Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

March Dystropia MadnessI’m excited to kick-off the March Dystropian Madness Craft Series!

This month we will enjoy the insight of eight guest authors, each of whom will share an overview of their Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture. Topics range from literary theory, to poetic techniques, creating effective dialog, and finding the perfect boyfriend (well… finding the perfect literary boyfriend that is!). It’s going to be a fun month! 

Starting us off in style — and talking about two of my favorite topics, boys and books — is Peter Langella! Are you ready to engage the male reader? Peter will tell you how!

Boys and Literacy: Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process

by Peter Langella

Let’s begin with a few facts: The average boy doesn’t read as well or as often as his female peers. It’s not even close. 40% of boys stop reading for pleasure regularly after 4th grade. Another 20% stop reading for pleasure regularly after 8th grade. Fifteen-year-old boys’ test scores lag behind same-age girls by one and a half grade levels.

The reasons are varied and many: innate brain differences, physiological changes, gender roles and environments, new technologies and free-time choices, lack of male role models at school… I think you get the picture. The list goes on and on.

But what if it’s simpler than that? What if boys aren’t reading as much as girls because they don’t like that many books? What if they feel forced to read certain unrelatable books at school and that turns them off for a long time? Maybe for good?

Don’t get me wrong. I think all of the reasons boys are lagging behind have crashed together to create an imperfect mess of a storm when it comes to literacy levels, but after researching the topic extensively for my graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I honestly think the number one reason is simple: most boys truly choose not to read. And, because they read less often, they read less well. It’s a snowball effect.

I’d like to tell a quick story. I used to get fined for reading books on the bus to away games by my college hockey teammates. You read that right. They fined me for reading. Real money, too. It wasn’t just for fun. They fined people for all sorts of weird things (many of which aren’t appropriate to discuss here), and we had to put money in a jar in the locker room that went toward a big party at the end of the season. For me, the fine was usually a dollar per hundred pages. So, if I read a 400-page book on the way back to Vermont from northern Maine, it was four dollars.

Pretty twisted, huh? Good thing I was already mature enough to ignore the peer pressure. I may not be writing this or anything else if I wasn’t. So please, trust me, I’m not trying to ignore the research or the test scores or the journal articles. I’ve lived through the rough landscape that faces many boy readers, and, as a high school librarian, I’m still battling this problem right at its root.

Boys need to read more books. There are a lot of great ones out there, but not enough.

As writers, we need to try to reach these boys who aren’t reading. Even though we rarely get to control which book ends up in a reader’s hand, we can control what is in our books, so when a reader does grab them, they’re hooked.

Here are some things I think we should keep in mind if we want to engage boy readers:

Window and/or Mirrors: Boys want to read about characters they can relate to or see themselves becoming. For example, The Hunger Games is read by many boys despite being written from the first person point of view of a female character. Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, and Finnick are just a few examples of characters that boys will latch onto.

In an opinion piece for the NY Times last year, author Matt de la Peña described an interaction he had with a student on a school visit:

I was at a school in Los Angeles last week, and a kid in a hoodie waited until everyone else had left before approaching me. “I read your book ‘We Were Here’ like three times,” he said. His eyes were glassy and he kept fidgeting with his backpack straps. “Yo, that’s my life in that book,” he said. Then he took off.

Physical Challenges: Boys want to see characters do tough things, violent or not. Think sports scenes, traveling/adventuring, and triumphing from an underdog role. I’m not trying to sell violence, either. Whatever your take on it in your story, that’s fine, but it should probably come up because it’s something that many boys will have to form an opinion on at sometime or another.

Emotional Gutter: What I mean is trying to end scenes or chapters without too much description of emotions. Let your reader fill in the emotional details for themselves. At my library, many supposed “guy” books are not that popular with boys because of the overwrought emotional passages, while a book like My Book of Like by Angel by Martine Leavitt is more accessible to older boys because of it’s terrific use of the emotional gutter.

Heavy on Facts: Historical fiction fits here, as do some current events and pop culture references, but also passages that deal with “stuff” like maps, gadgets, sports gear, new or made up technologies, moving parts, schematics; anything that makes them feel like the world of the story is literally at their fingertips.

Non-linear: Today’s boys live in a world of video games and apps and tightly-cut movies. They know how to take in (and make sense out of) a bunch of floating pieces. Give them something to decipher. Challenge them without being too wordy. Jump around a little bit and let them, as the reader, feel like they have a job to do.

Peter LangellaMost boys won’t give a book very long before they decide if they like it or not. If it’s a not, they aren’t afraid to put it down for good. Let’s try to make their decision as hard as possible. For some, just “liking” a single book and picking up another can literally change their life.

I know it happened to me.

Peter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Read more from Peter on his blog Smokeless Fire.

