When the timorous village of Beastie heard that the Vikings were coming, the inhabitants ran up and down the streets shrieking and moaning. Would no one save them? They sought out the bravest men in the village, pulling them out from under their beds and haystacks and demanding salvation.
Things looked bleak indeed.
Then Elven the Geek came up with an idea. He whipped out his smart phone and began making the most outrageous posts on Twitter.
@barbarians wet the bed! @vikings can't get their beserk on! @norsemen eat boogers!
On the Viking ship, Melvin the Slightly Rosy was the first to discover the horrible insults when he checked Twitter between bouts of seasickness. He shouted out the insults he found and soon the other Vikings rushed to his side. As Melvin's thumbs flew over the buttons on his cellphone, his shipmates shouted out retorts.
On the shore, the villagers watched the Viking ship tilt slowly backwards as more and more Vikings rushed into the Twitter fray. Would the ship sink? Would they be saved? Then they spotted Elsa the Totally Relaxed lounging at the front of the ship. Her great girth and the impressive set of cattle horns mounted on her trendy hat counterbalanced the weight of the Twittering hoarde. The Vikings made it to shore and pillaged the crap out of the people of Beastie.
The moral of the story? You can lead the Norse to Twitter, but you can't make them sink.
I was reading some agent/editor blog or other last year and the blogger was talking about "slush psychosis" which she defined as reading so much really bad writing that your perceptions become skewed. You start to see mediocre writing as really quite good. And good writing as fantastic. All because the really horrendous writing somehow messes with your head.
I think a lot of people don't actually know how bad slush can be. I've read box loads of contest entries before. One was for rhyming stories/poems/picture books. Reading huge box loads of incredibly bad rhyme and meter does something to you. It really does. For one thing, it causes an almost physical pain as your artistic soul begs you to stop. It's the writer version of torturing people by keeping them awake day and night blasting rock music at them.
I made a post on a discussion board somewhere about how I worried sometimes about being too nice to people who write really really badly. And how maybe it's kinder to tell someone that really should go do something else. And a number of writers cringed, saying they were glad no one said anything like that to them when they were bad. By that, I knew those folks really didn't know what "bad" truly is. Bad isn't just awkward or feeling your way through plot and characterization. Bad is barely coherent (and sometimes not even that)...throwing words on the page with the artistry of vomiting on your shoes after a serious drunk. Bad doesn't mean you don't know how to write a good book -- it means you may not know how to write a good sticky note message for the kids.
I have read BAD. Really, really, really bad. And it's a little like running outside to help a dog that's been hit by a car. Sometimes, when you look down...you don't know what to do. The situation is so horrendous and you're seeing insides on the outside and you know...this animal is not going to live. Period. Brains belong inside the skull. So what do you do? Is it fair to scrape it up and carry it to a vet, making it suffer the whole way just so it doesn't die on your watch? Is that compassion or cowardice?
When you read really really really incoherently bad writing...do you offer a couple weak suggestions about reading more kid books or picking up a good grammar guide or do you tell the person, "This story can't be saved." Do we tell people to keep submitting with that false cheer in our voices or do we say, "Stop sending out stories for a while. Go read and write for your own joy for a year or two. See if something comes of that."
I honestly don't know. I know, for me, I had to cut back on the deluge of bad writing I was reading. I had to. I could see the slush psychosis setting in. I could see it in my own writing. I was having trouble judging my own work critically enough. I wasn't being a good crit partner for others.
But sometimes, I think about the folks I spoke cheerfully to when...well...I knew I wasn't really being honest. You know, many years ago, one of my college instructors said to me, "Janis, exactly what time last night did you write this shit?" And even though no one likes their work compared to excrement...he was right. It was crap and someone needed to let me know.
My daughter loves being read to. In fact, she loves to hear stories. If something funny happens when she and her dad are off on errands, she'll ask him to tell me when we get back so that she can listen to the story. She'd rather hear it than tell it (and she loves to talk so this is definitely a matter of liking to hear the story.) She's less fond of reading than of being read to and often chooses nonfiction of the "fun fact" variety over any kind of story. This hasn't always been true of her, but ever since they started having to do a lot of writing as they read books in school...her love of reading has definitely plummeted. But she still loves being read to.
We never did anything in school like she does, having to take notes while reading a novel. We usually read the book, then did some kind of project about it after we were done. I remember once I made a newspaper for a book. The paper was full of articles and ads and even comic strips that all sprang from something in the book. So obviously I had to go back into the book and make connections. But while I was reading it, I was just reading it. I was inhabiting the story.
