What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

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Real Crime and Fake Crime

I am a fan of both kinds.

Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)

I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.

Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.

Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.

The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.

In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.

What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.

Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.

I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.

On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.

 

 

 

The Next Top Iron Writer Is Chopped

Two of my favorite things in the world are language and food. But they almost never come together except in recipes and restaurant reviews, both of which I find extremely boring.

What I do like are food game shows: Chopped, Iron Chef, Guy’s Grocery Games, Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef, and so on. They provide the combination of food preparation, competition, and a reality show that demonstrates a real talent that satisfies my needs.

But where is the language element in all this? (Except for creative cursing and abuse when Gordon Ramsey goes off on a poor, put-upon contestant.)

There are language contests, which are harder to find, especially on TV. Fictionary and Scrabble are two examples. Whose Line Is It Anyway?, while a comedy improv show, had several games that relied on the performer’s quick-thinking use of language. And occasionally at science fiction conventions, you’ll see a contest in which people try to read aloud a notoriously bad, hideously written manuscript until they start laughing, when the next contestant gets a turn.

But what if we create a mash-up of the two sorts of games and design them for writers? What would we have then? I have here a few ideas.

First, get a bunch of writer contestants, of various genres. Then a few editor judges. Then the fun begins.

Genre mash-up. Have each author draw a genre at random and write a paragraph or story in that style. Possible genres: science fiction, romance, Shakespearean, soft porn, mystery. No one is allowed to write in his or her own genre.

For the bonus round, have the contestants draw two genres and write a science fiction story à la Shakespeare, for example. Or have one contestant gain an advantage and assign genres to the other contestants.

Assign an author. The host chooses a plot: jewel thief is discovered; pirate attacks ship; a child is kidnapped; talking bunny meets talking bear; worker is fired. Then have the writers draw the name of a writer and write in that author’s style: Ernest Hemingway, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, etc.

Age swap. Have writers choose a famous children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, Horton Hears a Who, The Giving Tree, Bunnicula) and rewrite a passage from it for a grown-up audience. Or have contestants rewrite a passage from an adult book (Gone With the Wind, Of Mice and Men, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and render it suitable for a child.

Who’s the author?/first lines. Contestants write a passage in the style of a writer of their choice and the judges have to guess who the imitated author is. Or the writers take a famous first line from a novel or story and must write something completely different to complete it.

Word list. The moderator gives the contestants a list of random words (spring, car, lonely, chart, vegetable, and tissue, for example) and they have to write a sonnet using them all.

ABC. The host draws a letter of the alphabet, and the writers must write a 50-word paragraph using that letter as many times as possible. The winner is determined by who used the letter the most.

Of course, this would not make for very compelling television, though you could have close-ups of the writers wiping their brows; professional actors reading aloud the poems, stories, and paragraphs; time limits; and even annoying Jeopardy-style music in the background as the writers work.

And think of the prizes! Money, of course. A new computer/word processing system with all the software and other bells and whistles; for the semi-finalists, a writer’s nook including desk, bookshelves, file cabinets, printer/fax; and for the winner – publication, of course!

Losers would receive either a collection of writing reference books or a Deluxe Scrabble set.

I’d watch it.

Next, I have to invent a cable network that would carry the program.

Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies

Just in time for Halloween, Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) has published Feedback, the latest in her series of zombie novels. The original books were Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, collectively known as the Newsflesh trilogy.

Sign of infected areaThe thing is, they’re zombie novels, but they’re not really about zombies. Oh, there are plenty of undead, infected creatures roaming through the novels, trying to bite the living, converting them to more zombies, or simply feeding on human flesh. There are brave zombie hunters who defend civilization against the shambling menace with intelligence, courage, and a vast amount of firepower. There are excitement, chase scenes, well-drawn characters, stunning surprises, and all the things that make a good horror-scifi-action-thriller.

So what are these books really about? Not Jane Austen, that’s for sure.

Fear. Okay, you probably expected this one. A zombie novel about fear. But in the Newsflesh books, fear of zombies is the least of it. There are alarming secrets that turn out to be symptoms of big, appalling conspiracies. One of the novels’ underlying messages is that fear can be – is – used to manipulate people and control them. If the threat is big enough, and scary enough, and relentless enough, people will do anything, give up anything, completely change their way of life to avoid the danger.

And people who know that can pull their strings.

Safety. Again, a fairly standard topic for a zombie book. But in this world (and ours), there is no guarantee of safety. All you can rely on are yourself and the few people around whom you can trust – and sometimes not even them. Mechanical defenses have holes; strategies have deficiencies; friends have their own agendas. In the end, you have only yourself and your principles, and maybe a few other people if you are very, very lucky.

