Thursday, November 13, 2014

In praise of Boy Scouts

Guys who excel academically read copiously as boys, true or false? Patently false, and it’s always about WHAT particular book turned them on, if they eventually transformed from non-readers to eager readers.

Edward Osborne “E. O.” Wilson is an American biologist and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for The Social Conquest of Earth and Letters to a Young Scientist. He is also known as “the father of socio-biology” and “the father of biodiversity.”

The former Harvard University professor recently revealed that he read only two books cover to cover during high school, and almost never visited his local library. (“Libraries were not part of the culture in which I was raised.”)

He attributes his turnaround to Handbook for Boys, the official guide of the Boy Scouts of America. Whatever challenges the organization may still be meeting in adapting to current day issues, he says its promotion of individualism, responsibility, empowerment and the philosophy of taking hold and learning by doing, spoke to him as a youth.

The Handbook for Boys, he says, is true to the maxim, “Teach me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand.”

A quotable quote from a former reluctant reader who has enjoyed an impressive share of success in life.

from The New York Times Book Review, p. 57, Nov. 9, 2014: “Author’s Note: A Manual for Life”


Friday, November 7, 2014

Audience switcheroo

Ever prepared a presentation for an audience of adults, and found yourself facing rows of resentful-looking pre-teens clicking at high-speed on their electronic devices like they really don’t want to be there?

The irony is, I do presentations for kids a lot, but this one was scheduled for adults at a library, and it was on boys and literacy. Some parent in need of a break from her kids had dumped them there on the understanding it was a program for boys.

Oh joy, thought I, I get to turn my prepared talk completely on its head as I go, a challenging exercise in thinking on one’s toes if ever I’ve met one.

What to do? I quickly dumbed down some of the vocabulary: "reading" instead of "literacy," “tend to” instead of statistics that showed a majority, and “you” instead of “boys.”

I figured I’d lose them no matter what I did, because the topic wasn’t really up their alley. But you know what? By the end of the presentation, they’d laid their electronic devices aside, and the questions they asked at the end were both intelligent and proof that they’d gotten the message.

What was the message? Boys don’t tend to read as much as girls, and this hurts their grades at school. The more one reads, the more likely they are to get into college and earn more at good jobs. More dads, uncles and grand-dads need to read to boys for the role-model factor. And although boys still tend to be better than girls at science, they’re no longer doing better than girls at math, and they’re behind in reading and writing skills – something they can reverse by reading just fifteen minutes each day. And so on.

They get it, moms and dads of boys. And they’re actually interested in their future and how it connects to reading. They’re especially interested in what they’re still better at than girls :), so help them keep that edge by finding them some science books, okay?

To read up more on boys, literacy, learning and success, check out my book for parents and mentors of boy: Jump-Starting Boys:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A reader's suggestion led to Dirt Bike Daredevils

The seventh in my stories-behind-writing-the-books, which I offer intermittently here on my blog.

The cool thing about Dirt Bike Daredevils is that it happened entirely due to a reader’s suggestion. I was speaking at a school in Kelowna, British Columbia when, after my talk, Nikki Lawrence and her young son Levi came up to me afterwards. “Would you ever consider writing a book about moto-cross racing?” they asked.

“You never know,” I said with a smile.

“Because if you ever do, our entire family is into it and we could help.”

“Okay!” I said. And wouldn’t you know that just weeks later, my publisher announced he was extending my six-book series to ten and asked, “What will be the topic of your next book?”

“Moto-cross racing,” I declared, and got on the phone real fast to the librarian who’d sponsored me at the Kelowna school. She knew exactly which mother and son I was referring to, and as fast as that, I was in touch and working with the Lawrence family.

I attended a moto-cross race with them, carrying my notebook around while asking a stream of questions. I got to see the track they’d constructed on their ranch. I was impressed with the family-oriented get-togethers and the fun the young dirt-bikers were having. I also immersed myself in learning about free-style event and dirt-bike mechanics (luckily I had a neighbor willing to help me with the latter).

Then, while speaking at a school the other side of the country, I had a teacher come up to me and mention that her father-law was a former national champion. So I soon found myself working with Ron Keys as well.

