Stay tuned for my next blog entry on Tuesday, August 20th. I hope your summer is going well. Have you had time to catch up on your reading?
I am working on a new book—and I am struggling. Given the fact that I’ve published some eighty books, it may surprise some that I am struggling. Let me suggest why.
- Every book is a new book, and the success of one, though presumably it gives confidence to write another, that is not necessarily so. A writer’s confidence is, at best, fragile. A nasty remark on Goodreads can kill a day’s work.
- One of the pitfalls of a new book is my contract—if I have one. A contract will specify the total word count—say sixty thousand words. But there on my screen, the PC is counting and it reads “2,465 words.” The psychological tendency, then, is to write more words than I need. That clogs up my writing, and makes it verbose. It feels as if I am writing badly. I am.
- I agreed to write such and such a book, with such and such a plot, and I made a good pitch. But a pitch is not a book. There is many a slip between pitch and book.
- Reminder: talk as little about my book as possible. It boxes me in. Silence is freedom.
- Sometimes as I write, I see a possibility for a shift in the story. But I promised something else. Reminder to self: go with the shift, with what feels right. The one person I should talk to is my editor.
- Reminder: Beware the book that is focused on place, rather than characters. Travel books are about places. Fiction is about characters.
- Reminder: Professional writers get paid for their work, and I depend on that income to live. Get it done! reverberates in my head. The rent is due. That creates another kind of pressure, one that may be real but that doesn’t help my writing.
- Reminder: Good writing is re-writing, endless re-writing. Patience is a key component of writing.
- Reminder: Never deny your deepest instincts about your own work.
- Reminder: Read good writing by others. Other writers will show the way.
- Reminder: Slowly (if not surely) it will get done.
My wife was ill.
Moreover, she was the one who brought in the steady income. (Old gag: What do you call an artist who has no partner? Homeless.) At the time, I was living in NYC and writing plays, but there was little interest in my work, and absolutely no income. I therefore had a series of jobs. Drama instructor. Carpenter. Short order cook. Clerk, etc., etc. (Another old gag: Real artists have day jobs). But with my wife’s illness and a loss of income, this was an emergency.
As I roamed the early September streets of New York, looking for paying work, I wandered into the (42nd street) main branch of the New York Public Library, the one with the two lions. (“Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named them Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression.”) That worked for me.
Indeed, it turned out the Theatre Collection had an opening for a clerk. There was no lower position. Since I was in the theatre professionally, and had a master’s degree in theatre, they were willing to offer me the position. They also told me the Collection would be moving to Lincoln Center in two years, and would be expanding its professional staff.
I took the job and would start in two days. The day before I began work, I applied for my library degree at Columbia University, John Dewey’s old institution. To get in I was required to get a recommendation from a librarian. As it happened, there was an old family friend who was a librarian in Los Angeles. She agreed to write the letter I needed.
One week later I was working for the New York Public Library, Theatre Collection, and attending library school at night. I continued writing plays.
Being part of the theatre collection was to be surrounded by theatre in every way. The whole staff was engaged with the theatre. The Theatre Collection was also on the list for free tickets for theatre previews, and productions needing to paper the house, as it was called.
Not a bad job for an aspiring playwright.
In the course of my studies. the NYPL provided me with some scholarship stipends. When I applied for these stipends I was asked: “If you have a hit play on Broadway would you continue to work in the Theatre Collection?” Answer: “Of course.”
It took me two years and a full summer to complete my MLS course work. In New York State one had to take a Regents’ exam, which I did, barely passing, and was issued my license to practice Librarianship.
I still have that license. Considering the fragility of the writer’s profession, I might have to put it to use again.
As for my library life, it continued, as you will read soon.
The Old Man and the Sea, The Red Badge of Courage, The Turn of the Screw, The Red Pony—and many a modern novel for young people—share the same thing: they are all novellas. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a reasonable (if perplexing) definition of a novella as “a short novel, a long short story.”
From an adult prospective, they can usually be read in one sitting. Young readers can, and do read them that way too. When read is this fashion they can, and are meant to, provide a singularly strong reading experience. The merging of a few hours read with completeness is, I think, unique.
But it’s not generally recognized for the special form it is.
Speaking for myself, nothing gives me more pleasure than settling into my reading chair and emerging a few hours later with a total tale that has held my reading attention throughout—while bringing me to a strong, emotional conclusion. When effective, a good novella will have you thinking about it for a longer time than it took you to read the book.
For young readers—though not necessarily a quick read—novellas are such that they do not go on (from a youthful prospective) forever. Of course, long books—Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings—provide their own kind of pleasures.