Journalism. The main characters are bloggers, who form teams that gather the news, poke zombies with sticks, or write fiction. This gives the author plenty of room to explore how modern technologies have affected news-gathering, as well as the consumer’s desire for real-life action-adventure, poetry, and stories too. Large questions are explored: How far does the public’s right to know extend? Are there secrets that journalists shouldn’t reveal? What happens when the journalists become part of the news themselves? Have no fear (except of the zombies and conspiracies); these subjects operate in the background while the plot continues to rocket ahead.

Politics. The blogger-journalists are embedded with the campaign of a possible candidate for President, which makes the books all the more timely. Politics and zombies may not sound like a fascinating combination, but when the dead are rising everywhere in the world, people look to governments to address the problem. Whether those governments and the people in them make sound decisions, put responsible policies in place, and fund research can affect the outcome for individuals. Anyone who can’t make connections with the current political climate just isn’t paying attention.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from the novels. There are plenty of gore, ambushes, narrow escapes, heartbreaking deaths, and all the other accoutrements of your standard zombie novel, if that’s what you want. There’s even a zombie bear. You don’t have to pay attention to the various subtexts, though your reading experience will be richer if you do.

Not content to stop after writing the trilogy, Grant has revisited the near future, post-zombie-apocalypse world with short stories, novellas, and now the new stand-alone novel. (I say stand-alone, though its plot runs roughly parallel to Feed.) She explores interesting questions: What is this character’s backstory? What would happen in zombies got loose in a science fiction convention or a school? Who was responsible for starting the zombie plague? Is the zombie situation the same in Australia? Clearly, this is a fictional world with lots of room for expansion, despite the definitive ending of Blackout. It’s an impressive piece of world-building.

Grant is a gutsy writer (pun intended). Writing under the name Seanan McGuire, she has even written a novel in which one of the major plot points is Evil Pie. And for some reason, it works. (It’s in Chimes at Midnight, one of the October Daye series of urban fantasies.)

For more about Feedback, the other Newsflesh novels, short fiction, and Mira Grant, see miragrant.com.

Why Are YA Dystopias So Popular?

Dystopias – the opposite of utopias – come in a variety of styles and genres to meet the trends. For a while, science fiction post-apocalyptic dystopias such as A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller) and Mad Max movies were popular. Feminist dystopias, the most famous of which is The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), have had continuing appeal.

Now, however, we find that the dystopia is one of the most prominent trends in Young Adult (YA) literature, meant for ages 15-20. (Let it be noted that I and some of my friends are *cough*ahem* somewhat above 20 and still enjoy YA lit.)Concept of reading. MaConcept of reading. Magic book with door a

Two of the YA dystopias that have created the largest buzz in the literary or at least genre fiction world are The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins) and the Divergent trilogy (Veronica Roth). Both create an oppressive, if implausible, society and feature protagonists the same age as the intended readers, who rebel against it.

This current in fiction, of course, taps into the phenomenon of teenage rebellion, but also channels it in a positive direction – these are societies that need to be rebelled against. The young adults are empowered, whether with weapons or mental or magical powers, to defy the status quo and try to bring about a new, better world.

There are certainly aspects of these books that older readers might object to, from teens wielding weapons to teens defying the powers that be, to teen sex. (Though the sex is nonexistent in some cases, minimal in others, and so non-graphic and off-stage as to be barely recognizable in other books. Apparently shooting heads of state with arrows or guns is still less alarming than 16-year-old characters having sex.)

But teens (and others) love them. Here are my opinions as to why.

Dystopias acknowledge that today’s society is dystopic. Maybe not rotten enough to choose teens to participate in televised killing sprees. But dysfunctional in a lot of ways, which teens can see and feel even if they don’t follow the news. They can hardly escape the sense that the world (or whatever part of it they live in) is unfair, unhealthy, and unjust, and many of the people in it are dangerous, vitriolic, scheming, and power-mad. Teens are smart enough to recognize that, no matter how many feel-good histories you feed them.

Dystopias say that teens can be active agents of change. The protagonists of these novels are certainly acted upon by society, but they also have the power to effect change at many levels, from personal defiance to regime change. However unlikely the plots, the idea that teens have power is, well, powerful.

