Sunday, February 28, 2010

the why chromosome (part five)

I am in a hotel.

Why do hotels always have such slow wireless internet connections?

I have a theory on this.

Anyway, before I throw my laptop across the room, I have some quick thoughts on all of this stuff I've been putting out about the why chromosome:

Involve your kids in the discussion. Especially in the field of reading, academics have always tended to talk about what kids should be reading without involving their students at all, much less inquiring as to the attitudes boys -- and girls -- have about reading.

You know what the strongest links are between feelings of depression among kids and academic self-concept? For boys, studies show the strongest cause of depressed feelings are poor self-concepts in PE and Math; for Girls, it's Reading and PE.

Damned PE coaches.

An interesting thing, though, as Christine Hoff Sommers points out in a recent follow-up to The War on Boys is that, in American schools, boys outnumber girls in participation in sports. Girls outnumber boys in everything else: student government, graduation, college acceptance, just to name a few significant categories.

Talk to your kids about this stuff. I'm happy to say I've received more than a few comments from kids who've been reading these why chromosome posts, and one from a teacher who is reading them aloud to his class.

But I'm cutting this short today because I just can't stand this hotel WiFi conspiracy.

I'll be at the Family Festival of Books, at Brinderson Hall in Chino Hills to sign books this morning.

Two of the best school visits I ever got to do were in this area: at Chino Hills High and Ayala High School. I hope some of the boys and girls from those schools can make it out there this morning.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

the why chromosome (part four)

1. I realize I am such a boy.

I have another confession to make: I'm back in school, taking more graduate-level courses. I only mention this -- not for shock value, not to cause the rolling-of-the-eyes that will be taking place from people who think I'm insane and can't possibly keep up everything I do -- but I mention this because the why chromosome reared its ugly head yesterday in an exchange I had at school, and with one of my counselors.

I found out yesterday that, in my class, I was going to be PART OF A GROUP, and that we were going to COLLABORATE and do GROUPWORK.

Seriously... I wanted to punch someone.

I think there must be, somewhere on the why chromosome a gene that rebels against collaboration and groupwork. I mean, I think we like to be on "teams," but only if our team gets to crush the dreams of another team, break stuff, or kill something with fur on it.

But at school? To collaborate?

No freaking way.

So my counselor told me that she thought the best thing for me to do was proclaim myself as leader of the group (obviously playing on the why chromosome's weakness for the warrior-king archetype).

So I said, okay. Fine. I'll be leader. My first decision is to kick everyone else out of my group except for me.

2. One more study today -- a good one. This was from the journal The Reading Teacher from October, 2009. It was about 5 recommendations to teachers from a struggling boy reader -- about what the teachers could do better if they wanted to get him reading.

The important recommendations: get teachers, parents, and other responsible people in the kid's life to work together and set coordinated examples of reading for him at home and at school; build on past successes -- let the kid stay with a successful teacher for two or more years in order to further a successfully-established learning relationship; connect reading books to the kid's world; let him have a say in what gets read (you hear this one a lot with boys); and, once he finds a topic that he likes, allow him to continue to choose material in that genre.

This was all from a struggling boy reader. Makes a lot of sense.

3. Michael made some relevant points yesterday that I can't disagree with. Okay, maybe he has been told bluntly that YA is marketed toward girls; but, remember, all kinds of data show that girls like boy books just as much as boys do. So, maybe the marketers need to do some more research. After all, if you find something that will appeal to girls and NOT TURN AWAY boys at the same time, you'll increase your potential market share.

I dunno.

The cover thing... well... I've already presented that study showing that boys are more likely to choose a book based initially on its cover. So, Michael's right there, too. If you wrap a book in a cover that scares off boys, you've really got your work cut out for you. Unless, that is, you only care to market what's inside the book to girls.

And you'd probably only do that if you really believed that boys just don't read.

Friday, February 26, 2010

the why chromosome (part three)

I found this extensive study about reading in the journal Teacher Librarian (2005) that I'll be talking about more in upcoming posts, because it really covers the spectrum of boys' attitudes toward reading, why some boys read and others don't, and what can be done to get more boys into books and other forms of literacy. Here are just a few of the report's findings:

  • 41% of boys consider reading to be boring and 45% consider it to be nerdy, 23% think that it is cool. I always though nerdy was cool, so that's a pretty sizable majority.

  • Older boys who had lost interest in reading usually think it is no longer relevant, or not something they can share with their peers. The "sharing" with peers (and family) part plays a significant factor in some of the other data, too.

  • Boys who do read are "more likely to have a father who reads at least sometimes." Um... yeah... that's exactly what I've been trying to tell Generation Dad out there. Remember.. the future... the economy... if you don't think reading is going to give your sons a competitive edge, you've completely dropped off the planet.

  • Boys who read are powerfully influenced by parental guidance and modeling. Translation: Boys who read tend to be good kids, which may make them "nerdy," but it definitely makes them "cool."

  • The biggest difference between boy readers and non-readers appears in the proportion of those who have friends and parents who read.

  • And one for my friend Michael (and I'll come back to this point in a moment): Boys and girls enjoy action and adventure, science fiction, and nonfiction similarly.

  • "Home and school see reading as an interest more appropriate for girls than for boys." Okay. This was an extensive study. It shines a light on this scary reality: schools tell boys that reading is for girls. Yikes.

