Sunday, September 27, 2009
It is always a thrill for an author when a new novel becomes available in the bookstores. This book is a change of pace for me because it involves a heinous crime. This book is not for the squeamish.
A phone call in the early hours of the morning shatters the tranquility of Sheriff Daniel Barrett's household when he finds out that the father of his fourteen-year-old daughter's best friend has been the victim of a brutal homicide. Viewing the body at the scene of the crime convinces Barrett that there is a monster loose in their town, and deranged killer is poised to strike again. Barrett is in a race against time with a lab full of evidence that seems to lead nowhere, and a growing suspicion that everything is more complicated than it seems.
Posted by Joe Prentis at 12:31 PM
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Tags: Librarian, books, reading, literature.
When I was in grammar school we had a librarian who run everything with quiet efficiency. She did not seem to be overly aware of the different students, and even the ones of us who haunted the library were just so many nameless children. At the beginning of the year, when I reached the eighth grade, I learned that we had a new librarian. Her name, according to the memo that circulated the first day at school, was Miss Curry. Before the end of the proceeding year, I had been placed on a ‘list’ in the library along with some other troublemakers. My problem was the fact that I was reading too many books, and someone in the school administration office decided that it wasn’t a good idea from an academic standpoint. I was limited to one book per week, and everything was checked against an approved reading list. I had read one of Jessie Stuart’s books, but was banned from reading the others until I reached high school. I had read all of the books on the grade school list, and was reading some of them for the second time.
When I made my first trip to the library, I decided I would be polite, introduce myself to Miss Curry, and use the same wily skills I had used on the previous librarian to convince her that I should be allowed to read Ben Hur. I waited until after lunch, gave myself a pep talk and tried to calm my nerves. I forced myself to the head of the line and entered the library. I came to a halt just inside the door, staring. Miss Curry saw my hesitation and came slowly toward me. Curry was incredibly old by my eighth grade standard, and had a striking resemblance, both in dress and appearance, to Minerva McGonagall, the headmistress at Harry Potter’s school at Hogwarts. I could feel my heart sinking. Her face was stern and unsmiling. She asked my name. I finally managed to tell her and saw her chin lift slightly. “Ah, yes,” she said. “I have you on my list.”
The other students in my eighth grade group quickly selected a book and went through the checkout procedure while I hunted frantically for something I hadn’t read. “Come here, young man,” she said. I was afraid to look directly at her but I did as she commanded. She led me down the stacks to one of the sections of wall shelves that had previously held some pieces of pottery and useless displays. She waved her hand at the rows of books then looked at me again. “This is part of my personal library,” she said. My eye quickly fell on Carl Sandberg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. I ran my hand along the covers and could feel my fingers tingle. “These books belong to me, and they aren’t subject to the library checkout rules,” she said. “They are reserved for the more mature students . . . like yourself.”
This was the beginning of a personal and special relationship between us. Miss Curry was a published author, an avid reader, and personally acquainted with Carl Sandberg, Jessie Stuart, and William Faulkner. As I continued my efforts to write something worthwhile, Miss Curry became my most knowledgeable critic. Today, whenever I tackle a difficult writing project, I can still hear her gentle voice ringing in my ears. “Never give up, never give up, never give up . . .”
Posted by Joe Prentis at 8:45 AM
Sunday, September 13, 2009
I arrived rather late to an Internet discussion about children’s books and what attracts children to a certain type of story. There was a general agreement that the younger ones were attracted as much by the colorful pictures as they were by the story. It is my personal feeling that a book won’t hold the attention of the younger ones unless it involves both.
