December 14th, 2006

Chinese zodiac

Zodiac House: Horse chapter

As I told timprov, I didn't start this morning with my usual zest. I started it with lime zest instead. ("Which is your usual?" he asked. I suspect lemon.) The zester is getting quite a workout with these citrus kiss cookies. I'm not sure if the lime ones were a good idea (haven't frosted them yet, so they're not done). I'm not even sure if the lemon ones were. But the orange ones are keepers for sure. They taste sunshiney and real.

I got a very neat link to this blog, whose person is making Jolasveinar with needle felting. She's showing one per day until Christmas: the thirteen Christmas goblins or thirteen little men of Christmas in Iceland. I'm totally charmed and will be checking each morning for Spoon-licker, Candle-beggar, and all the rest.

Last night I finished the Horse chapter in Zodiac House. For those of you who are new or weren't reading for extreme detail, I've decided to make silly rambly posts about writing children's books and this book in specific for the different signs of the Chinese Zodiac after I finish the corresponding chapters. The Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco is the source of the descriptions I'm using. I've already done the Ram.

The Horse: hey, that's mine! People born in the Year of the Horse are popular. Why, thank you, internet! They are cheerful, skillful with money, and perceptive, although they sometimes talk too much. It's like they really know me! :) They are wise, talented, good with their hands, and sometimes have a weakness for members of the opposite sex. I refrain from comment on this matter. If you're wise, you will, too. Concentrate on the wise and talented; that's much safer. They are impatient and hot-blooded about everything except their daily work. Aaaaand here's where we go astray: I am impatient and hot-blooded about my daily work, thank you very much! (Picked the right field, didn't I?) They like entertainment and large crowds. Hah. First: who says, "I don't like entertainment"? "No entertainment for me, thanks, I'd prefer to be bored"? But large crowds: no. Thank you, no. They are very independent and rarely listen to advice. Umm. Probably not, comparatively speaking. I think I'm pretty middle-of-the-road when it comes to advice.

But that's me. What about writing children's books, and what about this chapter? It is in some ways very cheerful. It's the kind of cheer I think I'm particularly good at: cheer in the face of impending and certain doom. (Why am I good at it? Because it's practically all I write. Here we go singing to our deaths, la la yay! Bloody-minded optimist, that's me: we're all going to die, but it's going to be pretty cool on the way.) Is this chapter impatient? You know, I think it is. I think I may need, in revisions, to pay attention to it being a bit more deliberate, to taking more time in the confrontation. It's not the climax of the book, but it's a pretty big event. Children's books need to be brief but not hurried (not talking too much! not impatient! it is hard to be the Horse chapter). When I look back at favorite children's books, I'm often startled by how short they are. Lloyd Alexander can pack more punch into a page than most adult writers can into a trilogy.

One thing I'm noticing about this chapter -- this book in general, but the "weakness for the opposite sex" sparked the thought -- is that it is not particularly heterosexual -- nor particularly homosexual, bisexual, etc. Most of the characters are either magical constructs or related to each other. This is not one of those children's books where you can close the book and think, "The author has set those two up to grow up and get married." There is no plausible combination for that. And as a respite between Sampo and What We Did to Save the Kingdom, it's kind of nice not to have that kind of tension between characters. It's nice to have a story where nobody is using anybody else for anything in particular. I can't get used to it, though, and by the time I'm done, I'll be ready to write all the sex scenes in WWDtStK at once, just for a refreshing change in the other direction. (Watch me gripe about them when I get there, though. Just watch.) This is not entirely a facet of writing for the younger markets. When I wrote Fortress of Thorns and The Grey Road in quick succession, it was a very different thing, because the main characters were in junior high and not mostly related to each other, so there was sexual tension up the gazoo (as my grandmother would say), and absolutely no possibility of doing anything at all with it. None. People who think of childhood as a land of infinite possibilities stretching before oneself need to remember how childhood at the time often feels like a land of infinite constraint. But in ZH, those constraints are not active. No one is telling Kathryn and Dustin they can't go out and get into serious romantic/sexual relationships because they're only 13. It's just that there's no one for miles to have them with. They have other things on their mind for the summer. Like I did when I was visiting my grandmother's house, only with, y'know, more crazy magic stuff than Grandma had available.

Or at least more than she was willing to let on.
Chinese zodiac

Another word on children's books and horses

One thing the Horse chapter of Zodiac House does not have is Horse Book Nature. You probably know what I mean here -- Children's Horse Books are very much a genre. And more so, they're a genre I don't write, did not like as a child, do not like as an adult, and have no interest in ever writing, ever. I think that without being pornographic in the least, they fall into some of the writing problems columbina discusses with smut writing in this entry: they are focused on a narrow audience with extremely specific tastes. That audience wants certain extremely specific things that the Children's Horse Book writer must deliver. And sometimes this delivery will interfere with what a more general reader would consider good writing, reasonable characterization, etc.

The horse is a danger zone in ways that some other genre or category elements are, and some are not. Two characters can fall in love without anybody insisting that the story as a whole behave as a functioning member of the Romance genre. But if they have extremely explicit sex on most pages of the story, or enough of it early on despite how the ending goes, the story will most likely be parsed as Erotica or Pornography of some sort. Just having a dead body show up mysteriously in the first chapter does not make a book a Mystery -- you have to devote most of the structure of the book for that -- but if you have a children's book whose main character is on a sports team that shows up in the story at all, you may well be writing a Children's Sports Book whether you meant to or not. Some elements are category black holes. (Black holes, for example.)

So despite the presence of horses in this chapter -- and despite the presence of horses in Dwarf's Blood Mead -- I am very carefully avoiding anything that might smack of Horse Book nature. I am handling the horses very differently because I am conscious of Horse Book devotees and their obsessive ways; some of those devotees were my best friends when I was 11, and they urged their Horse Books upon me. I don't want to write a failed Horse Book. I want to write something else completely. The analogy with smut writing goes further: I am willing to believe that someone could write a book that was interesting to me that was a Horse Book, just as I'm willing to believe that books primarily about sex, sex, and more sex could be interesting and well-done. I nominate Someone Not Me to write them, though.

Hmm. I'm thinking of other children's book categories, and I'm really not opposed to writing a School Book (although I would prefer to wait until people had a little more distance from the Harry Potter phenomenon and could realize that J.K. Rowling did not invent the School Book!) or a Club Book or a Kid Detective Book. I would have sworn up and down that I would never write an American Pioneers Book, but the utopian commune book that's simmering in the back of my head does share many of the features, so maybe I'm wrong. We'll see.

People who are writing: are there any categories you're staying well clear of? Any categories that are trying to impinge?