Now, I'm going to stick to my guns on something I said yesterday. But I will admit that Michael Grant is absolutely correct when he points out editors are all former young readers, and that a heck of a lot of them are grown-up girls. But I'm still going to insist there is no keep-the-boys-out-of-here attitude coming from the top of the publishing pyramid for two big reasons:

First, the reason boys are not writing books is that boys have bought in to the idea that reading is a feminine pursuit. So we have a chicken/egg conundrum here. It's not because the grown-up girls who edit, agent, and publish YA won't let the boys over to play. See... the thing is that studies I've quoted here before (from Gurian, among others, and hinted at above) show that girls enjoy reading books about boys... you know, boy stories... just as much as boys do. But boys don't enjoy reading girl stories very much at all (as a general characteristic of the population).

So, and second, here's today's next very interesting study to give us something to think about (and, hopefully illustrate my point that the chicken... er, rooster... did actually come before the... uh... ovum):

This is from the journal Gender and Education (Sept. 2008). This study measured engagement in Language Arts by examining the differences between 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls in terms of the story elements they gravitated toward and showed some kind-of interesting results. The study showed that boys and girls both wrote about pretty much the same things when crafting their own stories; that boys were no less likely to be introspective and examine feelings. If there were any thematic differences in the study, it was that boys were more likely to deviate from their plot or leave an unresolved ending than the girls were, but that neither gender showed more or less effort or length in their work. Both genders wrote about death, but girls were more likely to write about grief, while boys were more likely to write about running away, fighting with enemies, or riches and treasure (which none of the girls wrote about). Most boys wrote stories in third person with male protagonists, and most girls wrote stories in third person with female protagonists.

To me, both of these studies point out some kind of surprising ideas: that, generally speaking, boys have about the same attitude toward reading and writing as girls do, but environmental pressures push boys away from the pursuit.

It is definitely okay to recognize that innate gender differences manifest themselves in contrasting modalities for learning and self-expression, but it is not okay to perpetuate the myth that some non-biological, non-physiological pursuits (like reading and writing, as opposed to, say, fighting, lactating, or hunting) are exclusive features of primarily one gender domain.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

the why chromosome (part two)

In the journal Gender Issues (June 2009), Judith Kleinfeld writes,

American boys are suffering serious problems. In education, these center in the areas of far lower literacy, lower school grades, lower engagement in school, higher dropout from school, higher rates of repeating a grade, higher rates of emotional disturbance and learning disabilities and placement in special education, higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, and lower rates of postsecondary enrollment and graduation... Young men are far less prepared than young women to succeed in the current knowledge-based economy, are more likely to suffer from substantial declines in real income, and are far more vulnerable to unemployment in times of economic recession.

That's quite a mess. And the problems start young. One study I looked at examined 5-year-old boys' attitudes toward reading by showing them pictures of kids engaged in all sorts of activities (including reading books). The study found that these emerging readers had already formed definite attitudes toward reading (ranging from hatred to enjoyment) that were strongly rooted in earlier experiences (mostly from day-care programs and household/family encounters with reading).

You might guess that the boys who fell more in the negative range frequently had reading shoved at them, without choice, as a part of a "daily routine" in nursery school/daycare, while the boys who had the more positive perception read at home with their families and chose their favorite books (even if they couldn't recall the titles -- they knew what the books were about).

So... Dads... you know what this means, and you know which of those groups of boys mentioned above is headed toward crisis and which is headed toward college -- all at the age of five.

As far as publishing is concerned, to address Lia's comment, I don't see the gates as being "manned" by women. It's an industry that is dominated by females, but there's no agenda there -- it's a reflection of what the schools have subliminally told boys. And an interesting study from a school of economics (was it Princeton? Help me out -- the study was in the New York Times recently) showed that it was next-to impossible for a female playwright to have their work produced; that writing for the stage was incredibly biased towards males. Talk about gatekeepers...

Again, I don't believe there's any trickle-down agenda in publishing or the theater, but I do worry that the decline of reading in the home, male role-models as readers, together with the combined effect of the innate attraction toward spatial and physical modes of learning (non-verbal) that boys exhibit may, as Kleinfeld suggests, push boys toward evolving into a social and economic underclass.

I have a feeling though... ahem... that, in publishing, 2010 is going to be a year for the boy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the why chromosome (part one)

As Nick either promised or threatened, I am "back on that kick again."
You know, the one about boys and reading; about what we're doing to boys in schools, and what we can do about it.

It's interesting to consider the nature/nurture perspective about boys and reading -- and why girls are more verbally inclined at an earlier age. A recent study showed that boys are more likely to have their own bedrooms and their own DVD players and computers, compared to girls. I think that's kind of telling in a number of ways.

In this decade, boys have been referred to as "the new disadvantaged," (Foster, Kimmel, & Skelton, 2001) for a number of reasons: First, in a study that spanned 31 countries, we see that boys' reading and writing scores have increasingly declined relative to those of girls. Boys, compared to girls, are much more likely to be labeled as "Learning Disabeled," disciplinary problems (and significantly higher rates of suicide, too).

If boys' achievement scores are declining, and they are reporting less time spent on reading and higher rates of discouragement, what can we do to help bring boys back as readers? I'm going to offer some suggestions and observations (which are backed up by empirical studies). Here are three findings to get the ball rolling:

1. The male reader role-model. Studies reported in The Australian Journal of Education (April 2008) showed that boys' perception that reading is a feminine pursuit has a great deal to do with the over-representation of female reading role-models in schools and at home, particularly -- for American boys -- during grade school years, when boys are developing their sense of gender role identity.

