Readers may not be aware of how heavily writers rely upon reference books, such as encyclopedias, thesauruses, Wikipedia, Dickeypedia, and of course a rhyming dictionary, which often reveals hidden truths about language through a kind of mystical game of word association which posits that synonyms come in triads, or what Carl Jung used to call “threeness envy.” Nobody knew what he meant by that. He has a really weird accent.
The thesaurus is a book made not only for utility, but for delight, and that’s surely part of why it’s fallen out of favor. Delight is an imprecise business, and it has its perils.
Image: Iron age coins from Beverly – Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
My friends on social media often share excerpts from books they are reading: Illuminating passages from encyclicals, breathtaking ideas found in scholarly books about design and sociology.
I, on the other hand, post a little bit of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel:
I shared this after reading it aloud for maybe the eight thousandth time the other day. I was admiring once again the perfectly-crafted rhythm of the story. You would have to work really hard to read it wrong. In the page I shared, you can hear the building, busy excitement as more and more people get caught up in the action:
“Now the girl who answers the telephone called up the next towns of BANGerville and BOPperville and KIPperville and KOPperville and TOLD them what was HAPpening in POPperville.
“All the people came over to see if Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel could dig the cellar in . . . ”
and the sentence ends in three, flat, one-syllable words that land with incredulity:
“just. one. day.”
My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half, he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest . . . the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.
This is about the story, characters, and pictures, but also about the sound of the writing itself. When you’re reading aloud, a book is only as good as how well it can be read. An awful lot of modern children’s books have all the elements that people think kids want: zaniness, lots of frenetic action, lots of repetition; but they require the reader to make constant adjustments so the lines come out right.
The execrable Skippyjon Jones books come to mind. They are hugely difficult to read aloud, because the words stutter and start and pile up, but rather than building excitement, they’re formless and aimless, littered with dreary puns that kids won’t get, lacking any purpose or arc. They always remind me of this clown, Cheryl, who used to turn up at children’s events. Her entire repertoire was screaming at the kids, because she heard kids like screaming, so here is some screaming. Cheryl was exhausting.
Anyway, about the story of Mike Mulligan. I was astonished to find that some people think it’s depressing. To paraphrase what several people said: He messes up one little job, and now he has to be a janitor forever! Mary Anne is interred in a basement for the rest of her life! I guess if I read the book for the first time as an adult — especially, perhaps, as a young housewife feeling overlooked and trapped — I might read it that way.
But I did grow up loving the book, and so I’m predisposed to seeing more in it. It’s a John Henry story (“He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week but he had never been quite sure that this was true”); except instead of a glorious death in the end, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes them nice hot apple pies. The end of the story is no dark tomb; sunlight pours into the basement, a sort of Elysian Fields for heroes who have earned their rest.
Several of Burton’s books deal with the idea that progress is good, until it stops being good. (Her excellent The Little House is a more stark and melancholy story with the same theme.) Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are a victim of their own success. In their prime, they did all the works of progress: They dug the great canals, they cut through the high mountains, they lowered the hills and straightened the curves.
They were literally on the cutting edge of industry and progress; and that means they were destined to be surpassed.
What are they to do? In a briefly grim passage, Mike has a vision of Gehenna:
It’s intolerable. But where else can you go, when you’ve come to the end?
But in Virginia Lee Burton books, there is always a way out; always a little bit of paradise still reserved for the worthy. So the two heroes set off for greener pastures
and Mike finally has the chance to find out if he and Mary Anne can really dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.
The busy pressure of their past life of industry is recreated in one final, intense day of crisis: He and Mary Anne are fighting against time. The era is coming to an end; the sun is going down. The only way to survive is to do what they are made to do, faster and faster.
And they win! They beat the sun. But in their victory, they have literally dug a hole for themselves that they can’t get out of.
And here is the brilliance of the book. How are they going to get out? It’s not just about this specific job; it’s about retaining their dignity and identity in a changing world. They’ve come to the end. What can be next?
It would make no sense for them to find more and more digging to do. They’re no longer wanted in the city, but they also can’t despoil the green and sunny world that saved their lives. So instead, rather than finding a way out, they find a way to stay in . . . but without defeat.
Mary Anne’s engine keeps working, but now she warms up the meetings at the new town hall. It’s the end of an era, and this is inescapable; but that doesn’t mean anyone is consigned to the netherworld. They lay down their hammer, but they do not die.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mike and Mary Anne’s virtues are transformed into warmth, rather than mere industry. (They always worked better and faster when people are watching, after all.)
