Pope Francis and a velociraptor walk into a bar . . .

I’m disappointed by the lukewarm reviews for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, because I think Jurassic World is one of 2015’s two best encapsulations of the themes of Laudato Si.

No, really!

In case you’re not the type to cite papal encyclicals on a regular basis, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home was Pope Francis’ first encyclical and came out in May 2015. It’s typically described as “the climate change encyclical” . . . but it’s so much more than that. Although care for the environment is the primary theme of the encyclical (and it goes well beyond climate change, throwing in deforestation, deliberate hunting of endangered animals, pollution, and just about any environmental theme you can name), Pope Francis also issues a scathing critique of consumerism and “throw-away culture.” We abuse the Earth because we see it, not as a beautiful home that God created for us and entrusted to our care, but as a system of resources to exploit. That mentality, Pope Francis argues, inevitably causes us to treat our fellow human beings as things to be used as well. If we end our exploitation of the environment, we take a step toward ending our exploitation of the poor, the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, people of other races or ethnicities . . . everyone.

A smiling Pope Francis waves at the camera.

Cheese and crackers, I love this guy. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Coincidentally, 2015 also brought us a pair of movies that perfectly encapsulated the themes of an encyclical that the creators couldn’t have read beforehand (unless George Miller and Colin Trevorrow have precognitive powers). The best, hands down, was Mad Max: Fury Road. In fact, after reading Laudato Si, I commented that “We are not things!” would actually work as well for a subtitle as “On Care For Our Common Home.” Many other writers have alluded to how perfectly Fury Road sums up a hellish world that cares nothing for the Earth or the people who live there except as means to an end. It should headline any Laudato Si film festival.

And, yes, I genuinely think Jurassic World should be in that film festival, too.

I want to make it clear that Jurassic World is nowhere close to Mad Max in terms of thematic richness. You could talk about Mad Max for hours without getting to the bottom of the all its ideas, or even all its connections to Laudato Si specifically. (Who would have thought that a movie with a flame-throwing guitar would be so dang smart?) Jurassic World is a popcorn movie about a dinosaur slugfest. Nonetheless, it offers a positive counterpoint to the bleakness of Mad Max. Mad Max gives us a world gone wrong; Jurassic World gives an idea of what a world gone right might look like.

Image from Mad Max of graffiti reading "We Are Not Things"

Mad Max, helpfully summing up Laudato Si in four words.

Of course, Jurassic World has its fair share of disordered relationships to nature–it’s about mad science, for heaven’s sake. The best example of this is Indominus Rex, the movie’s genetically engineered dinosaur Big Bad. Trevorrow has said in interviews that he intended Indominus partly as a commentary on entertainment, but also as a commentary on consumerism:

“The Indominus was meant to embody our worst tendencies. We’re surrounded by wonder and yet we want more. And we want it bigger, faster, louder, better. And in the world of the movie the animal is designed through a series of corporate focus groups. . . We’re surrounded by so much of this marketing and just being told on a regular basis that you have to like this, you will go here, you want this.”

Even though the “wonder” that Indominus usurps is a different batch of scientifically created dinosaurs, I can’t help thinking of paragraph 34 of Laudato Si when I think about her, or about anything that pulls us away from the true beauty of creation:

“A sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

“Ever more limited and gray”–those words might haunt me more than any others in the encyclical.

An image of Indominus Rex coming out of the forest.

Sorry, Indominus, but the Pope says real dinosaurs are better.

As a whole, the scientists of Jurassic World tend to treat Indominus and the other dinosaurs as “things” instead of living creatures (there’s Mad Max again). This is most obvious in the way that they talk about the dinosaurs, referring to them as “assets” and using the pronoun “it.” (Compare to Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady–who we’ll get to in a minute–who consistently calls them “animals” and refers to them as “she” or “her”). Additionally, Indominus is raised alone in captivity, which the movie implies is the root of her viciousness (Trevorrow confirmed this in an interview with io9, comparing her to a real-life example of a tiger that escaped captivity and went on a killing spree). The scientists aren’t thinking about her needs as a living creature; they’re just thinking of what will be the most cost-efficient way to present their attraction.

Once again, Pope Francis has their number. In paragraph 33, he reminds us that “it is not enough . . . to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ [or assets?] to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” The Pope is saying this in context of extinction, reminding us that all creatures give glory to God whether they provide some tangible benefit or not, but it’s also a useful reminder for anyone who works with animals. Even if they happen to be cloned dinosaurs.

