Monday, August 14, 2017

CHARACTER PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS: COULD LESS BE MORE? by Hilda Eunice Burgos

“As young readers like to know ‘how people look,’ we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters…” — Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


When I was in law school many years ago, I met periodically with a group of other female students to discuss the impact of race on our lives.  One of those discussions was about our childhood experiences as readers.  We all loved to read, and books had been important to us for as long as we could remember.

The other women of color in the group shared that, as children, they were disheartened by the fact that there were so few books, if any, where the protagonist physically resembled them.  To be able to immerse yourself in a book and step into the heroine’s shoes would be marvelous.  But these women were not able to do that.  I, on the other hand, did that all the time.

How did I manage it?  Simple (sort of).  I ignored most of the physical descriptions of the characters.   And I focused on my similarities with them.  Laura Ingalls had dark hair; well, so did I.  Jo March had three sisters; me too!  And Pippi Longstocking’s bright red hair?  Irrelevant.  I just skipped over the unimportant information about a protagonist’s blonde hair or blue eyes.  After all, anyone can have a little sister who is a pest or have a rough day at school.  So, did it matter what the character looked like?  Of course not.  This could very well be me.


My classmates were shocked to hear this.  They could never get past the fact that these books were about kids who looked different from them.  As a result, they felt ignored and unrepresented.  As a reader, I totally get that.  After all, I had to put a lot of effort into including myself in the stories I read.  As a writer, I wonder how we can embrace as many readers as possible.  Do we really need to include detailed physical descriptions of all our characters all the time?  Was Louisa May Alcott correct in saying that young readers want these descriptions?  After all, a character’s physical traits are often unimportant to the story.

My first middle grade novel is scheduled for release next year.  My main character is, like me, the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  The things I say about her physical appearance are that she wears glasses and has frizzy hair.  Oh, and I mention that her hair is in two braids in one scene.  That’s it.  Is this enough?  In my opinion, it might be too much.

Of course there are books where a character’s physical appearance is an essential part of the story.  In my book, the protagonist’s ethnic background is important, so she must be Dominican.  While I picture my main character as looking like me, there is no reason why she has to.  She could have fair or dark skin, brown or green eyes, blonde or black hair.  None of these details would change this particular story.  So, what benefit is there to including a detailed description of her physical appearance?

To this day, when I read I skip over a lot of descriptive information about how the characters look.  Because most of the time a brown-eyed girl could have had the exact same adventure as the blue-eyed one in the book.  One rule of thumb in writing is that every word should be absolutely necessary.  Are detailed physical descriptions absolutely necessary?  Sometimes.  But not always.  And when they’re not, I leave them out.  Will my young readers be disappointed?  I hope not.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

IN PRAISE OF SHORT NOVELS by James Mihaley










I submitted a new MG novel to my agent a while ago. She felt that it needed work.  As much as my pride would like to deny it, she was right. Certain aspects of the plot required reimagining. Unfortunately I was unable to figure out how to implement the changes. Rather than grind away in frustration, I decided to put the manuscript away and let it silently ferment in my imagination. I recently picked it back up and the clarity of detachment enabled me to immediately diagnose the problem.  While plowing through the first draft, I had contracted a serious case of Harry Potter-itis. The plot was far too intricate. The manuscript was bloated with sub-plots.  Not that there's anything wrong with an intricate novel.  J. K. Rowling performed that challenge with consummate grace. However, that wasn't the best way to tell this particular story. This was a straight, swiftly moving river, not a meandering Mississippi.  Before diving into a new draft, I reread some of my favorite short novels.






I reintroduced myself to their compact, precise, gem-like brilliance. Flannery O'Connor said that story dictates form.  If the story in your heart feels like 100 page novel, not a 500 page book, do not hesitate to follow that path.  A short novel is splendid river to sail down!

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Conversation with Rejection by Linda Williams Jackson


Me: Hi, Rejection! Welcome to Project Middle Grade Mayhem! (I think….)

Rejection: Thanks, Linda! I’m VERY happy to be here. I’ve known many of you Mayhemmers for a long time. (Howdy, Caroline Starr Rose!) As a matter of fact, Linda, you and I go waaaay back.

Me: Hold up…. Let’s get something straight. Yes, we’ve known each other for a long time, since the early 1990’s, tbh. But that doesn’t mean we go way back. Going waaaay back, in my opinion, denotes a certain level of friendliness. And you, Mr. Rejection, are no friend of mine.

Rejection: Oh, touchy, aren’t you?

Me: You should know. You’ve made me cry a few times, haven’t you?

Rejection: A few times? Girl, please. I made you cry a whole lotta times.

Me: And now you’re bragging about it?!?!

Rejection: Not bragging. Just stating the facts. Here’s the deal, sweetheart. My job is to make people better, more specifically for the purpose of this conversation, to make you guys better writers.

Me (under my breath): Do you have to be so ruthless about it?

Rejection: I heard that. And the answer is yes. I can’t let you guys off easily. No pain, no gain, baby. I mean, would you have ever written Midnight Without a Moon if I had let you get that little funeral home story published?

Me: Hey, don’t make fun of my funeral home story. I love that story!

Rejection (under his breath): Obviously, you queried it for five and a half years.

Me: I heard that.

Rejection: Good! I’m glad you heard it. I hope you learned something from all that pain I put you through. Otherwise, my time has been wasted.

