Writing with someone else

Never Mind“Have you ever written a book with someone else?” asks Toby from Columbus Ohio.

The answer is yes. I did so with writer Rachel Vail, with whom I wrote, Never Mind. It came about this way.

My twin sister (Emily Leider (www.emilyleider.com )) is also a writer, a poet, and an author of a number of biographies. I once suggested she write a biography of me. I even suggested a title: A Biography of My Twin Brother with Corrections by Him.

Like a good sister she replied, “I have better uses of my time.”

I told that story to Rachel and she said, “I’ll write a book with you!”

Never MindSo it began. We set up rules. I would write a chapter, then Rachel would rewrite it, and add another. I would rewrite hers and add another … and so forth. Another key rule. She or I could edit (or rewrite) anything the other did and—no complaints, no arguments.

The process worked.

Rachel said it was like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the girl puts straw out on the doorstep, and next day the straw was spun into gold. “So much easier than doing your own rewriting!”

As we approached the end of the book, we set aside time, and went back and forth on a daily basis.

I loved doing this. Rachel and I never had so much as one argument. And the book, I think, is much fun.

The beginning of the Poppy series

Avi: The “Poppy” Series from Mackin Educational Resources on Vimeo.

Thanks to MackinVia for this excerpt from a longer interview I did with them. You can view more of Mackin’s videos here.


The End?!

The EndA question I am often asked is, “Do you know the endings of your books when you begin?”

There is not a simple answer to this question. Now and again I do know with some clarity what I expect the ending of a book will be. That, however, is rare. More often than not, I have a general sense as to where I am going. I hasten to add that writers differ a great deal in this matter. An editor once told me of an important writer who did not set down a word until she was certain of the book’s last line.

Another fine writer told me she did not begin writing until she had thought out the whole book. Then again, I have listened to writers who say ”I just begin and see what happens.”

Hey, whatever works …

As for me, I do not do outlines when I start a book (I did in my early years) but often these days, when about two thirds of a way through a first draft I tell myself I MUST organize my thoughts and do a rough sketch as to where I am going. I just did that for a current project.

But, let me emphasize, I would much rather discover an ending, than plot one. Which is to say I want an ending to flow out of the plot as a whole, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to be surprised. I think my best writing occurs when the text tells me where to go—as opposed to my forcing the text into a box. It is that old John McDonald notion, “Better to be pulled by your text, than to push it.”

It is not usual for me to approach the ending—as if approaching the edge of a cliff—then back off, and take a run (from the beginning) to see what ending evolves. Leap of character logic, if you will.

That said, if I don’t feel emotion with my ending, I know I have not got it right.

Then there is my own doctrine: I can’t write a good opening sentence until I write a good closing sentence. All of which is to say a successful book is one that has unity start to finish.

And that, dear friends, is always hard to do.

A certain sweet, musty-dusty aroma

A Treasury of the TheaterAt some point when I was in high school (in the 1950’s) and I was set upon becoming a playwright, I learned of a new three volume anthology of great plays. They were edited (and commented upon) by John Gassner, an important drama critic of the time. The volumes contained many plays, from the ancient Greeks to modern works. The set was expensive, something like twenty-five dollars (about two hundred dollars in today’s world) I have no idea where I got the money (I had various odd jobs in those days) but I ordered the books, and I got them.

As for the texts, they met my expectations, but there was something else they contained that was surprising and wonderful. The volumes had a delightful smell! I had (nor have) no idea why they had this alluring smell. Was it the paper? The binding glue? Was it something in the ink with which the plays were printed? No idea.

I not only enjoyed reading the books, but I enjoyed smelling them too.

This came to mind when I recently purchased an old book from some online dealer. Some research I was doing. When I opened the book, I was immediately taken by the book’s smell, which I identified as “old-book smell.” It made me recall those volumes of plays.

Book Row

Credit: The Strand Bookstore

There is a certain sweet, musty-dusty aroma given off by old books which I identify with pure pleasure. Perhaps it comes from my happy wanderings through used book stores along “Book Row” on lower Fourth Avenue in New York City when I was young. Or the sweet smell of libraries. Or my own overstuffed rooms—stuffed with books—over the years. I suspect my friend Bob Topp, who runs the marvelous Hermitage Bookshop in Denver, knows exactly what I’m writing about. I wonder if he can tell the vintage of a book merely by its smell.

All this is a reminder, I think, that a book is not just content. At its best, a book is an art object, which fills the senses, the mind, the touch, the eyes, and for me, the nose, too.

As for those volumes of plays—after more than fifty years—I still have them. A little faded perhaps—but still a pleasure—in every sense of the word.

Good advice

adviceI do not normally quote letters from my young readers, but this one offered such good advice I feel obliged to share it:

“Dear Avi,

In my class, we finished a unit where we revised our writing. We took something we already wrote and tried to make it better. I tried to make my writing better by using transition words in my writing. I also tried to make my writing better by using capital letters. The last thing I tried to make my writing better with was using periods. I think that periods have improved my work by making the reader know when to stop. I also think that capital letter improved my work by letting the reader know when to continue. I also think that transition words have improved my work by making the words flow together. I think I have grown as a writer by making my writing a lot better and I also think I made change to make it better. I think that revising is important because it can make your writing a lot better.

Sincerely, E…..

P.S. I LOVE Poppy”

I find owls fascinating

How does Mr. Ocax fly?

A possible reading aid?

ph_letterballI am not a fan of e-books. They make books ugly. It follows then, that I am not a great enthusiast for Amazon’s Kindle. That said, I own one. Being someone who occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night, I reach for my Kindle, and read, usually setting the reading level to low light. A twenty-minute read, and I’m back asleep. Takes a while to read a book that way, but there it is.

