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There’s been a lot of positive feedback on my previous post, and a lot of offers to participate — so I hope to keep bringing you guest posts from writers across the success spectrum about the kind of failure writers experience. I’ll start with my own.
I want to focus on the kind of failure Debbie Reese was talking about when she jumpstarted this — she referred to a game developers conference where developers speak frankly about failures (sometimes with huge losses of investment), and specifically about a game with Native American tropes that missed the mark. She had critiqued it while in progress, and the developer initially reacted to the critique with the defensiveness and defiance, he ultimately saw her point and grew from it.
It’s important to learn from criticism, especially coming from historically marginalized groups. It is also completely natural to be frustrated by it, defensive, defiant, upset, and annoyed. You spend untold hours working on something creative and it only takes a few minutes for someone to shred it. When a book is already published, there’s not even much you can do about the offense it causes, making it that much easier to push back. But it stunts you as an artist not to listen to feedback. Charlie Chaplin said that artists should actively seek out rejection, and abandon the need to be liked. Part of that is listening to criticism and mulling it over, and part of it is learning to critique yourself in a constructive way.
I have three regrets (and I would probably have more if I thought about it).
First, I have some Native American backstory in my first book, Mudville, and feel like those characters are real and vital to the book. Because such legends figure into the fantasy of the midwest, I felt like I was on firm soil. I got mixed reactions from readers, though, and in particularly upset a woman who had helped me with the Dakota language and cultural aspects as I put the book together. I don’t know what I would do differently were I to start over: drop that backstory all together? Make it more essential? As it is, I can see how readers feel it’s tacked on, appropriating a culture in a half-hearted way, without much sensitivity to the terrible treatment Dakota people have had in this region. At best, I see myself like the school bully at a 20-year high school reunion, throwing his arm amiably around old victims and acting like those episodes of bullying were harmless shared capers that we indulged in together. “We’re cool, right?”
Second, I’ve written previously about Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, “How to Write About Africa,” and how my own book about Africa measures up. I feel like I failed here to know the tropes well enough to avoid them. I patted myself on the back for writing a positive book (and still think those books are necessary), but live with the fact that I fell into the familiar role of white colonist, having the most important African characters be (a) a wild animal, and (b) the sage, magical character. I did a lot right in the book and it’s still my favorite; it is honest about my own experience, but if I had discovered Wainaina’s article before I launched into the book I might have done something even better, something less reliant on cliches.
Third, I think perhaps my biggest regret in any of my books is not making Penny the main character in Winter of the Robots. She’s my favorite character in the book, and both strategically and for the benefit of the girls of the world, I wish I could have said, “this is about a girl who has a knack for programming robots,” and made that the core of the book. If I ever write a sequel, that will be it. As it turned out, even with two girl characters asserting themselves, they take a backseat to the boys when it comes to building and developing the robots and fighting the battles. (OK, one literally drives with the boys in the back seat, but nobody’s going to be fooled by that one scene.)
All of these figure into how I approach books now. More beta readers from other backgrounds is essential, more attention to the way “others” are treated, more challenges to myself to not settle for my instinctive plot lines that are informed by a literary history of white men.
It’s self-serving. I admit to the failures so I can write better books.
Filed under: How to Fail
Tagged: how to fail
, Mamba Point
, winter of the robots
I finally broke down and rode my bike on the trainer today.
The wind is howling, Freya is snoozing, and I'm trying hard to get some writing done on the newest project. Too much to do, even on a long weekend.
I need to grade for a few hours, too.
The DVD player didn't work when I got on the trainer, so I couldn't do a workout video. I read instead, and it's hard to keep my cadence and heart rate up when I'm lost in a story, but I managed most of the time. Most, I say.
I'm reading John Coy's Top of the Order because I read Kurtis Scaletta's Mudville recently. All this is because my newest complete novel, Slider's Son features a 12-year-old who wants to be a major league pitcher. I wanted to see how other Minnesota writers whom I admire handle their baseball stories. I love both of these books, by the way.
Back to work. This time, on my Iowa political intrigue and romance story...with religion and race mixed in. I hope I can make it all balance into a coherent story.
Like Chuck said, Mudville is now in paperback. It officially went on sale today! So if you still haven’t read it, or you’ve been meaning to pick up an extra copy for a pal, now’s your chance to pop over to an independent bookstore and pick up a copy. You’ll probably also find it at Barnes & Noble or Borders. And of course you can get it from Amazon.com.
