Archive for July 28, 2011

Meet Sue Fondrie, 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for “Worst Opening Sentence in a Work of Fiction”

On Monday, July 25, Sue Fondrie was announced as the grand prize winner of the 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. As a longtime fan (and occasional perpetrator) of spectacularly bad writing, I blogged that sucker up and, to my surprise, Sue dropped by with a comment. Medium story short: She agreed to satisfy my curiosity by answering a few questions.

Sue, I loved and admired your amazing sentence. Congratulations on the sweet, sweet victory. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do for a living?

Is this victory sweet? I think it soured people on writing, really.

Not true! I think it takes a real appreciation of language to create something that egregiously bad. Just look at the popularity of the contest. We are delighted and charmed. Seriously: Great job.

For a living, I work with future teachers as an associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I teach the secondary English methods courses, the middle school education course, supervise student teachers in English language arts, and generally help students become teachers.

Let us gaze in awe once again upon your award-winning sentence:

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

How long did it take you to craft it? I can’t believe something that over-cooked could have been completed in a first draft.

Don’t tell anyone, but I cranked it out in a few minutes, initially. Then, as I always recommend to my students, I let it sit for a few weeks and then came back to work on it some more. Hmm, maybe I should’ve let it sit longer . . .

Have you entered the contest in previous years? What appeals to you about bad writing?

I’ve never entered before, although I’ve been following it for almost 20 years. What’s not to love about bad writing? It makes my own mediocre efforts seem acceptable.

You are an associate professor at a university, the land of ivory towers, usually a bastion for writing that is dry, tedious, filled with arcane language. The academic world has it’s own brand of bad. But your purple prose draws inspiration from . . . where, exactly? Can you site any specific sources? Just a hunch, but have you been reading the Twilight series?

If you read any of my academic writing, you’d see that dry and tedious describes it perfectly. I credit my Bulwer-Lytton win to being raised in a household of people who love a good pun and like to play with language. We often had long pun-filled contests on a central theme. And like any good teacher educator, I’ve read the Twilight series.

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes,

knows a few things about academic writing.

What next? I mean, is there a second sentence in the works? A chapter, a book? Do you have serious writing aspirations?

Sadly, I had but the one sentence in me. I’m going to rest on my rapidly decaying laurels. As for serious aspirations, I’m a superior technical writer and an appalling creative one. I’ll have to stick with academic efforts and the occasional (bad) fan fic effort.

Good luck, Sue. Thanks for stopping by. Your parting gift is on the way — a signed copy of my recent book, Bystander. And if you ever do write that next sentence, I’ll be eager to read it. In the meantime, I’ll be left with only forgotten memories and sparrow-like thoughts . . .

Yes, Virginia!

Last week, Florida crumbled into submission. This week, it’s Virginia tapping out under the brute force of my choke hold of a book.

No, it wasn’t you; I have no idea what I just said, either. Gibberish, mostly. I’m gibbering. Perhaps it’s time to contact the people at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. So let’s try again and not bury the lead this time:

I just learned that Bystander was nominated for the Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards Thingy.

I keep finding out about these award/contests in seemingly random ways. There’s no official letter, no word from my publisher. It’s usually an email from someone who figures I already know.

But I don’t. I so don’t.

Anyway, again, great news for Bystander to be nominated as one of the better books for middle school readers. That’s six states I’m aware of, or seven, if we’re willing to count Confusion as a state. I always make a point of listing the other titles nominated for these awards. I do that because this blog won’t be of interest to anyone, including me, if it’s all about James Preller all the time. Also, I enjoy discovering the titles of these books, something new and unexpected always pops up, and I’m forever looking for good books to read and/or purchase for my kids. It’s an honor to share a ballot with such accomplished writers.

Virginia’s Reader’s Choice Awards for Middle School

Bystander, James Preller

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, James Swanson

The Leanin’ Dog, K.A. Nuzum

Mockingbird, Kathryn Erskine

Out of My Mind, Sharon Draper

Pop, Gordon Korman

The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Tom Angleberger

Ways to Live Forever, Sally Nichols

When the Whistle Blows, Fran Cannon Slayton

Thank you, Virginia!

And Now, Ladies & Gentlemen, the Worst Opening Sentence of 2011 . . .

Congratulations, Sue Fondrie! You have written the worst opening sentence to an imaginary novel in 2011.

That is, according to the good-natured judges over at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

Here’s Sue’s amazing (and surely deserving) effort:

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

Sue, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, is the 29th grand-prize winner of the contest. The runner-up sentence was perpetrated by one Rodney Reed of Tennessee:

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this . . . and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

According to Wikipedia (which I love, btw, I don’t care what you say), Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a bestselling 19th-century novelist who coined the phrases, “The great unwashed,” “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and the classic opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Overheard: “Dad, I just got a cool new app.”

