I L L I D I A N and S T O R M R A G E

Yesterday I was watching TV with my husband- or rather I was re-re-rewatching Game of Thrones while he was buried in his iPad, periodically giving gleeful play by plays of the latest sex scandals plaguing hollywood- when my 6 year old daughter trotted into the room.

Her: Mommy, I just fell in the lava.

Me: Can you talk to the angel? (running back to her body is, as of yet, too complicated)

Her: But I didn’t die.

Me: Oh… [pondering advice. Find the ramp to climb out? is there a ramp? I’ve never fallen in Ironforge lava. But Undercity has ramps and steps to climb out of sludge. Jump? Jump really, really high (slamming the space bar)?]

Uh… I finally said, Just click your hearthstone.

Okay! she said brightly, and trotted off.

My husband looked up from the iPad, blinking. That has to be the strangest conversation I’ve EVER heard.

I laughed because you know what? He’s right. Say what you will about the game, but once within the warm embrace of World of Warcraft, no matter how amateur or deep your involvement, you have migrated to a different dimension with its own lingo.

And don’t knock video games for little kids! My now 18 year old learned to read playing WoW. As a young child she struggled for years with reading. Despite our coaching she could barely sound out words, much less understand what she was struggling to pronounce.

Anyway… I think she was 8 or 9… World of Warcraft entered our house. She was transfixed!  Mesmerized! And absolutely desperate to read those darn quests.

It took a while but within 6 months she was, for the first time in her life, able to read with meaning. By age 10 she could read with complete fluency and tore through books as though they were going out of style. She read through the entire young adult section of one library branch (just as my son read through the entire adult history section) necessitating that we switch to a different library branch.

All my kids learned to read at different ages. My oldest son could read before he could speak, and could read fluently by age 5. We caught him reading Money Magazine over my husband’s shoulder at that tender age of 6.

My two next youngest daughters learned to read around age 5 with fluency. Then the next daughter- she struggled terribly and couldn’t read at all until age 9 or so (Minecraft, not WoW was her inspiration) but once up and running she too burned through books with alarming speed. The next daughter after that struggled, not quite as much as her older sister. She prefers graphic novels and draws her own snarky comics depicting the horrors of math class.

This 6 year old appears to be in the “struggle group.” She developed an aversion to books and refused to let us to read to her.

Recently I decided to renew my subscription to WoW. Not sure why- I mean I’m two expansions behind, don’t have much free time, and I occasionally find the game tedious. But the 6 year old took an instant liking to the game- as her sister before her, she was absolutely mesmerized and desperate to understand what exactly was going on.

She can now read and spell a number of emotes- you know, /sleep, /dance, /sit- meticulously typing them out at the keyboard. She listens intently as we read the quests, copies down server names (imagine I L L I D I A N and S T O R M R A G E penciled in cute little girl handwriting) and has learn to navigate the maps. She began asking about other words outside the game. How do you spell “look?” What does c-l-i-c-k spell? She no longer has that aversion to books, spelling, or even her homework. Yesterday she was pestering me midday to hit the books- usually homework with her is a last minute, teeth pulling enterprise.

So if your kids love video games, don’t panic. Look for games that are language heavy, require map navigation, and make sure to have a little faith. As far as my WoW subscription, can you say CLASSIC SERVERS??? I’ll gladly hand over my non-existent paycheck for that.

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Book Murderer

It’s such a painful thing to throw away books. It almost feels like throwing away a living being.

With all these kids, we get a lot of donations. People like to bequeath their old clothes, toys, and books to us. I’ve even had people buy up books at library sales and dump them on our doorstep. While I appreciate these gestures, if you factor in that my husband and I are both book hoarders, and that we already owned thousands of books between us when we got married (many of them obtained for free from library trash bins, or for pennies from library book sales) it becomes a problem.

We have a sun room and bedroom filled with nothing but boxes of books (that no one reads, because they’re totally unorganized). The garage is half filled with massive plastic containers of books. Most of those books are adult books (not that kind of adult) or textbooks. I’ve made every effort, over 17 years of parenthood, to liberate the children’s books into the wilds of the house. Every bedroom except that of my 5 and 2 year olds has bookshelves packed with books. And in the common spaces there are large moving boxes (years old, from when we first moved into the house) overflowing with children’s books.

So I finally took it upon myself today to sort through the cardboard boxes and throw away books. I’d already established rules. Keep in mind ALL these books are in poor condition (up to 7 kids and 17 years of abuse) and couldn’t be donated or sold.

1) Anything we got for free would be tossed, unless it was a truly outstanding book.

2) Any book where I didn’t like the art would be tossed (take that, lousy illustrators).

3) Anything my 2nd grader received through a “special” program would be tossed. It’s amazing how much money is poured into educating the lower achieving strata of students. She’s brought home countless learning kits, parent guides, and learning libraries from her various intervention programs. If only that kind of money were spent on high achieving students. We’d probably have Star Trek technology by now.

