MRBP #11: Do writers work alone?

This was first published in 2013. You’ve read it often enough that it’s #11 on the countdown of Most Read Blog Posts. Thanks to each of you for following this blog.

EditorWe like to think of authors as the sole creators of their work, a romantic notion of the solitary figure alone in his/her garret, spooling out spotless text. Thus John Heming, of Shakespeare: “His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot.” [Preface to the First Folio]

Don’t believe it. It is one of the curiosities of our cultural baggage that we think writers work alone. Are not their names—alone—on the title page? When awards are handed out, is not the author the one who takes it home?

In fact writing—in the professional world—is an intensely collaborative art. No one these days is more important than the editor, who can, and often does, work with the writer to shift, guide, cut, redirect, refine, and sometimes even rewrite the work. The editor has a unique set of skills, perceptions, and the talent to communicate to the writer. It’s highly individualistic. Editor X and writer Y work wonderfully well together, but not editor X and writer Z. Z works better with M. It’s not uncommon for a writer to work with a specific editor throughout his/her career. And if you study an editor’s connections, there are some editors whose writers have been more successful than others. It is not a coincidence.

I’m thinking these thoughts since I just sent in the first draft of a new book to my editor. When I hear from her I’ll start writing the book.

Favorite Quotes #1

Charlotte Bronte, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Bronte, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

I would always rather be happy than dignified.

—Charlotte Bronte

MRBP #12: Getting the call

Crispin: Cross of Lead(Most-Read Blog Posts Countdown #12. Originally published on January 14, 2016, this essay begins my Summer Countdown.)

One of the things that go along with a Newbery award—and I am one of those lucky people—a lot of people ask, “Where were you when you heard the news? Was it a surprise?” Well yes, it was a complete surprise. It went like this.

As many of you know, the award is announced at the ALA midwinter conference.  Compared to the annual ALA event, not a lot of writers are there. But I was in Philadelphia that weekend to promote a rare (for me) picture book, Silent Movie.

No sooner did I get there than I became sick, really sick, sick with the flu. I never had it so bad, before or since. I could not keep anything down, or in. I was cold. I was shivering.

I had a number of engagements, which I kept with as good a face (and stomach) as possible but, as soon as possible, I fled to my room shivering, wrapped myself in blankets, and was miserable. All I wanted to do was get home.

Sunday morning, however, I had promised to be at a breakfast event, and went, sitting as it happened, with a number of Newbery committee members. I don’t recall being able to say anything to anybody. Nobody said much to me.

As soon as it was socially acceptable, I fled to my room, packed up and fled to the airport.  Once there I changed my ticket for the earliest possible flight and flew home to Denver.  Home, I said hello to family. “Check your-email,” my wife said. I did so and found a request from my daughter to rewrite an application she had composed—an application for a summer job. “I need to send it in by nine next morning.”

I set my alarm for five o clock, and went to bed, still sick.

Next morning, I was sitting at my desk (still not well) working on my daughter’s application letter when, at about six o clock, the phone rang. It was Starr Latronica, that year’s Newbery chair, telling me I had won the Newbery.

I said “Thank you,” and immediately into my head flashed the thought, “My next book better be good.”

I put the phone down. I heard my wife’s sleepy call: “Honey! Who was that?

“I just won the Newbery,” I answered, and burst into tears.

The next day I was in New York City, The Today Show, and on and on. Exciting, and fun.

At some point I suddenly had a realization. “The flu! It’s gone!” Indeed, all my flu symptoms had vanished.

The moral of this story: have the flu? Win a Newbery. It works.

Summer Road Trip

Painted DesertOne of the most memorable summers I spent happened in 1947, when my parents loaded me, (age 9) my twin sister and older brother (by two years) on a road trip that went from New York City to Los Angeles and back—in my father’s Buick—the only kind of car he would drive. Consider: A two month trip. My mother did not drive. Summer. No air conditioning. No interstate highways. Parents up front. Three kids in the back.

We went from NY to Philadelphia, and then on to Chicago, through the Dakotas, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Taos, New Mexico, the Painted Deserted, Los Angeles, (which included a Hollywood film studio making a cowboy movie) then back, through the South, where I recall being horrified to see a chain gang. And much, much more.