1. In the summer of 2004 I was watching the Little League World Series to get inspiration for my work in progress, which was bout a catcher named Roy and a pitcher named Sturgis Nye. In one game a kid named Sturgeon struck out all but a few batters in a complete game shutout. He was lanky, dark haired, and pitched in the mid 70s, an unthinkable speed for Little League. He practically had my character’s name and was just as I imagined him.
2. In Mamba Point, I imagined I’d made up a character named Roger, a hippie scientist in Monrovia studying snakes. That was before my dad sent me this picture of “Charlie the Snake Man,” whom I’d completely forgotten (and still don’t really remember). Another character in the story, also fond of snakes, is called Charlie.
3. In the first draft of Wake, ME (and, I expect, the final book) there is a woman by the unlikely name of Howard. Without getting too much into it, she’s well connected to a famous writer of horror fiction, and is discreetly named for H.P. Lovecraft, whom looms large in the story (there are both oblique and explicit references to Lovecraft throughout the story.) Today my wife told me about an actual woman named Howard. I had no idea there ever was one, and this one turned out to be so perfect that I’ve been chuckling all day. I’ll leave it unstated to see if any of my commenters want to have a guess the name by which she is better known.
Filed under: Mamba Point
, Wake, ME
By: Aaron Starmer
Blog: The Indubitable Dweeb
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The world of children’s literature is full of generous and supportive people. First and foremost among these are the authors. If they’re competing for shelf space and bestseller lists, they certainly don’t act like it. I’m new to this world, but have been lucky enough to meet and learn from dozens of authors. Kurtis Scaletta has been at this about as long as I have, but it would seem as though he’s been doing it forever. He’s already a seasoned pro. His newest book is The Tanglewood Terror, a beautiful mash-up of classic science fiction, football, bicycle-back adventure, and bittersweet family drama, with a healthy dose of adolescent awkwardness mixed in. It will be released on the same date as The Only Ones: tomorrow! To celebrate the occasion, we decided to interview each other. I’m answering questions on his blog. He’s answering questions here. If you can find a better deal than that, then pin a tail on me and call me a donkey. Because it don’t exist.
Aaron: First off, congratulations on crafting an utterly unique story, a gentle but ominous tale about a plague of mushrooms and a family struggling to hold itself together. And congratulations on your third book in three years (after Mudville and Mamba Point). It’s an astounding accomplishment, especially considering they’re each stand-alone novels set in vastly different times and places.
Kurtis: Thanks. I published my first book at age 40 and I think I was trying to make up for lost time by putting out a book a year.
Aaron: I guess that leads to my first question. In a children’s book industry dominated by trilogies and series, what is it about the stand-alone novel that appeals to you?
Kurtis: Kids love series, no doubt about it. They ask about sequels a lot. I think it’s because they feel really connected to the characters, they make these temporary friends and want to keep seeing them. But I’m usually focused on a kid in a time of upheaval and transformation. By the end of the book, that kid and the world around him have changed too much to go back and do it again. But I did love series as a kid, too, and I have one in the works… it’s for younger readers than my first three novels so it can be a little more static.
Aaron: The Tanglewood Terror is set in present day Maine, in a world of cell phones and the internet. Yet it also seems to exist in a time when kids were granted more freedom. The characters roam the woods for hours on end. There are none of the “helicopter parents” we hear about. The wonderful title and cover art communicate the retro aspect of the story, but I’m curious how this notion of freedom and autonomy informed your writing. Was it something other than nostalgia for you? It reminds me of the
Hey, evryone, this is Carl. Isn't the internet great? You can do all sorts of cool things on there--play games, find out interesting stuff, and read other blogs. This last one is great because I learn about great new books through other blogs. Sometimes I get to find out about new books before they come out. That's how I found out about Mudville
by Kurtis Scaletta
. It sounds like a good story and Mr. Scaletta sounds like a good guy. (I was so intersted in this book that I contacted him through his website) Do you know what?? This book hasn't even come out yet!! And do you also know what? This is his FIRST BOOK!!! I wonder what it must be like to be a first-time author. Well, we're going to find out because Mr. Scaletta gave us an interview!
Could you tell us about your new book? What is it about? How did you come up with the story? How long did it take to write it?
Mudville is about a town where it’s been raining for 22 years, so a generation of kids haven’t been able to play baseball unless they drive to another town. There used to be a big baseball rivalry with the town next door, but that town has been washed off the face of the earth. When the rain finally stops, the kids decide to put a team together and stage a rematch, which is hard since most of them don’t know how to play and their rivals don’t exist anymore.
What is it like to have a book published for the first time?
It takes a while for a book to go through editing, so there’s plenty of time to get used to the idea and start fretting that it won’t be a successful book and that the publisher will regret investing in you… but when the book is actually out – just 22 more days! – I think I will be able to stop fretting for a second and just enjoy the moment.
