Illuminating fiction

From Poppy and Ereth, Brian Floca, illustrator

From Poppy and Ereth, Brian Floca, illustrator

A young reader recently wrote to me:

“We [my sixth grade] thought your book [Never Mind] was really good, but at times it was hard to imagine. If it was made into a movie we could visualize the characters better and how they reacted. For example, Harry Potter is a series of books that were turned into a movie. Since the movie follows the books, it is easier to comprehend what was going on in the book.”

It is commonplace to refer to the modern age as one of intense visualization, TV, internet, film. And while it does not make me happy to acknowledge it, young people are far more likely to look at images than words on a page. As suggested by the young reader above, it is one of the reasons why readers struggle with reading books.

There is a solution: More illustrations for middle grade and even upper grade fiction. There are wonderful illustrators these days, and they should not be confined to picture books. I have absolutely no doubt that the success of my Poppy books, may, to a vital degree, be found in the illustrations by Brian Floca. His art doesn’t just illustrate the texts, they are a significant part of the stories. Consider Brian Selznick’s work. Consider the popularity of graphic novels.

In short, there are countless ways to illustrate fiction. Publishers do themselves (and their readers) a real disservice by not illuminating fiction. More art may mean even more reading of text.

Learning about awards

It is exciting to have my new novel, Catch You Later, Traitor short-listed for the Edgar, the Mystery Writers of America award for the best mystery for young readers, 2015.

Edgar nominees 2016

It was in 1975 that my first novel, No More Magic, was similarly nominated. Much younger, to be sure, I did not quite know what to make of it all. I was invited to a banquet in which, Academy Award style, the envelope is opened, and the winner announced. My attitude was one of faint amusement.

No More MagicI brought along my twin sister, Emily Leider, who had recently published a volume of poems. I assumed I would know no one.  But as we mingled about I recognized some of the grand names of mystery writers. Indeed the keynote speaker was the great Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges.

What, I asked myself, am I doing here?

We sat at a round table. I turned to the man sitting next to me, introduced myself, and he told me his name, which alas, I’ve forgotten.

“What’s this all about?” I asked, with, I suspect, a touch of youthful disdain.

He eyed me balefully. “What brings you here, pal?” he said.

“My novel has been nominated.”

“That’s pretty swell. How many have you written?”

“It’s my first.”

Catch You Later, TraitorHe reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his business card which was in the shape of a book mark, a long book mark. One side had his name, address, phone number. On the other side was a list of the novels he had written. He tapped that side with his cracked fingernail. “I’ve written forty five novels, son, and I’ve never been nominated.  You just might let yourself enjoy the moment.”

I sat back, properly chastened.

At another moment an older, white-haired woman, who was bedecked in glittering diamonds (Oh, how I wish I could recall her name!) turned to my sister. “What kind of mysteries do you write, dear?”

My sister said, “I write poetry.”

The woman pressed her hands together in a prayerful attitude, bowed her head, and said, “We who write mere prose, must salute the poets.”

That night, my book didn’t win but I learned a lot.

In translation

bk_charlotte_doyle_koreanThe True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was published in 1990. This means that it has been around for twenty-five years. Over the years it has been translated into many languages. Now I have gotten word that it is about to be published in Romania. When these translations happen, I’m never told why, what brought on the interest, or how, if at all, it has some relevance to the world of children’s’ books in, say, Romania. Not capable of speaking Romanian, much less reading it, I will have no idea as to the quality of its translation, or how, if it at all, it changes the book. Perhaps it makes it better.

What I can see and evaluate is the design of these translations, and of course, the covers. They vary enormously. They can be quite ugly (the “what could they have been thinking?” variety) to quite beautiful. The South Korean edition of Crispin is by far the best looking edition (among many) of the book, with stunning illustrations.

Years ago I had a string of my books issued in Denmark. It turned out a publisher happened upon my books, liked them and published them. Shortly thereafter I was traveling to Europe, went to Denmark, met the publisher, and spent a little time in Denmark.