I can still recall seeing the carved faces of the presidents in Dakota. Old Faithful sprouting. My first sight of real cowboys somewhere. The oil fields of Oklahoma. A sign that read “Welcome to Los Angeles” in the middle of an empty world

After almost sixty years, my siblings and I can recount almost everything we did and saw. That in fact happened because my mother said we must keep a journal of the trip and each day one member of the family wrote about the day’s events and what we saw. The journal still exists.

We followed maps closely, constantly played games from “silence contests” to “license plate poker,” to endless “twenty question” contests.

Did we read? Not in the car. It made my sister and me car sick. But at night, in endless motels, we all had books. Do I remember what I read? No. But I learned how big and varied America was, and that has never left me.

Horror? Or fun?

School of the DeadWhen I looked at the category under which my newest book, School of the Dead, was listed, it was “Horror.” I admit; I was taken aback. True, I have written many different kinds of books, and that includes ghost stories, books like Something Upstairs, Seer of Shadows, The Book Without WordsThey are all tales which have murders and a fair degree of mayhem in them.

School of the Dead concerns a boy who becomes involved with his weird uncle. Indeed, the book’s opening lines are: “The first time Uncle Charlie came to live with us he was alive. The second time he came, he was dead.”

For the most part the story takes place in a private school, which in essence is being run (or haunted) to keep the school’s founder—and friends—alive. They do this by taking the soul of a student once every seven years.

Tony, my hero, is the intended victim.

Yes, it’s meant to be creepy, full of suspense, what is called a page turner. And it is focused on Halloween. It’s the kind of story I hope will be read aloud to a class by a teacher and/or librarian, with the kids sitting on the edge of their chairs, saying, “No, don’t stop!  Keep reading!”

Not, from my point of view, a horrible experience. Maybe even—dare I say it—fun.

The good, the bad, and the disappointing

Toby from Roseburg, OR, writes: “I guess you feel good when one of your books gets a good review. How does it feel when (if) you get a bad review?

I do know writers who say they never read any reviews. I am not one of those people.

ReviewsIt is always a pleasing experience when you get a positive review. It’s truly gratifying, because I’ve worked long and hard. It’s nice to know that someone thinks I’ve done okay. Reviews of children’s book are often quite short, and a plot summary can take up many of the words. Thus, when I get a good review, it is meaningful. That said, I admit, I too often jump to how my publisher looks at them: is there a quotable phrase? Such phrases are a key aspect of marketing.

After all, one wants readers to read your book. Good reviews do a lot of good.

Negative reviews are a whole different kind of experience. I would suggest my first response is disappointment. During the whole publishing process one hears positive remarks, hopes, and high expectations from your publisher. Negative reviews can douse all that quickly.

There is also a difference in the kind of reviews. How they are written. That is to say there are professional reviews (from Booklist, SLJ, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and newspapers, etc.) These, even when negative, tend to be well written, and measured. You understand what the reviewer is saying, and thinking. There have been moments I may even agree with it. “Wish I had seen that.”

However, in these days of the internet, reviewing skills are all over the proverbial map. They may be quite professional, or they can be highly personal and subjective about the writer, even dismissive. Such reviews are painful to experience, and one wonders (or at least I do) why they are written at all.

Then, of course, with a given book, one can get negative reviews and positive ones. That can be a puzzle.

Beyond all else, if you are a professional writer reviews are part of your professional life. When reviews are well written and thought out—there are real skills involved—one can learn from both positive and negative reviews.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Paper vs Screen

Screen vs Paper

Photo: Dave Bredeson | Dreamstime.com

Is there a difference between reading  and working on what you are writing on a computer screen or on paper?

Clearly, this is an individual choice, but speaking purely for myself, I think there is a big difference. But I am not sure why. For more than twenty years I have composed my books on a computer. It means less physical labor (and writing a novel is labor intensive). It is vastly easier to revise, change, editor, delete, and add on my computer. I do many more revisions than I used to do on a typewriter. I think that makes me produce better writing.  For someone like me, with dysgraphia, it means that what is corrected (mistakes, here) remains corrected. And, not a small thing with me, the spell checker is a wonder.

All of that is a positive about working on a computer.

BUT—

I get a better feel for my writing, when I read on paper, pen in hand. I sense weaknesses faster as well as strengths. Beyond all else, I see possibilities in plot and characters I don’t see on the screen.

Why is this true? My only guess—and it is a guess—is that the written page is more book-like, and I am responding to my work as if it is a book, not a screen.

As a result of this imperfectly understood but real difference, I go back and forth. When I feel I have reached a certain on-screen point, I print and read from paper.

