Archive for October 14, 2013

My Boys Never Did This

It was a busy weekend. Around here, that’s like saying the ocean was damp. It’s how we roll.

On Sunday, I dropped Maggie off at her AAU basketball’s coach’s house in Castleton at 9:00, because she had a 10:00 practice in Troy and I couldn’t get there, since I had to be in Schenectady to coach a travel baseball game at 10:30. It was my son Gavin’s team, but he wasn’t able to be there because he was spending the night in New Hampshire (taken by my wife, also in NH) for a Regatta. Gavin recently joined the Albany Rowing Club, you see. The college-age son, Nick, visiting for the long weekend, picked up Maggie at the end of practice and brought her out to lunch and then, finally, home.

By the time I returned, everyone was gone. Maggie to her friend’s house, Nick at some other place. I don’t believe my family is all that different from anyone’s else. We’re all running around. That’s not the point of this post anyway.

On the kitchen counter, I found this pad.

(Sorry for the sideways shot, it’s one of the kinks in the Apple dynasty, an impossible thing to solve — the ordinary photo sent from an iPhone that shows up sideways on certain blogs.)

Obviously: Maggie was home alone, grabbed some markers and the nearest pad, and wrote out the names of everyone in her family. It wasn’t a gift, it wasn’t intended for anyone. Just something she did to pass the time, the names of the folks she loved, made to look pretty.

But Are They Free Range?

A Tale of Two Covers: What Scares Me, And What Doesn’t

I do not, typically, stalk myself.

I am not, usually, Googling myself.

But it has been known to happen.

Though less and less.

Curiously, new things do pop up.

Yesterday, seeking a jpeg book cover image of my newest SCARY TALES book, Good Night, Zombie, I came across this . . .

I learned that it was the Australian cover — or possibly the British cover? — to the book. Let’s look at the American version for reference . . .

Obviously, they’ve taken the circle logo and made it drippy, like paint splatter. From a design standpoint, I understand that. The strength of the circle is also its design flaw. It is abrupt, awkward, intrusive. The circle does not at all “work” with the other elements. Quite the opposite. The artist, the spectacular Iacopo Bruno, has to illustrate around the logo. It’s an obstacle and it prevents a lot of illustrative possibilities. Which, again, is its strength as a design element — the in-your-faceness of it. Blam, it’s right there. Try to not see it.

Green is the perfect color here, by the way. And the fourth book, Nightmareland, has to be red. It’s in the text. I was at a book fair in Chappaqua on Saturday and had the wonderful opportunity — as an author who normally sits in a windowless room — to watch young readers look at and choose between books #1 and #2 in the series (or, hey, pick up Bystander or Six Innings or slide past to the next table). They look at the yellow Home, Sweet Horror and the purple-ish, I Scream, You Scream. And it’s simply true that boys are turned off by certain colors. Or, okay, have decided preferences. The color to I Scream is something that some boys have to overcome, and the creepy dragon and freaky guy help.

The Australian cover also has an interesting tagline: “Scare Yourself Silly.”

I like it, I think, because in a subtle way they are signaling that maybe this isn’t the “deep gore” some adults might fear. It’s scary, for sure, in that heart-quickening way — anticipatory, suspenseful — but the reader will survive.

OTOH, what does the reader want?

The reader wants to be scared.

(Though perhaps not terrified. Everything is a matter of degrees, personal preferences.)

I’ve heard some parents say, “Will this give her nightmares? I don’t want her to have nightmares.”

And I always silently think: Well, good luck with that.

We all have nightmares. I had a dream last night that two frail, pink-eyed, white rabbits were in my house and my cats were on the slaughter. It was a mess. I woke up. Life goes on. Maybe you had a nightmare about a missing Blackberry. And your kid is worried about the ropes course in P.E.

Nightmares are going to happen, with or without SCARY TALES. The wind in the trees. The lightning. The thunder.