You have another book coming out! Tell us about that one too.
I have a work in progress that will most likely come out next year. It’s about an American kid who lives in West Africa because his father is in the foreign service – that part is based on personal experience. This kid befriends a mamba, though – one of the deadliest snakes in the world – that part is definitely not based on personal experience!
What did you like to read as a boy? Did you have any favorite comics? Any favorite heroes?
My favorite writer when I was a kid was Daniel Manus Pinkwater, who wrote silly but often poignant books. My favorite comics—if I’m being honest—were Archie comics. I read crates of them. I liked Spiderman a little but didn’t really get into the superhero genre very much. My heroes were Indiana Jones and The Fonz.
Why is it cool for boys to read/write?
There’s really nothing more natural than sharing stories. Human beings have been storytellers from the first time cavemen gathered around a campfire and talked about how they caught their dinner. Whether you do it in book form or not, you listen to stories every day– you watch movies or play video games, even look at ads in comic books. They are all stories. You probably tell stories too -- you tell your buddies about your trip to Florida and maybe exaggerate a bit to make it more exciting, or you reenact your favorite scenes from a movie you saw.
Reading is just one more way to share stories, but I’ve always thought it was the best way to really get pulled into the story, and as a writer I find nothing more rewarding than making up the stories that kids can get pulled into.
What are your favorite sports? Favorite teams?
As you might guess, my favorite sport to watch is baseball. I’m a Twins fan, since I live in Minnesota. I also root for the Gopher football team and the Vikings. The only other sport I watch is golf, which I also sort of play, if you can call what I do “golfing” instead of just tearing up the golf course and cursing a lot.
Which do you like better—cheeseburgers or pizza? What do you like on them?
When it comes to guy food, my favorite is a plate of hot wings with plenty of bleu cheese to dip them in. However, if pressed to decide between the two options listed, I am not averse to a bacon cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato and a side of onion rings. In fact you’ve got me craving that now and it’s only 7:30 in the morning.
Thanks, Mr. Scaletta! The library has already ordered copies of his book, so be on the lookout for it.
Whoa. What are the chances of this happening again?? We set up a poll for you to vote on the guilt or innocence of Evil Ell...I mean, the accused Ellen. You remember that she stood accused of the heinous crime of putting a princess book in the Sacred Shrine of Guyhood (our Boys Read book display). We held a fair and impartial trial in the Cosmic Court of Justice but ended up with a hung jury (which means they couldn't decide), so we put it out there for you to decide. Well, the time was up at 4 pm today. At 3 pm the votes were going against Darth Bill. Then somehow, I don't know how, there were 6 votes in one hour that said the Carlman did it, which made it exactly 11 votes against Darth Bill and 11 votes against the Carlman!!!! What a coincidence!!!! Never in all the eons of the galaxy has the Carlman seen such a coincidence. Now some might say that it was a sith plot to throw suspicion off Darth Bill, but I say it is just an amazing alignment of the stars and planets. That means, of course, that we have another hung jury and we must declare Ellen INNOCENT. There--once again you have an example of the great fairness and justice of BOYS.
Now that we've got that settled, I can tell you about Mudville, the new book by first-time author Kurtis Scaletta. 12-year-Roy McGuire lives in Moundville, loves baseball, but has never played a game in his hometown. Why? Because it's been raining there for the last 22 years!! Yep, 22 years. It all started when Roy's dad was playing for the Moundville team against their old rivals, the Sinister Bend team. Moundville had never won against the other team but, when rain clouds started moving in, Roy's dad saw that they could keep Moundville from losing if he could delay the game until it rained, when the game would be called off. So the rain came, the game was called off--and it kept raining for 22 years!! What would happen if the rain stopped? Could Roy and his friends finish the game his postponed?? You gotta read it to find out!! And the ending--knowing what happens at the end, would YOU do the same thing Roy did? Don't know what I'm talking about? Then you gotta read to find out!! BTW, Mr. Scaletta is writing more books. Read an interview with him here. I'm glad Mudville won't be his last book!
I'm off until Monday. I've got The Sword Thief, the latest 39 Clues with me, plus The City of Ember, and James and the Giant Peach. PLUS--the ACC basketball tournament is on TV. Carolina plays at noon tomorrow and Florida State at 2. Ahhh---good books, ACC basketball with chips and salsa!! This will be a good weekend!!
Sung to the tune of a Rodgers & Hammerstein tune:
The author and the rock star should be friends!
Oh, the author and the rock star should be friends!
One person likes to tell a tale; the other likes to dance and wail,
But that's no reason that they can't be friends!
