Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So, Suppose I Should Blog Something

I'd like to thank the 3-6 people who still check in here even though I don't. It's kind of like I went on vacation and left you all keys to feed the cat. You pop in, fill the bowl, take a look around to see if I'm into any weird shit, and quietly leave. I can hardly tell you've been here.

I'd like to say that my frequent absences are a direct result of busting ass on the current manuscript, but that would be a lie, and here at Murphblog, we don't take lying lying down.

Here's what I've been doing:

1. Collecting rejections on the YA.
2. Thinking about, but not actually sending, more query letters.
3. Playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii. (Birthday gift)
4. Opening the work-in-progress, reading some of it, telling myself I suck and it sucks and no one anywhere at anytime in any dimension would ever want to read such poo, typing a few sentences, editing a few more, planning the next scene, deleting those plans, closing the laptop, and watching TV.
5. March Madness. Go State!

I've also, in a fit of either madness or inspired lucidity, allowed my work-in-progress to be read by Anita, who was kinder than the story probably deserves. She assured me that it does not suck, but instead of accepting this affirmation, I question her judgment. Nice guy, huh?

And because I'm in the writing doldrums, I find it hard to justify blogging. Remember in college when you had two hundred pages to read by tomorrow because you blew off a week of classes, and even though you knew there was this reading you were supposed to do, you instead played Bill Walsh College Football on your Sega Genesis, woke up "early" so you could watch Saved by the Bell reruns, and took a nap at 2:00 so you would be "ready" to head to the bars at 10:00?

And even though you liked reading and Stephen King finally got around to finishing the latest Dark Tower book, you didn't read it because you had all this required reading to do and even if you tried to read the DT book, you wouldn't enjoy it because a little voice in your head would say, "Shouldn't you be reading that really exciting university press book written by your prof about the history of Ghana?" And you'd listen to that voice. Sort of. You'd put down Stephen King and go play another game of Bill Walsh College Football.

For those who lost their way in that labyrinth of metaphor, a guide:

My work-in-progress is the required reading.
This blog is the new Dark Tower book.
And the New Super Mario Bros. Wii is Bill Walsh College Football.

Off to take on World 4.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Writers Don't Follow the "Rules."

You try this long enough and you read quite a lot about today's supposed rules of writing. Here are a few:

No prologues
Don't start with backstory; drop it in as you go.
Go easy on the description
Characters should not look in a mirror as a way for them to describe their appearance to the reader.
You should have clever a premise or a new twist on an old one.
Your main character should be likable.
Your main character must act.
Your main character must solve the central problem.
There should be lots of conflict.
Fast-paced is preferable.
And so on.

And when you write, you try to follow these rules because you figure the people who are making them know what they're talking about and you don't want to eliminate yourself from the game before you get a chance to play.

And then you read something that's crazy successful and breaks all sorts of rules, like the book I'm reading now, Going Bovine, which takes about a hundred pages to get to the plot.

Or another book that I've read probably ten times, Because of Winn-Dixie. The book is beloved. There is no other word. I like it too, so don't read the following as a criticism of the book. It's more of a criticism of the people who promote the above "rules."

Winn-Dixie is about a girl and a dog. Not exactly breaking new ground there. The girl lives with her dad who's into his work. Mom is out of the picture. The girl misses her mom. Again, nothing original there, either. The girl takes in the dog and the dog helps her make friends and not feel so lonely. That's pretty much it. Most of the book is Opal meeting and talking to these people, most of whom are adults. She talks to Miss Franny Block, the librarian. She talks to Otis, the ex-con who runs the pet store. She talks to Gloria Dump. A couple of boys tease her, but she's never in any real danger. There is essentially no conflict to speak of in the story, unless you count Opal missing her mom and feeling lonely as conflict, which I suppose you can, but it's a pretty forgiving definition of conflict. The only "exciting" part of the story, I would submit, is when Winn-Dixie goes missing at the end of the story and Opal tells her dad she's not giving up like he did when Mom bolted and her dad says some things that make you feel all squishy inside. But then she does give up, but it's okay because Winn-Dixie was at Gloria Dump's house all along. The end.

Now, I like the story. I do. But I don't know why I like it. The writing is pleasant. The voice is excellent. The characters are kind of quirky. But as for plot? Eh. Honestly, it's one of those books that, if you were to describe it to somebody, I doubt they'd want to read it. But once read, almost everyone agrees it's excellent. Which goes to show that the rules matter, unless they don't.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Short Story

Here's the story I submitted to the Writer's Digest Your Story contest this past month. In came in second, which is just as good as coming in last. The prompt was "A magician's trick goes horribly wrong at a child's birthday party."


