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Author Gail Gauthier's Reflections On Children's Books, Writing, And The Kidlit World
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1. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Eight: Eco-Style And Conflict

I was thinking of a few glossy magazines when I was writing the eco-style thread for Saving the Planet & Stuff. Maybe a couple of stores in Vermont. In the years since the hardcover edition was published, the Internet has exploded with eco-stylish websites and blogs.

So the farcical aspect of the eco-style business is a bit undermined because eco-style is so mainstream now. But there is still the conflict between the old-time, hardcore environmentalists like Walt and Nora and the eco-chic followers of style like Todd Mylnarski. Have I mentioned that conflict can be funny?

     "The informing-and-changing-opinion mission is so 1960s. It's so old. Nowadays readers are more interested in lifestyles, how they're going to live their lives," Todd said.
    "But that's exactly what The Earth's Wife does," Nora objected. "It's all about how to live an environmentally sound life."
    "He means people want to read about biodegradable fashion and decorating instead of those god-awful stories about farmers contaminating groundwater because they've been using too much fertilizer," Maureen explained enthusiastically.
    "Eco-style. It's the next generation of the environmental movement," Todd announced. "The editorial staff has been talking, and we think we should be doing articles on things like how to furnish your living room environmentally and how to buy environmental back-to-school clothes and—"
    "Environmental music!" Michael exclaimed.
    "That stuff that's supposed to sound like the wind in the rain forest or something?" Walt sneered.
    "Actually, I was thinking the Dave Matthews Band," Michael said. "Those guys are supposed to be into saving the planet."
    "And what about that guy from U2—Bono?" Todd suggested.
    Michael shook his head. "He's only interested in saving poor countries. You know, debt relief?"
    "Oh, that's right," Todd said. "Too bad. He would have been worth a cover story. He looks very good on magazine covers."
    "Stop everything for a moment. Did anyone read last month's issue of The Earth's Wife?" Nora asked.
    "Of course."
    "I did."
    "Me, too."
    Michael silently shook his head no.
    "You realize it was about just what you're talking about—not Dave Matthews and Bono, but buying things? And how this need for things and owning things is destroying our world?" Nora said.
   "Well, that's one man's opinion," Todd told her.

I don't know if the eco-style people are big on humor. Todd certainly isn't.

Within the context of the Saving the Planet & Stuff world, the battle between the anti-material save- our-groundwater crowd and the shoppers looking for the latest organic cotton and hemp clothing is a generational conflict.

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2. The Environmental Book Club

I've just heard that "book pairing" is a thing.  Evidently you can pair books with all kinds of things. This business of pairing fiction and nonfiction books is interesting.

And Nancy Castaldo's pairing of fiction and eco-fiction children's books at Nerdy Book Club is particularly interesting.  Notice that she pairs Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate with The One and Only Ivan also by Applegate.

I don't believe I've included animals in our environmental books. Castaldo's thinking is that the animals in the books she's suggesting are endangered or, in Ivan's case, not living in its natural environment. I can certainly accept that as a reason to include those kinds of books under the "environmental" umbrella.

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3. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Seven: What To Do, What To Do?

The following excerpt is one of my favorite bits from Saving the Planet & Stuff. In order to create humor, I use hyperbole to ramp up the decision-making those trying to live environmentally sound lives do. But I also think this conversation illustrates a real struggle.

At least, I'm struggling.

See my picnic dish collection to the right? I've had them since 2001 and used them for large family al fresco meals over the years. I don't buy paper plates or napkins or plastic picnic cutlery. But it takes quite a while to get these things washed. Cheap plastic must hold grease. Sinks full of water go down the drain before we finish the job. But I've done the kind of thinking Nora does below and decided that my priority is solid waste, those disposable paper plates and cutlery, over detergents and water. If I lived in California right now, no doubt I'd feel differently.

Seriously, I don't live all that environmentally sound a lifestyle. People who do have to do this kind of priority assessment all the time.

    "Michael? I'm Maureen Bogda," she announced.
    "Associate editor," Amber reminded him. "Don't ask what that is. I was here all of July and August last year and never figured it out."
    "We have something we'd like you to take care of for us. We need you to go out and pick up a few lunches," Maureen said as she handed Michael several orders with cash clipped to them and explained how he would find the restaurant.
    Amber caught Michael's eye. "Speaking of sucky work—"
    "Oh, no!" Michael objected. "I like buying things."
    "I'm glad to hear that," Maureen said, "because Nora asked if you would stop at the little grocery store on the corner to pick up some soy milk and eggs. She wants the free-range eggs from chickens that have never lived in cages, if they have them this week. However, she says that if they are packed in a plastic package to please check and make sure the package is either number one or two plastic because that's all we can recycle in this town. If they have the free-range eggs, but they're packed in the wrong kind of plastic, don't get them. Get regular eggs, but make sure the regular eggs are in a cardboard package, not Styrofoam, because Nora doesn't buy Styrofoam."
    "Uh … just a minute. I'd better write that down," Michael said as he started to look over Amber's desk, hoping to find some paper.
    "Nora did it for you," Maureen replied as she handed Michael another piece of paper and some more money.

