Monday, March 29, 2010

The Oft Maligned Orphan

And no, I’m not talking about this blog, although I certainly could be. I always forget the sheer number of tasks I have to catch up on once I cross a deadline—so much of my real life gets put on hold while I meet it.

But I have been thinking about orphans in kid lit for a couple of weeks now, puzzled by how strongly some adult reviewers react to that archetype, calling it a trope or stereotype, bemoaning yet another orphan in childrens’ literature, weak storytelling, etc. Frankly, I am puzzled by this. (And I’m not so much talking about my own books here, or even solely as a writer of kids books, but more as a reader.)

Wild and exciting adventures simply do not usually happen to kids with two loving, responsible parents. They just don’t. Furthermore, orphaned heroes are not all Harry Potter wannabes—people trying to hop on that road to bestsellerdom. The tradition of orphans in kid lit goes back much farther than that. Two of my most favorite books in the world when I was a child, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, involved orphaned girls, and they were written a hundred years ago, well before Harry Potter.

From a logistical standpoint, just as some claim there are only three or seven or twenty one plots in the entire world, so too are there only a certain number of ways to deal with parents in kids books:

1) Kill them off.
2) Get them off screen in another way—business trip, illness, long hours at the office
3) Have them present in the story unaware of what’s going on
4) Have them present in the story involved in what’s going on
5) Have them be part of the story problem itself

While children’s books are not a genre per se, they are, like many genre books, written with a particular reader in mind—kids. And as such, authors need to speak to those readers needs’, not the adults around them. Sure, some kids will get tired about reading about kids with no parents, and yes, there may be a higher number of them in certain genres of kids books, fantasy say. But they are truly not the only books out there. And just as westerns are expected to feature The West, or romance a happy ending, kids books need to feature kids front and center, making choices, operating in big theaters, acting independently, solving their own problems. Loving, responsible parents get in the way of all that.

I wonder sometimes if adult readers have forgotten that operating in the world without parents is both a child’s greatest fear and greatest longing, usually at the same time. As a kid, we are terrified of losing our parents. What will happen to us if we do? Who will take care of us? And yet, we are fascinated by that possibility as well, especially if they have recently punished us unjustly or curtailed desired activities in some way. ☺ That worry and fascination is even stronger if we have a more complicated, unhappy relationship with our parents, as so many children do.

Childhood is about moving toward independence. Even as young kids, on some deep level, we know we are traveling toward a state of being that will not involve living with our parents, where we will have to operate in the world without them by our side. What safer way to try that on than through books? What better place to see that our lives will still be filled with richness and adventure, in addition to that horrible aloneness we all fear? Throughout the ages, stories and myths have codified behavior, values, and societal expectations; taught us how to be, provided a framework for our lives. Does it not make sense, then, that a large number of books for kids would deal with this enormous step kids are moving towards?

As any parent knows, part of our job as good parents is to ensure our kids will not need us anymore, to help them to grow to independence, to assure them that they can and will live in a world that will not include us by their side—and they will thrive. It seems to me that kids books featuring orphans are simply helping to codify and reassure kids about this basic truth.

I’d be curious to know what you all think. Are orphaned kids like nails on a chalkboard to you? A treasured convention? How do you feel about them?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Popping Back In--At Last!

You would think, having finally met both my deadlines, I would have been back in here, trumpets blaring with the announcement. And I meant to be, truly. But I posted over on Shrinking Violets (for the first time in months) and got busy being carried by my momentary euphoria at having finished.

The crash came the next day. I suppose it is inevitable, but it always surprises me, that absolute emptiness that follows finishing a book. It makes sense, as my life has usually been consumed with the book. It—or they, in this case—have loomed large in my life for months now. Then suddenly they’re gone. The odd thing is, my emotional wet-rag state is always accompanied by a cleaning frenzy, as if scrubbing traces of the book from my life is part of my re-entry into reality. I need to reacquaint myself with the real world and remember how to live in it.

Plus there were always a hundred things I let go of as I neared the deadline. I simply had to get to those before they became emergencies. Galleys had to be reviewed and returned to my editor, I had a pile of bills on my desk, taxes to get started on, a child who graduated from college and deserves much celebrating, etc.

But now I’m back, more or less. The Best Editor Ever already has revisions back to me on Nathaniel Fludd Four, so I will dive into that starting Monday. Best news? The revisions are minimal, which shocks me to know end. (I never have even a drop of perspective on a book once I’ve finished it. Not one lousy drop.) I was afraid she’d say, Um, could you start over, from scratch, please?

