Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Taming the Tension Among Teens

So what’s in any good novel? Some might suggest sex, violence and (fill in a third element here but not rock and roll) might be an interesting mixture of ingredients to stir up the pot of interest. Face it, even your most average of romance novels seem to slip in a dalliance or two to tickle the imagination.

My philosophy has always been that writers write for themselves. Much has been written about a writer understanding the audience he or she is writing for. There’s a lot of mis-information (for newbies) about emulating the best sellers and giving their audience what you think readers want in terms of characters, settings, etc. In the words of one ebullient philosopher, ‘That’s all hooey.’

I believe you write what you want to write about, what drives your interest, what gets you out of bed in the morning and plants you in front of your keyboard. You should write from the heart and hope there is an audience for your work. At least that’s been my guiding force for as long as I’ve been writing.

So imagine my surprise when it was suggested that my latest novel, ‘Follow the Cobbler’ might be a good candidate for adaptation as a YA, Young Adult Novel. Following the formula of my other works, ‘Cobbler’ has its fair share of sexual tension, violence and interesting sidelines. I try not to write for any specific audience, but kids! Seriously?

Yet there was a precedence here that had already been set. I was surprised to learn that a lot of women seem to like my western novels. I had foolishly decided who my audience was for westerns and totally missed an important segment of the reading public in the process. After my second book fair and talking to women, I realized I had better keep my mouth shut and not assume anything about reader’s interests.

‘Follow the Cobbler,’ is a suspense thriller that follows my protagonist Brian, and his fellow traveler Katherine, around the world in pursuit of an elusive character simply known as ‘the cobbler.’ They, in turn, are being pursued by hunter-assassins known only as ‘the druids’ (named after a religious sect from early Roman times in ancient Britannia.) The novel contains some scenes of romance, intrigue, sexual tension, violence and many references to ancient times. It would hardly seem to be the fare for younger minds. Vida, my editor thought differently.

I’ve been down that long arduous road called ‘being a teen ager’ before. Teen angst is nothing new to me but it’s certainly not a backroad I’d care to retrace at this stage in my life. So I was more than a little taken back when Vida suggested that ‘Cobbler’ might be a good YA novel if edited properly. And she knew just the people to do it. Imagine that, me writing for teens? Turns out the notion wasn’t that far-fetched. It just took a set of younger eyes to see it for me.

Amelie and Nedda are a couple of precocious twins with ‘fearless hearts and critical eyes’ (their mom’s own words) who were able to turn my 566-page juggernaut into a novel for the YA market. Other YA novels such as the Twilight series and The Hunger Games have proven immensely popular with teens and pre-teens. Upon reflection, I think there’s no reason why this newly revised version of ‘Cobbler’ might not do the same.

I trust Vida as well as my wife to give me honest, accurate feedback and editing and NOT CHANGE my style of writing. That is critical for a writer and his editor. I trusted Vida so I trusted her daughters.  It can be a precarious balancing act between changing the tone of the story and not to lose the trust intent of the story. There were some real challenges ahead for anyone wanting to edit that manuscript:

1.      There were scenes of sexual activities that were critical to the storyline.
2.      There were scenes of violence and fighting that added to the drama of the storyline.
3.      There were scenes of ancient history that were critical to the storyline.

So the real question was could Vida’s daughters change those scenes for a younger audience but not to the extent that they lost their core value as an information conduit. In other words:

1.      Keep the sexual tension without the sex.
2.      Keep the violence without the blood
3.      Keep the ancient fables without being boring for a teen-age mind.

The twins spent last winter editing my manuscript, designing a new book cover and changing the title from ‘Follow the Cobbler’ to ‘Chasing Ophelia.’ They had cart-blanch freedom to go as far or as easy as they wanted to in editing my work. My reasoning was simple. If they were Vida’s daughters, I was in good hands. I love the new book cover and title. Readers will very quickly grasp the significance of the cover and its background of Celtic symbols.