I don't know how I feel about what her class is doing with books. I'm sure it's helpful on the tests they take, but I definitely keeps her from inhabiting the story. It makes her love the book less. Right now she's reading a book in class that I read aloud to her some time earlier. I think she might hate that less because she already inhabited the story once and now she's just reentering and messing with the innards. Still. It bothers me that my wild girl doesn't love reading stories. She loves story. And she reads GREAT. But in her own spare time, if I come across her with her nose in a book...it's nonfiction.
I think nonfiction is fantastic and I'm glad she can still get joy from it. But it seems to me that something somewhere robbed her of something important. I just hope what they gave her instead is worth it.
Recently I've seen a lot of "letters to my younger self" posts and those are pretty cool. I do sometimes think about things I wished I'd known as a young person. But there are also things I'm so glad I didn't know. I'm glad I didn't know that the "talent" that my instructor's in college enthused about did NOT mean writing was going to be an "easy" career choice for me. I'm glad I didn't know that being published would not make rejection hurt less -- or even happen less often. I'm glad I didn't know that getting a book published or even more than ten books published wouldn't make me feel any more like I'd "arrived" than getting my first magazine article did. I'm glad I didn't know that I could write an entire novel and it would suck so much that no one would buy it and it wouldn't be fixable. I'm glad that I didn't know that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was.
I thought I chose writing because it was the easiest of the choices ahead of me -- I'm glad I didn't know what an absurd notion that was. There is knowledge that would have made me choose differently. Today I might have a totally different job. I might have pursued one of the other things I was halfway good at. And for all that writing can hurt worse than the awfullest teenaged heartache, I still love it. I'm still glad it's what I do. I can't imagine doing anything else.
Ignorance wasn't just bliss...it was life-changing.
I'm not sorry to see 2010 go. In some ways, it was a good year. I wrote thirteen books under contract -- they'll all be published. That's good, right? I made more money than I've ever made before, probably more than if you mashed all the money for my first thirty years of life together. So that's good, right?
I also had a year full of didn'ts. I didn't keep up my website. I didn't keep up this journal. I didn't stay on top of my email. I didn't write anything just because I wanted to without knowing if I could get it published. I didn't stay on top of all my book reviews. I didn't read all the books I wanted to read. I didn't make it to Charleston.
I did begin to adjust a bit to my husband's being out of work permanently and manage to find my own working rhythm within his being home. I did begin to find some balance between work and family. I did make enough money for us to pay all our bills.
We even went on two little family trips. One was tiny, just going across the state to a zoo and making it an overnight trip so the wild girl could swim in a hotel pool. One was longer than we expected, a trip South to visit family for Thanksgiving in Charleston. A trip where my husband tripped over a poorly designed tile ledge at a hotel and broke his leg -- stranding us in a hotel for Thanksgiving and keeping us in the South well past our intended time. We're still unsure how much that one will cost us financially or how long it'll be before my husband heals. He's not a quick healer. But we're finding our rhythm again, even in his new lack of mobility.
I had to postpone taking care of a health condition of mine that REALLY needs attention. I'll get to it in 2011 and I hope it'll be okay. So I guess I approach 2011 with trepidation. I hope it'll be a year where I get healthy. I hope it'll be a year that sees my husband well. I hope it'll be a year where I have enough work to pay the bills. Whatever it is, we'll ride it out, because that's what you do.
I don't have that sense of excitement that I often have for the new year, that sense that anything is possible. I think I have more trepidation. Maybe this year will surprise me in a good way...I guess that's what I hope for. A year to restore my sense of wonder and excitement again.
My wild girl is going to be in the local fair pageant. This is not my idea. We went to the first meeting for this shindig and nearly all the girls had been at this for years. Every single one of the experienced girls had volunteer work of some kind they could talk about. My daughter's idea of volunteering is when she makes the bed without nagging. Clearly, she won't be taking the trophy. I suspect the appeal of this for her is (1) having lots of folks look at her as she (2) wears a new dress with new shoes that have actual heels.
Buying a dress this time of year was no small trick. Most of he fancy things had an empire waistline that looked really quite amazingly wretched on my wild child. Finally we found the dress I'm going to try to show here (I am not gifted with handling this sort of thing in livejournal.). It has a nice crepe black upper dress with ivory chiffon ruffles. The beading around the neck is really quite pretty as well. It's not a "beauty pageant" dress like you see on television but they tell me they prefer the girls not wear that kind of dress. We shall see. At least this one could be worn again to nice events.
