Greetings, Schmoozers! Before we launch into October’s Very Special Schmooze Subject – let’s first take a moment to acknowledge last month’s blog post on September’s Conference Recap/Query How-To Schmooze…was that an outstanding blog post or what?! So much info and insight and inspiration and…
What's that? You missed it?! Well, don't worry. So did we. Yep, there was no blog post for September’s Schmooze. That’s right – we blew it off. We dropped the ball. Shirked our duties. Fell asleep at the wheel. Whatever your euphemism of choice may be, we did it. And we’re sorry. (At least Karol’s sorry. Charlie really doesn’t give a crap…. HEY! Last time I let Karol write the first draft of a blog post…!)
Yes – September’s Schmooze was productive and fun. It was great to see everyone again after the break. And we will give you some of those helpful query-themed links we promised at the end of this blog post. But let’s face it, September is so two months ago, and October’s only one month ago, so we’ll just be moving along now.
On October 10th, about 28 of us gathered for what Charlie and Karol promised would be the Most Provocative Schmooze Ever. We got off to a decidedly routine and unprovocative start with the usual introductions and announcements.
Chief among the announcements were:
- Registration is now open for the SCBWI National Winter Conference in New York (February 1st – 3rd).
- The SCBWI-LA, Westside Writers Schmooze and the Santa Monica Public Library are cosponsoring a free screening of the documentary LIBRARY OF THE EARLY MIND at the main branch of the SMPL on Saturday, December 1st at 2 PM. Flyers will be available soon; feel free to invite your friends.
We planned to get into the “meat” of our meaty topic with a reading of Greg Pincus’ A Poem For Banned Book Week (read it HERE). Karol had permission to read the poem to the group if Greg hadn’t arrived yet, and just as she was clearing her throat, guess who walked in? The man himself! (This was a relief to Karol, as her Greg Pincus impersonation is sub par at best.)
The “Main Event” – a discussion of modeling desirable behavior vs. mirroring authentic (albeit often undesirable) behavior in kids’ books – was divided into three sections:
- Overall Story
- Artists’ Responsibility to their audiences
|Charlie and Karol decided to have a little pre-Halloween fun with the "Devil's Advocate" |
and "Miss Goodie-Two-Shoes" roles they opted to play. Photo snapped by Lee Wind.
In the Language section, Charlie began by reading an except from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, where Alexie had his teenaged boys referring to each other using a gay slur – and then had his main character offer a mea culpa of sorts. Charlie argued that the justification for using the slur was not only unnecessary, but it actually lessened the authenticity and impact of the scene (where two best friends were just beginning to speak to each other again after a long feud). It was pointed out that this exchange came late in the book, so we already knew that the main character was a decent guy, rendering his mea culpa somewhat redundant. However, if we were just meeting him, the impact of the language would have been very different.
This was definitely a great way to get the conversation started. Some Schmoozers wondered whether our audiences are sophisticated enough to understand the subtext in “controversial” dialogue and where to draw the line between authentic kids speak and providing models of the worldview that we, as artists, want to put out in the world. Is there a difference between censorship and forced political correctness? How did we feel about the “N-word” being replaced in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word "slave?" (Read the NY Times take on that here) The general consensus among Schmoozers was that the substitution greatly decreased the potency of the racism the character of Jim had to endure – as well as the power of his eventually gaining his freedom. Charlie argued that the words were differed in kind, not just degree, as a slave can be of any race and can be freed, whereas you can't change the color of your skin and the "N-word" speaks of racism specifically, which exists beyond the confines of slavery.
One person shared the tale of a librarian from the Midwest who couldn’t acquire a book if it featured the “F-word” in the first three pages, and several Schmoozers pointed out that, as kids, they’d often used derogatory words without knowing what the slurs actually meant. (We all assumed today’s kids were no different.)
From there, we moved on to a broader discussion of the overall stories in kids’ books, and whether it’s optimal or optional to leave young readers with at least a modicum of hope. Arguing for the “optimal” side of the debate, Karol gave an example from a YA novel she’d recently read that left her devastated and, honestly, a bit angry. (We’ll leave the author and book unnamed here, to avoid spoilers and because we’d just as soon adhere to the “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” adage.) It wasn’t that she hated the book overall. To the contrary, she found it completely engrossing and could barely put it down. It’s just that it ended in complete and unimaginable tragedy. Karol was quick to point out that she knew the author was known for edgy, difficult stories and that she doesn’t expect every book to end with unicorns frolicking under rainbows…but devastation? What would a teen reader who really identified with the character and story be left with, she wondered.
A Schmoozer offered that, while he isn’t much into devastating endings in kids’ books himself, he knows that particular author has a passionate fan base, with whom she communicates regularly via social media. And another mentioned a YA author who said he loves bleak, hopeless YA novels because he felt that way as a teen. Charlie, again playing Devil’s Advocate, talked about the “lost chapter” in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, which offered a happier ending to a poignantly dreary classic. Interestingly in this case, it was the book’s editor who refused to include the dénouement, angering Burgess. Having read the lost chapter in an anniversary edition of the book, Charlie firmly sided with the editor, saying that the happy ending neutered the story of its impact.
We easily segued into our last Big Question of the night – what is the responsibility of an artist to his or her audience?
Again, there were no easy answers to the questions posed, but it did seem like there was a general consensus that writers of children’s literature were in a unique position to effect positive change. Lee Wind pointed out that the types of stories featuring GLBTQ characters had really shown growth, moving from stories with tragic endings for gay characters, to “issue books” specifically about coming out and other challenges faced by gay characters, to a more recent crop of books which feature varied storylines about characters who just happen to be gay. Everyone pretty much agreed that children's books do have an impact, so you have a moral, as well as a creative, obligation to write stories with messages you’re willing to stand behind. One Schmoozer felt the subject you pick to write about is, at least to some degree, the message of your book, whether you intended for that or not. Another added his belief that, if you write children's books, you have a drive to do something meaningful for kids. In that sense, we probably DO have some special responsibility to our audience.
The sentiment which was perhaps most prominent throughout the evening’s lively discussion is that there’s room for varied opinions on all of these topics – different readers will respond to bleak or happy endings, coarse language or the lack of it, mimicking “bad behavior” or modeling “good behavior.” The key is that YOU, dear kids' lit writers, do not betray your own beliefs and sensibilities. So long as you hew close to them, and take responsibility for them, your audience – the ones with whom your sensibilities resonate – will not only find you, but be enriched and nourished by your work.
With that, we said our goodbyes – but not before reminding everyone of our next Schmooze on November 14th: TIME TRAVEL, BODY SWAPPING & OTHER WAY-COOL, REALITY-BENDING WAYS OF TELLING A STORY. Come with examples of your favorite books in this genre and questions about your own off-kilter manuscripts. Together, we’ll try to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what really makes these stories tick.
Before we go, here are a few of those helpful links on querying we promised you…
(great source for info on agents!)
And a few more great leads, courtesy of Schmoozer Pat O’Brien:
Kristin Nelson at http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ has links on the right sidebar with specific examples of author queries to her that worked, as well as why she liked the queries. She also includes some examples of her pitch letters to editors.
Janet Reid aka Query Shark has an agent site with query faq on sidebar and the query site where she tears into examples sent to her by brave souls. http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
Nathan Bransford, former agent who is now an author, has long been sharing how-to info on his site. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/ Look on the left sidebar for query advice and examples.
Best of luck Schmoozers – with your queries and with tackling complicated story ethics issues in your manuscripts!
Keep passing the open windows,
Charlie & Karol