When browsing a library or book store, I actually look for a slim volume that tells me I’ve come across a novella. I like to have them a ready reading supply.
In fact, the novella is a favorite literary form for me, both as a reader and as a writer. Books of mine, The Fighting Ground, The Christmas Rat, The Barn, and the forthcoming The Button War fit this kind of writing.
From the writing point of view, the novella offers specific challenges. They need to be powerful, emotionally charged, even as the characters emerge as fully developed, with only just enough detail of time and space to give a distinct reality. They can fit in the mind of writer and reader-as a whole, and thus need to be carefully crafted and then carefully read.
One of the highest compliments I, as a writer, can receive is when a reader tells me: “I had to read your book in one sitting.”
Novellas can do that.
You send your manuscript to your editor. You may get a rejection letter—I’ve had my share over the years—but, even when your work is accepted, you will get “an editorial letter.” These editorial letters lay out the things the writer needs to do to move forward. I have even had such letters explicitly say “If you agree with this, we can go forward and publish this book. If not …..”
Over the years I have worked with many editors, so (no choice) I might even be called an expert on editorial letters. That said, in all my years of publishing—and many books—only once did the accepting editor tell me he was sending my book (S.O.R. Losers) right to copy-editing. I objected, feeling there was work to do.
An editorial letter will lay out the editor’s views as to what needs to be done to the book to make it publishable. I know of one editor (a very successful one) who, none the less, elicits from one of that editor’s writer’s “The scream.” See adjacent image. (Edvard Munch scream)
On the other hand I have in hand an editorial letter sent to me (some time ago) which is four pages (single spaced) of commentary, which was insightful, clear, useful, and put to valuable use. It made me want to go back to the book and revise, and I did so, successfully.
Let it be quickly said, one writer’s editor’s painful editorial style is another writer’s lucid critique. Unless you are writing the same kind of book over and over again, a given editor may not even be the right match for every book you write.
People and editors may differ about this, but I think the role of the editor is to help the writer create the kind of book the writer is trying to write. Problems occur-I think–when the editor tries to bend the writer to the book the editor wants written. Indeed, the editor needs to be clear. The writer needs to be responsive.
Still, as it not often acknowledged enough, the writer-editorial connection is a deeply collaborative process. One of my favorite (and productive) parts of the publishing process are the discussions I have with a smart editor. It almost inevitably leads to a better, richer book.
Sometimes, it’s not necessary to do everything the editorial letter suggests. By working on section A, it just might make section B better, more logical, etc. On the other hand, when working on section C, it can shift things so, you wish to, need to, change sections, D, E and F, going far beyond what that editorial letter suggested.
If all of this advocates that the submission and acceptance of a book, is only part of the process, I have made my point. That editorial letter can be a road map to a good book. Think of it as a buddy movie. Travel well.
If you read history—as I do for the stories—it is more often than not populated by big people, kings, queens, generals, senators and presidents. Such people do alter history, sometimes for the better, or worse. But embedded in such tales are countless—if only passing—references to others, small folk.
Such is the story of Lambert Simnel, as told in The Player King, my most recent book.
I am not certain how I became interested in King Richard III, (1452-1485) of England. Shakespeare’s play, perhaps. Maybe Laurence Olivier’s fine film version of the play. Or was it my librarian colleague, who always wore a white boar lapel button, the white boar being King Richard’s insignia? This librarian was a passionate defender of King Richard III, five hundred years after his death. Why?
I went on to read Josephine Tey’s smart detective novel (1951) Daughter of Time, in which a modern detective tries to solve the many mysteries of Richard III’s life and death.
Moving on, I read other books about the time, including some about Richard III’s conqueror, Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty.
Henry VII—known as “The Winter King”—was a usurper, his crown constantly challenged. One of those who challenged him early on was a boy named Lambert Simnel—if that truly was his name.
Read the histories of the time, and he is barely mentioned. Indeed, just last week I saw a documentary about Henry VII and Lambert was not even cited. But Lambert—a boy—was crowned King of England (in Dublin, Ireland) and led a large invasion army into England, only to be defeated at the Battle Of Trent, the last battle of the War of the Roses. I noticed Lambert in a footnote.
Very little is known about Lambert Simnel. Where did he come from? How did he come to be crowned king? What happened to him after the battle? Certain facts are known—he did exist—but the boy…. Just who was he? What did he think of all that happened to him?
That’s what I have tried to write in The Player King. Strictly speaking, the title should have been The Player Kings. There is more than one false king in the book.
The challenge was to write about something which is well known—except the central player, the player king—the boy known as Lambert Simnel.
The truth is, foot notes are the foot soldiers of history.
