I made it there. I voted. I am a pessimist and fully expect the pumpkin-head prexydink to win reelection and then succeed in dooming planet Earth. But I got my one little vote against him cast and counted. I no longer have to feel like our collective ultimate doom is all my fault. And I probably didn’t even catch COVID.
The polling precinct I was assigned to is in the middle of white-racist suburbia where threatening Ilhan Omar with deportation or death is a favorite sport watched nightly on Fox News. I fully expected an hours-long wait to vote, since there are black and Hispanic voters not far from here that have to take a day of work (if they are lucky enough to still have a job) to wait seven to eleven hours just to get in the door. And last time Trump supporters were riotous and jubilant in voting en mass, intent on sticking it to Hillary. It was crowded.
This time… no lines and very subdued. I voted in less than ten minutes after arriving.
I wonder. Are they ashamed to vote for him again? Or are they all on ventilators after the last Trump rally?
I am not gloating. I fully expect to lose again. Nothing gets you a political victory faster than corruptly giving the keys to the kingdom to your rich donors with unlimited dark money. But it is important to be on the right side even if you are doomed to lose the war.
Anyway, I did it. As hard as it was to climb that hill and vote at the top, it was a pleasant stroll on the way back home.
Some characters need to have their story told for reasons that are buried deep in the author’s personal history and damaged psyche. For me, Torrie Brownfield, the Baby Werewolf, was that kind of character.
The book, The Baby Werewolf, is a different kind of horror story. The central question of the book is this, “Am I a monster? And do I know why or why not?” And Torrie has to answer that question because he was born with a rare genetic disorder called hypertrichosis. It is the “werewolf-hair disease” where hair growth happens in unusual places on the body and in Torrie’s case, everywhere but the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. He is a perfectly normal boy who really only looks like a monster. But how you look can have a profound impact on how people treat you.
And the character of the boy who looks like a werewolf and thinks he is a monster is based entirely on me. Unlike Valerie Clarke whose origins I can pinpoint, I have to honestly admit the way Torrie thinks and feels and acts are all based solely on me and me alone.
You see, when I was a boy of ten I went through a horrible traumatic experience that threw my whole life into darkness. And I kept it secret from everybody. In fact, for a few years, I kept it a secret even from myself.
It is not that I really didn’t remember I had been sexually assaulted by an older boy. The nightmares and remembered pain were a constant even when I couldn’t admit to myself what had happened. I defended myself from it all by burying the knowledge deep, and worrying about things that only sexual-assault victims worried about. I embarrassed myself twice in seventh grade by wetting my pants in class, all because I couldn’t go into the boys’ bathroom at school. Whenever I would have sexual urges of any kind, I would lie down or sit on the heating grate at home, burning scars into my lower back and the back of my lower legs. I fretted about how to fight monsters. And I knew from the movies that if a vampire bit you, you could become a vampire. And if a werewolf bit you, you could become a werewolf. So, if a sexual predator bites you, do you not become a…??
In all honesty I probably became a teacher at least in part to protect other kids from the same kind of thing that happened to me. And I had to write this book to tell the story of how not to be a monster.
The true monster in this monster-movie tale is actually Torrie’s uncle, the person who actually psychologically abuses him. And the villain proves himself to be a sexual deviant, trying to create kiddie porn in his photography studio.
I suppose I just spoiled the whole whodunnit part of the book. But the murder mystery was never the point of the novel. The message of this novel is that no child is ever a monster unless he actually chooses to become one.
And that is the kind of character Torrie Brownfield is. The autobiographical kind. The kind that brings the author’s worst fears about himself to light, and tries to answer the question with… “No, I am not a monster.”
On Wednesday I subbed again for a science teacher at Long Middle School. They were eighth graders, the chest-thumping apes at the top of the monkey-house food chain. There was an AVID class with too many at-risk and under-disciplined kids in it. And the Long ESL classes contain too many rabid monkeys who don’t understand monkey-English well and are liberally dispersed through-out the harried eighth-grade teachers’ day. In other words, the Wednesday job caused me brain damage from which I haven’t recovered from fully at this writing.
So, today I am obsessed with finding the magic necessary to avoid having any more teacher-meltdowns and brain injuries like that 6th period debacle. (“Debakkil” is a magic word, but it is an evil magic word),
In the Disney animated classic Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother uses a magic spell called (in a song) “Bibbety Bobbity Boo”. In the course of singing the song, the old F-G turns a pumpkin into a carriage and mice into horses, the swayback horse into a driver, and the dog into a groom. I need a spell like that to remedy the monkey-house meltdown syndrome that I was victimized by.
So, here is how “Dibbletey Dobbletey Doo” will work.