Gavin got an iPod Touch for his twelfth birthday. He just downloaded a new app. It’s brought the whole family together. Let’s hear it for technology. Come on, everyone, repeat after us: “BRAAAINS!”

We think Mom has been working too hard. And Daisy the Zombie Dog . . . looks hungry.

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukowski’s “Nirvana”

Tom Waits reads “Nirvana,” a great poem by an imperfect man, Charles Bukowski.

the young man

thought, I’ll just sit

here, I’ll just stay

here.

but then

he rose and followed

the others into the

bus

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

I really enjoyed this fan video, created by somebody out there and shared on Youtube. Great job, brother. Hits the mood exactly right.

Nirvana, a poem by Charles Bukowski

not much chance,
completely cut loose from
purpose,
he was a young man
riding a bus
through North Carolina
on the way to somewhere
and it began to snow
and the bus stopped
at a little cafe
in the hills
and the passengers
entered.
he sat at the counter
with the others,
he ordered and the
food arived.
the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.
the dishwasher.
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
was
beautiful
there,
that it would always
stay beautiful
there.
then the bus driver
told the passengers
that it was time
to board.
the young man
thought, I’ll just sit
here, I’ll just stay
here.
but then
he rose and followed
the others into the
bus.
he found his seat
and looked at the cafe
through the bus
window.
then the bus moved
off, down a curve,
downward, out of
the hills.
the young man
looked straight
foreward.
he heard the other
passengers
speaking
of other things,
or they were
reading
or
attempting to
sleep.
they had not
noticed
the
magic.
the young man
put his head to
one side,
closed his
eyes,
pretended to
sleep.
there was nothing
else to do-
just to listen to the
sound of the
engine,
the sound of the
tires
in the
snow.

@Charles Bukowski

“Bystander” Nominated for the Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award

I’m always happy to share good news. I learned this morning that Bystander has been selected as one of the books listed for the Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award for grades 6-8.

I’m not lying. Click here if you don’t believe me.

According to the SSYRA website:

The Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award Program is a statewide reading motivation program for students in grades 3-8. The program, cosponsored by the School Library Media Services Office of the Department of Education and the Florida Association for Media in Education (FAME), began in 1983. The purpose of the SSYRA Program is to encourage students to read independently for personal satisfaction, based on interest rather than reading level.

Sunshine State books are selected for their wide appeal, literary value, varied genres, curriculum connections, and/or multicultural representation. Students are encouraged to read books that are above, on, and below their tested reading level in order to improve their reading fluency.

All schools are sent a school participation form in August and registration, activities, and voting are available online for participating schools.

This is a real honor and I’m very glad to see this book, and this topic, get into the hands of young readers. Believe me, I’ve written decent books that have disappeared — just vanished, poof! — so it’s terrific to see Bystander hanging in there.

Readers may remember that Bystander has already received similar nominations from the good folks in Oklahoma, New York, Vermont and Kentucky. Understandably, but still weirdly, these awards require a vote. A winner and a sorry bunch of losers, rudely kicked to the curb. I tell you now in total honesty that my deepest hope is to please Dear God not come in last place. Oh, how I wish I had more cousins in Florida! In truth, and my apologies for employing such a tired cliche, but to be nominated is as good as winning. Kind of. Really! No, not really. But almost!

Thank you, Sunshine State!

The other books on the Master List for grades 6-8:

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angelberger

The Prince of Fenway Park by Julianna Baggott

Flawed Dogs: The Novel by Berkeley Breathed

Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper

Dark Life by Kat Falls

Pemba’s Song: A Ghost Story by Tonya Hegamin and Marilyn Nelson

Scat by Carl Hiassen

Alibi Junior High by Greg Logsted

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

Woods Runner by Gary Paulsen

Bystander by James Preller

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

Jolted: Newton Starker’s Rules for Survival by Arthur G. Slade

Killer Pizza by Greg Taylor

Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

I’m sure I speak for all the authors when I say . . . VOTE FOR BYSTANDER! Please, people, it’s not even close. Katherine Paterson? What’d she ever write? Hiassen? In Florida? They’ve got to be sick of him by now. By coincidence, I just purchased Tom Angelberger’s book because my friend, author Jennifer Roy, wouldn’t stop raving about him, and it. All I kept thinking was, “Jennifer, when are you going to start raving about me?” What’s up with her, anyway?

The Rights of the Reader

“What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.” Daniel Pennoc.

-

A note from my pal, Lewis Buzbee, alerted me to a book he figured was right up my alley.

