Author Archives: Greg R. Fishbone

“Don’t Squelch My Drive!” (And Other Thoughts of Mentoring a Young Writer)

My favorite new author has some upcoming projects I’m especially excited about. One is a book that details the imagined culture and holiday traditions of anthropomorphic leopards, with backmatter that includes games and recipes. The other book is a portal fantasy based on a popular fairy tale and which, the author confides, has series potential. And she is allowing me to break a scoop, exclusive to the Mixed Up Files blog, that she will soon be tackling the picture book format in a new and innovative way.

She’s my daughter, she’s nine years old, and she’s very enthusiastic. You may remember her from my blog post about President Julie. And she’s not just an aspiring author and part-time commander in chief. She also does her own illustration, layout, cover art, book design, and author bios.

I am enjoying her work very much, but my quandary as a writer-parent of a writer-child is how to provide age-appropriate guidance without squelching her drive and creativity.

(“Don’t squelch my drive!” is what she said just now, as she was reading over my shoulder, so I probably should go into another room.)

Technology

I can’t teach her to write using the same methods I learned. When I was nine, back in the day, cut-and-paste meant using a scissors and scotch tape to shuffle handwritten paragraphs into a different order. When I got a computer in the 8th grade, I brought this practice with me. I used to save individual letters and words, dragging them around the document instead of deleting them, because it seemed wasteful not to reuse them.

My spell-check was a twenty-pound monster of a dictionary, supplemented by a thematic thesaurus. Today, there’s an app for that.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write using 21st century technology.

I don’t have personal experience with being nine and learning to write while simultaneously picking up keyboarding skills.

I don’t have experience being nine and learning to write while simultaneously mastering all the functions of a modern word processor.

As much as technology makes our lives easier in the long run, it first requires a juggling act of multiple overlapping learning curves.

So how can I be sure that the juggling of writing and technology isn’t what ends up squelching her drive? I don’t know but I’m trying to keep in mind at all times that today’s young writers are learning in a different world than the one I grew up in.

Although I may still attempt to introduce her to my old thesaurus.

Revision

Putting technology aside, I want to teach her is that writing and revision are two separate but equally important skills. She knows this from school, but her first draft still tends to look a lot like her second draft, which tends to look a whole lot like her final draft.

Writing is more fun for her than revision. Writing comes more easily than revision. When given the choice, she spends the bulk of her time drafting new material while her nascent revision skills suffer from a vicious cycle of neglect.

This is where I’m torn. I want her to have fun with what she’s doing, so my instinct is to let her explore her writing process in her own way and in her own time. But is it better for her to write a flood of first drafts and introduce editing and revision into the process down the road, or should I encourage her from the start to slow down and develop the habit of polishing the gems that she is creating?

The habits she is developing today, good or bad, will be with her for a long time. Bad habits can be especially hard to change. A young author who hates to revise can become an adult author who hates to revise, and who presents rough drafts as finished product.

Publishing is different today, again due to technology. As self-publishing tools have become easier to use, and as self-published books have proliferated and become destigmatized, we are seeing some great books that might not otherwise find their way into print. But we have also created a pathway for authors who never feel the need to develop revision skills, much to their own detriment.

The self-publishing pathway did not exist when I was learning to write and revise. But guiding young authors to view self-publishing as a potential outlet for polished work, and to ignore the siren song of publishing unrevised drafts, raises yet another specter for potentially squelching their drive.

Criticism

Another thing I want her to learn, because it took me so long to realize, is that constructive criticism can be helpful, but only if you develop the ability to accept it, process it, and apply it. Again, my young writer knows this from school already, but accepting criticism is not fun for her, so she’s opting out of it wherever possible.

Writers need to develop a thick skin in order to accept criticism of our work without reframing it as criticism of ourselves, but we all start with a tender skin over our most vulnerable spots of insecurity and self-doubt. It takes time and practice before we can develop the callouses we need to protect ourselves.

While learning how to let brutally honest or mean-spirited criticism roll off our backs, writers also need to cultivate the ability to sort through a batch of well-intentioned criticism for the advice that is most helpful.

Inviting another person to share their advice and viewpoints can open a story up to exciting new ideas, approaches, and directions. A good thing, in general, but potentially overwhelming for a new writer who is struggling to hold onto the ownership of her own ideas, approaches, and directions. The vital skill that can take many years to develop is an ability to pick out just those bits of advice that push the story in a direction the author wants it to go.

My daughter can’t yet do this without feeling like she’s compromising her vision of what her story should be. So how soon and how quickly do I introduce these ideas without, again, squelching her drive?

