When Good News is Bad News--Or is it When Bad News is Good News?

Monday, March 30, 2015

A week ago I attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference held at Canyon Inn (pictured above) in McCormick’s Creek State Park. SCBWI’s Indiana chapter did an excellent job planning and running the conference, which provided helpful sessions and good networking opportunities. Unfortunately, it messed up my self-imposed schedule for Desert Jewels.

Actually, I should probably say, “Fortunately, it messed up my self-imposed schedule.” That’s because what initially seems like bad news will be good news in the long run.

Two months ago, I sent in the first few pages of Desert Jewels for a manuscript critique. By the time I received the critique at the conference, I had already made significant changes to those pages based on beta reader comments, and I hoped that I was working on my last draft in incorporating those changes.

I was wrong. The critiquer had many positive comments, including that the writing is strong and engaging. But she also had some excellent points about places where the story sounded forced, especially when I was trying to show things that were unique to the Japanese American situation of that time. During our discussion, I also got some ideas for strengthening Emi's character arc, which I wasn't completely happy with, anyway. Unfortunately, this means that I have to make additional significant changes to the manuscript, which puts me off schedule. But the good news is that the book will be better as a result.

Perfection is not my goal. It isn’t possible to write a perfect story. If that’s what I were striving for, I would never submit my work. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do the best I can.

So let’s try it one more time.

Finding the (Almost) Perfect Writing Space

Monday, March 23, 2015

When I was a child, I spent a week at camp every summer. The setting was Presbytery Point in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, surrounded by water and forest. It was a Presbyterian camp, and we were given time to go into the woods or along the shore to do our morning devotions in solitude. I climbed a tree that was quiet and away from everyone else, and I truly felt close to God during that time.

Nature can also provide an inspirational setting for our writing.

I just returned from a conference that was held at McCormick’s Creek State Park in southwest Indiana. I want more time to gather my thoughts before writing about the conference, so I’ll save that for next week’s post.

But the setting was gorgeous. When we had some free time, I hiked to McCormick’s Creek Falls, shown in the picture. The falls were very small but also very picturesque. They were also tranquil, even though there were other people around.

The park would have been the perfect writing spot if the conference had left any time for it.

That’s true of many state and county parks. When the weather warms up, take your pad and pencil and find a quiet spot outside among nature. Then write.

Unfortunately, the rooms in the inn were clean but cramped and the food was below my standards. Food is important to me not just for sustenance but also for enjoyment, so I don’t count any experience as perfect if the food is bad.

But McCormick’s Creek State Park came close.

Fiction is . . . Fiction

Monday, March 16, 2015

Academics shouldn’t criticize fiction if they don’t understand how it works.

As part of the research for Creating Esther, I have been reading Learning to Write “Indian”: The Boarding-School Experience and American Indian Literature by Amelia V. Katanski. While I agree with her overall thesis (too complicated to explain here), I find that much of her reasoning and “evidence” are faulty. I’m going to cover one example in this blog.

My Heart is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl is set at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1880 and is one of the early books in Scholastic’s “Dear America” series. It was written by Ann Rinaldi, who is white. In my copy of the book—and apparently in Katanski’s copy, as well—the author’s name is not on the cover but is on the title page. The book—as is true of all the books in the series—is written as if it were the title character’s diary.

I’m a big fan of the “Dear America” series in general, although I have varying reactions to the individual books. Based on the research I have done so far, I think that My Heart is on the Ground paints too humane a picture of the Native American boarding school experience. I don’t attribute that treatment to any kind of cover-up, however. I assume that Rinaldi did the best she could with the information she had.

Katanski isn’t willing to make the same assumption. According to Katanski, “Whether the voice [Rinaldi] manufactures for her protagonist, Nannie, comes from her own anti-Indian politics or from research that relied too heavily on [the school administration’s] representations of life at Carlisle is uncertain.” This willingness to attribute Rinaldi’s voice to possible anti-Indian politics is based on “evidence” that shows Katanski’s ignorance of both the “Dear America” series and the art of fiction.

Katanski’s first “evidence” is that My Heart is on the Ground doesn’t have Rinaldi’s name on the cover page, so the only “author” listed is a fictional Native American girl. Katanski concludes that this is an attempt to “appropriate” a Native American identity. In reaching her conclusion, she ignores two important facts.