Here’s the summary from Indiebound:

First published in 1992 and even more relevant now, Daniel Pennac’s quirky ode to reading has sold more than a million copies in his native France. Drawing on his experiences as a child, a parent, and an inner-city teacher in Paris, the author reflects on the power of story and reminds us of our right to read anything, anywhere, anytime, so long as we are enjoying ourselves. In a new translation with a foreword and illustrations by Quentin Blake, here is a guide to reading unlike any other: fresh, sympathetic, and never didactic, it is a work of literature in its own right.

It was one of those reading experiences I took slow. A book, translated by Sarah Adams and marvelously illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, that could be polished off in a single sitting — There! Did it! What’s next?! — but one I stretched out across several weeks, better to let it sink, like a stone slowly settling in thick liquid. My copy a mess, filled with marginal notes, underlines, stars, circles, asterisks.

The chapters are short, poetic, slowly building upon a thesis the way sedimentary rock accumulates over time. You almost don’t notice that it’s headed in any particular direction. The concerns of the book are straightforward: We love to read as children, we love to be read to, and yet over time that love for many of us seems to fall away. We stop reading, fatigued by it all. Why?

What is it that we do, as a society, as educators, as parents, to suck the pleasure out of reading?

Pennac takes us through the life stages of a reader, from infancy (when we associate reading with intimacy, warmth, love) to high school (when reading matters, it becomes important, dogged, unhappy — and there will be a test!). Yes, Pennac (and Blake) have issues with the withering effect of accountability, the administrative need to measure and test.

Blake writes about education — standards and craven accountability — in the book’s introduction. And I think he nails it right here:

The French version of this is a rather dry respect for arts and letters. In the U.K., and, as I understand it, in the U.S. as well, one senses not so much a respect for the subject as an urge to convert an elusive entity into something that can be tested. Am I just imagining it, or is there, behind all the tests and targets, a sort of fear of the rich, fluid diversity of the material — a fear, perhaps, among those who want to be in control at many levels of art and educational administration, that they cannot actually see or feel the substance they have put themselves in charge of? How satisfying, by contrast, the reassurance of a well-checked box.

Also by contrast, here’s Chapter Eleven in its entirety:

The book isn’t prescriptive, beyond a reminder of the importance of reading aloud, reading for pleasure. Instead, it’s a good read for anyone interested in books, and reading, and education. Anyone who cares about children, who believes in the value of reading. It’s a book that asks questions, challenges old assertions, and makes you think.

Here’s links to a couple of reviews: Miss Remmers’ Review, a more critical look by Nathalie Foy, and finally, Josh Lacey of The Guardian.

Pennac concludes with 10 “Rights of the Reader.”

THE RIGHTS OF THE READER

1. The Right Not to Read.

2. The Right to Skip.

3. The Right Not to Finish a Book.

4. The Right to Read It Again.

5. The Right to Read Anything.

6. The Right to Mistake a Book for Real Life.

7. The Right to Read Anywhere.

8. The Right to Dip In.

9. The Right to Read Out Loud.

10. The Right to Be Quiet.

The 2011 USA Women’s World Cup Team: Helping to Restore a Little Faith in Sports

“You have to keep the fun alive — if you are not enjoying it,

what’s the point?” — Joy Fawcett.

-

Like a lot of folks these days, I’m loving the story of the American Women’s World Cup soccer team. My family took time out from a gorgeous, lakeside day to watch the USA Women defeat Brazil in one of the great comebacks in the history of American sports. Yesterday I ditched work to catch glimpses of the USA victory over France in the Semifinals. This Sunday, the USA takes on Japan in the Finals, and I’ll be glued to the screen, rooting for this team.

Back in 1999, I packaged a book for Scholastic titled, Meet the Women of American Soccer: An Inside Look at America’s Team. By “packaged,” I mean that I functioned as a mini-publisher. I was given a budget, worked as an editor, hired a writer (Wayne Coffey), a designer (Michael Malone), and through a publishing arrangement enjoyed full use of the photos taken by Michael Stahlschmidt.

That was a team for the ages, an inspiring collection of charming, talented, intelligent young women: Mia Hamm, Carla Overbeck, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan, Michelle Akers, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry, and more. I loved the way the book turned out. There were limitations, of course. The book was only 48 pages, and designed as a photo essay with ever-so-brief profiles of key players. I came to respect these women so much, and in the process, from the safety of my desk, maybe developed a slight crush on #13, Kristine Lilly.

-

-

Didn’t you hear? Athletic is the new skinny.

