It usually takes me a year to write one of my novels. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The longest time period was fourteen years, for Bright Shadow. The shortest period was one day, for S.O.R. Losers. There are explanations for both extremes, but I will save them for another post. Readers, however, are welcome to read the books and see if they can see why. My current project has been two years in the making. The first effort was not very good, and required extensive rewriting. Why was it not very good? In essence, it was too close to my personal experience. Which is to say I was not able to take what was real and meaningful to me, and make it real and meaningful to readers. This flies in the advice often given to young writers: “Write what you know.” The problem of course, is the writer’s fundamental contradiction: A writer must be objective about personal experience to make it a subjective experience for the reader. Never easy.
Like many readers, maps in books have always fascinated me. I once knew someone who collected books only with such maps. One of the most famous maps, the treasure map found in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, was drawn first, and the story written around it. One of my own early books, Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, a mystery, has, as its primary clues, maps from well-known childrens’ books, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie The Pooh, Treasure Island, Through the Looking Glass, and The Wind in the Willows. My book was inspired when I came upon an atlas of fantasylands. What a book by which to travel! This comes to mind because my forthcoming book, Sophia’s War, will have not just one map, but two. Such maps not only illuminate the story, but seem to give a singular sense of reality to a narrative. In a very special and literal way, maps provide a way of following a story. Or perhaps the best stories follow a map to explore new worlds.
There is a story about which I have always marveled. It concerns Charles Dickens, the great 19th century novelist. If I remember correctly, it happened when he first became famous with The Pickwick Papers and he was writing David Copperfield. A large, boisterous party was being held in his honor at his home. At some point, he excused himself, explaining he had a deadline to meet, and retreated to his study to write. The partygoers, refusing to accept this excuse, carried his desk down to the party. Midst the loud revelry, he wrote on. How he could do so I cannot imagine! I like, need, quiet to work. Deep quiet. Silence. Nothing, not even music. Since I live in a busy household, I even have rifle-shooting earmuffs to block out sound. I only want to listen to the words I write. The more I listen, the more I hear. The more I hear, the more the reader will hear.
In the mail today came the Spanish edition of City of Orphans, with the translated title, Ciudad de Huérfanos. [Editorial Bambú–Spain] My knowledge of languages other than English is woefully ( sadly) deficient. I cannot therefore, speak to the translation, but it is a handsome hardbound edition, truly stitched, complete with headband, a bound-in, green ribbon page marker (something I love) and an unusually fine illustration for the cover art. Many of my books have been translated (True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is in some twenty languages.). The Korean Crispin: The Cross of Lead, which is fully illustrated, is very beautiful. These translated editions fascinate me, in part by the way they depict the story. They also allow me to wonder how young people in different cultures respond to my stories. Now and again, I get letters from these kids, and they are always delightful. Once, in Denmark, a girl told me how Bright Shadow was her favorite book. There is something very special about reaching across the globe in this way. Deeply rewarding.
Years ago, my friend Natalie Babbitt and I were talking about current projects, when she said, “I’m at that stage, you know it, when I am not sure how to go forward, so I’m just rewriting.” I did know it. It happens often. The best way to describe the process is that when you are stuck, the writer finds his/her way forward by going backward. That is, by reworking, defining, shaping what you have done, you hope to find insights as to what should happen. In essence, you are asking your story, your characters to tell you what to do. If you have written true (as Hemingway might have said) there should be a logic about what comes next, how your story unfolds, concludes. That is where I am now with my current project; trying to get to the end, by going back to the beginning.
Last week I learned that my most recently published book, City of Orphans, was nominated for the Vermont children’s choice award, which they call the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award, (she was the author of Understood Betsy). It’s a big thing for writers who are nominated for these awards. It means that many more libraries, school and public, will put the book on their shelves. Many more kids will read the book. These awards are unique because the kids pick the winner. To win is a special honor, deeply satisfying. These childrens’ choice awards are a reminder of what the whole enterprise of children’s books is all about—the kids. [By the way, Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a very interesting and important person, worth learning about.]
What role does time play in a work of fiction? A book like my Fighting Ground is broken up into time bits (not chapters) and lasts little more than twenty-four hours. The events of my recently published City of Orphans occur during one week. My soon to be published Sophia’s War begins in 1776 and then jumps to 1780 for the major part of the story. That jump in time is crucial. Sophia goes from being a twelve-year-old girl to a fifteen-year-old young woman. She looks, acts, and thinks differently because of those passing three years. Still, the events of her younger self have a huge impact on what she does when older. While not often thought about, the passage of time is often a key element in a story. In a suspenseful book, time itself can be the engine which drives the story forward. Time can allow characters to change, develop, grow—or decline. Contrast how time works in novels and movies. Is not time in novels more like real time? It takes time to read a novel. Does the time it takes to read a novel add or subtract from the work?
For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is the constant rereading of my own work. I do it repeatedly, truly countless times. As I do, I make all kinds of changes, big and small. It is during this process that the book takes on a unity, a clear direction, a sharp focus, and the strong movement toward a meaningful ending. Sometimes huge changes take place. Sometimes only small, but vital, changes. How can I keep the book fresh to my own eyes and mind? In all honesty, it is not easy. One of the simplest ways, is not to work on it. Walk away. Come back another time. Work on something else. Sometimes the computer helps. Change the font. Margins. Background color. However, I have learned the best way to get a sense of my own work is to read it aloud. It is as the poet Robert Frost once said, “The ear is the best reader.” My wife is usually the first willing listener. I often invite myself to a school and read the whole book—over a series of days or weeks—to a class. For better or worse, it is amazing what I hear.
The word thriller seems to have come into the English language at the end of the 19th Century. Ken Follett cites the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands (Childers) as the first modern thriller. I’d suggest The Turn of the Screw. James Patterson, by way of definition, speaks of the thriller’s “intensity of emotions,” the building of “apprehension.” I’m interested because I’m working on a thriller. Not easy. As I try to shape the emotions to build apprehension, I must focus, cut, sharpen, deepen. If I slip, if the pace slackens, if it gets confusing, the reader won’t turn the page. Sometime the term “page-turner” is used negatively. But what writer doesn’t want the reader to turn the page? If one is speaking of young readers, what could be better than turning them into turners of pages? Many of my readers tell me my best thriller is Wolf Rider. It’s based on something that really happened. But that’s a turn of another page.
The other day, when talking to a fifth grade class, a boy asked, “How do you know when to end a chapter?” A good question. A good book has a complex structure, with different structural beats. Those beats might be the turn of the plot, a great sentence (or paragraph), a shift in mood, an emotional high (or low) point, a revelation for the reader. You can think of others. One of the strongest beats is the chapter ending. It should be a pause that makes you (the reader) not want to stop. Yet, it is often the pause that allows you to stop, to muse upon what you just read, to catch your breath, to go to sleep. It must be perfectly balanced so as to allow the reader to absorb what has just happened, yet encourage continuation. My style tends toward the “cliff-hanger” chapter ending. (That word comes from the mid-20th century world of movies.) When I wrote Beyond the Western Sea, my longest book (680 pages), I structured it so that each short chapter would (hopefully) compel the reader to continue to read on. My editor and I used the metaphor of a bowl of salted peanuts. You cannot stop eating them—or in this case, reading the next chapter—until you’ve gone through the whole bowl—or book. Mindful of this I just restructured the book on which I am working.