Thursday, September 30, 2010

Do writers exploit a marketing double standard?

Last year, when my wife and I were both scrolling through Facebook status updates on our phones, she wondered why my feed had more. I did a quick study and determined that the answer does not have to do with likability (or else she’d bury me) but rather occupation.

Most of my updates came from people who work in the creative arts: writers, artists, filmmakers, web people (who are usually some combination of the previous), and so on. Few of my lawyer or doctor friends were regular posters. (Then I stated this observation as one of my status updates and several of my lawyer and doctor friends protested, saying “I do so post!” As I told them, I wasn’t being critical!)

Narrowing focus to writers now, many of us are self-employed and don’t have the marketing engine of big companies to help promote our work. Yes, we do have publishers, but they can devote only so many resources and for only so long. More and more of the word-of-mouthing falls to us. Yet thanks to technology, that is not as daunting as it once was.

It’s no news flash that creative types are prominently vocal in social networking. There’s the fun part and there’s the funds part—we need them, like everyone else. It sounds crass, but in the end, we’re all salespeople on some level. I write to tell stories but also to make a living.

When I have a new book out, I usually email an announcement to my network. I approach it in the same way I approach everything else I write—I try to be entertaining. I also keep it as succinct as possible.

Yet no matter how funny or short such a message is, it is still an unsolicited sales pitch. Luckily, my circle has been consistently supportive and understanding—or at least that’s how it appears.

Do you think it’s okay for writers to send email blasts about new books
to personal networks? Is it (as writers like to believe) less unctuous than most other sales pitches because it’s (a) art and (b) sent by a starving artist?

And does frequency factor in—i.e., most authors won’t be announcing more than one book a year? Put another way, does the double standard exist that is it okay to promote creative works but less okay to announce more "everyday" services (insurance, clothing, cars, etc.)?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fingering through the dictionary

The story goes that back in 1939, cartoonist Bob Kane called writer Bill Finger with a barebones idea for a new character name of Batman. (Some say Kane didn’t get past calling him Birdman or Bird-Man, but that’s a topic for another post.)

The story continues that Finger went over to Kane’s apartment to help Kane improve the character. (In The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1, Finger himself is quoted as saying that.) Seeing Kane’s design (which you’ll read more about in my upcoming book), Finger said it didn’t look intimidating enough to merit the “bat” motif.

So he pulled a dictionary from the shelf to show Kane the picture of “bat,” after which he (Finger) suggested that this character rock a cowl with pointy ears, like the real deal.

Inspired by pop culture writer/designer Arlen Schumer, I wanted to pinpoint just what stippled drawing Finger and Kane would most likely have been referring to; Schumer hunted that bat for an article for Alter Ego (reprinted in The Comic Book Artist Collection, volume 1) and found this:

To pull tight the timeline, I contacted Merriam-Webster. The company confirmed that the most recent edition in 1939 was the 1937. Upon request, they kindly e-mailed me scans of various angles including the cover, spine, and “bat” spread. I wanted these so I could pass on the authenticity to the illustrator of my book.

Here's the cover:

Here’s the spread:

But a throwaway detail in this Finger/Kane dictionary story has long tripped me up.

The location of the dictionary.

No, not that it was on a shelf.

That it was in Kane's apartment.

As Will Eisner said and multiple others echoed in their own words, “Bob wasn’t an intellectual.”

This is not to imply that only intellectuals own dictionaries. But it doesn't take a detective to figure out that Finger, a voracious reader in continual pursuit of self-education, was more likely than Kane to have one at the ready.

On 6/19/07, I asked early and pivotal Batman artist Jerry Robinson if he thought Finger would’ve gone to Kane’s apartment that day, or vice versa. Jerry wasn’t there but he met and began working with both men later that same year, the first year of Batman, so he knew them as well if not better than most at the time.

I didn’t indicate what I was getting at by asking, yet Jerry was a bound ahead. He said that if a dictionary was on hand, the apartment had to be Finger’s.