Protagonists include strong female and male characters. And they acknowledge the possibility that males and females can work together. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is the clear lead, but Peeta is clearly no stick figure. The two have interactions that are complex and focus on the survival themes as much or more than the boy-girl angle. In Divergent, the relationship between Tris and Four (Tobias) is even more nuanced, with their personal and strategic goals often at odds. By the third novel, the narrative point of view even switches back and forth between them.

There are no pat endings. Appropriately, since the dystopian societies are in such abysmal shape to begin with, not everything is peaceful and peachy by the end of the story. Nor are dystopian novels simply about tearing down a bad society, but raising up a new, better one – and acknowledging the strength, courage, and intelligence that will take.

Few would deny that – at least in the U.S. – society is becoming more fractured, chaotic, and hate-filled – more dystopic. Truthers, birthers, factions that can imagine death panels and reeducation camps, blaming whole groups – the NRA, Wall Street,  liberals, conservatives, or whomever – for society’s ills cannot have escaped the notice of young adults. They’re still young enough to believe that solutions are possible, and old enough to see that the solutions will require commitment, struggle, and hard work.

Dystopic YA novels say, “More power to them!”

 

 

 

Mysteries Change, and So Do I

I grew up reading mysteries. I still remember a book of short mystery stories for children. One was set at a circus and involved a missing snake. After looking in baskets and anywhere a coiled snake might be, the children notice that an acrobat’s pole falls to the ground with a dull thud instead of a metallic clang. Suddenly they realize that the missing snake is stretched out full-length inside the pole! Ta-da! (I also remember that the book was missing a few pages, which made one of the stories even more mysterious,)

That of course lead to Nancy Drew, the go-to mysteries for tween girls at the time. So they were written decades before. So the characters were unbelievable stereotypes. They were mysteries and I read them anyway. And collected them relentlessly, out of order because I usually got them in used book stores.

Murder Letterpress

I got my first taste of the real thing at my grandmother’s house in Florida, when I was 11. DisneyWorld didn’t exist yet (yes, I’m old), and the attractions near Orlando were limited. There was the zoo in Kissimmee, St. Augustine, Busch Gardens, and an alligator farm. Not much else. In between road trips to the attractions, I discovered Grandma Rose’s shelf of real, grown-up murder mysteries. Agatha Christie and Rex Stout provided my introduction into the world of real mystery literature. (Recently I’ve reread a few Nero Wolfe classics like Some Buried Caesar. They still take me back.)

Over the years that followed, I came up with several categories of mystery authors – those whose books I would borrow from the library or buy used, those I would buy in paperback, and those rare, special authors whose work I would buy in hardback. Authors sometimes moved from one category to another, depending on whether the quality of the books stayed high.

Robert Parker, for example, started out as a paperback author, moved to hardback, then back to paperback when it seemed like he was only phoning them in – for example, when he spent too much time detailing what color athletic shoes and their swooshes Spenser and Hawk had on. When he branched out into other series with other lead characters, I stopped reading him altogether.

Since the advent of ebooks, I no longer buy hardbacks or paperbacks, but the categories still exist in terms of price. Sue Grafton is on my buy-immediately, read-immediately list. Sara Paretsky used to be, but I found the last two of her novels unsatisfying because of the endings – which involved silly stunts to trap the villain.

I’ve mostly given up on cozy mysteries, too. For a while I did read Diane Mott Davidson, Charlotte MacLeod, Rita Mae Brown, and a few others, but somehow I lost interest. Now I understand there is debate in the cozy mystery world over whether cat characters should talk or not. I prefer not to get involved.

I find that I am reading fewer mysteries these days, because many of them seem excessively formulaic – lead character is pursuing a serial killer who has targeted said character’s friends or relatives. Cozy mysteries have been really reaching for odd occupations for the detective character – librarians, innkeepers, golfers, crossword puzzle enthusiasts (are there really that many murderers who leave crossword clues?), and many, many cooks. It used to be interesting to get an inside peek at the workings of professions, but the thrill is gone.

I still like books in other genres that have mystery elements. One of these is the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire. Her lead character, who is part fairy, pursues quests usually involving stolen children or murdered fairies (or various other supernatural species).

Since I have cut back on reading mysteries and have been finding them less satisfactory lately, I’ve decided that what I need to do is write the kind of mystery that I want to read. I have begun to do so. I have 15,000 words already, plus a rough and fluid outline, which sometimes changes when my characters don’t do or say what I thought they would. (I’ve heard writers describe this phenomenon many times, but it’s interesting to see it happening in my own work.)

My working title is Cold as Stone. Wish me luck. Perhaps someday I will make it into someone else’s borrow, paperback, or hardback categories.

