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Brief Notes on Middle-Grade Voice

I thought I might start posting writing craft tips. I don’t have the time or energy to write actual articles or essays, but I can summon up enough goomph to grab some bullet points from various talks and presentations I’ve given. Below is a bit on voice from a Zoom talk I recently gave to creative writing program at the University of British Columbia. 

One of the things that distinguishes middle-grade fiction from other age categories is voice. Here’re a few bullet points to consider when writing for kids, when analyzing voice, and when developing your own voice:

  • Dialog is not voice.
  • Dialog is a reflection, but not a complete revelation, of interior thoughts and feelings and attitudes.
  • Dialog is how characters talk, but voice permeates every aspect of writing, from description to narrative.
  • Dialog is what comes from the mouth. Voice is what comes from the writer’s brain and heart.
  • How does a pre-teen see the world?
  • How does a pre-teen see themself?
  • What is a pre-teen’s emotional vocabulary?
  • What questions does a pre-teen ask about the world and the way it works?
  • Focus less on what kids sound like than on what it feels like to be a kid.
  • Still don’t know what middle-grade voice is? Read ten recent middle-grade books to get a hint.

Love,
Greg van Eekhout

I remain a placeholder

I still don’t know what I’m going to do about Twitter, but quiet and vacant though this blog has been, it’s still my house. I’m too slammed with deadlines to spruce it up, but I’m setting a goal of one blog post a week.

A boy and his uke

Greg with a blue ukulele and a pirate replica skeleton drinking booze

One year ago today I bought my first ukulele. We were staying downtown at Comic-Con, and I’d been playing my guitar quite a bit, but I’d left it at home and wanted something to strum. So I hoofed it a few blocks over to a pawnshop, saw this uke hanging on the wall, handed over my debit card, and beep-boop-beep they took fifty of my dollars (about twenty bucks more than I could’ve gotten the same uke elsewhere, turns out). From there I settled down at the Marriott poolside bar, looked up how to tune a ukulele on my phone, learned “You Are My Sunshine,” and fell in love.

I don’t really like ukulele music, not even when played by a great musician. It’s just not my thing. But I loooooove playing. Ukulele is so much easier than guitar. There’re only four strings! F-major, notoriously hard and gross for beginners on guitar, is just two strings on the uke. The string tension is low and the nylon strings are easy on the fingers. Everything I’ve ever played on guitar has sounded stiff and tortured and bad and learning a new song has always been a labor. But on uke I can play some Beatles, some Neil Young, a little Steve Earle, Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, Eddie Vedder, Nirvana, and Leadbelly (by way of Nirvana). I’ve even written couple of little ditties myself.

Listening to music has always been a big part of my life. Being able to pick up an instrument and play something myself has amazing. It’s exercised my brain and my fingers in ways that previously eluded me. It’s been a solace and a distraction in these troubled times. It is just so much stupid fun. Walking into that pawn shop was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

That said, I just ordered this inexpensive little parlor guitar because guitars are still the awesomest.

Neil Peart

I’m stunned at the news that Neil Peart died. He was the drummer and lyricist of my favorite band, Rush. Their music got me through rough days and made good days better. I was privileged enough to see them live dozens of times. I saw their very last show in 2015, and they were as great and powerful as ever.

Peart is widely considered by drummers, critics, and music lovers to be one of the top-three greatest rock drummers of all time. He was a monster and a technician and an artist.

I could go on about Peart and Rush for the rest of my life and I probably will.

One of my favorite Peart lyrics is “Bravado.” When I was in my early twenties, suffering undiagnosed depression, working a job I hated, feeling super emo, writing lots of short stories and not able to sell any of them, this song helped me keep going.

I remember the “Roll the Bones” tour at the Costa Mesa Amphitheater. Or maybe it was Irvine Meadows. This must have been 1992. At the end of “Bravado” they flooded the stage with a constellation of small spotlights, and then the spotlights spread out over the crowd. It was a visual reflection of the band generating creativity on the stage and then handing it over to the audience. Rush gave me a lot of head-banging, jaw-dropping moments, but that thing with the spotlights? Moves me to this day.

2019 – Well, that happened.

I’m not going to make a great big deal out of this, but any year that starts with a cancer diagnosis is going to be weird. 2019 was weird. What began with a late-2018 visit with my GP turned into thyroid cancer surgery in February. But other than some post-surgical bullfrog-like throat swelling and some stuff that’s supposed to stay inside one’s neck leaking to the outside, it was all really, really okay. I know people who’ve lost loved ones to cancer this year. I know people who are currently struggling with it. I got lucky. It was all so weird and unsettling, but I’m grateful. Not for cancer, but grateful for the love and support from Lisa, my wife and partner in all things, and from my friends and family, and from people I hardly know, and from people I didn’t expect to hear from. I’m grateful for good medical insurance. I’m grateful for good luck. But it was weird.