Which had been my hunch as well.

Only one other source I’ve found has Kane going to Finger’s for that fateful costume fitting—an article by Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow, that ran in The Times (London) in 2005.

I don’t know if that was an intentional flip-flop on Jones’s part; it’s unlikely any firm proof exists, so perhaps he was simply making the same assumption Robinson and I did.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The "Boys of Steel" blog

No, I don't mean this blog.

While I do blab plenty about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, that is not the only topic here. I also blab about Bill Finger, vocabulary cartoons, differences, people who disappeared, nonfiction, publishing in general, public speaking, and various other projects and perceptions.

Today, bots of some kind alerted me to the presence of a blog whose name is "Boys of Steel." Sadly, no, it doesn't devote even more digital real estate to my book. I admit I didn't read enough of it to learn where the name comes from, and it has had only two posts so far (the first in 2009, the other today), but I bother to mention it here because of that second post.

It makes you feel like you're Superman flying over parts of the world most of us will never see in person.

The photographer/blogger's opening line is "When was the last time you thought of doing something with all your heart and soul, and went ahead and did it?" Words worth remembering and words that, appropriately,
do describe my Boys of Steel.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Boys of Steel" in Reno

The following article is not new. In fact, it came out months before the July 2008 release of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

However, only today did I realize I never posted it. And since it was, I believe, the first article to mention Boys of Steel, and since I am compulsive about documenting firsts, here it is:

  • the angle and composition of the first photograph
  • use of the word "dazzled"

Do not like:
  • the billowy shirt

Saturday, September 25, 2010

DC and DC

I’ve been a fan of DC Comics for years.

I’ve been a fan of Washington DC for years.

(I’m a fan of neither on Facebook. What’s the point?)

So it seemed odd, though perhaps only to me, that I broke into both DCs in the same year. This year.

Within a few months of each other, I sold comic book scripts to DC Comics and moved to Maryland, just outside DC.

These events are unrelated other than the initials.

I will, of course, report when I know when the comic book stories will see print. There will probably be no further updates about the other DC. I’m simply here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seeking syndication (and eventually, vindication)

This 12/7/33 articlette from the Glenville Torch, the high school newspaper of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, fixes a date to their efforts to syndicate a comic strip, though 1933 is not necessarily the first year they tried:

In any case, this date predates the creation of the Superman we know today; though alleged timelines do vary, I believe Jerry first dreamed and Joe first drew him in the summer of 1933. Once in a lifetime indeed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fandom, meet Finger

Speaking of chronology stumpers, there is the matter of Finger’s “outing” as co-creator of Batman. This happened with the article “If the Truth Be Known or ‘A Finger in Every Plot!’” which Jerry Bails wrote and published in the 9/65 issue of his fanzine.

This is scanned from an original, courtesy of Aaron Caplan.

(It was only the year before when Finger was unveiled as a longtime Batman writer, in a comic book letter column written by
editor Julie Schwartz.) 

The interview that led to the creation of Bails’s myth-changing article took place sometime in the summer of 1965, when Bails interviewed Finger at Finger’s apartment.

That same summer, Bails also moderated the creators’ panel at the New York Comicon (during which Finger made the statement that is the focus of the previous post).

But which came first, the interview or the panel?

In 2006, I asked Bails. On 6/1/06, he wrote, “I interviewed [Finger] in his Greenwich Village apartment after I met him at that early New York Con.”

On 6/11/06, apparently not remembering the e-mail of just a few days earlier, or perhaps testing Bails’s memory, I asked, “Neither you nor Bill mentioned his [creator] role in Batman at the panel, though—why was that? This was just a few days after you interviewed him in his apartment, right?”

Bails responded, “As I recall, my interview followed the panel. I would think I would certainly have mentioned [at the panel] what I learned [in the interview]. … Are you sure that I didn’t introduce Bill as a creator of early Batman stories [when introducing him as a panelist]…?”

