap taking and eavesdropping, while “something,” aren’t very interesting to a reader. I had to cut those chapters to ramp up the tension and make the reader want to continue reading.

Lack of Character Conflict or Development
This probably goes without saying, but if you’ve read this blog even once before, you know I usually state the obvious. Characters need to be more than interchangeable talking heads. They have to serve a purpose. Conflict is one way they serve a purpose. Having fully realized secondary characters in conflict with a main character is a great way to avoid the “nothing is happening” designation.

too-many-characters

In the young adult novel I mentioned above, my main character had a twin brother who was kind of goofy. I liked the dude. His antics made me smile. Well, an advisor of mine read the early chapters of the book and said, “He’s got to go. He serves no purpose.” I soon realized she was right. The twin brother was not in conflict with anyone. He was kind of like a chair in a room—useful for sitting on, sure, but just taking up space otherwise.

The advisor also mentioned that another character—one I had decided would not be mentioned beyond one chapter—had more potential. Like the main character, just about everyone in town had a conflict with him. Most importantly, he had a conflict with the main character. So I turned him into the sidekick of the heroine on her journey. The novel was all the better for it.

Have you ever said, or been told, that “nothing” is happening in a chapter or scene you’ve written or a book you’ve read? What did you have to do to change that dynamic?

Japanese character from Wikipedia. Nothing here sign from outwardfromnothingness.com. Sleeping person image from 1001freedownloads.com. Characters image from standoutbooks.com.

Guest Post by Phillippe Diederich: Writing from the Heart without Flinching

Today it is my privilege to present this guest post by by Phillippe Diederich, author of Playing for the Devil’s Fire, a young adult novel published by Cinco Puntos Press. This is part of an ongoing blog tour celebrating the release of Playing for the Devil’s Fire. Stayed tuned afterward for the giveaway news.

25330167   phillippediedrichbyselinaroman

I write from the heart. I fall in love with my characters and try and help them navigate the conflicts they encounter. I do not shy away from subject matter, whether it’s poverty, drugs, war or crime because this is reality. And I have something to say about it. That’s why I write.

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 14 years, but we don’t experience it the way Afghans do. Imagine having attacks like 9/11 happening every day in different parts of our country, year after year after year. That’s the reality of war.

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It’s the same with crime and drugs and poverty. In Mexico, the drug war has killed more than 100 thousand people in a little more than a decade. Most of the weapons used in this so-called war come from the U.S. And the market for the drugs is the U.S. Whether we like it or not, we are complicit in this war. And yet what we see and hear in the news is statistics, glorified prison escapes, arrests, and major drug busts. We never hear about the individuals who are suffering the consequences of government policies. We never hear about the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters who fight and suffer just to survive another day.

mexico-map

In my novel, Playing for the Devil’s Fire, I wanted to address the problems in Mexico, more specifically, the violence and impunity that happens every day. When I wrote the story, I had to make it as real as I could without going overboard. I did not want to place the narcos as simple bad guys, but as individuals who have families just like their victims. I also didn’t want to glorify them or the violence or create unrealistic scenarios, because I would be doing a disservice to the victims of the violence many Mexicans are living every day.

I don’t believe writers should self-censor, and I don’t think we should hold back when trying to write for teens. I think teens are much smarter than we give them credit for. We shouldn’t sanitize the stories we want to tell.

When I was in the seventh grade I read an incredibly powerful memoir by and African-American. I want to say it was Nigger by Dick Gregory, but I’m not sure. It was a shocking book that dealt with a lot of tough issues. But it showed me a world I knew nothing about. It also showed me the power of the written word. I won’t say that book changed my life, but it did open my eyes to reality in a way no other media did.

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But I must make it clear that I don’t write to shock. I don’t think Playing for the Devil’s Fire is shocking in a gratuitous way. But I do think the reality that Boli, the main character, is living through is as real as what many Mexicans are experiencing. As a matter of fact, I think the horror of the victims of the drug war are going through—especially the people on the sidelines—is much worse.