Bottom line: we don't have enough guys teaching, especially teaching reading to kids under the age of 13. And we don't have enough DADS reading at home. A 2006 study went on to show that boys at this age also perform and achieve better for same-sex teachers.

Be warned, too, as we see the American economy transforming before our eyes, it is shifting away from a labor force that emphasizes brawn, to a smaller, more educated labor force that emphasizes brain. There's nothing we can do about this shift, it happens in economies throughout history as resources and specialization -- the human division of labor -- become geographically confined. Dads, schools, teachers, mentors: we have a responsibility to our sons.

2. The use of technology. This is a perfect time for this. Remember the finding that showed that boys are more likely than girls to have their own computer? In schools, boys identify computers as "their" technology.

Michael Grant, want to chime in on this? Dads with teenage sons and daughters (like me) know this is true.

Here's what studies regarding technology have shown:

  • Boys have a more positive attitude toward computers than girls, and their comprehension scores improve when reading stories from a computer as compared to reading stories from a book. (okay, that one kind of scares me).
  • Boys' are three times more likely than girls to attend summer computer camps, and they view computers as being innately "male." Some educational theorists suggest that the consistent findings that boys' literacy scores improve with the use of technology makes boys "differently literate" from girls.

Okay, go get your kid an iPad and download Macmillan books for your son to read.

(Poof! There go my "buy buttons")

3. What boys say they like. Another interesting set of tidbits: A study in the journal The Reading Teacher (November 2009) points out the sad truths about the global crisis as far as reading and boys are concerned, but went on to look at what boys "like" when it came to books.

First of all, I'm going to re-emphasize the importance of choice when it comes to encouraging boys to read. Boys need choice. Too many schools, as one study points out, actually discourage boys from reading by doing things like limiting the number of book reports they can do on certain genres of fiction, or making them choose titles from limited lists.

Here's what the boys in the study said they liked:

  • Books that "looked good." Yep, boys liked books with cool covers. (Hmm.... you have, I take it, seen the cover of The Marbury Lens).
  • Boys like series books, or preferred to stick with a particular author (Star Wars books -- this was one of the titles mentioned where a boy was told he could only do two book reports -- so he quit reading).
  • Boys like following a character through a number of situations, even over the course of years for series books. Boys said they preferred characters who weren't depicted as perfect, but had flaws.
  • Boys respond positively to book discussions when they establish partnerships with other boy readers. Particularly, they like to respond to the question, "What do boys like to read?"

So... Boys, what do you like to read?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

tuesday confessions

Here are a couple of things that have come up over the past few days.

I was at a dinner on Saturday, and one of the guests at my table whispered to me, "Is Nick real?"

So, I have a confession to make: yes. Nick is really real. And so is Drew. I hardly ever actually write anything on this blog. Mostly, it's Drew, but in the last month or so, Nick has been making a good case for my simply handing the whole gig over to him.

Which is one of the reasons why Drew has been angry and occasionally hijacks and deletes a posting by slipping in his sock puppet theatre.

Going out with writers and book people always seems to bring interesting topics around, and this one came up over the weekend, too: it was about how I write, and how I manage to produce things (like full-length novels) so quickly.

It usually takes me about 2 months to write a novel. And when I'm finished, I am finished.

I know, I know... this really pisses off a lot of writers. Not that I think I have a better way of doing things... and definitely not to suggest I am "better" than anyone... but despite my admiration for Hemingway (and this is a quote from HIM, so it doesn't count as ME cussing), maybe his first drafts were "shit," but I have never done a second draft in my life.

It's because of the way I write (and I've said before how Hemingway never had the benefit of word processing software -- even though if I had to write out longhand, I think I would still only do one complete start-to-end draft). I edit and re-edit as I go, so when I get to that last page, I truly am at the ending of the book.

This is the only way I know how to write.

Most authors I know sell their ideas ahead of time -- without actually writing out a book. Maybe they produce a detailed synopsis, or maybe they just have an involved conversation with their editor... I don't know.

But I don't do that, either. I write a book. I usually think I'm doing something insane, but I write the whole thing, anyway. Only then, after I finish it, do I tell anyone about it.

I don't know if I could ever do the sell-an-idea-and-then-write-the-book method. I envy people who can. It must be nice, but I am absolutely convinced I'd run that ship right into the biggest iceberg in my ocean.

My way of writing is difficult. It must be why I drive myself to the edge every time I'm working on something. It's why I need responsible lackeys like Drew and Nick around to cover my tracks once in a while.

Monday, February 22, 2010

monday facts

I'll be at the Family Festival of Books in Chino Hills, California on Sunday, signing books and giving out some goodies for in the path of falling objects and The Marbury Lens. I hope to see some of the students who were such great hosts when I visited Ayala High School and Chino Hills High.

My signing starts at 10:00 (in the morning), and the event is located at the Chino Fairgrounds, 5410 Edison Avenue, Chino, CA 91710 -- in Brinderson Hall.

Coming up on March 22, I'll be talking with a group of teen readers and writers at Flintridge Bookstore's "Teen Advisory Board." Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse is a very cool indie store that really connects to the community and hosts some terrific writer events. The talk starts at 3:30 (not in the morning), and Flintridge Bookstore is located at 964 Foothill Blvd., La Canada, CA.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

true realness

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I am not dead. Drew does those sock puppet entries, and he's been mad at me and Mr. Smith lately, and I think he wanted to just make us go away for a while.

