One of the crucial things that drive writers, I think, is the desire to be part of what I refer to as Book Culture. This is the universe of the book; writing, reading, making, publishing, book-selling, libraries, editing, design, marketing—and you can add much more to the list, I’m sure. If you were a very young reader, as I was, you grew up amidst various aspects of this world. I suppose I could start with the picture books my mother read to us nightly when kids, to the gift of a book (always) on birthday and Christmas, the local library. I decided to become a writer when I was a teen-ager. In a diary I kept when a high school senior (1955) there are long lists of the books I was reading. But there is also the title of a play I wrote which I listed between Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Dylan Thomas‘ Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, with the parenthetical note (“That’s nice to put down.”) In other words, I was placing myself among great writers. Yes, a seventeen-year-old’s fantasy, but that was the world of which I wished to be a part. So when a friend sent me The National Endowment for the Humanities “Summer Booklist for Young Readers,” updated for the first time since 1988, it was fun to see, wedged between Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales and Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, my book Poppy (illustrated by Brian Floca). Just as in 1955, it’s nice to be a part of that world.
On June 26th I will be at the Shenandoah University (Winchester, VA) 2012 Children’s Literature Conference. Along with other writers and illustrators we will focus on the conference theme, literature for boys. While I will take part in a couple of panel discussions, I will have a solo spot, doing what I most enjoy at conferences, reading from my work. Over the years I have delivered my share of formal speeches, but some years ago, I decided to do something more challenging, for me at least. I hired a professional theatre director and a voice teacher and asked them to work with me to put together and perform a program of readings, selections from my own writing. It’s a form of reader’s theatre, but in this case I am the only performer. I learned to adjust my writing, at times cutting and even rewriting, so as to make each episode dramatic, intense, and more suitable to an auditory experience. I learned learn how to respond to a live audience, to vary my voice, to create distinct characters, and but most of all to bring energetic life to my own words. I am not a natural performer, but for a performance to work, I need to throw myself into my words. When it is successful, it is deeply rewarding for me—as a writer. I get a response that is palpably there. As for the audience, they are entertained for an hour. We all—I hope— have a great time.
The New York Times (6/7/12) ran a long obituary about Ray Bradbury, his life, his work, and his influence as a writer, and as a person. Bradbury was a man who seems to have been an enthusiast for life, and filled his writing with that passion.
Particularly touching were the comments that followed the obituary. For the most part these remarks were from men who discovered Bradbury when they were quite young, kids really. It was not just that they were entranced with what Bradbury wrote. He turned them into life-long readers. Apparently, they were so enthralled by his ideas, his language, and his writer’s craft, that they embraced the universe idea of reading—and never forgot that it was he who gave the gift.
Many years ago I had a brief (and accidental) encounter with him—a shared taxi ride to the Miami airport. The strong impression he made, his embracing, open-hearted personality, was as striking as it was lasting, so that I could describe it in detail to one of my sons today. Fleeting as that meeting was, my memory seems to be in accord who those knew him far, far better than I. He seems to have been a wonderfully giving person, as well as a wonderfully giving writer.
Who is the first reader of my books? My wife, Linda. (I read somewhere that Madeleine L’Engle had her husband read her books to her. Now that took courage!) Sometimes Linda is willing to let me read the book to her. Patient soul. Or she reads the book on her own, and I wait nervously. She is a very tough, but good critic. Once, famously (in this house anyway), she said, “Avi, this is unreadable.” She can be generous in her praise, and over the years has had far more positive (and useful) things to say than negative (including suggestions as to how to make that unreadable book become published successfully). It does not hurt that she is a publisher and good reader in her own right. My own rule about early readers (I have a couple of friends with whom I sometimes share early drafts) is never to argue or debate. Just listen. Nine times out of ten, early readers articulate something of which I am vaguely aware, but have not pinned down. More to the point, an outside perspective is crucial to the process. Enter the editor—of which more later.
Some years ago a young student (I no longer have name or whereabouts) sent me the following “Criteria for a good book.” I believe it was a student assignment. In any case, here it is, just as it was sent (and spelled). I’ve never read a better analysis of what children’s literature is.