The magician’s fly was open, and judging by the lack of response from the other parents, I was the only one who saw it. Maybe it was because of my angle, but I had a clear view of what appeared to be red boxers. I should tell him, I thought. But how would I do that without embarrassing him in front of the six-year-olds assembled on the floor watching with what could only be described as awe?

I didn’t know, so I did the only reasonable thing. I nudged my wife because I thought she might have a good idea. But my wife shrugged me off and flapped her hand at me. She was apparently enjoying the show too much to be bothered.

The magician held a gold coin in the air, turning it so that it caught the light. “And now,” he said, “Lester the Magician will make this coin disappear!”

Lester had come cheap and I was beginning to see why. The kids didn’t care, though. Judging by their spellbound faces, they thought Lester was great. Apparently, so did my wife. I couldn’t get her attention for anything.

“Jane,” I whispered.

“Alakazam! Alakazeer! Make this gold coin disappear!”

Lester clapped his hands, and when he displayed his palms, sure enough, the coin was gone. Most of the kids cheered enthusiastically. So did my wife. But Ralph, the most annoying of my son’s playmates, pointed at Lester and said, “It’s in your pocket! I saw you put it there!”

Lester the Magician ignored him. He was smarter than he looked. Which isn’t saying much for a guy standing with his pants unzipped in front of a bunch of mostly admiring kids.

“Your right pocket!” Ralph shouted. “Empty your right pocket!” I wanted to tell the kid to knock it off, but his dad was across the room beaming proudly at his son’s impertinence.

I couldn’t say anything to Lester either because he would have had to zip up in front of the kids, and I knew from past experience that anything having to do with underwear or that section of the human body was cause for six-year-old hysterics. So while he was fanning a deck of cards in front of my son, Joe, I tried to make eye contact with him.

I cleared my throat, “A-hrm,” but he kept going with the card trick.

My wife looked at me then. It wasn’t a pleased look. Or even a curious one. More like one that says, “What’s the matter with you, you moron?”

“His fly,” I mouthed, pointing at Lester’s midsection.

“What?” she mouthed back.

“His zipper,” I hissed, but she still didn’t get it. So I pointed at my own groin and my wife shook her head disgustedly and refused to look at me again.

After Lester correctly guessed the card Joe was holding and received his applause, he bowed. Then he turned around, bent over, and came up with a wooden box. As he placed it on a stool I thought I saw something other than red boxers through his open barn door.

I blinked. Was that…

Jesus. I sprinted toward him, my arms windmilling, my legs hurtling three soon-to-be scarred for life first graders. “Don’t move!” I yelled. Distantly, I heard Jane gasp, “Michael!” but she didn’t know. None of them knew.

I tackled Lester. Hard. The children shrieked. Ralph called out, “There it is! The coin! See? Right there on the floor!”

The other parents were on me in seconds, prying me off the magician. I struggled to free myself, to get back to Lester so I could explain, but the parents were shouting things like, “What’s wrong with you?” and “What a psycho,” and “We’re getting out of here.” Before I could offer a defense, they were dragging their kids out the door.

Soon, there were only four of us left in the room. My son was looking at me like I’d…well, like I’d tackled a magician, and Jane was too stunned to say anything at all. But when Lester the Magician staggered to his feet, Jane saw it. She quickly threw her hand over Joe’s eyes and pointed at the man’s partially exposed organ.

“XYZ,” I said.

The magician turned a deep shade of red and zipped up. After he left I turned to Joe and said, “I want to explain what just happened.”

And Joe replied, “That was a good trick, Daddy. You made the man’s pee pee disappear.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why Boys Read Less Than Girls--My $.02

Why don't boys read as much as girls? I'll give you one reason: teachers. Specifically, elementary and middle school teachers who use the dreaded class novel. The class novel, for those out of the know, is when a teacher selects a book (usually something like this in elementary school or this in middle school or, God forbid, this in high school*) and then they spend about eight times as long as necessary reading and discussing the book until, even if the book is halfway decent, all the interesting has been hoovered out of it.

Now, most teachers, for too many bad reasons to name, tend to choose books that they think have high literary merit. They teach classics, or at least books with pretty words that tend to be character driven and big on THEME (and yes, as a third grade teacher I am required to teach THEME). In other words, a lot of these teachers use pretty much the same criteria that the Newbery judges use. (And a lot of them don't know jack about kidlit and figure if it's got a shiny medal on the cover then it has to be good.)