4) Any damaged books would be tossed– on an inverse scale of desirability. The beloved Calvin and Hobbes books were in shreds, so they were tossed. But less loved books only needed a missing cover to meet the scrapheap.

5) If I just didn’t like the book, or was sick of seeing it, I threw it out. I guess like living beings, some books just rub me the wrong way.

By the time I was done there were five bags of murdered books lined up by the back staircase waiting for sanitation. I neatly arranged the remaining books along the floor by the wall. That’s another thing– I’ve long held a deep-seated fear of bookcases and entertainment centers ever since becoming a mother. Every year hundreds of children are killed by falling furniture. We don’t have bureaus either– at least not in the rooms of the little kids. Even if a piece of furniture is anchored to the wall, the anchor can fail or lose efficacy over time. We did have one bureau fall over on the overachiever at the old house– it was my childhood bureau and thankfully very lightweight. She was only 5 years old but emerged unscathed. Many children are not so lucky.

So I stand before you a book murderer. Supposedly books are going the way of the dodo anyway, though I personally don’t believe that. Books sales are up in Europe and some distributors have made top profits in recent years. My husband works in publishing and remains optimistic. He foresees a hybrid system where electronic books simply augment paper purchases (sort of like DVDs to theater tickets). This is precisely what his company has seen over recent years, so physical book lovers, take heart.

Life in the Library

My husband is a huge fan of public libraries. He’s been going to various public libraries in the NYPL system since he was a child. We still have his worn, paper library card dating back to his childhood. When people ask him where he got his law degree, he tells them, “the public library.” Once married to him, I started tagging along on his weekly library expeditions. And since our 17th anniversary is right around the corner, I have 17 years of library observations under my belt.

Back in the day (is 17 years really that long ago?) people were in libraries for books. There were few computers in branches, and most of those were use for word processing and printing. Somewhere around 2000 people began using the libraries for internet access, and within a few years there were stacks of laptops at checkout desks available for hourly use. Around 5 years ago I noticed a tipping point where there was far more internet/ laptop use than book browsing. In branches in poorer areas the patrons are there exclusively for access to the laptops and internet. In wealthier branches it’s about 70/30 in favor of laptops to books.

And what do people do on these laptops? Yes, I snoop, and it’s always one of three things: youtube music or movie videos; video games (even for the adults), and less often, facebook or a similar social networking site.

Today, at our local branch, which is one block down from a blighted area and housing project, there was not a single patron with a book (unless you count my family). Every last person was on a laptop (one person was asleep in a chair, but was later on a laptop). There were many children there– most of them unattended, and in fact I saw some very young children (age 3 or 4) with only slightly older siblings watching them. They hunkered down with the laptops watching rap videos and playing mindless video games. Everyone there looked either poor or homeless. Of course, I don’t know for a fact they were poor or homeless– appearances can be deceiving– when I first met my sister’s future father-in-law I thought he was a vagrant, but he turned out to own an aeronautics company. But I don’t think there were any stealth moguls in this crowd.

So when people complain of a digital divide, I do wonder, what divide exactly are they talking about, if poor people are using the computers for video games and youtube? It’s not that poor people don’t deserve to waste their time on youtube and video games, but I would think people without access to these mindless time suckers might actually be ahead of the game, intellectually speaking. In fact I’ve noticed an amazing thing with my kids: when I turn off the TV and forbid video games, they start reading.

One of the semi-attended young children at the branch today started crying over something her sibling-slash-babysitter did to her, so I made a point of sitting next to her with my own daughter and read a book out loud, thinking it might distract both of them. The little girl listened and stared at the book, entranced. There were lift up flaps and I asked her if she wanted to lift them up. The first few times I asked she looked puzzled, and finally she tentatively reached out a hand to lift up the flap for the picture underneath. I wondered if she’d ever looked through a flap book before (my little kids always love them), or even had a book read out loud to her, since she clearly found the experience so strange.

It reminded me of a time when I was younger– I had an interest in photography and would wander through the poorer parts of the rural town where I grew up, photographing abandoned mills. Once I came upon a small herd of children playing unattended. They came over to me, fascinated, asked about my camera, and asked to go through my bag where I happened to have a book of fairy tales (why I was carrying it I don’t remember). Feeling in a friendly mood I offered to read it to them, and I sat down on the ground to read out loud. They were transfixed and hung on every word, and I realized, while reading to them, that this was a very new experience for them, and they may well have never been read to before.

The irony here is that most of my seven children had no interest in being read to. Whenever I sat them down for a good book, they squirmed, sat upside down, grabbed the book, complained hysterically about who was sitting on which cushion, it was always a nightmare. The exception might be my 2 year old, who, despite not speaking, loves paging slowly through books and having them read to her. She’ll even page through books without pictures with a look of keen interest in her eyes.

