Wednesday, March 31, 2010

where it happens

I was asked a few questions for another blog site that shows pictures of writers where they do their writing. I thought it was a lot of fun, so I am "scooping" them by posting my answers here (and don't worry.... more people read that other blog than this one). I'll post a link when they run this bit, too...

What's your favorite possession/writing ritual?

I'm not too into possessions, and I don't know about the ritualistic aspect of writing, if there is one. I am fairly obsessive-compulsive, though, so I feel a deep sense of dread if, when I am writing a novel, something gets in the way of writing time. I don't know what terrible thing would happen if, when writing a novel, I ever didn't write something every day, because I NEVER take days off when working on something. But, I am certain I would probably die in a car crash or something if I ever did take a day off. Or my house would burn down. Or there would be an earthquake.

What's on your bedside table?

On my bedside table, currently, I always keep a bottle of water, a clock, a candle, a wristwatch, a small statue of Ganesh, a pen and writing tablet, contact lens solution, Carmex, a book of poetry by Octavio Paz, my iPhone charger, and a Dodger baseball.

Favorite time to write:

My favorite time to write is in the morning, just after waking up, with lots of black coffee. Usually, this is at about 3:00 a.m.

Cure for writers block:

Sorry. Writer's what??? I don't let myself get it. If I feel jammed up, I know what I have to do... just get those words out onto the manuscript. If it's slow going, I know I will get through it. Head down. Forge ahead. Get it out. Works every time. Besides, if I didn't, something absolutely terrible would happen (see above). Those prospects alone are enough to make someone write.

Heck, maybe I'm not so crazy, after all.

Source of inspiration:

My son, Trevin. He is why I finally got around to writing my first real novel to begin with. When he was about 9, he told me how he wanted to be a writer some day. All I had to do was think about how discouraging my own parents were when I said those same words as a child. I decided to never be like that to my boy. So, he did it. That is all.

Daily writing goal:

When I am in the avert-catastrophic-destruction-of-my-universe phase and am writing a novel, I like to get 1,500 "keeper words" at the end of the day. "Keeper words" have usually been rewritten at least 3 times, though. My first drafts are my final drafts.

Reward for meeting it:

Not having a car accident, house fire, or earthquake. Those are really big rewards in my mind. On days when I do not have car accidents, house fires, or earthquakes, I will often drink a beer. Usually this happens around 4:00 p.m.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I have a couple of updates as of this past weekend.

First of all, the info. is out on the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

I will be speaking on a panel (tentatively) called Boys Will Be Boys: Guys Talk YA. Fellow panelists include Ben Esch, Blake Nelson, and Allen Zadoff, and it will be moderated by Cecil Castellucci (who is not a guy). This 45-minute panel will take place on the Saturday, April 24th at 1:00 p.m. on the YA Stage. Following the panel, we will be signing books, too.

Okay. I know all of the panelists, and Cecil, too, and I guarantee this will be a lot of fun. Just in case, though, I am fully prepared to craft balloon animals for all in attendance.

Second, I noticed that over the weekend, the New York Times ran an editorial by Nicholas Kristof called The Boys Have Fallen Behind (March 27). If you haven't read the piece, you should. But if you've been reading this blog for the past couple of years, you might not need to. It's entirely what I've been talking about (not every day, but dozens and dozens of posts about these same stats) since about 2008.

But, good job Kristof and the Times for running with the ball.

Citing the book Why Boys Fail, by Richard Whitmire, Kristof writes:

Mr. Whitmire argues that the basic problem is an increased emphasis on verbal skills, often taught in sedate ways that bore boys. “The world has gotten more verbal,” he writes. “Boys haven’t.”

I'm just going to believe that particular quote was chosen not in the most contextually-fitting manner, because I'd have a different take on the premise that the world has become more verbal, although I have to give Whitmire a strong "right on" for his assertion that the trend in teaching has been to make things boring and boy-hostile.

Anyway, I'll have to pick up Whitmire's book. And do read Kristof's piece in the Times, if you can get around to it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

april weekends

This coming weekend, I'll be traveling to New York for a few days, where I'll be paying a visit on the Flatiron Building and all the terrific people who work at Feiwel & Friends.

Then, coming up in the month of April (which starts this week???), I have a couple other planned gigs.

On April 17, at noon, I'll be speaking about the job of being a writer at the “Discovering Careers Seminar,” at College of the Canyons in Valencia. I'm not sure of the room assignment, but the event is free for all participants, and there's always lots of cool stuff there.

Then, on April 24-25, I'll be at the LA Times Festival of Books, at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. I’ll be on a panel of YA Authors and doing a book signing, but I'm not sure of the exact time and location yet. More info to come, and will also be in the special section of the Los Angeles Times on April 18.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

fear of change

Ever since Nick got in touch with his "70s self," he's been a little scarce around here. He says he's on a spiritual walkabout in Topanga Canyon. That means Drew might have to manage the blog next week when I go to New York.

Unless Nick comes back.

Yesterday's post was kind of prophetic. I visited some great kids at Newbury Park High School, and, of course, I was asked what I thought was the very best thing about being a writer.