Now the real work begins. Vida has written a press release which we are actively sending out to local newspapers, magazines, tabloids and anywhere else we think might print it. We have beta readers reading the novel right now and giving us feedback on the YA marketplace

Of course, it was only fitting that my eldest granddaughter, Maya, be the first in the family to read ‘Ophelia.’ Her twin siblings are clamoring for their chance at the book, as are the Minnesota cousins. Their time will come with, I hope, with a lot of teens and pre-teens. This spring our local newspaper picked up the story of the girls. A nice tribute to Amelie and Nedda and the great job they did on creating my newest YA novel.

I have a 6:30 pm ‘Meet the Author’ presentation scheduled for October 18th at the Rosemount Library. It will be a fitting way to share the twin’s story of a job well done.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

10,000 New Readers Plus

Recently a report came out by the American Psychological Association about young people not reading the way past generations used to do. Many high schoolers are texting, scrolling and using social media instead of reading books and magazines. The article goes on to say that the reason for concern ‘is that the skill set and attention it takes to digest concepts in long-form writing are quite different from glancing at a text message or status update.’

This fact interests me not only because I recently published my first Young Adult novel (Chasing Ophelia) but because Sharon and I have always pushed our own children and our five grandchildren to become readers and not just your average reader, but prodigious carnivores of the printed word.

Unfortunately, there are still kids in the world who don’t have access to books and other reading material. For them, a book in hand is a gift of wonderment and discovery, just as it should be. For the last several years, Sharon and the Apple Valley Rotary Club have answered that need with their own special Literacy Project.

Aside from this assault on reading by electronic devices, overall declining literacy rates continue to challenge educators, and frankly, anyone who cares about an educated society. I can attest to that fact. Growing up in a single parent household that never had a book in the house I find that fact sad and troubling.

Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t too surprised this summer when thousands of books made their way through our house on the way to better bookshelves. Sharon had initiated this book drive three years ago as part of the Apple Valley Rotary Literacy Project. The first year it was four thousand books collected and distributed. Last year, it was over six thousand books distributed. This year Sharon and the club will top out well over eighteen thousand books and still counting.

The book drive followed a three-R’s model: read, recycle, and reach. Sharon explained “We want families to read and enjoy the books that they have, and then when they are done with them or have moved on to a new reading level we want them to recycle the books by donating them to this project. By giving away their used books, these readers are reaching out to students who might not have any books at home.”

Reflecting back, I realized my love of reading grew exponentially while sitting on some newspaper customer’s doorstep. Whether I was perusing the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in the morning or the Saint Paul Dispatch at night I found myself immersed in newspaper articles about a world I never knew existed.

Reading had never been a part of my life before I started my paper route in seventh grade. Newspapers, magazines and books were luxuries my mother couldn’t afford. There was never any reading material in our house save for one book on Padre Pio. My mother probably bought that book out of guilt some Sunday morning after Mass.

About the same time I began a newspaper route my friend introduced me to our local library. The first book I read was ‘The Enemy Below’ since I was fascinated with World War II; go figure. Then Tarzan, the Hardy Boys and western novels carried me into a world my imagination readily devoured.

Since that initial brush with the printed page, reading has always been an important part of my life. There will never be enough time to read all the books I’ve got piled up around the house. We have libraries for the grandchildren here and there. Each has their own library in their rooms. Books matter to all of us. This is most certainly one of the reasons for my second career as a writer and playwright.

Ever the educator, Sharon said the ability to read, and to read critically, is one of the most important factors to a student’s success. Access to information is becoming easier (screen time) BUT the skills needed to critically evaluate it comes from reading.

In Dakota County alone, there are over 1600 ELL students who will use the books.  Jenny Leroux, E.L. Lead Teacher, spoke about the Reading Recovery Program in ISD 196 and how the intervention program has helped the literacy level of first graders.

Jenny explained “the ELL Program in district 196 supports learners in acquiring the English they need in order to succeed in the classroom and beyond, in accordance with the State of Minnesota Guidelines and English Language Proficiency Standards. Teachers who are fully certified in teaching English as a Second Language work with these ELL students at all ele-mentary, middle and high schools in the district.”

She went on to explain that the ELL program develops English skills in reading, writing, and speaking, as well as the language of academic content. The ELL staff is trained in the same best literacy practices as classroom teachers. She said the need for simple children’s books is critical for these students to practice their reading skills.

