Monday, March 19, 2018

Boom LatinAmericano

In the 60s and 70s, Latin America experienced a surge of immense creativity brought forth by young authors, a literary wave known as the Latin American Boom...

My favorite among these writers is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here he is being very serious:

And here he is being not so serious...

I've been using his stories for years in my classroom. In particular, "A Very Old man with Enormous Wings" is an excellent way to teach students about Magic Realism. (And it's also an excellent companion to Kafka's "A Hunger Artist."

These authors are famous for combining the fantastical with the mundane. 

Julio Cort├ízar's novel Hopscotch instructs the reader to digest the chapters out of order. 

He also has a story about a traffic jam that lasts so long that a unique culture is born from it.

Another of my personal favorites is Octavio Paz... Here he is looking old and distinguished...

But here's another photo of him looking young and putting on the smolder...  

Oh wait, that's from Tangled... Here's young Octavio.... 

Octavio is actually in the height of his writing a bit before the so-called "Boom." One of his most famous short stories, "My Life with the Wave," is published in 1949. But as you will discover if you read it, his work is very much in sync with the Magic Realism movement. 

And since we are speaking of those who have influenced the Boom Latinamericano, we would be remiss to leave out the amazing surrealist Jorge Luis Borges (author of the mind-blowing "Library of Babel") and the beloved poet/politician, Pablo Neruda. 



Sunday, March 18, 2018

Papa Bear's Page Fright: Common Core Teaching Guide

It is getting very close to my book's birthday. My third literary child, Papa Bear's Page Fright, will be on book shelves this April.

ABOUT THE BOOK: "This is the story of a little girl named Goldilocks. Well, that’s what it was supposed to be, but there’s a problem. When Papa Bear discovers that he’s inside of a book and there are people outside of it looking in at him, he gets very nervous and forgets his next line. Poor Papa Bear . . . he has Page Fright! Can Mama Bear, Baby Bear, and Goldilocks help him find the courage to remember his lines and finish the story?"

To celebrate the event, the good folks at Peter Pauper's Press have created a free Teaching Guide to go along with the book.

Check out the free PDF of Papa Bear's Page Fright: Common Core Teaching Guide...

Friday, March 16, 2018

Meet the Rejections: Five Different Types of No

For a writer, there is nothing as scary nor as exhilarating as sending off your manuscript. Well... maybe bobsledding.

But working on a novel for weeks, months, maybe years is a long, laborious process. If you do it right, you put pieces of your soul within that document. So, it's not easy to send your literary baby out into the world.

It's hard. If we leave our manuscript in our desk drawer or (perhaps more likely) in the databanks of our computer, then our story won't find readers. Our stories deserve readers. Our characters deserve an audience. We have to believe that if we want to write. And so... even though it may be difficult, we must send our words out into the universe.

Most of the time. It's not going to go how we want it to go. Although, maybe that's just me. I've been writing for decades -- which means I've dealt with rejection in many different forms. Here are the five different forms of rejection that I have met over the years. 

1) Mr. Impersonal (AKA Mr. I-Don't-Even-Bother-Reading-Your-Shitty-Manuscript)
Sometimes rejection comes in the form of a form letter. Ah, yes, the impersonal rejection letter... the one that makes you wonder if the person at the other end even bothered to read it... 

(This isn't one from my personal stash of them, by the way. In fact, I believe I threw all of mine away back in 2009 when I received my very first offer to publish a children's book. Now, I wish I'd kept them -- if only for the sake of this blog post. But the above letter is very much in the spirit of the dozens -- perhaps hundreds--I received.) 

Nowadays, many writers are actually thrilled just to get a response no matter how impersonal. Why? Because a lot of agencies and publishing houses don't send them out anymore. When I started submitting work (back when I was 16 years old) it was all about postage stamps and self-addressed envelopes. If you wrote a story for a magazine, and you included proper postage you were practically guaranteed to get a response. So, even though the Mr. Impersonal response is disheartening -- at least it's a definitive answer. It's ways better than... 

