I have looked deeply and longingly at my own writing time and again trying to determine what is good and what is poorly done and what is the best that I have written. How does one examine what is good? What are the standards that you must meet?
I had a writing teacher who was teaching a class in fiction writing and said to us, “You write fiction to create that special bittersweet something, that je ne sais quoi, that you need in order to come to terms with reality. Everything necessary to say something that satisfies a nameless desire.” I wish I remembered his name so I could credit him with having said that wise thing. Or, at any rate, I wish I could remember the name of the wise guy that he was quoting.
So, basically I am trying to capture in prose something that I have no idea what it is, but both you and I will know it if we see it. Easy-peasy, right?
Good fiction that I have read and liked makes me feel something. If it is truly literary quality, like the novels of Charles Dickens, Terry Pratchett, and Mark Twain, it will make me both laugh and cry. Funny things balanced by things that hurt to know and make you weep for characters that you have come to love. If it is a downer kind of novel, as some very good bits of science fiction and horror fiction are, it will make you laugh a little, cry a little, and think a lot; think with dread, or despair, or even impossible hope. Steven King, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury are good examples of this.
I am grappling with how you do that. I am not fool enough to think I am some sort of literary great. I am a school teacher writing stories for school children, stories I wanted to hear when I was a kid. Stories of good versus evil, good people coming together in the face of chaos. Heroes, villains, and clowns being heroic, villainous, or foolish. And themes that both warm and chill your little blue heart.
. So, what can I do besides keep on writing and keep on trying and keep on begging people, fools, and children to try reading my writing because they will like it, even if it is the least best thing I have written?
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.)
For the last five and a half years I have been averaging more than 500 words every day. A rough conservative estimate of that means 17,112,000 words. If words were cocaine, I’d be dead five times over by now.
But writing is not the same as cocaine. The addiction to it has very different effects. I divide my daily writing into at least two parts. The daily blog is itself, more often than not, 500-plus words. So, by itself it can satisfy my daily word-count. And I devote at least 500 words every day to my novel work in progress. So, that means I have produced well over 17 million words in reality. Probably closer to 34 million than to 17. That, of course, is far less than Stephen King wrote in the same period of time, but it is also far more than the average person writes.
And one thing that such an overdose of verbiage does to a writer, is to make him or her a better writer.
I have produced nine novels, between 35,000 and 50,000 words each, in the time since I retired from teaching and began writing and self-publishing in earnest. I have gotten only five-star reviews on the novels that have been read and reviewed. Granted, nobody who read and hated my books hated them passionately enough to leave a scathing review, so the 5-star average is just due to laziness on the part of the reading public. But it is marginally evidence that my storytelling is good.
Another effect I have experienced from my writing addiction is that it has made me increasingly metaphorically naked. My illustrations for this post reveal a little bit of that. It is not only that I like to write in the nude when I can, but that I have used my stories to grapple with everything that was once a deep, dark secret buried in the depths of me. Being sexually assaulted as a child was something that for many years I could never admit even to myself. Struggles with loneliness, depression, and self-hatred are also something I had kept buried until I needed them to tell stories with.
I finally worked up the courage to send a gift copy of Snow Babies to the girl I grew up with whose name I used for the main character, Valerie Clarke. Valerie loved the book and became an advocate for me with both the Belmond and Rowan libraries. I even admitted that the part about Valerie being the most beautiful girl ever born in Norwall, Iowa came from something the boys in our 5th and 6th grade classes at school all said about her. She told me she never knew we had said that back then. Ah, but that was probably an untruth too.
As addictions go, my addiction to fiction is probably a lot better thing to have than addictions to gambling, cocaine, wife-beating, or gummy bears. But it hasn’t made me any richer or healthier either. It has made me older, and possibly a little bit wiser.
I have claimed that I am a humorist and all my novels are comic novels, to some degree at least. But it is often pointed out to me that I write about things that make people cry. And I freely admit that I most certainly do.