Advice for Writers

My husband has worked on the business side of publishing for many years; after years of overhearing his work conversations, I believe I’m semi-qualified to offer the following advice to aspiring writers.  Some of this advice applies to artists/ illustrators as well (especially #2). However, allow me to point out the proviso that I am neither a publisher, nor a writer, myself (unless message boards count).

1) NEVER tell a publisher you have a “magnus opus” or a “huge” body of work to show them. They’ll assume you’re nuts and not worth dealing with.  If you do have a magnus opus, extract the best chapters or storylines and submit those (but don’t reveal it’s part of a magnus opus, until if and when they show sincere interest!).

2) If you’re over the age of 28-30ish, and are truly talented, but your success has been hampered by alcohol or drug abuse, be prepared to fake a credible cover story as to why you have not achieved success (make up a fake illness, a non-dramatic crisis, you were busy raising children, etc.).  If a publisher sees very high quality writing or art cross their desk, yet the person is 30+ and unknown, they will immediately assume that person has a substance abuse problem and thus is not worth dealing with.  This is especially critical if you’re looking for work that involves deadlines.

3) Write commercially and track trends.  If vampires are popular, write a vampire story.  If talking pigs are popular, write a talking pig story.  Watch bestseller lists and browse bookstores, paying close attention to the display tables. Publishers pay $10,000 per spot on those flat tables at Barnes and Noble, so you can assume any books placed in the premium spots are trending and worth imitating.

4) Look for ghost writing or anonymous writing opportunities.  Oftentimes publishers will “reverse write” a book, where they come up with the idea, then hire an unknown writer to churn it out. This is less glamorous than publishing your own idea, but it will pay, and afford you some resume-worthy writing experience.  It might even behoove you to send writing samples to editors with a cover letter stating you’re looking for ghost writing opportunities, and you’d be happy to write any ideas that might be in development.  Keep in mind that if the book is a hit, the title to the intellectual properties is still held by the publisher, so you will see little, if any, profit.

5) Submit to smaller publishers; they’ll be less likely to blow you off.  The larger publishers have so much volume crossing their desks that it’s easy to be lost in the avalanche.  If you’re an extrovert, don’t be afraid to cold call editors after you’ve submitted work– but don’t be annoying about it.

6) Be open to different formats and artforms.  Don’t overlook comic books; a comic book script is short, and if high quality can attract the attention of a comic book publisher.  Even if your script isn’t made into a book, you might be tapped for a future project.  Try your hand at screenplays, fiction, nonfiction, and so on.  If you typically write for young adults, try writing for adults.  Try your hand at a self help or instructional book.  Don’t lock yourself into any single format or genre of writing.

7) Be wary of length (see #1).  Anything over 200-300 pages will raise eyebrows.  Most readers don’t want huge volumes anyway (Harry Potter notwithstanding).

8) In general, avoid looking weird and unstable when approaching a publisher.  If you are weird and unstable, do your best to tone it down.  Dress conservatively and don’t say anything ridiculous.

9) Ride coattails and write parody.  Keep an eye on what movies are in production, that will hit movie theaters years from now, and write a similar story and shop it around with a note that the related X movie will be coming out.  Parodies can include character names and plotlines without violating copyright laws, which allows you to feed off the name recognition of the original property.

10) Write for pre-existing captive audiences.  Sci-fi, vampires, and evangelical christianity are good examples of this: built-in audiences that so love the genre or topic, that they will gladly give an unknown a try.  This is especially good if you’re self publishing online.

11) Write erotica for women.  Erotica sales have skyrocketed ever since the introduction of e-readers.  Women can now buy soft porn without embarrassment, and the numbers indicate they’re gobbling it up.

12) Write romance for women.  Romance is the #1 selling genre in the United States (if not worldwide?), and the majority of the romance readers are women.  Women, in general, buy more books than do men.

13) If all else fails, self-publish electronically, but be careful about disclosing your self-publishing past to a real publisher, who tend to see self-publishers as losers.  The exception to this is if a self-published author has managed to attract a large fan base; then a publishing house will be happy to work with him or her.

14) For cold submissions, try something outrageous (but not offensive) that might catch the publisher’s eye.  Publishers tend to see a lot of the same stuff, so if you can produce something unique, bizarre, yet high quality, it might receive more eyeball time than the typical fare.

15) Don’t despair when you read about publishing going the way of the dodo.  While the internet has demolished paper journalism, book sales are still thriving, and if anything, are simply being augmented by ebooks (which, of course, is still a form of being published!). Remember, people thought VHS would mean the end of movie theaters, but people go to the theater more than ever, in addition to buying, renting, and streaming films.  It’s your job to keep an eye on the kind of books that are selling: 50 Shades of Gray, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid have sold untold millions of print and electronic copies, and have made their authors fabulously wealthy.