Theater Masks

Theater Masks

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

My new book

I'm totally geeking out on my new book. The idea of writing about musical theater kids has always been somewhere in the back of my mind, but now that it's finally taking shape I'm SO excited by it.

I'm having a great time writing this one, and Caitie has told me it's the most excited she's been reading one of my books since Before White (not that the others aren't good, but Sparks took me a long time, and Goodson has been around in some form for almost a decade already - and well, just look at previous posts to see what happened with the mystery).

This book, which I've tentatively titles "Bye Bye Connie" is coming along great. Just a week in, and I have nearly 7,500 words already. That's by FAR the fastest I've gotten to that point.

Why? I think it's because I'm having FUN. I love this idea, and I get to make clever musical theater jokes. Yeah, I know some of them are going to be a little obscure, but that might help expand my audience to theater fans who might not otherwise pick up a MG book (which this definitely is). Still, I'm keeping the majority of the jokes aimed at an audience who has a passing familiarity with musicals - especially ones my students might know (those who are into theater).

It's nice to be excited about writing again!

Monday, February 14, 2011

A new start

Well, it seems at least for now that the mystery novel was a bust. I got 140 pages or so in, and it fizzled. I just can't seem to get into it, and the story is stalling all over the place. I tried to figure out why, and there are a couple of reasons. First, I had a REALLY hard time getting the tone down. I wanted to try a witty mystery a la Veronica Mars, and it just never got there. The main character never popped for me. Two, being tethered to one character in the real world just didn't sustain my interest. I felt so tied to a "this is what he's doing, next is this, next is this" and the story didn't lend itself to that. I felt like I was cheating when I skipped sections of time, like I needed to explain what happened in the interim, even if nothing happened. Getting from event to event was torturous because the story didn't call for it.

In my second book, Sparks, I follow one character the whole way through, but the timeline is so compressed that it works. The nature of the story I was telling in this mystery simply didn't lend itself to a day to day accounting, and I couldn't figure out how to move forward in time with the voice I was using.

So, I'm putting it aside for now. Maybe someday I'll come back to it. I still think the base story is good, the mystery is good enough (I can't imagine people would figure it out, though it makes total sense), and I LOVE a couple of the scenes in it. Maybe one day I'll rescue it.

But for now, I've started on something else. I've been throwing around in my mind the idea of a novel about theater, but couldn't latch onto any idea. Caitie spoke with an agent she worked with during her internship last Thursday who loves theater. When she was telling me about the conversation with him, the idea snapped into place. In the last three days I've written twenty pages, and I pretty much know where the story is going. I have four main characters I can bounce around between, and I like these four characters. I have a mode for TELLING the story. Best of all, because it's a theater story, I can totally geek out with references and such and it's making me VERY happy to write this story!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Why school curriculum needs to change

There's been a lot of chatter lately about the need for more science and math in schools these days. I don't disagree with that, but the way we teach kids English has also fallen behind. We're living in a time right now, in terms of culture, that is unlike any other in history. Schools have not adapted their curricula to the needs of students.

If you go back a hundred years, literature was the primary medium for telling stories. Go back sixty years to 1951, and yes, movies were coming out then, but think about this: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, classics now, were a mere twelve years old. Casablanca, which came out in 1942, was less than a decade old. What movies came out in the equivalent time frame to us now? 1999 was the year Titanic won the Oscar. 2002 saw the release of Spiderman, the last Lord of the Rings movie, and the second Harry Potter film.

What books were read in high schools then? Dickens? Check. Twain? Check. Shakespeare? Check. Chaucer and Homer and Steinbeck?

Let's speed up to the 70s. Dickens, Twain, and Shakespeare? Chaucer? Of course. Fitzgerald? Orwell? Lee? Sure. All are still read today in school.

This is what makes up a typical high school curriculum, correct?

Let me make one thing clear here before I move on to my point. I am in NO WAY advocating removing books and great literature from school curricula. That would be a travesty beyond words.

However, literature is not what it was to popular culture a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago when not everyone had a television in their living room, and when they did, it was turned on for specific programs at specific times. Old movies were only available at scheduled times or if they happened to be re-shown at the local theater. In 1961, fifty years ago, the Oscars were a mere thirty four years old.

Now, we're sixteen years from a hundred years of Oscars. That's less time than it will take for my two month old niece to graduate high school.

Movies are available now in the theater, but also on TV on five hundred channels, on demand, on Netflix in the mail, streaming through PS3s and Wiis, on the computer, on hand held devices. We are bordering on a hundred years of a medium that has infected every pore of our culture.

How often do you go a day without seeing or hearing a reference to The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars or The Godfather? Seriously, pay attention - you'll be shocked how they've infused our lives.

I recently did a lesson with my students about mythic journeys. I talked about Star Wars, and only half the kids had seen the movies. I had a slightly better hit rate on The Wizard of Oz, but there were still kids who didn't know what I was talking about.

So here's where I get to my point. Movies are a HUGE part of our culture. They are everywhere, they are so prevalent that they, for better or worse, influence the way we think. More importantly, the culture of ubiquitous media influences the way kids think. They imitate actors and singers, they quote lines, they're far more likely to read books that have movies attached than not. It's not going away.

Official school curricula, for the most part, completely ignores movies. In fact, our state "revised" curricula, has pulled even further away -- we used to have items for watching and analyzing that were replaced by non-fiction reading. Certainly there's a place for that, but are we denying our kids a cultural education by ignoring movies in school curricula?

With ever more movies being produced, the backlog of what kids need to know is greater now than it ever has been. Fifty years ago, there were a handful of "classics" - now the AFI has made MULTIPLE "hundred best" lists of films. Kids live and breathe new media - why are we ignoring it in school?

The answer is, society doesn't look on film as "culturally valuable." "You can't get the same thing from Star Wars as you can from The Odyssey!" Well, why not? As a colleague of mine said when we were discussing this issue, "All that's different is the mechanics - reading versus watching."

We are scraping at incorporating technology into schools (with shrinking budgets and increasing mandates, it's a little like Luke fighting the Empire single handedly), which is great, but we're ignoring CULTURE.

Yes, Shakespeare should be taught. And Dickens, and Twain, and Orwell. But wouldn't our kids be richer for knowing movie history? When someone says "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse," shouldn't they know what we're talking about? Movies have become as important a part of our culture as literature in the past hundred years, and the backlog of great stuff is only going to get bigger.

As I said at the start, I'm not advocating losing literature, but I think a little more movies (and music and theater, but one thing at a time) in our schools would help teach our kids QUALITY. When I ask my kids what their favorite movies are, they'll usually say last years action or comedy movie. I overheard a couple of kids saying how great they thought "Vampires Suck" was -- the movie that recently was nominated for a Razzie for worst movie of the year.

Kids have no basis to truly judge quality in media other than literature where they know the difference between a school book and a non-school book (though I also think that line needs to be blurred a hell of a lot more than it is - but that's also another issue). We need to teach kids what QUALITY movies are. We need to teach them how to analyze and evaluate movies, if for no other reason than to stop the anti-intellectual slide that is so prevalent in pop-culture. If we don't teach them, how will they know?

Do you agree with me? Am I way off? Let me know...