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4. And Now For Something Entirely Different

In order to take a break from all this environmental thinking we've been doing, let's talk picture books.

I'd heard of The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee, and it's a book that does live up to its hype. The story of the farmer who sees a little clown fall from a circus train and takes him in is told totally in pictures. It's one of the easiest to follow wordless books I've ever seen.


I "read" this is as a sad story about the farmer. But when I finished, I looked at the front flap and found a much more upbeat interpretation, one I think that works. One that's much more from the clown's point of view.

So two stories going on here, all without a word.


I snatched up Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate with illustrations by G. Brian Karas because I'd already read  Applegate's The One and Only Ivan. My interest was in seeing an author use the same material in different ways. The picture book really is quite good. I almost thought I might like it better than the novel, but than I remembered Ivan's voice in The One and Only Ivan.

Both novel and picture book are very well done.                        


 

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5. Time Management Tuesday: Managing Sick Time

Last week I had a I'm-coming-down-with-something-hysteria day and spent the morning in bed with my laptop in order to deal with that situation. So you can understand why How to Enjoy a Productive Day When You Feel Bad grabbed my attention when I stumbled upon it at Coaching Positive Performance.

The CPP blogger says, "One of the most important aspects of improving your time management is to enjoy a productive day even when you don’t feel like it. That does not mean that you have to complete a massive workload; it simply means that you have to complete some important work which takes you closer to your goals and objectives."

There's great stuff here: 

  1. How to get started on a sick workday: Identify the three most important tasks you need to get done. These tasks relate to your most important goals. Then choose the three next most important tasks. After you identify that second group, you're not going to even think about them again that day. That's kind of brilliant. It eliminates a major distraction. You won't be overwhelmed by all the things you have to do.
  2. How to choose what to do first among your three chosen tasks: Do you choose the hardest task? Do you choose the easiest? You choose the one that is most important to your goal!
  3. How to work: In units!
One of the big negatives about being sick, besides being, you know, sick, is the stress of seeing work pile up. Thinking of sick days as another situation we can learn to manage is a huge help.

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6. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Six: No, This Isn't Just Composting Toilet Humor

Everything that appears in a work of fiction should be there for a reason. Everything has to support the story--the plot, the theme, the characters, the setting, the point of view. It has to do something.

This is a particular issue for people who write humor. You just can't throw random jokes into a narrative. If they don't support the story in some way, jokes will stop the narrative drive dead in its tracks while readers stop to have a laugh. Too much of that and readers can stop feeling anything drawing them forward at all. And there's only so long they'll stick around to read jokes.

Think of the difference between old time comics who stood on a stage and just told one joke after another and a well-done sitcom in which all the humor comes out of a particular situation--a  workplace or a family, for instance. Writers of fiction want their humor to come out of a situation and not just be a series of jokes.

Today's Saving the Planet & Stuff excerpt illustrates that point. 
 

"So, Michael, where do you stand on the issue of composting toilets?" Amber asked.
    Michael stopped dead in his tracks and stared at her for a moment. Then he said, "What are my choices?"
    "Composting toilets—those things with a container of some sort under the seat so when you flush, nothing goes very far? Then you throw a handful of bark mulch or some leaves in there with the crap, and it all decomposes?"
    Michael started to grin. Okay! he thought ecstatically. She's coming on to me.
    "What? You think I'm joking?" Amber asked, mistaking the look of joy on Michael's face for appreciation of toilet humor.
    "Well, it doesn't sound much like a joke," Michael admitted, "not a very funny one, anyway. But it is kind of … an odd thought."
    "You've never heard of composting toilets, have you? Well, you're lucky I brought it up, because you're going to. It's, like, a big political issue here," Amber explained. She took a deep breath as if getting ready for a long speech. Her sweater rose up as her lungs—and her chest—expanded. "At one end of the spectrum you've got your people who want to see all human waste transformed into nutrients in a box under their johns and used to fertilize public parks and gardens so they can feel a sense of unity with their environment. At the other end you've got folks who don't understand why the federal government isn't committing big bucks to researching ways to vaporize their
doodie like they do on Star Trek so they'll never have to think about it again."
    "They vaporize doodie on Star Trek?" Michael asked.
The composting toilet thread in Saving the Planet & Stuff is not just an opportunity to squeeze in some toilet talk. It supports one of my themes, the effort, thought, and decision-making that goes into attempting to live an environmental lifestyle. It also supports character because it will eventually illustrate what a mania--how intense--Walt is.

I actually have seen a composting toilet, though it was at an outdoor park, not in an office where Walt was hoping to install one. I believe it was at the Ecological Park of the Acadian Peninsula in New Brunswick, Canada. My recollection is that they had some in little sheds like the one you can see to the left in this picture. That would explain the pipe you see to the left of that building's roof.

And, by the way, we are an engineering family. Of course, the issue of managing sewage on a starship has been addressed in our home. Probably at our dinner table. We've always wanted to see an episode in which Scottie or Geordie has to deal with the engineering crisis that would come about with an epic sewage treatment failure. Anyone else notice that the treatment system never gets damaged when the Enterprise is under attack?