Just recently, however, I discovered something I had not noticed on my Kindle. I knew it had a setting for font type (as well as for size of font). Thus there is “Baskerville,” “Bookerly,” “Palatino,” and so forth. What I belatedly realized is that among the typefaces is what is called “OpenDyslexic.”

The typeface is designed so that each font letter is variously weighted, that is to say, there is no uniform thickness. I am in no sense of the word an expert on dyslexia, though I have dysgraphia, and have been interested in such fonts. Moreover, though dysgraphia has been with me all my reading/writing life, I cannot make any claims as to whether this font helps or not. What I can say is that when I normally read my Kindle screen, my eyes tend to slip over the text, as if there was a Teflon factor. When I read my Kindle with this “OpenDyslexic  font,” my eyes stay better glued—so to speak—to the text. I read better.

Dyslexia is often a recognized problem in readers. Dysgraphia much less so. Students who have this condition—such as I was—are continually criticized for sloppy work, not paying attention, and being lazy. I was thus. It’s not true, but being continually accused of such has consequence. Last week I met a fifth grader who has dysgraphia. He wanted to meet me knowing I went through the same frustration he does. He wanted encouragement.

Among other things, I mentioned this font to him and his mother.

Will it be helpful? I don’t know. Is it worth trying? I think so. I have a grandson who is dyslexic.I intend to get him a Kindle like mine.

Note: Not all Kindles are the same. Check to see if a particular model has this feature.

A most unusual publication party

I just received my first copy of The Most Important Thing [Candlewick Press]. Though it is my seventy-fifth book, it’s always an exciting moment.

Devil's RacePerhaps you have heard of publishing parties, a celebration of the publication of a book. In all my years of publication, I have had only one such party. It was in 1984 and it was for my fourteenth book, Devil’s Race, published by Lippincott, a publisher that no longer exists. It may have been my only such party but it was most unusual.

Devil’s Race is a ghost story, and tells the tale of a boy who has an evil alter-ego who is pursuing him, trying to take him over. The boy’s name is John Proud. Ultimately, John must embrace his evil half to conquer him. Simple stuff. But fun.

The idea for the story came about when I was a member of a Pennsylvania back-packing club. One of the places we often camped was a state forest park called “St. Anthony’s Wilderness,” a most wonderful name, and a most fascinating place. In the 18th and 19th century it had been populated. Now, all that remains in the forest are ruins. And an abandoned cemetery.


In that cemetery there was a lopsided stone that caught my attention. It read, “RIP John Proud.”

Hence my idea for the story (it is set in St. Anthony’s Wilderness) and my protagonist’s name.

Some friends in that backpacking group learned that I was publishing the book and said we must have a book publishing party. So we did, each of us packing in a small bottle of champagne. Thus we hiked into St. Anthony’s Wilderness, and sat around John Proud’s stone, drank a toast to his soul, and to my new book.

My only book publishing party, but a memorable one. I hope it made John Proud, well, proud.

Stop your day’s writing when?

StopThere is, reputably, an old Hemingway suggestion: That you should stop your day’s writing right in the middle of some plot excitement or crisis.  It’s not that you can’t go on.  The point is you can instantly go on when you return to your work the next day. Instead of staring at your text and asking yourself whatever should happen, you know instantly what that next event is, and you insert yourself right in the flow of your narrative.

It is useful advice, and I’ve followed it any number of times. But I would frame it in a slightly different way. When you feel you have been writing well, it is always wise to go back and rewrite what you have done. You will inevitably discover that it wasn’t quite that good—there will be gaps, glitches and stumbles—and by working on them you can enrich the character, situation, the story as a whole. When rewriting that way you are not stretched so tightly about moving your plot forward, and you can be more leisurely in the subtler aspects of your story.

The energy of your text often comes from the first draft. The quality of your work comes from the many subsequent drafts.

That editorial relationship

writer and editorThere is no more crucial and creative relationship in the book making process than that which exists between writer and editor. Note my blog of February 11, 2016, for an appreciation of my most important editor, Richard Jackson. There have been other fine editors in my writing life as well. When the communication and work input is high—on both sides—good work can and is created.

Bless them. If I have been successful as a writer it is vital to understand that I have had good editors. No one writes a book alone.

In the world of publishing, editors establish themselves over a period of many years to high degrees of quality and judgment. Good editors earn their good reputations. Being an editor requires high skills. Specific skills. One should think twice—and a lot more than twice—before rejecting the advice and suggestions of one of these established editors.

But is there such a thing as poor or even bad editorial support? You might as well ask are there marriages that fail. I have worked with many editors during my years as a professional writer, and while I believe I have worked with some of the best, some have not been so good.

What makes for a poor editor?

It can be that since the editor/writer relationship is so personal, requiring deep levels of mutual understanding and trust, the human matchups are just not there.

Writers are not always clear about what they are trying to achieve. An editor can subsequently misunderstand what the writer is trying to do and lead him/her in a wrong direction.

An editor can impose a vision on the book which is contrary to what the writer aspires. Such editorial support tries to rewrite the author’s book. The editor may even be right about this new direction, but it will be frustrating for all, and ultimately the work will suffer. The book becomes work for hire.

Finally, publishing is a business. The relationship between art and commerce is complex and is not often acknowledged or accepted. The writer/editor connection is at the center of these sometimes conflicting values. It is, however, rarely talked about.

It is one thing to talk about writing. It is another to talk about publishing. The bridge from one to the other is the editor.  Never forget that.