According to the panel transcript in Alter Ego #20 (1/03), which was created from an audio recording of the panel, what Bails said was that Finger had been “a Batman writer from the very first.” So technically, yes, his memory here aligns—on one level. But while I like his use of the word creator, there’s a chasm between “creator of stories” and “creator of the character.”

Therefore, at this point, especially when taking into account Bails’s integrity, it would seem that the panel did come first, then the interview.

Yet on 8/13/06, still trying to chisel out the likely sequence, I asked, “I cannot tell if Bill’s appearance at the ’65 Comicon was the first time he was publicly introduced by name in connection to Batman? Prior to that day, was his Batman involvement completely unknown to fans?” (I was obviously forgetting that 1964 letter columns mentioned Bill, but again, only as a writer, not a creator.)

This time, it seems that Bails remembered the order in reverse: “As far as I know, fandom had no idea of his creator role until I interviewed him in his Greenwich Village apartment and we got him to appear on that panel.”

However, upon rereading this statement, it’s not clear if Bails is speaking chronologically. People generally do, but Bails’s wording does leave room for debate: He says “and,” not “when.” In other words, he’s not explicitly stating that he (along with other comics people who were with him at the interview, hence the “we”) got Finger to appear at the panel while at Finger’s apartment for the interview.

Again, at the panel, Finger was not referred to as a creator or co-creator. And “If the Truth Be Known” did not come out until after the panel. So to fans at that comic convention, Finger was an early Batman writer, but not necessarily the first writer, and certainly not the co-creator.

On multiple occasions, Bails’s recall awed me. However, forty years packs a lot into the gray matter and even the sharpest memories can produce a contradiction. When that happens, a writer has to make a judgment call.

So in this case, I believe that the accurate scenario is my initial interpretation of Bails’s 8/13/06 statement—I believe Bails interviewed Finger before the panel and, at that interview, invited Finger to be on the panel.

I believe this mostly because, during the panel, Bails remembers a comment Finger made “the other evening.” Also during the panel, Bails specified that he had been to Finger’s apartment. Though not certain, I do believe Bails once said his first meeting with Finger was for the interview. And considering Bails’s detective nature, it seems consistent to me that he would first conduct a private interview and only then decide (or get the idea) to ask Finger to be on a panel.

Why does any of this matter?

Because it relates to the issue that continues to impede Bill Finger’s legacy: lack of credit.

If the interview had come first, why didn’t Bails refer to Finger as co-creator” at the panel? It wasn’t because he was afraid of Bob Kane’s response, since mere months later, Bails did publicly give Finger credit for Batman. Perhaps Bails simply wanted the potentially wider impact of revealing the Finger bombshell in writing.

I can’t try for further clarification from Bails. He passed away in November 2006, three months after my last e-mail exchange with him.

I was honored that I had the chance to correspond with Jerry Bails; he was known as the father of fandom, which in practice meant he championed the creators as much as the fans. Regardless of whether it was panel-interview or interview-panel, if not for Bails, we may never have known the truth about Finger.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Odd observational overlap: Finger and Weisinger

In 1965, Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman, gave an interview which led to an article that (who knows when) went missing for decades.

In 2009, I was finally able to obtain a copy of that article. In doing so, I saw that it was the source for several previously unknown quotations in Batman: The Complete History. (In 2008, I'd asked the author, Les Daniels, but he didn't recall where he'd gotten them from nor had he saved his notes.)

There is much else to discuss about the article, but since it’s not been published yet, I have to hold off on most of it for now. In the meantime, one odd observational overlap.

In the article, Finger is quoted as saying, “The artist is important, certainly. But in working with him you are all at once at the same time writer, director, artist (in visualizing the scene), prop man, dialogue man, and in a sense cameraman in describing angles and focal points of attention for various panels.”