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7. Now You, Too, Can Give A Reading-Themed Birthday Luncheon For Adults

I am sure you all recall that yesterday I said I couldn't get sick this weekend because I was running a family thing. Well, I gave a birthday luncheon today. Not a party. I don't do parties. This was a luncheon for thirteen women.

You know how this past week your Facebook page was covered with your friends' pictures of their siblings for something called...ah...Sibling Day? Seriously. Where did that come from? Has anyone heard of it? All of a sudden it's here and people were carrying on as if it's Christmas. Well, my sibling didn't get her picture as a little nipper put up on Facebook. She got a birthday luncheon.

My sister has been a member of a book group for around fifteen years. (I think that's about when my own book group fell apart.) I learned today that she's the one who prepares questions for every single meeting. She's also very taken with her Kindle Paperwhite. Thus, while planning this luncheon I used a reading theme.

A luncheon without a theme is like a book without a theme. What is it really about?

I began, of course, with an invitation. No, actually, I began with finding a place to hold this thing. Then I went on to the invitation. Mine looked like the first page of the first chapter of a book. I used the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice as my inspiration.

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of intellect, humour, and sense must be in want of a surprise birthday luncheon. However little known the feelings or views of such a woman may be on the subject, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of her friends, that the mere knowledge of her approaching birthdate is invitation enough to gather.

Of course, others may take their inspiration elsewhere. You just have to remember to work in the details about where this function will be and when.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't give a rat's patootie about table decorations, but my sister gave me a birthday luncheon a while back and she had table decorations, so what are you going to do? What I did was collect a quotation from authors who had birthdays in April. Because this is April, get it? My sister's birthday is in April? One for each day of the month. I used authors and quotes from Library Booklists. I used the same font I used for the "An Invitation" invitation title. I cut the quotations and author names and birth dates out and glued them to some colored index cards that I found in the office, to be honest. Then I spread them around the table at the restaurant. (Actually, I got someone else to do it.)

I thought the quote decoration wasn't going to go over all that well. It was the kind of thing I could easily have forgotten to put out, remembering the cards half way through the meal. Or they could have dropped like a brick, even though there were members of my sister's book group there. However, my sister liked the idea, made sure everyone had a card, and had them take turns reading them aloud. (She does do parties.) So this went well.

Then for favors for the guests I had reading journals and Pental pens. Let me tell you, people loooove Pental pens. I got 18 of them for $4 on sale at Staples. I mention that because I'm one of those people who has to tell everyone when she gets a deal. Notice that the labels for the journals match the invitations, match the font on the author quotes. Yes, Computer Guy did some of that.


Yesterday I realized I should have tried to get the bakery to make a cake in the shape of an open book. Or I could have tried to do it myself. But that would have been kind of gilding the lily, don't you think?

Now maybe a reading theme won't go over as well for a kid gathering because, you know, no wine. But this worked for my adult group today.

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8. What Did You Do This Week, Gail? April 10 Edition

Well, so far I've watched a season and a half of Veep, 3  hours worth just today. Otherwise, let's face it, I've done a lot of work on the blog for the marketing Saving the Planet & Stuff goal and some revising and planning of the mummy book for that goal.

Things should start turning around next week in terms of family needs overwhelming work time.

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9. So Wouldn't Selina Meyer's Office Be Hysterical In Publishing?

First off, let me set the stage for you. I've been working in bed, and now on the couch, today because I'm fighting off a cold that I just can't succumb to because I'm running a family thing this weekend that I will probably tell you all about because it totally relates. So while I was soaking in the tub, trying to sweat out whatever is bothering me, I was reading a book review in a popular magazine. The YA book being reviewed sounded pretty ho-hum to me, and the one-line quote? I looked at it and thought, This is mindless B.S. What does it even mean?  What @#!! thought this was something that should be pulled out for promotion? Who the #&** are they promoting to? 

Then I realized I was channeling Veep. I've been binge watching it this week during a TV Watchathon. In fact, I'm binge watching season two right now because of that business of trying to convince my body not to get sick.

What I'm thinking now is Selina Meyer running her own book imprint. The entire V.P.'s staff could be her editorial staff. Instead of Selina always asking Sue if the President has called, she will ask if the publisher has called. The staff can fight with marketing. Selina can fight with other editors over authors. She can try dumping authors she thinks won't earn back their advances onto other editors.

And, get this:  Julia Louis-Dreyfus used to play an editor!

This could work.  

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10. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Five: Eco-humor

Part of Michael's job as office peon at the editorial offices of The Earth's Wife is to screen in-coming e-mails, which is how he stumbles upon a plot involving a major manufacturer and insulation. But he has to read a few e-mails before he gets to that point. Both the e-mails in this post illustrate humor that comes from the disconnect that occurs when two unrelated ideas/events come together.

The following e-mail was funny at the time because when Saving the Planet & Stuff first appeared in 2003 fiction about the environment wasn't common. The term climate fiction was still a few years away. Nature writing tended to be Thoreau-type essays. Journalists covered the environment. So the idea of eco-fiction was funny because it didn't exist.