But she didn’t, which is just one of the things that makes her The Best Editor Ever.

I also have some appearances coming up that I’ll be posting about in more detail, but for now I wanted to let people know I’ll be attending TLA and speaking on a panel with Grace Lin and Suzanne Selfours. I’ll also be doing some school visits in the Austin area the day before.

Then in May I’ll be coming to the east coast! I’ll do signings in Washington DC, New York, and Boston. The rough dates are DC the 17 and 18, New York the 19, and Boston the 20th, but I’ll have to confirm those as plans firm up.

I’ll also be doing a signing at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, again, date to be announced. So lots of lovely opportunities to get out and see people after being sequestered in my writing cave for so long!

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Countdown Begins...

Okay, I'm in the final stages of Finish-The-Book-Fever. Seven more days until this puppy is off my desk and onto my editor's. Phew! Can't wait.

It's coming in longer than I had planned (now there's a surprise) and going in a hugely unexpected direction in one of the plotlines, but there you go. One of the truly great things about writing--having it surprise you.

Because I don't have much to talk about, (or more correctly, I don't have the time to talk about anything) I am going to link to Kelly Murphy's blog, where she is giving a sneak peek to some of the illustrations for Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: The Wyverns' Treasure. (Gawd, I love her drawings!!) Enjoy!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

It's Aaa-live!!

Last week (yeah, I’m waaay behind on my blog reading) Nathan Bransford raised an interesting question, talking about writing characters and the claim that some authors make that characters come to life and take over the story. Between Gaiman’s talk a few weeks ago, the workshop I was preparing for, and the books I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as I hanker after those writing sweet spots where the characters DO come alive and write themselves.

Because for me, there absolutely are moments when they do. (And I don’t even have to entreat them to write faster!) And when that happens, it is so much more than having my characters react and behave in a logical manner that is true to themselves.
So I’ve been trying to analyze that and pay attention when it does happen, and what I’ve come up with is this:

When we experience those moments when characters write themselves, what’s happening is that we’re circumventing our conscious, thinking brain and tapping directly into our subconscious, intuitive brain and bypassing our own circuitry to create something we haven’t consciously thought about yet.

The truth is, most of my great ideas come from that place, and I have been known to look at these ideas in surprise and think they’re awesome, NOT because I’m patting myself on the back. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s because I feel like I’ve had absolutely zero part in creating them. I feel like the girl in the fairy tale who opened her mouth and was unbelievably lucky (not to mention thunderstruck) when diamonds and pearls fell out, rather than the mundane, everyday toads. It is also why I loved Liz Gilbert’s talk about genius and and the Greek concept of daemons so much. It completely resonated with me. Some of this stuff just feels like it comes out of nowhere.

Now if only I could figure out a way to get diamonds and pearls on purpose (instead of by accident) when I opened my mouth, I’d be happy. ☺

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Living In Our Own World

I went to hear Neil Gaiman talk a couple of weeks ago, (for a great recap of his talk, check out Sherrie Peterson’s blog) and I was struck by something he said.

Someone had asked him if his characters wrote themselves, and his answer was something to the effect of, “No, but I would love to live in a world where they did.” And then he had this hilarious riff about forcing them to write faster. (And boy, do I wish I could run off the cuff like that; I would have thought of that comment two hours later on the way home.)

Anyway, it occurred to me how much we do determine what sort of world we live in; sometimes in a good way, by consistently seeing the good in people or being hopeful in spite of the odds, or sometimes in a bad way by denying reality even when it is smacking us in the face.

That really resonated with me, both on a personal level to pay attention to how I’m perceiving the world that I live in, but also as a huge reminder of how critical it is to really put our character’s filters on and view the story world through their eyes; do they see it as a scary place or a hopeful one? Do they feel that they have any control over their world or are they powerless within it? What are they afraid lurks in the shadows? What do they hope is waiting for them around the next corner?

Even two siblings raised in the exact same family with no changes in parenting protocol live in different worlds; the first born having experienced a world where once only he held his parents' affection, and the second born child always living in a world that included other children.

It is also one of the reasons why I write fantasy; the world I live in feels too full of joy and sorrow, contains too many dark shadows and moments of incredible magic to ever be explained my mere reality.