I wrote up a bit about the songlist for Mudville for the book notes series at Large Hearted Boy, where authors… (Read More)
I'm glad you got your copy of the Percy Jackson book, Jedi Master Zack. That was very public-spirited of you, getting your own copy so that kids wouldn't have to wait. The Great and Powerful CARLMAN, though, has decided to set an example of an example of patience and tranquility. Therefore, I am waiting patiently for The Last Olympian.
I'm waitng...patiently..for...The Last Olympian.
AAAAUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!!! WHEN IS IT EVER GOPING TO GET HERE????
If you want your parents to get you a copy, our friends and brother readers at the SMS Guys Read blog
have given us some guidelines on what to do:
Way number 1:
The classic whine with Bambi eyes, like so: Pweety pwease mommy, wit a chweery ontop.
Way number 2:
Beg WITH YOUR LIFE MAN!!!: PPPPPLLLLLLEEEEAAASSSEEE!! If you don't buy it my life will be RUINED! I will never do well in school again, Mom, I will end up in a box behind a Wal-mart eating chicken bones out of the dumpster from the bar next door, all because YOU DID NOT BUY ME THE BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Way number 3:
Promise to do stuff like: Clean you room, Wash the walls, Clip the cats toe nails, paint the trees, help her with work, stuff like that.
Way number 4(if she questions why you need to go that very instant):
Say that all the other kids at school will laugh at you cause you don't have the book. Promise to work it off or see way number 3.
Way Number 5:
Lie and tell her that your teacher told you that you need to have it for class tomorrow.
and last but not least,
Way number 6:
Suggest the closest bookstore. Saving gas always makes a mom happy
Thanks, guys! We at the Boys Read blog would never recommend lying, of course----well, maybe Darth Bill would since he's a sith lord--but you might try some of these other methods. Check out the whole article here
or go their site, which is under the Links section on the left-hand side of the page. PLUS, they wrote a truly outstanding post about Star Wars day, May 4th. Drat!! Wish I'd known about it! That's what I get for not checking their site every day
Well ,as I said before, life doesn't stop stop while waiting and there are lots of good books out
there. I just finished a really, really
good one called Bill Penant, Babe Ruth, and Me
by Timothy Toucher. This is one of those books that makes you feel really good when you turn the last page. And you'll keep turning these pages because of the terrific story.
It's the 1920 baseball season. Young Hank Cobb spent the last summer working for John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants. After the season, McGraw sent Hank off to Anson Academy so the boy could get an education, but Hank absolutely hates school and doesn't see why he needs to be there. His great dream is to be a ball player; he can learn all he needs on the ballfield. Imagine his joy, then, when McGraw calls him out of school to work for the Giants again. But then imagine his surprise when he finds out his new job will be taking care of Bill Penant, the team mascot. And Bill Penant is a baby wildcat--a real wildcat, totally untamed! But that's not all; he also discovers that he must also "take care" of the Yankees' new player, Babe Ruth, who is rather untamed himself. (The Giants and Yankees shared a ball park back then) Can Hank work for both the Giants and Yankees? And what happens when this baby wildcat grows up? And will Hank ever go back to school or stay in the ballpark all his life? Want to know? Then you have to get this book and find out!
I tell you, if you get this one, you'll enjoy it for sure. It's funny, funny, funny--especially with all the scenes of Hank and the wildcat! But then, just as you think it'll be all fun and games, something serious happens that changes Hank's whole life. He has to face up to his fears and decide his future. Is he a coward? Or does he have what it takes? All guys have to answer that question at some point. Read it and see how Hank gets his answer.
And Mr. Tocher does a good job bringing historical people into the story.
John Mc Graw was a real person.
So was Damon Runyon (a baseball reporter who went on to become one of
America's most famous writers).
Speaking of baseball, let me remind you of some other REALLY good baseball books. One is Mudville
by Kurtis Scaletta. It's hard to believe that this is Mr. Scaletta's first book becuase it's so good. The basic idea is that these kids live in a town in which it has rained for 22 years!! Then, one day, it stops!! And it may have something to do with a baseball game 22 years ago, a foster brother, and Native American mysticism. I didn't talk about this book nearly enough when I reviewed it on 3-12-09. The characters act like real kids, the situation, strange as it is, iis totally believable, the story gets a big hold on you, and there's quite a twist at the end. You'll like it a lot!
The other is the Barnstormers
series by Loren Long and Phil Bildner. They're going to be called the Sluggers
now and there's a new one already out. It's called Water, Water Everywhere
. The library has plenty of copies; I'm going to check one out as soon as I'm done writing! You've got baseball, magic, mystery, suspense, and truly nasty bad guys. This is one of my very
Thanks for listening to me in such a long post. I had to talk so much becasue these books are good!!