More upsetting (and expensive) (and frightening) was the palm pit Amelia, our little angry snuggly dog, ate in June, which got stuck inside her and made her very sick and required emergency surgery to get out. I know she and Dozer aren’t our children. Children are human persons. Our dogs are better than children because dogs are better than humans. We love our dogs. They’re awful.

On the job front, it was a very good year. COG, my eighth novel, came out. It showed up on more bookstore shelves then any of my other books. It was the book of the month for the OwlCrate Jr. subscription box. It’s even in Target stores, which is weird. My publisher sent me to New York, LA, Dallas, Austin, Orlando, and Philadelphia. I got to meet readers and teachers and students and librarians and booksellers and other writers and book lovers, and everyone was really, really nice to me. I got BBQ and watched live music in Austin. I visited Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time. I ate dinners in airports for a week and checked into hotels ten minutes before the bar closed. I swam through school and airplane germs and got sick, and I’m grateful my publisher believed in my book enough to send me places.

Voyage of the Dogs came out in paperback. And I had a couple of short stories published: “Polly Wanna Cracker” in Wastelands 3 and “Big Box” in Uncanny. My agent and I sold two more middle-grade books to HarperCollins, so that’s my next year sorted. I’m currently wrestling with the edits on the first one, Weird Kid, and I have no idea what the second one will be. And rounding out the year, I sold a short story to the upcoming Clone Wars anthology. I get to play in the official Star Wars universe!

Lisa and I didn’t do any major travel this year, and we missed it. We’ll try to make up for it in 2020. I did fly up to Portland for a career spa with my friends, Deb Coates, Sarah Prineas, and Jenn Reese. Our spa included some amazing cocktails and the best sushi I’ve ever had. I went to the Nebula conference and World Fantasy Con, both in LA, which was a nice opportunity to see more friends.

I started playing ukulele and got kind of obsessed! I’ve been a beginner guitarist for like the last 80 years, and at San Diego Comic-Con I got a sudden craving to strum something, so I picked up a ukulele at a pawnshop and then got a slightly better ukulele and haven’t put it down since.

And, so, that was 2019. We didn’t do nearly enough to combat climate disaster. The Republican party and its supporters continue to make the nation a worse place. I had cancer. But for the most part, it was a good year, and I’m grateful to those of you I got to share it with. Thank you.

 

 

 

Flotsam

Flotsam

They roll in with the waves at the end of the spring storms. Coughing, sputtering, tangled in seaweed, they trudge across the beach toward the boardwalk, where they take up residence in stalls and stands that have stood abandoned since summer.

The midway games are dangerous and the prizes strange, not just the usual day-glo plush toys, but also mummified webbed claws and dried sea horses with too-human faces. The screams from the Tunnel of Love sound final. Attorneys loiter near the bumper cars.

In summer, the boardwalk smells of salt and deepest ocean mud. The fireworks on Fourth of July linger in the dark sky like bioluminescent jelly fish before sinking with stingers extended. Nobody says “ooh” or “aah.”

Bite into a hot dog and you’re likely to taste leviathan or kraken or triton or sea bishop. “Less fatty,” the vendor will growl if you complain. The novelty t-shirts may display funny slogans, but not in any language you know. The palm reader’s predictions are a litany of future atrocity and disaster, and she won’t stop, keeping a firm grip on your wrist, even if you weep and beg.

After Labor Day, the summer sun tires and the air begins to chill. Without a word, the boardwalk workers turn away from the t-shirt shops and midway games. They abandon the merry-go-round with riders still suspended upside-down above the beach. Your half-completed tattoo will have to wait till next summer.

The flotsam don’t look happy as they cross the sand. The beach is broad, and it’s been a long summer. Still, like fish called to spawn, they must wade into the surf, pushing against the waves, thrashing as water fills their lungs and they drown once again.

 

Norse Code is 10

Yesterday was May 19, 2019, ten years from the release date of my first novel, Norse Code. It’s the story of people resisting powerful jerks who conspire to spark a cosmos-spanning apocalypse for selfish gain. Which sort of came true, so I guess I’m a prescient genius, hey, me. It’s very far from a perfect book. The pacing is erratic. My desperation to keep the story moving is painfully evident at times. There are a few wincingly problematic elements. Overall, though? I’m proud of this little book.