I’ve visited schools and talked about bullying. Talked about, recently, the suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old girl I think about every single day. I’ve done this at grades 5-up. She haunts me, that girl. I’ll tell children about my oldest son’s experience with cancer. About how he was really sick for a long time. I’ve written about teenagers who drive cars into trees. And I’ve been asked to not discuss ghosts (not that I do, much, and only passingly). I’ve been asked — in two schools, same district — to not talk about SCARY TALES at all. (I declined that invitation, btw.) Because they are scared, too. Afraid of the parent who might complain, the headache they might endure, the freedoms they might have to defend.

I am sympathetic to a point. But personally, just being me here, I find real life to be a whole lot scarier than any story I can make up about ghosts or zombies or androids or freaky snowmen. You just close the book, put it away. Process it . . . however. Real life is something altogether different.

Also: I’m just trying to write the most entertaining stories possible. Lively, fast-paced, suspenseful, surprising, fun. Scary? Sure. But it’s not only that, or merely that.

At the same time, I heard from a librarian yesterday about how the students can’t wait to get their hands on these stories. About what a huge hit they are in the school. It’s such an interesting world, and a curious experience to find myself in the middle of it. Nobody ever complained about Jigsaw Jones or Hiccups for Elephant.

NO NEW IDEAS: Writing Within the Tradition

I was speaking to a large audience of students, at one point explaining my writing process for an upcoming SCARY TALES book, titled The One-Eyed Doll.

The first image that came to me was the discovery of a door, or a hatch, in a bedroom floor. An old rug had been pulled away and there it was. Strangely, the door was padlocked.

That image got me thinking. Why the lock? Over time, I played around with the idea, moving the hidden door to a basement and, later, to the woods, obscured below the leaves. It evolved into a locked box buried behind an abandoned house and discovered by three children.

By the way, I love the idea of characters believing they found something — that they acted upon an object — when the truth is the exact reverse: the object had acted upon them.

So: What was inside the box?

A crummy old doll.

Why was it locked inside a box, nailed shut, padlocked, and buried?

Well, there must have been something strange about that doll. Right? We all know that. Every kid knows it, too. This isn’t our first rodeo.

Now as the writer of this story, I had not yet figured out the issues surrounding this doll. The whys and wherefores. I had not yet answered the essential question a writer must answer for every character, in every story: What does this doll want?

At that point in my presentation, an excited boy raised his hand and said, “Like Chuckie!”

Well, yes, I guess. Like Chuckie. There are not many original ideas left. So, sure, absolutely, the evil doll is like Chuckie, though I’ve never watched those movies. Chuckie, of course, is not the original evil doll. Twilight Zone had several, the old Bat-Man comics — often a ventriloquist figures into these things — and so on. It’s a familiar conceit, a cousin to the Gingerbread Man and even Pinocchio. This is not depressing to me, as a writer. It’s inspiring.

Likewise, the secret door has been done a million times, most notably in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books, and just about every time-travel novel ever written. Stephen King used a storage closet for his “secret door” in the terrific novel, 11/22/63. The door is just a device that gets you to the other world — or get the reader (and writer) to the story. Just push on through and don’t worry too much about how that door got there in the first place.

On and on it goes. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Now it is fair to ask: If you can’t come up with your own ideas, why bother?

And I’m here to say that is exactly the wrong way of looking at it.

Because I am talking today about tradition, ladies and gentlemen, specifically about writing within a tradition — an awareness, conscious or not, that we’ve inherited a rich past. All those stories mining the same turf. Every storyteller throughout history with a pick axe and calloused hands.

The Japanese artisan Kaneshige Michiaki said it well: “Tradition is always changing. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.”

It’s not copying. It’s creating a new thing using familiar elements. In that respect, it’s a lot like cooking. Here’s a chicken, here’s an oven, here’s some herbs and spices and all the vegetables ever invented. And, sure, if you are like my mother, here’s a frying pan and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

The challenge is to cook up something new.