I am beginning to think I am not totally cut out for raising a girlie girl as this sort of thing has me quite befuddled.
One of the books I'm adapting/abridging is Pride and Prejudice. I signed up for it because I've never read it. I hated to be the only educated female who had never read Austen. On my first read through, I remained niffish on it. (Don't hurt me.) On the second read through I liked it a bit better. And I'm getting some movie versions on Netflix to see if I find actually hearing people say the lines makes me fall in love. So far...I kinda like Jane Eyre more.
One things these books, JANE EYRE, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, etc, do for me is to make me very glad I wasn't born a long time ago. I find nearly nothing that suggests I would have survived well.
I am presently doing two books at once. They're adaptations and abridgements for ABDO. One is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I only need do three of the stories from the collection and I have read these stories many times as I adored Sherlock Holmes when I was young. Adapting them and even abridging them is okay. I can make them a bit easier for younger kids to follow. I end up looking up a lot of words and sort of defining them into my text. When I was a kid, reading these stories for the first time, I didn't know those words and ...honestly...I just skipped them. I didn't go look them up. I didn't become smarter for having run across them. I just skipped them. Whenever someone suggests we should be building vocabulary by putting tough words in books, I think of all the wonderful books I read by skipping the vocabulary I didn't aready know. Sometimes this led to some confusing during scenes...but I muddled through without actually being educated much. What can I say? I was a lazy kid.
Now, my other adaptation is Aesops Fables. Honestly, who would need to abridge these? In the HARVARD CLASSICS version they each have... like... 75 words. I've tracked done a bunch of versions for each fable and I'm really not abridging them a bit. In fact, they're expanding. A lot of the old versions I'm finding use really big words and kind of abstract phrasing and these really ought to be very accessible stories. I see no reason to make them HARD. They can be interesting and thought-provoking and maybe even profound without being HARD. Plus, really, it would be better if kids didn't skip over words in an itsy bitsy fable. So I guess I'm mostly making them a little longer...but trying to keep that sense of almost a big fat prose haiku. Little gems with a very concrete event that leaves you thinking. That's what I want out of them.
And money. Honestly, I want money. I mean...really...if I was just writing for fun and art, I'd be writing something totally my own. But these are fun and interesting. And they pay me. Life is good.
I read somewhere online recently about someone reading the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant to a group of young children. At the end, he asked the children questions and learned that they felt bad for the grasshopper who died of starvation and cold at the end. But when asked if they would have shared what they had with the grasshopper if they had been the ant, they said no. The ant worked for his, the grasshopper didn't, he basically got what he deserved.
I remember the first time someone read me that fable. I was a little kid. And I thought the ant was selfish. Sure, he worked for what he had but he was the only one around who could save the grasshopper's life. The grasshopper made a bad mistake but he didn't hurt anyone. As a little kid, I didn't think stupidity deserved a death sentence.
So when I read about the guy who asked these questions of little kids, I felt uneasy. This is just one small group of kids but is that what we are starting to believe as a people? That if you don't work, you don't eat? That making a mistake that didn't hurt anyone deserves a death sentence? Could those kids be reflecting a chance in heart of a people?
I remember reading the original Grimm's Fairy Tales and although the horrifying things done to the bad guys didn't give me nightmares, I was bothered by them. I questioned whether shoving someone naked into a barrel full of nail points and dragging the barrel behind a horse was a just punishment or whether forcing someone to dance in white hot iron shoes until they dropped dead was a just punishment for the misbehavior of the bad guys. They didn't seem fair to me. When I was a kid, I wanted to see bad guys punished, but I guess I wanted to see if an even trade for what they did...even then I wanted to see it a little more fitting to the crime. For instance, lopping the hand off a thief seemed a poor punishment for stealing since it made it even less likely the guy could make a living and even more likely he would need to steal. But then, I personally didn't think it was fair to strike the guy dead who was just trying to keep the ark of the covenant from falling into the mud when it was DAVID who got the big idea of putting the ark on a wagon cart instead of finding out how you're supposed to transport it.
As a kid, I was all about the fair. And to me, starvation and freezing wasn't a fair punishment for believing summer would be endless...not when there was someone right there who could save the grasshopper. Not make his winter pleasant, just save him from dying. If kids today truly believe the ant shouldn't share and the grasshopper deserves to die, I'm sad...really sad. And worried about the future.