Anyway, Mr. Smith took me to Pasadena yesterday because he was attending a Children's Literacy dinner sponsored by the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association. I thought it was very cool because I got to meet a lot of authors, and the one thing that stuck out to me was how they all seemed so normal and next-door-neighbor-like, compared to Mr. Smith.

Besides, Mr. Smith was almost late to the dinner. He texted me to come and get him at a place called "The Yard House," which was just around the corner on Colorado Blvd. When I got there, looking for Mr. Smith, I saw that the place wasn't about lawn maintenance at all.

So, all I have to say is beware: Mr. Smith is getting on one of his kicks again about why boys hate reading, and what schools and society are doing to under-prepare boys for the changing economy.

On our walk back to the dinner, he said to me, "Nick, There's this study called Reading Don't Fix No Chevys (Smith & Wilhelm, 2003) where the authors talked to teenage boys about reading and English classes. One of the kids they talked to, who was in the same grade as you, told them, English is about nothing. That's part of the big problem, Nick. Boys need to have stuff that is about something. None of us are out there writing books so kids will have to answer comprehension questions or to do exercises or learn reading skills."

I realized that Mr. Smith pretty much nailed it why I hated my English class so much.

So, then he told me that I could write anything I wanted to in today's blog. I'm embarrassed to say that I wrote some pretty bad stuff that I'd never submit, but it felt good writing it.

Which made me think of a quote from one of Mr. Smith's "Gods," Ernest Hemingway (and don't jump all over me just because Mr. Smith likes Hemingway. I'm just telling you a quote):

All good books have one thing in common - they are truer than if they had really happened.

And, I think, maybe that sums it up... what Mr. Smith said about boys needing something real to grab onto in their reading. Good books, I guess.

But, like I said, look out. I think Mr. Smith is etting back on this kick again.

-- Nick S.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thursday, February 18, 2010

whisper to a scream

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Let me tell you about the first time I went for a session with Jeff, the "Teen Whisperer."

Of course, our relationship has evolved -- it was two years ago, when I was fourteen, and my mom thought I was beginning to act strangely, like she would know anything about guys, anyway (I was an IVF baby -- Mom never had men around unless they were teaching her Kundalini Yoga or trimming the oleanders).

So, she dropped me off at Jeff's, and his place was, like, totally weird and messy. He brought me into this room that smelled like a gym sock and had a big plasma TV that was sitting, like, three feet in front of this black leather couch and there were all these wire-things coming out of the back of the screen. I found out later that this was Jeff's "Natural Setting" for teenage boys, and that all the wiry-things were called PS3, 360, and Wii, but I never used one before. I mean, sure, I knew what video games were and stuff, but I never played them in front of anyone before. It was too embarrassing... like the time I tried out for Little League and everyone saw that I didn't know how to throw a baseball.

Well, I mean, I could throw it. Only not straight, and about twenty feet, maybe, counting the roll. And I had bursitis for the rest of my life after that one humiliating day. Oh, and my mom even had to look up on the Internet "How to wear a cup," but then none of the other eight-year-olds at the tryouts were wearing cups. At least, if they were, they weren't on the outside of their pants like mine was.

So, yeah, I guess I had "issues," and Jeff was just the guy who was going to help me work through them.

So, anyway, I was in this room and Jeff just kind of stood back and watched me. After about an hour of doing nothing, he told me he wanted to see if I was the kind of kid who'd rather play COD or GTA. I thought that was like code for something creepy.

I said I preferred scrapbooking.

Jeff said that was fascinating.

(To be continued)

--Nick S.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

return key

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I kind of lied to Mr. Smith, but he believed me, too, so part of the blame is on him.

I didn't actually go camping, like I told him I did. Me? Camping? I think you'd be just about as likely to find me in a tent, sleeping in cold dirt, as under the hood of my mom's Infinity, changing the oil.

I don't even know what changing oil even means, much less how it happens. Why do you change oil, anyway? Isn't oil already like a million years old? Things get pretty "set in their ways" after about a million years, you can't just expect it to "change" without some serious couch-time with someone like Doctor Phil.

In case you didn't know, I have a therapist, too. He's the trendiest therapist in Valencia. Everyone calls him "The Teen Whisperer" because he is so good.

Well, I'll tell you about him some other time. I forgot, I was right in the middle of confessing why I lied to Mr. Smith about going camping.

I lied to Mr. Smith because after I got his notes back on the story I wrote, I got all depressed, and I thought he didn't want to talk to me any more. So I told him I was going camping with my friend, just so I wouldn't have to talk to Mr. Smith, and so I could let him off the hook about talking to me, too.

Being a writer sucks big time. I even tried to get in to see Jeff (the "Teen Whisperer"), but my mom said no way to his weekend rates.

My mom is stupid.

(See? I think Mr. Smith is turning me into a coffee-drinking cusser).

Anyway, then I thought that maybe I was just going through Mr. Smith's "Five Steps of Revision," so I began to rethink my isolation.

I'm confused. I have an after-school appointment with Jeff today. Maybe I'll swing by and say hi to Mr. Smith afterward.