2) Mr. Ignore-U

 Sometimes the most dissatisfying form of rejection is no response at all. In the age of unfriending and ghosting, this seems to be the most common style of saying NO to a manuscript. Saying nothing. If an agent or editor reads a query letter or a first chapter, and it's not her cup of tea, she simply moves onto the next email, continuing her search for literary gold.

By the way, as frustrating as this type of rejection may be, I completely understand the point of view of the gatekeeper. There is only so much time in the day to go through the slush pile. And then if you add in all of the time it takes to respond -- even if it's just a matter of attaching an impersonal response -- those minutes easily add up to hours wasted. If we extend the "searching for gold" metaphor, we wouldn't expect a prospector to spend his time crouched by the river, examining a rock and then taking five minutes to explain to the stone that he is pyrite instead of a gold nugget. That prospector is going to look for value, and if no value is found, he will toss that rock back into the stream. 

Also, I think there is another reason why agents and editors choose not to respond. We in the age of instant messaging and back-and-forth tweets. Also, it's an age of online trolls and flame wars. 

If an agent receives a picture book manuscript via email, reads the work, and thinks "This is definitely not good," and then she writes a polite rejection saying, "Thanks, but it's not for me..." then what happens next? Hopefully, in most cases, the writer thinks "Well, guess I better move on to the next person or the next project." But probably what happens a lot is that angry unprofessional writer sends a message right back, demanding to know: "WHY WON"T YOU PUBLISH ME?!  WHY DON'T YOU LOVE ME?!!" Restraining orders ensue.

Who can blame an agent for resorting to Mr. Ignore-U? 

3) Mrs. Been-There-Done-That

This one doesn't sting so much. This is the type of rejection that happens when an editor reads your manuscript, thinks that you are a good writer (at least that's what they tell you), but that your story is too similar to something they already have in the works. 

At this point in my career, I get this one a lot. And, if I'm going to get a rejection, this is one I like getting. Here's an example of this type of rejection (sent to my agent). It's from a couple years ago:

I appreciate the opportunity to consider Wade's work—he's a talented and funny storyteller! Ultimately, though, I'm afraid this project isn't the best fit for me. The meta element feels a bit too familiar, and I'm just not sure I have a clear vision for differentiating this story in the marketplace. 

So, this was a rejection of a meta-fiction picture book about the Papa Bear from Goldilocks and the Three Bears freaking out when he realizes that he's being watched by the readers of the book.

Since I'm a bit of a narcissist, I like the fact that the editor boosted my ego by saying that I am "talented and funny." It's shallow, I know, but it actually makes me feel better if the rejection letter says a couple nice things before ultimately saying no. Also, the reason for the NO seems to be that there are already too many meta-fiction picture books (stories about storytelling) in the market; so this one might be a tough sell. I get that. (I also know that if they read something that they ABSOLUTELY LOVED they wouldn't care about the project being a "bit too familiar" -- but if you're going to let the writer down easy, this is a fine way to do it.) 

The good news about this project, called Papa Bear's Page Fright, is that even though it was kindly turned down by twelve editors who all felt there was too much meta-fiction in the marketplace, the book was eventually accepted by Peter Pauper Press! Shameless plug: It will be released the April!!!

4) Ms. Oh-Hell-No

This is the type of rejection in which the editor/agent hates your work and doesn't sugar coat it. They don't send a form letter. They send back your manuscript with a red-inked rant in the margins. They tell the writer very clearly that there is no possible way that this will ever be published. 

It doesn't happen very often (I hope), but when it does, it can be very jarring. And, for some writers, this kind of rejection can permanently cripple one's enthusiasm. Then again, how would we develop thick skin if not for the harsh critics of the world?

When I was eighteen years old, I worked on a project called Running Through the Apocalypse. It was about a teenager who finds out he's the Antichrist, but all he wants to be is a cartoonist. I wrote it as a screenplay first, and then adapted it into a novel, and when that didn't work I turned it into a stage play. 