The summer of that year, Finger made his first professional appearance at what most consider the first official comics convention and sat with three other comics professionals on the first creators panel. The panel is transcribed in Alter Ego #20 (1/03).

One of those fellow panelists was DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger. One of his comments during the panel is as follows: “So, when you are a writer in this business, you have to be a combination of photographer, artist, director, dialogue man, prop man.”

The Weisinger version is, without question, a direct quotation; the panel was transcribed from an audio recording. The Finger version appears in quotation marks in the original article. While there’s always a chance he was misquoted or that the words were outright fabricated, both scenarios seem unlikely to me.

These quotations are not identical, and not especially profound, so I am not filing an accusation of high plagiarism. Yet the similarity of the statements does strike me as odd for two reasons: they come from the same year and both men were present when one said his.

That makes it a question of timing.

We don’t know precisely when Finger made his statement whereas Weisinger’s can be pinned down to the day. So we don’t know who said it first, and therefore, we don’t know if one was a conscious or subconscious lift of the other rather than a coincidence.

Another timeline puzzler tomorrow.

Friday, September 17, 2010

It’s a book! It’s a page! It’s summer reading!

This week a friend alerted me to an article about the power of reading—and helping kids understand that reading is power.

The theme of the 2010 summer reading program at the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, IL, was superheroes. The library rented and supplemented a superhero exhibit from the Elmhurst Historical Museum and the results were staggering.

For starters, 226,000 people passed through the exhibit in just a few months. In 2009, the library said, 4,935 young people signed up for its summer reading program. (That figure alone—even in a larger community—is higher than what I would’ve guessed.) In 2010, with capes and masks involved, that number rose to 6,265. When Spider-Man showed up (announced) at the library, so did 900 kids who wanted a photo with him.

Even though summer is about to wrap up, the power of reading never dies, so I contacted the library to ask if they had known about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

An ebullient librarian responded almost immediately and reported that they did indeed and had included the book in their noble, successful campaign.
There is an untold number of picture books about superheroes, but mine is the only one that is nonfiction. I was curious if it could compete with more flashy shelfmates.

The librarian said their five copies of Boys of Steel circulated 40-50 times during the summer. I don’t know if she means total or apiece, and I don’t know how well any other titles circulated, but in any case, I’m happy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Orleans, new experience

Many authors are months if not years ahead of me on this, but my first Skype session with young readers was 9/11/10.

I’d set up Google Alerts for my name (with both a “c” and a “k”) and the titles of some of my books. (They should have a separate category for Google Narcissist.)
Through this, I learned that the St. Parish Tammany Library, Mandeville branch, across the lake from New Orleans, had chosen Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman for its book club.

So impulsively, I called them.

The librarian was pleasantly surprised to hear from an author like that. We decided I’d call in for the last few minutes of their discussion of the book and answer a question from each of them. This, naturally, mutated into a Skype session.

I don’t want to make it into more than it was, but I was touched at the confluence of this simple little exchange. It wasn’t just that my first Skype session was with kids in New Orleans a few weeks after the fifth anniversary of Katrina (and precisely on the ninth anniversary of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks). It was that the topic was Superman.

How often during both tragedies did someone look up and wish privately or even aloud that he was real?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To the Billmobile!

Sorry, no can do. Bill Finger could drive a plot but not a car.

Three sources confirmed this independently of one another. His second wife, longtime friend and writing partner Charles Sinclair, and fellow former comics writer Alvin Schwartz all told me that Bill never even had a driver’s license. He lived his whole life in New York (mostly the city but for a time on Long Island), so he (like many other New Yorkers) could get by without one.

This made a claim in the following Billography from Green Lantern #1 (1941) incongruous:

The claim: Finger drove a taxicab during the Great Depression.

Considering this bio stretched (or hid) the truth in other respects, it’s possible the taxicab bit was baloney. But why? If you’re going to make something up, shouldn’t it be tantalizing?