-- Nick S.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

just the facts

Just the facts today:

This Saturday, February 20, I'll be at the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Children's Book and Literacy Dinner in Pasadena, at the Westin Hotel, starting at 6:00 PM. This dinner is one of the best book events going in Southern California, with lots of terrific authors and really great speakers. I am totally looking forward to it.

Next Sunday, February 28, I'll be at the Family Festival of Books at the Chino Fairgrounds, 5410 Edison Avenue, Chino, CA 91710 -- in Brinderson Hall, 10 AM.

And I just found out I'll have some cool stuff to give out at both of these events.

Hope you make it out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

valentines and socks

This is what happens when Nick goes on a three-day weekend camping trip.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

letter from the ceo

From: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO
Facebook, Inc.
1601 S. California Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94304

Dear Mr. Smith,

Here at Facebook, we are constantly trying to enhance our members' experience by offering as wide an array of second-party games and applications possible.

Unfortunately, in recent days, we have been inundated by user requests seeking information on joining a fictitious game you have alluded to on your Profile Page -- a game called Alkie-Ville.

Regrettably, we must instruct you to cease all references to Alkie-Ville, for the following reasons:

1. Baby cows are not being fed in Farmville. Barns are not being built.

2. Orphan baby ocelots are wandering around between the cages in Zooland.

3. Fish are dying in Aquariumville.

And all this because users are flocking away from their virtual responsibilities, lured by the promise of libation and recklessness in Alkie-Ville.

I've had my research department look into the matter. Penguins cannot serve alcohol, and there has never been a recorded case of one pecking out the eyes of a human being.

Please, stop playing Alkie-Ville on Facebook. Our other applications are being ignored. This is akin to what Britain did to China in the Opium Wars, and you should feel responsible for our unfinished construction and hungry, abandoned, or orphaned baby animals.


Mark Zuckerberg, CEO
Facebook, Inc.

Friday, February 12, 2010

what it is

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Last night, I finished reading Mr. Smith's next book, The Marbury Lens, and I couldn't sleep after that. Mr. Smith told me I could write about it if I didn't spoil it, which is really hard for me to do, so all I'll say is the ending paragraphs totally gave me the creeps.

I read a lot of books. I grew up reading Harry Potter, and when I was older, I read all the Tolkein books. I read a lot of Stephen King, the Dune books; and I've even read Twilight and The Hunger Games. But I don't have any idea, exactly, just what type of book The Marbury Lens is.

If I had a bookstore, I would probably build a special shelf for it right in-between the YA section and the grown-up books. I know how Mr. Smith feels about the whole "Young Adult" category, and, with this book, I can see why. I think the ideas in the book are very adult, so grown-ups will like it. But the book still fits the very general and vague criteria for YA fiction: the protagonist is a teenager, dealing with difficult issues: trust, friendship, and loyalty (the last of which, I think, is an especially powerful issue for boys).

But The Marbury Lens is also kind of a fantasy. When I researched "fantasy," I found that the main characteristic of the genre is that it contains some elements that can't be found in our real world, or it creates another world altogether. And The Marbury Lens definitely does that. But, unlike most of the "fantasy" I've read, there is no magic or mythical animals in the book, even if there are some really weird creatures here and there. And it's hard to tell, when I read it, if the other world of Marbury is here, in the past, future, or just some crazy hallucination in Jack's (the main character's) head. I figured it all out at the end, though.

At the same time, The Marbury Lens is a horror story because it scared the hell out of me. I read that if a novel is meant to scare you, and, especially if the novel has ghosts in it, then it's a horror story. Well, I don't know if Mr. Smith intended to scare me with the book, but he did. Really bad. And there are ghosts in the book, too, which means it's a horror story.

The other thing about The Marbury Lens is that it is also Science Fiction. Because, although Science Fiction, like fantasy, involves alternate worlds and things that do not happen here and now, Science Fiction offers a logical explanation of how the story gets there. And what happens to Jack in The Marbury Lens does have a logical kind of explanation to it.

So I'm still trying to figure out what this is. All I know for sure is that it's going to be a while before I sleep with the lights off again.

-- Nick S.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

So, when I was over at Mr. Smith's house, I told him about how I didn't think what I was writing was any good, and how I kept stopping myself and going back to the beginning and starting over.

He told me that he knew a lot of writers who did that. Mr. Smith said it was an easy way of giving up; so that I'd never have to finish what I was working on.

So I asked him, don't you ever doubt what you're writing?

Mr. Smith said that he never didn't doubt what he was writing. He said, why do you think I don't sleep? Do you think I don't like sleeping? He said, I'd way rather be asleep than be doing just about any other thing I could think of.

He told me that the time he doubts things the most is right when he's finished writing them. "Nick," he said, "I can't tell you how many times I've looked back through 400 pages of something I just finished and thought to myself, 'What the hell was I thinking?'"

Which kind of made me feel good, but I can't even get past two-and-a-half pages. I couldn't imagine all the time and work and missed naps that would go into producing 400 pages, only to wonder if what you just did was ever any good in the first place.

No wonder the guy drinks so much coffee, which is actually starting to taste drinkable, in my opinion.

-- Nick S.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Let's just say I met "someone" at the Super Bowl party I went to on Sunday, which is why I haven't been taking care of Mr. Smith's blog for a few days.

I haven't been home (we live in Bridgeport, in Valencia, on the shores of a huge and perfect artificial lake that smells like Ajax cleanser), and Mom has been texting me like crazy. But I borrowed my new friend's BMW and drove up to Mr. Smith's house at his usual working time, just to let him know I was still okay.