There was a literary contest at a local theater in Seattle, seeking new plays. So, I worked up the courage to polish my script and submit. Five winners would be selected for a staged reader, and one grand prize would be the mounting of a professional production. I did not win any of those prizes. However, whoever judged my play decided to mail back the script with their notes. They ripped it apart -- not just declaring that my jokes did not work, but they proclaimed that I was a closed-minded misogynist. (I don't believe I was -- but maybe I'm just too closed-minded to see it!) Needless to say, I was taken aback. I knew my script topic was controversial -- but I had no idea that someone would view the message as anti-feminist (mainly because of the lack of female characters)... or that they would write notes filled with disdain on every page. This freaked me out a bit, because I wanted to write something thought-provoking, not hate-provoking. After that rejection I was a bit gun shy at writing "serious" or "cutting edge" plays, and started playing it safe with the kinds of kid-friendly comedies I still write today. 

5) Mr. Close-But-No-Cigar

This is the most tantalizing of rejections. This is one someone genuinely admires your work, and they aren't just paying lip service (as might happen with Mrs. Been There Done That). The rejection letter is ultimately a NO -- but you receive precious feedback explaining what works and what doesn't. Plus, you might also be given encouragement to submit something new. 

Here's one of my Close-But-No-Cigar emails from ten years ago when I first started writing picture books: 

Thank you for sending us Uncle Ant and allowing us to consider it for publication. There are many things about your story that I enjoyed. The description of where the ant's relatives work is very vivid. The dialogue between the ant and his mother is very funny, especially when she forgets his number. 

Your writing style is smooth and enjoyable, and details like the spider web thread that Uncle Ant uses to tie up his leaf boat add texture to the imaginative world of the story. 

Beginning at the moment that Uncle Ant meets the young ant, the story becomes a little heavy handed in terms of teaching a moral. I would recommend writing a new story without the intention of teaching a lesson. All stories have messages inherent in them. It would be more effective to focus on plot and the character. 
We invite you to submit another story, and with your permission, I would like to hold on to this submission for reference should you choose to send us another manuscript.  

As you can imagine, getting this email was thrilling. It made me want to write more. It made me feel like I might have a chance in the world of children's books -- and that meant the world to me. 

These types of rejection letters told me to keep going. So I did. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Back to Work - Thank Goodness!

Well, my hard work has brought me to a weekend that is free and clear off essays. Whew! To celebrate, I returned to the land of Children's Book Writing. I dropped my Time Travel book (for now) and started something brand new.

Maybe it's a bad habit to stop and project and switch to something new, but I needed something silly and fun to recharge my creative batteries -- and I think this little chapter book is doing the trick. I have already written five pages, and hopefully there will be more to come in the very near future.

Here's to a bit of free time... Artists of the world, make the most of it!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was the first person from Asia to win a Nobel Prize (for Literature). He wrote essays, poetry, books, plays, and songs. In fact, he wrote India's national anthem.

He was an activist who worked along side Mahatma Ghandi, endeavoring to free India from British Imperialism. 

He turned down an offer of knighthood from England. His refusal was an act of protest against the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre. (You can get a sobering glimpse of this atrocity depicted in this scene from Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi.) 


Here's a photo that immortalizes the meeting of two great minds: 

Also... Rabindranath Tagore --as if he wasn't accomplished enough -- was an accomplished painter... 

Kafka's Metamorphosis

Here's an excellent biographical overview of Franz Kafka's life and work. 

Defining Kafkaesque... 

And, this is just for fun... 

Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful life

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Does It Get Easier?

Right ow the answer is: No. Writing does not get easier.

For me, at least, writing is like exercise. The more you do it, the stronger you become. However, if you pause from your daily exercise/writing... Then it's going to be hard to get back into the process, and the more you put off the process, the harder it becomes.

Publishing doesn't seem to get easier either. (That's not exactly true... But first let me tell you what's truthful about that statement.)