Maybe driving a cab was thrown in because maybe it was the definitive example of urban “hard luck” during the Depression. I can see a comics editor (because Finger surely didn’t write that bio of himself) embellishing Finger’s tough journey to make his “success” all the sweeter.

Or maybe Bill did used to drive, but gave it up before he met his second wife, Sinclair, or Schwartz. That doesn’t seem likely as none said Finger told them this.

Yet it’s another passage in this biography that earns the title of “most significant.”

Notice the sneaky wording of the last paragraph. It name-drops Batman and Robin, but doesn’t go that final step in linking Finger to Batman, even as a writer if not co-creator. Given that it’s the earliest known print mention of Finger’s contributions to comics, it may be considered the first public step in the heist of Finger's legacy. But in any case, it sure is great to see Finger “officially” acknowledged as co-creator of someone.

Most of comics fandom did not know a Bill Finger had anything to do with Batman until 1964, when, writing in the letter column of Detective Comics #327, editor Julie Schwartz credited Finger as a longtime Batman writer.

Blowing the lid on Bill as creator was still more than a year off.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Boys of Steel on late-night TV

After news broke of the settlement Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster would receive from DC Comics, they made appearances on national TV. The (Comic) Buyer's Guide kindly allowed me to post a transcript they published of one of those appearances, The Tomorrow Show (starring Tom Snyder). The show aired 12/1/76 and the transcript ran in the 1/30/76 issue.

The pages were oversized so I had to break the first page into two scans. There is a line of overlap to help orient you as you read down. In other words, read down the first column on the first image, continue reading the first column on the second image, then go back up to the right-hand top of the first image to continue:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Pirate haiku

As I'm sure you've noticed, neither pirates nor haikus are subjects that have gotten enough exposure here on Noblemania.

All that is about to change. (But then immediately go back to the way it was.)

Friend and enterprising fellow author Michael Spradlin has created a fun and clever site to spread the word about his equally fun and clever new book, Pirate Haiku. And he's recruited a motley bunch of literary landlubbers to join in the merriment: authors whom he asked to write their own pirate haikus.

Here's how mine starts:

Here’s what me missing:
One eye, two thumbs, three rib bones
Set sail for here to read other pirate haikus and the five-syllable conclusion to mine, a cliffhanger even shorter than the plank I could be made to walk should any real pirate catch wind of this heresy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

"Boys of Steel" lesson plan

An enterprising teacher I met in Ohio developed an impressive (elementary level) lesson plan for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. He kindly gave me permission to share it with other interested teachers.

I also have my own list of classroom activities a teacher can use to supplement the book and tie it in with curriculum.
Among the relevant units are the Great Depression, World War II, biography, and creative writing. Sites including the Graphic Classroom have additional suggestions and insight.

If either are of interest, email me and I'll email the material. (You don't even have to be a teacher.)

Addendum: A year after this posted, I saved you a step by posting my curriculum guide. (Please still contact me for the lesson plan!)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Say it out loud for good luck

In May 2004, I began querying about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Coincidentally, also in May 2004, I began being rejected for the same!

Querying continued for the rest of the year, interspersed with revision. The process reads like a shampoo bottle:


By February 2005, more than a dozen editors had turned it down. I decided to do something I’d never done before: focus group a manuscript. On kids.

From 2001-2010, I was an author volunteer in a New York City program called Authors Read Aloud (part of an organization called Learning Leaders). In the program, authors make four visits a year to two classes in an underfunded school. (Note that I didn’t say “underprivileged.” You don’t need money to be privileged.) This enables the author and students to develop more of a rapport than your typical one-and-done school visit. My ARA schools were always in the Bronx.

On 2/10/05, on my third of the four visits that school year, I read the Boys of Steel manuscript to my two 5th grade classes. As unlike me as it is, I didn’t seem to record any verbatim reactions, but I remember they did tell me they liked it. (I know, kids in that situation will say they like most anything, but I did challenge them to explain why and remember being convinced that they did get something out of it.)