But something apparently happened to Mr. Smith while I was gone. At first, I thought he might be dead. It was really creepy, because I just let myself in (he tells me to), and his office was totally clean. All the papers and boxes were gone. There was no more mysterious coil of rope sitting on the couch, which was now empty enough for me to actually sit on.

I even snapped a couple photos of it before realizing that Mr. Smith had been sitting at his computer (I also realized it was actually on top of a desk), working on something.

So we talked for a while, and Mr. Smith made me drink black coffee, which I did gag on, and he scolded me that kids my age should never fall in love and think they've found their soulmates because our souls were still fetuses and didn't we, at some point in the future, ever plan on having real fun?

I didn't get what he meant, and he does regularly strike me as being a sourpuss, but I guess I've been starting to grow fond of Mr. Smith, not in a creepy way or anything, not like my new friend I met at a party in Tesoro on Sunday (which is probably the second-nicest tract in Valencia, after Bridgeport).

Then Mr. Smith and I talked about writing again, and he told me some really interesting stuff. But I have to get the Beemer back before my friend wakes up, and I really should go to school today, too. So, I'll have to tell you about it next time.

-- Nick S.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

other men's weather

One of the things young people ask me about most frequently is where do I get the ideas for my stories.

Well, all of them have quite a bit of personal nonfiction in them, and I'm not going to say exactly where the line is between memory and imagination. But I have to say, again, that I really do believe in this Jungian concept of a collective unconscious. It has to be out there, and here's why.

Growing up, attending all the decades of school I'd subjected myself to, I was always told that dreams were just ways your brain had for processing through information it received during waking hours.

But, then, why do I dream about things that I have never seen or even imagined in my waking phase? Half of the story in The Marbury Lens was a dream, and not a very nice one, I may add.

And then I had this dream about a kid who was helping his father dispose of the body of a murdered man, and that became part of the story, too. Even the title of the book was part of a dream, and, believe me, if my brain had ever seen these things in my waking life, I'd be even more messed-up than I am.

So, two nights ago I had this dream about a house; and somebody had stolen three valuable paintings out of it. The paintings weren't taken just because of their value, they were stolen so they could be thrown into a swamp. It was raining in the dream, and the owner of the house was standing at the edge of the swamp where his paintings had been destroyed, complaining, "This is other men's weather."

So... if there isn't a "collective unconscious" hovering around out there, where do things like that come from? All I know is when the dreams like that start, I usually start writing another book. And let me tell you how much I do not want to write another book at the moment. So leave me alone.

Where the hell is Nick?

Monday, February 8, 2010

digging out

Nick is still on hiatus.

I tried not to do it, but I did it anyway.

I cleaned my office. I even convinced myself the excuses I was coming up with for not doing it were sound and reasonable, but I forged ahead and did it. Maybe Nick will take a picture next time he shows up.

It's interesting, though, the kinds of things you find when you clean out piles and piles of accumulated and neglected stuff. I felt like an archaeologist on a dig, discovering evidence of the earliest hominid to inhabit the earth.

Here's what happened, and what I found, in no particular order:

1.) I found a brand-new travel toothbrush.

2.) (Not a surprise) I found a brand-new, unopened bottle of bourbon.

3.) Dried cat barf. Not brand-new. You know that song from the Stylistics? You Make Me Feel Brand New? Cat barf, whether moist or desiccated, does not make me feel brand-new. And, anyway, the cats don't come up here anymore, since I got my new dog. My new dog -- apparently -- is above eating dried cat barf. Too bad he's past the fifteen-day return policy.

I mean, hello! dogs eat barf, right? Who'd have thought they were coming out with some new, genetically-engineered, version of dog that abstains from eating barf? All my dogs have always eaten barf. Always. They've never let me down in that regard, not once. They often ask for more, looking at me with those longing doggy eyes that plead to me, Daddy, will you make some more,please? when they've finished.

But... noooooo... not mister no-I-do-not-eat-barf puppy.

What good is that, I ask you.

4.) (With an introductory rant) I hate all forms of paper mail -- with a BIG exception of hand-written paper mail from readers and anything from my editor or agent. And gifts. And CDs to review for Caught in the Carousel. Other than that, I think all businesses should just do things online. But even my utilities, banks, and most of the other bills I pay INSIST on sending me PAPER mail, which inevitably stacks up because I do literally ALL my business stuff online. Okay, so I just routinely started shredding up all these envelopes because I knew what was in them and I'd dealt with them months ago.

Until I started shredding an envelope containing cash.

American cash.

Now it's got a kind of Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-Rider-jacket-fringe on the bills I managed to save.

Is there a law against shredding cash?

If so, I freely confess to having done that within the past 24 hours.

Put me in prison.

I'll take the "single" room with a king-size bed and southern exposure, please.

5.) I found no fewer than four packs of complimentary post-it notes from some of the author appearances I made in 2009. You can never have too many sticky notes, in my opinion, especially ones from Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in Lebanon, TN.

6.) A Dove Bar -- the candy kind, not the soap or ice cream kind. From a festival I went to last year. I thought about eating it, but it probably wouldn't go good with the bourbon, and, besides, the paper was stuck to it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

super messy

Nick has gone to some "super" party or something, so the blog is going unmanned today.

And I have decided to clean up my office.