So pretend you're a boy and because it's short and because it's historical and because it won a Newbery, your third grade teacher decides to torture you with a month-long study of Sarah, Plain and Tall. In fourth grade, you get On My Honor. In fifth, maybe it's Island of the Blue Dolphins and in sixth, how about Bridge to Terabithia.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with any of the above (except Sarah, Plain and Tall. That books sucks. See below.), but if you're a boy who'd rather be spending his in-class reading time, I don't know, choosing books you actually want to read like your teacher does when she takes her steamy romance novels to the beach in the summer, then you might just start to think that reading is:

a. Boring
b. Something you're forced to do, like eating your vegetables
c. For the smart kids, especially the girl ones
d. All of the above

And you might receive the unintentional message that some books are worthy enough to be read and some are not (at least, not where your teacher can see you). That Captain Underpants book you saw in the store? "Garbage!" says Ms. Davis. Those Wimpy Kid books? Please. There are cartoons in them!

So my message to teachers is this:

a. no more class novels
b. allow your students to choose the books they want to read and allow them to read them at their own speed. (Kind of like you do.)
c. if you want to know if they're understanding it, read the book yourself and talk about it. (You know, like real people do.)
d. if you must teach THEME, use picture books. They have themes too and you can cover about twenty different themes in the time it takes you to work through one (maybe two) in a class novel.
e. The Wimpy Kid books are awesome.


Sarah, Plain and Tall
, reviewed by what sounds an awful lot like actual third grade boys (from Amazon):

"I don't think this is a good book for these reasons: It has no emotional, dangerous or mysterios parts."

"Sarah, Plain and Tall is a short and boring book. I, an eleven-year-old boy, had to read it for Accelerated Reader, and as the story progressed it became worse and worse."

"The story goes nowhere fast. My last comment is the book is too short. If you're a person who likes short books basically about the colors blue, gray, and green, and your between the ages of 7-10, knock yourself out."

"Don't put any little kids through the torture of reading this horrible book. It scarred me for life."

"Few interesting things happened, and the dialog stank."

"Some of you say "poetic nature" and a "light romance" what ever!"

"What a snore!"


*Thank God for The Outsiders and Lord of the Flies.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sore Tooth

Wrote this for a student who complained of a sore tooth. This is what teachers call "modeling" but what is really probably closer to a "dereliction of duty."

Sore Tooth

I'm sitting here in class,
and my mouth is really sore.
I'm trying to be tough,
but it's too hard to ignore.
My eyes have started watering,
I do not want to cry.
My toothache hurts so much
I think I'm going to die.
I have to tell the teacher,
maybe he'll know what to do.
On second thought, he won't,
that guy doesn't have a clue.
Maybe if I punch myself
I'll forget about the pain.
I think I'll try my shoulder,
it's not good for any-thang.
On second thought, that's silly,
my tooth will still feel bad.
There is no way to fix it,
it's starting to make me mad.
So I slam my fist onto my desk,
my teacher glares at me.
But with the tears rolling down my face
he decides to leave me be.
I touch my tooth, it is so loose
I think it might fall out
I pull and tug and twist and jerk
it's coming, there's no doubt!
Then--pop!--it's free, my tooth is out!
It's lying in my palm.
And then I notice another thing--
my feelings, they are calm.
The pain is gone, I feel better,
I push out my chair and stand.
I'm heading to the sink because
there's blood all over my hand.

I know, not my greatest, but you try writing poetry while keeping one eye on 28 kids.

Friday, March 12, 2010

An Idea

Is it wrong of me to want to write a middle grade Choose Your Own Adventure in which all paths lead to gruesome death?

I know when I read those things (and I did. I so did), that if I ended up dying I would backtrack and then choose a different path until I got to a happy ending. How infuriating would it be if there was no happy ending?


If you didn't click the link, do so. It's funny and apparently I'm not the only one to consider this idea.


And while I was searching for an image I came across this:

Choose Your Own Adventure Books That Never Quite Made It.

What a great way to waste twenty minutes.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Thoughts on the News

I usually avoid current events on here because I like to keep things light and I don't want people to feel bad when they realize they've been wrong about important issues after reading my enlightening posts. But a loyal reader wanted to know my take on a couple of news items,* so I thought I'd oblige.

  • Apparently, there's a representative from New York named Eric Massa who was the tragic victim of "kill the old guy" at his 50th birthday party. "Kill the old guy" is a popular game played by many fifty-year-old men at birthday parties. It involves groping other men, being tackled, and tickling others until they can't breathe. Yummy! Can't wait till I turn 50!
  • Corey Haim died of an overdose. If you're trying to remember which Corey that is, it's the one you would have least expected to die of an overdose.
  • If you're driving a Toyota, stop. If you can, that is.
  • I guess there's something going on with Health Care.
  • I've now emailed V.P. Biden three times about his chocolate milk preference and he has yet to respond. The last time I emailed, I pretended to be a six-year-old boy. Apparently, Joe Biden hates six-year-olds. Instead of answering this important question, V.P. Biden is off in Israel working on peace with the Palestinians, as if that's going to happen. Nice priorities, Joe.
  • Lindsay Lohan is suing E-Trade because she's a crazy drunk. Or because she thinks it's bad to drink a lot of milk. Or because she wants money. I don't know.
  • The Central Falls school board canned the entire staff of Central Falls High because they have a sorry graduation rate. So if you're a really great teacher who would love to work in a district that obviously respects teachers and works with them to improve their students' education, then Central Falls is the place for you! I'm sure they'll get lots of great candidates.
* Not really.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

And That's When...

