Thinking Out Loud – Secrets

I just finished a revision of my middle grade novel ABSOLUTE YES. At the center of the novel is a secret. When I started the revision, I thought that I needed to make the secret press harder on the characters in the novel. I thought I needed to make its presence loom larger so that it twisted and tempered the actions of the characters.

I discovered something different. Yes, the secret presses on the world of the story but as it becomes revealed, the revelation liberates and strengthens the characters. The secret is not the main character. The secret is the antagonist. And the protagonist has to face the antagonist in order to grow.

But how to make them grow? How to get the child protagonist to face the antagonist?

Well, first I figured out my main character’s belief at the start of the book had nothing to do with the secret. She isn’t aware of it at all. What she believes is: she isn’t smart. When she overhears a tidbit of information about the secret, it sets her on a path of discovery. With each step she takes, she becomes bolder and less crippled by her belief. As she becomes bolder and smarter, she faces the well meaning but misguided (‘I did what I thought was best’) parent figure who has to face her actions of hiding the secret.

What I found in this revision is the character’s strength and the desire to face what seemed like a monster secret in their family. I didn’t need to make the secret press harder on the world of the story, I needed to strengthen the spine of my main character to uncover the secret and shift her belief that she isn’t smart.

Writing Tip #7-Curiosity is a Superpower

I love writing. I love teaching. I love teaching writing. I love listening to writers talk about their manuscripts. I love problem solving with writers. I love the delicacy and boldness of writing. These tips are things I’ve learned over the years that have held me in good stead and kept me going through the hard dry times. I hope they help you.

And hey, they are only one minute long. Click here.

Curiosity is my superpower. If I can be curious, I can dispel my anxiety about all the things I can’t control. Things like: Will my agent like the manuscript? Will the publishing house acquire the manuscript? There are so many things we can’t control. When we wake up in the morning, we have no idea what’s going to happen. Life is anxiety producing. But If I can step back and be a little curious, my anxiety goes way down and I can breathe. That’s my other superpower: taking a breath. Oxygen to the brain and heart. Amazing stuff.

Thinking Out Loud – Teaching with an Asterisk*

In the world of baseball, there are several hall of fame players who have an asterisk by their records because their feats were in some way marked by underhanded behavior. Steroids. Gambling. Cheating.

Recently, the Seuss estate listed a number of books by Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss which will no longer by published because the egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes in the works “are hurtful and wrong.”

I agree and applaud the decision by the Seuss estate. I don’t think the decision is part of cancel culture. These books will still exist on bookshelves and libraries and probably on eBay. If they live another life of serving as examples of how writers unwittingly perpetuate racial and sexual stereotypes, that change is okay with me.

The Seuss books are not the only purveyors of stereotypes and oppression. There are many. Some were award winners in their day. Even authors fall into this category. More than a few well known and successful authors have been accused of using their positions as authors and teachers to take advantage of women.

As a writing teacher, I do not cancel any of these books or authors. When I recommend reading Sherman Alexie because of the way he moves plot through dialogue, I don’t leave out the part about his predatory behavior as an author. When I recommend the Newbery winning Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George because of its strong main character, I also say its portrayal of Alaskan native people is one dimensional.

In short, I teach with an asterisk.

Why? Because authors need to be responsible for their words and actions on and off the page. We are writers of children’s literature. We can’t continue to write harmful stereotypes. Nor can we act egregiously. As a teacher, I think it’s important to make students aware of the landscape of children’s literature and their responsibility if they choose to pursue this career.

Books are written by humans. We are flawed. I was born into racist, capitalist, and sexist culture. I am stained with its influences. Raising up a book, pointing to its perpetuation of stereotypes and throwing it in the flames will not change our world. I believe raising up that same book and showing how it disseminates oppressive stereotypes will further our awareness by looking straight at them.  Being offended by a book or an author and throwing them away is not awareness, it is another kind of censorship–the very opposite critical thinking.

Writing Tip #6 – Delicious Words

I love writing. I love teaching. I love teaching writing. I love listening to writers talk about their manuscripts. I love problem solving with writers. I love the delicacy and boldness of writing. These tips are things I’ve learned over the years that have held me in good stead and kept me going through the hard dry times. I hope they help you.

And hey, they are only one minute long. Click here.

Delicious words. My friend Susan Fletcher is a beautiful writer. And she says that every manuscript, every story deserves its very own bag of delicious words. Words that each character loves to say. Words that activate the story. Words that make the reader smarter and richer for having read them.

Thinking Out Loud* – Planned Obsolescence

I can’t remember the exact moment I first heard those two words—Planned Obsolescence—put together. It was a while ago. The Eighties? Probably when something (printer? dishwasher? vacuum?) broke and I learned it was cheaper to throw out the broken thing and replace it with a newer thing because it cost less and was more available than a part to fix the old broken thing.

Planned Obsolescence. What is it? According to numerous sources on the internet, it is “a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.”

I had no idea it was an actual policy. It seems incredibly stupid and wasteful, doesn’t it?

Where did it start?

I have a theory.

Thor Power Tool v. Commissioner

A few years ago, I wrote a four-part article for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog Cynsations about books going out of print. While researching it, I learned that there was a Supreme Court decision in 1979 (Thor Power Tool v. Commissioner) which ruled that all inventory is taxable at the same rate. Thor argued that old inventory should be deducted for tax loss because it was deducted for accounting purposes. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Commissioner (the Internal Revenue Service) basically saying that back stock could not be taxed at a lesser rate unless it was proved defective.

This decision had a devastating effect on the book publishing industry. Essentially it made it more expensive for publishers to carry poor selling inventory from year to year. As a result, publishers cut print runs to minimize inventory and decided more quickly to dispose of books before the end of the fiscal year. Books had to earn their keep. Publishers had to work harder to justify the bottom line of books staying in print. Authors often had to choose between promoting their books in print, writing their next one or trying to do both.

Books aren’t the only industry affected by this decision. Consider vacuum cleaner parts for the vacuum you purchased five years ago. Or the dishwasher? Or the printer you simply replaced because it was more expensive to replace a broken printer head. Consider every time you want to get something repaired and the person behind the counter says, “It would be cheaper to buy it new.”

I’m a small cog in this big wheel of life but it seems to me this 1979 decision should be challenged in the name of climate health, in the name of intellectual health, in the name of good sense. Do we really want to continue to be a disposable society? Do we want to stop making well-made things? Do we want to disenfranchise repair people? Do we want books to go out of print after an average of five years?

The Value of Books

Books provide the narrative of our lives. They document us. They remind us of where we have been. They give us a glimmer of what’s possible. Planned Obsolescence is like manufacturing amnesia. Planned obsolescence is a kind of censorship. If as George Santayana says, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” then I wonder if this policy condemns us to living in a land with burgeoning landfills and intellectual memory loss.


*As the youngest in my bio-family, I was a late talker. The walking talking tribe of my older sisters and my parents were paragraphs and sentences ahead of me when I arrived. I was hesitant to speak up, to think out loud. I thought I had to be perfect. Hah!  This series, for however long it lasts, is about me speaking up and thinking out loud.