When I was in Denmark I was invited to a school, and met with a class of students who were studying English. They were comparable to our 8th or 9th graders. At one point a girl stood up and in struggling English, told me how meaningful my book Bright Shadow was to her. Her struggle to speak brought tears to her eyes, making it very clear that this book of mine spoke to her in some special way and she wanted me to know it.

It was an equally moving moment for me that I, who lived so far away across the sea, had, in some degree of isolation, written something that touched this stranger.

It was a reminder that for writers our closest friends are often strangers.

Saying goodbye

GoodbyeHaving just finished a book, I am filled, as I often am, with sadness. I quick survey of writing friends tells me this is a common phenomenon. “Why?” I asked. “Because you have lived with your characters so long, and now you have to say goodbye. You are saying goodbye to dear friends.”

I wrote about this in a post on February 15, 2014:

It is one of the curiosities of my own writer’s life that when I finish a book, and truly know that it is done, I feel sad. It has happened any number of times. The best reason I can suggest is that I have to put the characters aside, and I miss them. After all, I have come to know them, live with them, struggle with them, and enjoy them. For awhile, as in days of my childhood, they became my imaginary friends. All very well to think about them while you are writing about them, but when you are done … they belong to readers now.

I had finished The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. My editor (Richard Jackson) and I agreed on that. Done. On to the next book. Then, a call from Richard. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. “We skipped a scene. When Charlotte leaves the boat, she does not know what is going to happen. She needs to say goodbye to the crew.”

I recognized he was right, and set to work, writing that brief scene, in which Charlotte says farewell to her favorite crew members. As I wrote, I too was saying goodbye to Charlotte. My eyes welled with tears.

Sending the Manuscript Out Into the World

ManuscriptThere is something of a ritual in my writer’s life when I finish a first, readable draft of a new novel. I read the book to my wife, Linda. This is not a simple matter. The reading is a multi-day activity, during which time I will read as many as fifty pages at a time, or as long as my voice can hold. It is also a source of some tension for me insofar as my wife is a very tough critic. Linda—who is the smartest person I know—has been known to say things like, “This is unreadable.” Or, “Your editor is not going to like this.” Or. “It doesn’t work for me.” And there have been times, when I have been reading, that she has fallen asleep. Not a good omen. Not to say that she has not, many a time, said very positive things. Moreover, Linda inevitably has a thoughtful response, questioning aspects of the plot, or character. Or she will make suggestions regarding ways the story could be made better. Or even, “Was that word used in that time?”

Mind, I have been working on the book for any given number of months. Linda will know, in a general way, the subject matter of the book, whether it is a work of contemporary fiction, or historical fiction. But I do not share the specifics of the story, and almost never read her bits or pieces. She will also know which publishing house will be receiving the book, which editor.

So just recently, when I finished the first readable draft of a new book I was understandably nervous about her reaction when I set out to read it to her. In fact, I could not have been more pleased. Linda not only liked the book, she kept asking me to read more chapters.

There is another point to my reading. I do so with pen in hand, and I mark up the MS for changes which become apparent when I do such a reading.

In the days following my reading I go through the manuscript and make adjustments.

Then I send the manuscript to my editor.

It always leaves me with a sad feeling, as if sending a child off into the world. Yes, in time it will come back with my editor’s response. Before that happens, however, I’ll have already started on a new book.

A Library’s Festival of Writers

Loveland Public LibraryA few weekends ago I attended a library event such as I have never been to before. Loveland (Colorado) Public Library offered a one-day festival of local writers. All kinds of writers were there: those who self-published, those who work with traditional publishers, blog writers, writers who work with small presses and independent publishers.

The point is they (perhaps fifty or so) were all writers.

These writers were welcomed to the library and had some discussions among themselves, about this far-ranging new world of publishing. Afterward, the writers were welcome to lay out their wares, so to speak, and the public was invited to come, meet, browse, and hopefully to purchase what these writers have done.

The Loveland Public Library also has a section where self-published books, if fully bound, are available to the public.