Graphic Novels: An Editor’s Experience Making “The Sons of Liberty”

Editor Nick Eliopulos, spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference about the process of making a Graphic Novel. A self-proclaimed comic-book geek, who was always waiting for Marvel to call, Eliopulos, found his true passion at Scholastic. And to his delight one of his first projects was creating the graphic novel series Sons of Liberty. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing, the publishing industry still has a lot to learn when it comes to wham-pow’s and panels. The following is Eilopulos’ journey from pitch to publication.

Producing The Sons Of Liberty:

The Pitch:

  • Sons of Liberty came to Scholastic as a partial script. Included in the submission was the script, as well as some art sketches of characters and concepts.
  • The concept of the book is: Runaway slaves during the civil war get super powers.
  • Eliopulos’ boss loved the idea and dropped the project in Eliopulos’ lap, telling him to figure it out and make this project happen.

Running the Numbers:

  • The first thing Eliopulos did was run a PNL for the project (Profit and Loss). But this was the first challenge of the project. Without anything to compare it to there weren’t other numbers to draw from. Traditionally one pulls numbers from similar titles based on how they’ve performed.
  • New things to consider included heavier paper stalk, paying a colorist and an ink artist separately, etc.
  • There were also multiple markets to consider for sales. They didn’t want to market to the comic-book crowd exclusively. They also wanted to have readers for a normal historical fiction novel to be interested.
  • How the project will perform at a book fair is another consideration. Graphic novels really need the support of book fairs as it’s often tricky to know what shelf to place them on in Barnes and Noble.

Writing and Editing the Script:

  • Most often the manuscript of a graphic novel will look like a movie script. Feel free to use screenwriting software for your project.
  • Other than story notes, important things to pay attention to are actions that will take too long to illustrate. Something like “He blinks” will take at least three panels to make visual. Some things will need to be condensed.
  • There are many different styles to writing a graphic novel script. Some write panel by panel and want more control over the content, while others may mention the general imagery for the whole page. Often a writer and illustrator will work together, this way the script is a bit sparser because the two parties have already discussed the visual look of the work.
  • A good comparison of two different ways to write the same action would be: Version #1: “He hits the guy.” Version #2: “He uppercuts the man, teeth chatter and blood sprays against the wall.”

Thumbnail, Pencils, and Inks:

  • Initially, Eliopulos thought an assembly line model would work best for this project. But he quickly learned that wasn’t ideal.
  • Once the script is in place you move onto the thumbnail stage of the project. This is where the artist draws small quick sketches of the whole book. This is where you see the story come to live for the first time. At this stage you get to see the pacing of the book and overall flow.
  • Revisions on art begin with the thumbnail stage.
  • Once thumbnails are approved we move to the pencil sketches. Pencil sketches are often delivered digitally. Styles vary as some artists are very detailed and others are loose. The benefit of lots of detail, however, is that you can see if the characters have enough variety and emotion.
  • Issues of style can be very important and at the pencil stage is where you really get to see if the style is a match or not. These must all be approved before moving forward.
  • The Ink phase is next. At this point the imagery really starts to come to life, and you get a stronger sense of lighting through shading. It is very hard to edit things once they are inked. Yes, the artist can white out the work, or re-draw it and edit it in digitally. But revisions should try to happen in the pencil stage.

Scanning, Coloring, and Lettering:

  • Scanning the artwork was a new element that Eliopulos did not budget for. (We all learn!) As high resolution scans need to be made for each page of artwork.
  • The colorist comes on board once the work has been digitized and adds color in the computer. The colorist is really an artist in his/her own right. In fact, in some graphic novel reviews, the critics will mention the colorist by name. Color really adds the opportunity to give more depth to an image.
  • Skin tone was an important element of the colorist’s job. They wanted to be sure that both of the main characters had different skin tones that made them individuals.
  • Another example of the importance of color is when scholastic re-published Bone. Originally the work was in black and white, but the company colored the work for its re-launch so it would appeal more to children.
  • Once the artwork was finished one needs to letter the book. This is in fact far more complex than choosing a font and plopping it into the novel. Fonts are important! How will you communicate sound effects? Do you use uppercase or lower case? What about actions like Wham-Pow? Emphasis is also important. Using bold letters can stress certain words.  And will the text even fit in the space the artwork left for it? You can’t change the art at this point!
  • Lettering was another extra expense that wasn’t originally accounted for.

Sales and Marketing:

  • It was important to loop in the sales and marketing people as soon as possible so they could see the product.  They can’t just fall back on their standard bag of tricks for this project, it needed to reach multiple markets.
  • New things we had to learn included: Using a new distributor (Diamond, who distributes to all of the comic book shops), or how to use Comic-con to promote the book.
  • The exciting thing about promoting a Graphic Novel is there isn’t just a cover image to use to market (as you would use with a novel), now you have a whole book full of beautiful art you can use to market with.
  • There is lots of confusion about where the books will be shelved in the book store. Do they go in the graphic novel section? Often times this section is a complete mess. Some stores have juvenile graphic novel sections now, but one really has to gauge the age of the audience. There’s no clear answer.
  • Categories are really important to book stores so this is one of the major marketing challenges.