So yes, there’s definitely cautionary content in Jurassic World–but by itself, the cautionary content isn’t much to write home about. It would be easy for Jurassic World to be a didactic story about a bunch of evil, clueless scientists and the victimized dinosaurs who eat them. It’s a trap that too many environmental movies fall into, pitting humanity against nature as though a healthy relationship between the two were impossible. That’s not enough. If we say that people will always be at war with creation, there are two logical conclusions: either we mournfully declare that’s “the way things have to be” and pat ourselves on the back for our realism as we bulldoze another rainforest, or we’ll fall into a misanthropic paradigm that says the world would be so much better without us darn humans around. Pope Francis warns against this misanthropy in paragraphs 90-91:

“This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility. Such notions would end up creating new imbalances which would deflect us from the reality which challenges us. At times we see an obsession with denying any pre-eminence to the human person; more zeal is shown in protecting other species than in defending the dignity which all human beings share in equal measure. . . . A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.”

We need a model of a proper relationship with nature in order to imagine how stewardship of creation might look.

And that’s where Owen Grady comes in.

Chris Pratt's Owen Grady holds a pack of velociraptors at baywith nothing but his body language.

Owen and his pack of clever girls.

Owen Grady, the velociraptor trainer, gives us that model of an ordered relationship with nature. He isn’t some Poison Ivy-style extremist who hopes that the raptors will devour those worthless nature-hating humans; he loves and respects the raptors as living creatures, but would never sic one on a fellow human being. Trevorrow’s version of raptor social structure is familiar to anyone who’s studied wolves or dogs–they hunt in packs, with an alpha at the lead. Grady has earned the respect of the raptors and established himself as their alpha, and this works for the betterment of both the raptors (who have the healthy social structure that their instincts demand) and the humans (who know the pack alpha doesn’t want to eat their faces).

Of course, there’s no point in Laudato Si where Pope Francis says, “By the way, if we ever clone velociraptors, you should respect their pack dynamic while keeping humans safe.” (He does point out that the idea of having “dominion over every animal that moves upon the Earth” should be understood as a “mutual responsibility” with humans “caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving” those creatures, but green theologians have been pointing that out for decades.)  However, throughout the encyclical, Pope Francis repeats the ideas of relationship and equilibrium. Humans are meant to be in equilibrium with nature, living neither as Captain Planet villains nor as ecoterrorists; humans are also meant to have a proper relationship with nature, understanding and loving it instead of seeing it as something separate from ourselves. In turn, this will lead to greater equilibrium within human societies and stronger relationships with our fellow humans.

It’s not hard to see the principles of equilibrium and relationship with nature in Grady. Grady’s dominion over the velociraptors is rooted in his relationship with them as animals, not as assets (and animals with humanizing pronouns at that); it’s also rooted in his desire to see humans and animals in proper equilibrium, with humans as neither helpless prey nor corporate predators.

Chris Pratt leading a pack of raptors on his motorcycle. This movie is so dang cool.

If you live in equilibrium with nature, you can be this awesome.

Sadly, Jurassic World doesn’t extend these themes to equilibrium and relationship with human society, which is part of why it can’t match Mad Max in Laudato Si perfection. (The film has the opportunity to explore this with Claire Dearing, whose disordered relationship to the “assets” is a reflection of her disordered relationship to her sister’s family, but it never develops that beyond a shopworn “workaholic needs to enjoy the better things” story.) Still, it remains one of the few environmental movies that seems to love people of good will as much as it loves nature, and shows us what “people of good will” might look like. Instead of pitting humanity against animals, it shows them working together in harmony–and gives us cool dinosaur fights in the process. For that, it’s always going to have a place on my Laudato Si viewing list.

 

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Do You Have a Story, or a Situation?

Last time, I said that I would write about the best writing advice I’ve ever received. By this, I mean “writing advice that I actually heard in person,” not “writing advice that I read in a book” (although if you want the latter, read Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress, Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham, Hooked by Les Edgerton, or Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole). This advice came from David Lynn, the editor of the Kenyon Review and one of my creative writing professors in college. Professor Lynn, having gone through slush piles the size of my house, was an expert at figuring out why some stories worked and others didn’t. One day, we were workshopping a story that felt like it should have worked–but it didn’t. The characters were nuanced and had complex, realistic relationships. The prose was beautiful, descriptive and evocative without being purple. But something about it felt . . . off.

