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.
It usually takes me a year to write one of my novels. Sometimes more, sometimes less. The longest time period was fourteen years, for Bright Shadow. The shortest period was one day, for S.O.R. Losers. There are explanations for both extremes, but I will save them for another post. Readers, however, are welcome to read the books and see if they can see why. My current project has been two years in the making. The first effort was not very good, and required extensive rewriting. Why was it not very good? In essence, it was too close to my personal experience. Which is to say I was not able to take what was real and meaningful to me, and make it real and meaningful to readers. This flies in the advice often given to young writers: “Write what you know.” The problem of course, is the writer’s fundamental contradiction: A writer must be objective about personal experience to make it a subjective experience for the reader. Never easy.
Like many readers, maps in books have always fascinated me. I once knew someone who collected books only with such maps. One of the most famous maps, the treasure map found in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, was drawn first, and the story written around it. One of my own early books, Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, a mystery, has, as its primary clues, maps from well-known childrens’ books, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie The Pooh, Treasure Island, Through the Looking Glass, and The Wind in the Willows. My book was inspired when I came upon an atlas of fantasylands. What a book by which to travel! This comes to mind because my forthcoming book, Sophia’s War, will have not just one map, but two. Such maps not only illuminate the story, but seem to give a singular sense of reality to a narrative. In a very special and literal way, maps provide a way of following a story. Or perhaps the best stories follow a map to explore new worlds.
There is a story about which I have always marveled. It concerns Charles Dickens, the great 19th century novelist. If I remember correctly, it happened when he first became famous with The Pickwick Papers and he was writing David Copperfield. A large, boisterous party was being held in his honor at his home. At some point, he excused himself, explaining he had a deadline to meet, and retreated to his study to write. The partygoers, refusing to accept this excuse, carried his desk down to the party. Midst the loud revelry, he wrote on. How he could do so I cannot imagine! I like, need, quiet to work. Deep quiet. Silence. Nothing, not even music. Since I live in a busy household, I even have rifle-shooting earmuffs to block out sound. I only want to listen to the words I write. The more I listen, the more I hear. The more I hear, the more the reader will hear.
In the mail today came the Spanish edition of City of Orphans, with the translated title, Ciudad de Huérfanos. [Editorial Bambú–Spain] My knowledge of languages other than English is woefully ( sadly) deficient. I cannot therefore, speak to the translation, but it is a handsome hardbound edition, truly stitched, complete with headband, a bound-in, green ribbon page marker (something I love) and an unusually fine illustration for the cover art. Many of my books have been translated (True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is in some twenty languages.). The Korean Crispin: The Cross of Lead, which is fully illustrated, is very beautiful. These translated editions fascinate me, in part by the way they depict the story. They also allow me to wonder how young people in different cultures respond to my stories. Now and again, I get letters from these kids, and they are always delightful. Once, in Denmark, a girl told me how Bright Shadow was her favorite book. There is something very special about reaching across the globe in this way. Deeply rewarding.
Years ago, my friend Natalie Babbitt and I were talking about current projects, when she said, “I’m at that stage, you know it, when I am not sure how to go forward, so I’m just rewriting.” I did know it. It happens often. The best way to describe the process is that when you are stuck, the writer finds his/her way forward by going backward. That is, by reworking, defining, shaping what you have done, you hope to find insights as to what should happen. In essence, you are asking your story, your characters to tell you what to do. If you have written true (as Hemingway might have said) there should be a logic about what comes next, how your story unfolds, concludes. That is where I am now with my current project; trying to get to the end, by going back to the beginning.