But if you think about it carefully, analytically, or even emotionally, you have to admit, even a book like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has some weep-worthy moments in it. I have read the book more than once myself, and I never get past the scene where Huck looks down at the body of his young friend Buck Grangerford, killed in the Shepherdson/Grangerford feud about something nobody living even remembers, without shedding gushers and gushers of heart-busting tears.
And in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, as much as I laugh and guffaw at the antics of quiet Mr. Dick and his kite, or the much deserved downfall of villainous Uriah Heep, it is the drowning of Little Emily on the boat with David’s school friend and idol Steerforth that leaves me surrounded by puddles… nay, lakes… that I have wept.
And I think that I may justify the sad parts in so many of my weary works with the fact that I am merely providing the necessary counterpoints to my merry-making and mirth.
There has to be that necessary balance, that well-rounded-ness, to a story that makes it feel truly complete. And, of course, we know that even in a horror novel by Stephen King, you find humor used as a balance point to lighten the moments just before the monster delivers its liver-shaking, earth-tilting scare.
Snow Babies, among my published books, is a good example. It is a story that celebrates how a small Iowa town comes together to survive a deadly December blizzard. And while it tells funny stories of kooky characters battling the elements, and both surviving the blizzard and ’84 Reagan/Mondale political debates, as well as putting up Christmas trees, it is still also about death and loss of loved ones, finding and losing love, and just what sort of self-sacrifice or other accidental happening truly makes someone a hero. Or a bus driver… this book has more than one bus driver in it.
So, I think, in the end, that I have made a cogent case for the notion that in order to be a humorist, you have to manipulate many emotions, not just mirth, but sadness also. As well as fear, bitter irony, and pain. And that may well also be the underlying reason that comedy is harder to write than tragedy.
As a writer seriously immersed in a particular work in progress, I find myself talking more and more to certain people who exist only in my head. They are the characters in my novel, The Boy… Forever.
The novel is itself an epistolary novel. That means, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is made up of letters, notes, diary and journal entries, and other personal writing of the central characters. It also means that I have to become the different people who write these things. At least while I create each individual artifact that goes into the mosaic of first-person narratives.
Anita Jones, pictured here, is the letter-writer who starts the plot in motion when she gets a very disturbing letter from her cousin, Icarus Jones.
Icarus writes about his problem with becoming a midget, and his response to it being a plan to kill himself. It seems that he simply stopped growing at the age of ten. Now, being a fifteen-year-old in the body of a ten-year-old, he writes a suicide note in the form of a letter, and then goes to jump off a bridge into the Mississippi River. But when he does, he survives. Or, rather, he succeeds, but cannot remain dead. He doesn’t know it, yet, but he has become a human mutation known in the secret world of unknown things as an Immortal.
Icky’s problem becomes worse when it is discovered he is being pursued by another immortal, a sort of vampiric immortal who needs to consume the essence of other immortals to stay alive. He is a three-thousand-year-old Chinese Celestial Dragon who is able to assume a human form.
Neither Icky Jones nor Tian Long the dragon, though, really needs to be in my head. Icarus himself only writes the first and last letters of the book. Tian Long, the villain, does not have a say at all in telling the story. The only part of it he writes are the wizard spells he uses to confound everyone, and most of those are in Chinese.
Besides the letters that Anita Jones writes to her cousin in Dallas, Dot Jones, the story is also advanced in the journal entries of Milt Morgan, one of the leaders of the boys’ gang in rural Iowa known as the Norwall Pirates. He has been asked by the Freshman English teacher to keep a daily journal and write every day in 1976. This he struggles to do, but gains writing and typing skills as he goes along, especially when he befriends Icarus and learns about the dragon pursuing Icky.
Milt is full of imagination and a sense of adventure, a thing that makes him an unreliable narrator, not above embellishing the truth as he writes his not-so-much- daily-as-infrequent journal entries.
The story is also taken up by Brent Clarke, the leader of the Norwall Pirates. Brent wants to be a policeman or a detective or something like that when he grows up. He takes careful investigation notes on everything, and he is the first one to become suspicious of the Chinese man and his step-daughter who pick a house in the town of Norwall that they want to live in right before the actual owner and occupant of the house mysteriously dies in a falling accident. Brent befriends the local Sheriff’s Deputy and sets out on a serious possible murder investigation that yields some very disturbing results. His notes are very detail-oriented and generally fact-based. He carefully records his own eye-witness accounts of everything.