Professor Lynn listened to our comments as we tried to fumble through what didn’t work about the story before speaking up. “What we have here,” he said, “is a situation, not a story.”

I don’t know about the other students, but for me, those words made the clouds part. Angels descended with harps made of plot, singing transcendent songs about conflict and resolution.

A small, cottage-like academic building among the trees.

Finn House, home of the Kenyon Review If you get writing advice here, LISTEN TO IT. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

He was right. These characters had a dysfunctional family drama going on, and it was a unique and interesting one–but there was never a sense that the fight they were having today was any different from the fight they had yesterday or the fight they would have tomorrow. The manuscript was essentially four thousand words of the characters’ status quo. And an unchanged status quo is a situation, not a story.

A situation is static. No matter how rich your setting, no matter how well-drawn your characters, no matter how much potential for conflict exists in your manuscript, you don’t have a story without specific conflict and resolution.

For an example of what I mean, let’s take a look at a science fiction classic that’s chock-a-block with rich setting information, but would be dead in the water (or the sand, in this case) without a story to support it: Dune.

Okay, so here’s a fantastic idea for a series of sci-fi novels. Suppose that the most valuable substance in the universe, spice, is only produced on a single planet, and whoever rules that planet has the potential for tremendous control over everything that the spice influences–space travel, the lives and well-being of the wealthy, the precognitive powers of the wisest women in the universe.  Oh, yeah, there are wise precognitive women. They’re like space witches. Also, space ships are run by human computers because real computers are illegal. Awesome, right? RIGHT?

A hilly desert disturbed by the track of a sandworm.

The conflict must flow . . . (Image via Flickr)

Absolutely. But it isn’t a story. “He who controls the spice controls the universe” has been a status-quo statement describing life in the world of Dune for hundreds or even thousands of years, just like “He who controls the White House controls the executive branch” is a status-quo statement of life in the United States, and there weren’t any classic science fiction plots happening during all those pre-Dune years. There’s the potential for interesting conflict (a war over the spice? an underground ring of spice smugglers trying to get its life-extending powers to the poor? an attempt to create synthetic spice, with the people who control the spice planet cracking down on our plucky scientists?), but that’s all we have so far–potential. We could end up with a novel of political intrigue, a taut thriller, a medical drama–or 450 pages of characters rhapsodizing about the powers of spice and bemoaning the fact that it’s so rare.

Okay, conflict. Right.  Suppose that there are noble houses feuding with each other, Game of Thrones style. And–get this–the most scheming, manipulative house in the universe currently controls the spice planet! And they have a vendetta against the protagonist’s house, and, oh, they’re also trying to wipe out the spice planet’s native population! That’s a story, right?

Well, that’s certainly a more interesting situation, and it does give us heightened potential for conflict by identifying a protagonist and antagonist group–but it still isn’t a story. Again, how long had Antagonist House Harkonnen been in charge of Arrakis before the novel happened without any significant plot events? 61 years, according to the appendices, and setting Dune in any one of those other 60 years would have been a mistake. Any of those story ideas above could still fit this world, with House Protagonist funding the spice smugglers or the spice synthesizers in order to undercut the powers of House Antagonist. Or–worst case scenario–it could still be 450 pages of House Protagonist lamenting how much their current situation stinks.

A stack of thick books

So many pages, so little plot. (Image via Pixabay)

What if we throw in some narrative tropes? There’s a prophesied Chosen One, and all of the prophecies seem to coalesce around the protagonist. And we could play with those tropes a bit. Maybe the prophecies were artificially manufactured. And maybe the protagonist doesn’t want to be the Chosen One. And maybe his mother does want him to be the Chosen One, so she’s been subtly setting him up for this role that he doesn’t want for his entire life. That’s a narrative trope, and narrative means “story,” and there’s clearly some conflict between the protagonist and his mother, so it’s definitely a story now, right?

Well, it’s closer. We have a defined protagonist now, with a defined goal (not wanting to be the Chosen One), and a defined person standing in his way (his mother). Presumably the spice and House Antagonist are going to play into this somehow. But until we figure out exactly what the protagonist is willing to do in order to avoid being the Chosen One, and exactly what his mother is willing to do in order to push him in that direction, it isn’t a story with a specific conflict and resolution.