I also got quite a few comments about the post (off this site) from other authors about their favorite things about being writers. [Side note: Lewis? Yvonne? Pajamas? Really???]

Then, after my library visit (Newbury Park High has a fantastic library and library staff), I got to sit in on a creative writing class. They have block scheduling there, so the class was about 90 minutes long -- perfect for a writing class. The kids there are so smart and talented, and it was a rejuvenating pleasure to spend time with them. I also got to read and hear some of their very creative poetry.

And I did some readings for them from The Marbury Lens, too. And yes, kids are marking their calendars for November when it will be coming out.

But yesterday's blog also received a very nice comment from "Another Writer," who ended with this thought:

I'm not too thrilled about revisions only because I get really invested in my characters and their "quirks" that I fear will have to be taken out. I've never published a book or gone through "real revisions" but it is a very real fear for me.

I'd like to say something about that.

First, I think your fears are unfounded and you should put them to rest and keep working on what you love doing.

A few weeks back, I read a post on an agent's blog about editing and editors. I apologize for not remembering exactly who the agent was. On her blog, she said something to the effect that there were just a handful of "real" editors left in publishing -- ones who really loved what they did, took their projects to heart, and truly worked with their authors to help them craft the best work they could possibly produce.

Not being an agent, I don't know anything about the population density of such editors, but I have found this to be the case with mine, so I'm either very fortunate or the blogging agent is, perhaps, a bit alarmist.

AW, if you are really invested in your characters and their quirks, as you say, then the depth of their dimensions is very likely going to be what attracts the eye of a "real" editor. I can't imagine that those elements would be things to remove.

One more thought, though, about revisions: It's been my experience, having worked through the process multiple times, that it is almost never the case of taking something out of what I've written -- it's almost always about putting more into it, and that can be a really liberating, uplifting, and enjoyable process.

Definitely not something to be afraid of once you've made it to that stage in the process.

Friday, March 26, 2010

best of

I'll be honest. I enjoy visiting school kids. On Tuesday, when I went out to Barnes and Noble in Glendora, there were probably a hundred or so kids there from the local high school and junior high.

Kids ask great questions, too. One of them I'm frequently asked is, What's the best part about being a writer?

I'm not really good at "bests" and "worsts," because I don't really rank things that way. But there are a lot of really great things that go along with what I do. Here are some of them...

I enjoy talking to kids and getting them fired up about reading and writing. One high school kid recently posted something about one of my books on his blog. He said something like he had forgotten how much he enjoyed reading until he read Ghost Medicine, and how school made reading not fun anymore. He said the things he hated about reading in school were: 1) the lack of choice, and 2) the assignments that went read page xx to page xxx and then there will be a quiz.

That's exactly what I've been saying here for years. And good on him for rediscovering the freedom of reading.

I really enjoy working on revisions with my editor. Last week, a student in Glendora asked me if I thought I was a better writer now than when I wrote my first book. No brainer. I've learned so much by working with the talented pros I get to work with. And, by the way, I just read The Marbury Lens, too. I had to read it slow, to look for any typos in the galley. I know it's weird to get outside yourself and actually read your own words... I mean, how many times have I read this thing, anyway? But, I like it. I think it's really good. Now I'm not so scared about it.

And, being a writer, I've gotten to meet some of my heroes. My actual heroes, face to face. That's a cool thing, too.

What do you like about being a writer?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

they will talk

Sorry I am late today. I just got home from a long stretch away.

The hippies are gone, but Nick has some explaining to do. We'll deal with that later.

I have begun hearing from people who've received and read ARCs of The Marbury Lens. There's always something in the waiting to hear "from real people" that is a bit nerve-wracking, and I do anticipate hearing some not-too-pleasant things from some readers. But not yet.

I mean, there are some people who got very angry with me over the fact that kids chew tobacco and drink alcohol in Ghost Medicine. [Shrug. I don't know where these people live, but it's kind of how I grew up. My apologies for telling things that I lived through]. And then there were the people who got really bent out of shape about animals that die in both, that book and in in the path of falling objects.

But, guess what? (And this is not a spoiler, so don't shut your eyes) I put a dog in The Marbury Lens just to NOT KILL IT. For me, the dog (who is only in a couple scenes) serves no purpose other than NOT DYING. That's for you, Sarah (the person who got really mad at me about an animal death). I didn't kill any fictional domestic animals this go round.

Anyway, back to the comments. Last night, I spoke with a woman who told me her husband accused her of being a crack addict over The Marbury Lens. He complained that it was getting in the way of her wifely duties (she finished the book yesterday). But, she told me that the book made her feel exactly like Jack -- that she couldn't wait for him to put the glasses on again, and that once he did, she couldn't stop reading until he fell back out of Marbury.

So, that's a good thing. And it confirms to me why my own son couldn't do his chemistry homework (this is a written excuse, Professor Downs) while he was reading the book.

My complaint department likes hearing things like that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

what we say

One week ago today, my Advance Copies of The Marbury Lens came. As I did with the galleys of my first two novels, I let my son take one to read. He's fifteen, by the way. And he read the book (360 pages and small print, too) in one day.

