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Happy Birthday, Malala

Yesterday was Malala Day, the sixteenth birthday of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl the Taliban tried to murder for demanding her own right, and the right of all girls, to an education. She spoke before the United Nations Youth Assembly, and her speech is damned humbling. Inspiring, too, but mostly humbling.

I heard a piece on NPR about the speech and then I went onto Youtube and listened to the whole thing. And after I dried my tears, I asked myself: where do kids get that kind of inner power? Where do they get the courage to believe in progress, to act for change, to insist upon hope? Even, God help us, after being shot in the head?

I write and I teach and I’m a parent. It’s so easy to reduce my job to 500 words a day and the struggle snag an agent. To making sure students master the preterite and know how to order an enchilada. To getting my son to bed on time and making sure he has a decent breakfast. But I listen to Malala and I realize that working with kids, writing for kids, parenting a kid, gives me an opportunity to foster a miracle. Not to create one. Fundamentally, Malala is who she is because of her own choices. Nobody made her that smart, or that brave, or that tough.

But people helped her along. “One child,” she says, “one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” If the Secretary of Education said that, it would be boilerplate. When Malala says it, it’s a call to arms.

Not the bang-bang kind of arms. The kind of arms that hug, and hold, and help children rise so that they can see the great big goodbad world out there, and believe they can change it.

Happy Birthday, Malala. And thank you.


Thoughts turn to angels all around us

I don’t actually know what Story will become as digital technology shapes our literary future. I don’t have a clue. I’m not a geek. I still remember the day a friend told me and a few other girlfriends, all of us freelance journalists in the Wild West of Peru in the early 90s (drug wars and terrorism, a tragic time but we felt so very much alive) that something called the World Wide Web was going to change the way the world accessed information.

We laughed and poured her some more wine.

At that point some of us were already filing our stories via modem. Dial-up, of course. But I strung for the august Times of London and the only way to file for them in 1990 was by dictating the story. I’d get up at, like, four a.m., dial London, get put on hold (wonderful Baroque stuff, no muzak for the dean of  British publishing.) Finally, some sweet-voiced girl would come on, so Brit you could practically hear the peaches and cream, and I would dictate my story while she typed.

That’s how I cut my teeth in writing, as a journalist reading my stories aloud over a crackly Third World phone line. So most of what I think about the future of Story is probably bullshit. Therefore, I reserve the right to change my mind and contradict myself as often as I want. I’m making it up as I go along.

According to a guy I saw at an educational conference, today’s “screenagers” speak “DSL” (Digital Second Language.) These kids like quick changes, visual learning, and interaction. (Which sometimes makes us teachers very, very crazy. But like moths during the Industrial Revolution, we must change our colors in order to survive.)

Another guy at the same conference said compared print literacy with digital literacy. Books, he said, provide a linear view of the world and allow “users” to access reality in a temporal fashion. Digital literacy, on the other hand, provides a networked view of the world and allows users to access reality in a spatial fashion.

Sure, this is eduspeak, but it got me thinking. If digital literacy develops a more spatial, networked way of learning and thinking, digital natives may actually be better positioned to understand complex, non-linear narratives than print natives are.

Proust, anyone?

I have met the future (of books), and it is digital

Everyone who cares passionately about books is talking about the death of publishing. Because Amazon makes it so easy and cheap to self-publish. Because of e-books. Because of Google Books. And let me tell you, not many kids at my school have e-readers yet, but some of them do, and most of those who do are avid readers and some of them are in FOURTH GRADE.

I recently read my first e-book. Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman, and it’s so good I bought a copy for our middle school library. I can already name some girls who are going to love reading Seraphina in that shiny library-bound copy. Myself, I read it on my iPhone, because neither my public nor my school library had it and it’s up for the Andre Norton Award and I get to vote (!!!)

Buying Seraphina for my phone didn’t cut the cost much, but here in our little Far West End homestead we’re in a sort of limbo about selling the house, with half our books in storage. I couldn’t justify buying a physical copy, so I settled for the digital. Truthfully, it wasn’t much fun to read an entire novel on a 3.5” screen, but the book was good and I survived.