The spell is cast initially on a male student, a monkey-like being swinging from the light fixtures, but obviously smarter than the other male monkey-students. You could magically turn his raggy clothing into a ball gown and embarrass him completely (which would be true to the metaphor, but would turn him into your worst nightmare)… but don’t. Instead, tell him that he is smart enough to be a leader. Put him in a position of power, making him in charge of a group, and telling him his consequences will be either a reward for good leadership, or the blame for the bad behavior of the group. Remind him that he has natural leadership skills. If he speaks to others respectfully, they will be respectful to everybody. If he shows them how to behave properly, they will use him as a positive example. He will get the credit for the good things they will do.
“Dibbletey Dobbletey Doo!”
It works. We had a poster project to do in groups of four. They were supposed to create a diagram of the mechanics of the four seasons of the year, with a sun and four representations of the earth with its axis and equator tilted properly in relation to the sun. That’s the kind of assignment that can result in the explosion of the science lab or the total cannibalization of the substitute. But I made it successfully work in four out of five classes.
Why did it go wrong in that last period? 1. Classes that are out of control for the regular teacher are impossible for even the best sub to control. 2. Too many students in one classroom are impossible to control when you have more groups than work tables. 3. Supplies run out at the end of the day, and empty pens and markers become projectiles. 4. Eighth graders all need to take mandatory naps in the afternoon (using sedative darts and a dart gun when necessary) but no school or principal is aware of that fact. 5. Cranky afternoon baboons grow longer fangs than they had in the morning.
So, Mickey must revise and rework this particular spell for the afternoons. And he must refuse the next job coming from this particular teacher.
I entered the classroom silently. Death doesn’t have to make any sound when it enters a room, but I remember many times when I entered a classroom in a fully enraged-lion roar. Probably too many times.
This time it was a small lesson to a small class. Little Mickey, ten years old, was sitting there in a front-row desk. He was wearing that stupid purple derby hat that he always wore in his imagination. And he was wearing nothing else besides.
I gave him that old death-eye stare of disapproval. He grinned and shrugged. “Hey, I like to write about nudists, okay? They tell the truth more than most people.”
I simply nodded.
Sitting the next row over, in the front seat also, middle-aged Mickey was slumped in his seat like the cynical, world-weary teacher-thing he actually was. I nodded disapprovingly at him too. “I know, I know,” he said. “My time is running out. I have to get started on my writing plan for real this time. My stories will never get written if I don’t.”
The third seat in the third row contained Old Coot Mickey with his wrinkled clothes, his long Gandalf-hair, and his frizzy author’s beard. He grinned his goofy grin at me and nodded at me cheekily. “I’ve got fourteen novels written and published now. Taint my fault that nobody ever reads ’em. They are mostly good stories, too.”
I rolled my eyes at the dark ceiling.
On the chalkboard I wrote out. Today’s Lesson Is…
“I know! I know!” shouted little Mickey, naked except for his purple hat. “The next novel is A Field Guide to Fauns. It is all about nudists in a nudist camp. I am definitely down with that!”
“Is that really a good idea, though?” asked middle-aged Mickey. “I think I was meant to be a writer of Young Adult novels, like the ones I taught so often in class. I know how those books are structured. I know their themes and development inside and out. I know how to write that stuff.”
“But the little naked guy has it right. You have ta be truthful in novels, even as you tell your danged lies.” Old Coot Mickey made his point by punctuating it with a wrinkled hand thumping on the top of his desk. “You have written novels with characters forcing other characters to make porn films in The Baby Werewolf, and sexual assault of a child in Fools and Their Toys, and lots of naked folks, and betrayal and death… All of that is the kinda stuff kids really want ta read. And them stories don’t glorify that stuff neither. Stories can help fight agin that stuff.”
“Remember, that stuff is hard to write about because I actually went through some of that stuff in my own life. It’s possible for even a fiction book to be just too real for a YA novel.” Middle-aged Mickey had entered fighting mode with his fists on his hips.
“But the underlying truth is why you had to write those stories to begin with. You have truth to tell… But in fiction form,” argued little Mickey.
“And horrible experiences turn into beautiful survival stories and heroes’ journeys with time and thoughtfulness and art,” said Old Coot Mickey.
I agreed with all three of me. I nodded and smiled.
“But you are Death, aren’t you?” asked middle-aged Mickey.
“And you’ve come to take away at least Old Coot Mickey!” declared little Mickey.
“You’ve got me all wrong,” I answered all three of me. “I am not Death. I am Nobody.“
My book advertised here is the best book I have that hasn’t gotten a single reader yet. I am trying to promote it by giving out free Kindle e-book copies for free this weekend. That tactic is supposed to generate readers and reviews. So far, two days in, only one free book has been selected by anybody on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress. I mean, even clicking on a free book and then never reading it helps me as a marketer. But I am not getting any of that.
