Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What Mary Meant

A blog about children's books can also be about what stories mean to us, especially if that meaning starts when we're young. So here's what The Mary Tyler Moore Show meant to me when I was in middle school and began watching it on Nick at Nite, or maybe it was TVLand:

It was a very funny show with great characters.

I probably should've been more focused on the fact that it was a show about a career woman. I would've applauded it for that, if I'd thought about it. But I don't remember thinking about it back then, at least not much. Mary was a grownup. She went to a job and did other grownup things.

You know why Mary's career didn't seem like a big deal to this '90s kid? Because career women were fairly normalized by the '90s. You know how they got normalized? By shows like TMTMS. (Among other things, obviously. But as we know, representation matters.)

I've been re-watching a few episodes this evening, and of course, by now it's very clear to me how amazing this show was. Though it was an ensemble show (with one of the first explicitly Jewish characters I remember seeing on mainstream TV), it was Mary's name scrolling over the screen during the theme song, Mary who carried the show. (Her previous show, you may recall, had her TV husband's name on it.) There's no extended love interest on TMTMS, and though some episodes focus on her (rather feminist) dating life, others focus on many different aspects of her existence. Friend stuff. Job stuff. Personal growth stuff. In the episode I started with at random tonight, sweet Hufflepuffish journalist Mary Richards spends a night in jail rather than reveal a source. You. Go. Girl.

All this is to say how sad I was to hear of Mary Tyler Moore's passing. (My initial reaction, actually, was more like a yelp of indignation.) Her best-known character seemed like a friend when I was young because she was sweet and funny, and now that I understand more about her, she seems even more like a friend.

And if representation matters, then God bless Mary-as-Laura Petrie for wearing pants.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A song for the Women's Marches

to the tune of “The People’s Song” from Les Miserables*

Do you see the women’s walks?
For if we sit this out, then when
will we speak up to say that “people”
means a whole lot more than “men?”
When the thousands taking part
echo the world’s variety,
maybe the powerful
should listen attentively.

Will you join in our crusade
just like so many have before?
Beyond the mess we’ve made,
is there a hope you can’t ignore?
Then join in the fight,
and you might find that women can roar.

Do you see the people march—
furious women, angry men.
Follow the footsteps of a peaceful wish
for hope to come again.
When the beating of your heart
echoes your pounding winter boots,
maybe a modern movement’s coming,
and you’re its roots.

Will you give what you can give
so people have the rights they should,
if it’s marriage, if it’s healthcare,
if it’s planning parenthood?
A lot’s going wrong here,
but you can be part of what’s good.

Did you hear when Dr. King,
during some marching of his own,
said that he dreamed of truer freedom,
said, “we cannot walk alone?”
Here we are, still waging words,
fighting the necessary fights.
Let’s walk together, march for humans
and human rights.

*chosen by popular vote, via a Twitter poll asking what song Parodies for Charities should commission from itself in honor of the Women’s Marches

Friday, November 18, 2016

Parodies for Charities!

Proceeds are currently going to The Trevor Project.

When in the course of inhuman events it becomes necessary to remind the powerful that, for one thing, the word "consent" appears right in our nation's first founding document (look it up), it also becomes necessary to do something about it. For we held these truths to be self-evident, but apparently they bear repeating: that we (including but not limited to straight white dudes) are endowed by our creator (regardless of our belief or lack thereof in any particular creator) with certain in-freaking-alienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which at this point pretty much requires that we laugh.

Okay, so here's the thing. I keep wanting to respond to the gigantic need for help right now, but most of what I come up with is words. So I finally asked myself, how can I turn words into more tangible contributions?

By selling them and donating the proceeds, of course.

And so, I invite you to commission a parody (of anything--a poem, a song, a children's book, a historical document...). Ridiculous requests encouraged. It can be something for your own entertainment or inspiration, or something to stick in a Christmas stocking or share over a plate of latkes. I'm happy to write about people I don't know and in-jokes I'm not in on; just feed me some details.

All proceeds will go to organizations that could use some proceeds. The first $50, which I'll match, will go to RAINN.