Sometimes the Movie IS Better

Фильм (film). Концепция изменения выбора

It’s a truism that the book is better than the movie. And like all truisms, it’s not entirely true. In a few, rare cases, the movie is actually better than the book it is based on. Some films don’t just adequately portray a book. There are times when the film outshines the book.

Let me start by saying that The Hobbit was not improved by being made into a movie. It might have been okay if they had made it into one movie, but three movies? No. I have written about this before. (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1n) Sleigh-bunnies. ::shudder::

That said, as I see it, there are two factors that can make a movie better than a book: length and depth.

Length. Most books are simply too long to translate exactly into movies. Most of the time this means that excellent – even necessary – material will be left out of the movie. The Lord of the Rings, for example, required three movies and still left out significant parts of the three books. I know there are people who still regret the loss of the Tom Bombadil and Goldberry scenes and I think that the Scouring of the Shire should certainly have been included.

Other books, however, have long stretches of text that do not translate well into evocative visuals or scintillating dialogue. Leaving them out can be a good thing. For example, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, is a long and complex book with lots to say about race, sociology, and economics. The movie (1968) trims out much of that content and focuses on the tender, evolving relationship between the two deaf-mutes and the young girl. The challenging intellectual and political content would pull attention away from the emotional center of the movie.

Gorky Park (1983) is another wonderful movie that has advantages over the book. Martin Cruz Smith’s novel has a long section in which Arkady languishes in a sanatorium, and it drags a bit. While this episode may be relevant to developing Arkady’s character, using it in the film would not improve the tempo of the movie, which after all is a murder mystery/thriller.

Depth. Occasionally a book, although it may have sold well, is emotionally flat. This could happen when a writer is inexperienced, or even too experienced –when he or she simply “phones it in.” The film version – if it has a good director, screenwriter, and/or outstanding actors – can take the story to a much higher level.

Twice I have had the experience of seeing a movie that I liked very much, then getting the book it was based on, only to be profoundly disappointed. One of these was the little-known spy-comedy Hopscotch (1980) which, although it sank without a trace, is a fun little film that has long been a favorite in our household. The novel was nothing special. The writing was uninspired, and the characters not well developed. All it really had was a plot. The movie, on the other hand, was vastly improved by the addition of Glenda Jackson’s character – who did not even appear in the book – and by the comedic range of Walter Matthau’s portrayal of the lead character. Or, as Rotten Tomatoes put it,

As written by Brian Garfield, Hopscotch was a conventionally serious espionage novel. As adapted for the big screen by Garfield and Bryan Forbes, Hopscotch is a lively exercise in cloak-and-dagger comedy, even when the pursuit of Matthau turns deadly towards the end.

The movie dialogue was wittier, the characters far more interesting, and the resolution more satisfying. I wish I had never read the book.

I had the same reaction with the movie and book of Three Days of the Condor (1975). (Actually, the book, written by James Grady, was Six Days of the Condor. That was part of the problem.) The movie compressed the action to heighten the tension and make the chase elements more compelling. At the same time, Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway’s characters had more complex personalities and revealing interactions than the stick figures in the book. I would never recommend the book, but heartily recommend the movie. Sydney Pollack’s efforts as director are certainly a major contributing factor to the film’s superiority.

Admittedly, most of the time it is a mistake to try to translate good literature –or even simply entertaining stories – to film. Even now that CGI makes possible depictions of events and characters that would formerly have been disappointing at best or even impossible, some things are simply better left to the imagination.

Usually books are one of those things.

But not always.

A Story From the Art

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Usually you think of a writer writing and then an artist creating illustrations or a piece of art for the cover – one on every page, if it’s a children’s picture book. And usually that’s the way it goes.

But every once in a while the natural order of things goes awry. Every now and then, a writer must take a piece of art and shape a story to fit it.

Once it happened to me, when I was writing and editing reading passages for children’s textbooks. The tasks assigned were annoying enough – stories that were required to have certain numbers of parts of speech or phonological items, with restricted vocabulary and very specific reading levels.

Then one day we were given an already existing children’s story, one that had seven or eight illustrations that had been drawn specifically to go with the text. We were told to select four or five of those pictures and write completely new text to go with them. We could rearrange the pictures – put them in a different order – and we could choose which ones to use or eliminate. But that was the assignment: Take the pictures and then write the story. If it seems totally backward to you, it did to us as well. Of course the stories still had to have certain lexical  components, be entertaining, and provide a message or lesson for the readers.

