At talks I gave in Seoul and Bogotá on a standalone novel called Revenge on the Fly, the same question arose: “What do I think of series?” It was clear that the answer was supposed to be that they were a lesser form of literature that you shouldn’t encourage or even allow your young people to read.
Venganza contra las moscas
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Which reminded me that when I was a young reader, I was shocked when one of my closest friends was forbidden to read Nancy Drew. She was also not allowed to be friends with me but that’s another story.
Aw c’mon, why can’t kids latch on to a set of characters, a premise and/or a certain writer for awhile? It’s so comforting. Like visiting the same cottage every summer. Like binge watching a show on Netflicks.
Back as an early reader I graduated from Nancy Drew to Little House on the Prairies, devouring every book as fast as I could get them off the shelves.
Many years later, I wrote six books in a Stage School series for an English publisher, Orchard Publishing, under the pseudonym Gena Dare. Sharon Siamon and Linda Hendry wrote the other six sharing the same pseudonym.
My six Stage School novels for Orchard Publishing
Even though the characters were of Sharon Siamon’s creation, I became addicted to what was happening in their lives. Sharon and I would argue over whether say dancerJenna could experience anorexia, or whether Actor Claire would every fall for Comic Dan. They were so real to us. Working together was so much fun; I miss her.
The experience was also excellent in learning how to research and write quickly without so much second guessing. Second guessing leads to writing block and with a book to write every three months there was no time.
Revisiting characters was also a lot of fun so I created my own new characters for Wild Life series “Et Vilt Liv” under my name for a Norwegian publisher. Only the first one, Last Chance for Paris, made it to the Canadian Publishing scene.
In Canada I wrote one-offs that grew into series because I couldn’t let the characters go.
Elizabeth and Beauty are a duo that I still want to peek in on now and again.
These past couple of years I worked on The Great Mistake Mysteries. One of my close writing friends said of them “I wish I had a set of characters I could just call up like that.”
When you think about it, books for children are shorter, Harry Potter excepting. So if your child wants to have that epic reading experience you enjoy from a full length novel, without the pressure of acquiring that super-thick, extra-heavy book, series satisfies the bill.
If you’re not careful being a parent can become all about worrying. Are they walking or talking on schedule. Are they reading up to grade level? Will they never move on from Captain Underpants or Dogman? Will they ever read–Insert latest GG winner here–?
As a reader, I recently cracked open a Louise Penny series mystery. Oh my, instantly I curled up and relaxed into a visit with my favourite detective Inspector Gamache. There was no working hard to get to the place where I understood the book’s world or how the characters related. I could immerse myself from the opening pages.
Sometimes for your book club or your university literature class you want more of a challenge. Perhaps our educators also need to present young readers with challenges to move out of their reading comfort zone whether that be graphic novels, series or standalone mono-genre novels.
So what do I think of series? Even when I write the occasional stand alone books and get to tour beautiful countries with them, I feel series are excellent, both to read and to write. From a writer’s perspective, a marketing problem exists in how reviewing bodies treat them as identical triplets or sextuplets instead of individuals. A distribution issue in Canada, certainly, is how the bookstores only stock the last title in the series. There’s an assumption that series are grand money makers–they’re not. They’re just fulfilling to write.
Lately I’ve been signing in stores and enjoyed the strange position of defending the Wimpy Kid books (not my own series sadly)–apparently the main character inspires laziness in kids or at least one customer’s kid.
Let kids wallow in the kind of story they like for as long as they want. They’ll learn to walk, talk, spell, grow up, get a job and be a responsible person all in their own good time.
PS The Great Mistake Mysteries has just been purchased by a Russian publisher. With any luck, some day I can speak in a Russian library and answer how I feel standalone novels measure up to series in terms of growing readers.
Time to dream, think, re-envision and write–that’s what writers need most. But then for some reason you’re away from your project for a long time–say a few signings, a book tour or holiday. Or even another book.
You need to get back into your story–probably have to reread the whole first part to get your head into the characters but you have, a suitcase to unpack, lunch to make, a microwave to clean, laundry to sort.
Here’s a feature on my Mac that I love to use: Speech.
Tessa, the south African voice, reads my work to me while I do other things. On my Macair, I click the apple, System preferences, Accessibility and then Speech. I chose Tessa because I like the way she reads, it doesn’t sound quite as mechanical or computer like as other voices.Then I select the text I want read and click Alt Esc. Tessa doesn’t pay all that much attention to my punctuation but that’s okay, neither do my young readers.
Sometimes my mind wanders when she reads to me–again so do my young readers’. Or I rush for a pencil to write down things that are wrong so I don’t forget and I miss a part. No matter, Tessa patiently reads to me again when I click Alt Esc.
This feature is also useful after a day of reading someone else’s work, say if I’m editing or story doctoring for another writer, when my eyes are tired of looking at a screen, Tessa again happily steps in.
When you self-edit, which is always kind of an oximoron to me, you need to distance yourself from your story, take it outside your head–and with Tessa reading it ( or Irish Moira or Scottish Fiona, there are many voices to choose from) the words naturally take one step away from you.
From left to right,Jennifer Maruno, the Honourable Karina Gould, Daniel,her assistant, Sylvia McNicoll and Jennifer Mook-Sang.
This is our second trip to the Honourable Karina Gould since she’s been elected. We wanted to respectfully request that our government address the suggestions that the House of Commons Standing Committee on Heritage submitted in March of 2019.
Four months may not seem a long time to wait for some kind of reaction but of course The Canadian Copyright Modernization Act has been in place and affecting all artists since 2011. By 2012 schools were deciding tariffs were optional. It’s been almost seven years of missing these fees that schools are required to pay in order to cover incidental copying and downloading.