A couple weeks ago, Nick posted some pictures he took of my office while he was "job shadowing" me. To be honest, the pictures actually show an office that is far more organized and orderly than this place where I am currently sitting.

This is horrible, and I am steeling myself to get it done -- to haul out what must be hundreds of pounds of papers and... do what with them?


Nick will be back eventually. He will not recognize the place when he returns. He'll probably think I've been killed or something.

Just a heads-up to people in the Los Angeles area:

Next Saturday, February 13, I will be speaking on a panel at the California Teachers of English (CATE) conference along with 5 other Southern California authors. It should be an interesting discussion: all about writing YA with normal, mortal, non-vampire characters.

Go figure... who'd ever think you could actually write books about being a human being?

Clean up time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

slush pups (10)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Mr. Smith gave me back my story. He said this is "Round One."

He took the time to sit down and explain the things he wrote on it, too. And it wasn't that bad at all.

I realized a couple of things when we had the chance to go through and talk about my story. First, I really started to understand the idea of "editing" for writing. I always thought about "editing" like edited for television -- you know, where certain stuff gets cut out because you don't want people to see it. But it wasn't really like that. Sure, Mr. Smith showed me a handful of sentences that he said were unnecessary -- because the readers already knew that stuff and it was like I was hitting them over the head. And I saw that by taking a couple sentences out, my story did move along much better.

Mr. Smith always told us that about editing, but I guess until you go through it, it's hard to understand.

And I also realized something else Mr. Smith had been telling us, but it never sank in: that it's impossible to edit your own work. He says that when writers "edit" their own work, they are really just revising it, that actual, honest editing, by definition, means an objective set of eyes is added to the team.

It's like seeing the work through a different lens, which is why Drew put this picture on today's blog post. Mr. Smith is letting me read The Marbury Lens from his typeset galley pages (even though he said there were mistakes on them -- and he put a sticky note on every page he had a problem with -- even though I can't "see" what the big deal is), and he told me I could write about it if I didn't give away anything in the story.

I am about halfway through it, and I have to say that it really creeps me out in a lot of ways. First, not just because it's scary and stuff, but when I read a book, if I really like it, I imagine myself as being the main character. And this one is really weird because I really feel myself wanting to be inside the story, like the main character, a kid named Jack, but at the same time, the things that happen to him are totally terrifying. So, it's really cool how he pulls that off, even if it makes me feel very uncomfortable.

But Mr. Smith showed me some of the letters and email he got when in the path of falling objects came out, and he thinks it's funny how many people said things like you have to be crazy to think up stuff like this. Well, I won't spoil anything, but if you think a writer has to be crazy to write stuff like in the path of falling objects, then all I can say is they will probably come and lock Smith away after The Marbury Lens hits the shelves.

Friday, February 5, 2010

slush pups (9)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

So while I'm waiting for Mr. Smith to give me his comments on the story I wrote, I decided to ask him about what he meant by the things he hated about being a writer.

As usual, it was hard for me to take notes when he talked for two reasons. First, the way Mr. Smith talks is really confusing. It's like watching a film that has been spliced up and then put back together with the clips all out of order. Second, I kept on wondering if he was just making me wait before he gave me any reaction about what I had written to try to teach me some kind of lesson about writing.

Either way, it was distracting and I didn't really like it.

But here are the things I jotted down that Mr. Smith said he hated about writing. He said that sometimes, he could get so frustrated and in what he calls one of his "bad days" that he thinks about quitting, but he said he would never really do that because quitting is too easy and he liked making himself suffer.

Mr. Smith said one of his favorite quotes was from Dostoevsky, and, I think, it was something like "Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness."

I don't really know what that means. Maybe I will when I'm as old as Mr. Smith.

Anyway, here are the things Mr. Smith told me he hated about being a writer:

Mr. Smith said, "It sucks being an author. I've said it before... I do not love to write, but I can't do anything about it, either, because the alternative (not writing) is much worse. It sucks being an author because I've never been extremely self-confident, anyway, and although I never cared for a moment about making money from writing, I actually never felt driven to have lots of people read my stuff (that still freaks me out). And I've always hated business. I hate the business part of writing. I hate everything about doing business. That's why I'm an artist, I guess. Whatever that means. It sucks being an author because bookstores are really nice to me when I come in (they treat me like I'm special and look over my shoulder like they're expecting someone to come along and tell me it's time for a diaper change) when I get lost trying to find books about regular people in a YA section filled with magic and the undead. It sucks being an author because nothing happens on my schedule, the busy times all come when I least expect them and when my family is counting on me for other things. And it especially sucks being an author because I don't think my family and friends get it. They think it's all like being on a luxury cruise and being spoon fed or something. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. Because at this point, I think I've just about given up everything else, anyway."

After listening to him for so long, and wondering why he never said the first thing about the story I wrote, I was beginning to feel a little worn out, too. So I asked him what he liked about being a writer, and unknowingly I inspired him to talk non-stop and scattered, as he does, for another hour-and-a-half.

-- Nick S.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

slush pups (8)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I did it. It took me two-and-a-half days, but I finished a story and gave it to Mr. Smith. It was embarrassing doing that. I wonder if he feels that way when he hands in something that he wrote.

He can't. He's a pro, right?

So I don't know what I was expecting, but he just folded my story in half and tucked it in his inside jacket pocket. Then Mr. Smith said, "I'll read it and then in a couple of days I'll write my thoughts about it. That's how it works."