Me: Oh, I learned plenty. Thank you very much.

Rejection: Such as?

Me: Don’t get stuck on one project, no matter how much you love it. And regardless of how many agents have requested the full and provided positive feedback, or how many pitch contests the project has won, I should have been seriously writing more projects and querying them.

Rejection: But you did write more manuscripts. I remember doing my magic to make sure those were under my spell too. You didn’t get anywhere with them.

Me: I know. But I realized I had gotten to the point where I wanted an agent more than anything else in the world. My focus was all wrong. I was writing to get a “yes” instead of writing to tell a story that I felt like people needed to hear, or read, rather.

Rejection (smiling broadly): Awww. I feel like a proud papa. That’s exactly what I was hoping to accomplish by putting you through the wringer the way I did.

Me (rolling eyes)

Rejection: What else did you learn?

Me: Humility.

Rejection (clapping): Bravo! Another score for Rejection! I really know how to knock the pride out of you guys!

Me (under my breath): And the wind too.

Rejection (laughing): Sorry about that.

Me: Sure you are.

Rejection: Remember that time I made you break down and cry right in front of your computer? I mean, that rejection stung so hard that you hadn’t even finished reading the email before you started bawling.

Me: But, I survived.

Rejection: Yes, you did. You were a real trooper…simply unstoppable.

Me: Well, I don’t know about unstoppable. I think I was ready to quit. If you hadn’t stopped coming at me in 2015, I might have given up.

Rejection: Wait! What?!?! You mean I was THAT close to breaking you?

Me: Yep. You sure were.

Rejection (slaps forehead): Aw, man! One more year, huh?

Me: Yep. That’s what I was giving myself.

Rejection: You’re saying that now, Linda. But as I recall, you said that every year. “Just one more year. If I don’t make it this time, I’m quitting.”

Me (chuckling): I did say that, didn’t I?

Rejection: Yep. Every year. Actually, you said it after every full request, too. You said, “If this one isn’t ‘the one,’ then I’m done.” Then I’d show up. Then you’d cry. Then you’d go listen to some inspirational song or read some inspirational post. Then you’d be right back at it the next day.

Me: I was pretty stubborn, huh?

Rejection: No, honey. You were resilient. (Gestures around the Mayhem blog) You all were. I tried to break you guys, but you just kept going. You were all so determined.

Me: Why, Rejection? Why do you put people through all this? I know you said to make us better writers and to make us humble, but why make it so hard? Don’t you trust that we’ll improve our skills and appreciate our success without so much pain?

Rejection: You read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, right?

Me: I did.

Rejection: Remember what he said about brick walls?

Me (Googling): He said, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.”

Rejection (wiping tears from his eyes): I’m sorry I hurt you so badly, Linda. I’m sorry I hurt all you guys, Mayhemmers. But do you now understand why I did it? You guys wanted this badly enough to take everything that I threw at you. You were unstoppable. And I am very proud of you. But please know that my job is never completely done. You will still face rejection. But I know you will persevere. All of you, because you are winners.

Me: Thank you, Rejection, not just for being here with us at Project Middle Grade Mayhem today, but for being present with us during our writing journey. Thank you for showing up when we needed you even though we didn’t want you there. You were like a helicopter parent who knows what’s best for her kid even when the kid doesn’t realize it at the time. You made us better writers. And because you humbled us, we don’t mind helping others along the way. No offense, but you are both hated and loved at the same time.

Rejection: No offense taken, my dear. I’m just happy to do my job. Now I must leave you guys. I have some dreams to try to crush. Good bye.
Me: So long, Rejection. I’m not looking forward to seeing you again any time soon.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Celebrating the launch of THE DANGER GANG AND THE PIRATES OF BORNEO by Stephen Bramucci


One of the greatest thrills for a blog manager is to celebrate a fellow blogger's book debut. The thrill climbs to stupendous level when that blog debut takes place in one's own city, and at one of one's favorite children's bookstores!

I knew The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo's publication date was August 1st. I've been waiting for this day for a long time. What I wasn't prepared for was the throng of people at Green Bean Books in Northeast Portland--and the fact that the novel was all sold out when I got there. Son of a gun! But who should I bump into but a longtime friend, whom I learned is Stephen Bramucci's mother's best friend. Soon my friend Linda was introducing me to various uncles and aunts and friends, and I felt like I was a honorary member of the Bramucci-Parker family. How cool is that!

I met Stephen in person too. Can I tell you how great it is to meet members of Project Mayhem in the flesh? We're a pretty tight bunch, and communicate fairly regularly. But nothing beats meeting face-to-face!

Because of the 'sold-out book' situation, and my desperate need for a signed book, Stephen and I agreed to meet at a coffee shop. I raced to Annie Blooms (my neighborhood bookstore) and put in my order. 36 hours later, The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo was in my hot little hands. (And boy were they hot. It's been 105 degrees for the past couple of days in our fair city.)

Chatting with Stephen was an unadulterated joy. The man is whip-smart, funny, and a born storyteller. He's also a natural in front of the camera, so I decided to make Project Mayhem a Vlog-For-A-Day. I know you'll enjoy hearing about The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo, part of its publication journey, and also about the planned sequel. Three Cheers for Stephen Bramucci, and Three Cheers for The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!!!