My best critics – Mr. Williamson’s fifth-grade readers group

My best critics

Soon after completing the inital draft of The Inventors’ Daughter– my first children’s novel – I met a conscientious and amiable teacher named Brian Williamson.  We bumped into one another where I meet most of my friends, in a coffee shop in my neighborhood. When I mentioned the manuscript, he asked if a segment of his fifth-grade class could read the book and give me their opinions. I was thrilled. Here was the perfect readers group for a book aimed at 9 to 12 year-olds.

Six weeks later Brian and his students ate our brown-bag lunches around a venerable, well-worn work table in the school’s art room.  As you can see from the photo, the students were a fun, lively lot.  But as the discussion of the book moved around the table, I could see that they were intelligent and focused as well. From some, the remarks flowed freely. A few needed a bit of encouragement from Brian. But in no time, they too were giving me valuable commentaries on what they found funny, exciting or confusing.  

The gratifying thing for me and Brian was that all of the students read the entire manuscript judiciously.   And from their comments, I’m certain that I got more from these bright kids than I would have received from a my own writers’ group, however well-meaning, who would have been trying to second-guess my actual audience.

Two comments stood out in particular: 

One girl said twice – with deep sincerity – that “the story must flow.”  Other’s nodded.  It was then I realized that, having been accustomed to writing screenplays which are scenic in nature, I had not acquired the skill of writing the smooth, corherent monologue that is the narrative of a novel.  Scripts are shocks of dialog and an sparce, choppy narrative written for a host of artistic and technical people searching for their own assignments detailed within its text.  A novel is something else altogether.

My second revalation was that some things were unclear to my readers.  In an effort to conceal the skeleton of the mystery on which my plot hangs, my story had murky spots.   A rule I learned in the University of Washington literary fiction program is that you must never describe something as “indescribable.”  It is the duty of the writer to describe a character’s perception of anything – even a phantom.

With those two gems, I returned to my story and did my best to polish the manuscript into something my audience could understand and enjoy.  My special thanks to Mr. Williamson’s readers’ group.

sailing ships and time travel

Sea Ocean BooksIn preparation for writing Timearang Pirates* I’m doing research on the age of sail and the physics of time.

I’m reading Master and Commander for the dialect and vocabulary. Patrick O’Brian was a very good writer with a slavish devotion to naval history, architecture and customs. Though the period of his story is both two hundred years behind and a hundred years ahead of my story, still his work is invaluable to me.

I’ve recently finished Under the Black Flag, a comprehensive history of the Age of Pirates by David Cordingly. It is the pirate lover’s bible and is well thought of by everyone I meet who knows the subject well. (And believe me when I say I know a few pirates here in Seattle.)

I’ve just bought The Charting of the Oceans: Ten Centuries of Maritime Maps by Peter Whitfield from Sea Ocean Books, a wonderful bookstore on the north shore of Lake Union here in Seattle. For anyone looking for books relating to the sea I heartily recommend this source. The owner is fastidious in keeping his stacks jammed with well-tended books and, being a retired sailor, is extremely knowledgeable. The Charting of the Oceans presents dozens of handsome representations of historic charts and has much to say about the history of the documents. I believe they will help me as a primary source for cartography and navigation, though some of my settings are not actually found on your globe.
Sea Ocean Books

About a month ago I bought a 1939 edition of the Sea Scout Manual from Amazon.com. In the second novel my main character Erin Isabelle Becker-Spotsworth must know how to sail. In the first chapter I plan to have her and some of her friends learning to do so from Erin’s inventor father. They will sail through Comet Bay off Star Island in a sloop in a stiff wind, foretelling the adventures that await our protagonist under the canvas on the high seas in the Seventeenth Century. The Sea Scout manual is a bit dated but dated in the precise way I want. There is something 40’s and ’50s about the first book and this one too. In The Inventors’ Daughter there’s a pinch of Roger Rabbit and Sam Spade about some of the characters despite the modern inventions. The series is in its way noir. Despite Erin’s best efforts to fight crime and injustice, Dream City – past and present – is a dangerous world. The scout manual was a gateway to that era and a pitch-perfect primer for young sailors, as it is still today. If I’ve learned anything from my research it is that tradition is everthing on the sea.

