Are you scared by what you’re writing?

Worried ManYears ago, I read an article by William Styron (author of Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice,) in a periodical called the Saturday Review of Literature, which is no longer published. I wished I had saved it because I’ve never been able to find it and it made a big impact on me.

If I remember correctly, Styron suggested that, crudely speaking, the writer is motivated by two forces, emotional and intellectual. That, at best, when writing, these forces are equally at work but that it is the emotional that gives force and power to writing. It is the intellectual side that shapes, and controls. Moreover, the intellectual monitors the emotional side. Things go awry, he suggested, if the intellectual censors the emotional, which is to say the writer becomes fearful or backs away from what he/she is writing. Yet it is the emotional which more often than not motivates the author to write.

Being scared of what one is writing happens quite often. Are you shying away from something because it seems frightening? Are you pulling back because you are afraid of making something (an idea, revelation, secret, or act) public?

I knew a writer who was writing a thriller. Quite casually, he asked himself, “Who am I most like in this book?” The quick (in the head) answer: “The villain.” It stopped the writer (and writing) cold. Mind you, it was all in his thoughts.It took months of self-therapy to sort that one out, so he could continue writing. (Aside: I was once told that the occupational disease of writers is depression.) Another writer I knew found herself completely blocked. Why? She was using the death of her brother as the basis of a novel. She just could not write the book. Too difficult.

At the moment I am working on a book that deals with war, a truly horrific event. I find myself backing away from its details, events, human destruction. I hesitate, and have to force myself forward. It is as unpleasant as writing gets. I keep telling myself that if I can capture the pain I will have a strong book. And I think it will be a good story. But, oh, it is hard!

Historical Fiction

Midnight MagicThere is the term “historical fiction,” and I think we can all agree that it is a work of fiction (that is, imagination) based on historical fact. But historical fiction covers an unusually wide range of literary work. There can be novels such as my Midnight Magic, which, while ostensibly set in Renaissance Italy (Naples) is rather like a costume drama that takes general modes of thought from the time, but has virtually no historical fact. Then there are books like my Iron Thunder, in which I tried to replicate a deeply researched reality, so that even the boy protagonist was a real person.

There is, of course, a wide middle ground, in which a writer such as me tries to capture the historical reality, and then inserts manifestly fictional characters (Sophia’s War and City of Orphans).

Sophia's WarI just finished a new work of historical fiction. It was a challenge because the historical moment, which all agree happened, is usually (if then) hardly more than an anecdotal footnote. While I tried to stick to the facts, virtually everything else is invented by me—because no one knows what really occurred.
At the conclusion of the tale, I have a commoner and a king (both historically real people) engage in a vital conversation, in which the king says something that I hope effectively sums up what the whole book is about.

My editor says, “But the real king would never say that.”

City of OrphansMy reply, “I agree. But this is a work of fiction, and my book needs him to say that.”

In short, historical fiction is fiction. That’s a fact.


galleyWhen you receive the galley of your book, you are looking at it in print for the first time. That is a big psychological change.

[For those unfamiliar with the term, galley refers to the first printing of a book, a trial printing of the book, so to speak. It is not bound, and is usually in loose sheets, or a long roll. The production team and the author read the book in this form, and make whatever changes or corrections that are deemed necessary, everything from typos, changes in words structure, and sometimes, big alterations. There will be in fact, at least two other trial printings.] Speaking for myself, this first galley pulls my book away from my subjective perception, and begins the shift it to something that is beyond me, a book that belongs to the reader, not me. Because the galley is completely formatted to look like the book it will become, (designed with margins, typeface, decorations, chapter headings, numbering, etc.) I can read it somewhat objectively. Indeed, there are moments when reading a galley that I truly ask myself, did I write this? (That may be a positive or negative reflection.) I forget the struggle to get such and such a word or chapter right, to smooth the transition from this plot spot to the next—it’s all done.

And if I am struggling with writing another book (and I am always struggling with writing another book), I consider the galley somewhat wistfully. This book is done.