When he was finished reading it, we had a pretty long conversation about it. He had some wondering-type questions about a couple characters, and he speculated a bit about what might be on "the next page," after the end of the book, which was a really good thing.

I know that asking family members what they think of your work is not a very valid way of testing the critical waters, but I also know that my son is pretty honest and even if he tried to be diplomatic I'd be able to see right through it.

So I am very pleased with the first "boy test" of the book.

I think it's going to be good.

As I mentioned, too, I also gave an ARC to the boys I got to work with as they wrote, revised, and revised again, short stories they entered in a young writers contest. I don't mean to get all mushy, but there really is nothing better than putting a book I wrote in the hands of a kid.

At last summer's ALA annual in Chicago, exhibitors were selling hardcovers. A boy came to the booth where Ghost Medicine was on display, and he said that he really wanted a copy of the book but couldn't afford one (I think he was about 12). So I gave him the only copy I had -- I had carried it in my backpack from California.

This will maybe tick some writers off, but, in a perfect world, I would write for nothing and give my books away to anyone who wanted to read them.

So, anyway, about these kids who got ARCs of The Marbury Lens from me on Tuesday... well, I'll tell you about what they think later on.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm actually hijacking my blog back from Nick and Drew today. I'm sure they'll be back. Nick still has to tell me what happened with the hippies at my house, anyway. And they better not still be there when I get home.

I have only one advance copy of The Marbury Lens left. I'll probably give it away this evening at Barnes and Noble. It's kind of a relief to me to not have them around me, anyway. Well, I did keep one for myself.

And I promised one to each of the boys I got to work with, who entered Mrs. Nelson's Young Writers Contest, and I'm sending one up to San Francisco for my friend's birthday; and the last one goes to this kid Charlie, who wrote some really nice stuff about Ghost Medicine.
This evening, at 7 p.m., I will be at Barnes and Noble, 1315 East Gladstone Street, Glendora, CA 91740.

Stop by and see me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

my seventies self (part 2)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

So I've been house-sitting for Mr. Smith, and I allowed this tribe of hippies to camp out behind the horse paddock as long as they agreed to feed Mr. Smith's disgusting horses for me.

In a moment of weakness, I allowed them to talk me into "getting in touch with my seventies self," which I only assumed would involve little more than playing one of their bongos in a circle with them in the afternoon to honor the equinox.

But I have no rhythm, and my fingers blister easily, and they had pity on me and let me stop when they saw how my eyes were welling with tears.

Anyway, I thought, this was an experiment -- an opportunity for me to experience something outside the constrained exile of my experience, as Mr. Smith often told me, so I went with it. Maybe it was something in the tea they made for me, but I was definitely not acting like the Nick Sweeney I always thought I was.

And that became totally clear to me when they talked me into going into Mr. Smith's sauna house with them for a Native American sweat lodge ritual. I have to say that I am definitely not on my "A Game" when I am sitting in a small room, completely naked and sweating, with three hippie guys.

Luckily, it was kind of dark in there. And what do you say to three naked guys when you're sitting there in a sauna, sweating, anyway?

"It sure is hot in here."

"Yeah. It's pretty hot, I'd say."

"I never knew it could be this hot."

Then Twosie said, "Shut up, Dex," because I was the only one talking.

I wanted to leave, but I was the farthest from the door. I tried to make a mental note to myself: next time you take a sauna, Nick, sit closest to the door. Then I scratched that note out and wrote another: you will never take a sauna again, Nick.

Then we heard the buzzing. I figured out later that wasps like to build nests in sauna houses over the winter. I also found out, fairly quickly, that wasps get really mad when you elevate their core temperature to 120.

I also found out that, for all their "getting in touch with their Native American spirits," hippies are as afraid of wasps as I am. So we all ran out of the sauna, chased by hot, angry wasps, completely naked and sweaty, screaming like girls, flailing our arms wildly and running around in Mr. Smith's back yard.

Coincidentally, the neighboring Druids were just then coming out onto the hillrise behind the horse paddock, and when they saw what we were doing, I think they thought we were challenging them to some kind of pagan-equinox Battle of the Bands.

Get me out of here.

-- Nick "Dex" S.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

my seventies self (part 1)

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

The guy who seems to be the president of the hippie group camped out behind the horse paddock is named Toozie, or Twosie, or Tuzey. I asked him how to spell his name, and he just laughed and stuck his thumb out at me and make some kind of royal-hippie-proclamation to the others in his clan, that went something like this:

"Ha ha ha... get a load of Poindexter. He wants to play Spelling Bee."

I have no idea what he meant by that, but the rest of the hippies started to laugh. I don't get it at all. Now they all call me "Dex" for no sober reason that I can tell.

As long as they do what I'm paying them to do and feed those horrible animals in the barn. And keep away from the house, too. And don't make noise at night. No, maybe they should. Maybe they could incite some major hippies-vs.-Druids battle.

Instead of Hollywood wasting their millions on remakes of The Karate Kid and Clash of the Titans, now THAT's a move (Hippies Conquer the Druids: The Final Battle for Earth) I'd pay to see.