  • When the “Dear America” series first came on the market, none of the books had the author’s name on the cover, although they all identified the real author on the title page. At least that’s the case for the three early books, including My Heart is on the Ground, in my collection. One of these three books is about an Irish mill girl, so racism is unlikely to be the reason for leaving the author off the cover. I also have four books that were published or re-released after the series was revised, and they do carry the author’s name on the cover. However, the distinction appears to be based on publication date rather than on the character’s or author’s race.
  • Even third-grade readers know that the “Dear America” books are fiction written by someone other than the character whose name is on the diary. There is no danger that anyone would be misled.

Another piece of “evidence” Katanski uses to “prove” that Rinaldi is promoting a white agenda is Rinaldi’s use of names she found in the graveyard at Carlisle—a practice Rinaldi readily admits. But Rinaldi used them because they “were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities,” not because she expected anyone to believe that her characters were the actual people in the cemetery. What fiction writer hasn’t done the same, especially when trying to be authentic to the time and place?

Finally, Katanski charges that Rinaldi “stole situations from the autobiographies of former boarding-school students . . . changing the presentation and context of those memories (most of which relate to moments of resistance) to provide fake evidence of acquiescence in the values of the boarding schools through the narration of ‘good student’ Nannie.” Excuse me? Where does Katanski think novelists get their ideas in the first place? From a vacuum? As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And fiction may provide evidence of the nature of fiction, but it never provides evidence—fake or otherwise—of the “facts” within it.

Can fiction be written as propaganda? Of course. But Rinaldi uses conventional fictional devices that are common across races and subject matters. To construe them as “evidence” of possible racial politics is ludicrous.

Or is Katanski saying that we shouldn’t try to understand and write about any race except our own? But then she’s violating her own rule, because she is a white academic evaluating Native American literature and boarding school experiences.

Maybe Katanski should evaluate her own bias.


Katanski’s discussion of My Heart is on the Ground is found at pages 92-93 of Learning to Write Indian.


The picture at the head of this post shows the students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania around 1890. It is in the public domain because of its age.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Monday, March 9, 2015

Did you know that it snows in the desert? Well it does. In some deserts, anyway.

When writing Desert Jewels, I wanted my readers to understand the environment—including the climate—where my characters were confined. So I added a scene showing their reaction when it snowed in the Utah desert.

I asked several middle grade students to comment on the manuscript, and a fourth grader said the book “kind of jumped around.” Unfortunately, I had to agree with her. I was trying to cover too much, and at times that desire took the story on a tangent. So when I edited the manuscript to respond to beta reader comments, that snow scene had to go.

But I still wanted my readers to know that the Japanese Americans at Topaz had to deal with snow out there in the desert. My solution? Tell, don’t show.

When I was done, I ended up with this:

December brought cold and frost and snow. But the snow melted quickly and turned the dusty streets to gooey mud that tried to suck the shoes off Emi’s feet.

Even so, I’m still a big fan of the admonition to “show, don’t tell.”

That’s why I’m reprinting a September 4, 2013 post I wrote for the Indiana Writers’ Consortium blog.

The Greatest Show on Earth

Why could Barnum and Bailey bill their circus as “The Greatest Show on Earth?” Because it was a feast for the eyes. They let the performers show the world what they could do. If Barnum and Bailey had turned it into a radio show, their fame would have been fleeting at best.

That’s also the difference between showing and telling when reading or writing fiction. Although the words are on a page rather than in a ring or on a stage, the reader still wants to “see” the action in his or her mind’s eye, not merely “hear” it with the reader’s inner ears. Or, as writers phrase it, “Show, don’t tell.”

Actually, this is a good technique for all writing. But it’s essential in fiction and creative non-fiction.

In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell describes the distinction this way.

Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what’s on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they’re feeling.

Telling, on the other hand, is just like you’re recounting the movie to a friend.

Here’s an example. Let’s assume you are writing a children’s story about two boys who start out as enemies but later become friends. It’s near the beginning of the book, and the two boys get into a fight. You could write it this way:

Brian was angry at Jason and beat him up.