Now eco-fiction is a term that is used and discussed, so the idea of eco-fiction is no longer funny. The humor in this first e-mail now relies pretty much on comparing eco-fiction to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Dear Earths' Wife,
Kudos on another wonderful issue!
One suggestion—Have you ever considered doing a fiction issue? No one is publishing eco-fiction right now. I don't know why. You could do a special issue once a year on ecologically themed literature the way Sports Illustrated does a special issue once a year on women's swimsuits. Look how much people look forward to that!
This next e-mail illustrates why hypocrisy can be funny.  Totally clueless characters who say one thing but do another can often be mined for laughs because they are providing that disconnect between two unrelated ideas/concepts.

To the Editor:
I very much enjoyed last month's article on the pollution caused by vehicles using drive-up windows at fastfood restaurants and banks. You only have to sit in a line of cars waiting ten minutes or more for a couple of burgers and a shake, as I have done many times, to realize our atmosphere is being poisoned. Last week I used drive-up windows at a bank twice and a drugstore once. Isn't it awful that you can get your prescriptions at drive-up windows now? It ought to be a crime, all those cars sitting there with their engines running. I counted eight the last time I was at Burger King. I wouldn't have used the drive-up that day, myself, but it looked as if there was no place to sit inside anyway.
Additionally, drive-up windows are a particular environmental complaint of mine. Why does no one do a study on the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere because tens of thousands of people can't get out of their cars to buy a Big Mac? I can't be the only person who wonders about that. Can I?

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11. The Environmental Book Club

I have finally found an environmental book for older readers, and it is terrific.

Sixteen-year-old Laura, the journal keeping main character in The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd, is a member of a punk band. She has an appalling older sister, and her parents are falling apart. Sounds pretty generic YA, doesn't it? What makes this book riveting is its setting and its main character.

Are Good Environmental Books All About Setting?


The 2015 Britain of The Carbon Diaries is one suffering from energy shortages and horrific climate problems, as is the rest of the world. Britain, however, is the first country to start carbon rationing. The book is Laura's account of her family and neighbors dealing with limited access to energy while suffering through an extreme winter, a drought, and torrential rain. Her older sister is appalling because she is bitter and angry about her gap year in America being cancelled. Her parents are falling apart because they're having trouble coping with the social change they're being hammered with. Dad, for instance, is the head of a travel and tourism school. With carbon restrictions, people can't travel. That pretty much puts an end to the tourist industry in Britain, and he loses his job.

The book isn't a cautionary tale, in my humble opinion. It's much more of a thriller. What's going to happen next and how will the characters survive it? Though Laura comments on the selfishness of others a couple of times and wants very much for the rest of the world to get on board with carbon rationing, this is not a "Let's save the planet!" story. There is no instructive message.

I'm sure many reviewers probably write about The Carbon Diaries' environmental themes. I always have trouble determining what an environmental theme would be. I've seen some writers calls The Carbon Diaries' theme "climate change." That seems more like a subject to me. I would say the theme of The Carbon Diaries involves a teenager struggling to find her place as an older person in her family and her place in society, one that is dramatically changing. Those are traditional YA themes, not environmental ones. It's the environmental setting that makes those traditional YA themes interesting and makes this book environmental.

Isn't climate fiction, fiction dealing with climate change, all about setting?

A Good Character Always Does Wonders For A Book


Laura is like an edgier, smarter Georgia Nicholson. The format of the book is even similar to the Georgia Nicholson books. It's a journal, of course, and there are several pages at the end translating British terms for American readers, which you find in Georgia's books. This is not a complaint. I like Georgia. I like Laura.

A Good Book Doesn't Have To Teach You Anything

Though The Carbon Diaries doesn't insist that readers do anything, the characters' struggle was so intense that it has an impact. I hadn't read much before I started obsessing about whether or not I'd turned the heat down at night. I freaked out a bit over that power outage in Washington earlier this week. And, yikes! They're rationing water in California!! 

Very few people like to be preached at or taught. If a piece of fiction is well done, it creates a response in readers without doing either of those things.

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12. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Four: Older Characters And Ignoring Beta Readers


Kathy, my editor, said she didn't think she'd ever seen older characters like Walt and Nora in a children's book. I wanted to create characters with powerful personalities who had interests with which they were totally engaged. At the same time, I wanted to be clear that these were not young people. Nora's hair has faded and her face is lined. Walt is balding, has a bad eye, and is losing muscle tone.

Michael has to see both those aspects of Walt and Nora, that they are aging but that that doesn't change their commitment to and interest in the world. That is the point of the following excerpt.