Norse Code came out in 2009. The global economy was a flaming wreck. Businesses were swinging scythes through their workforces, and my truly brilliant editor got laid off six months before my release date. There was no publicity plan. I’m not sure I actually had an assigned publicist. There were no advance reader copies, just a small number of bound typeset pages sent off to a small number of people. My agent at the time told me Norse Code would probably never earn back its modest advance. Can’t get mad at that stuff. I was a debut author with a paperback original in a tough time.

And I had some terrific support. Shawn Speakman stepped up at the publisher’s website to promote the book. Pablo Defendini and Theresa Delucci and Patrick Nielsen Hayden used Tor.com to help. Which is particularly amazing considering Tor didn’t even publish Norse Code. Bloggers and reviewers and friends whom I embarrassingly had to lean on for blurbs were extraordinary generous. But, really, I expected the book to disappear after six months.

By the time it came out, I was under contract with a different publisher for a pair of middle-grade novels. I’d kind of moved on. But here we are, ten years later. The book never became a break-out success, but it’s still in print and it did earn out that modest advance, and my seventh novel, Voyage of the Dogs,  came out in paperback a couple of weeks ago, and my eighth novel, Cog, will be released in October.

I’m still doing this. I’m still hustling. I’m still a novelist. I love this job. It can be hard and unglamorous and demoralizing at times, but it’s still the best job I’ve ever had and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can. And it began with a little book that did better than it had any right to.

Happy birthday, little book. I still kind of love you.

SCIBA Children’s Award luncheon talk

Last Saturday (10/20/18) I had the honor of giving a talk at the SCIBA (Southern California Independent Booksellers Association) trade show during the Children’s Awards luncheon. I talked about my middle-grade novel, Voyage of the Dogs, my relationship with dogs, and why I wrote the book the way I did. Here’s what I said:

 

I wrote a book about dogs on a spaceship, and I hope it’s okay if I spend my time with you today talking about how awesome dogs are. First, two spoilers. One: The dogs in my talk don’t die. Two: Some of the people in my talk do die, but we’re all going to be okay.

So. Dogs are awesome.

I used to be afraid of dogs. I was small, because I was a toddler and many dogs were bigger than me and they had horrendous barks and their teeth were bigger than mine. I think it was reasonable under those circumstances to be afraid of dogs. Then I got bigger and I was less afraid, but mostly indifferent to them. And then in 2006 I went to the Blue Heaven writer’s workshop on Kelly’s Island, which is an island in Ohio. It’s the kind of place where all the food is fried and ornithologists get drunk and ride around the island in golf carts.

I met a dog there named Sela. Sela was a pitbull and she preferred my company to that of the other workshop attendees because I spent the most time scratching her belly and playing fetch with her. By fetch I mean I would hurl really big rocks into Lake Erie and she would dive under the surface and then and come up with rocks in her jaws.

We’re talking, like, brick-sized rocks. Five to ten pounders. So because I was willing to scratch her and fling rocks for her, she loved me, and because she loved me, I loved her back. Those were the rules of the game.

Something in my brain switched. Suddenly I loved Sela, and I loved dogs in general. Hello, dog walking my way. I love you. Hey, there, dog in the park, something happened to my brain, and I love you. Howdy, dog on the other side of the street across four lanes of traffic, some kind of biological clock has gone off in my heart, and since you are a dog, I love you, and since I love you, you will love me back. Those are the rules of the game.

Clearly I needed a dog. So my wife and I went to a shelter and we got Dozer. Dozer was six months then and he’s eight years old now. He’s a Jack Russell mix and he’s kind of awful. He eats poop, he got kicked out of dog day care for being a jerk, and a few months ago he swallowed an entire dead ground squirrel. The ground squirrel was about a third his size so I was worried about him, but on the ride to the vet he just wore the most smug, self-satisfied grin I’ve ever seen on anybody. It’s nice when someone gets what they’ve always wanted, so I was happy for him. He’s awful, but he’s also earnest and beautiful and perfect.

Once we had Dozer and I started walking him around the neighborhood, everybody in my world changed. They smiled more. They were friendlier. They stopped to pet my dog and ask me questions about him. They responded to my dog’s fuzzy eyebrows and his wiggly butt. There were a few times that someone who was clearly upset about something thanked me for letting them spend a few moments with my dog. They told me they really needed it. I saw how my dog was soothing small pains. How he was healing tiny cracks in the world.

