The Indubitable Dweeb
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» Posts from June, 2011

June 24, 2011

On Why Writing for the Kids is so Darn Easy

©Johnny Ryan

I play a weekly game of spoons with Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson and the guy who wrote volumes 3, 4 and 9 of Truly Tasteless Jokes (he’s told us his name a million times, but we still just call him Skippy, an homage of sorts to the gangly neighbor on Family Ties). They’re fierce contests, these games of spoons, draped in cigar smoke and filthy language. A grand time is almost always had.

And almost always, talk turns to wordsmanship and literature or, as Skippy likes to say, the biz. A few years back, I made the bold statement that “any old schmuck can publish a novel for young people” and Marilynne, half in the bag from peppermint schnapps, called me on my bluff. “Well then friggin’ do it you namby-pamby pissant,” she slurred.

Well, I did her one better. I published two. DWEEB, a madcap little adventure of escape and camaraderie among the weak and wedgied, came out in 2009 and appeals to what’s known as the “middle-grade” set. The Only Ones, a dark but funny apocalyptic fable, comes out in a couple months and speaks to a slightly older crowd, the young “adults,” if you’re willing to call them that. Marilynne has conceded that I more than met the challenge, but I see no reason to boast. Because what I did was the easiest thing in the world. You can do it too, if you remember the following things:

1. Kids are stupid. Plain and simple. Look at all the paste eaters in the world. Majority are kids. Nose pickers? 60% are below the age of 16. Ask a third grader his thoughts on Baudelaire and I guarantee the response will be some non sequitur along the lines of “I can make poo poo in the potty.” Teens are even worse. Let’s run through some notable examples. Bobby Fischer? His use of the Poisoned Pawn Variation was overrated at best. King Tut? That joke of a pharaoh died of a broken leg. Joan of Arc? French. Exceedingly French. I could go on, but why bother. Just invite the cast of Degrassi over someday for some edamame and count how many of those googly-eyed Canucks eat the pods.

2. Stupid is as stupid reads. Since these numbskulls like garbage, give them garbage. Name your main character Star. Or Astralique. Or Luminicitus. Something stellar and nonsensical. Start the book with a line like, “Third period Math suckz!” because z’s are perfectly acceptable s’s for this “smartphone generation” and just about everything “suckz!” Speaking of which, pepper the manuscript with plenty of sex, preferably between a southern debutante and some sort of centuries-old man-beast. Thanks to MTV, teenage pregnancy is totally rock-and-roll. These days, every girl aspires to be either Bristol Palin or one of those ancient Greeks gals that Zeus knocked up with a demigod.

3. Make sure to include a heavy-handed message. Read a couple middle-grade or YA novels so you can get the formula down. All middle-grade novels essentially follow the same template: Nerdy boy/girl moves down south to live with a crotchety aunt/uncle, befriends a local cripple, opens a lemonade stand, accidentally knocks a baby into a well, hits puberty, joins a junior spy league, and learns that Pol Pot wasn’t so cool after all. Get a fart in there somewhere. There’s always a fart or two. As for YA, make sure your main character is raised by a methed-up hillbilly and a preening former beauty queen who may or may not be a pagan, but certainly messes about on ouija boards. There should be at least 15 gay characters. Kids weaned on Glee will expect no less. The climactic scene should always take place at prom, because teenagers have no foresight beyond prom—most of them have entered suicide pacts that kick in during the second verse of “Oh What a Night.” The prom scene should always have a twist. Either a chubby kid should be voted prom king, or the prom queen should turn out to be a reptilian space demon here to disembowel us all. The message should be it’s who you are on the inside that counts. Include as many insides as possible. Entrails. Spleens. It should be like an autopsy on CSI.

4. Establish a platform. Start a Facebook community page. Digg! Your audience and your fellow authors have little ability to communicate without emoticons and buttons that let them, with one simple mouse click, tell the world that they think UCLA’s Huey Lewis lip-dub is Shizzalicious! A Tumblr account is a great way to share pictures of the Gossip Girl cast eating cheeseburgers and quotes from Mark Twain that you can attribute to James Frey because who wants to hear from some grey-haired dead guy when we’ve got a dude who smoked crack a couple times to school us all on life, art and commerce. If you use Twitter, your tweets should be along the lines of Hav ya eva stolen a shorty from yur bestie? or OMG. LOL. JK! Epic Fail. PWNED. WKRP in Cincinnati! I haven’t the first clue what any of that means, but trust me. It’s gold.

5. Plan a 19 novel arc. This will keep you in the Krug for at least 3 years and fund your “real” writing. The only respect a writer can ever expect to receive is in the form of an endorsement from Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and a serialized novella in The Medulla Review. All books for kids are utter drivel, obviously. Literature, true literature, is written for adults, and must have a philosophically resonant plot that doesn’t pander and rely on cheap tricks. There is absolutely no place for tales of mystical children born at the stroke of midnight, or hauntings by antebellum ghost babies, or nerdy magicians and artists inspired by comic books to stand up for themselves and to the Nazis, or squads of stinky goons in punk rock bands, or fathers and sons on weepy, post-apocalyptic road-trips that might as well be “Cat’s in the Cradle Part II”…with zombies. Save that swill for the kiddy table.