So, I realized in house-sitting for Mr. Smith that there is just no place around where you can call up and have an all-white veggie frittata with soy cheese and gluten-free toast delivered (I know... you might as well live on an iceberg), so I decided to cook my own dinner. And I was, like, oh my God, there are all these brand-new cooking utensils in Mr. Smith's kitchen that have, like, never even been used. I kid you not, he even has an egg poacher. Still in the box.

How does he live?

But I didn't even get into the dinner prep when I looked out the kitchen window and saw the hippies going into Mr. Smith's greenhouse. They better not be planting anything in there, is all I can say. Mr. Smith would get really mad.

Then, just as the sun started to go down, they sat in a circle and began drumming.

That was wayyyy annoying.

So I went down there, all in a huff, and they just ignored me. And they were all practically naked, too. Barefoot, no shirts. Well, not the girls.

Twosie (I decided on a spelling after counting the remaining toes on his left foot... eeewwww!) told me it was for the spring equinox.

I told him they were making too much noise and I was about to have an anxiety attack, and only my mom is allowed to give me a half of one of her Xanax when that happens.

Then the drumming stopped, and Twosie said, "Dex, I think you need to get in touch with your seventies self."

Whatever that means.

And he took a string of rainbow-colored beads off and I was so repulsed when he put them around my neck, like he was marking me for some kind of hippie sacrifice ritual or something, because all the other hippies started murmuring stuff like "Lighten up, Dex," and "Stop acting like the Man, man," and "Dex is cool."

Whatever that means.

And shouldn't you, like, soak someone else's beads in Clorox or something before you just put them on? I mean, I was wearing a scarf and everything (and it looked fabulous), but, like, what if one of those beads actually touched my skin?

Anyway, more about my seventies self later.

I need to bathe.

-- Nick "Dex" S.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

the hills have hippies

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11 (for a few more weeks)

I am back at Mr. Smith's house while he is away for the week, after my harrowing experience in the mountains. Even taking care of Mr. Smith's horses for a while can't be as bad as what I went through for that day when I got lost.

Following the pre-programmed GPS that Drew had tampered with got me stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It was like that old television program, Land of the Lost, only instead of dinosaurs and ape-children, I was captured by a colony of hippies.

I know.


I took -- I am not kidding you -- a four-hour-long bath when I got back.

So, besides listening to EVERY SINGLE Pink Floyd album in its entirety (even the lame post-Roger Waters vinyl), and eating some brownies that made me feel really scared, the hill-hippies turned out to be kind of nice, and brought me back to Mr. Smith's house safely.

Now, they've offered to camp out behind the horse paddock and feed those horrid animals for me while the Smiths are out of town, and all I have to do is pay them twenty dollars.


I'll tell you more about the hippies tomorrow.

-- Nick S.

Friday, March 19, 2010

new news

Coming up in the next couple weeks:

  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 23: Barnes & Noble 1315 East Gladstone Street, Glendora CA 91740. I'll be signing books and giving away some "stuff."
  • Friday, March 26: I'll be talking to kids at Newbury Park High School, in Newbury Park, CA
  • April 4 - 7: In New York City, behaving myself.
  • April 17: I'll be speaking at College of the Canyons, Valencia, CA, at their "Discovering Careers Day," about -- you guessed it -- being a writer. At noon.
  • April 24 - 25: At LA Times Festival of Books, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. I'll be speaking on a YA Panel and signing books. More information coming soon, and also in the special section of the Los Angeles Times on April 18.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

is there anybody out there?

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

This can't be long. I am blogging from my Blackberry. It is a pain, even with my text-nimble thumbs.

This place gives me the creeps. I think there are spiders here.

Apparently, whoever lives (lived?) in this place is really into Pink Floyd.


-- Nick S.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

back to the why chromosome (3)

And, finally, in her article "That's so Gay!" Rethinking Writing Poetry in an All Male Classroom from The International Journal of Learning, Amy Corso has a few very interesting points she highlights (aside from the poetry writing "trick" she played on her all-boy high school English class).

You hear the statement all day long if you walk the halls of junior- and senior high schools in America. Corso points out a study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network about the frequency with which secondary school kids refer to something as "gay" (91% of schoolkids say they use the label frequently).

Corso writes, "The connotation is that if something is gay, then it must be bad, stupid, or unfair... Classifying something as “gay” also means directly challenging to the masculinity rather than the sexuality of the person, thing, or activity..."

Gurian and others also point out that in mixed-gender English classes, boys are more reluctant to participate in reading, writing, and expressing themselves for fear of being labeled by their peers as being "gay" in front of girls.

Citing a study conducted by the University of Tasmania, Corso says that since boys at the secondary level face a tremendous amount of pressure to be socialized in manly ways, they naturally strain to separate themselves from people or pursuits they perceive as being feminine (like reading and writing). "Ultimately, these forces inhibit the student’s ability to participate in the creative process."

As if there weren't already enough in the way of fostering creative processes in our students.