Or you could write it this way:

Brian rushed at Jason, knocked him down, and repeatedly punched him in the face. By the time a teacher separated the two boys, Jason’s nose was bleeding and his left eye was swollen shut.

In the second example, I didn’t tell you that Brian was angry at Jason. Nor did I tell you that Brian beat Jason up. But you knew it because you saw it.

Which is more interesting? I’m willing to bet that you preferred the second.

Of course, every writer needs to tell at times. Otherwise, novels would be longer than the Great Wall of China.

So how do you know what to show and what to tell?

If a scene is important to either plot or characterization, you should show it. To quote James Scott Bell again, “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.”

Telling usually works better for transitions between scenes. As readers, we may need to know that your protagonist left her office and went home. But you don’t usually need to show her walking out the door, waiting for the bus, climbing into the bus, watching for her street, getting off the bus, and walking in the door. “Jean left the office and went home” is telling, but it gets her from one place to another without boring the reader along the way.

Don’t get fanatical about the distinction, however. Even most showing scenes include some telling. In the example above, why do you know that a teacher separated the boys? Because I told you. Another option would have been to say “a teacher pulled Brian away,” and we could spend years debating whether that phrase is showing or telling. There is nothing wrong with telling something in the middle of your scene if the reader needs to know it but it isn’t otherwise important to the story.

Ron Rozelle’s book Description and Setting explains the purpose of showing as “to let your reader experience things rather than to be told about them, to feel them rather than have them reported to him.”

That’s why Life of Pi is one of my favorite books. As I was reading it, my mind saw the violence of the wind and the waves on stormy days and the brightness of the sun on calm ones. But it went even deeper. The stormy days also had me hearing the roar of the wind, tasting the salt spray as the ocean pummeled the boat, and trembling as the small craft rose to the crest of each towering wave and dropped into the seemingly bottomless trough between them. And the calm days had me sweltering in the heat and smelling fish rotting in the sun. That’s what your writing should do.

Too much telling can make a good story boring, and knowing how and when to show can make a mediocre story great.

So go out and write the greatest show on earth.

* * * * *

The picture at the top of this post is a painting by Italian artist Gaetano Lodi, who was born in 1830 and died in 1886.

Naming a Place

Monday, March 2, 2015

If you read last week's post, you know I left it with a question. How did I come up with Dewmist as the name of my fictional boarding school?

I’ll tell you in a minute. First, let me explain why I had to make up a name at all.

I got spoiled when writing my last middle grade historical novel. There were plenty of good memoirs with detailed accounts of what happened to the Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during World War II. More importantly, several of them traveled from Berkeley, California to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California to the Topaz War Relocation Center in the Utah desert. So it was easy to set my story in real places and know that I would have all but a few minor facts correct.

I can’t do that with the book I’m working on now. I’m setting my story in 1895, but the first boarding school opened in 1879 and some existed until the late 1900s.* Most of the memoirs I have are from the mid-20th century, and the ones that occurred earlier are short on details. I can’t find enough information to set my story in one particular school without the risk that someone will find significant factual errors.

That means I have to create a fictional school using what is universal and making up details consistent with the ones in the memoirs.

Okay. I can do that. But it means I need to make up a name, too. So how did I come up with Dewmist as the name for my boarding school?

I discarded a few choices before deciding to play with the letters in the word “Midwest,” which is where my school will be located. First, I tried reversing the word, but Tsewdim isn’t easy to say or remember. So I switched the first two letters and came up with Stewdim. But that didn’t seem very memorable, either. And Westmid is too obvious.

In the end, it came down to two choices: Mistdew and Dewmist. I chose Dewmist because it flows together better. As you can see, I simply rearranged a word and got a name.

But maybe you want a more fanciful explanation. Here’s one that I came up with after the fact. Dew and mist are temporary, dissolving when the sun comes out. The acculturation process at these boarding schools was also temporary, dissolving when the students went back to their reservations. Actually, some aspects stayed, but the schools couldn’t beat the Native American culture out of their residents.

And that’s a good thing.


* See Education for Extinction by David Wallace Adams.


The picture shows the East Building of the Shawnee Indian Mission boarding school in Fairway, Kansas, which Roland and I saw on vacation in 2013. The building was built in the early 1840s and is probably typical of the dormitory and school buildings at the various Midwest boarding schools.