The Most Important Thing ARC Giveaway

The Most Important Thing: Stories About Sons, Fathers, and Grandfathers, will be available on April 26th. From now until midnight on April 11, 2016, you can enter our random drawing to receive one of four Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs) of this book. Good luck!

This collection of short stories is a hit with reviewers. The Most Important Thing is published by Candlewick Press and will be available at booksellers throughout the United States and online in hardcover, e-book, and audio book formats.

Avi's Book Giveaway

The Research Process

Avi_The Research Process 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.

If you haven’t already read my mystery Catch You Later, Traitor, here’s more about the book.


Morgan, from St. Augustine FL asks, “What inspired you to become a writer?”

  1. House of BooksI grew up in a house of books.
  2. My mother read to us every night.
  3. She was interested in children’s books and gave us the best picture books there were.
  4. I learned to read at an early age and never stopped reading.
  5. There was a lot of storytelling at family gatherings.
  6. Every Friday we went to the local Public Library. I picked the books I wanted to look at/read.
  7. At some point I could and would go on my own to the library.
  8. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted, even comic books.
  9. Every birthday and Christmas I received at least one book.
  10. My siblings and I were encouraged to have our own libraries.
  11. There was a used book store in the neighborhood where I could buy books for ten or twenty-five cents.
  12. I listened to the radio a lot.
  13. I read every day.
  14. But it wasn’t until high school that I decided to become a writer, and then because I was told I did not write well.

Where I live

Mountain homeLet me describe where I live: It is in Colorado, in the Rocky Mountains, 9,500 feet up. We are surrounded by mountains. Looking out the front windows I can look down Elk Valley for about seventy miles. We are in the middle of a forest. It is very beautiful. We are adjacent to Routt National Forest, and if you walk due West, you won’t see anyone for a hundred miles. Nearest town, Steamboat Springs, is thirty miles away.

The dirt driveway that leads to our house is three-quarters of a mile long and goes mostly up, steeply, and that includes a hairpin turn at the bottom of the last hill, which some who visit often don’t quite make. The population of Columbine, as the neighborhood is called, is, I’m told, thirteen. I’ve never met them all and the nearest is a mile away.


When I describe this to people they often say: “Isolated! Lucky you. How wonderful for writing.”

And indeed writers often talk of the need for isolation. That famous “room of one’s own” and all that.

There is a lot of truth to that.

BUT…when the writing stops, isolation is not so great.

Speaking for myself, I miss contact with people, even the casual contact, such as when I visit my post office (twelve miles away) to pick up mail. As a human being I thrive in cities, where I see people in their endless varieties, their talk, the way they look. From a writer’s point of view, I need those connections. It feeds my imagination, my vocabulary, my sense of place, my sense of interaction.

Speaking for myself, this writer must live—in part—beyond my mind.

Where is the key?

gr_keysI just came back from The Tucson (AZ) Book festival, a huge event with some four hundred or so writers, illustrators, and others connected with the book world. Thousands of people were in attendance. One often hears these days about the lack of interest in reading. When you go to one of these large events, you see otherwise, and I, for one, have restored faith in the world of the book. It energizes me.

That said, and sincerely meant, there is an aspect of these kinds of affairs that always depresses me. I am often put on the program to talk about how I write, the process, how I began and the like. Happy to do so. But, inevitably, when the time for questions comes, someone will ask, “What’s the best way to start a novel?” Or, “I have written a book. How can I get it published?”  “I keep trying to write, but I always get stuck. What should I do?”

I have a number of responses to this.

  1. Why do so many people want to write? What is it about publishing that seems (in people’s minds) to convey some major achievement?
  2. Why do these would-be writers think there is one small thing I, or my fellow writers, can say which will be like a magic key, something that will suddenly unlock the “mystery of writing?”
  3. Why do these folks think of themselves as writers when, in fact they have written so very little?

In my view you can only become a writer by

  1. Reading a great deal.
  2. Writing a great deal.
  3. Writing for a specific kind of readership.
  4. Knowing that good writing is hard to achieve.
  5. Being with other serious-minded writers, which is to say, immersing oneself in book culture.
  6. Learning about the world of books, not just the books themselves, but the business of books, the world and process of publishing.

A fine writer I’ve only recently discovered is Gene Weingarten (a journalist). He writes:

“The art of storytelling is as old as civilization. There will always be a hunger for it. Learn to do it well, and somehow, you will find a way to make it pay … [but) a real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal. That is because he knows deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly.”

Then and now

Hypnotic ClockJake from Philadelphia, PA asks: “You’ve been writing for a long time. What’s the difference between the way you used to write and the way you write now?”

One might think a lot of experience, and yes, success, would make my writing come easier. Actually it’s that experience and success which makes it harder.

That puzzled me for a while until I could figure out why.

As far as I know, nobody writes anything very well the first time. That said, when you are a young writer you tend to think rather highly of your first work. Perfectly understandable, except it’s usually not the case. Indeed, I often tell young writers that if they write something, and they think it’s good, they are in trouble. It’s much better to realize that what you have written is NOT good, so you can start to revise it.

Thus it is with me: over the years I believe my standards are higher, my sense of quality more demanding. Beyond all else I am much more in touch with my intuitive feeling about the quality of my first drafts. Thus, when I start, say, a new book, I am painfully aware how bad it is. Very discouraging. Truly dispiriting. I have to remind myself it will take many, many revisions to get me into a comfort zone, where the writing has some value.

What’s the difference between the way I used to write and the way I write now? These days I have to work harder to write well.