And this is actually a good example of why you need to plan a very strong, specific conflict into your story, because in Dune as written, the conflict between Chosen One Paul and his mother is a relatively minor one–you’d be hard-pressed to make a case for Lady Jessica being an antagonist. She wants her son to be the Chosen One, but she also loves him with all her heart. If Frank Herbert had decided to make their relationship the conflict on which the entire story hinged, we would have a whole lot of angsty, low-stakes conversations, navel-gazing, polite back-and-forth about whether being the Chosen One is in Paul’s best interest . . . and not much in the way of actual story.

Cartoon figure gazing at a flower blooming from their navel

GAZE UPON MY NAVEL! (Image via Flickr)

Arrakis is a terrific setting. The spice is a well-conceived MacGuffin. The deconstruction of the Chosen One is audacious. Readers are far more likely to remember the universe of Dune than the specifics of the plot (even though the plot is good). But there’s no story without the Emperor ousting Antagonist House Harkonnen from Arrakis and its spice, installing Protagonist House Atreides in their places. There’s no story without House Harkonnen destroying most of House Atreides to regain power, forcing Paul and Lady Jessica to flee into the desert and take up with the natives that the Harkonnens have been exterminating, causing Paul to take on his Chosen One mantle and lead those natives in a revolt. That upsets the status quo and brings conflict and change. Without it, all we have is a beautifully conceived situation.

Are you writing a situation instead of a story? Are you trying to make your character’s unusual status quo carry an entire manuscript? If so, take a break from those wonderful settings and characters you’ve conceived and spend some time on the plot. It may well be that people remember your setting and characters better than your plot–just compare the number of memes about spice and sandworms to the number of memes about the Arrakis Revolt. But unless you have a plot to keep those pages turning, you might find yourself with the richest setting and characters that no one reads about.

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The Narrative Fork in the Road

The Golden Egg Academy is currently running a month-long hashtag conversation about kidlit. It’s tremendous fun, and you don’t have to be affiliated with the GEA to participate (I hadn’t heard of them before I saw people liking and retweeting some of these posts). A recent prompt asked participants about the best writing advice they’d ever received. I’ll talk about that next time, but today I want to post about the best writing insight I’ve ever stumbled upon by myself, thanks to a beautifully executed example of how to do it right.

We’ve all read those annoying spec fic stories with the protagonist who just refuses to see that something supernatural is going on, right? We’re 120 pages into the novel, and everyone except the main character knows why people are showing symptoms of anemia with unusual injuries on their necks, or that maybe there was something to Grandpa’s crazy fairy stories after all. A really skilled writer can turn this into horrifying dramatic irony as we sit at the edge of our seats, wondering if the protagonist is going to  figure out what’s going on before it’s too late. More often than not, though, we end up just wanting to reach through the book, smack the protagonist upside the head, and scream, “GET ON WITH IT!”

Woman with vampire bite makeup

Hmm, looks like I was bitten by those precisely placed mosquitoes again. (Image via Flickr)

At the same time, it’s understandable that the protagonist of a spec fic story doesn’t know that she’s the protagonist of a spec fic story. In real life, most of us would giggle nervously and make a few jokes if there were an outbreak of Neck-Rupture Anemia in the neighborhood, but we wouldn’t put up the crosses and garlic, and we certainly wouldn’t go out hunting with stakes and mallets. How can we set up a mystery like this for our protagonist–“is it really a vampire, or am I crazy?”–that  doesn’t make the reader irritably point to the word “horror” on the back cover?

When you set up a problem like this, you’re putting your character at a narrative fork in the road. The trouble is that in mediocre stories, one of the paths leads to  an interesting, twisty ramble through an exotic forest and the other leads to a dead end. There needs to be a compelling alternative for what’ll happen if Neck-Rupture Anemia really is just a disease or if Grandpa’s fairy tales really were just an old man spinning yarns; that way, the  reader will see that both paths actually go somewhere. How to go about doing this?

