Saturday, September 27, 2008

Service Organizations

As a writer, I’ve had the opportunity to give presentations to a number of service organizations including Rotary, Kiwanis and Optimist Clubs. These are great organizations with missions to help others, primarily youth. The irony is that most of the members at the organizations I’ve spoken to are in their mid-sixties and older. Many of these organizations are struggling to build membership, particularly younger members. I’m reminded of a book that came out in 2000 titled Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. Putnam’s thesis is that people in the United States are no longer collecting in community as they once did. This is the same trend that can be seen in the decline of the membership in service organizations. There are several logical reasons for the recruitment challenge faced by service organizations. First, younger people are focused on their careers and families. I remember back to when we had three kids at home. Between the homework, concerts, plays and sporting events, my wife and I were extremely busy with kid activities. Now that the kids are grown and have moved away and we are retired, we have more time available for other activities. Some of the service organizations do pick up older members who join when they have more time to give. Second, I do agree with Putman that there has been a decline in the willingness to join in community projects. Don’t get me wrong, there are people who volunteer and make significant contributions to their communities. I just think that a larger percentage of people now are forgoing this opportunity to contribute.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New Perspective

I took a week off from writing to visit our son, daughter-in-law and grandson in Iowa. It was a wonderful week exploring the world of an 18-month-old. Every day my grandson and I walked down to a bridge where he dropped black walnuts (“balls”) and sticks in the stream. This provided endless fascination for both of us (a good break from writing mystery novels). Another of his favorite game was knocking blocks over and saying, “Uh-oh.” His world is one of exploration while he points out dogs, butterflies, fuzzy caterpillars, leaves and, of course, any round object being a ball. On our walks he would find sticks and then proudly whack low-hanging leaves he could reach. Any sound of a bird or cricket would cause him to point toward the noise. I’m now back to writing with a fresh perspective on a true detective.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Critique Groups

As writers, it’s extremely important to have feedback from others to improve our manuscripts. I have belonged to a variety of different critique groups which are typically other writers. I have been in both in-person and online critique groups, and we meet anywhere from once a week to twice a month to review manuscripts in progress and give verbal or written feedback. But let me tell you about a fascinating critique group I participated in last Friday. I’m writing a middle-grade mystery novel for readers between the ages of eight and twelve. So my critique group was a class of fifth graders. Their teacher invited me in to the class, and I read the first two chapters of my novel, Jennifer Jacobson Private Eyeball. And what a group. They listened attentively, asked great questions and gave me feedback which I madly scribbled on a notepad as they spoke. They gave me positive feedback on finding the story engaging, but more importantly provided a list of areas for improvement including: a need to better develop several characters who had been mentioned as part of the back story, more description of a key event that had occurred before the beginning of the novel, stilted dialogue that wasn’t accurate for a twelve year old protagonist, and more character description. At the end of the time, one student raised a hand and asked if their class would be mentioned in the acknowledgement for my novel. I always list my critique groups in my acknowledgements.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Frame of Reference

I recently read a fascinating book titled The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. This is a story from the viewpoint of an autistic boy. The most compelling part of the book is putting the reader into the frame-of-reference of someone with autism. It’s easy to dismiss a person who we think acts strange, but the main character’s actions absolutely make sense once you’re in his head and see how he thinks and acts. The protagonist, Christopher, has amazing math and science skills but can’t interpret the expression on someone’s face. This is the way his brain operates. Just like someone “normal” finds it easy to read an expression on a face but can’t solve a quadratic equation in his or her head. Christopher doesn’t like to be touched and screams and hits when this happens. We all have our sensitivities, but his are more acute. He dislikes anything the color yellow or brown. This may at first seem strange, but he has his own logic on why this is so that once you hear it makes sense. We all have our personal preferences, but again, Christopher’s are more extreme. This book was also meaningful to me since I write about a character who has short-term memory loss, and I’ve needed to put myself in the perspective of someone who can’t remember what happened to him the day before. Before we judge people who are “different” it’s extremely important to live in their worlds.