When I send back my corrections and changes I need never read the book again.

The book in galley form was fun to write.

The current project is so hard.

My wife reminds me, “You always say that.”


It is not that unusual in the world of publishing for a book to become what is called, “orphaned.” What is meant by this is that the original contracting editor stops working on the book before it is done. There can be many reasons. The original editor moves to another publishing house. The original editor retires from publishing. The original editor becomes ill. There is a massive shake-up in the original publishing house. There is an irreconcilable dispute between writer and editor. Even, it has happened, the original editor just gives up on the book for whatever private reasons.

Things That Sometimes HappenMy very first book, Things that Sometimes Happen (1970) had three editors. (Four if you count the revised reissue) The first (contracting) editor suddenly retired from publishing. The second—assigned editor—went off to a different publishing house. Then there was the third—I don’t think I ever even talked to her.

That said, a change of editors mid-stream, so to speak, is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have been in situations in which the change has been for the better.

Nonetheless, to shift from one editor to another can be a big jolt for the writer.

Sometimes the new editor has been assigned and does not have a particular affinity for the contracted book. Or the new editor sees the book in a new light, and requests big changes. I’ve been in situations in which the original editor says, “Done!” only to have the publisher say, “Wait a minute. We need to look at this anew. Here’s your new editor.”

Of course the reader will know nothing of this, nor need they. The hard truth is that the people—writer, editor, even publisher—do matter, but in ways the reader need not know. The reader wants a good book and whatever it takes to make it good is what everyone is trying to deliver. An orphaned book finds a parent in the satisfied reader.

The Story of English

Story of English in 100 WordsLike many writers I have a particular fascination with words. I have an extra interest insofar as I write historical fiction and like to use words that reflect/suggest the language of the time. Thus, in Sophia’s War, I even included a glossary of 18th century words as befit this narrative of the American Revolution. Here is swinking: to labor, toil, hard work. And plout: to fall with a splash. Remembering my childhood, I’m very fond of glowflies: fireflies. Moreover, there is no reason not to use such words in contemporary narrative.

Let me recommend then, The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal (St. Martin’s Press), who is referenced as the “foremost expert on English.” He writes lucidly, with wit and erudition about one hundred English words, by which he unfolds the evolution of the language with its immense vocabulary.

Why does the word DEBT, have a B in it? Just what does FOPDOODLE mean? Would you be surprised to find the word MATRIX was first used in Tyndale’s 16th Century English translation of the Bible? I was. Exactly where, when and why does OKAY arrive? What New World location did POTATO come from? Haiti! Ain’t that interesting? And there is a chapter about AIN’T. For that matter, when did the word ENGLISH first come into the language? 10th Century.

Each of the hundred words is treated with a short chapter, each easy to read, and I promise you, full of things you didn’t know.

But do know I have taken time to EDIT this post, a late 18th century word.

Dedicated to …

A dedication is perhaps one of the few things a writer can give that others cannot. With almost eighty books published I’ve posted a lot.

Things That Sometimes HappenThe first one—my first book (Things That Sometimes Happen)—was to my son, Shaun. After all, I wrote the original stories for him. Indeed, all my children have had books dedicated to them. Nieces and nephews too. Cousins. Aunts and uncles.

I have even considered composing a memoir by simply writing about all these dedicatees, and relating why they were important in my life.

By putting a name in Beyond the Western Sea, I was, as it were, announcing publicly how fond of this particular lady I had become. Indeed, I married her.

Iron ThunderThere is not necessarily a connection between the content of the book and the person’s name which sits on the page. Often it is just my way of noting affection and/or appreciation. There are exceptions. Iron Thunder is dedicated to a good friend of mine because he grew up in the vicinity of the place where the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac took place. A few people are named, not because I know them well, but because I admire them. There are some professional names such as editors.

The two people noted in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle at some point became angry at me, and no longer will speak to me. Their names remain.