Purchasing of books by schools is down by 43%, Canadian book purchases in general are down by 30%.
Can publishing survive? What if Canada loses its cultural voice? What if our kids study immigration with American texts?
On a brighter related note, Hon. Karina Gould has agreed to participate in a reading encouragement contest where children submit ballots for every Canadian book they’ve read for the chance to be Burlington’s MP for a day! Stay tuned.
City of Burlington makes a big deal of me. My career began when I moved her in the 80s.
When I tell people I’m heading in to Toronto to meet my agent and publicist, I feel like Lady Gaga. But writers are only celebrities in a quiet, have-you-read my-book, kind of way. What I mean by that is if you haven’t read anything I’ve written, of course I am not famous to you. (Also PS I’m not wealthy.)
A lovely part of my work though is having a team behind me. Sorry I didn’t take a selfie with the best agent I could imagine having, Amy Tompkins. (David Bennett retired–he was the best I could imagine before.)
We talked about my picture book effort and she made great edit suggestions among which is find a sexier title. Hero Dogs has now become Boomer and Diesel, Life Saver Dogs. Tell me if you think of anything sexier. We also talked about a future bidding war for a new project What the Dog Knows. Just kidding. Well maybe not really.
Then I dropped by on the beautiful Dundurn Press office. Oh my gosh, there are bookshelves everywhere and that kind of hushed atmosphere that makes you want to stop, drop, and read.
Elham Ali, my savy young publicist, and I discussed subway ads, Forest of Reading hopes (every writer in Canada hopes), great books and…she let me pick a couple of ARCs (advance reading copies.) Elham also gave me a Best Mistake Mystery poster which I immediately regifted to Burlington Public Library. My series is set in Burlington so I’m always trying to alert young readers here about it.
Also squeezed in around these meetings, I chatted with Claire Gillis to get an update on copyright struggles. Where possible I try to advocate for Access Copyright because I want the future writers, editors, publicists and other cultural arts workers of Canada to have jobs. Strong copyright is strong culture.
Toronto is a long commute, so I bring my laptop and write. Totally immersed myself in my new middle grade project, despite announcements at every station about the floor I was on being a “Quiet Zone.” On the way home I finished reading a captivating book recommended to me by fellow Burlington writer Jennifer Maruno. The book is I Am a Truck by Michelle Winters
A perfect day in the life of a writer.!
At the end of the meetings I make time for a little sight seeing before the commute home. My favourite fountain on Front Street.
Spending quality time with Spiderman at McDonalds.
It’s the possibility for far reaching connection that I love about the McDonald’s giveaway.
What is the height of success for a writer? Jennifer Mook-Sang’s been nominated for the Silver Birch and many other prestigious awards for her first novel Speechless (Scholastic)
but when her second book Captain Monty Takes the Plunge (Kids Can Press) was chosen as a McDonald’s giveaway–that’s when I really felt joy and envy for her.
This term as part of my Writing for Young Audiences class at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, I asked her some questions to share as part of teaching picture book writing. I loved her responses so much that I felt compelled to share them here to a wider audience.
Where did the idea for Captain Monty Takes the Plunge come from?
I was taking a PB writing class where the (not very good) teacher told us to write a character with a problem. I sat in the parking lot, waiting for my sons to get out of school, grabbed my sketch book (I was also taking a painting class) and started to write. the whole thing came out in five minutes — except I didn’t have an ending. when the teacher marked it, she suggested adding more setting/description. I did. And, of course, all that came out later because it was superfluous.
2 How did that original kernel grow into the story it is now?
I tried over many years to find an ending and wrote some really awful ones till I decided to send something to the CANSCAIP writing for children contest. That forced me to think hard about the story. A DIFFERENT teacher had recently told us that stories can be very satisfying if the end comes around to the beginning, so I sat and imagined Monty standing on the cannon at the beginning of the story, and in a flash (I know this stuff seems like magic sometimes), the ending came in my head. who knew? Took ten years.
3 Did you experience rejection?
I’ve had some rejection but not as much as I expected. when I started out on this journey, everyone said to expect lots. all the books, teachers, conference presenters said, ‘rejection letters are a badge of honour – a sign that you’re a real writer. So I hung on to that idea to get me past the parts where my writing sucked — all the rewrites suggested by critique groups, all the ignoring from publishers and agents.
4 What advice do you have for beginner writers?
Think about what you’re reading. Ask yourself why you like what you like, and why some things don’t work for you. How does the writer manipulate the words to make you feel something?
Read the books on awards finalists lists. At the very least you’ll know what’s being published that’s considered good.
Reading develops taste. When you write bad stuff, you’ll be able to recognize it and want to fix it.
I think that’s one of the best reasons for reading widely and deeply.
plus it gives you great ideas to steal and use in your own work.
Thanks Jennifer Mook-Sang!
One of the things I really took away from these answers which I wanted my students to understand, is that picture books especially may take years for you to finally get to the place where you hear the audible click! Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly how I wanted my story to go, exactly what I wanted it to say. Good writing makes it look easy. but as Malcom Gladwell said it takes 10,000 hours to achieve success in any field.
It’s amazing to look back on 2018, so many signings, library and school visits. The greatest privilege was to be able to visit with readers in Colombia for Norma Publishing, sponsored also by Canada Council Arts Abroad. Venganza Contra las Moscas was featured in the 20th anniversary essay writing contest and as a result, most grade seven students had read it.
Even if I have to sign a million books, I always take an extra moment to try and get a smile and a few words in with my readers.