And through their ordeal, Henry B. Swap, with small town scheming ways, is also transformed; and after Mike triumphs, “he spends most of his time in the cellar of the new town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.” So it turns out it’s all about people, in the end.
There are other children’s books that look back fondly on the past, but I’ve never found another book that deals with inevitable change in such a satisfying way.
But it’s not a lesson book, a wholesome moral disguised as a story; and that’s another of Burton’s virtues. My four-year-old doesn’t hear a Fin de siècle rumination on identity, mortality, and the mixed blessing of productivity. She hears an exciting story about digging, and billowing clouds of dust, and hurry hurry hurry, and Kipperville and Kopperville and Bangerville and Bopperville, and hot apple pies, and that’s what makes it a good book.
So I guess I’m okay with being the one who gets all excited about children’s books, enough to share passages that I find illuminating. I know full well that some people see my kind of life as interred in a basement, endlessly changing diapers and wiping up crumbs instead of using my mind and my college degree and making constant progress. What can I say? I’m using the engine I have, and I feel like I’m making some warmth.
Today seems like as good a time as any to talk about how I choose stories, and how I decide to walk away from stories.
People send me (and my husband, if we’re working together) tips pretty frequently. Sometimes we look into them and decide to pursue them. Sometimes we look into them a bit, and decide they’re not for us. Sometimes we spend weeks or months looking into them, and then decide they’re not for us.
I don’t cover stories the same way a newspaper reporter with a regular beat or territory would. Since I run my own site, I have the luxury of deciding that a story may be newsworthy, but I simply don’t want to cover it.
What kind of stories will I decide not to write?
1.Stories I believe are true and important, but which I cannot document to my satisfaction. We don’t have a legal team to defend us if we get sued. I’m not a coward and I don’t mind getting yelled at, but I don’t want to lose my house.
2. Stories which are well-documented and important and impart information that it would be useful for people to have, but which would cause a disproportionate amount of distress if made public. If it’s going to hurt someone for the information to be public, I need to have a damn good reason to make it public.
3. Stories that lots of other people are already covering. I’m not a news outlet. People don’t come here for headlines.
4. Stories that will make some injustice public when there are other, reliable, established means of bringing about justice. If you come to me with information about a crime, I will tell you to go to the police, etc.
5. Stories that just give me a weird feeling and I don’t know why.
Stories I will write:
Stories that will piss people off. Don’t care.
Stories that people may misinterpret. Unavoidable.
Stories that are not the exhaustive, final word encapsulating every possible aspect that could be mentioned about the topic. Somehow I sleep at night.
Stories that criticize the actions of people or organizations that also do a lot of good. Dat’s my job. If it’s people or organizations I care about, then I’m the perfect one to write a critique, since I am more motivated to be fair than someone who doesn’t care about them.
Before I write a story, I always ask myself why it’s important, what larger thing it signifies, and what will likely happen if I write it. If the only motivation is “it will get me clicks,” then I probably won’t write it.
And now you know! I encourage you to send me tips at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a story that may or may not fall into these categories. I’m always happy to look into it, and if you tell me something in confidence, I will keep it confidential, even if we don’t write about it (unless of course it’s something I’m obligated to report to police).
In case some of you were curious about my process. This takes you from accepting the gig straight up to the day before.
Image: Gregor Reisch [Public domain]
Someone recently asked me, “Did you even stop and think about what would happen if you wrote what you did?” Many years ago, the answer would probably be, “Nope.” It just popped into my head, so I wrote it.
Today, the answer is almost certainly, “Yes, I thought about it all night long.” And I prayed about it; I probably ran it by some trusted editor friends; and if it was a tricky subject, I probably shed some tears. It’s exhausting, but I consider it part of my job.
Image by stevepb via Pixabay (Creative Commons)
She got her sons’ permission to write everything she writes.
Yeah. So what? They are your children. Your relationship with them is not a contractual obligation where one party can sign away their rights to dignity and privacy just because their mom has a deadline and a grievance
1. You’re just trying to get attention with this! Oh gosh-all-whillikers, not attention! You mean that I made an effort to write in such a way as to persuade people to click on the headline, think about what I said, and elicit a response of some kind? Is outrage! Next time I have a thought, I’ll jot it down on an orange peel and bury it under the shed. You know, for the greater glory of God.
