Archive for jimmy

Reading “Harriet the Spy” — and One Tip About Writing Dialogue

I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I don’t have memories of reading any “literature” or novels. It was mostly the sports pages in the newspaper — those were the first writers I loved — Dick Young, Phil Pepe — the guys who covered the Mets, Jets, Knicks. And I read random sports biographies here and there, but not often. 

When I became more of a reader, it was a direct jump into adult writers: Vonnegut, Bradbury, Brautigan. So as you might imagine, I
have these huge gaps in the field of children’s literature. From time to time, I play catch up, tossing a shovelful of dirt into a gaping crater. 

Which is to say that now, at age 58, I’m reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. 

I liked this exchange between Sport and Harriet early on in the book:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

There’s much to admire in this little bit of dialogue. The wit, the charm, the realistic cadences. You know what. But something I try to show young writers — a lesson that took me years to learn in my own work — is the simple effectiveness of all those brief descriptive tags that make the conversation come alive. 

The bulk of most books, of most writing, is made up of characters talking. Conversations floating in space. The trick is to ground those conversations in a concrete reality. They are playing putt-putt golf. Fishing on a boat. Hiking up a mountain. Sitting on a park bench. Running from zombies. Or, in the example above, squatting by a big tree, with Harriet bending over her notebook. Sport is tossing a football in the air. The scene is set.

Let’s read it again without those very simple descriptive sentences. That is, all dialogue:

“That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” 

“Looks like an old tree root.” 

“Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” 

 

I find that when I’m inspired, I’ll often begin this way in my notebook. Hearing the voices, scribbling down the conversation. Writing only what is said. But how does a reader see what’s going on? It’s those simple little sentences that I’ve come to admire so much. He set the hat on the table. He flicked a pebble with his thumb. She leaned forward. Whatever.

One more time, highlighting what Fitzhugh does here to help us see the people in this conversation:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

 

There’s nothing fancy about those sentences. They don’t get in the way, don’t draw attention to themselves. Harriet looked up to his face. Anybody can write that. All you have to do is imagine it. The writer has to see it and, here’s the trick, recognize that the reader doesn’t. Or can’t. Or won’t — not without help. 

One other sidenote: Fitzhugh doesn’t use much standard attribution here. Only once, with “he muttered.” The way she indicates who is talking, and it’s never confusing, is through these simple descriptive sentences.

Mrs. Garcia shook her head. “I do the best I can.” [from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar]

A writer doesn’t need to add, she said, because after you’ve included that descriptive sentence, it’s already obvious who is speaking.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to turn this into a writing lesson when I began this post. Just wanted to share a line from the book, one that resonated with me: I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.

No reader can argue with that.

And this, Dear Reader, is the end.

Together We Can Change the World

I took these snaps last week at an airport in Florida. I also took a similar (though less successful) photo at middle school in CT, which is not included here.

I love this movement with our public drinking fountains: A place to easily fill water bottles. The counter was a new one on me, and I liked that, too.

Do you have one in your public school?

As a visiting author, I’m always asked what I’ll need on my visit. If I have dietary restrictions, what kind of technology I’ll be using, and so on. And I always ask for water. Because of all that talking.

And because I’m a hypocrite. 

So when I visit, I’m provided with an endless supply of plastic water bottles. This year, I’m finally trying to put an end to that by bringing my own reusable bottle. A simple thing, a small thing, and long overdue. 

But that’s where I’m at these days. Whoever you are, whatever you believe, do what you can do to be a little bit better than yesterday. No judgment. Nobody’s perfect. And no matter where you stand, just trying pointing those feet in the right direction. You don’t have to become an entirely new person. You don’t have to become the best and the most. Every little bit helps. Think of the planet and do what you can. Make that small shift.

Together we can change the world.

Sorry, Kids!

Still Accepting (and Enjoying!) Skype Visits

I recently Skyped with this wonderful group of students and, toward the end, snapped a few photos of my computer screen. These young people were impressive in every way: great demeanor, attentive and courteous, insightful questions, joyful vibe. It felt good all the way through, a true pleasure. This 6th-grade class is taught by the most excellent Ms. Kramer, and the Skype was arranged by Barbara Scott, from PA’s Waldron Mercy Academy. They were especially interested in hearing about my plans for a sequel to Bystander

No, it’s not finished yet. Hang in there.

I enjoy Skyping. Typically I accept a modest (negotiable) honorarium. The conversations run for 30 minutes and employ a simple Q & A format. My strong preference is to work with a group that has read the same book, to give our conversation shape and focus. I’ve Skyped about Bystander, The Courage Test, Jigsaw Jones, Scary Tales and more.

So far, because it’s new, no Skypes yet on Blood Mountain. Boy, I’d love to have that conversation. Just zing me an email and we’ll figure it out.

I was glad to receive a follow-up note from Barb shortly after the visit: “Thank you for such an interesting and engaging Skype visit with our students. They truly enjoyed it, and they are not an easy group to please!”

The feeling is mutual, and I’m not so easy to please, either. Who wants to be “easy to please” anyway? 

Here’s those terrific kids again, waving good-bye . . .

 

 

Two Quick Excerpts from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, Plus Words of Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

This year, I’ve been using an idea lifted from Kurt Vonnegut as an opening point in my middle-grade presentations. In his “Rules for Writers,” Vonnegut advises, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Most books follow that dictum consciously or not. I know that I certainly put it into practice in Blood Mountain. I do terrible things to those kids.

