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Writing Quirky (An article published by the SCBWI eastern PA. newsletter):

by Linda Oatman High

A reviewer recently wrote that my novels are "delightfully quirky." This came about a week after I received a letter from a 77-year-old man who claims to be a fan of my weekly newspaper column, Jake's View. "Jake is so wonderfully quirky," the man wrote. "You must be a very unusual person. Are you as crazy as Jake?"

Well...this started me thinking: Am I quirky? Am I unusual? Am I crazy? I asked my kids: "Am I quirky?"

Does quirky mean the same as jerky?" Justin replied. "If it does, then you are."

Now, this remark came from the same child who was the only kid in sixth grade not to be shocked by a teacher who suddenly jumped up on a desk and started belting out a Rod Stewart song. "I'm used to grownups who act weird," Justin informed the class. "My Mom does it all the time."

So then I asked J.D.: "Am I quirky?"

"What's quirky?" he asked.

"Crazy," I replied, and he nodded.

"Anybody who would paint Dad's toenails pink while he's sleeping and say that the Easter Bunny did it because he can't tell eggs from toes is crazy," he said. "Strange."

Well, J.D. and Justin are both thirteen years old, and 1 figured puberty is making them sensitive, so I asked Zach. He's only six and I knew he'd tell me the truth. "Is Mommy strange?" I asked, and he smiled.

"You're weird, Mom," Zach said.

"Like when you yell at Amos." Amos is a fifteen-foot-high statue of an Amish man who stands at a restaurant near our house, and I'm prone to shout "I LOVE YOU, AMOS!" out the window as we drive by. That's not being weird--it's just expressing emotion. What's so quirky about that?

Well, since I didn't get any satisfaction from my kids, I looked it up in the dictionary. "Quirk: a peculiarity of action or behavior," said Webster. Okay, maybe I am just a tad bit quirky, I conceded. But where does this come out in my writing? Everywhere, it turned out in a quick skim though my books.

Okay, so my characters are a bit peculiar. They do peculiar things. They're weird. They're strange. They're quirky. And I concluded that quirky characters in quirky situations make for quirky books, written by a quirky writer. But what can you do to learn to write quirky if you're not naturally inclined to weirdness? Here are some quirky tips:

1. Don't censor yourself. Put those first crazy thoughts down on paper, and leave the editing to the editor.

2. Allow your muse to go berserk. Let it be nutty as a fruitcake, silly and goofy, one fry short of a Happy Meal. It's easiest to do this early in the morning and late at night, when the mind is uncluttered with reminders that the world is full of serious, non-singing grownups.

3. Don't think about what the reviewers will say if your book strays from the mainstream. My favorite review of Hound Heaven came from Kirkus, who wrote, "High endows her novel with sneaky, knock-you-over charm." That's not charm; it's quirkiness, Kirkus.

4. Be outrageously gross, shockingly immature, seriously unsophisticated. If you're writing for a twelve-year-old, be a twelve-year-old....My Dad pointed this out to me recently when I was bragging that somebody thought I was a teenager. (I'm 38 going on 13.) "I must look rather young," I gloated, and Dad grumbled, "It's not so much how you's how you act."

5. Study bizarre people you come across in life and use them to create eccentric characters. Dig into your memory--use real people from your past.

6. Don't strive to be politically correct in your writing--just be honest.

7. Write about weird things you do within the privacy of your home and family. Write of quirky things you did as a kid, and forget about the embarrassment. (When I was twelve, my Mom bought me a couple of Sears training bras with blue flowers in the middle. I sheared off all the flowers after my friend told me she could see them through my clothes, and I used that quirky act in Hound Heaven, a few chapters before I had the grandfather wake up with pink toenails.) Write of private, hidden things--like toenails and bras.

8. Unleash the quirky person inside you. Jump up on a desk and start singing, yell at a fifteen-foot Amishman, give somebody you love ten pink toenails while he sleeps. Be weird, be crazy, be strange--then write about it. Follow the words Bruce Coville spoke at the 1996 Pocono mountains Writers Retreat (where lots of quirky writers meet) :

Dance like nobody's watching,

Love like you can't be hurt

Sing like nobody's listening,

Live like it's Heaven on Earth.

And write like nobody's reading.