    Spandex girlie things on an old lady, Michael thought. Oh, jeez.
    He supposed that for a woman of her advanced years Nora looked pretty good in her skimpy workout wear. Her upper arms, Michael couldn't help noticing, were in much better shape than his own, and there was nothing hanging over the top of the little panty/shorts/whatever she was wearing. That was as much as he could take in before his vision began to blur.
    I'm being struck blind, he thought hysterically. Thank God.
    " and lifting weights maintains bone density," Nora concluded as she switched to bicep curls. "If you can maintain bone density, you can eliminate a lot of health problems that require prescription drugs. If you can stay off prescription drugs, you can avoid supporting the pharmaceutical industry, which is making a fortune off our medications. We did an article on that in The Earth's Wife, oh, just last year. Honestly, who really wants to support the pharmaceutical industry?"
    Michael—who was quite certain that if he made it into some third-tier college, his mother's investments in pharmaceutical stock would be paying his tuition—smiled and nodded without committing himself to anything.
I had three teenage boys read Saving the Planet & Stuff before publication. At least two of them insisted this scene had to go. One of them was very insistent. He was kind of horrified, to be honest.

Do other writers ignore their beta readers the way I ignored mine?

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13. Time Management Tuesday: So Just Do Less

I've written about the busyness issue here before. Being busy, which is often different from working hard, is a common condition that, oddly enough, can keep us from actually doing things.

Well, I'm going to write about it again.

Finding Your Sweet Spot: How to be Happier and More Productive--By Doing Less appeared in The Globe and Mail earlier this year. It's an interview with Christine Carter, a sociologist at UC Berkely who has written The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work. According to the article, "the sweet spot" is a sports reference, the "ideal place where power and ease meet." Carter suggests that people identify the minimum they need to do in order to be effective, presumably their sweet spot. More is not necessarily better.

Carter uses the terms “maximizers” and "satsificers".  She says maximizers are people who collect all the information they can find before making a decision. Satsificers are people who determine criteria for success and then  stop looking for information once they meet it. If I end up reading this book, I'd like to see how these two ideas can be applied to writing.

I tend to become interested in concepts I've already dabbled with myself. A couple of years ago, I had to determine a baseline of home maintenance I could live with and just work to that, because I had only one day a week that I wasn't working or doing elder care. I couldn't do my share of house and yard maintenance in one day and have any kind of a personal/recreational life. Last fall when I came back from vacation I was in better physical shape than I'd been in before I left because of all the biking and walking I'd done while I was away. Since I was stronger and had better endurance, I tried to exercise harder so I could exercise for a shorter period of time each day.

So you can see that the concepts Carter writes about grab my attention.

She is a supporter of the unit system, too. Like Tony Schwartz, she advocates 90-minute units.

Finding Your Sweet Spot could be a good summer time management read for me.

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14. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Three

By the time Michael Racine reaches the Vermont border with Walt and Nora, he has figured out that spending time with these two isn't going to be more of the same for him. After his first meal in their solar home, which he thought was chicken parm until he realized they were vegetarians so God only knew what he'd just eaten, Nora takes him upstairs to what will be his room for the next month or so. She was unprepared for a guest, and Michael was unprepared for what he found.


    There were two small, horizontal windows crammed between two narrow closets and above a set of built-in drawers on the exterior wall across from him ("Built-in furniture provides extra insulation," Nora explained). Michael barely noticed them because he was so busy taking in the bed, the floor of a closet—its door couldn't be shut—a little table with an arrangement of cobweb-draped dried flowers, and an armchair with a matching footstool, which were all covered with … stuff.
    "I'm afraid we've collected a few things over the years," Nora said apologetically.
    "Wow. You collect bags of Styrofoam beans," Michael said, pointing to four bags filled with them.
    "They aren't biodegradable, so we didn't want to throw them out when the town still had a landfill. We use them as packing when we want to mail something," Nora explained.
     Michael lifted a roll of used bubble packaging off from the bed. "I guess you don't mail stuff very often, huh?"
     Nora took the roll from Michael. "I keep meaning to take them into the office. They'll get used there. Maybe we could bring them with us tomorrow."
     The rest of the room's contents would not be as easy to dispose of. There were a couple of bundles of brown paper bags, and plastic sacks filled with more plastic sacks. There was a pile of very ratty bath towels, a half dozen decorative tins of various sizes, partially burned candles, empty cardboard boxes, a variety of canvas satchels stamped with the names of various organizations, two partial sets of dishes, stacks and stacks and stacks of magazines, three …
    "You see," Nora began awkwardly, "we're trying to control waste by diverting materials from landfills—which are reaching capacity in a lot of places, you know—and the regional incinerators that are replacing them. We did an article in The Earth's Wife on that in, I think, June of '98."
    So they're diverting materials from the landfill to their spare bedroom? Michael wondered.
Okay. So this is kind of autobiographical. I don't so much try to divert waste from the transfer station, which is what our community has now, as keep it from going there for as long as possible. I hold on to things like Nora does so I can use them again or find a way to pass them on to some unsuspecting soul. It's kind of like the Schroedinger's Cat thing. So long as these things are somewhere in my house, they have the potential to be either useful or solid waste. It could go either way.


Here, for instance, is my most recent bubble wrap collection. I have used hoarded bubble wrap for mailing packages, though I'll also admit that I dumped some during a time management clean out binge. The wrap you see in this picture all showed up in one order that was shipped in four different boxes this past month. It's as if these people sit down and think of ways to generate waste.