It is simply part of my process.

Do any of you experience this?

Rhode Island

When the novel Something Upstairs was published, it was set in the Providence, Rhode Island house (built 1835) I was living in. I had moved there from Los Angeles, from a most modern city to a very old one. Indeed, it felt as if I was going back in time. That sense of going back in time travel was what gave me the stimulus for the time travel in the book.

The book Something Upstairs led to The Man Who is Poe, which in turn led to The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. All have much to do with Providence and were written in this house.

Rhode Island books

The Historical Society set up a tour as a way to engage students in RI history. The kids would come by the house, chant my name, and all kinds of folks would knock on the door. 15 Sheldon Street: You can see it on Google Maps.

Rhode Island Ocean State

Rhode Island photo © Andreblais | Dreamstime.com

For a small state, RI history is quite packed. Founded (17th century) by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, (exiled by Massachusetts) it was always considered politically radical. Its true name is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” It was an early abolitionist state even as its large sailing fleet was transporting slaves. It was tolerant of many religions (Quakers, Jews, and Catholics) amidst rigid New England protestant bigotry. The Baptist Church (then considered radical from a religious point of view) began here. It was the first industrial center in the US, with the earliest factories. It has a long, long history of political corruption, and was thought to be the center of the New England Mafia. Brown University is there and so, too,  is the Rhode Island School of Design, from which many, many picture  book artists flow, including Brian Floca. Providence is where I first met him and where we began to work together. Providence itself is a veritable museum of wonderful old architecture. Its state capital is, in size, second only to the national capital in DC. Small as it is, I met people who bragged that in all their lives they had never left the state. That’s a very hard, if curious accomplishment.

And now, it is the setting for the opening pages of my current project, a historical novel that begins in Providence, and winds up in San Francisco. My research allowed me to find out that California is about a hundred and fifty times the size of Rhode Island.

But hey … big things can come from tiny places.

The key to writing

Stick figureIt may come as a shock to those of you who have expressed admiration for my books and writing (thank you!) when I confess that I do not believe I am a good writer. Immersed as I currently am in putting together a first draft of a new book, I am often disheartened by how badly it is going. If I were a painter, or illustrator, I might say I was creating nothing but stick figures. Rather uninteresting ones at that.

Right next to my computer desk are three long shelves of books that I have written—first editions, hardback, paperback, foreign editions—some with awards—and I will gaze at them and wonder, “How did I do that?”

The answer is, while I truly don’t write well—I do rewrite well. That is the way my books come to life, in my head and on the page. And, as I have expressed here many times before, I rewrite endlessly. That is when my stick figures take on heft, and voice, and hopefully, life.

One of the key aspects of that rewriting, is trying to establish flow, rhythm, drive—call it what you will—a sense of energy that moves the story along with seemingly truthful simplicity, a sense of revelation, rather than construction. I say truthful in the context of an old gag: “The most important thing about writing is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

That notion can apply to many an art form—indeed, I heard it first in my theatre days—but there is some aesthetic truth to it, cynical though it may sound. I could better express it in words I once heard Paula Fox say, “The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.”

But enough of this. I need to get back to that first draft.

Underground Reading

City of Light, City of DarkI was in New York City last week, and as I always do, I rode the Subway.That’s something I have enjoyed doing since I was a boy growing up. (My graphic novel, City of Light City of Dark, has a lot about subways.) This time as I looked over the passengers, sitting and standing, I became aware of an enormous difference. Back then—and it was not so very long ago—the subways were full of readers.

There were the newspaper readers, including those who had mastered the art of folding the New York Times. There were readers of the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, and the New York Post. (I once observed a reader reading a serial story I had written (The Secret School) which was being serialized in the Post. Many of the newspapers were in non-English languages, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, among others.

Then there were the Bible readers, and here the languages were just as varied.

The GodfatherOf course there were many book readers, both hardback and paperback. I can recall stepping into a subway and realizing that at least fifteen people were simultaneously reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, in paperback.

As a high school student, traveling back and forth to school via the subway, I could and did read without looking up to see what station I had reached. I could truly feel which station I had come to, and just close my book and walk off at my home stop.

While on the subway during this last visit, however, what I observed was that almost no one was reading. I saw perhaps one person reading an e-book. A few were looking at cell-phones, but when I snooped, I realized they were playing games.

My old town had been a city of subways and readers. Now it’s just the subways. Reading has truly gone underground.