The Business of Writing
The librarian called me a liar.
“There’s no way you read those books! You just took them home yesterday. You’re trying to cheat!”
Now a wiser child would’ve simply said something like, “No, ma’am! I live thousands of miles away, but I’m spending the summer with my grandparents. I don’t know any local kids, and my grandparents are happier if they can’t hear, see, or smell me, so I spend my days perched in the top of an old oak tree with an apple, a bottle of Coke, and a couple of books. I’ve already read every word in their house twice which is why I’m back at the library for more.”
But I all I heard was cheat and that hurt my pride.
“I did too read those books! You don’t want to sign my book log because you’re afraid I’ll win the prize!”
Yesterday, the sign was the first thing I saw when I entered the tiny public library. In big, bold letters it announced the annual summer reading program with the prize of a free ticket to the magical land of Lagoon for any kid who read one hundred books. I’d heard of my cousins speak of Lagoon in the hushed tones reserved for church or when Grandpa was napping. “It makes Saratoga Springs look like the dinky Strawberry Days Fair,” they said. Saratoga Springs with its waterslides and rows of skee-ball alleys was the bomb-diggity. Lagoon, I figured, was a ten year old’s version of paradise. If I got a free ticket, my grandparents would have to take me.
But that would never happen if this dried prune of a librarian kept giving me heat, saying I didn’t read the three measly books she let me borrow a whole lifetime and twenty-six hours ago. I crossed my arms and stuck out my bottom lip.
She raised an eyebrow and picked up the top book from the pile, Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. “So when Kitty married Mac—”
“Kitty never married Mac,” I interrupted. She married Steve. Rose married Mac.”
She sniffed. “You read it before.”
“Nope.” I picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. “I did see this movie, but it was called Willy Wonka. In the movie Charlie and Grandpa Joe find the golden ticket, but in the book only Charlie does. I liked the book better.” The last novel was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I held it up. “I loved this. I want to be Meg and have a brother like Charles Wallace. Do you have any more like this one?”
She narrowed her eyes, but grabbed her rubber stamp and dated my log, scrawling her initials next to each title. The war with the librarian was on.
Almost every day I’d walk the two miles each way from my grandparent’s house to the library, toting the three books she let me borrow in the horrific July heat, stopping to splash in the irrigation ditches and to check if the pawdawadames that grew along the banks were ripe. Each day with the bitter taste of too-sour plums teasing my tongue, I’d get quizzed on the books I returned and watched as the librarian reluctantly stamped my official reading log.
I drove her nuts checking out every book deemed fit for children in her library. I read all the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and The Three Investigators mysteries on the shelves and moved on to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I escaped into Narnia, Middle-earth, and Pern. Huck Finn, Tom, Becky, and I explored the Mississippi, and once I went to a strange planet where all the aliens were made of mushrooms. To this day, I can’t remember the author or book title, but I remember how the space children had to eat boiled eggs. I detested boiled eggs.
The summer I turned ten should’ve been lonely, but with my book friends and imagination I was never bored. I rode my aunt’s old bike around town, played in tennis tournaments, impressed my land-locked cousins by jumping off the high dive, and peeled mountains of cucumbers for my grandmother’s refrigerator pickles, but mostly I read. I discovered that books didn’t care what you looked like, what you wore, or where you came from. Unlike people, you could put them down and pick them right up where you left off, ready to entertain, amuse, and amaze.
Years later when I was studying how people learn, one of my professors talked about how reading with speed and fluency were the most important things for a child to learn. In fact, from kindergarten to sixth grade, average kids who spent only twenty minutes a day of their free time in silent sustained reading were guaranteed to score in the ninetieth percentile on standardized tests regardless of IQ. Like a basketball player working the free-throw line after practice, it was a matter of building muscle memory and neural pathways. In a year, those daily twenty minutes compounded into more than one million additional words read. During tests this was a huge advantage because more time could be spent figuring out the best answer and less on reading through the questions. Studies showed that any sustained reading—comic books, magazines, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes—as long as a reader stuck to it for a significant amount of time, it helped improve reading speed and fluency.
I never imagined that while I was reading about flying dragons, I was really preparing for SATs and earning college scholarships.