Yesterday, I did an hour-long radio interview on John Boston's show on KHTS AM-1220, and we spent a good bit of time talking about how school saps the creativity from kids. He was interested in hearing about my group of high school student writers, boys, who had recently submitted short stories to a creative writing competition. I won't rehash everything I said here, because John actually read some of what I wrote on this blog (back to the why chromosome) on Sunday, but I would like to leave with a very powerful idea about formula-mill writing (the kind I hate, and what I attacked on Sunday's blog) Corso states at the end of her paper:

"Often assignments do not promote creativity or individual thought from the student. Teachers assess this writing on the basis of a specific rubric. Though rubrics are helpful grading tools, a student may perceive the rubric as the list of hoops he must jump through in order to receive the grade. His perception inhibits the learning process."

Anyway, it was a great interview, and if the radio station podcasts it, I will put a link to it here on the blog.

And... I found out yesterday that the first, still-warm-from-the-presses advance reader copy (we call them ARCs in the book biz) of The Marbury Lens is due to arrive on my doorstep tomorrow (along with an ARC of my dear friend Lewis Buzbee's new novel, The Haunting of Charles Dickens), so I am very excited about that.

In the mean time, you probably want to know what's happened to Nick in the last couple of days, and, never to be one to feel intimidated by manly pressures against self-expression, the kid's got quite a story to tell.

Monday, March 15, 2010

back to the why chromosome (2)

In 2003, writing in Education Journal, David Taylor examined a pair of studies on boys and writing – what kinds of impediments interfered with boys becoming engaged as writers, and what were some possible routes around these roadblocks.

An overwhelming volume of evidence shows that, by the time they get into high school, boys’ achievement in writing falls behind that of girls. It is an important issue to address, since success in any area of academic curriculum depends on good writing and a developed degree of literacy.

If you’ve had the chance to spend significant amounts of time at different schools, or if you’ve raised more than one child through the school system, you probably have noticed that schools vary immensely in terms of their “cultures.” Simply stated, some high schools are completely opposite one another in terms of the prevailing cultural attitude toward learning. Taylor points out that when schools develop a strong anti-learning culture, boys’ peers label academic achievement as being “uncool.” You’ve seen schools like this, I’m sure. They frequently worship as heroes their “winningest” coaches and sports teams, giving an occasional and minute fraction of attention and praise to their scholars or kids who achieve academically or in the arts.

As Taylor points out, boys achieve the most “when the ethos of the school permits them to work hard without appearing uncool.”

Boys work harder when they know they are being closely monitored, too. Sit in any classroom and you’ll see that, as a predictable trait of the gender, it’s the boys who want to be paid attention to. An interesting study showed how, throughout school, boys’ writing is often less attended to than girls’. This is frequently due to the fact that girls’ handwriting is neater and more easily read, and boys, even in later grades, require much more effort on the part of their teachers to decipher their penmanship; so their work is often discounted on aesthetics rather than content. So they get the message that writing -- their writing -- doesn’t really matter.

I’ll continue with some thoughts on boys’ attitudes toward writing, and encouraging boys to write, tomorrow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

back to the why chromosome

Drew is off pouting because Nick moved in. He's probably plotting his next sock coup-de-blog. And Nick... well, I kind of played a trick on him. I sent him off to the store in the 4WD and told him to follow the pre-programmed route on the nav system, and I kind of sent him on the "scenic route," which is 25 miles on dirt trails over the mountains. And it's been raining, so the kid's going to have to use the four-wheel-drive, which I don't think he's ever done in his life.

But, then again, I don't think he's ever been dirty one time in his life, either. So it will be good for him. Anyway, I had to get him away from that damned "farmville" for at least a day.

I hope he survives. He's a pretty good kid.

So, this week I got a group of high school boys I've been coaching to submit stories they wrote to Mrs. Nelson's Young Writer's Contest. Of course, Nick was one of them.

And now the tough part for them is going to be something that all writers have to endure: the endless waiting after you submit something.

First off, let me say that I think a couple of the boys have a real shot at doing well (and I'm not going to name names). That said, for the last six weeks or so, I've been playing editor for them. I didn't discourage any of them in any way, and I didn't "cull out" entries (like a real editor might do). I just asked them questions and gave them suggestions regarding their technique, and tried to be as positive and encouraging as possible -- trying to be as much like my own amazing editor as I could be.

Regardless of contest outcomes, these boys are all winners for doing something that high school boys just don't do any more (for reasons I'll get into later). And I promised that as soon as the ARCs for The Marbury Lens come out (this week, maybe??), I will give one to each of them.

Anyway, I learned a lot of things by working with the boys, and, although my observations are more anecdotal than scientific, they're pretty interesting.

First of all, I realized that most of the boys showed general awkwardness in writing dialogue. I don't mean in the content of their dialogue -- which I found to be very interesting and appropriate to their story arcs -- but in the mechanics of putting dialogue on a page, and their excessive use of dialogue tags (said, exclaimed, asked, etc.). [I am not a big fan of dialogue tags, anyway].