(If I’m writing flagrantly click-baity headlines, attaching photos of Mila Kunis’ chestal area, or just plain lying about stuff, then that’s no good. But just being interesting? That’s my job.)
Every so often, someone asks me for tips on launching a new blog. Here is some general advice for the typical popular blog. I don’t take all this advice myself, but it’s still all good practice.
Experienced bloggers, what would you add?
To increase your audience:
-Always include a picture. People are much more likely to read and share a post that has an illustration of some kind.*
-Post everything on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus once or twice, and make good use of keywords and hashtags. Also consider using Instagram, Tumblr, andregularly. Aim for three times a week, if not every day.
-Make post titles short, snappy and searchable. Questions make good titles (but not for every post). Intriguing trumps descriptive.
-Before you try to get any big traffic, do a “soft launch” by having about 5-6 posts already published. If you intend to have a comment box (which is not necessary), find a few friendly people to leave comments in those first posts, to give it a “live” feeling.
-Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to bigger bloggers who have an audience that might be interested in your writing. Don’t expect to hear back from everyone, of course, but many bloggers are happy to do a quick, general “Here’s something new, might be interesting” post on social media, so cast a wide net.
-Put a link to your blog allllll over the place: in the signature of your email, in comments that you leave on other blogs, in the heading of whatever social media you use, etc.
-Include the option to subscribe to your blog via feeds and email.
-Link to other bloggers on your blog, either within the content or at the end of the post in a “related reads” list. Share other bloggers’ work on social media.
*Bloggers, even tiny little ones, are getting sued more and more often for using copyrighted pictures! Make sure that you only use images you have permission to use — either your own photos, or images from sources like Wikimedia Commons, Wellcome Images, Pond5, or other sources of royalty-free images. Make sure you attribute them correctly (the sites will give you directions for how to attribute).
For the writing itself:
-Write about things that you really know about, rather than Things People Really Ought to Know. People really like to get snapshots of worlds that aren’t anything like their own, OR snapshots of worlds that they know all too well, and wish other people understood. Dialogue, vivid description, thoughts that popped into your head – these are all much more captivating than explanations or analysis.
-Let your unique voice come through. A consistent, authentic voice that becomes familiar is what will keep people coming back. It’s okay to assume a persona that’s not exactly you, as long as it’s consistent.
-It’s fine to be dramatic and punchy; it’s not fine to be sensationalistic. People are very, very tired of the breathless “You’ll never believe what happens next!” kind of stuff that’s everywhere, and they resent being tricked into reading a story. Let the writing and subject matter be compelling on its own.
-It’s fine to be controversial or critical; it’s not fine to be nasty or to get personal. If you’re angry, be angry, but be other things, too.
-There is nothing wrong with latching onto a hot topic, news story, or celebrity name and using it as a hook to talk about something that you have insight or experience about, but don’t let every post be like this.
-Keep posts short, under 1,000 words. This isn’t applicable for every type of blog; but the typical reader has a pretty short attention span. And for crying out loud, use paragraphs. Too many bloggers offer a solid brick of writing, and I, for one, refuse to read bricks.
For the blog:
-Seems like common sense, but search around to make sure no one else is already using whatever name you choose. You don’t want to be constantly explaining, “No no, I’m Musings of a Random Guy, not Random Guy’s Musings.”
-Have a picture of yourself somewhere on the blog, and make sure there’s an “about me” or “what we do here” page.
-Include contact information. It’s a good idea to have a separate email just for you blog, so your inbox doesn’t get too cluttered with blog stuff.
-Remember that you don’t owe anyone a platform. People are free to start their own blogs, if they have something to say! If you do decide to have a comment box, consider moderating comments before they get published. It’s nice to have a lively comment box that feels like a community, but if the jerks feel too free to say whatever they want, then decent, sensible people won’t bother getting involved, and you’ll just have a cesspool.
-Use tags; have archives on your sidebar; and once you get going, consider having a “my favorite posts” or “most popular posts” list on the sidebar, to keep people browsing around.
-Keep it as uncluttered as possible. Avoid pop-ups and autoplay ads.
-For the love of mike, don’t use a dark background and light print, and don’t use any kind of gimmicky font. Make it as readable as possible or . . . dun dun dun . . . people won’t read it.