Other notes about Dirt Bike Daredevils:
  • I had lots of fun naming the llama ranch where the book takes place (Back-of-Beyond Ranch) and the llamas on it: Furball, Hero, Salt and Pepper.
  • I immersed myself in information about llamas and their care, including watching videos on llama-cart racing, with help from a friend who owned a few llamas at the time, John Fulker. (When one of his children got married outside on their farm, they arranged ribbon-decorated hay bales for pews. They also put bow-ties on their llamas and allowed them to wander freely about the wedding gathering. When the music started up and the bride began walking up the “aisle,” the llamas snapped to attention and followed ceremoniously behind.)
  • The book kicks off with the sound of a rifle going off at dawn from the farmhouse window; the boys soon discover that their eccentric Russian boss just shot a rabbit from there. That’s taken from my father-in-law doing precisely the same on his farm in Somerset, England.
  • Having studied Russian in university, I couldn’t resist including some Russian characters and teaching my readers a few words, such as “silly” in Russian, which is pronounced “gloopy.”
  • The incident in which an eagle lifts a rooster from the farm, and is rising to take off with it when some well-aimed spit from a llama makes him drop it, is taken from a true incident in a country journal (acknowledged at the end of my book).
  • This was one of the most difficult books in the series to write, given that I knew nothing about motorcycles before I started (except for my experience at age 18 of driving my boyfriend’s motorcycle into a tree as he was attempting to teach me to ride -- something for which he was not grateful). While most of my books are one-third research and two-thirds writing, this one was the other way around, especially given the need for motorcycle mechanics to play a part.
To order Dirt Bike Daredevils:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Meet my teen editor

TOP PHOTO: Malcolm and me at Tomales, California this past weekend, with the advance copy of Andreo’s Race in our hands. 
BOTTOM PHOTO: Three years ago in Ecuador, where I met Malcolm and family while researching my novel First Descent.
 I’m second from left. Malcolm is in the front. To my right are his mother Laurie, my friend Melanie, Malcolm’s father TM, and Malcolm’s brother Thomas. We’re at El Monte, an ecolodge in Mindo:

Like many young-adult authors, I use a teen editor to ensure that I’m not using outdated teen expressions, that my characters ring true for their age and that the plot and dialogue passes muster with my target audience.

My teen editors read the manuscript before it goes to my editor, and they’re invited to make any input they like, but are asked to focus especially on dialogue. Each teen editor knows from the start that a) ) if they find nothing to change in my manuscripts, they get fired! J and b) they get retired at age 18 or so. (Malcolm is 16.)

My first teen editor was my son, from the age of ten until he lost interest sometime in high school. During our collaboration, I had to learn to take blunt and opinionated teen feedback (that’s my son for you), and he had to learn a bit of diplomacy.

My second teen editor was Julian Legere, who was thirteen when he enrolled in a youth writing workshop at which I taught. I was so impressed with his writing skills and maturity that I asked if he’d be my teen editor. Only several years and quite a few books later, when he entered college, did I seek out a replacement for him. My favourite moment of our collaboration was when he wrote in the margins of my manuscript, beside my use of the expression “parental units,” “NICE TRY!” (I dutifully edited it out, didn’t I, Julian?)

I met Malcolm Scruggs in Ecuador while researching my novel First Descent. Some readers may recognize the name; the grandfather in First Descent is named after him. Though a little shy of the process to begin with, Malcolm has worked into the job very well, and his knowledge of Spanish was useful for both First Descent (set in Colombia) and Andreo’s Race (set in Bolivia). Andreo's Race will be out officially in the spring of 2015 but can be pre-ordered here:
Malcolm will shortly be at work on my next novel, about a canyoneer who gets stalked. 

Meantime, my husband and I spent this past weekend in Point Reyes, California with his family -- kayaking, beach-walking, marshmallow-roasting, and playing board games in a historic house in Tomales where we were staying. We also walked along the San Andreas fault. I was delighted to hear that Malcolm is taking up extreme sports, including whitewater kayaking.

A good time was had by all, including reminisces of our Ecuador time. You just never know where you might meet your next teen editor!

Friday, October 24, 2014

How tall is the tree that my character climbs?

How tall is the tree that my character climbs?

Okay, I don’t always give away how I research my novels, but you know what? When I have a character whose key act is to climb a very tall tree in British Columbia, Canada (near Lillooet, if you must know), I can’t just make up the species and height of the tree. Well, some authors would, but I take pride in doing research to keep my stories as authentic as fiction can be.

