June 24, 2011
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.