Starting rate is $10; rates negotiable for long or especially complicated works. To be clear, Parodies for Charities provides words only, as my attempts at visual arts or singing would not further the goal of making the world a better place.

Lead time: We'll talk. A week should usually be plenty; if I think it'll be more than that at the time of your request, I'll let you know that upfront.

Email shoshana dot flax at gmail dot com for all your parody needs.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reality. On TV.

My first memory of something in the news is from an election when I was little. As far as I can tell, it was a million times less contentious than the current one (which is why I'm skipping the specifics--no one deserves the comparison). I was not exactly politically aware, but my parents explained to me what was happening in basic terms, and I knew which candidate they hoped would win.

The day after the election, they told me that the other candidate had won, and I remember being very surprised. To my young mind, this thing happening far away, involving two men I'd never met, was a story. And stories were supposed to have happy endings. (Which were defined by the adults around me.)

It's easy to feel like what's happening in the news is a story, even when we understand it a little better than I did way back when. Most of us don't know the candidates personally, but we've been told a lot about them, so they become characters to us. It's somewhat natural for them to occupy the same space in our brains as, say, Hermione and Voldemort, even natural for us to want to rubberneck when one of them does something shocking. I know I've been guilty of that sometimes. I've even caught myself assuming things will turn out okay, because that's how the story's supposed to go.

The thing is, we have no power over the (canonical) fate of Hogwarts. We--at least, probably the majority of people reading this--do have some power over the fate of a lot of other things.

 Like many others, I keep thinking lately of Mrs. Banks and her "Sister Suffragette" song in the Mary Poppins movie. Mrs. Banks wasn't real, but the people she sang about were, and so were their counterparts here in the U.S. They knew that the stories they read in the newspaper were real, and they wanted to do something about them.

Well done, sister suffragettes. Now it's our turn.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

You can have your ghosts and goblins. I've got public speaking.

I have a recurring nightmare: I'm in front of a crowd at an author event. Someone asks me a question, one that I could answer just fine if I could just sit down and write, and possibly rewrite, a response. But everyone is looking at me! They're all waiting for me to respond, and I'm very aware that they're waiting for me to respond. This awareness replaces all coherent thought in my mind, and all I can manage is an eloquent "Aaaap. Baaaaap. Bah." Which is immediately quoted on Twitter. #authorfail.

Okay, my feelings about speaking in front of groups aren't that bad. Really. But like many people who like to communicate through writing, I'm not quite as comfortable in front of a group as I want to be. (Insert thinkpiece here about introversion. Insert second thinkpiece about tropes and bookishness and movies with women who have to overcome their glasses.)

I've been to so many speeches, readings, and panels where authors were engaging, inspiring, hilarious, or all three, and it made me care about their ideas and want to read their books. The ones I went to when I was younger made even stronger impressions, and if I'd ever been brave enough to ask a question, I would've held onto the answer forever.

That's the kind of author I want to be. The writing itself is the most important thing, but I also care about being part of the children's book community, and I hope I can create good meeting-the-author memories for some young readers. If those memories can be free of aaaap-baaaaap-bahs, even better. I want to be able to think less about the fact that I'm Up in Front of People, and think more about what would be interesting or helpful for those people to hear.

So I decided to do something about it: I've signed up for a public speaking class. The first session was this past week, and yes, the first time I got up to speak, I was really aware of all the people looking at me and waiting for me to say things. Supportive though the environment was, I know I talked too fast, and if someone had asked me a tough question, I would've had a hard time giving a thorough answer.

And then the second time I got up to speak, I talked a bit more slowly, and thinking was a little easier. Funny how that works.

Halloween, schmalloween. I'm conquering my own fear this October.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Revising is easy*. Writing is harder.

“[Image: A gif of Hamilton writing in the dark with candlelight. There is text that says “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” End description.]
doodling :P

In recent months, I've jumped from a project I was revising to a brand-new one, and remembered or relearned a lot about this building-from-the-ground-up phase of writing. The first draft is going reasonably quickly; my #amwriting tweets lately have been about middles (which may be a subject for another post). But a big reason that I'm not getting mired in one scene or another is that I'm giving myself permission to leave lots of things for Revision Time.