And here are two different views of our box collection. Yesterday a house guest told me she was leaving me a gift box for my collection. I particularly like gift boxes, and she knows it, so it was a touching moment.









Like Nora, I have a bag collection...





...and a decorative tin collection...






...and here are my back issues of Yoga Journal.








All these things can be used again, so there's no reason for them to be trashed. Except for the Yoga Journals. That's a really fine magazine, which is why I hold on to them, but I am planning to weed through those things because you can't really use them for something the way you can those tins, bags, boxes, and bubble wrap rolls. To be truthful, though, I'm three months behind reading the new issues, so it will be a while before I see any progress on the back ones.

Unlike Walt and Nora, I do not have all this stuff spread over a spare bedroom. But I like humor that comes about when two conflicting thought processes/world views come together, and a little hyperbole is very helpful in creating that.

Additionally, though, with scenes like this one I wanted to illustrate the effort and attention to detail that goes into an attempt to live anything approaching an environmentally sound lifestyle.

If any readers are Noras and have collection of useful items they are keeping from transfer stations, feel free to share in the Comments.

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15. What Did You Do This Week, Gail? April 3 Edition

Yikes. I'm having a rough couple of weeks with family commitments and holidays, and it will continue next week. I'm still trying to focus on just a few things, or at least focus on narrowly defined aspects of more than a few things.

Goal 1. Mummy Book. Tweaking, reading a new book for research, and planning scenes. Next week the scene planning will be what I concentrate on.

Goal 2. Short Pieces. I did manage 20 or 30 minutes on an essay, nearly finishing it. I also did a little market research and stumbled upon a new journal I might submit to.

Goal 6. Marketing Saving the Planet & Stuff. Lots of work on this one with this month's Annotated Saving the Planet & Stuff series here at the blog. I've been planning excerpts and linking the posts at appropriate places on social media. I guess we could consider this also Goal 5. Community Building.

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16. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part Two

In Saving the Planet & Stuff Michael communicates with friends through Instant Messenger (this book was originally published in 2003, remember), and uses e-mail with family and at work. I was influenced by Walter Dean Myers' Monster, in which the main character uses the screenplay he's working on and journal entries to tell his story.

In the following conversation between Michael (MP3 for Michael Peter Racine III) and his friend (who is off working on a paleontological dig) we learn why Michael doesn't have a summer job.  That is the situation that leads him to accept Walt and Nora's invitation to go to Vermont with them.


MP3: I WASN'T FIRED!!! I was working for my uncle. what kind of jerk can't keep a job working for his own uncle?
ProfBlakie: Well, ah, you, I thought.
MP3: who told you I was fired? everyone we know is out of town.
ProfBlakie: My mother.
MP3: !!!! and she believed it? after all those years i spent drinking her soda & eating her potato chips she'd believe a story like that? about me?
ProfBlakie: I think she believed it BECAUSE of all those years you drank her soda and ate her potato chips.
MP3: I WASN'T FIRED!!! the job ended. that's entirely different.
ProfBlakie: Okay.
MP3: it's true! word got around that uncle bobby's landscaping business wasn't in good shape and no one wanted to hire him so there was no work for anyone who worked for him.
ProfBlakie: Why wasn't his business in good shape?
MP3: Uh. … he was passing bad checks.
ProfBlakie: Oops.
MP3: you should hear my brother. 'you mean you can get in trouble for not paying your bills?' if I live a hundred years I will never understand how Eddie got classified as gifted.
ProfBlakie: Clerical error. Those things stick with you for years.
MP3: so I wasn't fired.
ProfBlakie: Okay.
MP3: I wasn't

The point to keep in mind when using devices like this is that the device must carry the story. It must be part of the story telling/narrative and not there as a gimmick. It also can't just repeat information that appears in the traditional part of the narrative, as if it's just illustrating something that has been said in some other way. Using it as a gimmick or an illustration will slow down the narrative drive, the flow of the story.

Because these different types of formats were used in STP&S,  it was included in the bibliography/ article The Text Generation: Fiction That Incorporates Digital Communication by Melanie Koss, which was published in Book Links in 2008. That was two years after the hardcover edition went out of print.

Koss compared books using "e-mails, instant messages, chat room conversations, electronic newsletters, text messages, and blog entries" to "the traditional epistolary story told in letters."

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17. The Environmental Book Club

The 2015 Green Earth Book Award shortlist was announced last month by the Nature Generation.  Winners will be announced on Earth Day, April 22.

And in other environmental booky news, I stumbled upon a review of a book called Violet Mackerel's Natural Habitat by Elanna Allen at Chapter Book Chat. I'll look for it.

By the way, I found that Chapter Book Chat post at the March Carnival of Children's Literature.

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18. The Annotated "Saving the Planet & Stuff" Part One

It's the first day of April, people. April means...Earth Day! I will celebrate it all month with excerpts from Saving the Planet & Stuff and other STP&S-related material. The excerpts will include additional information, links, and sometimes pictures. Think of it as being like those DVD commentaries.

Don't like DVD commentaries? Original Content will be carrying other material this month, too.