If you plan on giving a friend or loved one Mudville for Christmas or Hanukkah, a December birthday, New Years Day, Festivus, or anything else…. Just let me know. While supplies last, and within the U.S. only, I will send you a personalized bookplate so you can fancy up the book. Just use the contact me form to let me know who is receiving the book and where I should mail the bookplate.
Here’s an actual blog round up, which I haven’t done in a while, but there was a minor flurry of activity last week.
I visited the St. Michael, Minnesota middle school last week and met a bunch of cool kids and a very cool teacher, Jill Foltz, who blogged about it better than I could. As usual I appreciated the kids telling me about what they like to do, and what they like to read. One thing I noticed is that easily half the kids, maybe more, were carrying recreational reads… from my buddy Carrie’s zombie apocalypse novel, to a baseball novel I’ve read, um, once or twice.
But Bertie is more of a star this week, outshining me in this interview by Sharon, and also appearing on the Friskies blog (you have to download the PDF newsletter at that URL to see a picture he took).
Mudville the paperback will be released in four weeks. In many regards the paperback is exactly like the hardcover, with some important exceptions.
1. It’s smaller, lighter, cheaper, and more supple.
2. It’s got great review quotes slapped all over it.
3. It’s got a picture of a horse (the Yearling logo) instead of a picture of a dog (the Knopf logo).
I love the dog, but I love the horse too. I have good associations with paperbacks bearing the little horse logo. The little horse was on a lot of my favorite books, from Encyclopedia Brown when I was in first grade to Where the Red Fern Grows in sixth grade, and who knows how many in between. I love that little horse.
I preferred paperbacks as a kid because they were easier to read, easier to stuff into a hip pocket and tote somewhere, and cheap enough that I could buy one once in a while with my allowance. I’d walk a few blocks to a little store on North Fifth Street and pick up some life-changing treasure like The Pigman for maybe sixty cents. To be honest, I think some of the books piled up on the teen table had been sitting there a while so were sitting with the prices of ten years ago. There was a coke machine in that store that sold only bottled coke for a dime a pop (so to speak), so maybe the whole bookstore was in a time warp.
Anyway, paperbacks are inexpensive but awesome things to give someone, so I’m going to hand off a paperback of Mudville to somebody. Here’s the catch: I’m going to pick up a cue from Shaun Hutchinson and give it to a kid. So if you know a boy or girl who might like Mudville, let me know in the comments, and in a few weeks I’ll pick one commenter at random and send off a book with an inscription to you or directly to the kid. Just make sure you use a valid email address when you leave your comment so I contact you if you win.
And you might want to take Shaun up on his suggestion to give a kid a book, too — especially a kid who might not read that much, otherwise, but would if you walked up out of the blue and handed that kid a book. That’s a great value for the cost of a paperback.
Somebody recently found my blog by googling “mudville hard words,” which I guess was a blank in a book report. I’m not a big fan of book reports, but it set me to thinking about how for me some words are inexorably linked with the books where I learned them. To me, radiant means shining like a milk-washed pig and curious is how you feel when you’ve just seen a waist-coated time-conscious rabbit.
One I remember particularly well is tedious, which is how Mr. O’Brien describes the chore of chewing through a rope for a field mouse in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I rarely do some tiresome task without thinking about that little mouse gnawing at the rope. For me that is the very definition of the word. I am even encouraged by remembering her diligence.
And so might you be, as you page through Mudville in search of hard words. Let me know if you find any.
By: Ben Zimmer,
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When Al Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to raise awareness about man-made climate change, his acceptance speech featured a new word, or rather a new sense of an old word, that Oxford lexicographers have been watching closely: carbon, in the sense of “carbon dioxide or other gaseous carbon compounds released into the atmosphere.” As I wrote back in July, this extended sense of carbon can be found in all sorts of novel lexical compounds: carbon-neutral (2006 New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year), carbon footprint, carbon tax, carbon trading, and so forth. In his speech, Gore introduced another compound into the mix: carbon summer.
Baseball season is underway and the "Opening Day" issue of the fine literary journal Elysian Fields Quarterly: The Baseball Review is on newsstands now. Included in this issue is David Shiner's excellent review of The Night Casey Was Born, titled "How Mudville Found America." The Night Casey Was Born, written by John Evangelist Walsh, tells the true story of the great American ballad Casey at the Bat. "A pleasant and informative read," writes Shiner. "The pace is brisk and appealing, and there's enough diamond action to keep fans happy."