The take away here for parents is that we should worry less about grade level appropriateness and vocabulary building—just those concepts alone are enough to turn kids off reading—and more about finding stories that keep kids engaged. It’s sad, but true that my son taught himself to read when I finally refused to tell him what each of his Pokémon cards said. Highly motivated, he learned to read. I’ve seen similar things happen when kids discover Amelia Bedelia, Encyclopedia Brown, or Harry Potter. For some kids reading becomes fun when they discover stories about world records, survival tips, or sports heroes. With sustained reading as the goal, the right kinds of books make all the difference. Libraries with their varied offerings are exactly the kind of smorgasbord kids crave.
It was late in the afternoon and I was leaving for my Hawaiian home in the morning when I returned my last borrowed books to the Pleasant Grove Library. “See?” the librarian smirked, “I knew you couldn’t do it.”
A smarter kid would’ve shrugged, knowing there was no time left in the summer for a trip to Lagoon. I went to the baby section and read thirteen picture books. “Here,” I said, dumping them on her desk, “one hundred!”
“Those don’t count!”
“Your sign says books. These are books. I bet you’ve never given a ticket away. You probably don’t even have one. The whole summer reading program is a scam!”
When I walked into my grandmother’s house, I handed my golden ticket to my nine year old cousin. Lagoon, she later wrote in my Christmas card, was glorious.
Summer used to mean trips to the library, at least once a week and usually more often. Books had to be gathered from under beds and behind car seats and children rounded up and loaded into those same seats, wiggling with anticipation over the new stories they’d discover and bring home.
Often we’d get sidetracked and end up grabbing a shave ice from a local teenager sweltering in a temporary shed covered in plastic raffia. I used to keep baby wipes in the car so sticky tiger’s blood wouldn’t dot the new book covers.
But now things are different. Last week my 14 year old daughter asked if I could take her to the library. I turned away from my computer, blinking. It’s the middle of July and I haven’t had a single strawberry shave ice. We’ve driven by the library a zillion times. Why haven’t we stopped in?
Oh, man. Does this mean I’m a terrible mother? My kids are not reading this summer. They are going to fail their SATs and end up addicted to video games and living in my basement until I die, a cold Diet Coke clutched in one hand and a dusty library card in the other.
Quick! How many books do they have to consume in the weeks before school starts to catch up? 10? 20? We’ll give up tv. We’ll give up sleep. We’ll—
“Mom? Did you hear me? Can we go to the library? Or can you at least recommend something from your eBook collection? Since I can’t pick up the books and check the back, I don’t know what’s good.”
Oh, yeah. EBooks. Between gifts, subscription services, and purchases, there are thousands of books in my digital library for the kids to choose from. “Son,” I yelled up the stairs, “what are you reading?”
The 16 year old peeked over the railing. “Last week I read Brandon Sanderson’s newest. Yesterday I finished the entire Sherlock Holmes collection and I’ve started on Terry Pratchett.”
“So you don’t want to go to the library?”
He waved his smart phone at me. “Whatever for?”
My daughter said, “Well, I want to read The Fault in Our Stars.”
“Mom’s got it,” he replied. “Check her Amazon account.”
“I also wanted dystopian.”
“Mom’s got the Legends series.”
“I want books.”
I get where she’s coming from. There’s something about holding a book, measuring your progress through it, trying to slow down when you know the end is coming up and you war with yourself over wanting to prolong the journey as much as you want to find out what happens.
I also know that eBooks are immediately available and infinitely more portable.
At the library, I wasn’t surprised when my daughter borrowed Legend by Marie Lu that she had to put her name down on the wait-list for Prodigy and Champion. It’s a popular series and there were four or five kids ahead of her. I also wasn’t surprised when she came to me at 11 pm asking how to download the final two books.
The desire to know what happens next crushed the book purist in her.
And now I fear I’ll have to find new excuses to make summer shave ice runs. But the kids are reading. Won’t have to finish the basement after all.
Had a blast yesterday at BYU with the Kid Authors Camp kids. An amazingly smart, talented, and fearless group of writers. They asked all the tough questions about how contracts work, movie rights, and how they can publish their work when they’re ready, like in maybe another hour or so when they finish their last chapter. These kids are going places!
If a writer gets an idea, she’ll need an icy Diet Coke before she can sit down and write. When she goes to get a can from the fridge, she’ll notice the salad dressing next to it is expired.
If she notices the date is two months past, she’ll wonder what else is old.
If she opens the produce drawers, she’ll see wilted lettuce, wizened carrots, and squishy avocados. Looking harder, she’ll notice past its prime sour cream, yogurt, and a lack of milk and orange juice. Digging deeper, she’ll find suspicious things in containers that may or may not be alive. Disgusted, she’ll drag the trash can over and start dumping.
