Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What's this disabled character doing in this MG novel? Probably about what they were doing in 1910.

Hello. I want to share a few thoughts about the portrayal of characters with disabilities in middle grade novels. There's the good:

  • Mary in the Little House books. While there's usually little for diversity advocates to cheer about in this series, Mary's blindness is very matter-of-fact and realistic. It affects her life and her family's lives. And it doesn't ruin them.
  • Wonder by RJ Palacio. What can I say that hasn't been said already?
  • Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. A MG fantasy – yes, a fantasy!-- in which a protagonist with a disability goes on a journey of discovery without encountering a miracle cure.

And then there's the not-so-good. Below are six tropes that encompass many of the portrayals of disabled characters in MG fiction. Each of them can be found in recent work as well as older books, though I'm only going to name older books.

I've given each trope a cute name even though they're not really very cute.

1. Paging Dr. Strangelove
In these books, the disabled character is a villain. His/her mind is as twisted as his/her body, get it? In case you don't, sometimes it's spelled out. Blech. In one MG book I read, there was an attempt to soften this (I think?) by having the villain turn out to be faking his disability. The image remains.

A venerable example of disability-conflated-with-badness is The Secret Garden (1910). When Mary arrives from India, she's sickly and unlikable. As she becomes more physically able, she turns into a better person. Then she arranges the same transformation for her bedridden cousin Colin. The message is clear.

2. God Bless Us, Every One
Like Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, the disabled character in some MG books is only there to gauge the protagonist's moral growth.

3. Exit Little Eva
In the 19th century, one of the primary tasks of children in books was to die, preferably after a long illness and some edifying moral reflections. Although a few of these kids' books are still in print, like The Birds' Christmas Carol (1887), this one has mostly, er, died out.

Zombie-like, though, this trope rises again in the form of the character-too-badly-injured-to-survive. He tends to show up in action, pursuit, and battle scenes. He gets one injury, and then another, and things proceed to the point where he would be disabled were he to survive. So instead he's provided with yet another injury that enables him to die heroically. Sigh. As soon as the disabling injury was delivered, you knew this character was toast.

4. It's A Miracle!
The protagonist has a disability, but it's cured by the end of the book, often as a reward for something the protagonist has accomplished. While this is essentially what happens in The Secret Garden, and appears in rather bizarre form at the end of Johnny Tremain, it's also very common in fantasy novels.

5. He's Blind, But He Sees So Much More Than We Do
In these books, the character's disability is an undisguised blessing. It gives him/her powers that the abled characters can only dream of. If the protagonist in one of these books had a brain injury, it would be more likely to result in telepathy than in seizures.

This sort of book is satirized in the play Butterflies Are Free as "Little Donny Dark". In the Little Donny Dark books written by the protagonist's mother, the blind boy has no trouble flying a plane, because his other senses are so highly developed.

6. You'll Find My Disability on Page 16
These are books in which the protagonist has a disability which does not affect his/her life in any way. It might be a disability that, in real life, would take some serious managing (new skills to learn, trips to specialists, hospital stays, etc). The book, however, will mention the disability only once. Neither the protagonist nor the reader ever has to think about it again.
Oh dear. I hope my rant hasn't scared writers off from including disabled characters in their MG novels. Because we need more, not fewer. We need fully developed, complex characters whose disability is one aspect of their lives, one that matters but doesn't mean there's less for us to know and find out about the character. In a future post, I'll talk about some approaches for writers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

About those million words.

There is a saying, and it is mostly true, that you have to write a million words before you're ready to be published.

A million words is between three and four thousand double-spaced pages.

Most of the authors I know sold their fourth or fifth attempt at a novel. Me too. That means we had three or four trunk novels before we sold. Of course, we didn't write them to be trunk novels. We wrote them to be bestsellers. But we were learning. We're still learning, and we still sometimes produce trunk novels.

Recently I ran into a writer who said he knew he had to write a million words before he'd be publishable, and he figured it would take him 18 months at 2000 words a day. This reminds me of my approach to a PhD. See, I was once in this PhD program for some reason. And I kept calculating how quickly I could get out of it. And people who had been through it looked at me in dismay and said, "You're missing the point."

I didn't get the point till I ran into that writer.

The point, in any learning we do, is the process. Not the product.

I think we learn more from revision than we do from the initial writing. If we merely crank out a million words without stopping to look at them, analyze, recognize where we've gone wrong and what we need to do to fix it, we'll end up not much better off than when we started.

The million words are incidental. A means of trying to quantify just how much there is to learn. Unless we're present in the moment, fully focused on the process, on recognizing our errors and learning from them, we're not going to learn at all.

If you're new to writing and are planning to do NaNoWriMo, go for it! You'll be 50,000 words on your way. And once you've spent a year revising and re-rewriting your NaNoWriMo project, you may well be 250,000 words on your way.

(By which I mean not that you should write a 250,000 word novel-- you shouldn't!-- but that the writing done in revision is part of the million words.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

For Authors, About Reviews

Every now and then an author reacts online to a bad review. And I wish I could give him or her the best piece of advice I ever received about reviews. It was from science fiction author James Gunn.

It was this.

"Read the last line first".

Simple and effective.

The last line tells you whether the reviewer liked the book or not. Then you know. Whether you actually read the review after that is up to you. I know several authors who don't read their reviews at all. Not even the glowing ones.

If you do choose to read a bad review, then read it, shrug and move on. If the reviewer goes in for an ad hominem attack, you can smile while you shrug. That's not a reviewer to take seriously.

Don't respond. You'll be seen as "hitting down". This always sounds bizarre to authors, many of whom reside well below the poverty line, but there it is. There's a widespread perception that we all have castles in Scotland.

Bad reviews are not fatal, to you or your book.

Just remember to read the last line first.