Archive for November, 2010


November 29, 2010

The thing I hated most about elementary school, besides softball (I couldn’t hit and I couldn’t catch) was arithmetic drills.  Our teacher would hand out a page of 100 sums (addition, subtraction, multiplication or division) and we had to complete them in a given time, such as three to five minutes.  She might even have set a timer, a devilish contraption whose relentless tick-tick-tick twisted me like the stem of a watch.  The faster I tried to go, the more my brain hardened into a solid block that isolated facts had to worm through like a maze.  When the timer dinged!, we swapped papers for grading while our teacher read off the answers.  If she was feeling particularly sadistic, she’d have students hold up their hands who’d missed less than ten, less than twenty, less than thirty . . . I would almost always be among the worst scorers, if not the absolute bottom.

So imagine my attempting to write an average of 1666 words a day every day for National Novel Writing Month.  At least nobody set a timer.  Reports of fellow participants in NaNoWriMo finishing their quota and typing “THE END” before Thanksgiving had something of that ding! of doom about them, though.

I suspect those over-achievers are in the minority and my failure to keep up is not too much of a surprise–or a disappointment.  I don’t compose very well at the keyboard and so attempted to write my daily quota in pencil, which can’t be a recommended procedure.  I also find it difficult to construct the story outline before the story: my usual modus operandi is to just start writing the story, and see what happens.  This always involves a few false starts.  NaNoWriMo anticipates that and reassures participants that this first effort will be the roughest of rough drafts.  Maintaining tension, developing characters, even making sense–none of that is the point.  The point is to stop making excuses, stop putting it off, stop waiting for inspiration to strike, and get words on the page.  Lots of words.  At the end, what you’ll have is not likely a novel–at best it’s a pile of source material from which a novel may be constructed.

I’ve never worked that way, and won’t make a habit of it.  My purpose in joining in was to shake loose some bad habits and make myself produce.  Writers often, or usually, write when they don’t feel like it; as I heard someone say years ago, “I don’t like writing but I like having written.”  I don’t imagine building contractors like every part of the actual work, but a finished building is a sight to behold.  So I feel good about the days I managed to reach my (estimated) quota, and not too bad about the days I didn’t.  It was a useful discipline, and I do have something to show for it: about 125 handwritten pages with characters, actions, and lots of words.  Maybe something can come of it. 

And for next November, I’m already thinking about what I’ll do differently.


Don’t Say That! Part Two

November 12, 2010

The Michael L. Prinz Award is given by the American Library Association to a work intended for teenagers “that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.”  Granted that “literary” and “excellence” are relative terms, and YA books have been pushing the limits for years, Tales of the Madman Underground pushes all the way over the cliff in one area: language.  I’ve never read worse.  Ever.  In fact, I’ve never read as bad.  It’s not just vulgarity (the f- word everywhere, s- word less frequent).  An occasional use of some of those words can be effective for certain purposes, and it’s naïve to think that our children will be ruined by seeing them on a page every now and then.  But the author’s use strikes me as gratuitous.  There’s no reason for spreading them like heavy-on-the-mayo on a hamburger which almost disappears in an excess of condiment.

But worse is the profanity.  I have seldom read or heard the name of Jesus dragged through such vile slop, and around the middle of the book I had to stop reading.  I might have missed a climax so shattering and affirming it redeemed all, but . . . nah.  The author has no discernable use except as some sort of shock value.  His character is contemptuous of “churchies” throughout, so it may be personal.  More likely, it’s just contemptuous.

Of course I could read worse language–in books for adults.  This is a book for teens (and actually, kids gravitate toward YA at the age of eleven or twelve).  More than that–an honored book for teens.  There’s a silver sticker on it (designating a sort of runner-up to the actual Prinz award), making it more likely to show up in junior high and high school libraries.  Heeeey, kids!

In my opinion, this is irresponsible.  I can guess at the award committee’s logic: kids these days, so much to deal with.  Busy parents, unnecessary wars, evil Republicans, religious nuttery, pressure to conform–how do we help them?  Do we try to refine their tastes a bit, elevate their sight, given them a glimpse of real nobility, something to strive for (which sounds awfully patronizing but used to be the meaning of education)?  Or do we pimp a noble soul in sneakers who talks like Tony Soprano?

The protagonist actually is a noble soul: long-suffering towards his crazy mom, hard-working, loyal, and generous.  It’s just hard to see how he got that way.  Getting that way doesn’t come easy for most of us.  We need help, we need aspirations.  The starred reviews of Madman dismiss the language, as though it were incidental.  But language is not incidental; language is what literature is made of, and literature is the art of shaping words to thoughts and emotions, educating mind and heart.  An overuse of shock words deadens sensitivity to them, and perhaps sensitivity in general.  How many times do you have to be hit in the face until you don’t feel it?