Having fun with words

Oxford English DictionaryThe other day while writing,  I took something like fifteen minutes to find the right word for a sentence. It happens fairly often, for a variety of reasons: I’m trying to convey just the right nuanced emotion for  the moment and I am a strong believer that every word contains some emotion, however slight. There’s also the question of sentence rhythm, the way it flows, and the way, therefore, a paragraph courses. I may choose a two syllable word, as opposed to one with three, or one. Then, too, I love words, find them fascinating, and love to play with them.

I am mindful, too, of my readers, and their ability to make sense of what I write. In that regard I have a self-imposed rule: Never put a unique or unfamiliar word in my opening paragraphs. I don’t want my reader to stop, and mutter, “This is too hard for me.”

As I pursue words I have an extraordinarily large choice. The English language has more than a million words, the largest vocabulary of all languages because it is an amalgam of different languages. Happily, English has been miserly about letting old words go, and generous about letting new words in. 

In this effort I have a silent partner (right in my computer), to which I often turn. Referenced as the OED, I mean the complete Oxford English Dictionary. It is a vast assemblage of words, all English words, definitions, and what I particularly love, an historical thesaurus. For someone who writes historical fiction, it is a crucial tool.

When writing historical fiction I hasten to say I do NOT check every word. But when I have a key word, I often look to see if the word was even used at the time of my story. Thus, a character of mine, in a current project, is asked to flirt with customers. But the word was not used at the time of my tale—1724. (Flirt enters the language in 1781.) To express the idea one wrote “to play the coquette.” (But historically, according to the OED, there have been fourteen (!) words used to express this. I can use them all.)

Thus, not  “I became fully awake,” but, “I roused myself to full wake-fullness.  Not, “The girl sat there sulking,” but “The girl sat there, pout-mouthed.”

This kind of working and thinking allows me to write something like this:

 “No doubt it is unkind of me—the obligatory author of my autobiography—to leave myself—and you—in such a precarious predicament, possibly drowning and thus in danger of ending my life and my tale too hastily. But before I go forward, you need to learn something about the life I lived.”

As I see it, if you are not having fun with words, you’re not having fun writing.

Four years!

Four yearsOn March 12, 2012 I posted the first of these blogs. Wordcraft is now four years old! I can only hope what I have to say about the world of writing, reading, and the teaching thereof, continues to be of interest. Nothing I say should be construed as rules, but are merely—for better and worse—just my experience, a point by which discussions can be extended.

I am always grateful for your engagement, and hope you will continue to suggest topics on which you would like me to comment.


“Will you do a sequel to …”

I frequently get requests from my readers that read “Will you do a sequel to….”

I take this as a positive response as it suggests that the reader has taken the characters to heart and desires more of them. So, first, thank you.

Strictly speaking I have done two series; the Poppy books (six in number) and Crispin (three in number).

the Poppy books

Night Journeys, Encounter at Easton, and Captain Grey are, I suppose, a series, but there is one book that would complete it, which is something I never wrote.

night journeys encounter at easton captain grey

Midnight Magic and Murder at Midnight constitute a two book series.

Murder at Midnight, Midnight Magic, Beyond the Western Sea

Beyond the Western Sea, though written as one book, was divided and published as two.  I was asked by a publisher to do a sequel. I said yes, but then could not recapture the voice.

When I wrote the Poppy series I had no intention of writing a series. It just grew into one. While I loved writing the characters, six books seem to be enough.

Crispin Cross of Lead

The Crispin books, however, from the beginning, were imagined as a four-part series. The editor did not want that fourth book. Still, someday I would like to write the concluding fourth volume.

And I wish that Beyond the Western Sea had been published as one book.

At the moment I am currently writing a book which has been conceived as having a sequel.

Speaking for myself, I can only write a sequel if I feel deeply enough about the characters to write more about them. There are times I think I’ve explored a given character or characters enough, and generally speaking, I am much more interested in characters than plot. To go on feels as if I’m just repeating myself.

In short, thank you for suggesting I write a sequel. I won’t say never, but the likelihood is, if I’m not already doing it, I won’t.

This one’s about agents

Ted from Stockton, CA, asks, “Is it important to have an agent if you want to be a writer? If so, how do you get an agent?”

agentsIf you seek to make a career as a writer it would help a great deal to have an agent. As publishing works today, agents function as a filter, sorting out quality writing from writing that lacks quality, and aiming that work at a relevant publisher, editor, and then negotiating a contract. It is not that publishers totally ignore what used to be called the “slush pile,” (unsolicited manuscripts) but it can take a very long time to be noticed.

In other words, having an agent saves you enormous time and effort. If you are interested in professional writing, spend your time getting an agent first. That said, I know of writers who only use a lawyer to handle contracts. They are, however, a minority.

Agents can function in many ways. How you structure that relationship is part of the process of getting an agent. An agent can function as an editorial advisor, a career manager, a critic, an advice giver, a literary friend, a marketing guide, and/or someone who can send your work to the right editor. Beyond all else they need to be someone you like, can talk to, and whose advice you are willing to follow.

Just how you sort all that out depends on you, your needs and wants, and your prospective agent.

Keep in mind that you are your agent’s source of income, insofar as he/she takes a percentage of what you earn from publishing. They will be interested in your body of work, not just one work.

When I began as a professional writer I found an agent in the classic way: a professional writer of the day recommended me to an agent. What followed was a degree of net-working that eventually brought me to a good agent. It took a couple of years.

New agents come along. They may be listed in Publishers Weekly or Writer’s Digest. A new agent will have greater use for you and your work than someone who represents a large number of writers. But an established agent has more clout with publishers. If you find an agent, interview her/his clients to see the kind of relationships that exist.

Like everything else in the world of writing, luck helps.