Friday, November 21, 2008

Me and Catherine Jinks

I've been reading little but young adult books the last three weeks for three main reasons. They tend to be short, fast reads. They are almost always fun. And the disjointed mess I'm writing this year for NanoWriMo is probably best described as Young Adult and I felt like it would help keep me going (it has).

I've read a lot of good ones. The political parable After by Francine Prose. The surprisingly complex dark fantasy Sabriel by Garth Nix. But the one that's been sticking with me the most is the one I expected the least out of: Pagan's Crusade by Australian Catherine Jinks. Not because I thought it would be bad, but because I don't often go for historic fiction. Set in Jerusalem during the Crusades, the book focuses on Pagan, a young man who tries to escape his gambling debts by becoming a Squire for the Templars. Except for some of the battle scenes towards the end it's all pretty tongue-in-cheek and a pretty fun read. Here's the opening paragraph:

A big man in brown, sitting behind a table. Big hands. Big chest. Short and broad. Head like a rock, face scarred like a battleaxe. He looks up and sees---what's this? A street urchin? Whatever it is, it's trouble. Trouble advances cautiously.

I was hooked right away. The voice, the humor, the story...I loved it all. The more I read, the more I realized why I liked it so much.

Jinks writes like I do.

Short, focused sentences. Sentences designed to get the point across quickly and not waste time with flowery language. But every couple of pages she nail you with a piece of dialogue or a terrifyingly beautiful description, something that punches you in the gut and makes you stop and think for a moment.

Okay, to be fair I should probably say she writes like I try to write. Her work is considerably more polished than my own. While I see writers I admire and even love all the time, this is the first time I've come across one that seems to approach it in the same way I do. I know I'll continue with the Pagan series at some point soon, but in the meantime I've picked up her novel Evil Genius, a book that was hugely popular at my library this past summer. I'm eager to dig into it and see if her approach stays the same or if it differs book to book.

Until next time...


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Delany's About Writing: Good Writing vs. Talented Writing

The past couple of weeks I've been reading Samuel R. Delany's book About Writing, a book that collects a number of essays and letters that Delany wrote over the past 30 years on the subject of writing fiction. Although he first broaches it in his introduction, a concept Delany returns to again and again throughout the book is what he sees as the differences between good writing and talented writing.

Though they have things in common, good writing and talented writing are not the same (Delany, 4).

He goes on to define good writing as the basics of what we learn in English classes in High School and College: good grammar, avoiding passive voice, creating uncluttered sentence, varying sentence structure, precise word choice, etc. Good writing as he defines it is a skill, a learned craft that functions appropriately in writing forms like journalism, academic research papers, criticism, and---although Delany doesn't mention it---blogs.

Talented writing, on the other hand, uses those skills and rules and moves them into another realm. Delany says:

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic (Delany, 6).
Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader's mind---vividly, forcefully---...(Delany, 6).

Talented writing also "uses specifics and avoids generalities---generalities that his or her specifics suggest (Delany, 7). In other words, metaphors and symbols.

Delany continues by providing examples to show how talented writing uses lyrical phrases and powerful descriptions to deliver new insights to the reader. This form of writing, talented writing, is what's required to create fiction. Or, at least, fiction that stretches beyond simple entertainment and warrants thorough, careful, multiple readings.

It makes sense, though. Writing that really stops me, that forces me to read it more carefully and pay attention to what it's doing often comes through beautiful, precise descriptions and details. These details make you pause and visualize the world the author creates and even think about things in a new way. That level of writing is a very special. all too rare skill.

The good news is that while Delany indicates talented writing is more difficult to achieve, he at no point states that it can't be learned. Through careful reading of the masters, through thorough editing and a lot of hard work it's a skill that's possible to learn, although more difficult than learning how to create good writing.

I guess there's hope for me yet.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

YALSA Literature Symposium: Day 2

The first session I hit on day 2 was a presentation of four different papers, each dealing with a different aspect of Young Adult literature and/or Young Adult Services. The papers were Are You There God, It's Me, Manga (which focused on forms of Manga for girls), a survey of Gay Literature for teens entitled Accept the Universal Freakshow, and The Age of ___? which presented an educational approach using literature and online forums to promote teen interest in issue-oriented discussions.

But by far the most fascinating was a paper by Stan Steiner entitled Bullies, Gangs and Books for Young Adults; the author examined a program that brought books into Juvenile Detention Facilities. Although the residents were not required to read, after a few weeks nearly everyone in the facility was reading all the books made available to them. Not given much to and it provided a much needed alternative to watching tv or acting up. After a few months they developed book discussion groups, which only seemed to increase their interest in reading----especially when they chose their own books. It got me thinking about all the books that get donated to my library that we don't sell, not to mention all the ones in the collection that get weeded out every week. We donate some to a couple of local charity groups, but it would be nice to include organizations like Juvenile Detention Facilities or the local county jail as well.