We're getting started today with a piece from Chapter One. Our hero, Michael Peter Racine III, has just arrived in Vermont with two much older environmentalists he's known for less than twenty-four hours. They're not people he met on the street but friends from his grandmother and grandfather's (Poppy) youth. One of Michael's first acts upon arriving in Walt and Nora's 1970s-era solar house is to call home and voice his second thoughts to his mother.

     "Somehow I got the impression that Walt was going to be a fun guy," he complained. "But believe me, it was not fun having to listen to him drone on and on about this solid-waste crisis that I'd never even heard of and the number of pollutants emitted by gas-powered lawn mowers. It was like being with Poppy, if Poppy cared about solid waste, which he doesn't. What is it with old men? Walt did flip off a bunch of truck drivers who were working for companies he doesn't approve of, though. That
would have been fun if I hadn't had to concentrate so hard on staying on the road. And then Nora got going on fluoride for some reason. She says the Chinese believe it lowers IQ, and then there's been some kind of study with rats' brains …"
     "Your grandmother says they live their values," Ms. Racine said. "Some people like to talk about saving the planet. This Walt and Nora supposedly live their lives in such a way as to actually do it. You did bring your own toothpaste, didn't you? You know your father believes fluoride was one of God's greatest gifts to mankind, and if they don't use it—"
Nora Blake and Walt Marcello, the two environmentalists Michael takes off with because they offer him a summer job, come out of 1970's Vermont counterculture. The Vermont Historical Society is presently doing a series of forums on the decade and its impact on Vermont. According to an article in a recent Seven Days (my favorite newspaper when visiting northern Vermont), VHS curator Jackie Calder "says the changes initiated in the '60s received institutional expression in the following decade." Meaning that the changes of the '60s actually were changes because they became part of the norm during the '70s. From things I've read elsewhere, that is probably generally true, not just in bobo Vermont. The '70s aren't remembered for great fashion or music, but they had an impact historically.

Saving the Planet & Stuff was written as YA. But the very nonYA characters, Walt and Nora, were crucial to the book. For many years all I had was an idea for a situation--a young person thrown in with much older strangers. As I am sure I have said before, it wasn't until Walt and Nora came into the picture that an actual story began to evolve.



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19. What Did You Do This Week, Gail? March 20th Edition

Goal 1. Mummy Book. Most of my efforts this week went to the mummyless mummy book. I had to do some research in order to move on. So there was research and there was moving on.

Goal 4. Submissions. I continued researching agents.

Goal 5. Community Building. Worked on CCLC and Goodreads.

As I write this, I'm watching Authors Anonymous and becoming depressed. Oh, my gosh. I hope I can go to my writers' group next month.

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20. The Weekend Writer: Are You Developing A Trope Or Using A Cliché?

I'm including  My Top 5 Tried and True Horror Tropes by Micol Ostow in a Weekend Writer post not because I think new writers need to know about horror. Though, of course, if you're interested in writing horror, you'd better. No, what interested me in this post is how she defines the difference between a trope and a cliché. "...there’s also a fine line," Ostow says, "between a “trope” or homage, and a cliché."

When you see people refer to "tropes," it's usually in a flattering way. I can't recall the last time I heard someone say something flattering about a cliché.

The big question (which may be answered in the workshop Ostow mentions, but we won't all be going to that, and it isn't until fall, anyway) is how does a writer make something like a haunted house, asylum, or possessed doll a trope/homage and not a cliché? I've often wondered, is a trope a trope if readers get it, otherwise it's a cliché?

So keep the cliché/trope issue in mind.

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21. Time Management Tuesday: A Situational Time Management Situation

You know how I'm always talking about how we can't set hardcore schedules, we must adapt to the ever changing situations that are our lives. Well, I am. For me, this week is a case in point.

A family member made a quick and successful trip to the ER this weekend. While he is well on the road to recovery, he is recovering, and I'll be helping out with some of his elder care responsibilities and other life chores. This week just happens to be one in which I had appointments digging into my work time, anyway.

  1. I know I can't do everything I normally do in this particular situation, and I don't enjoy trying and failing to do so as much as I used to. Feeling busy and overwhelmed doesn't really attract me much.
  2. I think I might be better off focusing on just a couple of work-related things this week so I can try to make some real progress on them instead of struggling with a number of things and not getting too far with any of them. Practically speaking, I think it's a better move. Emotionally it will be, too. Or not.
  3. I've decided that in this type of situation, blogging may not be the best use of my time.  Even though I do most of my blogging in the evening, I have a promotional plan for next month that I could be working on then that might be a better work choice.
Thus, I will be back on Friday to report how things went. 

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22. What Did You Do This Week, Gail? March 27th Edition

What I focused on this rough week: Small things, since I could squeeze those into the time I had.

Goal 1. Mummy Book. I did some tweaking of early chapters based on some new research and found some new material for research.

Goal 2. Short Work. Worked on the new essay. Did a little bit of market research.

Goal 3. Adult version of Greg and Emma. Looked at a couple of pages. Had some ideas that I've forgotten. Did some market research.