Writing

For now we are focusing mainly on the mechanics of writing itself, where she’s more open to accepting my help. We had a great discussion the other day about the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. I can’t believe they don’t teach basic punctuation like this in third grade anymore!

This will be my focus for now as I gradually raise her awareness that writers need a lot of tools in their toolbox and that there’s more to writing than just putting words on the page.

While I’ve created classroom programs on writing for school visits, I have no curriculum yet for mentoring a single young author through the challenges specific to writing in the modern world. I’m working on it though, and I’ll continue to share whatever insights I come up with for others facing similar challenges with the young writers in their lives.  

Let me know what you are doing to keep from squelching your young writer’s drive, and maybe we can be a support group for each other.

Life and Art and Patterns and Mess

I read an article I read on the Publishers Weekly website called “Why Life and Writing are Inseparable” by Amie Barrodale, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

The thing that struck me first and drew me in was that the article opens with a discussion of writing, drops a rambling sentence of personal bombshells into the narrative, and then picks up the writing topic again without missing a beat. The result is jarringly familiar to anyone who has ever tried to combine life and writing, or life and illustrating, or life and any other creative endeavor. And especially so as I write this toward the end of a school year, which combines the chaos of life with the artistry of teaching.

Barrodale conveys the life/art balance through the structure of her story more effectively than if she’d used words alone, and at the same time establishes the importance of structure and subtext in her writing.

The article goes on to describe Barrodale’s early writing as having a focus on craft, until she found herself shifting to stories from her own life for the larger part of her career. We then find ourselves shifting from this brief focus on craft to a story from Barrodale’s life that takes up most of the remaining bulk of the piece.

And once again, in an entirely different way, I was struck by the author’s remarkable use of structure to support her theme. Much like concrete poetry, in which a poem about a fish might be shaped like a fish, Barrodale’s story about her life was actually shaped like her life—and can there be any better way to show the inseparability of life and creativity?

The story part of the article tells of Barrodale’s experiences carrying bowls around a Tibetan cave during a meditation retreat. She focuses on rules and norms, and how it felt to be in disagreement or conflict with other practitioners of the bowl-carrying arts.

via GIPHY

Like most readers of the article, I’ve never been on a meditation retreat to a Tibetan cave, so I have no personal stake in the theory or politics Barrodale is describing. Readers can approach this story without the baggage we’d bring to a similar story about writing, or illustrating, or whatever creative endeavor we’re most experienced with and passionate about.

Which seems to be entirely the point.

A story about bowl-carrying techniques among cave-dwelling meditation practitioners can serve as an effective metaphor for any artists fumbling in the dark with the traditions and strictures of their craft. So what seems at first to be a tangent away from writing actually becomes the meat of Barrodale’s thesis about writing. Yet again, she uses structure rather than words to support the idea that writing and life are inseparable.

I thought the resulting essay was by far the most carefully, deliberately, and effectively structured article I’d ever read. But as a counterpoint, an irate reader in the comments section berated the author, editor, and publisher alike for releasing what she saw as an entirely unstructured article that “reads like someone journaling.”

Althrough we read all the same words, we read two very different articles.

From my perspective, the comment writer missed the most important aspects of the piece, as if looking at a fish-shaped poem and seeing only a random jumble of words. And from her perspective, she might say that I imposed an imagined structure on the article where none was actually intended.

Where I saw a pattern, the comment writer saw a mess.

Thinking about how the same article can be read and interpreted so differently by different people revealed the final puzzle piece in my quest to understand the connection between life and art.

Life is messy, but human beings are wired to extract patterns of meaning and importance from that mess. As creators, we seed our work with those same patterns and hope for the best. When a pattern resonates with a reader’s messy life experience, it feels true and a powerful connection is made. But a reader who does not connect with that pattern, no matter how artfully arranged, will only see the mess.

We may think we’re building stories with characters and plot, lines and color, structure and theme, but on the most basic level it’s all just patterns and mess.

Just like life.

What Would President Julie Do?

My nine-year-old daughter and I have a game we play during car rides where we pretend to host a radio talk show. I do the voices of Frank and Joe and sometimes Wanda–don’t ask. My daughter does the voice of Julie.

During the last campaign season, Julie ran for president against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we had a lot of fun discussing various issues. After Election Day, Julie declared herself the winner and we’ve been rolling with it ever since.

One of President Julie’s first acts was to bury the Treasury Department underground and mark the spot with a giant X, because that’s what you do to keep your treasures safe. Her most current infrastructure project is a subway system that will connect to every house in the country so that people can get to work or school without worrying about traffic.