It’s a natural affinity: a public library and local writers. Of course the writers—no matter how they publish—have much in common. It is only their means of reaching readers that differs. By recognizing this, the Loveland Public Library supported these writers and honored them in a very special way. The public library brought public writing and the public all together. Just as it should be. Bravo!

It’s elementary …

DeerstalkerIf you read mystery fiction, there is always much about “motive.” Fictional detectives spend much time searching for that motive. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that “motive,” is equally important in non-mystery genres as well. It helps if you think of the term “logic,” rather than motive. When you build your story (and as a writer of fiction, building is what you are doing) you need to establish sufficient logic to enable your readers to understand, to follow why such-and-such happens. Surprises are great, but to pull the rabbit out of the hat, so to speak, at some time, you need to put the rabbit in the hat. Even fantasy must have its own logic and rules.

Just recently, when working on a new novel (a realistic novel) I realized I had not sufficiently established the logic for a key part of the action. This meant I had to go back to the start of the novel and rewrite so that the logic was embedded in the character and the story right from the beginning. Needless to say, this going back, meant rewriting so that the change became seamless with all that followed. In order to do this the writer must look at what he/she has written as a reader. It’s my old motto coming to my rescue: writers don’t write writing. They write reading.

As a famous (fictional) detective once said, “It’s elementary, my dear Watson.”

In fact, it is never elementary, but it must be clear.

Gifts

Over the years I have signed many books. Many a time I have wondered what happened to them. In fact, I once had a dream in which I had stumbled into a gigantic warehouse.  Once inside I discovered it was filled with thousands of my books—all of them previously signed by me. I was never quite sure if this was a nightmare or a very funny dream.

Now and again I have stumbled upon signed copies in used bookstores.

Still, one wonders …

But then, I recently received this letter:

Bright shadowDear Avi,

On October 21st in 1992, you visited ____________ school in ___________. My father was excited to hear of your visit but I was elated. You were one of my favorite authors and I had been devouring books! When my father explained that meeting an author was not a good excuse to miss school, I was devastated.

As a consolation he asked you to sign Bright Shadow for me. I was awed and mesmerized by the story but honored that it started with, “Best wishes to  _________.”

It is now one of my daughter’s favorites, and she loves the fact that you took the time to personalize the book for me.

As I pass it on to my daughter, I can’t help but wonder how far my father’s gift will carry on in our family. Thank you for giving my family adventures.

It’s the season for gifts. And this note surely is a fine one.

Podcast: The Christmas Rat

Avi The Christmas Rat

Listen as Avi reads the beginning of his novel The Christmas Rat.

Not your usual Christmas story, this thriller takes place during Christmas vacation. With nothing better to do, Eric joins Anje, the exterminator, on a mission to destroy the rat living in the basement of his apartment building. But as Christmas Day draws nearer and the temperature outside keeps dropping, things in the basement go from weird to deadly. And Eric learns how valuable life truly is.

Going faster and faster

faster and fasterI’ve worked on a manuscript for ten months.  Maybe more. I no longer can remember.  It has in fact gone well.  I have worked with care, revising as I go, working (I hope) with care, skill. I know the plot well enough so there are no surprises in my head. At least I think so. But as I approach the ending—and the due date—something shifts. Working day after day, all day, I yearn for the release of “The end.” I begin to go faster and faster, knowing I am writing without finesse, with no finish to the surface, or anywhere else for that matter. The hard part is knowing that I am not writing well.  It is NOT good at all. BUT—it is there, and I know (I tell myself) I can, and will return, to rewrite what I’m slapping down on paper many times.

At this point something can and does often happen. Since I’m writing very fast, it is the emotion that is mostly coming through, and that is the precise time I discover some truth about the characters that I have not seen before. It is not where I thought I would go, but go I do, at this point trusting my emotion much more than my intellect. I am reading what I am writing, and letting the text take me where it may. And while it may sound corny, if I don’t have strong emotions at the end I know I have not done my job.

Sometimes a writer simply has to trust the writing momentum, the instincts, not the thought. More often than not it will get you there—wherever that there is.

Trust the reader in you.