I have written over thirty plays now... But that doesn't mean that publishing companies are saying yes to everything I write for them. If they don't think one of my plays will sell, they won't offer me a contract, plain and simple. And I've noticed that if I let a long stretch of time go by between my plays, then I'm not on the forefront of the editor's mind. They might not get back to me as quickly as they did.

Writing and selling books doesn't get easier. Before I was a published author, I day dreamed that I would be visiting the offices of my editors on a weekly basis, and that we would have lunch and chat about upcoming projects. Nope. That was just a daydream. It might happen someday... But right ow I am still in the trenches. I am still only as good as my last submission. And that's actually not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good thing. It's just not an easy thing.

but in honesty, selling my work has gotten easier over the years. I have made contacts. i have an awesomely amazing agent. I have editors who are looking forward to seeing future manuscripts. My life as a writer is far more industrious than my clueless 20s. So, I am blessed to have doors open to me (maybe not open wide, but at least I have my proverbial foot in the door.)

Which reminds me...

I am about to become a mentor. I am going to work with a fellow SCBWI member, and hopefully, I will be able to make one writer's life just a little bit easier. Cross your fingers for the both of us!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

March Is Feisty Month

If February is a month in which we fall off the wagon of life, March is a time for us to pick our selves up, dust our selves off, and give the middle finger to the horse who gave us the trouble in the first place.

My old roommate and best friend, Joshua, came up with the concept of Feisty Month. This is thirty days of moxy, gumption, and a gungho attitude.

This month I am already exercising more, creating more, and grading more papers (in an expedient manner).

Whatever your 2018 goals are, I hope that you will redouble your efforts and join me on a quest for feistiness.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

February Was Quicksand

My January was so productive. But this month is sludge. A ton of essays have sloshed upon my desk, and I've focused on work instead of creativity. I let this happen despite my resolution to balance my teaching/grading with my books/plays. 

So now it's time to urge myself back into some sort of artistic routine. I was telling my Creative Writing students about how writing on a daily basis is a lot like exercising on a daily basis. If you stop exercising for a week -- or a month -- starting back up again can feel excruciating. For me, it is the same with writing. 

So, I'm going to start again by working on some smaller projects first. I'm talking picture books and chapter books. i do want to finish my time travel middle grade novel. However, because my energy levels will probably be depleted from grading these essays, I might not return to the book until after spring break.

I hope your artistic world is more industrious than mine right now. And if it's not, then let's cheer each other on as we try to drag ourselves out of this quicksand known as February. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Henrik Ibsen: Master of Muttonchops

You have to admire a man who tries out a wild hairstyle in his youth...

And then full-on commits to it throughout old-age.

Bless you, Henrik Ibsen. Bless you and your magnificent muttonchops!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I Guess It's That Time of Year

Yes, it's essay grading season, once again. All weekend long I have been keeping my nose to the proverbial grindstone, grading as many papers as my little brain can handle. But deep down, what i really want to do is this...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

My Favorite Russian: Anton Chekhov

What I love most about the work of Anton Chekhov is that two people can read the same Chekhov story, and one reader may burst into tears while the other giggles uncontrollably. He mixes playfulness and sorrow so well, it's hard to tell how to interpret his plays and stories, and that's part of the fun.

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov grew up in the Russian town of Taganrog. He spent much of his childhood quietly sitting in his father's fledgling grocery store. He watched the customers and listened to their gossip, their hopes, and their complaints. Early on, he learned to observe the everyday lives of humans. His ability to listen would become one of his most valuable skills as a storyteller.

(He was the third child out of six...) 

Despite economic hardship, Chekhov was a talented student. In 1879, he left Taganrog to attend medical school in Moscow. At this time, he felt the pressure of being the head of the household. His father was no longer earning a living. Chekhov needed a way to make money without abandoning school. Writing stories provided a solution.