I did better with Recipes for Gingerbread Children, especially the first two days. But I admit, even though it shares a time, parts of a plot, and characters with The Baby Werewolf, it is a better book.
But tying the two books together has no visible effect.
I will, however, keep trying. I have other good books to promote as well as this one. Perhaps people are too afraid of werewolves to buy it, even for free.
Click on this if you’d like a free e-book. Every single one clicked on helps.
The question came up on Twitter. “What things aren’t safe to write about in a Young Adult novel?”
I have personally never questioned myself about that before. The writer asking for input was writing something science-fiction-y about a telepath using telepathy to torture someone. He was apparently worried that a younger audience would be traumatized by that.
Really? Anyone who can ask that has never spent much time talking to young readers.
I base my answer on over thirty years of trying to get kids to read things of literary quality. My very first year of teaching a male student stood up when the literature books were passed out and announced, “I don’t do literature!”
“Really, Ernie? You are going to lay that challenge before me?”
We slogged through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that year, using and reusing 20 paperback copies of the novel purchased with my own money. Ernie maybe didn’t like it. But he did literature.
And I went on a thirty-four year quest to find out what literature kids really would do and what literature kids really neededto do.
Here’s a tiny bit of wisdom from Mickey’s small brain and comparatively large experience; Kids are not traumatized by literature in any form. Kids are traumatized by life. They need literature to cope with trauma.
Kids want to read about things that they fear. A book like Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card has some graphic violence in it and a war against faceless aliens, but it does an excellent job of teaching how to empathize as well as fight against bullies, and it helps them grapple with the notion that the enemy is never clearly the thing that you thought it was to begin with.
Kids want to read the truth about subjects like love and sex. They are not looking for pornography in YA novels. They get that elsewhere and know a lot more about it than I do. They want to think about what is right and how you deal with things like teen pregnancy, abortion, matters of consent vs. rape and molestation. Judy Blume started being objectively honest with kids about topics like puberty and sex back in the 60’s with books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. and Iggie’s House.
If you are writing for young adults, middle grade and high school kids, even kids 5th Grade and below who are high-level readers, it is more important to worry about writing well and writing honestly than it is to worry about whether they can handle the topics and trauma that you wish to present. Write from the heart and write well.
I can honestly say I know these things I have said are true about young readers from having read to them, read with them, and even taught them to read. As an author, my opinion is worth diddly-squoot since I have hardly sold any books, and no kids I know have read them (except for two of my nieces, both of whom are pretty weird and nerdy just like me.)
I am now deep into the plot of my novel, The Boy…Forever. How deep you may ask? Well, at least up to my eyeballs.
I am busy looking at the story through the eyes of four characters, each telling their part of the story in a different way, but in first-person narrative.
I should explain that I am writing this novel as an epistolary novel, a novel made up of written artifacts.
So, let me comment on each of the four main narrators.
Anita Jones is telling her views of what happened in a series of letters to her cousin in Dallas, Dottie Jones. She starts off the plot by getting a letter from her cousin in St. Louis, Icarus Jones, that is basically a suicide note. Dottie’s answer letters are included in the novel, but only as commentary on the action, since she is far removed from the events being narrated. Anita is a highly sensible girl who has started a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship with Eddie Campbell, and her highly sensible life is thrown into serious disarray by her cousin’s somewhat bizarre plight.
Icky himself is only the author of the suicide note, so his involvement in the story, as the most important character (even mentioned in the title), depends on the narration of others.
Sherry Cobble is writing her Nudist’s Diary to chronicle life in the 9th grade in Iowa as a happy and enthusiastic naturist whose main goal is to recruit all of her 9th grade friends to be naturists. Her twin sister Shelly is also a nudist and is supposed to being doing her half of the diary, but her boyfriend has happily accepted the invitation to become a naturist already, and her interest in the diary has waned.
But Sherry’s diary entries soon reveal a serious conflict. Icky Jone’s girlfriend talks her step-father into moving all the way to Norwall, Iowa in order to be near to Icky. And Fiona Long soon becomes interested in Sherry’s boyfriend, Brent Clarke. In fact, she crashes Sherry’s Spring Nude Picnic party so that she can spend time playing football in the nude with Brent. And to make matters worse, Fi turns out to be a red dragon disguised in human form. Fi is obviously not one of the narrators of the book. So, her part in the story depends solely on what Sherry says about her.
Brent Clarke is the third narrator of the book. He is the leader of the local gang of farm kids and 9th graders known as the Norwall Pirated. He’s obsessed with police work and investigating bad guys. He keeps investigator notes in which he sees himself as a great detective. And it is his detective instincts that start him recording what he can learn about Tian Long, Fi’s stepfather. His suspicions lead him to the conclusion that Mr. Long is an evil Chinese dragon in human form.