In my research of time and time travel I am concurrently, I am reading A Briefer History of Time by (of course) Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow). I’ve read several books on Einstein’s theories, quantum and string theory and the physics of time and space but none so elegant and intelligible as this. I recommend it to anyone who wishes to better understand relativity and other currently held theories of universal physics.

I have also recently read a number of children’s fantasy books including the Harry Potter series, Wave Traveller, Hugo Cabret, the Lemony Snicket novels, Harriet the Spy, and re-reading Treasure Island and my favorite sea story, The Odyssey, which though not a children’s book is a fabulous yarn that (to dangle a participle) I hope my story bears some infinitesimal resemblance to.

Tales of the Inventors’ Daughter

The Inventors' Daughter WebsiteI decided over the weekend to rename my recently completed novel The Inventor’s Daughter.  The original title was Erin Isabelle and the Wicked Uncle, which gave rise to questions regarding the uncle’s variety of wickedness.  I consequently renamed the story Erin Isabelle and the Bandit Uncle since that accurately described the aforementioned’s profession. 

Before the manuscript was properly polished, a very generous and helpful contact at Random House suggested the title might be a bit long.  But as I worked through the manuscript, I couldn’t think of anything better.  And I was rather attached, as people are, to their own ideas. 

It was not until I designed the blog for the series (ErinIsabelle.wordpress.com), that a solution was forced upon me by a gaping text box asking me what my blog was about. I responded in a moment of clarity.  In that instant it seemed obvious that the series was about the plight of … the inventor’s daughter.

 The phrase naturally brought to mind a singularly perfect story and title: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which in three words describes not only the profession of the main character, but his predicament as well.  How does a person audacious enough to take on such an position come to equal or best his mentor?

Are not inventors the sorcerers of the modern world?  In the ancient world where few were educated, the word sorcererwas often infused with an air of the malevolence of a tyrant.  People then and now were naturally suspicious of that which they do not understand.  In our more democratic where education is relatively plentiful, we defuse our sorcerer characters with humor.   The word “inventor” connotes abstract,  well-meaning curiosities dislocated from the world of business and money.   But their intellectual intensity and the purity of their curiosity also make them dangerous.   Witness Dr. Felix Hoenikker, Kurt Vonnegut’s character in Cat’s Cradle who in an idle moment creates the dreaded ice-nine which could crystallize all of the water in the world.

What then would the life of inventor’s daughter be like – one who has not only one such parent, but two?  Were she like them, probably not much but add to the excitement and danger.  But what if she was an intelligent, but normal girl named Erin Isabelle Becker-Spotsworth?  Well, you’ll just have to read the story to find out.

A slim note about the sources of this story.  My sister Lalu, whose name I use in the story, read me delightful parables of wickedness when I was very young.  Those tales are the origins of the noir characters of Wicked Uncle Charles and the Men With Bulldog tattoos who run through the manuscript.  Secondly, our mother was a poet, painter, sculptor, etc. who stood just a little bit off third base.  To all who knew her well, she was a wonderful woman who, because of her intense imagination, bore careful watching on occassion.  Living and especially travelling with her when I was a child was always … interesting, and is to be the source of another book I intend to write someday.

Current work

I’m a Seattle writer currently working on The Inventors’ Daughter series, a collection of children’s books for middle readers ages 8-12. I’ve completed the first book, The Inventors’ Daughter, and am now working on the Timearang Pirates*.  

Erin Isabelle, my protagonist, is an eleven-year-old girl whose rather difficult job it is to protect her inventor parents from the world – and the world from their unpredictable inventions. Neither genius nor superhero, she is a good hearted kid who, like any other, has homework and friends and lots of problems with her parents. The series is for young readers who enjoy science fiction, action, villains, amazing inventions, friendship, pirates and … well, lots more I can’t talk about yet. 

More about the series can be found at www.TheInventorsDaughter.com

My writer’s website is at www.SperryHunt.com

* Timearang Pirates is a working title for the second in the Inventors’ Daughter Series.