I am one of those adults who is blessed (or cursed) with a memory that goes back into early childhood. I can still remember the spine-tingling anticipation of settling back and reading a story for the first (second, fifth, or the hundredth) time. It becomes even more interesting when I analyze my feeling and try to discover what it was that pulled me into that particular story. I think the real key to writing a good story is giving the child a sense of involvement. I have a vivid memory of reading Peter Rabbit for the first time and discovering that animals were ‘people’ in the world of literature. Our garden was only a short distance behind our house and the fence looked a great deal like the one in the story book. I also remember carrying my copy of Sammy Jay to the edge of the woods and looking up into the limbs, hoping that in some magical way I would be able to engage one of my feathered friends in conversation. There were slowly moving streams, wooded hilltops, and fields in my world, and I hoped to encounter the same kind of adventures that engaged Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the rest of their friends. Books were a magical portal I could step through and find adventuresome things among the commonplace.
Writers of children’s fiction are somewhat envious of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but many of them are looking in the wrong place for the secret of her success. I did not understand it until I saw Rowling on television signing copies of her book. The children were lined up, each of them hugging a copy of Harry Potter as they slowly inched along. The camera focused on one little girl. When it came her turn, she slid the book across to Rowling who focused her full attention on what the little girl was saying. While the camera captured the incident in a very poigent fashion, I could not hear the earnest conversation. I have no doubt that Rowling was intently interested in what the little girl was saying. Unless we are still attuned to the child inside of us, what we write is likely to fall flat on the written page.
So what do children lack in their world that we can give to them in our stories? Adventure comes high on the list, and the second is respect. Did you notice how many people addressed Harry Potter as Sir? In today’s world, children are coddled and praised, but seldom respected. There is a subtle difference and good children’s literature must contain some of the latter if it is to be attuned to the proper wavelength. Children want a spell they can cast, a secret formula, a decoded map, a weapon—or any other kind of power that makes them feel special. They want to be recognized by adults for their achievements. They want to know that their effort made a difference.
Posted by Joe Prentis at 9:01 AM
Sunday, September 6, 2009
It would be difficult to find a story where fear did not play an active role in the plot. Fear comes in many different forms depending on the story. Even if your novel involves a hardboiled hero who can face any kind of danger without flinching, the absence of fear in his behavior is nothing more than another manifestation of the same emotion. We know the fear is there, deep down where it matters, but our hero is able to control it in a way that is admirable.
One of the interesting things about fear is the fact that it doesn’t have to be earth shattering to interest the reader. What touches us most, a twenty car pileup on some distant stretch of Interstate, or the remembrance of loosing our breakfast on picture day when we were in the first grade? Fear must be upfront and personal if it is to have any effect on the reader. How do we accomplish this? Here are a few suggestion you might find interesting.
Make it realistic: If the frightening experience involves an injury, make sure you have your facts straight. Authors sometimes make the mistake of thinking that if one gunshot wound is exciting, then twenty will have a greater effect. In one action/adventure novel I read, the hero was shot a dozen times but still managed to remain on his feet until he had choked the villain to death. Oh, and I forgot to mention another amazing detail. He was laughing while he did it.
Make sure the fear is universal: I know a man who is afraid of all small animals. A cat will send him into a state of mind-numbing terror, and a small dog will make him wet his pants. There are a lot of irrational fears, but unless you do your groundwork and explain your character’s problem, your scene is likely to fall flat. Horror writers frequently make this mistake when they reveal the monster as nothing more than an oversized insect that could be dispatched with one swift blow with an overloaded purse. Find those things that frighten us all – a shadow outside a window, a phone ringing in the wee hours of the morning, or the intense attention of a stranger.
Make the reader want to do it himself: By the time we reach the confrontation near the end of the story, we need to be emotionally prepared to dispatch the villain in a very pleasing manner. You already know how to do this. Just think about the ways in which we are infused with righteous indignation while watching the early morning newscast. Some unknown group blew up a bridge in –what was the name of that place – and we can’t wait to tear out their throats. Revenge is a dish best served cold, the old adage advises. Make mine hot where I will feel the results of each blow and observe the wonderfully pleasing aftermath. I wouldn’t admit this to just anyone, but there is a desire for revenge in all of us. I know you need to get back to your story, so I am going to stretch out on the couch and wait. Give me something spine tingling this time around.
Posted by Joe Prentis at 1:48 PM