Image of a fork in the road

One path leads to an interesting story. The other leads to a reeeeeeeally short book. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I  noticed a well-executed narrative fork in the road was the movie The History of Violence. (I haven’t read the graphic novel, but I’ve heard that it’s completely different.) If you haven’t seen it, you should;  I won’t spoil it here beyond laying out the basic premise. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom  Stall, a restaurant owner and father of two in Indiana. When a pair of thugs try to rob his restaurant, most of the staff and customers freeze in terror, but Tom quickly kills them and is hailed as a local hero. It seems like a happy ending . . . until a mobster from Philadelphia rolls in, claiming that he saw Tom on  the news and recognized him as his old mob buddy Joey Cusack. Tom and his wife vehemently deny this, but the mobster  continues to stalk and threaten the Stall family, claiming he won’t leave them alone until Tom (Joey?) returns to Philadelphia with him.

I spent the first half of this movie on the edge of my seat–because I had no idea what movie I was watching. Was this the  story of a Joey Cusack, a repentant mobster who had escaped the criminal world and tried to make a  new life, only to learn that violence and the past would always find him? Or was it the story of Tom Stall, an innocent man mistaken for a murderer, who commits a single, justifiable violent act and finds that it will lead to more violence and bloodshed, possibly transforming him into the killer he just happens to resemble?

Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, with a blood-spattered face and haunted eyes

Is this the face of an innocent man who can’t believe he’s become a killer, or a killer who can’t believe his past has caught up with him?

I would watch the heck out of other of those movies.  Both are compelling stories–the fork in the road leads to two paths that each look like a terrific hike. What’s more, both are consistent with the tone and theme of the movie so far–a dark film that studies both the allure and the destructive effects of violence. It isn’t like we’ve  been walking along a dark and eerie trail, and our two choices are either a similarly spooky path or a delightful sunlit ramble. I want to give David Cronenberg and Josh Olson a standing ovation for this one.

The 2015 UK horror movie The Hallow has a similarly well-done narrative fork in the road. I won’t spoil the ending, but I can’t talk about it without getting into some third-act plot developments. It’s on Netflix streaming and is quite decent; if you want to go in completely unspoiled, either watch it and come back in two hours or skip to  the next paragraph.

A couple and their baby are being terrorized by old-school evil fairies, and like any self-respecting old-school evil fairies, they have a history of stealing children and replacing them with changelings. The husband, Adam, is convinced that they’ve stolen and replaced baby Finn, and we know they had the opportunity to do so . . . but Adam got hit by a glamour earlier in the movie. His wife is positive that the baby is their own and that Adam is being influenced by the glamour. Are the fairies manipulating this poor sap into killing his real child, or into giving the real child to them in the mistaken belief that he’s returning a changeling? Or is the glamour allowing him to see fae things for what they really are, turning him into a tragic Cassandra-like figure who can’t make his wife see that she’s clutching a viper to her bosom while abandoning their real child? Again, those are both spectacular stories, and they’re both a solid tonal  and thematic match for what’s come before.

The heroine of The Hallow clutches a blanket-wrapped baby against herself.

You might not want to hold that baby so close. Or maybe you want to hold him even closer. Who knows?

Either of these movies could have been one of those eye-rolling affairs where everyone knows what’s coming except the characters. If the Philadelphia mobster hadn’t been a direct threat to Tom Stall’s family, it would have been clear that Tom was Joey Cusack–otherwise, there would have been no story, because Tom could have rolled his eyes and ignored the guy. If the mobster mistook him for something innocuous, like an honest citizen who’d seen his crimes and been placed in witness protection, it would have been clear that he was Tom Stall–otherwise, there’d be no compelling reason for him not to come clean  to his family about his identity, and again, no story. There are a hundred ways The Hallow could have been a snoozefest as well–I won’t get into  details so we don’t have another spoileriffic paragraph, but let’s just say that it  would have been a disaster to have that same setup at the beginning of the movie instead of in act three. I can’t see any way that they could have maintained the mystery that long., and eventually it would  have been clear which character was careening toward a dead end.

So if you have a situation where there may or may not be supernatural going on, or any other situation where the viewpoint character may or may not be right about the story’s basic  premise, it’s critical to make sure  that the story would be compelling and thematically consistent no matter what. Neck-Rupture Anemia  that may be an illness or a vampire attack is boring; a series of deaths that could be caused by a vampire or a serial killer is cliche, but at least dramatically interesting. Fairies that may be real or may be an old man’s ramblings are boring; fairies who may be real or may be his delusional interpretation of a sinister, fully human conspiracy are more interesting. (You could also  get a really poignant story out of a  narrator who’s young enough to believe in fairies, pulling your reader back and forth over whether this is going to be a “hooray, Grandpa’s fairies are real” story or an “and this is how I learned there are no such things as fairies” story,  but this is where tone and theme are so important. A story like this is going to need a general tone of wistfulness and a hint of magic throughout, or it’ll be clear that it isn’t going in either the darker or more magical direction.)

