The Indubitable Dweeb
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April 1, 2011

How to Write an Award Winning, Bestselling Children’s Book

A lot of people stop by this site because they’re curious to learn what it takes to not only write a children’s book, but to write a successful one. Some authors appear at workshops where they charge hundreds of dollars to dispense such insider tips. Not me. Today, I’m giving the good stuff out for free. I only ask that you thank me in your acknowledgements and cut me in on any foreign rights. It’s a fair trade for this invaluable wisdom. Let’s get down to it.

First off, the old advice is often the best advice. Write what you know. Do you know a puppy that’s a bit poky? How about some teenagers who hunt each other for sport? Connecting with children is about connecting with the world around you. A few monkeys don’t hurt either. That’s right. Forget wizards, vampires and zombies. Monkeys are what distinguish great children’s books. Try to imagine The Secret Garden without Jose Fuzzbuttons, the wisecracking capuchin whose indelible catchphrase “Aye-yaye-yaye, Mami, hands off the yucca!” is still bandied about schoolyards today? I don’t think you can.

Of course, the magic that is artistic inspiration must find its way in there. So how do you grab hold of it? Christopher Paolini swears by peyote-fueled pilgrimages to the Atacama Desert. I’m more of a traditionalist. A pint of gin and a round of Russian Roulette with R.L Stine always gets my creative juices flowing. Have fun. Experiment. Handguns and hallucinogens need not be involved. Though I see no reason to rule them out. Find what works for you.

Now, you’ll inevitably face a little writer’s block. There are two words that cure this problem and cure it quick. Public Domain. Dust off some literary dud and add spice to it. Kids dig this stuff. For instance, you could take some Edith Wharton and inject it with flatulence. The Age of Innocence and Farts.  Done. Easy. Bestseller.

I give this last bit of advice with a caveat. Resist the temptation to write unauthorized sequels to beloved classics. I speak from experience. My manuscripts for You Heard What I Said Dog, Get Your Arse Outta Here! and God? Margaret Again…I’m Late have seen the bottom of more editors’ trash cans than I care to mention. Newbery bait? Sure. Immune to the unwritten rules of the biz? Hardly.

Okay, let’s jump forward. So now you’ve got your masterpiece, but how the heck are you going to sell the thing? Truth be told, you’re going to need an advanced degree first. As anyone will inform you, kid lit authors without PhDs or MFAs are rarely taken seriously. If you can’t work Derrida or Foucault into a pitch letter, then you certainly can’t survive a 30-minute writing workshop with Mrs. Sumner’s 5th period reading class. So invest 60-100K and 3-6 years of your life. Then let the bidding war begin.

In the off chance that your book isn’t going to sell for six figures, try blackmail. Sounds harsh, but the children’s book industry runs almost exclusively on hush money and broken kneecaps. I mean, Beverly Cleary doesn’t even own a car. So why is she always carrying a tire iron?

Money is now under the mattress and the editorial process begins. Don’t worry at all about this. Editors won’t even read your book. They’ll simply call in Quentin Blake for some illustrations and then run the whole thing through a binding machine they keep in the back of the office. Should be in the front display case at Barnes and Noble by the end of the week.

As for marketing and PR, you can expect the standard twelve-city tour, a Today Show spot, and probably an interview in the Paris Review. After that, it’s up to you. Publishers know that the best marketers are the authors themselves, especially bookish introverts with a penchant for self-deprecation. So go after it. Blog. Tweet. And don’t underestimate the power of guerilla marketing. Shel Silverstein once clearcut a hundred acres of redwoods just to make his advance back for The Giving Tree. What’s your gimmick?

I hate to say it, but you’re bound to get a bad review or two along the way. My advice is to take the high road, ignore the naysayers, and solider on. Your best revenge will be your golden trophies and your framed New York Times Bestseller lists. Still, if you’re dead set on getting back at a grouchy librarian or two, go with kidnapping. It’s a mainstay plot device in YA potboilers and is bound to lead to either hi-jinks or some meaningful rite-of-passage. Be sure to keep notes, because your follow-up book is already in the works! Like I said, write what you know.