Milt Morgan is the fourth major narrator of the story. He is a highly imaginative 9th grader who is supposed to be keeping a daily journal for his English teacher (who desperately wants Milt to become a better writer and put his high-powered imagination to better uses than thinking up ways for the Norwall Pirates to get into trouble).
Milt, naturally, hates to write, but does it on a typewriter, mistakes and all, because he is a story-teller at heart. And this story has a potential to stop any and all hearts involved. You see, in some ways, it is a story about a monster. A monster who wants to eat Icky Jones. It wants to eat him because… he is boy who can potentially live forever.
And, finally, here’s a reminder about my book promotion, beginning today.
As a writer of novels, like all passable to good writers of novels, I read novels. Not just any novels. Novels that are the kind of novels I aspire to write myself.
David Mitchell is one of those novelists who can write the way I want to write. His stories are detailed and yet, compelling enough to follow wherever the story leads you. Characters are vivid and seem to have an actual life beyond the pages of the novel. And there is a chance that you will meet them again in another David Mitchell novel, even if they died in the previous David Mitchell novel you read. He writes across swaths of time and gives the story a sense of history.
Slade House is basically a haunted house story, a horror story about a house that is itself a sort of ghost. It can only be entered by a single small iron door that only appears in an alleyway every nine years. And every time it does appear, in October of 1979, 1988, 1997, 2006… , at least one somebody will go in and never come out again.
The story is side-linked to the masterpiece Mitchell novel, The Bone Clocks. It is also a plot less convoluted and multifaceted than Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, so much easier to follow
David Mitchell is an author I study to learn about writing and storytelling. I don’t copy him. I do take note of his bag of tricks, his writer’s toolbox, so to speak, and I pick up and play with those same tools and magician’s secrets. I would like to suggest that if you truly wish to be a writer of fiction, you must put David Mitchell’s books on your must-read-before-I-die list. If you can’t put Mitchell on that list, then here are a few others on my list; Michael Crichton, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Louis L’Amour, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, H.P. Lovecraft, Steven King, Mark Twain, and J. K. Rowling. It should be obvious that these names are all on my list for different reasons. And if you don’t read David Mitchell, there are artisan’s techniques there you can get nowhere else. But you are the reader. And if you have chosen to read this far through this essay, then you are at least fool enough to want to know the things I am telling you in this book review.
As a storyteller, David Mitchell is Rumpelstiltskin. He weaves straw into gold. And if you are canny and careful enough of a reader, you can gain some of that value from his work without giving up your firstborn.
The Amazon rain forest is burning. It filters our atmosphere, removing carbon, and producing about 20 percent of our breathable air. The Latin Trump, newly elected leader of Brazil, wants it to burn to make arable land for growing soybeans to sell to China and profit over the Pumpkinhead President’s stupid trade war.
I already worry about having a heart attack at any moment. I can’t afford insulin for my diabetes, or another trip to the emergency room. The next concerning chest pain may well be the onset of the end of everything for me. If it is just another mystery pain caused by the inflamed joints in my rib cage, or the arthritic bones pressing on my spinal chord, I will not be able to pay for the inevitable surgery I discussed with doctors before. Better for my heart to go boom and the suffering to end.
But I believe in the Dylan Thomas solution. “Do not go gentle into that good night, rather, Rage! Rage! Against the dying of the light!”
So, how do I do that? How do I rage against the end of days? Whether for the entire planet facing heat death and a destroyed environment, or just for myself?
I will write the next home-town novel about the boy who cannot die. I am calling it A Boy Forever… at least for now. That’s a working title.
The Paffooney for today pictures Firefang, a girl who comes to the little town of Norwall, Iowa, against her will with her adoptive oriental father. She is not the protagonist. Young Icarus Jones is that. Rather, she is the antagonist, the fire-breathing troubled teen dissatisfied with life and longing for chaos and escape.
This will not be a teen romantic comedy. Well, not only that, anyway. It will be a book about an imprisoned dragon, the undying, and the undead. It will be about murder and the quest for immortality. I am working on the plot of it as an epistolary novel, made up of letters, interviews, and first-person accounts. And it will be both funny and sad, both an allegory and a farce, a parody and a prose poem.
Okay, I know it’s a tall order. But when faced with imminent death, you gotta do something, right? I intend to write another novel.
The picture is modeled after a girl from Brazil that I met over the internet, on Twitter. The character is not based on her. I barely know her. But I used her internet selfie to draw the picture portrait of Firefang.
Here is a brief and very surrealistic comic story that I have published before… but a long time ago.
I know it is a bit bizarre, and hard to tell what the theme really is… but isn’t that what art is really for? Telling highly personal stories that make you think hard about seeing things through the eyes of an artist.