Goal 5. Community Building. I finished the Connecticut Children's Lit Calendar for next month and passed it on to Computer Guy for fitting into the e-newsletter. It will go out this weekend. Also did a little tweeting.

Goal 6. Continue Marketing Saving the Planet & Stuff. I put in a few evenings on an annotated excerpt program I'm doing here next month for STP&S.

Things could have been a whole lot worse.


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23. April Connecticut Children's Literature Calendar

In April we finally get a heavily scheduled month of children's/YA author and illustrator appearances.

Wed., April 1, Paige McKenzie, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 7:00 PM

Thurs., April 2, Jeanne Birdsall, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 5:00 PM

Fri., April 3, Yevgeniya Yeretskaya, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 10:30 AM

Tues., April 7, Paulette Bogan, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 10:30 AM

Wed., April 8, Sarah Darer Littman, Cos Cob Library, Greenwich 7:00 PM

Sat., April 11, Erin Bowman, Barnes & Noble, Canton 12:00 PM

April 13, Lynn Rosenblatt, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 10:30 AM

Sat., April 18, Stacy DeKeyser, Mark Twain House, Hartford 10 AM 4th Annual Authors' Weekend Workshop w/fee

April 22, Gail Carson Levine, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 4:30

April 23, Katherine Applegate, R. J. Julia Booksellers, Madison 5:30 PM

Thurs., April 23, Martha Seif Simpson, Barnes & Noble, North Haven 5 to 9 PM New Author Night
Noah
Sat., April 25, Stacy DeKeyser, Barnes & Noble, Canton 12:00  Local Author Day


Sat., April 25, Katherine Applegate, Steve Light, Bob Shea, Tony Abbott, Kathy MacMillan A Festival of Children's Books, Davis Street Arts and Academics School, New Haven  10 AM - 3 PM

Tues., April 28 Alex London, Noah Webster Library, West Hartford 7:00 to 8:00 PM Registration required

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24. Really, I Shouldn't Be Thinking This Much

I have probably mentioned before that I have an interest in books with some kind of weight-related angle. One branch of my family has been...big...for three generations, probably more. While I've only been borderline heavy at times, myself (though I still have time), I've seen what this issue can do to a lot of people. It's something I think about a lot. If my response to Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught a few years ago is any indication, I over think about it.

All the time I was reading 45 Pounds (More or Less) by K.A. Barson, I was over thinking like mad.

One of the things I was over thinking about was how difficult it must be to write a book about being overweight. I definitely accept the value of the material. But can you write about the experience of being overweight without writing an issue/problem book? How can you write about being overweight without that situation being a problem? On the most superficial level, to do that the writer would have to find a way to overcome social attitudes toward the overweight in the world she creates, forget about the practical considerations Anne in 45 Pounds deals with or the health considerations my family members have dealt with. It's hard to see how this can go any other way than a problem story.

So 45 Pounds falls into the problem novel category, covering a multitude of reasons for people finding themselves a size 17, as main character Anne does. She really is hammered with far more reasons to comfort and impulse eat than anyone needs. She's very good at recognizing them. Though that probably makes sense because she's been studying weight loss for a big part of her sixteen years. Anne's big turn around comes from her desire to help someone else, not herself. That's something I could over think about with little effort. Is it better to improve yourself for yourself or for someone else? What does it all mean?

45 Pounds is definitely readable. Far more readable, in fact, than my angsting over the weight issue would lead my readers to believe. After I finished the book and while I was working on this blog post, I happened to read an article by Susan Dunne about artist Nathan Lewis. At the very end, he says, "That's the way we learn stories, through fragments. The narrative happens in our own mind." It immediately made me think of 45 Pounds, though not because its story is fragmented. Not at all. It's all there. But readers like myself, who feel they have a connection to that story, can get trapped in a narrative in our own minds.
 

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25. Time Management Tuesday: How Is BIC Working For You?

The Myth of 9-to-5 Writing: Why Butt in the Chair May Not Work by Nikki Stern at Talking Writing describes Stern's experience with managing writing time. After having to start getting up and moving every hour because of osteoarthritis, she noticed that she was coming back to work sharper after the breaks, sharper than when she was "pushing through" and putting her butt in a chair for the 9 to 5 hours she'd expected to put in writing.

Stern refers to Tony Schwartz. "Schwartz believes the focused ninety-minute approach is the optimal way to work productively. He cites classic studies by sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman—particularly Kleitman’s 1960s observations of the basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC)—as the biological basis for recommending that workers take a break to rest and refresh every ninety minutes." We've talked about Schwartz's ninety-minute thing before here.

Ninety minutes, folks. That's a unit of time.

One of the interesting things about breaking your work time into units, whether they are ninety minutes long, forty-five minutes, twenty minutes, or something else, is that there is research, such as that cited above, to support it. I haven't seen any research about butt in chair.

An unrelated interesting note from Stern's essay: She says that a C. Northcote Parkinson came up with the expression “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” in the 1950s. Betty Friedan said that about housework in The Feminine Mystique at a later period, something I've never forgotten.  Presumably she was paraphrasing Parkinson and so I have been, too, all this time?

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