The next round of spoons is scheduled for Sunday. And I have a counter-challenge for my friend Marilynne that will be even harder than writing kidlit. “Drink a gallon of milk in an hour without vomiting,” I’ll say. And Skippy will slap a jug of 2% on the table, and DeLillo will laugh and proclaim, “what a slouchy funk of bovine mealiocrity!” and I’ll call shenanigans with a, “Can it Don, mealiocrity isn’t a word,” and he’ll reply, “Sure it is – I just made it up!” and Marilynn will crack open the milk and rip a few pages out of Lois Lowry’s The Giver so she can have something to wipe her mouth with once she gets down to serious business.

June 17, 2011

A Time-Traveling Oscar Wilde Tries His Hand at Twitter

Here we are. Here we go. Twitter. Curious, curious indeed. Start with a profile name. My own name should suffice. No need to be facetious. Clean, clear, unencumbered by accoutrements. Oscar. Wilde.

Rats. Taken. Chap looks quite a bit like me as well. No worries. No worries. You are a writer, my friend. Should be able to find a suitable alternative. WildeAtHeart? Too obvious. WildeChild?…come on now Oscar, aim higher. Pithy, to the point. You have got this!

Hmm….

Truth be told, Oscar, you have not, in fact, “got this.” No matter. OscarWilde1874 will have to suffice for now. Will aid the Trinity rascals in locating me. Can always adjust it later should the need arise.

And. We. Are. On. Curtains are up. An audience, however, is required, is it not? Perhaps I should “follow” some fellow luminaries and they will return the favor. Follow? More like lead! Jesting, of course! Let me see, let me see. Dickens. Nasty little bugger, but why not? Twain. Most certainly. I enjoy a homespun julep-inspired screed just as much as much as any filthy Yank. Followed!

Well, well, well. Lookie here. QueenVicki. Her majesty tweets? Goodness. Who knew? I must see this.

1st rule of club sandwichez iz you dont talk bout club sandwichez. LOL! #gettinmybaconon

What ever does that mean? One assumes it is a reference to the eponymous Earl and his mutton and bread proclivities. Yet it does not excuse it from making barely a farthing’s worth of sense. The bird is batty. We all know this. Her profile photograph is evidence. You cannot even discern her royal countenance. It is entirely lace and bosom and…

Good lord, I must click away. Prince Albert, I pity you not your death, but your life with this ample lump of monarch. Moving on.

What’s happening?

I suppose that is an invitation to share my adventures. Let me see, let me see. I did have a splendid sausage for breakfast. Perhaps I should…No, no. The world is not interested in my digestions. An advertisement, perhaps? An Ideal Husband is premiering at the Pawtucket Playhouse this weekend, after all. If there were a manner in which I could mention it without appearing boastful. Self deprecation may work. For example, “It may not be an ideal way to spend a Saturday, however–”

Hold the wireless, what do we have here? My first follower! FeliCiaXRj3480. Utter gibberish, but should she retweet my musings then I shall forgive her all her typesetting offenses. Hmm…appears she is interested in handbags and bloated genitals. Aren’t we all! I shall file her in a list titled DelightfullyDevilish and examine her enticements later.

For now, it might be helpful to study these Trends. #terribletheatre. That’s easy. Anything by George Bernard Shaw! I tease, Bernie, because I adore you. All naughtiness aside, clicking #terribletheatre and seeing what the masses proclaim would seem to be in order.

The Importance of Being Slam Dunk ErnestThe Real Housewives of Windsor? Oh I see! Puns. I can have a play at this. How about a raspberry directed at one of the classics? Sophocles could stand for some ribbing. Oedipus the Queen, anyone? No, that won’t do. Tyrannosaurs Rex? Will readers even get that?

You know what? If the public is having a go at me, I will best them by having a go at myself! How about Salamí by Oscar Wilde? A ribald reference to the cured Italian meat, while maintaining the accent mark over the vowel. Subtle and delicious! Before submitting, it might behoove me to check if anyone else has written an identically crafted tweet. Not at all likely, but the Westminter dandies are sure to howl plagiarism should this be the case.

Fifteen people! That is sobering indeed. It appears I am late for the gala on this one. Best to move on. Here is an idea. What about recycling one of my finer quips? A reminder to the plebes of what raised me to my current stature. Precisely. That will inspire both retweets and followings. Let me see, let me see. A joke fits the occasion, flavored of course with a wee bit of contrarianism.