Second, their paragraph structure. A general observation was that their paragraphs often contained lots of big ideas. When I suggested to one boy that he break one of his paragraphs up into several shorter ones -- one of which contained only one sentence -- he told me that he thought about doing that, but was afraid that paragraphs needed to have a minimum number of sentences (five or seven -- I don't remember what he told me, and, obviously he's been learning from a master of writing).

So I came to this conclusion that by the time kids get into 11th or 12th grade, they have been Jane-Schaffer-expository-chunk-paragraph-formatted to death. Well, not to their death, but to the death of their own creative intuitions. That's why they generally had stumbles in the mechanics of writing dialogue (and especially internal thoughts), and they showed a tendency to make paragraphs with too much "stuff" in them.

It's kind of sad that creative writing is no longer seen as an essential element in secondary language arts curriculum. It bodes poorly for America's future.

We may no longer have the greatest assembly lines and manufacturing plants in the world, but America has always been top-tier when it comes to creative thinking. And whether you're talking about writing short stories or solving medical crises, you're not going to get there without creative thought.

I'll have more on the why chromosome, and, particularly about secondary-school-age boys and writing coming up.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

social secretary

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I feel guilty because I am driving Mr. Smith insane. That's what teenage kids are supposed to do, isn't it?

Ever since I got on Facebook, I've been making some interesting friends from all over the world, and they got me to play this addictive game called FarmVille. The thing that's driving Mr. Smith insane is that FarmVille plays this really inane, constant music -- over and over -- while it TELLS you what to do.

Mr. Smith says if I keep playing it and listening to the music long enough, that it will eventually tell me to murder everyone in the house. Plus, it made an avatar character for me that looks like a rapist.

But I can't stop playing it, and Mr. Smith is getting a little edgy, because his house is like an echo chamber and I know I'm a bad person for doing it, but I have the volume up all the way on the downstairs Mac and I really like the music, anyway.

So I think Mr. Smith may crack on Monday. That's the day he's going to do an hour-long radio and television interview. The interview is supposed to be about his books and stuff, but I predict he's going to end up talking about FarmVille.



Then, next week, he's going all over the place, including a signing event at a Brnes and Noble in Glendora. I don't even know where Glendora is, but at least my mom's Infinity has a GPS nav system in it.

Anyway, I've got to get back to FarmVille.

-- Nick S.

Friday, March 12, 2010

giving in

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I finally gave in to what everyone else is doing and signed up for a Facebook account. I'm probably like the only kid my age who didn't have one until today, because when I put my school name on my profile, all these friend suggestions came up for just about everyone in my entire school. So I took the school name off my profile. I do not need all those people knowing what I say.

Anyway, I was forced to do it, so I don't know how long this whole Facebook experiment will last. It was because yesterday, I accidentally got locked inside Mr. Smith's garage. Thankfully, I had my laptop with me and I could access his WiFi, so I made an account because he usually keeps his running and I posted on his wall to unlock his stupid garage door and let me out.

So it is true that the Smiths are letting me stay in their extra room for a while. Me and my mom got into a fight because she wants me to go to Prom, which would be okay with me, but she also already chose a girl to be my date and asked her and everything (it's her Kundalini Yoga instructor's sister) and I told her I would only go to Prom if I could go with who I wanted to.

So that's how I ended up getting locked inside Mr. Smith's garage yesterday, and he just laughed at me and mocked me and said, "Don't drink my beer, Nick," because he has a refrigerator in the garage only for beer. But I'm, like, beer is so disgusting. But he didn't let me out for a couple of hours because Drew was there and he knows how Drew and me fight worse than my mom and me when she's in the process of finalizing some immoral arranged marriage or something.

And that's how I ended up on Facebook.

-- Nick S.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

nick's day

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Drew is a very bitter man. He hijacked the blog and changed the password. When he does that, it means one thing and one thing only: socks.

I am good at a few things: picking out clothes that match, predicting what color will be "in" this season (trust me, it's going to be yellow), and figuring out the web access passwords of bitter, simple-minded people.

Mr. Smith continues to hole himself up and refuses to answer his phone or reply to anything. He calls it "going all Sara Zarr, but with plywood instead of bandwidth."

Whatever that means.

So, I've been getting email questions from people asking me things like why I put up with Mr. Smith and stuff like that. I thought that maybe I would answer some of the email here on the blog, providing Drew doesn't try another hostile takeover with socks.

By the way, my email address is

But I don't really know how I should answer the one from yesterday asking why are the Smiths letting some weird kid hang out at their house and run the blog while Mr. Smith is in meltdown mode, and hadn't they learned their lesson by now about taking care of every lonely drifter who wanders by and needs a place to stay? 'Cause I mean, like, really?


Trust me.

-- Nick S.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

the do-over redux

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I go to the movies. A lot. So Mr. Smith said that since I was such a movie nerd and this is, like, the most important day of my life, that I could write about movies today.

One thing I noticed is that movies are, like, the only things that keep getting remade. I mean, remakes of things that never existed in any form before other than movies... not like the "good" version of the adaptation of Great Expectations and the one that totally blows... movies that are do-overs of movies. Like they didn't get it right the first time or something.

It's like handing in a lame book report at school and rewriting it so I can raise my C to a C+ (which is a "New and Improved" C).