True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleMost people when they learn I have dedicated a book to them say “Thank you,” and that’s more than enough. Some speak of a “Great honor.” Others have never responded. (Maybe they felt insulted by the book.) One person (nameless here) said “It’s about time you did that.” One book has no dedication because I think I wished the name to be a secret. Alas, I cannot remember who that was. Another book simply reads “For us,” meaning for my wife and me. I never dedicated a book to my parents because they were opposed to my becoming a writer. An admission: before writing this I looked at some early dedications. There are two which are a mystery to me.

Oh well: This posting is affectionately dedicated to my blog readers.

Isn’t it lonely?

charactersThe question is often put to me: “Isn’t it lonely being a writer? Sitting there at your computer, having no one else around?”

I wish it was lonely. I sometimes pine for solitude. In truth, I am surrounded, badgered, hounded by my characters. In the midst of a project they never leave me alone. “You’re thinking about your book!” my wife will (kindly) tell me altogether too aware that I have not been listening to what she (or anyone else for that matter) is saying or doing.

In truth, I might be sitting at the table (at a dinner table!) surrounded by nice, chatty and interesting folks, and all of a sudden my head is telling me, “That’s not what she would do! That’s not what he would say. They would react in a different way. It should work this way.”

The she, he, and they, are my characters. Pestering me. Telling me what to do. And write. And since I am always working on something, it can be rather annoying, all these people.

Yes, it is slightly (or more than that) obsessive. And yes, it’s not totally a wrong thing, because I am getting the book right. Or think I am. I do truly think that it’s very hard to write by fits and starts, though many have to work that way.

Alas, speaking for myself I need to be totally immersed in my fictional world, seeking to make it real. Sort of a lunacy, but absolutely not lonely. I wish, sort of …

A glimpse as to how this writer spent his summer

hammockOn Sunday I reread MS of book A, and made such changes as I thought productive.

On Monday morning I worked on a new book B, which is due at Editor’s desk on November 1.

On Monday afternoon, having received (via US post) final notes from Editor on book A, I made the changes she requested. Read through the book anew and went to bed late. For bedtime reading read a book that pertained to book B.

On Tuesday, I worked some more on book B, and then made some Spanish language corrections on book C, as suggested by a pal who knows a lot more Spanish than I do. I also spoke to an old writing friend who asked me to read the manuscript of her new book. Said yes.

On Wednesday, I received the just arrived galleys of book D, and began to make such changes as I thought necessary.

Chatted (via phone) with new writer about clauses in the contract she has been offered. She told me she had consulted with a currently famous author who told her “I never read my contracts.”

Also checked the internet to read up on how to get rid of newly established family of raccoons.

The Nature of the Work


Photo: Idrutu |

At about eleven AM—having started at six AM—I went through my new manuscript for the Xth time. I decided it was done. Was it truly finished? I had been working on this, the first draft, for six months. No, not finished, but finished enough that my editor needs to evaluate it. The only one who has heard (not read) the book is my wife. While she is a terrific critic—and indeed some of her suggestions have been incorporated into the text—she is my wife, not my editor.

So, I must send it in.

Am I fully confident the book will be accepted? Well, actually, no. For this writer, anyway, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Most of the book—I think—is good –but I would not bet my life on it. I’m anxious then, and will be for at least a month—or longer—until I get a response.

But I do have the satisfaction that I have reached this point.

Then, at about 2 pm—same day—I drove to the post office—in this rural area, a back and forth drive of twenty-miles–to pick up my mail.

In the mail was an express package from another editor, with notes for another new book. The book was submitted about six months ago, in fact, just as I started working on the book mentioned above.

The notes—at first glance—look complex.

I’ll need to start working tomorrow. Not all bad. It will keep me from thinking about the just submitted book.

Those of you out there who hunger for the life of a writer, just know the work never ends. Never. As for you professionals out there who are kind enough to read these notes, you know exactly whereof I speak.

S.J. Perelman—a 20th century funny man, was once asked about his life as a writer. “Love the job,” he said. “Hate the paperwork.”

Favorite Quotes #12


Future Past

The future begins in the past.
 [some university professor of mine]