Do you have any stories where you were at the edge  of your seat, not knowing what  story you were reading and watching? What about thoughts you’ve had for how to make these “it’s obviously a vampire” stories  more compelling?

(A version of this post ran previously in 2016, before Weebly ate my blog.)

Posted in Horror, Spec fic, Writing | Leave a comment

Lessons From Elementary School Career Day, 2018 Edition

Two weeks ago, I wrote about what went right and wrong with my son’s elementary school career day last year. After participating again this year–this time with a shiny new PowerPoint, plus actual cover art and interior illustrations to show off!–I have a whole new set of lessons.

Short version: PowerPoint good. Emergency backup plan for PowerPoint even better.

Long version:

Have a PowerPoint (or something similar) if you don’t have cool props. Mine wasn’t anything fancy, but just giving the kids something to look at was a big improvement. It helped that because I was talking to elementary school kids, I could use goofy clipart without worrying that someone would roll their eyes. It also helped that, as a picture book author, I was talking about a book with inherent visual interest. I could show an illustration with the original text, talk about how the text and illustration didn’t quite match (the poem referenced “skeletons” and the illustration showed a single skeleton), and solicit opinions on how to fix it (get the poor illustrator to completely redo the illustration . . . or just lop the “s” off “skeletons”). The kids loved that. A chapter book would have been harder.

Sidebar on the goofy clipart: Open Clipart Library is way too white. This school is only about 10% white and I wanted my presentation to reflect that, but “child reading” got me a whole lot of white kids. (“Reading” got me eight zillion white people, a few African-American adults, and one little brown-skinned girl who looked like she was being forced to read against her will.) If you want to contribute to OCAL, take note.

Woman with light brown skin reading book

She’s racially ambiguous, could pass for a teenager, and seems to be enjoying herself, so she’s in! (Credit: Open Clip Art Library)

But have a backup plan. Some of the classrooms had computers hooked up to projectors. Others had computers with an overhead projector haphazardly focused on them, so the kids could kind of-sort of-see a grainy image of the PowerPoint on the screen. Others had nothing. Practice a version of your presentation that doesn’t involve the PowerPoint (instead of showing the illustration, I could say “And he only drew one skeleton! How could we fix it?”), and bring a printout to remind yourself of your talking points if you don’t have a screen to look at.

And keep bringing props. My week was a Lovecraftian dive into madness, so I didn’t have time to handpick book props like I did last year. Next time, I’m making that a priority, because the kids do like having something tangible to look at. In the first-grade classrooms, they had free-reading baskets on the table and I could ask them to grab a book and check the spine for the publisher’s name. In the fifth-grade classrooms, I didn’t have that option, and I wished that I had a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone or Mummies in the Morning handy so I could show them the spine myself. (Of course, next year I’ll have a copy of my own book to bring, which will help.)

The kids have a TON of questions. When you’re presenting to adults or teenagers, you can ask them to hold questions until the end. That isn’t the case when you’re presenting to first-graders or even to fourth-graders, because they’ll lose interest if they don’t feel recognized. None of the kids seemed to mind if I answered with something like “that’s a great question, and we’ll get to it in a minute,” but I had to at least acknowledge their questions as they happened. There was one fifth-grade class where the teacher gave the kids a worksheet with questions about each presentation so the teacher would know they had been paying attention, and if I hadn’t answered those kids’ questions, some nervous little Ravenclaw would have been afraid of flunking because my presentation never mentioned how long it took me to become an author or something.

Children in classroom excitedly raising hands

Remember being that excited about having a question in class? (Image via Flickr)

It’s not just the early readers who are fascinated by the publishing process. This year, I mostly had older kids, and none of them had given any thought to how a book goes from being a file on your computer to being a bound volume that you could buy at Amazon or Books-a-Million. Last year, my one fourth-grade class was more interested in hearing about how hard it was to get published than in hearing about how a rough draft becomes a book. This year, they were all interested in it. It probably helped that I included a little mini-lesson about illustrations and storyboards, so the artistically-inclined kids were fascinated. (Thank you, Shawna JC Tenney, for putting so much of your process on your website. And yes, I credited the heck out of you in my presentation.)