And started thinking seriously (quelle horreur) about buying a Kindle. To my dismay, when I looked at the Kindles at Staples I found they don’t have the cute little page-turny thing my iBook reader has. (As you drag your finger over the screen, the page curls up and turns over.)

I want the page turny thing!

Which just goes to show I’m not a digital native. If one of the kids I teach wants a page-turny thing for her e-reader, it’s because it’s a fun special effect, not because kids long, in the depths of their young souls, for the sight of a turning page. They just think, cool, dude. The page turns.

Oh, the humanity.

Still, I write YA, so these are my readers. (As well as my students.) And much as Luddite writers like me shiver at the thought, reading pages on a screen is still reading pages. You start on page one, you go forward, you skip back, and it’s still, screen by screen, pages. The book as we know it is not dead yet. In themselves, screens will not change the structure of Story.

But something wicked this way comes.

Because the next generation of Story, and we’re not there yet, but it’s coming, will be radically different. It will still be Story. But it will tell itself in very different ways. And that is very scary to people like me.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Stay tuned.

I thought music mattered. But not bollocks it doesn’t. Not compared to what people matter.

St. Patrick’s Day yesterday. I made the cabbage but Mom made the corned beef and we were all glad she did. Dad was cranky, kept giving me and Gabe and Bob the evil eye, like “what the hell are you doing here?” Reminded me in an unsettling way of Nagini inhabiting Bathilda Bagshot in Deathly Hallows 1, the movie. Fortunately he never bit. But this was one time I had to concede to Mom that he seemed pretty cranky to have us “strangers” in the house. Sometimes she thinks he looks angry and I think he just looks like he’s old and senile and has Parkinson’s, but last night I agreed with her.

Opa didn’t want us around.

We stayed anyway. Solidarity with a caregiver sometimes means being determined to have a good time, and we all did. Except maybe Dad, and even he enjoyed the corned beef.

Now it’s the day after Spring Break and we’ve gotten an overnight sprinkling of snow. A few degrees lower and I might be hoping for a delayed opening at school, but that’s not going to happen. The apples are already chopped up and heating for the hot porridge that will be our only consolation when we set out on this raw, wet morning. In Richmond you get used to feeling like anytime you see white on the ground you’re going to get a snow day. Not today.

But it’s okay. Break was wonderful. I was absolutely ragged between teaching and parenting and writing and revising and being a helpful critiquer to my fellow writers and searching for an agent and trying to figure out why I’ve been such a slug this winter. (At this time last year I was running a marathon.) But we went to Belle Isle and watched the eagles and the swans and listened to silence and played board games and I am restored. I even ran yesterday.

Now off to school, so the kids can grumble that school has started up again while being secretly delighted that they can be with their friends. Which, they all know, is the real reason they put up with us teachers.

Finding a literary agent in a metaphorical tornado

Last night physical and spiritual madness struck at once. Feels like my last sane moment was running on a wooded lane in Bon Air, with a border collie barking his fool head off at me. Next thing I knew literal and metaphorical winds were threatening to blow my house down. By which I mean, the wind went nuts, tornadoes threatened, and Dad’s dementia carried him to a place where none of us could follow.

I spent the night at Mom and Dad’s house. Bob was there with me for a while, providing succor and good humor (he’s a SAINT), but when a tornado watch appeared in an ugly little line at the bottom of the TV screen I sent him home, convinced that even our self-reliant 12 year-old shouldn’t be alone in a tornado. Eventually, Mom convinced Dad to go upstairs to bed, but of course Bob was gone by then and Dad was sooooo shaky . . . So there I was, supporting him from behind (he’s still a big man) as he made his tottering way up the staircase. And me trying to hold him up but knowing that if he keeled over backwards there was no way to prevent him from falling.

But he made it, and Mom took over, and after a while convinced him to go to bed. And I went downstairs to the guest room and put my head between my knees until the terror passed.

Of course it was impossible to sleep. So . . . what do writers do?