I remember the set of pictures I was given. The illustrations showed a young girl in a tropical setting, at one point with her sitting on a throne. In my story, the little girl claimed that she could speak to animals. No one believed her and she was thrown in jail for lying.

The little girl really could speak to animals, however, and she called upon jungle friends to rescue her. The people who had jailed her discovered that she really had this unusual ability all along. They apologized profusely and threw a big party for her and she sat in the seat of honor.

It was a particularly difficult story to write. The pictures did not lend themselves to any story other than the obvious one about a jungle princess and her animal-filled realm. It was even harder to think of a tale that would convey a message.

What I tried to show in my story was that just because something had never been done, that didn’t mean it was impossible. And if someone made a claim, it was better to test the claim than merely assume the person was lying. I thought the idea of speaking to animals and having the animals rescue the little girl would also appeal to children.

One thing that is particularly frustrating about writing for textbooks and  other sorts of publications is that one never knows what happens to the fruits of one’s labor (at least until the internet, with number of views and “like” buttons and comments fields). Was the story accepted by the higher-up textbook folks? Did it get changed in the editing process? Did they even like what I had done with the illustrations? Did it make it into print? Most of all, I wondered whether any children read my story, perhaps enjoyed it, or understood what I was trying to say. To this day, I have no clue.

Writing in those circumstances is like dropping your work down a well. You never hear the splash, or even know if there is a bottom to the well.

I like to think that somewhere, some child liked my little stories, whether or not they learned about diphthongs or consonant clusters from them.

I also wonder about the illustrations. Did they get passed along to yet another writer who had to invent yet another story to go with them? If they did, I would certainly like to have seen what they came up with. It was an interesting exercise. But did it result in something educational or entertaining or even interesting?

Personally, I believe that children’s books should be written first and illustrated later. I also believe that requiring writers to abide by rigid rules makes it less likely that the story will be appealing. And if the story isn’t appealing, I believe it is less likely that the children who read it (or are supposed to read it) will get anything from it.

To me that’s not the way children’s literature should be written. But then textbooks aren’t really literature, are they?

Poetry Keeps Knocking

When I was a kid I was sure I was going to be a poet. Or a bus driver. Or an FBI agent. Or a stewardess. Some of those ambitions faded away and others were squelched by reality.

Whenever I take one of those right brain/left brain test I always come out in the middle. Half my brain is scientific and half is artistic.

Mostly, the artistic side has expressed itself over the years. As far back as grade school I remember writing poems. As I got older my poetry tended toward the free verse and the depressing. As many teenagers do, I let my angst, fueled by undiagnosed bipolar disorder, take over. I studied creative writing in high school and took poetry classes as in college.

I even came in second in a poetry contest run by the local newspaper after I graduated. My poems were printed in the paper along with an interview in which I snarked at Helen Steiner Rice and Rod McKuen. I still have some of those poems – somewhere – and I still think some of them are pretty good.

But as life went on my writing changed. The more I wrote in free verse – without rhyme or meter (which Robert Frost famously called “playing tennis without a net”), the more my poetry came to resemble prose. Eventually I gave up on poetry and simply wrote prose instead.

This natural evolution of my writing proved to be a good thing, since everyone knows no one makes any money at poetry unless you’re Helen Steiner Rice or Rod McKuen. Prose has served me well. I have written for many magazines (including Catechist and Black Belt) and for textbooks and now for blogs. For some of these I’ve even gotten paid.

Also I have occasionally made attempts at longer pieces of writing – books. I wrote a mystery novel in which I killed off my Rotten Ex-Boyfriend Who Almost Ruined My Life. I had a proposal going around for a nonfiction book about Lisa Simpson. I have not given up the ambition of writing a book. I am currently 25,000 words into a mystery that involves no one I have ever known, and a memoir which includes the person I know best.

I find, however, that my desire to write poetry has not completely disappeared. Sometimes I find myself playing around with various poetic forms, usually in my blogs. Some of them are the kind of free verse poetry I used to write, but I have learned that I need structure in my life and now it seems I need structure in my poetry too.

I started out simply with a group of haikus – not that haikus are really simple. Later I had a go at a sonnet. I would love to write a sestina but I am afraid to jump into anything that large. I would love to write a villanelle but I am afraid to jump into anything that tightly crafted. And once you’ve read “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” everything else seems – is – inferior. So I continue with my blogs and my editing and my book proposals and my novel and memoir, but poetry lurks at the back of my brain and now and then threatens to break free.

I think that’s the way of poetry. If you suppress it too long, it finds some way to knock on your brain until you answer.