Illustrations give you a ton of activity possibilities. I prepared for an activity this year, but didn’t have time to get to it because there was so much to talk about. I’m going to include it here for other authors who need a career day activity, though.

I put the text of “Sing a Song of Sixpence” on the last slide of my PowerPoint (it seemed appropriate, since Mother Ghost is a sendup of nursery rhymes). My plan was to ask the kids to sketch some concept art of the characters. Do the blackbirds look angry that they were in the pie, or excited to be free? How big are they? Is the king happily counting huge piles of money, or is he grumpy because there isn’t as much money there as he thought? Is the queen eating an enormous plate of bread and honey or nibbling on a tiny snack? Do you want the maid to look mean so we don’t feel sorry for her when the blackbirds peck her nose, or is she a nice lady minding her own business?

If there was still time after that (ha!), I made a printout of a storyboard so the kids could plan the layout of their illustrations.

Word file with an image of a four-by-two table. A dotted line separates the two columns.

Four-by-two table in Word with a dotted line separating the columns. Easy-peasy.

I wish the presentation had been a little shorter so I could have seen what they did. Maybe next year I’ll pare things down a bit.

Wear layers. Remember how when you were in school, the math wing was subtropical and the social studies wing was a few degrees cooler than the Ninth Circle of Hell? School HVACs haven’t changed a bit. It was in the fifties on Career Day and I was sweating in short sleeves half the time. I’m just glad my favorite long-sleeved shirt was in the wash, because they would have been mopping me off the floor otherwise.

Once again, Career Day was a lot of fun. I’m glad I did it and I’m hoping to do it again next year (although the arrival of The Pumpkin might make things more difficult). And as always, if you have any Career Day tips that have worked for you, I’d love to hear them!

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Lessons From Elementary School Career Day, 2017 Edition

I’m still up to my eyeballs in getting this site back where it was, getting a PowerPoint ready for career day at my son’s school, preparing for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and–oh, yeah!–doing the last round of revisions on the novel. Since I have to repost all my Weebly blog entries individually (sigh), here’s my post about last year’s career day. Next week I’ll have some shiny new 2018 insights to add.

And, as always, if you can think of anything I’m missing, let me know before I go in to do it again on Friday!


My son’s elementary school held its career day last month, and because I actually have a forthcoming book to talk about–and one that kids will be allowed to read!–I signed up as a presenter. I knew that I wanted to be an author as far back as second grade, and I would have killed to have an author presenting at career day.

Unfortunately, authors are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to adding razzle-dazzle to our presentations. One of the presenters was a police officer who could show the kids his car; another was an architect who had the kids build bridges out of straws and marshmallows. (I consistently followed the architect, and it’s a testament to the teachers’ classroom management skills that the kids weren’t building bridges during my entire presentation.) Maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I couldn’t find many career day tips for writers online, either.

Little girl gazing in awe at a fire truck

That fire truck is cool and all, but let’s talk about how to approach an agent! Right, kids? Right? (Image via Wikimedia commons)

Well, starting today, there’s going to be one more page with writer career day tips! Here are a few things that went right with my presentation, as well as a few things I wish I’d done differently. I also noticed some trends in what kids of different ages found interesting; while this was a pretty limited sample size, it may ring true in other schools. If you ever had a career day presentation as an author (or any other job that doesn’t lend itself well to visual aids and props), chime in with what worked for you!

The kids liked an interactive style. I peppered my presentation with a lot of back and forth: “What might be hard about not having a boss? What do you think is the main thing I do during my work day? How do you think we go from this [holds up pile of printed papers] to this [holds up book]?” I was a little worried that this would lead to a free-for-all–I remember times from my teaching days when I would ask a question that the kids liked, and ten minutes later they’d still be yelling out answers to that question–but here, it worked. No one did yell out answers to a very old question, and even if they had, it would have been a good gauge of what they found the most interesting.