Something satisfying and delicious.

I experienced this same thing when writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. That same sense of jumping into a river, pushed on by the current. And then, treading water, I start to move my arms, kick my feet for fear of drowning. The water of tradition — Chandler and Hamitt, Connelly and Sandford, Sobel and Christie — whomever! — carrying me along (so long as I kept swimming).

Did I ultimately make something new? I can’t be the one to say, but I’ve sure enjoyed getting wet.

Five Days, 14 Presentations, More than 6,000 Students, and a Cowboy Steak

On Friday the 20th, I traveled to Wolcott, Connecticut, where I spoke to 650 students, grades 6-8, at Tyrrell Middle School. They had all read Bystander as part of their summer reading program and, I’m sure, as part of their school-wide anti-bullying initiative. The feeling in that school was very impressive. Thank you for all your hard work to make this happen, Sara Tedesco. I’ve been wearing the shirt!

Wait. What shirt?

This one:

That’s the design on the back of the long sleeve shirt created and sold (I think) at the school. I was presented with one as a gift.  The design, created by the librarian, Sara Tedesco, was a variation of the Bystander book cover, with a more positive, local spin. Brilliant.

Come to think of it, those students said they read Bystander. But I’ll admit it, some of those kids looked pretty tan. When I see young people under these circumstances, I often apologize, explaining that in all my hopes and wild dreams, I never intended to become somebody’s homework.

On Sunday, I flew from Albany, NY, to Chicago, and then on to Oklahoma City for four full days of visits in the Yukon school district.

Maybe you’ve heard of it.

Garth Brooks was born and raised there.

The main school I visited — it had a big auditorium, so several neighboring schools bused their students to us — was located on Garth Brooks Drive, because of course it was.

My first morning I stopped into a 7-11, still groggy & desperate for caffeine. After I completed the purchase of one cold Starbucks Mocha something, the cashier asked:

“Would you like a sack with that?”

“Excuse me?”

“Would you like a sack?”

My brain was still fuzzy. The flight had been delayed. I had slept less than four hours. “A sock?”

(Yes, in my pre-caffinated state, I silently wondered if, perhaps, in Oklahoma cashiers offered people socks. Maybe this is what they do here? “Why, yes! I’ll take argyle!”)

(Next comes helpless staring, where wonderment meets bewilderment. At last a light bulb goes on.)

“A sack!” I say. “Like a bag!”

“Yes, sack, bag. I call ’em sacks.”

At that moment, I knew that I had fully arrived in Oklahoma. The land of sacks, not bags, far from the standard question of, “Paper or plastic?”

Across four days in the Sooner state, I gave thirteen presentations to 5,600 students, grades 2-8. And I can honestly say that they all loved me, every single one of them.

Actually, well, there was one kid . . .

The truth is, everyone treated me wonderfully throughout the visit. Respectfully, kindly. I felt blessed and fortunate. I can’t thank everyone enough, and won’t really try to here (I tried to there, in person).

Wednesday night I made it over to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.

The museum was incredibly moving, artistic and powerfully effective. I was, at times, a blubbering mess, but in a good way.

If you ever get the chance, by all means, yes, get yourself over to the museum — and prepare to feel the power of that experience right down to the soles of your shoes.

Then I walked over to Bricktown and treated myself to a “cowboy steak” at Mantle’s restaurant, just across from the ballpark. It was a peaceful, reflective, delicious meal, and I was happy to be exactly where I was.

Jenah Hamilton was the force of nature who helped make my visit possible.

Thank you, Yukon, OK. It was really terrific for me to gain a first-hand experience of Sooner Pride. To meet all those kids. And try, in my own limited way, to leave each school a slightly better place where together we value reading, thinking, and basic human kindness.

Most especially, thank you Jenah Hamilton, middle school librarian, the force of nature who made my visit possible.

(I owe you, big time.)