After filling two trash bags, she will realize that the shelves are cruddy.
If she thinks the shelves are cruddy, she will empty out the entire fridge to clean it. When she goes to get a dish rag, she will discover the towel drawer is empty. Running upstairs into the laundry room will send her into a major freak out over what her daughter has (hasn’t) done with the towels. She will fling open doors to kids’ bedrooms and bathrooms and freak out more.
Going back downstairs she will open the pantry for paper towels and hyperventilate when she sees spilled cocoa and sugar all over the floor. Calming down, she will sweep, scrub the fridge, take out the trash, and discover that Mother Hubbard’s cupboards are bare.
Hopping into the car, she’ll realize that a run to the grocery store isn’t going to cut it, so it’s down the canyon to Costco. While sixty miles from home, she’ll think of more errands to run and will stop in a luxury department store to buy make-up on sale and get distracted by all the new handbags.
Until she checks the price, it will take all her will-power to leave her favorite bag there.
Six hours later, she’ll return home, restock the fridge, and tell everybody to clean their rooms and make their own dinner from Costco roast chicken, Caesar salad mix, and sour dough bread.
Finally, she will sit down to write the awesome what comes next, stare blankly at the computer screen, research the best online price for the handbag, and write a blog post instead.
On Feb. 28, 2014 authors Christine Haggerty, Angela Hartley, and I held two creative writing workshops at Uintah High School in Vernal, UT. I talked about being an author and building craft skills and Angela gave a presentation about the power of synesthesia in writing. Synesthesia mixes the experiences of senses in powerful ways like tasting green or hearing chocolate. Angela then showed the students this image and asked them to write about it. Below are a few excerpts. For more examples, please see Christine or Angela‘s blog.
The fog descended through the trees tasting like soapy water. ~ Nichole
It was early morning and Samantha was already out running through the woods. ~Jeff
I bit my lips. They tasted sweet like the blossoms of the bush next to the road. ~Brianne
The sounds of a car and dogs behind him. Chester ran faster. He could almost feel the yelling coming from the ranch director. He was not going back to that place. ~Dalton
It had been weeks since Kasanalea had seen another person. ~Aspynn
Just as she began to feel the suffocating effects of the fog closing in, salvation came. ~ Jesse
As the sun finally began to rise, Kim breathed a sigh of relief. ~ Harmony
“I thought you said we would be safe here,” she accused. ~ Stacia
I was standing in the fog. Dark. Cold. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear something. I shouldn’t be out this late. ~ Trestyn
Out of breath, my muscles aching. I sucked in the crisp morning air as I ran faster into the light. ~ Jaeley
Leaves scattered out of the way as we sped down the pavement. ~ Paige
On Thursday, February 27, 2014 authors Angela Hartley, Christine Haggerty, and I held two drama workshops at Union High School in Roosevelt, UT. I gave a short presentation about how writing is really for the dogs and then we workshopped five original scenes. The students’ performances were amazing. For more about our adventures, check out Christine and Angela’s blogs.
I don’t believe in writer’s block, even though I’ve been stalled out on book three in the Niuhi Shark Saga for several months now. It’s not that I can’t write—I’ve continued to write and even publish other works—it’s that I haven’t wanted to work on the series.
It’s not block, it’s apathy.
Part of the apathy comes from the publisher wanting to wrap it up as a trilogy instead of a five book series—oh, but Lehua, we’d like you to keep the third book’s ending open enough that if sales warrant it, there’s the option to write books four and five. In the meantime, we’d like to see something else. I could go on ad nauseam about the challenges of working with an understaffed, underfunded new publishing house, but if you’re a writer, you’ve heard it all before.
So five into three. Really three into one, since the first two are already published. No matter how you do the math, it doesn’t fit.
I thought about simply writing book three the way I originally envisioned it and then self-publishing four and five—heck, I’d give them away to anyone who asked.
But a series with three nice books sitting on a shelf and two only available on the nearest eReader didn’t feel right. I didn’t know what would. Some days I even convinced myself that I didn’t care, the same way people convince themselves that a large Diet Coke cancels out the buttered popcorn and peanut M&Ms they consume at a movie.