In a sports-minded family — both my wife and I coach, and our kids participate in many sports — we sometimes despair over the state of youth sports. At times we’ve felt discouraged and disheartened, and have questioned why we bother. Are we wrong to spend so much time on sports with our children? Each year we see more insanity, more mean-spirtedness, and it gives us pause. Have we done our kids a disservice by putting too much emphasis (time, energy, passion, money) into their sports activities? To be clear, we aren’t delusional about their talents. We don’t look at our kids as the next Derek Jeter, the next Mia Hamm. But we all enjoy sports, love to play, love to be on teams, love the games. We believe in being busy, being healthy and strong, inside and out.

And then there’s a team like the 2011 USA Women’s World Cup team, that celebrates the beauty and possibility of sport, and we fall in love all over again. Go USA, good luck on Sunday. We’ll be rooting for you, Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger, Lauren Cheney, Heather O’Reily,  Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and all the rest of you in red, white, and blue.

You’ve helped restore in us a little faith in sport. The team below has helped, too, especially the tall girl, center in the back row, my Maggie.

Overheard: “-ish.”

It’s how Maggie, my 10-year-old daughter, answers certain types of questions these days.

For example, “Maggie, are you feeling better now that you’ve rested?”

“-ish,” she answers. As in, better-ish. Kind of, sort of, a little, not really.

Or perhaps it’s spelled “Ish.” Hard to tell, though I prefer the hyphenated, lower case version. The questions that elicit this response tend to be qualitative in nature. But the range seems to be widening, with “-ish” covering more ground. Not dissimilar to, say, meh.

“How do you like that coffee ice cream?”

“-ish,” she’ll reply from the back seat, licking away without any great enthusiasm, waffling on the waffle cone.

No character in my books has used “-ish” in dialogue. But I suspect that’s going to change.

“Rizzoli and Isles” Ain’t No “Cagney & Lacey” — Not That I’ve Ever Seen It

I always consider it a small triumph when a new television show hits the airwaves, and later gets cancelled, before I catch an episode. It’s like avoiding a drowning, a vortex of suck I managed to swim past.

The title of one recent show always makes me laugh, however joylessly. Yes, I’m talking about “Rizzoli and Isles.” In a cultural time when we have movies carrying insipid titles like “Bad Teacher” and “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,” I suppose we should view the title “Rizzoli and Isles” as if it sprang from the loins of the great poets of the 18th century.

Correction: After some (very) quick research, I realize that “Rizzoli and Isles” is in its second season — what, no one told me Angie Harmon had a new show? Given that this is 2011, I don’t have to explain this is no “Cagney & Lacey.”

No, Rizzoli and Isles have names like wind chimes, names that writers had to conjure up like wizards, names whispered by the muse: Rizzoli. Isles. Names like that don’t just happen willy-nilly. Somebody very smart, possibly with a Masters in Creative Writing, had to dream ‘em up. And, later, hire a marketing firm to test the names with a six different focus groups in the Mall of America.

Here’s the tagline to a recent print advertisement:

Intuition. Evidence.

Crime solving’s perfect pair.

Do you get it? One’s a cop. Maybe a little rough around the edges (but insanely yoga-beautiful, of course, for gone are the days of schlubs like Tyne Daly polluting the airwaves; Tyne not only looked like she could theoretically take a punch, it looked as if she’d been punched, and recently, and often, by Evander Holyfield). The other one, Isles, does that  job that’s all the rage these days, a “death detective,” where she slices up murder victims, puts drops of something into blue test tubes, stares into microscopes before thoughtfully looking away, and talks about rug fibers. She’s not a people person, more comfortable around corpses. But underneath all that, still a babe. A hottie in a lab coat. Together, Rizzoli and Isles make a great team! You don’t even need to watch the show to imagine it. Look at me, I haven’t, and I can already recreate in my head the first six episodes. Exactly, scene by scene. So can you!

Sure, they spar sometimes. There’s some witty banter back and forth. Sort of an, “Oh, sometimes you make me want to SCREAM!” Not to worry, it’s all in good fun. Because, get this, people . . . they’re sooooo different. They are complete opposites. Like peanut butter and jelly, but in high heels, if you can picture it. The cop listens to her gut. She’s instinctive. The forensic pathologist, cerebral and cold, rolls her eyes and says, “I can’t solve a case based on your crazy hunches, Rizzoli. We need facts!”

In the end, each one learns a little something from the other, but always grudgingly. Opposites attract, don’t you know. Or have you forgotten Felix Unger and Oscar Madison? Sam Malone and Diane Chambers? Sandra Bullock and Jesse James?

I’ll miss the show when it’s gone. No, really, I mean it. I only hope Angie Harmon keeps doing those Neutrogena commercials. And who didn’t like her as the husky-voiced, neo-conservative Assistant District Attorney, Abbie Carmichael, who was forever getting life lessons from tough-minded liberal, Sam Waterston? It was another of my favorite ampersand shows, “Law & Order.”