Archive: March 2011
A Few More Dedications …

Following last week’s post on book dedications, a few readers and friends chimed in with their own favorites, which I thought I’d share …

Scholar and blogger Kerry Mockler sent along a dedication from the late Diana Wynne Jones1  from Howl’s Moving Castle:

“The idea for this book was suggested by a boy in a school I was visiting, who asked me to write a book called The Moving Castle. I wrote down his name, and put it in such a safe place, that I have been unable to find it ever since. I would like to thank him very much.”

Librarian Anne-Marie Gordon brought up Daniel Pinkwater’s short-but-sweet dedication to Aunt Lulu:

“Aunt Lulu” is dedicated to “good librarians everywhere.”

Scholar and friend Alexandra Valint described some scandal around the dedication in Jane Eyre — I’ll let Alex tell the story:

“Charlotte Bronte dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to W. M. Thackeray.  She clearly did it out of great admiration for his writing (she had not met him at that point), but eventually, when her real identity got out, the dedication caused quite a bit of scandal.  You see, Thackeray’s real wife was insane and suicidal and eventually had to be locked up (Bronte would not have known this).  So, of course, rumors started to spread about the real relationship between Bronte and Thackeray.  Add to that that there was a kind of a subdued literary rivalship between them, and we get, in general, a great dedication.”

And finally, teacher Mike Lewis scanned and sent this charming dedication from Paul Feig:

That’s it!  Stay tuned later in the week when I’ll be posting the rest of this semester’s reading list for our children’s literature course!  Until then …

  1. For those unaware, Jones passed away this week — you can read a tribute on Kerry’s blog here, or a touching piece from Neil Gaiman here.
WORD OF THE DAY: “Brachiate”

Learned a new word the other day:

Brachiate: verb. (of certain apes) move by using the arms to swing from branch to branch

I learned this word from a friend who studied anthropology in undergrad … wish I had known of it while writing Peter Nimble!


The other day, I came across this positively depressing bit of news about the upcoming edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  This dictionary, long the bastion of tweedy old-wordery, has announced that it will henceforth be including a series of internet acronyms in its pages — including OMG, LOL, ATWWNMTOYDYI1, and, even worse, the heart symbol.

That’s right, this guy: ♥

The inclusion of these words depresses me for three main reasons:  First, these additions make me feel like a 20-something curmudgeon.  Second, many of these phrases are things I don’t understand. Third and most important), these new “words” are incredibly lame … In thousands of years when some alien culture digs up a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, they will learn how stupid we were and laugh at us.

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive about this.  You see, I have a deep and abiding love for the OED.  This is not just some dictionary; it’s the most ambitious literary project of, well, all time.  The OED consists of 20 volumes containing 600,000 words.  And it’s not just definitions — it also chronicles the shifting usage of these words, as well as listing significant published appearances.2  When I was courting Mary, I bought her a copy of this dictionary.

The OED isn’t the only culprit.  A few years ago, Scrabble updated their dictionary to include “qi” “xi” and “za” … not only are some of these words idiotic (I’m looking at you, “za”), but they also throw off the mechanics of the game. On the other hand (OTOH), at least the topic lets me post this picture of a Scrabble-tile keyboard …

UPDATE – this morning the New Yorker published a piece that defends the changes to the OED.  It’s worth a read.

  1. Which of course translates to “Adding these words will not make teenagers open your dictionary, you idiots.”
  2. For those interested, author Simon Winchester has written a fantastic book about the 75-year creation of the first OED called The Professor and the Madman, which details one of the dictionary’s key contributors, an insane murderer who worked remotely from his prison cell!

From Chapter One:

“The coach looked like an old gangster: broken nose, a scar on his cheek like a stitched shoestring. He needed a shave, his stubble like slivers of ice.”

- Robert Cormier
The Chocolate Wars

The (Publishing) Gods Must Be Crazy!

Hey, readers!  I have a quick, exciting announcement about the forthcoming book:  Abrams is letting me illustrate!

The good news is that I’m going to start posting drawings-in-progress and some other Peter Nimble-related tidbits in the coming weeks.  The bad news is that I’m on a tight deadline, which will be eating into my regular blogging schedule.  I’ll still be posting at least twice a week, but I need to make a little extra time for drawing!  More to come …

The Interrobang

While going over Peter Nimble proofs with my editor, I came across the term “interrobang,” which is the name for a combined question mark and exclamation point (“?!”).  In the 1960s, some typeface smartypants even tried making it into a single character:

All Hail the Rat King …

Earlier today the children’s book world was squirming in unison from a tweet sent by Jennifer Laughran.  It was a link to a Wikipedia article about something called a “rat king.”  Rat kings are clusters of rats whose tails have become intertwined — either with blood, excrement, dirt, or plain-old tangling.  Apparently they continue to live in these large co-joined packs for quite some time.

The Wikipedia article features a photo of a mummified rat king which is pretty disgusting.  I warned Mary not to click on the link, but she could not resist.  She saw the page for all of half-a-second before screaming and almost dropping her computer.  When she looked up again, I was already hunched over my journal, drawing away:

Don’t be surprised if one of these things ends up in a book of mine one day.  You have been warned.


