Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writing for Kids? Don't forget the Bows and Arrows

I generally read adult fiction, especially in the mystery genre. I stopped reading teen books when I finished the last Nancy Drew mystery back in junior high. But after hearing all the hype about a young adult book called "The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins, I decided to check it out to see why it was so popular.

Much like the "Twilight" trilogy, "The Hunger Games" has been translated into more than two dozen languages, has garnered positive reviews and is now a movie. So it has to be good, right?

But after reading only a few pages, I quickly learned this was not really a kids' book. The story features a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a very hungry, post-apocalyptic world. She volunteers to participate in the annual Hunger Games to replace her lottery-selected younger sister, Primrose. The games require that children between the ages of 12 and 18 must battle to the death every year to appease the government.

Only one will survive.

This is a kids' book?

It sounds more like a Grimm's fairy tale. Speaking of which, apparently, some parents today are refusing to read the old fairy tales to their kids because they're "too scary." These parents prefer to retell the stories with positive endings, hoping their children will learn a valuable lesson (instead of spending a sleepless night in Mommy and Daddy's bed.)

I can just imagine how they would rewrite the classic "The Three Little Pigs."
"The pigs work together to build their houses, then invite the Big Nice Wolf in for a vegetarian meal and a game of Candy Land. The end."

And how about "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?" Instead of having the evil stepmother chase Snow White from the castle, Snow White gives the ugly woman makeup tips, they bake an apple pie and start a special school for Little People.

And the dog from "Old Yeller" lives forever.

Goodness. The adult mysteries I read are much tamer than "The Hunger Games." While Katniss is trained to kill with a bow and arrow, most of the heroines in the books I read have a skill too, but instead of archery or swordfighting, they're more apt to bead or decoupage or scrapbook while they fight crime.

As for my own mystery series, I offer party tips, not how-to-stay-alive tips. And my protagonist only has to juggle party planning with murder solving. Poor Katniss struggles with getting enough food to eat while surviving killer teens. Sounds like I need to ratchet up the blood and guts and simmer down on the crafts and party tips.

My children's book, "The Code Busters Club," is about four children who solve a mystery by cracking codes, not skulls. Maybe I should rethink that and write about a kid who skips school, sneaks out at night, lies to his friends, smokes, hangs out in a graveyard, engages in witchcraft, runs away from home, pretends to be dead, breaks into a house, gets lost in a cave, nearly starves to death and plans to become a world-class robber when he grows up.

Oh wait. Mark Twain already wrote that book and called it "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."
And we let our kids read that?
What's the post-apocalyptic world coming to?


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What to do when a book bogs down---Spanx for those sagging middles...

You're working on your book. You have an exciting beginning and the perfect ending....but what about that middle part, that just seems to sag?
GirdleHere are some tips for Spanxing that sprawling middle:
Paper* Accept the fact that your "book" is actually a short story, and cut out the middle.
Alien* Add a subplot, such as an alien love story in the middle of your western/thriller.
Haunted mansion* Change the scene – move the story to a haunted house or the circus.
People* Explore what the protagonist really wants– to save the world or just increase her Facebook numbers.
Drink* Add a new problem, such as sudden onset alcoholism or a sex change.
Yosemite* Make things even more complicated, such as the protagonist is being chased, shot at, called names, publically embarrassed, and her mother-in-law is coming to live with her.
Mother in law* Kill off a minor character, such as the mother-in-law.
Swordfight* Add another love interest, then have the two love interests vie for the protagonist until things escalate into a swordfight.
Garfield crazy* Foreshadow a future problem by using phrases like: “And then it got super bad…” or “Just wait until the next chapter when things got crazy.”
Sleep* Add a flashback about some mysterious circumstance, such as a suppressed memory of a bad date or a recurring dream about a posting on Pinterest.
Clock* Start “the ticking clock”—place a bomb somewhere but only tell the reader, not the protagonist.
Arnold* Reveal something the main character has kept hidden, such as her affair with Arnold Schwarzeneggar or her secret compulsion to steal clothes from Neiman Marcus.
Book-thick* Include a long back story to pad the middle and meet your word count.
Hunger games* Turn the book into a trilogy.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Protecting us in the 'Burbs

    My husband Tom loves warfare games, like “Call of Duty,” “Son of Call of Duty,” “Bride of Call of Duty,” “Call of Duty: the Musical,” and “Call of Duty vs. Zombie Apocalypse.”

I’m fine with his games of make-believe, as long as he isn’t too tired to take out the garbage when he’s finished playing.

    But when my son Matt invited him and a few friends for a game of urban warfare, I assumed he meant they’d all gather on the couch with their controllers and battle it out on the big screen.

I was wrong. My son was talking about a game of Airsoft, a live-action simulation of “Call of Duty,” where a bunch of mostly 20 and 30 year olds play war at a warehouse in Stockton.

“Are you crazy?” I asked my husband sweetly. “You’re 30 to 40 years older than those guys and you haven’t even played Ping Pong in years, let alone Paintball.”

“It’s not Paintball,” he argued. He was right about that. It’s worse. The teams use tiny plastic BB pellets instead of soft plastic paintballs.

“Besides, I’ve always done extreme sports like this.” He was right about that too. In addition to playing numerous paintball games, my husband has rappelled into deep holes, spelunked through dark caves, bungee-jumped off bridges, leapt out of high-flying airplanes, driven midget race cars, and even climbed one of those rock walls like they have at Chuck E. Cheese.

But that was then, when he wasn’t twice the age of the guys he’d be playing with.

I had no choice but to let him go, as long as he promised to take out the garbage when he got home. But when he walked in the door after the six-hour event, I was shocked to see his body covered with hundreds of red welts.

“Whoa,” I said as he collapsed on the couch. “What happened to you?”

“Oh these. They’re no big deal,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Was it fun?”

“It was awesome—like playing a video game, only live. They gave us pistols, rifles, shotguns, and Uzis, and then divided up into two teams—the commandoes who play a lot and get to wear camouflage, and the insurgents, mostly rookies like us who just wear dark clothes. Then we all ran around this warehouse that was filled with plywood walls, open windows, alleyways, and abandoned cars. It was like playing in a small city. In fact, the real SWAT teams train there.”

After taking a few Tylenols, he went on sharing his war stories. “At first the guys were gung-ho, planning strategies like football plays, but the moment the first game started, it was every man for himself. Guys were running all over the place. Our team got slaughtered. Luckily we get to respawn.”


“Were you the oldest?” I asked.

“Yep, by about twenty years,” he said proudly, before checking his welts in a mirror.

 “Any regrets?” I asked, as he switched on the laptop and started watching a videotape of the game my son had just put up on YouTube.

“Yeah. My own son shot me in the face. I can’t wait to get him back.”