About Nick Eliopulos and What He’s Looking For in His Submission Box:

  • He used to be a reader for Marvel and read their slush submissions.
  • He’s looking for the same things in a graphic novel that you would look for in a regular novel.
  • He likes high concept books, as they are easier to sell.
  • Non-fiction is harder to sell, but he’s not against it.
  • A voice driven book is difficult, but if the voice is stellar then he would be interested in it.
  • He loves the graphic novel Ghost World personally, but that is probably not what he is looking for to publish.
  • Loves Scott Pilgrim and this would be more of what he is interested in.
  • He is interested in a novel to graphic novel mash up.
  • He likes to see series potential in a submission, but like submitting novels the first one should stand on its own.
  • He is not interested in publishing “floppy” comic books, only graphic novels.

Coming Soon! A second post from this session with Nick Eliopulos featuring questions from the audience and additional information on the graphic novel market!

Nick Eliopulos is an editor with Scholastic, following a 5-year stint with Random House Children’s Books. He has edited many middle-grade and young-adult titles, including the Tapestry series, The Pricker Boy, Unfamiliar Magic, and the forthcoming Sons of Liberty graphic novel. He has also worked on chapter books, cutting his teeth as an assistant on the Magic Tree House series.

Boys Will Be Boys: Guys Talk YA

What makes a book for boys? How do we get boys to read more? These questions and more were discussed at the LA Times Festival of Books YA panel this past weekend. Authors Ben Esch (Sophomore Undercover), Blake Nelson (Paranoid Park, Gender Bender, Girl), Andrew  Smith (Ghost Medicine), and Allen Zadoff  (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have) share their insight as to what makes boy books kick so much butt!

What determines a book as a boy book?

  • Attitude!
  • Boys are looking to get out into the world. They want to be aggressive.
  • Boys want to read book with realistic male protagonists. They want someone they can associate with on the day-to-day experience.
  • Usually boys like funny books.
  • Boys and girls want to read the same things. They want good stories.

Why don’t boys read more books?

  • Once a boy turns ten or eleven he begins to associate with things that are masculine. And in his world he sees people who read (teacher, librarians, etc.) as women. They begin to associate books with a feminine pursuit. This is why these four male authors did this panel to show young men that reading and writing can be masculine.

What issues do boys deal with and want to read about?

  • Boys are dealing with hormones, they want things like beer and porn. We need more books that address the real male experience.
  • For boys there is a lot of pressure to be macho, to be a dude who has adventures and isn’t sensitive. But in reality guys are sensitive, shy, and often make a fool out of themselves. They are often uncomfortable. We need more books that relate to these experiences.
  • Body issues are also as important to guys as they can be for girls. Guys are also very self-conscious.

Humor and the gross-out factor is often associated with boy books. How do you bring humor into your books?

  • Lots of penis jokes!
  • Find your voice. The voice and tone will be different for each writer. You don’t want the humor to be forced, you want it to come from the character. You want to write it authentically from your voice.
  • Humor has heart to it, and often boys are sensitive. Humor is often a socially acceptable way for boys to express themselves.

Do you think there is a lack of contemporary guy literature? There’s a lot of fantasy and comics for boys, but what about contemporary lit?

  • There is a lot of great contemporary guy literature out there. It will find its way into the hands of the guys who want to read it, from friends, sharing, etc. But it’s a hard market. You have a lot to compete with when trying to get a young man’s attention. He has computers, video games, sports, etc.
  • You’ve got to grab the guy’s attention right away, right out of the gate. They have a short attention span.
  • Guys are funny and if you can capture the coolness and the hilarity of being a teen boy and relate it back to them – then they will respond.
  • Cool is a mystique. It is not the clothes, it’s the dismissive attitude. There is a fundamental hierarchy that is always the same.

What advice do you have for women who are trying to write in a male point of view?

  • Write about yourself. Those feelings are authentic.
  • What does your hero want? This is what matters whether or not the protagonist is male or female.
  • Go for it, even if it feels weird you’ll learn how to wear it, and you will find it very rewarding.

How do you deal with romance in a novel for guys?

  • Put in as little as possible (joke).
  • Men are introspective, and they express themselves differently than girls.
  • Never kill a dog in a book!

Again, the authors of this panel were Ben Esch (Sophomore Undercover), Blake Nelson (Paranoid Park, Gender Bender, Girl), Andrew  Smith (Ghost Medicine), and Allen Zadoff (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have).