Last year, the district initiated a new program that provided certain school buses with boxes of books. The idea is that a student can borrow a book on their way to or from school and return it as they exit the bus. The district will also hold on to thousands of books to distribute next summer at various district-sponsored camps and events.  This past summer they gave away over two thousand books at ‘Adventures in Learning’, a weeklong summer program for elementary-aged English Language Learners.

To bring the world of reading to these children and open up a whole new world for them is a small price to pay for cramped quarters and books piled up in every corner of our house. I’ve been there before. I know what it’s like to be transformed into another world of rolling seas, desert plateaus, and the young boys down the block.

I return to those worlds every chance I get. And feel blessed to be able to create them myself for others to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Death Be Not Alone

Talk about walking a tightrope. As a playwright, it’s imperative that I tell a good story. It must be open and honest and true. It has to be realistic as I’ve come to paint that life tapestry in my mind. But is my audience ready for such a truthful adaptation about their own final demise?
Statistically speaking, many folks in the audience are going to be faced with their own reality acted out up there on the stage. Some might become very upset. Others could feel pain and anguish because I’ve opened up old wounds once again.

All of this theatrical honesty could threaten to turn the audience against me. It might provoke some into anger and outrage at the audacity of sharing such a personal storyline. Here is reality staring them back in the face. How are they going to react? How will they take this honest portrayal of their parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, neighbors and, perhaps, themselves…as they are all about to die? That’s my dilemma and the challenge facing my newest play.

The play is called ‘The Last Sentinel’ and it joins my other plays that have tried to examine snippets of real life. The storyline is simple enough. Four old women in a nursing home are facing the end of their lives. That probably sounds a bit crass but it succinctly describes the premise of this play. It’s about death, dying, denial, and acceptance.

We‘re all going to face it. Or perhaps we’ve seen others face it recently. I’m talking about the death of people we know no matter if they’re close to us or not. Perhaps these are people we’ve known all of our lives or a part of it and now it’s time for them to go.

Everyone handles his or her own end of life differently. Some are in total denial until they take their last breath. Others gather family and friends around them for a final good-bye. I don’t think anyone really knows how they’re going to handle that situation until faced with it themselves.

So why would I want to write a play about old folks facing their demise and some not handling it well? For laughs, of course. And to explore a seldom discussed reality facing all of us.

I honestly can’t remember where the idea came from. This play was one of six story outlines that I vomited out (sorry but it does describe the sudden uncontrollable retching out of ideas from my brain) in one overly caffeinated afternoon when the ideas started flowing non-stop and I began typing away furiously to capture them before they slipped out of my collective consciousness.

I’ve been there at the end with my parents, Sharon’s parents, aunts, uncles, and assorted acquaintances. It’s hit home but it really hasn’t. I think when others my own age or closer to me start to pass then it will hit home a lot harder.

So I wanted to write an honest play about death and dying but also to get some chuckles in at the same time. I knew right from the start that my four old women would be a wonderful menagerie of quips, comments, complaints, statements and sometimes outrageous antidotes for reality. They would reflect many older folks I’ve known over the years.

So in the story, simply stated, the women make a pact to stick together and be there for one another until the end. It’s an agreement they struggle to keep. They nag at one another and yet show love and compassion at the same time. They argue about nothing and still shore up sagging feelings while doing so. They all face the inevitable in different ways and reveal to the audience their true colors. They are irritable, persnickety and remind all of us of people we know, knew or want to forget. But in the end, I hope they represent a realistic portrait of individuals facing that ultimate test in life.

‘The Last Sentinel’ is warm and engaging. It is outrageous and funny. But I hope mostly it is a celebration of the human spirit when it is needed the most. The play isn’t a melodrama or a tragedy or a maudlin check-off of someone’s life. Instead it is a rich tapestry of life recaptured, the power of friendship and self-actualization celebrating life. It will be engaging, truthful and a lot of laughs. What better way to remember someone’s final good-bye than with a smile on your face.

Oh, and the music will be pretty neat too.

August of 2019 is the date set for the premiere of ‘The Last Sentinel’ at the Steeple Center in Rosemount, Minnesota