Dozer worked out so well that a few years later we adopted Amelia. Amelia is a mix of rat terrier, corgi, and coton de tulear, which is a fancy breed from Madagascar, so that’s obviously baloney. She is not fancy. She’s basically a tiny tangle of fur. She spends a lot of her time growling angrily at things. Things like me singing to her, or standing in a way she doesn’t like, or the invisible outrages that only a dog can see. She’s a clown, but not in the shrieking nightmare kind of sense. She’s just funny, and we love her to bits.

We got Amelia at a particularly stressful time that would prove to get more stressful as my parents’ health started a steep descent.

They’d been wobbly for a while, but it was becoming clear that the wheels were really coming off the cart. They both needed round the clock care, and there were ER visits, hospitalizations, short-term stays in temporary nursing homes, battles with doctors and insurance companies, and the task of managing all this fell to me.
This happens to a lot of people. I’m not at all exceptional in going through this. But I can tell you it is difficult.

They lived in LA, and I was in San Diego, two and a half hours away in really good traffic, and I made the decision on behalf of two fully grown adults who had lived through experiences that would have shattered me, immigrants who had survived under military occupation and violent political upheaval in Indonesia … I decided that they needed to uproot their lives, move to San Diego, and go into an assisted living facility where they could have 24-hour care, people to give them medications, manage oxygen tanks, wheel them to the dining room, be there at 4AM if there was an emergency.

When I found out that a lot of assisted living facilities had resident dogs, making sure the place I chose for my parents had a dog became a high priority. The place I ultimately found for them had a little furry mess of a dog named Winston. The first time I met him he was hiding under a chair, eating a cup of sour cream. Actually, he’d already finished off the sour cream and was just eating the little plastic cup. I noted that that in addition to another assisted living facility and a convenient cemetery with full-service funeral home, there was also a 24-hour pet hospital just down the street, so I was sure it was all going to be fine.

Winston wasn’t really a cuddler, but more of a little troll. My dad complained that he would run into his room, knock over the waste can, and then bolt, leaving chaos behind. I thought it was hilarious. My dad’s favorite hobby was complaining, and that was the kind of aggravation I thought was healthy for him. Good boy, Winston!

A couple of weeks before my mom died, I brought the dogs over for a visit. Dad and Dozer got along like buddies, and I lifted Amelia and dropped her in bed next to mom, and Amelia snuggled up to her. At this point Mom was very weak and could barely talk, but now she said the last thing I remember her saying. She said, “Soft. Sweet.” And that’s what Amelia is. She’s also obnoxious and weird, but primarily she is soft and sweet, and that’s all we needed her to be at that moment. She was awesome.

When mom died not long after, the hospice nurse asked if I needed anything. There were a lot of things I had to handle. Calling other family to tell them, helping my dad through the loss of his partner of more than fifty years, dealing with the funeral home. It was a lot. I told the hospice nurse I needed a dog. She went and found Winston, who was probably eating a plastic fork under a chair, and brought him over. I have a selfie of me and Winston from that day. I’m carrying him around, and the smile on my face is the genuine happiness I get when I spend time with a dog. Winston was my wing man. He was awesome.

Fast forward a few months, and my dad passes away. Again, I called the phone numbers I had to call, took care of the things I needed to take care of, and then my wife took me and our dogs to the beach. Again, there was dog snuggling, and again, they made things okay.

I know this is all very sad. Death is sad. I was sad when my parents died, and I’m sad now. I miss them. But aside from sadness and grief, death is also very stressful. In a situation like this, where death is preceded by a lot of elder care and logistical management, death is stressful and it’s exhausting, and time consuming, and it eats your brain.

I hadn’t written much during most of this period. So once I was through it, the obvious thing to do was get back to work. I didn’t have a book under contract, and I’d let go of my agent, so I felt a little bit free, but also a little bit rudderless and hosed. I’d pitched a book to the publisher of my previous three books, and they liked my idea, and they said encouraging things about working with me again, so I shouldn’t have felt so rudderless and hosed. The thing was, I didn’t want to write that book. Like the previous three, the book was dark fantasy. It had moral ambiguity and people doing mean things and fighting and it was dark. I thought about being in the headspace of that book for the year it would take to draft it, and I didn’t want to be in that headspace. I needed to not be in that headspace.

Also, it was 2016. The election. Things felt weird and broken. Of course, things have been weird and broken for a very long time, not just since 2016. But maybe this was a particular flavor of weirdness. A particular sensation of brokenness. And maybe somehow, in some way, I thought I could maybe try to write a book that helped alleviate a little bit of that.