It's kind of like putting the words "New and Improved" on a product, just so people will get recharged about buying it, even though the bottom line is that laundry soap is laundry soap is laundry soap.

So, just in going to the movies over the last couple days, I saw trailers and posters for the following do-overs: The Karate Kid, Free Willy, Tron, and Clash of the Titans.

It's like just when you thought laundry soap couldn't get any soapier. So, I decided to get together with my friends and start a Facebook group of people who refuse to spend money on do-overs. We're fed up with this nonsense. I mean, why is it that movies are one of the only creative forms of expression where people think it's okay to re-do them?

You don't see people rewriting The Catcher in the Rye and putting it out with modern, hipper, trendier content and still calling it The Catcher in the Rye, do you? And what would happen if someone came along and launched a new and colorful version of Guernica (that's a painting by Picasso)? You'd be offended. You'd call it plagiarism and forgery. Nobody would put up with that, so I don't understand why people are willing to tolerate having movies done over and over again.

That's my one shot at getting to write about movies.

I'd give you my Oscar picks for tonight, but I'd be so dead-on right that it would ruin three hours of the finest television about movies you'll ever want to spend three hours doing.

-- Nick S.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

the after party

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I have managed to forgive Mr. Smith for being the excessively paranoid and bipolar hermit that he is. That was a big thing for me to do after spending a freezing night sleeping in Mom's Infinity, terrified by the roaming bands of Druid neighbors and countless snarling predatory beasts that live right outside Mr. Smith's fences.

And the worst part was sleeping -- or trying to sleep -- in my clothes. Now, I've been wearing the same things for more than 24 hours and I feel like mushrooms are sprouting from my body.

But when the sun came up this morning, Mr. Smith had apparently realized that I was trapped, so he broke out one of his plywood barriers and rescued me. I felt just like that kid who fell down a well and was stuck there for two days.

Thank God I should be able to get myself home in time for the Oscars. Mr. Smith just shook his head, disappointed, when I told him I was having a party for the Oscars program. He told me he'd respect me more if I just confessed to being a crack addict.

He is so unbearably uncool.

-- Nick S.

Friday, March 5, 2010


From Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

Yesterday, Mr. Smith's old horse Reno died. Reno was about 40 years old, so he lived a really long time up at Mr. Smith's house. They buried him, deep, with a backhoe, on top of a hill where he could look down at his old barn and the other two young horses, Arrow and Dusty.

Anyway, I thought I'd put this bit in here from Mr. Smith's book, Ghost Medicine, because I know Mr. Smith thought Reno was some kind of hero, which is why he wrote an entire book about this horse.

“Horses. They’re all different. Some are smart, some are stupid. Some are good, some are bad. Some of 'em you just can’t ever like. And some of 'em you like right away and you understand 'em, and there’s no telling why.”

Tommy yawned and stretched his long legs out against the rocks in front of us. “I like your Reno. He’s a good one.”

“Everyone likes him.”

“You never said why Benavidez gave him to you.”

“Cause I don’t really know.”

And then Gabe smiled, but you could never tell with that smile of his what he was meaning because he was usually so serious or maybe scared. “I do.”

And I could tell he was waiting for me or Tommy to just beg him to talk, but we just stared straight into the fire, my eyes getting heavy and watery from the smoke and light. And we sat like that, silently, for the longest time before Tommy put his head all the way back on that old saddle in the ground, like he was about to go to sleep. Then I gave out and took my hat off and just rested my head straight back in the dirt.

“OK, I’ll tell you what I think.”

-- Nick S.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

payback time

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I feel totally dirty after that.

Now I feel like getting Mr. Smith in trouble. So I will.

You know what he said to me the other day? This was after a few comments were made on his the why chromosome blogs -- comments from his readers (Mr. Smith mostly disagreed with) who said that YA was marketed only to girls and that publishing was dominated by women, who kind of acted like gatekeepers to perpetuate the double-X control over literature.

Mr. Smith said he came to an epiphany one day when he was talking to an author friend of his -- one who happened to be an XX writer. He told me he realized that it was true that schools seemed to push this idea that reading and writing are feminine pursuits, so boys are frequently turned away and discouraged from finding their male voices in literature.

But, Mr. Smith also said to me, "Nick, did you ever realize that most YA is written by women? In fact, most novels these days are written by women. Did you ever wonder why that is?"

I said, is it because boys don't want to write after they go through school?

Mr. Smith said that was part of the explanation. But lots of guys want to be writers, he explained. One of the main reasons why there are more novels being published that are written by women is the economic reality of being a writer. Mr. Smith said that being a writer is a hard living, and since society puts so much pressure on males to be the breadwinners and have jobs -- careers with consistent paychecks -- that pay the bills and maybe also include health benefits for their partners and kids, men are pressured out of trying to write by the gender expectations of society and the economy.

He said that it's easier for women -- in general -- to become novelists because there is not as much external pressure on them to go out and be providers and breadwinners. It's more "okay" for a woman to stay at home or work only part time than it is for a guy.

At least, that's what he told me.

Now, go get him.