No, they don’t write. They try to figure out how to get an agent. Noah Lukeman is an agent who has very kindly made his book, How to Land a Literary Agent, available for free on the Internet. I had downloaded it onto my phone and last night spent a few hours reading it. He’s kind of a nag, but it was something to think about at 1 a.m., and he got me researching agents. Lukeman says I should have a database of at least fifty agents. Well, I now have seventy, and every one of them has expressed interest in YA and fantasy.

Of course, by this point it was long past my bedtime, and I had to get up and teach in the morning, but the agent search carried me beyond the fear of the dark night, and of tornadoes, and of dementia. The work sometimes seems crazy but last night it felt like sanity.

So if anyone wants my list of seventy agents interested in YA and fantasy, just leave me a comment with your email and I’ll send it on. And if you get a chance, check out the Writers Digest lottery—you get to pitch a YA novel to an agent. http://tinyurl.com/a8msdw2

¿Commentarios, amigos?

Endless revisions coming to an end

Weird, weird day. Bare branches clawing the sky while goblin-leaves skitter across the asphalt. And the sky, the whole clouded, mottled sky, moving so fast like it’s got somewhere to go.

A good day, actually, to write, but I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter outline of my current novel, Deathsign, so if an agent wants to see it I’ve got it ready. Not fun. Thank God the synopsis is already done.

It’s been a long slog, but I’ve finished my revisions for now, having gutted a wonderful but ultimately unproductive centerpiece. In the excised section my characters went to an awesome temple in the mountains, which I’ve named Thornamdia and which looks vaguely like the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I loved that section, and the second novel in this series has a battle in Thornamdia, but in this novel I finally accepted that our heroine’s time there felt like a travelogue. So, after a long and painful narrative liposuction, good-bye Thornamdia. The result is a leaner, meaner and I hope better manuscript.

My critique group gets a final stab at it, but I’m starting to query agents. I will not (NOT) start another huge set of revisions unless I get 50 rejections. Or more. Remember A Wrinkle in Time, that perfect little gem of a novel? Dozens of editorial rejections, and then a Newbery. Not that the Newbery matters.

Okay, I lied. A Newbery does matter. A lot. But what matters to me, personally, is that when I was 12 I read it a gazillion times and I still remember it. And if you ask other adults of a certain age if they remember anything they read when they were kids, you’d be amazed how many say, “well, there was this book about a girl who had to go rescue her father . . . ”




On the James River for an artist walk

my world is birdsong and cricket and rushing water, russet and green and blue blue blue! Big Jim, my favorite river, is at his most stunning today, friendly and rock-studded and framed in autumn. I’m here for the beauty, for the inrush of sounds and images, for a way to clear my head of fear. The fear that is every writer’s most dangerous enemy. The fear that, I’m learning, is as bad on a second novel as it is on a first. The fear that shrieks: Will I ever get it right?????

Revising a manuscript is usually my favorite part of writing, but sometimes revising turns into, in Mary Amato’s words, “putting makeup on a corpse.”  That’s what I’ve been doing for a year now. I’ve been pimping Deathsign’s prose till it shines, but the structure of this, my second novel, still isn’t right.

Problem is, how do I right it? Two trusted readers have told me my fantasy world of Avani is too complex. Should I simplify it? Cut away some of the wonder and weirdness? Why not have regular ponies instead of ponies with antlers? Why not have fewer kingdoms and sheikdoms and homelands? I believe these two readers when they tell me it confuses them. However, I don’t believe them when they say the world is too complex. J.K. Rowling has hundreds of named characters in her stories, and plot twists to make Hitchcock drool. Middle Earth and Narnia and Panem are complicated worlds where, somehow, you never feel lost.

And so I conclude that Deathsign’s problem isn’t its world. Lina’s world, Avani, with its seven homelands, its wizards and kings and thanes, is NOT too complex. Worlds are supposed to be complex! Deathsign’s problem isn’t the world it creates, Deathsign‘s problem is its author. Me.  I still haven’t told the story well enough, and the question today is not whether to change the storyline but how.

So today I’m walking beside the James River, searching in the falling leaves and the hammering of a woodpecker and the blue flash of a kingfisher’s flight for the courage to keep revising until I get it right. The courage to believe that, if I work hard and trust in what Julia Cameron calls “Good Orderly Direction” I will, in fact, get it right.