Chekhov the Playwright: 

In 1896 The Seagull received a disastrous response on opening night. The audience actually booed during the first act. Fortunately, innovative directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danechenko believed in Chekhov's work.

Their new approach to drama invigorated audiences. The Moscow Art Theatre restaged The Seagull and created a triumphant crowd-pleaser. Soon after, the Moscow Art Theatre, led by Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danechenko, produced the rest of Chekhov's masterpieces: Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

Happy Valentine's Day -- Love, Anton!

The Russian storyteller played with themes of romance and marriage, but throughout most of his life he did not take love seriously.

He had occasional affairs, but he did not fall in love until he met Olga Knipper, an up-and-coming Russian actress. They were very discreetly married in 1901.

Olga not only starred in Chekhov's plays, she also deeply understood them. More than anyone in Chekhov's circle, she interpreted the subtle meanings within the plays. For example, Stanislavski thought The Cherry Orchard was a "tragedy of Russian life." Olga instead knew that Chekhov intended it to be a "gay comedy," one that almost touched upon farce.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Leo & Fyodor

Most portraits you see of Leo Tolstoy portray his "old man" phase...

But check him out when he was in his early twenties!!!

This is perhaps the most famous painting of Fyodor Dostoyevsky...

Here's a sketch depicting his younger days... 


Monday, February 5, 2018

A World Building Exercise

The world is exactly the same except... (insert your own difference and run with it...)

Here are some examples:

The world is exactly the same except 4th place and lower in the Olympics results in death.

The world is exactly the same except everyone is blind.

The world is exactly the same except Thomas the Tank engine is real and he's angry!

The world is exactly the same except the entire planet is a golf course.

The world is exactly the same except no clocks or calendars (or recorded time).

The world is exactly the same except every U.S. citizen must serve two years as a postal employee.

The world is exactly the same except fish can talk and they are as intelligent as human 4 year olds.

The world is exactly the same except aliens have arrived and they are obsessed with soccer.

The world is exactly the same except the older you get the less you can hear/understand music.

The world is exactly the same except single-celled organism will obey you if asked politely.

The world is exactly the same except nobody ever touches the ground.

The world is exactly the same except colleges accept students based upon physical appearance.

The world is exactly the same except your ghost inhabits the object nearest your corpse.

The world is exactly the same except humans are terribly afraid of flowers.

The world is exactly the same except mosquito bites give you temporary amnesia.

The world is exactly the same except you can only visit one place outside of your hometown -- once in your life on a two week free vacation.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Sensitive Side of Stephen King

Horrible, horrible things happen in the stories of Stephen King. His penchant for terror is renown. Whether within a tale of the supernatural...

(The Shining

...or a more realistic psychological thriller...


Stephen King knows how to scare us. That's the fun part about his work. But there's something more meaningful to be discovered below the surface. Despite the pain and gore that permeates much of his plot-lines, Stephen King has a very moral center in almost all of his stories. You can tell he wants good to triumph over evil, even if that's not always what happens at the end. 

Lots of casual readers might not know that beyond the horror novels, and their hit-and-miss movie adaptations, Stephen King has created several works which are deeply personal and surprisingly inspirational. I wouldn't say they are exactly heart-warming or kid-friendly... but they are remarkably different from the horror stories which have made King a household name since the late 1970s. Here are a few examples of King's softer side:

Stand By Me (Based on King's novella The Body)

It's the quintessential coming-of-age story (or a Bildungsroman if you wanna get all German about it.) Four friends in a backwoods town go on a quest to find a dead body. Along the way, our protagonist, Gordy, contemplates his past (the loss of his brother), his present (emotionally detached parents), and his future (aspirations of becoming a writer mixed with fears of losing his best friend). 

The kids are often rude and crude, but they can also be sensitive, wise, and philosophical. This was released in the late 80s and my high school teacher complained that "12-year old boys aren't that emotionally complex." But my feeling is that 12-year old boys often do their best to hide their emotional complexity, and King taps into this beautifully. 