Sherry Cobble, the more outgoing of the identical twins known as the Cobble Sisters, is a happy nudist with a very positive body image for herself and her twin sister. She is a very positive person over-all. She and her sister Shelly had started out keeping a “Lovely Nudist’s Diary” between them, but Shelly is not nearly as interested in writing and storytelling as her sister. So, Sherry takes over the diarist duties with the same sort of glee and enthusiasm she has for promoting nudism to her friends, especially the Norwall Pirates. It is her goal to eventually see all of the kids in Norwall naked and happy just as she and her sister Shelly always are.
Those four different character voices are the main voices I have to work with in telling this fantasy adventure story in much the same way as Stoker tells the story of Dracula.
So, if I begin to seem like I have a disordered mind full of multiple personalities, it’s because I am a novelist, not a mental patient or a vampire or even a Chinese dragon in human form. I am simply trying to tell a story by allowing four distinctly different characters to live inside my head.
The case has been made in an article by John Welford (https://owlcation.com/humanities/Did-King-Henry-VIII-Have-A-Genetic-Abnormality) that English King Henry the VIII may have suffered from a genetic disorder commonly known as “having Kell blood” which may have made having a living male heir almost impossible with his first two wives. The disorder causes frequent miscarriages in the children sired, something that happened to Henry seven times in the quest for a living male heir. If you think about it, if Henry did not have this particular physical conflict at the root of his dynasty, he might’ve fathered a male heir with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Then there would’ve been no opening for the machinations of Anne Boleyn. It follows that Elizabeth would not have been born. Then no Elizabethan Age; no sir Francis Drake, Spain might’ve landed their armada, no Church of England, possibly no William Shakespeare, and then Mickey would never have gotten castigated by scholars of English literature for daring to state in this blog that the actor who came from Stratford on Avon and misspelled his own name numerous times was not the author of Shakespeare’s plays.
History would’ve been very different. One might even say “sucky”. Especially if one is the clown who thinks Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.
Conflict and struggle is necessary to the grand procession of History. If things are too easy and conflict is not necessary, lots of what we call “invention” and “progress” will not happen. Society is not advanced by its quiet dignity and static graces. It is advanced and transformed by its revolutions, its wars, its seemingly unconquerable problems… its conflicts.
Similarly, a novel, a story, a piece of fiction is no earthly good if it is static and without conflict. A happy story about a puppy and the children who love him eating healthy snacks and hugging each other and taking naps is NOT A STORY. It is the plot of a sappy greeting card that never leaves the shelf in the Walmart stationary-and-office-supplies section. Dick and Jane stories had a lot of seeing in them. But they never taught me anything about reading until the alligator ate Spot, and Dick drowned while trying to pry the gator’s jaws apart and get the dog back. And Jane killed the alligator with her bare hands and teeth at the start of what would become a lifelong obsession with alligator wrestling. And yes, I know that never actually happened in a Dick and Jane book, except in the evil imagination of a bored child who was learning to be a story-teller himself in Ms. Ketchum’s 1st Grade Class in 1962.
Yes, I admit to drawing in Ms. Ketchum’s set of first-grade reading books. I was a bad kid in some ways.
But the point is, no story, even if it happens to have a “live happily ever after” at the end of it, can be only about happiness. There must be conflict to overcome.
There are no heroes in stories that have no villains whom the heroes can shoot the guns out of the hands of. Luke Skywalker wouldn’t exist without Darth Vader, even though we didn’t learn that until the second movie… or is it the fifth movie? I forget. And James Bond needs a disposable villain that he can kill at the end of the movie, preferably a stupid one who monologues about his evil plan of writing in Ms. Ketchum’s textbooks, before allowing Bond to escape from the table he is tied down to while surrounded by pencil-drawn alligators in the margins of the page.