However, I don't remember if I made any changes based on their feedback. Still, just sharing it with part of the target audience may have been a good move, cosmically speaking.

Twelve days later, I queried Random House.

Six days after that, the Random House editor called to express interest. Three days after that, she called back to make an offer.

I don’t believe in karma or luck or omens. Except, perhaps, when it comes to kids from the Bronx.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I, bat

An offbeat little observation wended into my mind last night and somehow stayed there till morning.

Apple has created a cultural icon out of "i." Stick that letter in front of any word—mac, pod, tunes, phone, pad—and you've conjured up a notion of digital elegance.

(Speaking of "icon," it's only a matter of time before Apple pins that on a product, co-opting the very word it so often embodies. The iCon—a handheld device that somehow uses technology to hoodwink people? Then again, some would argue that describes various gadgets they've already put out.)

But Apple wasn't the first to turn a single-syllable prefix into a boffo brand. I don't know who or what was the first, but Bill Finger did it more than 70 years ago. His "i" was "bat": Batcave, Batmobile, Batplane, Batcomputer, batarang. (While he didn't write the first story for every "bat" item, he is credited with creating the motif.)

Perhaps, eventually, the brands will join forces. What would an iBat be?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The superlative man

Bill Finger has writing credits in comic books, TV, film, and even the military. When researching him, almost everyone I spoke with spoke of him in the superlative.

Below is a selection from comics people (some from unpublished interviews I conducted); while a few aren't technically superlatives, they have the same effect.

Lew Sayre Schwartz, artist:

  • “They were always the most imaginative, they were always the best stories.”
  • “I got out of the comic business for a living in the mid-50s but I remember those scripts like it was yesterday.”
Jerry Robinson, artist:
  • “the greatest comics writer of his time, and maybe since”
  • “the best writer in comic books”
Irwin Hasen, artist:
  • “Of all of the writers, he was probably the most creative.”
  • “the greatest guy in the business at the time”
  • “He was the best of all of them.”
Ed Brubaker, writer:
  • “He was the most inventive guy on the book.”
Mark Evanier, writer:
  • “[Editor/writer] E. Nelson Bridwell picked stories to include in reprints. Writers’ names weren’t on them but most of what he picked were Bill Finger stories.”
Julie Schwartz, editor:
  • “best scripter in the business and the true cocreator [sic] of Batman”
  • “the genius of comics” (one of many who used the word “genius”)
Dick Sprang, artist:
  • “best writer in comics”
  • “the master storyteller of the comics. ... By his skill at the typewriter he held the brush in my hand.”
Alfred Bester, writer:
  • “the star comics writer of the time”
Les Daniels, author of DC Comics: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Comic Book Heroes:
  • “perhaps the best comic book writer of his era”
Bob Kane, artist:
  • “first and best writer [of Batman]”
  • “the Cecil B. De Mille of the comics”
  • “the sweetest, most personable guy [I] ever met”
See also: Bill Finger receives official credit for Batman—almost.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Who said what and when, part 2 of 2

Part 1 of 2.

As I noted in an earlier post, I lobbied for the copyright page of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman to include a line attributing the dialogue in the book. I’d compiled a list of reviews critical of nonfiction that had not done that and I didn’t want to find myself in a similar line-edit of fire.

Below are the excerpts on that list. I am not passing overall judgment on these books or their fine authors; you can see plenty positive about them in the full reviews on Amazon. I am sharing these comments here only to warn of a possible consequence when dialogue is not sourced.

One kind, established author not on this list told me he got “whacked” in a couple of reviews for “assuming” dialogue. Those reviews I couldn’t find online, but the message is already clear: don’t let yourself get whacked. Please quote me quoting him on that!