In these two short excerpts, we’ll meet Carter and Grace as they get a little deeper into the story (for a previous excerpt, click here). In “Bog,” taken from the end of Chapter 30, we find Carter traveling alone. Rangers advise hikers of three cardinal rules should they find themselves lost in the wilderness: “Stay put, stay dry, stay warm.” In this scene, Carter is failing, and fighting, spectacularly. He doesn’t have much choice.

In the next excerpt, we briefly visit with Grace, injured and alone on DAY 4, and get a glimpse into her spirit and toughness.

 

 

from chapter

30

 

[Bog]

Plowing forward, Carter takes a hard hit from an overhanging branch. The blow staggers him, knocks him to his knees. He stays on all fours, woozy. He touches his head, his fingers come back wet and red. He sits back, resting on one arm, dazed, holding the shirtsleeve of his outer wrist against the wound. The shirt becomes wet with blood. Streaks trickle down the left side of his face. He gathers himself, continues the descent. He trips on roots, skidders on slick surfaces and falls against jagged rocks, slicing his fingers. Carter finds that his legs no longer work properly. A bloody gash forms on his left knee, bleeding into his boot. Each blow, each misstep drains something vital out of him. Slowly his energy leaks away, deflated like a forgotten birthday balloon.

Despite all this, Carter remains determined to plunge forward. He walks unquestioningly into a wall of dense vegetation. The summer-tangle of branches grope like sinister arms. Hellish snags claw at his flesh, rip his shirt.

Carter keeps fighting, keeps moving forward.

Bog all around him.

He longs for firm footing, a dry fire.

Twilight drops down like a quivering leaf. The bugs gather in swarms. For the first half hour, Carter slaps at them, waves his hands, rubs his arms and legs, scratches furiously, even howls out loud; mosquitoes, gorged with his blood, explode when slapped on his forearms and legs. Reinforcements come to take their place. In desperation, Carter smears black ooze all over his skin and face, gets it in his mouth and ears. Eventually, he surrenders. His tender face reduced to a swollen welt, blistered and raw. Black flies take turns tormenting him. They dive and bite and veer away. His eyelids swell, his left eye nearly shut.

He weaves, falls, despairs, rises again.

He cannot stop here.

He cannot die.

Carter Taylor is eleven years old and he feels his life wavering on some great precipice.

Grace, his feverish mind recalls.

In the relative openness of the bog, he easily sees the stars in the velvet sky. When did it become night? When in the world have there ever been so many pinpricks of light?

He feels cold to the core.

Shivering, wet, bone-tired.

He keeps walking, staggering, reeling through the reeds, bumping into dead, bare, nutrient-starved trees.

His boots fill with water. He finds himself leaning against a dead tree. He pauses to rest for a moment, a minute, an hour. He doesn’t remember. His mind blank, a void. Fear slaps him awake. Instinct yanks at his collar, shakes him. If he stays in this grievous bog, he won’t live to see the morning. It is the one clear thought in his muddled mind. Can’t stay here.

The temperature drops.

He blunders into the black.

He steps and his foot does not sink.

Another step. The ground holds.

Another, and another.

Carter hangs his head, drops to his knees, begins to crawl, feels the firm earth under his hands.

He’s made it through.

So tired, so tired.

Carter stumbles another 75 yards, losing his hat in the process. He collapses, curls into a ball beneath a weeping willow that has taken root in the rot. He does not wonder at the way the graceful giant’s branches sweep downward, or how its long, slender leaves resemble tears of tree-sorrow and tree-remorse. How did it come to grow so sad? He does not wonder at all. Just knows in his bones. The cold presses against him. He shivers in anguish. His body begins to shake convulsively. He rolls and looks to the sky.

I am not lost, he thinks. The world is lost.

I am right here. I am right here. And there is the moon, right where it is supposed to be.

 

 

from chapter

35

 

[Grace]

 

Light is coming and with it a new day.

Grace watches unmoving as the dark woods gradually take on space, contour, color, dimension. The shapes of tree trunks, movement in the branches, squirrels chittering and birds with their insistent, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!

The trees come alive with birds and their words.

Today springs from yesterday, the dream of tomorrow becomes the new now, and inside Grace’s chest an ember still glows. Call it hope. Call it fierce will. Grace is determined to live. Somehow. Some way. She is alone and injured, her infection blackening, one girl in the vastness of a mountain wilderness. Somewhere, she hopes, Carter is okay. He never should have left. A terrible decision. Grace begins to feel that tug of negativity, her thoughts going down a dark path, but she fights against them in the same way a falling figure claws against gravity. She senses that negative thinking will not sustain her here. Carter will find a way, she resolves. My job is to survive.

Grace closes her eyes and prays. It has never seemed to do much good in the past. She isn’t, honestly, all that sure. But prayer is a meeting of soul and intention. Her prayer does not require answers. Grace has never understood how some people claim to talk with God, or how He answered their prayers. This new morning, Grace does not expect a reply. It is enough to think the words, to bring unity of spirit and mind, the meeting of wish and desire –- like a corked bottle with a rolled up note inside, floating in a great, unpeopled sea.

Sending the note is enough.

I am here.

I have survived so far.

I would love with all my heart to see another day.