We actually learn by failing at things, by getting hurt by the biplanes of an angry difficult life. If we could just get away with eating all the Faye Wrays we wanted and never have a conflict, never have to pay a price, how would we ever learn the life-lesson that you can’t eat Faye Wray, even if you go to the top of the Empire State Building to be alone with her. Of course, that lesson didn’t last for Kong much beyond hitting the Manhattan pavement. But life is like that. Not all stories have a happy ending. Conflicts are not always resolved in a satisfying manner. A life with no challenges is not a life worth living.
So, my title today is “Conflict is Essential“. And that is an inescapable truth. Those who boldly face each new conflict the day brings will probably end up saying bad words quite a lot, and fail at things a lot, and even get in trouble for drawing in their textbooks, but they will fare far better than those who are afraid and hang back. (I do not know for sure that this is true. I really just wanted to say “fare far” in a sentence because it is a palindrome. But I accept that such a sentence may cause far more criticism and backlash than it is worth. But that is conflict and sorta proves my point too.)
This has been a terrible week. It takes a good deal of explanation to make clear what fundamentally went wrong. But the ignition of the raging fire of black-luck can be traced back to the explosion of the upstairs toilet that unexpectedly started a cascade of bad luck and rather icky events.
Yes, you heard me right, the toilet exploded, not with actual fire, but with an unexpected gusher of the household water supply that disrupted and defeated a simple toilet-repair procedure. And went on to mess up the rest of the week.
The problem was first apparent when the float broke off from the bar that is supposed to stop the water from flowing into the toilet when the tank is full. So, it began pumping water into the bathroom relentlessly through the overflowing tank. Three inches of water on the floor later, I noticed what was happening and cut off the water to the toilet at the shut-off valve. I then went to Lowe’s and bought a new refill stack (a really cheap plastic one because I am really cheap) and I planned on repairing that toilet the same way that I did twice before. Easy-peazy.
What I didn’t know before beginning the repair, (and would soon learn to my horror half-way through the job) was that the shut-off valve was secretly out to get me, and put into action its twenty-year-long plan for exacting rust-revenge right before it’s gruesome demise. I discovered as I removed the broken piece of plumbing that the broken piece of plumbing was the only thing actually holding back the gusher that became a geyser while I was trying to fix it. And of course, once I knew what the problem was (several gallons too late) I managed to jam the piece I was putting in with such gusto that not only could it not be put in place over the geyser, it was also jammed hard enough that it could not be removed.
The only thing I could do was to shut off the water to the whole house. So, I went out to the spot by the front door where I remembered the shut-off valve to be. But where I thought I remembered the valve being, there was only a new bit of PVC pipe where the city had made changes to the old sewer lines two years ago. So, I began to panic. I don’t pay the water bill. My wife does. And she works at the Dungeon in her middle school’s basement where she can’t call out or get calls in. And I didn’t know the number to call to get help from the city. So, I went back upstairs to find something jammable to stuff in the geysering hole while number-two-son continued to hunt for the shut-off valve. I tried electrical tape and duck tape (though I didn’t actually have a duck to tape with it) and even considered briefly using one of my daughter’s many soaked socks that littered the bathroom floor (or rather, floated above it). As I went downstairs defeated, contemplating calling 911 for a drowning victim’s rescue, my son came in shouting that he had found the shut-off valve. It was under the replanted hedge that my wife moved two years ago.
So, we got the geyser stifled, and the rest of this week we have been living a comfort-free lifestyle with the water shut off while I have been contemplating my Joe-like ability to make bad things happen around me.
I have had to adapt as I work out how to undo the plumbing damage already done without being able to afford a real plumber, and attempt to prevent further damage from happening. And our luck with things like midnight bathroom runs by auto to the nearest all-night-Walmart-store restrooms, my daughter getting ready for school with limited wet resources, and even the car accident I had today between paragraphs two and three of this essay (no kidding… I had to run and pick up my son and got clipped by the car behind me going around the Walmart corner) has been Joe-Btfsplk-esque.
I have had a bad, bad, icky-Mickey week. But I did publish a book. And I got a fairly-funny essay out of the whole thing, though, sadly, every detail is truthfully accurate.