Next I hit a fun panel on fandom put together by librarians Liz Burns and Carlie Webber. Easily two thirds of the presentation acted as a primer on fandom: what it is, what forms it takes, and why it's not as scary or freaky as people might think. Most things they brought up---fanfic, fan crafts, cosplay, conventions--- I was already familiar with in a general sense, but some of the specific resources they mentioned were new to me. Crazy stuff like the Potter Puppet Pals. And I didn't know about some of the interesting interactive things some YA authors like Stephanie Meyer and Holly Black are doing to keep teens super-involved in the worlds of their novels: fanfic contests, lists of songs to listen to while you read, photos of fans in costumes, patterns to make your own costumes, and on and on. Whether it's the author themselves doing this stuff or a PR person I don't know, but it's pretty savvy marketing.

The last one I attended was a presentation by Julie Bartel on Zines. I've actually seen her present this before at ALA when it was in DC, but it was a good refresher for me. It's an area I really would like to explore more, both for my own writing as well as a way to develop some fun programs for teens in the library. If nothing else, she showed us some samples of short book lists done in zine form that teens can put in their pocket and take home. It seems like it would be a fun and different way to give teens a list that looks a little more unique than your standard flier or a bookmark.

There are a lot of good things I missed, just because they were running at the same time as sessions I attended. The majority of the handouts and powerpoints will be up on the conference wiki, and I understand they will even be uploading some audio and video. I'm particularly looking forward to the materials at the Urban Fiction panel; it's an area I really know little about and should know more.

There are further sessions today, but I'm flying back and will miss them. It's ok, though. I'm pretty Nashvilled out and my pocketbook has been stretched pretty thin. The last few days have pumped me up about my profession and I'm ready to get back out there.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

Yalsa Literature Symposium: The Graphic Novel Precon

I've been in Nashville the last couple of days for YALSA's first ever Young Adult Literature Symposium. Things started for me with a special pre-conference called Picturing the Story, which focused on comics and their potential use in education and libraries.

Thanks to a kind invitation from Francisca Goldsmith and other folks at YALSA, I was minimally involved in running the pre-con. I brought some anime short films to show during registration, helped with the setup a little bit and moderated one panel discussion. Considering this was my first time doing something like this I think it went pretty well.

My panel discussion opened the day by focusing on the entire creation process of a graphic novel. Basically how it gets from the head of the creator to the page, from the page to the publisher, the publisher to the library and, finally, the library to the reader. The panelists were Svetlana Chmakova (author/artist of the Manga-influenced comic Dramacon), Kurt Hassler (an editor from Yen Press), Angela Frederick (a librarian from Nashville Public Library), and two teen readers to give us perspective direct from the target audience.

Svetlana was a huge hit. She opened things with a Powerpoint showing her background, some of her early work, and samples showing the illustration process she used in creating Dramacon. From there we moved into questions, and I was really pleased. Everyone on the panel, especially the teen readers, were really thoughtful and entertaining in their answers.

The rest of the pre-con moved along pretty well. Stella Farris, a school librarian from Austin, TX, presented a good primer on Manga. Somehow the questions from the audience all got steered towards yaoi, but considering all the misconceptions people had that was probably a good thing. Peggy Burns from Drawn & Quarterly, one of my favorite publishers of comics, did a good talk on adult graphic novels that teens might like. Although I've read a lot of what she talked about, there were a couple of titles that I definitely need to look for and check out.

But by far the star of the day was Gene Luen Yang. Although best known as the author/artist of American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award, he's also a high school teacher. He did a mesmerizing presentation that somehow managed to cover different ideas of what makes a comic, how comics are influencing other media and how comics can be used in the classroom. He's a definite fan of comics and comics culture and his humor and enthusiasm really shined through his whole talk. Someone mentioned they would try to make his Powerpoint and audio from his talk available online; if that happens I'll be sure to put up a link. I was fortunate enough to meet with him for dinner that night along with some of the other presenters. On top of everything else Gene Yang is an incredibly nice and very genuine person.

I'll probably have more conference stuff later, as I go through and properly digest other sessions.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Where was everybody?

Although I didn't have to be at work until noon today, I played the part of a good citizen and got up early to cast my vote. I was a little nervous about a long wait; all the warnings we've had the last few weeks were reinforced by reports of an hour or more wait on NPR this morning. I even brought my camera along, thinking it would help me pass the time while I waited.

While the parking lot was full the actual polling place---the cafeteria hall in the local intermediate school---was practically empty.There was no one ahead of me and only a handful of people came in behind me. There were more volunteers milling about than anyone else. Maybe I just missed the rush with everyone heading into work---I got there around 9 am---but I hope more people are planning to take off work a little early to cast their ballot. The lack of a crowd was a little disheartening.

I can't predict who will win the election here in Virginia, but I can say the McCain supporters out front outnumbered the Obama supporters 8 to 1. But whoever you support and wherever you live, please take the time vote.