Criteria for a good book
- Corrict spelling
- Good paragraphs
- Understanable-maks sense and words aren’t too hard
- Beginning, muddle, end
- action (not dull)
- complete sentences
- Good characture descriptions
- Lots of details and descriptions
- Funny once in a while
- Nice size letters
- Solution to problem-any problem
- Lots of mony in it
- Hast to have letters not blank pages
- Characters have clothes on
- You know where you are without using a book mark
How does it feel to finish a book after working on it for months, if not years, every day, and for most working hours? As the writer Harry Eyres has suggested, it is a “triumphant moment of loss.” Famously, Virginia Woolf suffered acute depressions when she finished her novels. Not so uncommon among writers. It’s not that bad for me, I’m glad to say. But—as a writer—your life has been structured on your daily involvement with plot, characters, etc., etc.,—and then it all goes. Those people, and their dilemmas, that you have invented were your daily companions. You’ worried and fretted about them. Wondered what they were doing. Saying. Then—they go away. They become your readers’ friend. (In fact your readers tell you things about your characters that you never knew!) Melancholy moment, indeed. Nothing else to do but—start something new. Or mow the lawn.
I have published a lot of books. I have lots of readers. I have won a lot of awards. But I have never sent in a new book—as I have just done—to an editor without feeling nervous, and worried that it might be rejected. And I have been rejected.
Once upon a time I submitted a book. The editor called and said the book was no good. “Is there anything that might be salvaged?” I asked. The editor thought for a moment and said, “You could keep the title.”
Then there was the time the book was accepted. Or so I thought. A day later the editor called and said “I changed my mind. I don’t want it. You bullied me into taking it.”
Then there was a book that was rejected because, “It’s too scary. It will do your reputation no good.”
I suppose it’s also a rejection when the editor says, “I need to think about it,” and never calls again. Another line. “What’s the matter with it?” I asked. “Not enough salt,” said the editor.
It has been reported that Charles Dickens, in his role as an editor, rejected a novel titled, Pearls on a String. His rejection letter (in its entirety) said, “Too much string. Not enough pearls.” That wasn’t my book, I’m glad to say.
Anyway, here I am waiting to learn my new book’s fate. Stay tuned.
This writer’s day: Up at six, and by six-thirty (with coffee near) working on new book, focusing on the last third. Chat with my publicist about evolving website. An e-mail from the editor of forthcoming book, Sophia’s War, informing me that she is sending the first pass galley. For the first time I get to look at the book in print, always something of a shock, always satisfying. More coffee. We spend an hour and a half going through the book—she’s the leader here—adjusting words, sentences for clarity, deleting repetitions, confusions, what have you. Vital to do. Good editors do this well. Then I go off to the local library to get advice on retrieval of newspaper archives, for information I need for new project.
An hour’s break (a 3½-mile walk). Back home (more coffee).
I work on an old text, S.O.R. Losers, which has been reformatted for inclusion in Breakfast Serials, the newspaper serialization-publishing venture. An e-mail from a different editor, with encouraging words about first 100 pages of that new project. It is energizing, so after dinner, back to that project.
Finally, happily, reading time, a book about Edgar Allan Poe. Always a fascinating subject. One of my books, The Man Who Was Poe, is about him. A long, but productive day.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, I finished the rough draft of my new book. (No title yet.) What does that mean? First, relief. It has been a two-year effort. Nonetheless, I am far from finished. Having a complete book means I can now rewrite with the whole story in my head. As I have said elsewhere, I cannot write a good first page until I write a good last page. Now I must bring the whole book together, hopefully, in some seamless, logical, compelling fashion. During this process I make countless changes, some big. For those who know my Newbery book, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, they may be surprised that the cross of lead, which is so key to the book, was not added until after the first draft was written. Moreover, I think there were at least ten different opening chapters to that book. The fact is, this period of rewriting, is my favourite part of the process. A lot of the tension of creating is gone. In its place comes the joy of making the book deeper, richer, a better experience for the reader—and, dare I say—for this writer, too.
My editor and I have been working on the jacket copy of my forthcoming book, Sophia’s War. That is to say, we are writing and editing the text that appears on the dust jacket. This is the description of the book—what the book is about—on the first flap of the jacket. Since readers often read what it says there to decide if they might be interested in reading the whole book, it is very important. I mention this because the creation of a book entails a lot more than just writing the text. Beyond the writing of the story, consider the many aspects of a published book: Flap copy. Cover art. Paper. Font. Design. Illustrations. Printing. Binding. And more. One of the things that makes printed books distinctive—as contrasted with digital publishing—is a printed book can be, should be, a work of art in itself. I think the better the publishing, the better the reading experience.