For the past year, every time I sit down to write I have to do it around the three-ton shark sitting on my keyboard. Go back to starring in Shark Week shows, I’d think. Aren’t there some white-bellied tourists from Wisconsin you can haunt? Unlike bigger budgeted publishing houses, in my experience, small presses don’t bug you much about deadlines, particularly when they’re busy trying to hook bigger fish.
It was therefore easy, sorta, to ignore Jaws Junior and the tsunami wave of story hovering over my head. Easy, that is, until book two started percolating through the kid-lit jungle net and kids started sending me email.
Aunty Lehua!!!!! I can’t believe you ended it that way!!!!!! What happens next?!!!!!!!
Middle grade readers love exclamation points.
They also send major guilt-trip vibes.
Working as a content editor with other authors made me realize my real problem wasn’t finding a way to tie up all the loose ends. It was reconciling what made sense in a third book based on the first two. In my head I had too much story. But if Zader chooses to do something else…
Suddenly, a completely new and different shape for a third book began to emerge. I bounced ideas off published authors who had read One Boy, No Water and One Shark, No Swim, but had no preconceived ideas of where the story was heading. I then went to my ace in the hole—a few middle grade readers–and asked what they’d like to see in the last book. While radically different from my original ideas, the new book three made sense.
With a clearer vision in mind, I finally feel ready to write the last book of Zader’s Niuhi shark saga. The series will end, questions will be answered, and Zader’s journey will be worth it—both for him and the reader.
Cue the theme from Jaws.
“It’s pronounced L’wah. It’s French,” proclaimed the guy sitting next to my son, Aaron. Aaron gives him side-eye. The guy and his girlfriend are studying the bios of the authors seated on the platform in front of the room. It’s the first day of a writers’ conference and I’m here to talk about how to write children who sound, act, and think like children instead of mini-adults. Seated in the middle of the table, I figure I’m in a power-spot.
“No, says the woman, spotting a dark-haired, olive-skinned author seating herself to my right. “It’s Native American. It’s Leh-huish-hah.”
Aaron tries not to snicker.
“I’m telling you it’s French. L’wah!”
“Welcome everyone. Let’s start by having each of our panelists introduce themselves.”
“Aloha! My name is Lay-who-ah Parker and I write…”
When they hear me say my name, they both shake their heads. “No,” the guy says, “she’s wrong.”
That’s my most pressing problem right now with my right foot in a cast and needing to be propped higher than my heart. The ice bag takes up what little room I have between my gut and knee and reclining half on my back and leaning on an elbow, I’m at a loss at how to balance the computer and type at the same time. Cocooned in a pillow nest, I’m tired of taping out one letter at a time on an iPad. Serious writing needs ten fingers.
It’s my fault for always writing at a desk with a chair and keyboard and two big monitors in a room where I can shut the door. Like a jock with lucky socks, I’ve trained myself to think that it’s all about the quiet room and the ability to use a mouse. Writing on the living room couch is a cramped affair filled with scraps of other people’s conversations and too loud music.
Adapt or die. Right now death is winning.
Being cooped up the past two days has built up a torrent of words and ideas that want to pour like water over a cliff, but they will have to wait until my foot no longer needs elevation and ice or I master some new yoga poses.
It’s going to be a long two months.
‘Twas the Night Before Deadline
(with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)
‘Twas the night before deadline, when all through the den
Not a writer was writing, not even with pen!
The novel was due to reviewers with care
In hopes that sales stimulus soon would be there.
The words were not flowing, no dialogue said,
While visions of better books danced in my head.
And husband asked, “When?” And I said, “Don’t know.
I’ve got pages and chapters still left to go.”
When out in the kitchen there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my laptop to see what’s the matter.
Away to the counter I flew like a flash,
Tore open the wrappers and snarfed all the stash.
The moon on the beast of the new-fallen show
The depths of the bottom we writers will go.
When what to my thundering thighs should appear,
But six empty plates of neighborly cheer.
With a Diet Coke chaser, so icy and quick,
Came the illusion of writing so lively with wit.
More rabid than weasels the words how they came,
And I laughed as I wrote them—to my endless shame.
“Now Gaiman, now Meyers, now King, and Dean Koontz,
Gabaldon, Pattersen, you guys with the loot,
My books are on shelves and great reads to boot!
It’s time to move over, c’mon y’all—scoot!”
Like bad reviews before these wild words fly,
When they meet with reality, sugar crash is nigh.
So back to my laptop my fingers they flew
Enough with this poem—I’ve real writing to do!