Reviews citing unsourced facts, including dialogue:

Booklist on Hammerin’ Hank: The Life of Hank Greenberg (Walker 2006): “Numerous quotes, which, unfortunately, are not sourced…”

School Library Journal on Edna (Scholastic 2000): “…no attribution for the few direct quotes used”

School Library Journal on Fly, Bessie, Fly (Simon & Schuster 1998): “Although some excerpts from letters are included, no source notes are given for them or for a recurring refrain that Bessie sings several times.”

School Library Journal on Stone Girl, Bone Girl: The Story of Mary Anning (Scholastic 1999): “No attributions of factual material are provided.”

Booklist on Julia Morgan Builds a Castle (Viking 2006): “A concluding photo of the finished structure would have been nice, as would notes about the provenance of material in quotations, but the unsung heroine and the handsome, engaging presentation counterbalance these missteps.”

Booklist on Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin (Henry Holt 2006): “…teachers wanting more details will need to look elsewhere as the book’s biographical context is scattershot and no end matter is provided.”

Booklist on Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights (Candlewick 2005): “Haskins doesn’t provide sources—not even for Law’s thoughts and feelings”

School Library Journal on Saint Francis of Assisi: A Life of Joy (Hyperion 2005): “…no source notes or bibliography”

Booklist on Daniel Boone’s Great Escape (Walker 2008): “…no source notes, or even a bibliography—a disservice to children—which will leave adult readers wondering about authenticity”

9/8/14 addendum: other dangers of writing dialogue (an article I wrote for The Horn Book).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Who said what and when, part 1 of 2

At Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, Tanya Lee Stone wrote about the use of dialogue in nonfiction books. The topic is so important to her that it was the post she chose for “repost month.”

I also touched upon this topic, in June 2008, a month prior to the release of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

My feeling is that nonfiction writers may incorporate corroborated quotations into their narratives, but may not fabricate dialogue. (I didn’t check a dictionary, but to me, “dialogue” means fabricated.) And either way, writers must attribute anything in quotation marks. If it’s words that someone did once speak or write, state sources. If it’s made-up, make that clear (and call your work historical fiction).

When I say “quotations,” I mean lines from interviews. I feel it’s okay to shorten a quotation as long as it doesn’t alter the meaning. I feel it is not okay to change words in a quotation, other than verb tense when necessary. I think other nonfiction authors feel the same.

However, there is something diametric about using actual quotations in nonfiction. The quotations are authentic, but they were not necessarily spoken at the chronological moment they appear in the book’s narrative. In other words, they are at once true and false.

Take this passage about writer Jerry Siegel from Boys of Steel:
“He had crushes on girls who didn’t know—or didn’t care—that he existed. ‘Some of them look like they hope I don’t exist,’ Jerry thought.”
Here is the material as it appeared in an interview with Jerry:
“I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. As a matter of fact, some of them looked like they hoped I didn’t exist.”
First, how could a researching author read that and not want it in his book?

You see how I changed the tense of and shortened the original lines. However, this does not change the meaning, and while it takes a few words out of Jerry’s mouth, it does not put words in.

This passage also demonstrates what I mean with regard to the diametric nature of nonfiction quoting. Yes, Jerry did say this, but in an interview decades after the fact, not when I position it in my narrative (the 1930s). That is why I used “thought” instead of “said” here. It was my inexact way of accounting for the time discrepancy. Call it nonfictionesque.

Part 2 of 2 (in which I reveal a risk in not sourcing your dialogue).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Quiet or papa spank

Sometimes I need to remind myself that Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman, was of my grandparents' generation.

His still-compelling contributions to Batman can make him seem contemporary, but he did not listen to rock and roll. He was not soapboxing
The Feminine Mystique. He did not have Flower Power. And so on.

You can catch glimpses of this divide in his early Batman scripts. Here's an especially funny gem (from the debut story of the character who became Catwoman):

The Superman of the period had his own share of corkers:

Since then, I do believe both Superman and Batman have read The Feminine Mystique.