He deserves it for making me pee outside. Well, it wasn't really outside. It was in his greenhouse. But I'm still deeply damaged psychologically from the experience. I think one of his horses was staring at me.

And I want to go home.

-- Nick S.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

cover letters

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

So I'm sitting here by the light of the Infinity's dome lamp, blogging with my iPhone because I left my keys inside Mr. Smith's house and he's boarded up his doors and windows after having some kind of grown-up psychological crisis where he wants to quit writing (again).

I've seen him do this dozens of times. Not the plywood part, but the quit writing and going insane part.

It gets so dark here, too. And it's really scary. And I'll confess this: I have never peed outdoors before. It is so barbaric and uncivilized, but I really need to tinkle, so I am trying to keep my mind off it by uploading another post on Mr. Smith's blog.

Extreme discomfort.

Last week, the topic of book covers came up a few times. Mr. Smith said that boys choose books by their covers, and then his grumpy and scary friend, Mr. Grant said that boys would get beaten up if they walked across campus carrying one version of his book's cover. Well, first off, let me say that I think Caine and Sam are totally dreamy -- so if it's the one with Sam on the front, or the one with Caine on the front... well, I have both of those books and, let's just say I'm okay with the prep school look and the poor surfer look.

But then I saw how another author, Tabitha Olson, pointed out that YA covers on books that could have a big appeal for boys sometimes turned boys away because there were pictures on the cover that made you think of girl books.

Well, I don't know where I stand on that, exactly, because I did read two of the three books she gives as examples, but now it does make me wonder why Margo would be on the cover of John Green's Paper Towns when the book was more about a guy named Quentin. And if guys knew how cool and funny Quentin's adventures were, maybe more guys would read that book, even if Mr. Green can't be hurting from a diminished audience.

All that aside, last summer (can you tell I'm trying not to think about making pee?), Mr. Smith told me that a certain huge, nationwide, bookseller chain store was refusing to feature or display Young Adult books unless they had covers that were photographic, as opposed to the old-school illustrated book covers.

I never realized that, but I began digging back through my own book collection, and sure enough, I noticed that what Mr. Smith said was true -- that the vast majority of YA books I owned had photo-like covers, or covers that were made of composite photographs. Even the dreamy ones with Sam and Caine. Maybe the exception was the few fantasies I own, but even some of their covers looked like doctored photos.


The last time I went to the doctor, the nurse gave me a clear plastic cup and asked me to pee in it. I was so mortified by that I couldn't do it, so when I went in that little bathroom, I waited for about 20 minutes and then I filled it with tap water.

I really have to go.

What am I going to do?

This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. Worse than the horse snot or tearing my Gucci slacks.

I can't even concentrate.

When I come back, I'm going to talk about something else Mr. Smith complained about.

But I've got a serious complaint for him.

-- Nick S.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

no way in

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

The boards are up. Mr. Smith has shut himself in.

And I realize that I left my car keys on his kitchen table.

I am blogging from my cell phone.

It's getting dark.

-- Nick S.

Monday, March 1, 2010

boarding up

By Nick Sweeney, Grade 11

I am back. I did not get killed or eaten, like Drew said happened, and Mr. Smith asked me to fill the blog in with my "usual warm fluff" today because he is in a bad mood again.

Whenever he comes back from weekends away (he's been doing that a lot lately), he's always stressed out and panics that he isn't getting the things done he needs to do. I don't get him at all, and if that's what happens to you when you get old you can count me out.

Here is how crazy he is. We had this conversation yesterday afternoon when he got home. I had been "watching his house" for him (but definitely not feeding his monstrous horses). As soon as he came in, he threw his garment bag down on the couch and said...

"Are you watching the hockey game?"

[Let me make a small point here. Hockey? Smith, are you serious? Maybe I'd be watching figure skating, but I can't handle that any more because I always cry when the skaters cry, and it seems like these days they always cry when they finish their routines, like it's expected or something. Listen, when I want to cry, I'll break out my DVD of The Color Purple, thank you very much].

Then he told me that in the last two weeks, he had met four different people who've read The Marbury Lens, and he was, like, how could that happen? Because he didn't even think advance copies were out yet.

[By the way, he did let me read it a while back, but I don't count in this data].

He said that for some reason, there were e-reader copies of it making the rounds among people in the book business, and, according to him, people were telling him weird things about it -- out of the blue.

Then, Mr. Smith revealed his true craziness. He said, "Nick, whenever I write something, part of me wants nobody else to ever read it, so it freaks me out when people read anything I've written."

I knew that about him. He's always been that way.

Then he said, "I'm not going to give out any Advance Copies of this, Nick. None. I've decided to shut myself in the house and not ever come out again."

Then he dug around in one of his kitchen drawers and handed me some car keys and three one-hundred-dollar bills.

"Here," he said. "Take my truck and go down and get me lots of plywood and nails and beer and beef jerky. I'm boarding myself in."

I never know when he's telling the truth or not. But the bottom floor of Mr. Smith's house currently looks like he's preparing for a zombie attack, and I can hear him pounding nails upstairs.

-- Nick S.