When I first set out to write Playing for the Devil’s Fire, I had been reading a lot about the drug war and what was happening in Mexico. I love Mexico. I grew up there. So I was truly heartbroken as I lay down that first draft. I wanted to put a face to the statistics. I didn’t think of my audience for the book. Instead, I left it all to Boli. He guided me. Everything I wrote, I got from him—I saw it through his eyes. I was just hitting the keys on the typewriter.

If you read the book, you will find something to like in many of the characters, even in Zopilote and Ximena and Chato and Pepino. They’re only trying to survive as best they can. People are generally good, but greed and the glorification of violence on TV and popular culture can seduce even the best people.

Everything that happens in Playing for the Devil’s Fire, especially the end, it is not easy. But life is not easy.

I can only write about the reality that I know, the one that tugs at my heart. It’s not that I want people to feel the pain I feel, or about being sentimental. I just want people to join me in condemning the horror that is taking place all around us. If this is not the task of a writer, then what is?

Phillippe Diederich was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Mexico City and Miami. He is the author of Sofrito and Playing for the Devil’s Fire. He lives in Florida with his wife and three teenage children and their neurotic dog, Toby. Whenever he’s not writing, Diederich is helping with homework, cooking dinner, or fixing the plumbing in the house.

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One of you will win a copy of Playing for the Devil’s Fire simply by commenting below. Winner to be announced on September 19.

Next up on the Blog Tour: Check out an excerpt, review, and guest post at Mom Read It—https://momreadit.wordpress.com on September 13.

Author photo by Selina Roman. Book covers from Goodreads. Mexico map from ezilon.com. Dick Gregory photo from Wikipedia. War quote from geckandfly.com.

Saying No to Pokémon Go

Between finishing my middle grade fantasy novel (and by finishing, I mean getting it to the point where beta readers will read it), copy editing a book someone else wrote (still doing that), taking job-related tests, and attending various parties of the graduation and birthday variety, I have been a bit delayed in posting. And I had grand plans to approach authors for interviews. Sometimes life gives a “Ha ha ha” to plans made.

So instead of an author interview, you get this rambling post. (When life serves you lemons . . .)

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I’m sure I don’t have to ask you if you’ve heard of the Pokémon Go app, since that’s been all over the news. Maybe you’re already sick of hearing about it. I’ve played various Pokémon games since 1998. And I actually have the Pokémon Go app on my phone. But I clicked on it only once. I decided I didn’t need another obsession, especially with the schedule of the activities I described in the first paragraph. So Pokémon Go app, you’re about to go away.

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I have to hand it to the Nintendo Company for creating an app that has so many people discovering Pokémon and exercising while doing so. Click here to read an article on the popularity of this app. What a novel way of celebrating the game’s twentieth anniversary.

Yet I can’t help recalling some criticism I received when I played Pokémon a few years back. Some adults claimed that the game was for kids and, therefore, beneath their dignity. Now many adults around the world are playing the app version of the game. Interesting. But sadly, some players have sustained injuries while doing so. And predatory individuals are taking advantage of the game’s popularity to rob others. 😦 Click here or here for an article on other issues with the game. If you’re playing the game, a little bit of common sense goes a long way! The game might tell you where the Pokémon are, but won’t remind you that you could be hit by a car or fall into a ditch.

I’m a bit of a curmudgeon in that I can’t help turning away from items that become fads. Take Doctor Who on BBC America for example. I grew up watching the show. But when it became a fad that made entertainment magazine headlines, I wanted to give it up, especially when twenty people asked me the same question—“Have you seen Doctor Who?”—yet refused to acknowledge any of the incarnations of the Doctor before Matt Smith.

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So though I will definitely play a Pokémon game at some future point when a new one for the Nintendo 3DS/2DS is released, I will continue saying, “No go” to the app. At least for now.

What fads have grabbed your attention lately? While you think of that, here’s a random photo:

These flowers at my apartment complex are almost five feet tall.

These flowers at my apartment complex are almost five feet tall.

Pokémon Go app logo from forbes.com. Matt Smith from wallpaperup.com. Lemon image from pachd.com. Flower photo by L. Marie.