People who count their chickens before they are hatched, act very wisely, because chickens run about so absurdly that it is impossible to co…

Blasted character limit! Brevity is the soul of wit, but you could at least grant a fellow 160 characters! Heavens. This tweeting is exhausting. Maybe it is best to just share the contents of my breakfast. Or complain about the clammy weather and rancid absinthe in this sad excuse for a cabaret. No, no, wait. I have it. Yes! I have the most wonderfully perfect gem.

Anyone have a cure for a serious case of the Mondays? #canwejustskiprighttofridayalready?

Genius! Now all I have to do is press Tweet and the world will bask in–

A whale? Carried by sparrows? Ridiculous. The time approaches to be through with this nonsense. Methinks my examinations are better spent on the bottom of a whisky glass.  LOL.

June 14, 2011

Go Down to the Crossroads

I’m willing to bet that Harold Bloom is wagging his meaty arthritic fist right now, decrying the declining influence of classical educations and the literary canon. Ah, yes, the classical education. Gone are the days when a crested Exeter boy was considered cultured if he knew his Greeks, could recite some Donne, and laughed at the right moments in As You Like It. I’m not going to say times were simpler then but…actually, yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to say. Times were simpler then.

People weren’t dumber and life wasn’t easier, but literary and cultural knowledge was more limited, because there were obviously limited choices. The average student these days is bombarded with countless opinions on how to feed a healthy brain, and as cultural content flows into the world at an exponential rate, it’s hard to know whether 20 hours are better spent reading Infinite Jest, watching Season 3 of The Wire, memorizing “The Wasteland” or listening to scratchy bootlegs of Robert Johnson.

This argument has surely been made before, and surely better, but as a writer I think it needs to be continuously addressed. Because for all the opportunities writers are afforded today, we are facing increasingly fragmented audiences. There are still perpetually curious folks out there, trying their best to sample everything from the buffet. My wife is one of them and her skills as a prolific devourer of books and media always astounds me. But the majority of people simply taste the king crab legs and decide, “well heck, king crabs are pretty darn good and thanks to those Deadly Catch fellas, we’re swimming in ‘em, so I might as well eat these long-legged SOBS until I go gentle into that good night.”

I speak of course of anyone who’s picked up some Stieg Larsson and decided that kinky and moody thrillers are the be-all-and-end-all, or anyone who’s buried themselves in paranormal romance and decided not to dig out until all the centaurs have found a hooflove, or…well, you get it. Genre has been around for a long time, but it’s more comforting than ever these days. Since there’s no such thing as a classical education anymore–since what’s deemed canonical is so daunting–you might as well become a specialist, an expert, a slavishly devoted fan.

I don’t really have a problem with this sort of fandom because I participate in it to a certain degree and, if I’m lucky enough to find my writing lumped into a zeitgeisty genre, I stand to make a few bucks and find a few readers from it. Yet it can be discouraging to a writer whose work doesn’t necessarily fall into a popular genre and sees his/her books added as #347 on peoples’ Goodreads “to-read” shelves and wonders, “when they heck are they gonna get to me? They still have all the Shopaholics, Tolkien and Dutch Transcendentalists to get through!”

Publishers know this better than anyone and that’s why they turn down some great writing in favor of some not-as-great writing. It’s a business, as you are constantly reminded, and market share ain’t necessarily achieved just because you can string together a better description of butterflies than Nabakov. If they can’t find a place to fit you into the “market,” then you’re left out in the cold.

One genre currently freezing its tuchus off is the comic novel for adults. Think about it. How many knee-slappers have you snatched up from your local book-monger in the last couple decades? Jeff Kay, an internet pal and purveyor of the consistently hilarious West Virginia Surf Report, knows this fact all too well. When shopping around his debut novel Crossroads Road, agents and publishers all told him the same story. Funny stuff, but folks aren’t buying funny these days.

Well screw that, because I’m telling you to buy funny. And you will buy funny, for low-low prices. Crossroads Road is now available as both an e-book and a paperback, and having read an early copy, I can assure you that it’s a clever and involving tale of familial woe and breathtaking buffoonery. Rather than be the umpteenth person to tell you read The Hunger Games or Freedom or A Visit from the Goon Squad, I’m going to tell you to read, can you believe it, something you haven’t heard of before. Is it part of a classical education, part of the canon? Sure. Why the heck not? Harold Bloom is bound to protest, but Harold and I haven’t gotten along since I said that Ethan Hawke could write the knickerbockers off of James Joyce. Jeff’s book is canonical to me, and to a legion of others, because it represents the work of someone who’s been crafting a distinct voice and fostering a loyal following for many years, with the sole purpose of providing free entertainment. Paying that back with a few bucks and some afternoon chuckles in a hammock is the least we can do.

The least you can do is exit my site post haste by clicking on this link that will bring you to a video of a slow loris holding a tiny umbrella. A little more than your least would be to click on the image of the book and read a bit more about it, including a sample chapter. Don’t worry, it won’t lead you down a slippery slope to Erma Bombeck. You’ll be back to your crocheting cat detectives and disillusioned suburban ninjas and whatnot by the end of next week. Scouts honor.