Okay, writers, let us tackle the sudden change. I've been noticing the phrase "And that's when..." in a lot of books lately. It's usually used like this:

Dickey rubbed the balloon against his head. He pressed it to the wall and it stayed there, magically. Dickey wondered what other powers his hair had been keeping from him.

And that's when a sound like the mating call of a lemur in a mall rent the air.

I've been seeing the "And that's when" technique used over and over again and I like it so much that I now use it myself.

And that's when I realized it might be overused.

What I think is happening is writers have read advice from so-called experts to avoid using the word "suddenly" and the phrase "all of a sudden" (or as one of my third graders wrote it "althesuden"). And so, dutiful little sheep that we are, we go forth and smite all of the suddenness from our stories and replace them with "And that's when"s.

So, anyone have any great ideas for fresh ways to introduce something that throws a scene in a new direction? Feel free to use the lemur in your example.

Book Reviews

I was going to start this post by apologizing and making excuses about my blogging absence, but that's cliche, so screw it.

I have been reading and I have been writing. Book reviews follow:

The Year the Swallows Came Early

+ Well written
+ Different setting (small town on the California coast)
+ The MC wants to go to culinary school. I like food. Like Everything on a Waffle, there are recipes in the book.

- Dad's in jail. Mom doesn't want to talk about it. Seen it before.
- The MC spends a good portion of the book moping around.
- Not much happens

The Phantom Tollbooth

Wordplay. Words work hard; they deserve to play sometimes.
+ Funny parts, but not laugh-out-loud funny, more smart funny. Smart funny is good, too.
+ Allegorical, and although allegory usually flies right past me without me noticing, it was kind of hard to miss in this one.

- The sketchy flip side of allegory: the story's a little weak.

Castration Celebration

+ Totally raunchy
+ Funny
+ Pokes fun at Twilight
+ Honest

- Not as funny as Wizner's first book, Spanking Shakespeare
- The main characters weren't all that likable.
- Some of the songs fell flat.

Sir Farsalot Hunts the Booger

+ The title
+ Had some funny lines

- Not enough farting

Thursday, March 4, 2010

From the Pens of Third Graders

Asked my students to complete the following sentence:

Good stories have...

They said:

Scary parts
Funny parts
Big problems
Evil characters
Great pictures
Weird parts
Mean characters
No run-on sentences (I'd be in trouble)
Surprise endings
A great lead
Showing, not telling
Good verbs
Dialogue that sounds real
Similes (I had to provide the word. The student gave me the example: "Her face was red as a tomato.")
Exciting Ending
Kissing (Don't even ask.)
Serious problems to solve
A lesson a character learns
Zooming in on an important subject
Robots (hell yes!)
Aliens (same kid. I want to read more of his work.)
Interesting settings
Lots of dialogue (Agreed.)
Funny characters
Interesting characters
Endings that make you feel something (other than disappointment, I presume)

So now you know.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lesson Learned

A while back I entered a story for Writer's Digest's "Your Story" contest. And then my story was one of five selected as a finalist and I got all excited and lobbied people on the blog to go vote for it. According to the online tally, I got the most votes. But I did not win because of voting irregularities. My guess is that 1. they found out I'd lobbied for votes or 2. they discounted votes of people who'd registered and voted the same day or 3. some IP addresses voted more than once (for instance, my mom and dad both voted from the same computer; they're supportive like that) and that's against the rules.

Then I got really pissy and said some mean things about Writer's Digest and their stupid "Your Story" competition rules.

Eventually I got over that and when a prompt I liked came up I wrote a story and sent it off to them. And now it's been selected as a finalist.

So... (here's where I show I learned my lesson)

If you are already a registered member of the Writer's Digest Web site...

and if you feel like reading some stories about a magician's trick going horribly wrong at a child's birthday party...

and if you feel like voting for the best story...

then go here.

But remember, don't vote more than once, don't register just so you can vote and then never visit the site again, don't let anyone else use your computer or account to vote, and don't lobby anyone to vote for what is, obviously, the best story of the five.

And no, I'm not telling you which one that is.*

))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))) (Something new.)

*You'll probably figure it out on your own.