(Side note: I told them the main thing I do during my work day was writing. The correct answer is more like “wasting time on the Internet,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

Any props are better than no props. Mother Ghost isn’t out yet, and my physically printed short stories are either inappropriate for little ones or featured side-by-side with stories that are inappropriate for little ones, so I didn’t want to bring in any of my magazines as visual aids. I brought in a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to talk about the publishing process (“Then J.K. Rowling sent it to a company called Scholastic–see, you can see ‘Scholastic’ on the spine!”), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to talk about why it takes so long for some books to get published (“This must have taken a long time to write, revise, and edit!”), and Mummies in the Morning to talk about research (“What did Mary Pope Osborne need to research for this book?”). I wish that I’d had more props, although I don’t know what they would have been, but even those three props were a far cry better than nothing.

Harry Potter book covers

No, excited second-graders, these are just props. I only wish I wrote them. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Very young kids need lots of activities. My presentation was pretty talk-heavy, because again, I wasn’t sure what else to do. It worked well with the fourth-graders and second-graders. Predictably, it didn’t go over so well with the first-graders and kindergarteners (I wasn’t scheduled to present for third or fifth grade). The kindergarteners in particular were about to start vibrating into another dimension, although that was partly because I was the last presenter before recess.

Next time, I’m going to try to find some kind of activity that I can do for all the kids, but especially for the little guys. One possibility is to give them a writing prompt; another possibility is to give them a sample of the text of a picture book with no illustrations, then having them make their own illustrations as an example of storyboarding and making dummies. If any other career day veterans have suggestions, though, I’d love to hear them. My teaching experience is with middle school, so this age group is outside my comfort zone.

Early readers are fascinated by the publishing process. I had more second-grade presentations than any other, and they were all fascinated by the question of how a book goes from a file on the author’s computer to a printed, bound, and illustrated volume on a bookshelf. It was pretty clear that they’d never thought of that before, and realizing that someone actually has to make that book was pretty mind-blowing. Nearly all of their questions were about the publishing process–who actually binds the book, how does the book get illustrated, how long does it take, etc. I even had a question about typesetting from an eagle-eyed kid who noticed that the font in Harry Potter is different from the font in Magic Tree House.

Older kids want to hear about your failures. I only presented to one class older than second grade, so again, the sample size was tiny–but the fourth-graders really wanted to hear about my failures and frustrations. Some of them had started to think seriously about being authors themselves, and they wanted to know that their first rejection letter wouldn’t be the kiss of death. They wanted to know if I ever got rejected, how long I had to try before I got published, whether I ever got frustrated as a writer–all of those things that could reassure them that, yes, they have a shot even if they aren’t Stephen King right out of the gate.

I am so using PowerPoint next time. The presentation was fine for the second-graders and up, but giving the younger kids something to look at would have been really helpful for them. I like Shawna JC Tenney’s page on making a picture book dummy as a possible visual aid. I may not be an illustrator, but showing illustrations to younger kids will be a heck of a lot more engaging than showing them my rough draft paragraphs, my final draft paragraphs, and my paragraphs after a professional editor got hold of them–although the fourth-graders would have eaten that up with a spoon.

Overall, Career Day was an absolute blast, and I’m definitely going again next year. Has anyone else had experience with Career Day presentations to younger kids? What worked for you?

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Hello! I’ve moved!

Various web hosting issues with both Weebly and HostGator have forced me to remake my website from the ground up.

The short version: Weebly essentially forces you to sign a contract with them in blood, so all of my old Weebly content has vanished into the ether.

The longer version: HostGator stopped supporting Weebly without warning, and Weebly is so proprietary that they wouldn’t let me transfer my content over to another sitebuilder. I assumed that my options were a) find a new host that still supported Weebly in order to access my old Weebly content, or b) rebuild my site from scratch on one of HostGator’s other tools. I was too irritated at HostGator to stay with them–I’d actually been thinking about switching to WordPress for a while and would gladly have copy-pasted my content over to a Gator-hosted WordPress page if HostGator had given me a month or so to prepare. They didn’t, and I don’t know when they’re going to pull something like that again, so adieu, HostGator.

It turns out, however, that Weebly won’t even let you transfer your content over to a new Weebly page. Even if the domain is the same. I could keep my website frozen in amber for all eternity, but if I wanted to update the poor girl, I needed to rebuild her from scratch. Thanks for nothing, Weebly, and adieu to you as well

So! Please pardon my dust as I work on getting this shiny new non-HostGator, non-Weebly page up to snuff. I will put my old blog posts back up on this blog–I worked hard on those and am proud of them. I’ll also get the contact form back, put up the previews for my short stories, and all that other good stuff. But it’s going to take some time, so please be patient.

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