There you have it. A step-by-step manual to penning an award-worthy, blockbuster children’s book. As you can see, it’s not very hard. And it’s really the only way to do it. Well…there is one other way, but it feels a bit like cheating. Are you John Lithgow?

July 14, 2010

Some Things That I Hate…

I’ve written before on this blog that I don’t have many pet peeves. It’s true. I really don’t. Perhaps I should qualify what I mean though. For there are some things that I hate with the passion of a lambada dancer. But that’s different than having peeves. Peeves are annoyances. Hate is at once emotional and, in my case, completely rational. It’s about seeing something that’s throwing the world off its axis and knowing you must condemn it for the travesty that it is. I will list some things that I hate here:

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg: Look at this smug son-of-a-farmer. He lands a plane in the Hudson River and they book him on Oprah and 60 Minutes. Next thing you know, they’ll be knighting Toonces the Driving Cat for swerving off a friggin cliff. That’s right. Sully ain’t no better than Toonces. I mean, from where I stand, any pilot who can’t land his plane on a runway is a fascist, socialist, French food-eating, soccer-loving kamikaze! You can, and you should, quote me on that. Want a hero? Try John Travolta. Not only was he the yin to Kirstie Alley’s yang in all those Look Who’s Talking movies, but he also never lands his planes on rivers. Case in point.

Sustainable Agriculture: Cucumbers are like albino rhinos. When I buy a one, I’d like to know that there ain’t any others like it. It’s the last of its line. So, I would hope that after my cucumber has been plucked from its cucumber bush, the entire plant is drenched in kerosene, and some overalls-clad hillbilly is tossing his corncob pipe down and banjo plucking the inferno into the night. An extreme view? Not if you’ve ever suffered the humiliation of showing up at The International Cucumber Festival in Suzdal only to find that some woman also has a kirby shaped like a duck.

Orphans: I’m not talking the Dickens variety or those Slumdog Millionaire tots, though I’m certainly not big fans of their pickpocketing, gameshow-winning ways. What I’m talking about are the ones who are always hanging out at the hotspots with Sandra Bullock and Madonna and Angelina Jolie. Clearly all they want to do is wink and shoot finger-guns at the paparazzi, then parlay the TMZ coverage into a book deal and a perfume line. I’ve had a hard enough time getting department stores to even sniff Dusky, A Fragrance by Aaron Starmer, now I got some 4-year-old Javanese celebutante to compete with for shelf space! It’s enough to make a man cancel his subscription to OK! Magazine.

Bushbabies: I don’t have many occasions in my life when I actually have to deal with bushbabies, but every once in a while I like to pop into the nocturnal primate room at the local zoo and check out an aye-aye or a slow loris or two. Without fail, I always end up coming across one of these bug-eyed nightmare merchants of a bushbaby and my day is shot. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I certainly can’t take in some jungle-themed animated film, for fear that it might feature a John Ratzenberger-voiced silver greater galago singing Randy Newman ditties.

Huns: Attila was alright, but the rest of these jokers? According to Wikipedia, “Huns practiced scarification, slashing the faces of their male infants with swords to discourage beard growth.” Jeeze, what a pathetic band of 5th-century metrosexuals. Remind me that next time I take my time-machine back to the pre-Magna Carta days I shouldn’t worry about bringing toenail clippers and Amstel Light. The Huns should be fully stocked. Sissies.

May 26, 2010

That Ain’t Irony, Son: The Hipster T-Shirt Dilemma

Hipsters have taken irony from us. They’ve co-opted it and mutated it into a sad little shell of what it once was. Just as they’ve done with The Golden Girls. Irony to the hipster is nothing more than creating a clash of symbols. Which is really just sarcasm, not irony. One only need examine these snippets of conversation I overheard at a recent Dirty Projectors concert:

“Check it out, I’m wearing a trucker hat. No, I don’t truck. Too many carbon emissions. I ride a bike. It’s ironic.”

“How about this knarly beard? Am I lumberjack? No. Clear-cutting is appalling to me. I work in IT, but I do own a Bonnie Prince Billy CD. Ironic, huh?”