And this morning, while researching how tall the tree is that my character climbs, I found a very cool website:

So, given the region in which I’ve chosen to set my current novel-in-progress, and the info on this big-tree website, I get to choose from an Engelmann spruce, white-bark pine, western white pine, black cotton wood or subalpine fir. And these measure anywhere from 14 meters (46 feet) in height to 56 meters (184 feet) in height. (The circumferences are pretty impressive, too: 3 to 5 meters, or 10 to 16 feet). If I want to, I can also quote the diameter and crown spread (hmmm, the latter might be important if a character climbs the tree to HIDE in the crown spread, right?).

Regarding the diameter, for it to have any meaning in my story, I need to measure a person’s outspread-arms span, and then figure out how many people it would take to circle the tree. That’s your math challenge for the day.

In other words, I don’t have to make things up, or become a lower-grade author by mentioning a tree species that doesn't actually exist in the region, or a height that is unrealistic for a species. Nor do I have to contact a forester or drive to the forest and climb a tree with a measuring tape. (I actually did climb a tree two days ago, but that was to get my kitten down, a whole other story.)

What did we do before the Web? Thanks, Big Tree index.

P.S. The tallest tree currently alive and well in British Columbia is a 127-meter (417 foot) fir. Long may it live. And if you’re not good at picturing measurements, that means the height of a 40-story building. Whoa! Would my character actually climb that?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The wingsuit jumper: too extreme for me

My husband and I spent the past three days in Yosemite National Park, California. We enjoyed perfect weather, stunning sights and a fun time hiking and sightseeing.

One of the more interesting moments was picking up a hitchhiker I will refer to as “Batman.” He was on his way up one of the mountains to jump off it – in a wingsuit. 

Now, I’ve written about a lot of extreme sports, but this one kind of ratchets up the definition of the phrase. It’s similar to basejumping, which is parachuting from a fixed structure or cliff. Except that wingsuiters wear a special outfit that creates a surface area by way of fabric under the arms and between the legs, not unlike the wings of a flying squirrel or bat. They also wear special parachute equipment they deploy to control the descent path after leaping.

Okay, but here’s the deal, according to our Batman hitchhiker. Although basejumping and hang gliding are legal in Yosemite Park (with restrictions), wingsuiting is not. The sport is legal throughout Europe, but anyone who hones their skills there and then eyes Yosemite Park or any other North American boulder that seems to invite leaping off it, has to worry big-time about detection and arrest. Therefore, they tend to jump only moments before dark, and land in far less open spaces than they would be able to in Europe, or than they would prefer to aim for if the sport were legal. In other words, to escape getting caught, they take on even more danger than the sport (which carries something like a 2% death rate) offers on its own. And if they upload videos of their activities, it can lead to arrest.

Imagine our Batman friend standing poised on a cliff hundreds of feet off the ground, waiting patiently for the sun to set. His eye is on a tiny clearing he hopes will be just large enough to not mess him up. His reward for pulling off the jump, stuffing his suit in his backpack and disappearing before park rangers arrive? “Zen-like moments” where all thoughts but the flight take over, and furthering his abilities within his chosen sport. That’s what he told us. I’d add a third: the ability to live another day.

Now, I’m not going to get involved in a discussion on whether wingsuit jumping should or shouldn’t be legal or enforced. But I will say that this is one sport I won’t be writing a novel about. Maybe it will become safer as more people get into it, equipment evolves and districts declare it legal. (I’d argue that hang-gliding went through that evolution.) And certainly, one person’s extreme sport is another’s safe, fun activity.

But in writing about so-called extreme sports, my goals have always been to:
1.     encourage teens (esp. boys) to read
2.     encourage them to get involved with sports, especially outdoors
3.     inform them about these sports
4.     promote the safety aspect within these sports as far as possible

Given the illegality of this sport in North America, it’s pretty hard to emphasize any safety aspect, which is rather hard to hone in on compared with others sports I’ve written about, anyway. So, I’ll pass. At the same time, I wish nothing but good luck to Batman and his compatriots. May they enjoy safe rides as long as they choose to pursue their passion.

Here’s a legal jump:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Immersed in canyoning

A few weeks ago I blogged about the new sport featured in my novel-in-progress:

As research for what my characters get up to, I'm currently "immersed" in researching canyoning. So here's another video on this extreme (and extremely interesting) activity, which mixes caving, rappelling (climbing down waterfalls and canyon walls) and swimming whitewater currents. Check it out!