The Kindest Cut

kindest cutWorking on a book and it is not going well.

I have learned, painfully, there is only one thing to do: Follow my instincts as a reader and not my intellect, and acknowledge that such and such a section just does not work, that it is holding the book hostage. If you find yourself skimming over your own work—that is to say—being bored, that will happen to your reader as well.

What to do.

My suggestion: Print out the offending section, pick up the pen and cut, and cut again. That works. Why?

If you were struggling with your text, and did not have a clear sense of where you were going, you inevitably filled that text with stuffing, verbiage, and unnecessary words—pure excess. Your job is to locate it and cut it out.

Easy? No. BUT—better to be a good reader of your work than a poor writer.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Writers don’t write writing. They write reading.

It’s something I need to remind myself over and over again.

My favorite book

Laurie wrote: “… someone has to ask (and it might as well be me) … what is your favorite book, Avi? (No fair saying it’s whatever book you’re currently working on.)”

Let me answer this in two parts: The reason why many writers say their current project is their favorite book seems fairly obvious: They are completely engaged in it, and it seems to be full of possibilities. In fact, it can be a problem when that current project is NOT the favorite book. It takes very much more energy to start anew each day.

Beyond the Western Sea, Seer of Shadows, The City of Orphans

The Most Important ThingAs for which is my favorite book, I truly don’t have one. As per the above, I’m too engaged in too many projects to go back and be nostalgic about any one work. I truly want the next book to be my “best.” That said, there are books of mine that while sometimes overlooked, are books which I think in terms of, “I did such-and-such particularly well.” I think of Beyond the Western Sea, Seer of Shadows, City of Orphans, in that way. I think of the forthcoming, The Most Important Thing as one of my better books.

While I don’t believe in perfect books (not by me, anyway) I confess, if there is any one of my books that word for word, sentence for sentence, gives me great satisfaction, it is The Barn.

The BarnDealing with the care a boy (Oregon, 1840’s) gives his mortally ill father, it is upsetting to people who have had no such experience. But for those who have dealt with similar issues, it seems to strike a very deep chord.

It was triggered by a casual remark I heard about the building of an old barn, and the almost simultaneous news of my father’s illness. While it is in no way autobiographical, those two events allowed me, in Paula Fox’s injunction, to do what writers need to do, that is, “To imagine the truth.”

Favorite book? Not quite. But, well, almost. The Barn. Try it.

Kinds of Success

True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleOne of the ironic results of writing a very successful book was expressed to me by a very well-known writer: “Why should I work hard? They will always tell me __________ is my best book and won’t bother to read anything else.”

Teachers, think of your favorite writer. Think of your favorite book by that writer. Think what that writer has written recently. In many cases you can’t answer the third question because, truly satisfied by your answer to the second question, you don’t read any more. And yet, there may indeed be a better book by that writer.

In the world of children’s’ books, a successful book may well lead to a whole shelf of that book in a classroom. As a result, you, as teacher, are less likely to purchase another set of a second title by the same writer. And, if you have successfully taught book A, you are more than likely going to continue teaching book A, rather than book B.

Yet, I can almost guarantee you, a writer’s favorite book is rarely his or her most successful book. Quite often it’s a book that is not considered a success at all.

Happily, that is not the way young people read. In fact, just the opposite. Once they find a writer they enjoy, they more than likely will read more by that author. Or, again, they read the same book over and over again.

“Dear Avi,” someone once wrote to me: “I have read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle sixteen times. My mother said I can’t read it again. Will you please write a sequel so I can read another book?”

One of the most flattering experiences I can have as a writer—and it does happen—is when doing a signing, an adult presents a battered copy of a book I published years ago. Slightly embarrassed, they say “I apologize this is so busted up, but this was a favorite book when I grew up and I could never throw it out. Would you be willing to sign it?”

Success comes in many ways.

Keep writing, Christopher

Christopher from Austin, TX, writes, “You write a lot. So do I. My teacher says I should write less, and that will make me get better. What do you think?”