“My T-shirt? Why yes that’s a BP logo. Why? Because I despise them. Irony at its best.”

It’s the T-shirts that get me the most. It’s rare to find a T-shirt that’s ironic by itself. This one succeeds. These do not. Yet if you search “ironic t-shirts” on Google, you’ll think that every t-shirt with a pun or a flippant quote is ironic. Alas, situations provide irony. Catchphrases do not.

Now, I’ll give hipsters some credit. They’re not necessarily buying the corporate produced T-shirts that are clearly aimed at them. They’re scouring garage sales and thrift shops and boxes in their parents’ attics looking for something unique. But there’s nothing ironic in a skinny, pasty hipster girl wearing a T-shirt that says 1993 First Team Bucks County Nose Tackle. It might get a few thumbs up at a Jonathan Lethem reading, but that’s the opposite of irony, because that was the intended effect. She wanted to impress like-minded people. The T-shirt would only be ironic if it produced the opposite of the desired effect, in some synchronistic way.

For instance, imagine the girl wore that T-shirt to a town hall meeting where the debate of the night involved tearing down an art gallery  to put in a football stadium. She may be trying to voice her indignation in the form of an absurd, illogical T-shirt. But what if the town board saw the shirt and said, “Well, we were going to turn down the stadium proposal, but obviously the town is full of football fans, most notably the skinny, pixie-haired girl, who once challenged the status-quo by succeeding in an arena traditionally ruled by obese black men. Football stadium approved!” Now that’s ironic.

The picture above shows a mugshot of a man wearing a “World’s Greatest Dad ” T-shirt. Skirts the edge of irony, but it ain’t quite it. Turns out the man was arrested for soliciting a 14-year-old online, certainly not the actions of the planet’s finest father. Ironic? I’m still not convinced. It’s disturbingly contrary, like a terrorist donning a peace sign, but it isn’t ironic. For his sake, part of me wants to imagine he is a dedicated hipster, and he wore this shirt, and committed this crime, so that I would blog about him and say he is the greatest ironic prankster of his generation. But I won’t do that. Because I believe in the integrity of irony. And I believe this guy is really just a pervert.

April 19, 2010

An Excerpt from Aaron Starmer’s Clover

As an author of novels for young people, I have to stay on top of the trends. The trends have shown that girls these days are swooning over magical old men who sweep into their high schools and offer danger and breathy declarations of love. Stephanie Meyer is keeping the vampire fires burning with her upcoming novella and the Eclipse filmMaggie Stiefvater’s Shiver has shown that girls dig werewolves too.  Lauren Kate’s Fallen has proven they like them winged and biblical. And Carrie Jones’s Need feeds the need for hot pixie-love. No, I’m not talking about Kim Deal and Black Francis.

Seeing how successful these books have become, I thought I’d jump into the game. So here, for the first time, is a sneak preview, an excerpt from a novel I am writing. Set in coastal South Carolina, it is known simply as Clover.

The violet light skipped across his face. I couldn’t always tell indigo from violet, but this was violet alright. It splashed soft highlights in his fiery hair and shrouded his freckles in inky, purple shadows. I reached down to touch his cheek.

“You’re old,” I said.

“Aye,” he said.

“In school, the boys are always bragging about being men and all that. Three years ago, they didn’t even know what shaving cream was.”

“Tis true,” he remarked.

“Your face is rough,” I said. In his stubble I could feel the hills of his homeland, the roots of soul.

“Twas a beard for many a snow,” he said. “The sands of Myrtle Beach know lil kindness towards a whisker me-fears. Barbers rule this land.”

“Myrtle Beach is cruel,” I said. I’d always believed it, but never had the courage to admit it to my friends or my parents. They all adored the golf and go-carts.

“Aye,” he said. Smoke trailed from the side of his mouth. If the breeze hadn’t stolen it, I would have sucked it up and felt its dangerous caresses on my lungs.

“There’s a dance,” I told him. “It’s not important or anything. It’s just something we do here. If we went for an hour, would that be awful? Together I mean. If we went together.”