And I thought, A couple days?

Maybe Mr. Smith could tell what I was thinking. Maybe he did feel stupid, like me, every time he handed something in, even if he got to hand things in to people in New York City, and I was only handing something in to a guy who lived with horses and Druids up in the mountains.

So he shrugged and said, again, that it was how things were for a writer. Mr. Smith said that waiting and not knowing was a big part of what writers had to put up with, and that they were some of the things that everyone hated about being a writer.

I said, so you mean there are things that you hate about being a writer?

Mr. Smith laughed at that. I mean, I read what he wrote about the things he hated about "Young Adult Literature," and they made sense to me, even if what he wrote ticked a lot of people off. But I never knew there could be things about being a writer that he found unpleasant, too.

So, he said, let me tell you, Nick.

And that's what I'll report on next time.

-- Nick S.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

great cover

Nick gets the day off.

He owes the boss some work, anyway.

Yesterday, we saw the final cover art for this fall's release of The Marbury Lens.

As book covers go, it is a masterpiece. If you saw this looking at you in a bookstore, how could you not be drawn to it? How could you possibly look away? And, then, if you read the opening page, it's all over. You will not be able to stop reading it.

Just like what happens to Jack in the story. But we can't say more about that now.

Few book covers really convey so much of a story. We've spent quite some time looking at all the little details in this one, and there is a lot to it.

This is one of those book covers where you will read a certain part of the book and then look back to the jacket to see if what you think you see there is really there.

I don't know if he gets enough credit, but Rich Deas, the Art Director for Feiwel and Friends, outdid himself on this one. If this isn't the best cover Rich has ever done, then we need to see the rest.

Oh yeah... this is coming in poster form, buttons, shirts, and bookmarks. We will try to have some available when Smith goes to the SCIBA Literacy Dinner in Los Angeles on February 20, and, with more certainty, by the time he shows at the Family Festival of Books on February 28 in Chino.

More on these events coming soon.

Nick, get back to work.

-- Drew

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

slush pups (7)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I am finally writing something.

Listening to what Mr. Smith had to say helped me a lot. I realized that there were plenty of times when I've felt stuck, confused; like I didn't know which way to go. So, he said, take one of those times and make it bigger.

He told me about something a friend of his said. Mr. Smith said there is a very talented author named Kerry Madden, and that she tells her students to take their main character and put him up in a tree, and then throw rocks at him. He told me that he didn't know whether that was Kerry's lesson or somebody else's, but he read about it one time in something she had written, and it rang true to him.

It's kind of a simpler version of what Steinbeck said, I think -- about people caught up in their human lives and how evil constantly respawns. Anyway, it made sense to me.

So, we talked for a while about what Mr. Smith said was a universal story about teenage confusion. And he told me to consider different Points of View, too. (He meant as a writing technique -- first or third person).

Then he gave me a writing game, too: Mr. Smith said for me to think about an object in my room, something small that could be carried around. He said it could be anything, even an article of clothing, but that it had to have some connection to me.

Then he told me to put that object somewhere: in a library, in the middle of a field, in the frozen food case at a supermarket; and tell a story about how it got there, how it connects to a character, maybe how the character is led to it.

Mr. Smith said this wasn't an idea for a story, but it could be if I wanted it. It was just an exercise for building what he called "connective tissue" between people, things, and events which is the stuff story writing is made of. Mr. Smith said exercises like that are for young writers what going to the gym is for athletes. Sometimes it can be a drag and not very exciting, but you don't consciously realize you're gaining benefit from the trip.

Mr. Smith said he's got hundreds of exercises like that.

Then I really started to understand what he meant the other week when he told me that being a writer is kind of like being in Boot Camp.

Anyway, after talking to him and thinking about all the stuff he told me, I knew I was ready to write what I'd been thinking about -- and it didn't have anything to do with all the specific stuff we talked about.

-- Nick S.

Monday, February 1, 2010

slush pups (6)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Mr. Smith still is not back from unwriting, and he does not want to come back to the blog, so I am still in charge.

Yesterday, I wrote how, in a panic, I went up to the mountains to find Mr. Smith so I could talk to him about my Writer's Block.

I know that Mr. Smith doesn't believe that such a thing exists, but I was hoping he could help unjam my thoughts.

So, from the other side of his sauna door, he told me how a lot of people believe that there are only two kinds of stories: A man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town.

He told me that was total reductionist nonsense, but if I really wanted to simplify things, Mr. Smith said how John Steinbeck believed there was only one story. And, through the glass of his door, Mr. Smith quoted Steinbeck:

"I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one . . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, and in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil... and it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good... is immortal."

And, then he asked me, did I believe that?

I said I didn't know.

And Mr. Smith said, good, because he didn't know, either, but he thought that Steinbeck was probably closer to the truth than anyone else.

And then he said, Nick, you're stuck, you're frustrated, and you don't know which way to go. Isn't there something universal in that confusion you feel? Something that every teenage boy -- every human -- can identify with? I bet you've been stuck and confused plenty of times.

I said yeah.

And he said, well, why don't you tell me about it.

I started to see what he was getting at. And Mr. Smith said, I have a lot of little games you can do with objects around your house that you are familiar with, that might jog your head into remembering one of the stories you have to tell. They're in there, I know it, you just are so afraid of not looking good that you don't want to let them out. Now go home and write your story, and if you still can't I'll give you a little game to think about.

-- Nick S.