This weekend I sat down to write my dedication for Peter Nimble. This is something I have mulled over quite a bit in the last few years.  Like naming my (imaginary) boat or drawing my (non-existant) tattoo, wording my first dedication was a flight of fancy.  When my editor told to submit something by Monday, I completely clammed up.  The fantasy had become a reality, and I was terrified of blowing it.  Should I write something intimate and cryptic?  Something sweet and funny?  Something in keeping with the tone of the book?

Of course, it doesn’t really matter to a reader what I write.  Readers are interested in the story, not in a few words opposite the copyright page.  But every once in a while, I see a dedication that makes a book come alive — something that makes me long to know the author personally, and slightly jealous of the lucky dedicatee.1  With the spectre of those great dedications in mind, I started browsing my bookshelf, thumbing through examples that really stuck in my memory.  Here are a few of my favorites:

A.A. Milne – Winnie-the-Pooh

As I’ve mentioned before, this whole book is adorable from start to finish.  The dedication is no exception …










Jerome K. Jerome – The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow: a Book for an Idle Holiday

So far as I’m concerned, Jerome does not get his due.  He is a truly funny writer, as exhibited by this delightful dedication to his beloved pipe …














C.S. Lewis - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I’m not the biggest fan of this installment of the Narnia series (more of a Magician’s Nephew kind of guy), but the dedication at the front is hard not to love.2










G.K. Chesterton – The Man Who Was Thursday

This is a long poem written for Chesterton’s childhood friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley.  I think Chesterton is someone best taken in small doses, which would explain why this dedication is better than the book itself!




Adam Gidwitz – A Tale Dark and Grimm

And finally comes this newer edition to the canon of great dedications, which made me laugh out loud in the bookstore:







For those interested in reading more about dedications, there’s an essay collection called Once Again to Zelda that tells the story being fifty famous dedications; the book got mixed reviews, but still might be worth checking out.  Also, feel free to put down your own favorite literary dedications in the comments section.

As for what I wrote in Peter Nimble?  You’ll have to wait and see.


UPDATE: readers chimed in with their own favorite dedications here.

  1. Bet you didn’t think that was a word.
  2. Unless you’re Philip Pullman, that is.
Reader Question: Writing Contests

New feature!  Recently, a few people have been contacting me with questions about various aspects of publishing or writing craft.  I’m well aware that there is no shortage of websites devoted to answering publishing questions (most of them written by people far smarter and more qualified than myself).  Still, I thought it might be worth adding my drop into the bucket from time to time.

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I was wondering how you feel about literary contests for unpublished authors that require and entry fee of $25- $50 with the promise of a rather large money prize and/or publication? I am having trouble finding contests that are free.
- Connie

This is an excellent question.  First off, I should warn you that my experience with contests is pretty much limited to the screenwriting world.  The short answer is that I’m a big believer in writing competitions.  They are an opportunity not only to possibly generate some interest from seemingly-unreachable gatekeepers but also to help young writers gain confidence and professionalize themselves.  After being forced to write a million plot summaries for my scripts (all of different length, of course), I started to get a good sense of how to pitch my story … and some of that insight even helped inform rewrites.  I finally did win some contests and fellowships, which helped finance my move out to Los Angeles.  Once here, the prize money afforded me the time to write scripts … which I then submitted to competitions.  Eventually, one of those scripts made “semi-finalist”  in a major competition.  There was no prize, but even placing was enough to attract the attention of managers.1

As to your entry fee question, I’d say it depends.  Reading and sorting thousands of entries is a huge endeavor, and I don’t begrudge the organizers for wanting to fund the operation.  The problems start when the exchange is less cut-and-dry.  I know a lot of fiction contests offer some kind publication as a prize.  In general I would say avoid contests that come with contractual obligation.  To my thinking, if you’re paying $30-$50 bucks to enter then the prize should be cash (and recognition) … otherwise it feels dangerously close to you paying a publisher to publish your book.  Still, I know fiction is a tough racket to break into, and taking a lowball publishing deal might be worth if for you if it means getting your foot through the door.

Screenwriter John August has a number of valuable posts on the subject of screenwriting contests.  On the fiction side, Nathan Bransford does a good job summing up the issue.  Poets & Writers magazine has a nice database of competitions and grants, and, of course, always check out Writer Beware’s section on contests before sending anyone money.  Hope that helps!