“I do a jig,” he said. The velvet soles of his boots attacked the sand and the rhythm of the waves combined with the gentle scrape into a sensuous lullaby. I knew that Lance was still waiting at the concert. He’d texted me, “Wassup Jen? Where u at? Got the tix. Theez jams r gonna rock ur bra off!” I’d let him wait. I had my music here.

“The rainbow?” I asked him. “How long will it last?” In a tide pool, I saw that the colors were now cast upon my face.

“Never can say. She’s like a sparrow in a tawny fog. She disappears, but then she always finds her way back.”

“I thought you hid your pot of gold beneath it,” I said. That first night, after I met him near the clover patch, I’d gone home and done research on the Internet. The reputation of greed scared me. Even that morning, fear hitched a ride with my passion as I chased down that rainbow.

“Me pot of gold is here, love,” he said, tipping his green hat. “Tis your heart.”

April 6, 2010

Five Animals that are Uglier than Zac Efron

A lot of people pity Zac Efron. They assume his mother must have smoked during pregnancy, maybe even taken a headlong dive into a vat of DDT. Because the man is a hideous spectacle. Disney has foisted him upon us as an example of equal opportunity run amuck and what saddens people most is that soon, someone will have to explain to Efron that his career is essentially a cruel joke played one of Earth’s most deformed human beings. The only thing that might serve to comfort him is the knowledge that there are at least a few other creatures in the world that are uglier than him. Unbelievable, but true, and some of these beasts have even starred in movies!

WARTHOG

Pumbaa, the singing warthog from The Lion King, has proven that a furry hunk of ham is a bigger box-office draw than Efron, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the species is more attractive. It’s difficult, but pull your gaze back from those bedroom eyes and you’ll notice something a little unconventional about the warthog. Tusks. Last time I checked, Efron didn’t have tusks. While tusks can be extremely useful for opening bottles of wine, they don’t do much in the heartthrob department. And you can’t exactly hakuna matata your way out of any manslaughter raps that result from the combination of overly enthusiastic necking and razor sharp cheek appendages.

BATHYNOMUS GIGANTEUS

Not many people know about this isopod, because it lives on the floor of the ocean. I’m sure that Efron has encountered his share of bottom-feeders in the music industry, but what makes the bathynomus unique is its slavish devotion to sunglasses. Yeah, shades are rock-and-roll, but even Corey Hart and the guys from Timbuk3 set them on the nightstand when they hit the hay. This crustacean, he has them fused to his skull, wears them 24-7, which means he obviously has something to hide. My guess? Pink-eye. Good thing Efron has access to antibiotics.

BLIND MOLE-RAT

In defense of the blind-mole rat, it has no way of knowing how ugly it is. Even if it miraculously gained the ability to see, it lives in complete darkness, and couldn’t possibly afford a decent mirror. Beauty pageants don’t make exceptions for poor girls who live in dimly lit homes, and I won’t make exceptions here. Some orthodonture and a trip to St. Croix might change my opinion, but for now, I’m saying Zac Efron looks better than a blind mole-rat.

THE KRAKEN

Not the one from the new Clash of the Titans. That Kraken is a smoldering bad boy who may not win the battle of strength with Sam Worthington, but certainly wins the battle of snarling sexiness. I’m talking about Harry Hamlin’s nemesis in the 1981 affair. It’s not that he’s awful looking. He has a gilled sophistication and a chest you could do skateboard tricks on. It’s his herky-jerky movements that put him a rung below Efron. Blame animation if you will, but I have my suspicions that Efron might just be a clever bit of computer graphics. At least he doesn’t act like he’s constantly suffering from delerium tremens.

STEVE BUSCEMI

I know what you’re thinking. Trees Lounge Steve Buscemi? Airheads Steve Buscemi? But he was so hot in the Lord of the Rings! Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and Buscemi may seem to some a modern day Peter Lorre, and as every fan of rap knows, Ladies Love Peter Lorre. But let’s be honest. Zac Efron beat him out for the lead role in High School Musical. That counts for something. If only barely.