Well, Christopher, Adam Grant, in his new book, Originals: how non-conformists move the world (Viking, 2016) writes this:

creativity“…the most prolific people not only have the highest originality; they also generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the largest volume … It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality—if you want to do better work, you have to do less of it—but that turns out to be false. In fact, when it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality. Original thinkers … will come up with many idea that are strange mutations, dead ends and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a large pool of ideas—especially novel ideas.”  [Page 37]

When Grant uses the word “novel,” he means original. But hey, I’ll take it to mean literature. So keep writing, Christopher.

Short Stories

Short StoryThe short story is a staple of literature, and it is international. Chekov—Russian. Alice Munro—Canadian. William Trevor—English. Guy de Maupassant—French. Fitzgerald and Hemingway—US, to name a very, very few. There was a time they were very widely published in the United States, not just in specialized magazines, but in mass circulation publications like The Saturday Evening Post. I read recently that in the 20’s Fitzgerald was paid as much as $4,000  for a short story, which, in today’s world, would be close to $50,000. Today one would be lucky to get that $4,000.

Edgar Allan PoeRead most standard literary histories and Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) is credited with being the “inventor” of the short story as we think of it today. He even postulated rules for the genre. Among them were:

  1. Able to read in one sitting.
  2. A unity of effect (think of his horror stories).
  3. A key, opening sentence, one which sets the tone for all that follows.
  4. Nothing digressive. A unity of subject.

Needless to say, such rules are not required to play the game, but they are a good starting point to think about the genre.

Some years ago when I was selecting short stories for an anthology of stories (Best Shorts) it was staggering to consider just how many good ones have been written. Also, I discovered how many a short story was lurking in the guise of a good number of picture books.

It has often puzzled me why short stories are not a staple of the classroom in some kind of read aloud story-a-day curriculum. For the most part I write novels and am eager to have them in young people’s hands and read in schools. But consider Poe’s rules above; consider how much easier to teach writing if the goal is a short story and not a novel.

Need help in locating stories? Read Me A Story, Ink is a terrific source.

In other words, instead of short changing your students, give them short stories.

Richard Jackson, editor

Richard JacksonI just handed in a new book to my editor Richard Jackson. When published, it will be the twenty-second book I have worked on with him. The books he edited include The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing but the Truth, Poppy, The Man who was Poe—among the books for which I am best known. Other writers will tell you the same. If you match his name with the big awards in the children’s book world, he has been associated with more winners than any other editor.

What is he like to work with? I can only tell you how he works with me, because one aspect of his editorial skill is that he works differently with different writers. That is to say, he is keenly tuned into the writing style and personality of the many different people with whom he works. I have no idea how he worked with Paula Fox, Garry Paulson, or Judy Blume, to name three very different writers with whom he has worked. There is something of the chameleon in him—in a positive way. I once asked him how he would like to be in a room full of his writers. He visibly winced.

He has always edited many, many books, but whenever I spoke to him, he was instantly there, in my project, as if he had nothing else to do, or needed to think about other text than that project. Many a time, when I thought a book was done, he would call and say, “I’ve been thinking…” and what he has thought about was something missing and vital to the book.

His instincts are very sharp, and indeed, he’s a very smart, an intelligent person, who grasps what the writer intends, and then some. He knows literature. He sees what the writer can do. He will ask questions, not tell you what to do, though he has never ducked marking up a manuscript. Inevitably the writer—this writer anyway—in the process comes to understand an aspect of the work not fully understood before. His line editing is of the same high order, cutting away the chaff, bringing forth the intent.

When we have talked about books in process I always came away energized with a new sense of clarity, of being challenged. And it must be said we talk about other things other than the current book. We share certain interests—theatre, for example—and our talks are punctuated by a lot of laughter. It is fun for me to talk to him, a much loved and admired friend, a colleague, without doubt fundamental to my life as a writer.

The most amazing thing about him, is that I know there are many other writers who can say the same thing.

I started every book

gavelAfter a couple of my books were nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s juvenile award, I was asked to be a judge. I accepted and what happened was, I thought, fascinating. And bewildering.

The judging went this way:  Five judges were chosen. I didn’t know them, and never met them. Another writer was functioning as a facilitator. I did not know him, either.