In fact, I had the beginnings of a list of things to check for in revision before I even started writing. At the very beginning of this process, I actually found planning easier than composing, which was a surprise to me since I think my strengths lie more in voice and dialogue than in plot and structure.

But I think I know what's going on: it's a need to focus on one thing at a time. Paradoxically, writing a sentence of a novel, especially a novel you don't know well yet, involves thinking about lots of aspects of that novel and making lots of decisions. (I love the way Kristin Cashore expands on this idea, and how it operates in fantasy, her genre of choice.) When you've just met a bunch of characters and you want to make them greet each other, pick a restaurant, and go there, decisions involved will probably include:
  • each character's voice
  • the narrator's voice
  • what sorts of restaurants, and how many options, are available in this setting
  • who in the group is a decision maker, who's an arguer, and who's a follower
  • how much time everyone has
  • everyone's taste in food
  • dietary restrictions based on health and/or belief systems
  • how much everyone can spend, or wants to spend, on dinner
  • everyone's means and preferences in terms of transportation
And that's all before the salad course, if there is one.

That's why on this draft, I'm finding that it's often easier to just pick something. There are a few things I knew for sure going into this WIP, so some decisions are easy to make, but the rest, I can leave for later. Eventually, I'll probably either realize organically, or decide actively, that a particular character likes to take charge, or that another character makes himself feel good by judging others. I'll put each of those traits on my revision list, and for each, I'll go through every mention of the character, and every scene in which the character is present (or should be), and add evidence for, and often evolution of, that trait. (Scrivener helps.) Revising this way means that I see one character's arc (or setting element, etc. etc.) all at once, without much distraction from other aspects of the novel; if something gives me pause while I'm revising for something else, I just add it to my revision list to deal with later.  

After I figure out if the main character's little brother is the type to fill up on rolls.

*Easy is probably an exaggeration. We'll see how I feel in a few months.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

This generation's Barney the Dinosaur: In the name of research, Part III

"In the name of research" is a semi-regular feature on this blog, compiling the often unexpected topics on which I end up educating myself in the course of writing. And what have you Googled lately?

The latest, all related to The New Project:

-Whether beach houses typically have air conditioners.
-Popular songs of the 1990s. Yes, I was there, but I wasn't cool enough then to immediately know what, say, an uncool dad in the present-plus might sing along with. (Present-plus: the setting of a contemporary novel that isn't done yet and won't come out for at least a few years. Patent pending.)
-Religious and economic demographics of cities, and their distances from other places.
-The names of fictional towns, schools, and businesses to make sure they don't actually exist.
-Names for an aunt character born in a particular decade. Slightly more challenging when your real-life grandparents were blessed with (precisely) ten gazillion siblings and you don't want to use the name of one of your own aunts.
-Points of geography, purely so I can have characters get them humorously wrong in an informed way.
-The number of seats in a minivan (followed by a counting of characters).

-Italian restaurant menus. I even selected the "price: high to low" option for the purposes of a scene, which made me feel very fancy.
-Basic chemistry so as to find a way for a character who hasn't formally learned about enzymes yet to talk about the composition of cheese. (Enzymes, it seems, are proteins. There was a time when I knew that.)
-Details of driving. (It's been a while.)
-Whether arcades are still a thing. (Not to sound crochety, but it's getting harder to get characters to leave the house these days.)
-Arcade games. (I never really went to arcades.)
-This generation's Barney the Dinosaur. That is, something for a kid to be as scathing about as '90s kids were about poor Barney if we were a few years too old for him. I put out a Twitter call for this one out of curiosity, but I'll probably make something up. For everyone's sake.

I may get some interesting ads.


My gloriously nerdtastic Horn Book colleagues and I used the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as an excuse for Fan Week 2016, a celebration of fan creations, fan devotion, and fandom in general. And my gloriously nerdtastic former colleagues at Brookline Booksmith gave Cursed Child a Quidditch World Cup-sized midnight release party. Check out either or both if you enjoy enthusiasm.