I was on a plane flight a few weeks ago and I watched “Won’t You be My Neighbor,” the Mr Rogers documentary. After the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Rogers was taping some Public Service Announcements to help calm and soothe us, but he wondered after such a horrendous event, what possible good could he do. So he turned to the concept in Jewish theology of tikkun olem, repairing creation. And he said no matter what your particular job in life is, our most important duty is to help repair creation.

When they’re not mangling our shoes and digging up our gardens, dogs are terrific at repairing creation. So I decided to write a book about dogs.

I put them on a broken spaceship, and I had their human crewmates leave them alone and abandoned, and I let the story be about these dogs fixing their ship, and fixing their own broken hearts, and finding a way to forge ahead and find their way to a new home.

We all need dogs. Maybe your dog is a cat or a bird or a reptile. Maybe your dog is a human being, a human partner or human friend. In a room filled with people like us, probably a lot of our dogs are books and our jobs involve writing books or editing books or selling the exact right book a person needs to inform them or empower them or give them pleasure or help them rest up for the next fight. By sharing our dogs, we seal some of the cracks in our painfully fissured world. We help repair creation. Like good dogs, we heal.

As teachers, as librarians, as booksellers, as artists, as writers, as parents, as friends, as partners, as strangers, as people in whatever our roles, we can make small repairs to things that are broken. The world cracks us everyday in a million little ways, and it’s my modest hope that my book about dogs can help mend things, even if just a tiny bit.

Thank you very much.

Lookfar

Stories are boats. They can be plain or they can be beautiful, but they are all vehicles, and their job is to take you somewhere. I got that from Lookfar, Ged’s boat in A Wizard of Earthsea. When I think about writing, I think about building boats. Ursula K. Le Guin’s boats did their job supremely well. I’m grateful she built so many of them.

“They tied up the boat Lookfar, that had borne them to the coasts of death’s kingdom and back, and went up through the narrow streets to the wizard’s house. Their hearts were very light as they entered into the firelight and warmth under that roof; and Yarrow ran to meet them then, crying with joy.” – A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Nasi Goreng Ayam

NASI GORENG AYAM
 
I’ve been asked by a few people for my recipe for nasi goreng ayam (Indonesian fried rice with chicken). My parents were Indo, and my dad made this sometimes but I stupidly never asked him to teach me how.
 
This version is ayam (chicken), but you can make it with tempeh, beef, shrimp, lamb …
 
First of all, there really is no recipe. There are so many variations of the dish that it’s more a concept than a recipe. And I’m probably breaking tradition in several ways. But what I did was check out the first three or four Google recipe search results to get the basic idea. The quantities are more or less winging it, but in general I go for more flavor than less, and I like it spicy.
 
So.
 
Cook some plain white rice. You could steam it, boil it, use your automatic rice cooking gadget, whatever. I use jasmine rice. The key is that it has to be cold, so day-old is best, but at least let it sit for two hours in the fridge. I’ve even used week-old rice from the freezer.
 
Fry a couple or a few beaten eggs. Set them aside.
 
Stir fry the following together in some hot (smoking) vegetable oil:
 
Some chopped vegetables (I like using carrots and green onions. I bet snap peas would be good.)
A couple or a few cloves of garlic, finely chopped.
A jalapeno or half a jalapeno or two jalapenos or other kind of hot pepper (How much really depends on how hot the pepper is.)
Ground cumin (half a tsp to 1tsp, maybe)
Ground coriander (half a tsp to 1stp, maybe)
Salt (maybe a tsp)
Chicken in bite-sized chunks
 
Get all this stuff well mixed together and at least partially cooked.
 
Add your rice. How much? It’s a rice dish, so you want enough to be the bulk of the meal.
 
Add in kecap manis (dark, sweet soy sauce). This is a key ingredient. It’s got a strong flavor, so start off with a small amount (maybe 1tsp), get it good and stirred in, and then add more if you like the taste and want more of it. But it should be enough to color the rice.
 
Throw in a teaspoon of sambal oelek (chili paste). This stuff provides a lot of the heat (and nasi goreng should have heat), but be careful with it. You can always add more as a condiment.
 
Add a wee bit of sambal terasi (shrimp chili paste) or shrimp paste. I’d really just use a little. Less than a teaspoon in most cases.
 
Get everything good and mixed in. The rice should be brownish by now.
 
Add in the fried egg, cut into strips or bits.
 
Serve with crispy fried onions on top (you could even use that stuff they put on greenbean casserole).
 
If you want, go all the way and get some krupuk (fried prawn crackers) on the side.
 
I think that’s it!