Now the film and the short novel have significant differences, and some aspects of the book offer more depth. However, I think this is one of those rare cases in which the film is equal in artistic merit. (To explain why, I would have to devote a whole post...) Both the book and the film have exquisite moments, including one of my favorite scenes: 


The Eyes of the Dragon:

This is a good old fashioned fantasy novel. Even though there are a few mature moments as well as some violent deaths, it's something that you could read to most kids, and they probably wouldn't have nightmares. In fact, I think the Stand By Me gang would be all over this book.

It seems that Stephen King was sending this book out into the world to see if his readers would appreciate books that didn't fall under the horror category. According to the internet, fans were disappointed. This was at the height of his popular when his readers were greedy for the next scare-fest novel, and many grumbled when they snatched up this delightful book.

Faithful (co-authored by Stewart O'Nan):

Stephen King is a die-hard Boston Red Sox Fan. Lots of his characters seem to share that sentiment.
The most apparent example of this is his novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon -- in which a young girl gets lost in the woods and tries to survive, all the while channeling her favorite Red Sox pitcher. But this story still fits in the typical world of thrills and chills. There's also a baseball novella called Blockade Billy. It's a good old fashioned yarn... but things get dark, so I'm not putting on this list either.  Here's the book I wanna talk about... 

Not a single zombie cat, serial killer, or clown-demon to be found.  Faithful falls into the non-fiction category as it is mainly comprised of King and O'Nan corresponding as their dream comes true and the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series, thus ending the long standing Curse of the Bambino.  


This is an epic time-travel drama, really one of his most vivid and satisfying novels. It's about a guy from the 2010s who is shown a portal into the past (which of course is in the pantry of a burger joint) and travels into the late 1950s. He journeys into the past with an enormous task: to stop the assassination of JFK.

Now, as the they plot suggests, there are splashes of violence in this book, but at its core is not a Doctor Who styled rescue mission. It's a love story. And out main character falls in love while he's in the middle of his five year mission. Will he choose love over duty?  Can he stop a national tragedy and get the girl? 

Oh, and there's lots of swing dancing. What's not to love about swing dancing? 

The Shawshank Redemption:

This is a prison drama, so there are plenty of grizzly details that almost prevent me from placing this in this blog post. However, the original novella is short and sweet and the terrible events (specifically Andy Dufresne being raped by fellow inmates) is mercifully vague. King doesn't usually go with vague, so ultimately I think Shawshank falls in this category of his more sensitive / dramatic works. 

The film is EVEN BETTER than the book -- a rare thing indeed! Screenwriter / director Frank Darabont masterfully takes the best aspects of the novella and expands on them in wonderful ways. The characters are more developed, the multiple wardens are condensed into a single villainous warden, and the subplot of Brooks leaving his prison home is both heartbreaking and beautiful. Also, the film solidifies Morgan Freeman's place in history as the best narrator of the 20th Century. 

Just watch this scene as a reminder of humanity's capacity for hope and transcendence. 

On Writing -- A Memoir of the Craft:

This is part autobiographical reflection and part masterclass on the art of telling stories. It's concise, profound, funny, and perhaps best of all inspiring to anyone who dreams of becoming an author of any genre.

I remember this book was released not long after King had been severely injured. He got hit by a van while walking down a country road. In the painful aftermath, he wondered if he would ever be able to write again. Thank the Gods of Fiction, it wasn't long until King worked through his injuries and his writer's block and began creating some of his most ambitious works of his career -- not the least of which was the conclusion of the Dark Tower series.

The finale of On Writing gives us a first person account of the accident, as well as the road back to recover, and the return to creativity. If you want to learn from someone who loves & lives the art of storytelling, read this book.

Other Useful Blog Links for Creative Writing Students:

Sailing Through the So-What Factor

Wade's Poetic Terms

Guide to Poetic Devices (AKA Actual Poetic Terms)

Join "Word Count Wednesday" -- Here's a Sample