President Julie has named Joe, her fellow talk show host, as her Ambassador to Mexico. To make sure Joe doesn’t mess up our foreign relations too badly, she’s built a structure called “White House Junior” next to the embassy so she can keep an eye on things. Julie is learning Spanish in school, so she not only has lots of good advice for Joe but can help him with the lingo. In the interest of boosting morale among the embassy staff, President Julie recently moved both the embassy and White House Junior to a beach on the Mexican Riviera.

Meanwhile, Frank has had a series of unsuccessful postings in a variety of government agencies but hasn’t yet found a place where he can make a positive contribution. And Wanda is just Wanda–don’t ask.

Julie’s administration is working out well so far, although Julie sometimes worries that being President of the United States will interfere with her other career as a rock star.

As I listen to the political news from back in the real world, the question I find myself asking is, “What would President Julie do?”

To my ears, “Bury our most valuable building underground to keep it safe from pirates” makes about as much policy sense as “Build a wall to protect our coal industry from immigrants.” But then, as a spokesman for the Julie administration, I’m a little biased.

The second question I find myself asking is, “What does politics have to do with the stories we share with our children?”

The answer I’ve come up with is a personal theory that politics is actually a genre of storytelling. Where many classic stories begin with “Once upon a time…” political stories begin with “Imagine a world…” This would make politics a sister genre to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, all under the banner of speculative fiction.

Picture this:

A wandering storyteller comes to town. He takes to the stage. People gather around to listen. The storyteller smiles to form a connection with his audience. He waves his arms and hands for emphasis and speaks in a calculated cadence, repeating key phrases to punctuate his story. “Imagine a world where all the solar farms have been torn down and your children are working in a coal mine! It will be so amazing. So amazing. So amazing.”

This particular town’s economy was built by the coal industry. All the third-generation coal miners and their families applaud and nod approvingly. The storyteller has earned their five-star Amazon rating as well as their vote.

Then the wandering storyteller packs up his wares and moves on to the next town, over in farm country, where he tells that audience to imagine a world where international trade is negotiated by a real estate mogul.

Politics is storytelling because raw story is a form of raw power.

With the right stories, told to the right people, in states with the right number of electoral votes, a good storyteller can rise all the way to the top, becoming our Storyteller in Chief, a title we should totally be using to describe the awesome responsibilities of the presidency. A single story from our president can start a war or prevent it, plunge the economy into a recession or save it, provide hope in a time of need and solace in a time of tragedy–while an alternate story can cultivate hate and fear. A single story can reshape the world.

But politicians aren’t the only ones who can harness the power of story.

In the next town over from me is a boy, about the same age as President Julie, who is worried about his grandparents. The boy’s grandparents live in Iran, and the boy worries that he might never see them again, because a powerful storyteller has been telling a story in which people who share the same nationality and religion as the boy’s grandparents are scary and threatening.

The boy’s stories are true to life, told in the honest voice of a child, based on his lived experience. In the boy’s stories, his grandparents would only ever threaten to provide hugs, kisses, and home-baked cookies. I like the boy’s story better, and so does President Julie.

People who hear the boy’s story won’t be so easily sold on the politician’s story, and here’s why:

All genres develop conventions and shorthand over time. In the genre of science fiction, we no longer have to spend several pages explaining how a starship can travel faster than the speed of light–the reader just accepts it and we can move on. In the genre of political stories, “Imagine a world…” has become our modern shorthand for the original version, “Imagine a world, exactly like our own world, but in a hypothetical future where some aspect of government policy has changed…”

As the consumers of these stories, it’s important for us to push back when they cross into alternate genres. If a purportedly-political statement instead starts with a world that differs from ours in an important way, we’ve moved into the genre of fantasy. If the government policy relies on an alternate science than we one we know, we’ve moved into the genre of science fiction.

In the genre of political stories, the ones that will have a positive impact are the ones that start with the world as it is and lead us through a practical and pragmatic plotline to a better place that our world can become. Filling that genre with more voices and more stories, especially the stories of young people, can only make the entire genre better and stronger.

In this case, the boy’s story rebuts and undermines the story coming from our Storyteller in Chief. The one story contains a truth that reveals the flawed foundation upon which the other story has been built.

When we help the boy tell his story and get it out into the world, we can give the storyteller’s audiences a new perspective from which to “Imagine a world…”

And if we give our children a better connection to story today, we won’t have to keep wondering what President Julie would do. Hopefully someday we will find out for real.


Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty sci-fi novels from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. He is the proud father of two potential future Storytellers-in-Chief.