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In the coming weeks, I’ll try to post my responses to some other questions.  If you’ve got anything you want me to answer, feel free to send me an email by clicking on the adorable little envelope:

  1. I should say that while waiting to hear back from competitions, I was also writing new scripts and building relationships with people in TV and film — winning a contest got my manager to call, but it was this other work that made him willing to sign me.
Risks and Rewards of UN CON VEN SHUN

Today we’ve got a post from friend and booklover Craig Chapman. Readers of The Scop might recognize his name from the comments section.  Back in high school, Craig and I regularly cleaned up in the local debate scene.  Look!  Here we are in our school year book:

Nowadays, Craig is some kind of mad scientist, but in his spare time he reads a lot of YA.  Recently, he was talking to me about China Mieville’s YA fantasy, Un Lun Dun.  I only know Mieville as the guy who hates Tolkien, but apparently his book made some waves as a sort of anti-Harry Potter.  I asked Craig to share some of his thoughts on the blog, and boy did he deliver!  Please forgive his ridiculous Canadian spellings …

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Conventions can be liberating.  They establish expectations that convey volumes of information.  Taking an example from my world of research in behavioural neuroscience, humans have the unique ability to accurately guess what another person is thinking.  This ability – referred to as Theory of Mind – is thought to be the base capacity required for successful communication.  Here’s an example: You are walking by the office of a co-worker and see that they are looking frustrated while rummaging through an open drawer.  You infer that this person is looking for something.  Of course, it is possible — though unlikely — that they are trying some new exercise regimen.  How do you know that the first option, if not correct, is much more likely?  The simple answer is that it fits with the context.  That is, given the surroundings, your experience with this person, their expression, and even thinking how you might act in the same situation, you expect that they are looking for something.  And so you ask “What are you looking for?” instead of “How many calories have you burned”?

Along the same lines, authors can use conventions to convey information without the need to write anything down.  Consider a recent post and comments on this blog regarding the ‘Childlit mentor’.  It went without saying that we all knew exactly what a mentor was like.  They are old, and wise.  They help the protagonist when all seems lost, or when things just don’t make sense.  By using a convention like the mentor, the author gets all of this content for free.  I don’t think I’d even ‘met’ Dumbledore as a reader and I already knew that he was the key to a lot of the challenges Harry would face (and that he was probably an awesome wizard, too!).

Of course, the problem of relying on conventions is that they can become stale – the text that overuses them can feel derivative and ultimately boring.1 Of course an author can decorate convention, dress it up so it seems new or interesting to explore because of its dressing.  For the perfect example, you need look no further than Harry Potter.  Rowling relies heavily on convention, but gives such exquisite details that it becomes a joy to read what could otherwise have come off as “more of the same.”  Still, there is a reason why not everyone is a Rowling:  making old conventions novel is ultimately very difficult.

Given the risks associated with over-used tropes, why don’t we read more books that are completely unconventional?  The problem is this:  if you create something truly new you have to spend a significant amount of text describing how this new thing works.  And in doing so you risk losing your reader.  Moreover, when a reader fills in the blanks of a story employing a particular convention, they will likely fill those blanks with material that they like.  While we might all know what a mentor is, your mentor and my mentor might be different – but as long as the author leaves it to the reader to fill in the details, then each of us can use whatever mentor we like best.

Perhaps there is therefore good reason why we don’t see many examples of true unconvention – because largely it doesn’t work, at least not for a broad readership.  But occasionally, I have seen excellent examples of authors being unconventional.  In his book Un Lun Dun, China Mieville employs the tactic of anti-convention.2  He doesn’t create something new, but rather he uses the exact opposite of a whole host of conventions:


In the book, the Chosen-One is a beautiful blond girl who shoulders her fate with quiet resolve — but she goes down early and it’s her tag-along, rather-plain friend Deeba who becomes the hero of the story.  The prophecy describing how to defeat the evil Smog is spoken by a book, guarded by a sect of wise “Propheseers” — all of which turn out to be hopelessly false … not malicious, just wrong.  Deeba’s sidekick is a milk carton named Curdle who in the final fight cowers in the corner and at no point does anything to save the hero.  And, my personal favourite, when Deeba is faced with completing seven tasks to find seven essential tokens, she decides there is no time and completes the seventh task first, thus acquiring the most essential item (the UnGun, which, as you might guess, works best when firing nothing).


It ends up being a fun exercise to consider all the ways Mieville plays with anti-convention from the title through to the end of the book.  It’s almost as much fun to consider whether all of the unconventions are meant to specifically mirror Harry Potter or not.

By using anti-convention, Mieveille still gets all the free content that comes with the expectations associated with conventions.  Then, by turning a convention on its head, he makes the unconvention new and interesting for the reader.  Ultimately, Mieville is playing a complex game using Theory of Mind.  He supposes that his reader will have a whole host of beliefs and expectations that come from the conventions he employs.  But more than that, he wagers that he can guess almost the exact content of your beliefs and then invert them; the result runs so counter to what you expected that it is enjoyable.

It’s as though he’s guessing that when I’m reaching in my drawer I’m looking for something, then deliberately asks me how many calories I’ve burned, knowing that I’ll get the joke.

  1. One personal pet peeve is how unimaginative fantasy authors are when conceptualizing how magic might work.  Almost always magic is simply the act of thinking really hard, then saying a word (the ‘Force’, the ‘Will and the Word’, ‘Avada Kedavra etc.).
  2. Mieville also writes some of the best adult sci-fi/fantasy I have ever read; his book Perdido Street Station is so incredibly imaginative and horrific that it literally gave me nightmares, and his book The Scar (my personal favorite) has the single most memorable image I’ve ever seen, heard, or read in any medium.
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