We were told we would have to read about two-hundred books, the definition of a mystery being quite broad: “Entertainment in crime,” or something like that. (Hamlet might have been included.)

Each judge was asked to read the books and then grade them on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest. Then I would send on the books to another judge. I also sent my “grades” to the facilitator.

The facilitator would simply add up the scores from all the judges. The top five scores would be announced as the short list. The top scorer would be the winner. That simple.  But—as a judge, I did not know who the winner was (much less the scores) until it was announced at a banquet gala in NYC.

I had vowed—out of respect for my fellow writers—to read everything. I tried to. What amazed me, however, was how quickly a poorly written book announced itself (ten, fifteen pages) and how in the same fashion a well written book proclaimed itself. I started every book. I confess I did not finish them all.

When I finally learned which book was the winner, I also learned how my fellow judges evaluated all the books. I was amazed. Virtually ALL the judges agreed (independently) which were the top tier books. Here and there one book was judged high (or low) by an individual judge. But by and large there was close agreement as to quality.

I was left with a vital question: If I (and others) could judge the quality of someone’s writing so clearly and so quickly, why could I not evaluate my own work that way?

Thinking about this I asked a very successful literary agent how quickly she could tell if a submitting writer could write well. Her answer: “Half way through the submission letter.”

If that answer (and my judging experience) does not humble any writer, I don’t know what will.

The best writing I’ve ever done

oh, no!!What’s my best piece of writing?

I lost it. In a computer. Into the ethers. And I don’t know why. But I am sure it was the best writing I ever did. But be assured, I am not the only writer who has experienced this.

I am a very fast (and sloppy) typist. I am also, shall we say, technologically challenged. Therefore, this morning, after working for say three hours, working well, writing the best piece of writing ever, it vanished. Gone. A screen as white as the snow outside my window. Except the snow has fox and squirrel foot prints. My screen has nothing. Not even fly specks!

I thought I had saved it, because I always save everything I write, except, because it was the best piece of writing I ever did, I had not.

A frantic call of help to my wife, my local, and quite competent (but sometime exasperated with me) IT person.

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know. It just vanished.”

“You must have done something.”

“I have no idea.”

Thirty minutes later there is a call to our professional IT person, who never seems to be exasperated, but then, he gets paid $125.00 per hour.

An hour later (you figure the cost) the verdict comes in. It is gone, that best piece of writing I have ever done.

I go to the most recently saved version of manuscript, and try to remember all the things I did.

But I can’t. Why?

Because what I lost was the best piece of writing I ever did.

Sound familiar? I’m guessing yes.

So, my professional advice: if you write the best writing you ever wrote, save it. But of course, if you did save it, it is NOT the best piece of writing you ever did.

Only when you lose it is it the best.

Are we all in agreement?

Animal stories

There are many of us who write stories with animals as their chief protagonist. I’ve just published Old Wolf, and there are novels like The Good Dog, and the Poppy books. All of these books, and others by other writers (like my favorite, The Wind in the Willows) are anthropomorphic stories, with a variety of animals as conscious, talking creatures, often interacting with humans. Indeed, animal stories (with a few exceptions) are thought of as often exclusively in the domain for young people.

But …

Beyond WordsI have just read a remarkable book: Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, [Holt, 2015] by the scientist Carl Safina. He asks not, “How are animals like humans?” but rather, “How are humans like animals?”

The scientific evidence and stories he presents are both fascinating and moving, and even as his research changed his way of thinking, I promise it will change your way of thinking. The work is also sad, and disturbing, in terms of the way humans treat other animals. It becomes clear that in many respects humans are not at the highest level of … well, humanity.

It should be also noted that the book is wonderfully readable.

But what has this to do with books for kids?

What Safina has to say about animals, I suspect, is something young people instinctively know, that they come to think of other non-human creatures as lessor beings only by being taught so, even as they are taught racism or sexism.

In short, all those animal stories for kids have been getting it right. We adults might do a good thing by rereading those books and relearning what we have forgotten.

Advice to Aspiring Writers

Avi_Advice for Aspiring Writers from Mackin Educational Resources on Vimeo.

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