When one reads history, one learns about big events and important people, such as the American Revolution, or, say, Napoleon. But if you read the footnotes in those histories you can learn about the individuals who lived in those historical moments. You learn about British prison ships in New York City, where more people died by maltreatment than on the revolutionary battlefields. (Sophia’s War) Or you learn about a tiny skirmish that changed people’s lives (The Fighting Ground). And you learn about a mystery boy in the 15th century who, briefly, became King of England.
It actually happened.
I’m not sure when I came upon this curious—but true—story. It was any number of years ago, but it stuck in my mind. From time to time I’d do a little research. There was not much to learn.
The boy, Lambert Simnel—if that was really his name—came out of nowhere, and was put forward by powerful nobles to claim the throne of England—then in possession of King Henry the 7th. Henry had recently taken power after killing King Richard the 3rd. Henry 7 was father to Henry 8, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth.
There is no doubt Lambert really existed, and was crowned king (in Ireland) and led a large army against Henry 7th. At that battle—the Battle of Trent—his army was defeated and he was taken prisoner.
Just how he came to be chosen in the first place is uncertain. One notion is that he looked like the Earl of Warwick, who had (by the standards of the day) a claim on the crown. But the real Earl of Warwick was a prisoner in the Tower of London. What is known of Lambert was mostly written down by people loyal to Henry 7th, and the Tudor dynasty, which he founded. This means even the “known” facts are to be treated with suspicion. Still, there is no doubt, he was a real boy. It all happened.
It was claimed that Lambert was originally a kitchen boy. When he became Henry’s prisoner, he was put to work in a castle kitchen. Thus, he was a kitchen boy, became a king, and then again, a kitchen boy.
Or so it seems.
Because so little is known about Lambert, it was up to me to invent his thoughts, his words, his feelings, as he was swept along. How would a boy—from nowhere—feel about being chosen to become a king and even crowned? Did he want to go along with this plot? Was he forced to do it? What was it like for a boy of ten (or twelve) to lead an invasion army into England? As he was taught to be king-like, did he begin to believe he truly was a king? Did he know that his “friends” were really his enemies? No one knows. I had to invent him. All of him. That said, virtually every character in the book is based on people who really existed.
My writing challenge was to make this story come to life in the person of Lambert, to make a true, but unbelievable story, seem true—if that makes any sense.
There are no footnotes in my novel. I just turned someone else’s footnote into a novel.
Though writing short stories is nothing I do on a regular basis, I read them, and occasionally write them. More often than not I have written them at the behest of editors asking for a story for a themed anthology, such as “Loss,” or “Guns,” “School Life,” or even the beginning of a new millennial, as say, the year 2000.
In 1997, a collection of my stories was put together under the collective title, What Do Fish Have to do with Anything? It was published by Candlewick.
Over time, that book proved sufficiently successful that the publisher asked if I would like to put together another such volume.
I gathered up a collection of previously published stories and put them together. (One of the stories had been written for an anthology but never published.)
The Candlewick editor thought four of these stories suggested a theme—father/son relationships—and suggested these might be the topic of a new collection. But, I would need to write three new ones. That I did.
When I write my novels, the characters, the plots, and the settings are almost wholly creations of my imagination. By contrast, when I write short stories they tend to come out of my own experiences or experiences I have observed close at hand.
Thus, one of the stories in The Most Important Thing is based, for the most part, on something that really happened to me. See if you can determine which one.
Writing short stories—for me—is both challenging and fascinating. Write a novel, and one needs to illuminate—as if with barn fire—whole aspects of life. My thinking about short stories is that one uses a (metaphoric) flashlight to illuminate one aspect of life. A novel must (at its best) reveal the whole. A short story suggests the whole. Or, as someone said, (I don’t recall who) “A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
A quick snapshot of how current readers receive a book may be had by comparing the professional reviews (Booklist, SLJ, Kirkus, etc.) of this short story collection with the reviews of the same book on say, Goodreads. Whereas the professional reviews were upbeat—among the best reviews I have ever had—the private reviews tended to be downbeat, with a clearly stated desire that they wished these stories could have been uplifting, positive, putting father/son relationships in a cheerful context. While the private reviews were dismissive of the stories’ connections to reality, the professional reviews applauded that connection. Curious.
But, then, one of the curious things about short stories is that they can lead to long discussions.
My two sons Jack and Robert, though four years apart in age, were inseparable. So when Robert started high school, we thought Jack would need a new, close friend. We found an Alaskan Malamute puppy for him. The sole male in a litter of six, we drove home with the tiny dog on Jack’s lap, while debating the right name for the dog. Jack informed us that Malamutes were traditionally named after some place in Alaskan geography. Thus the dog came to be named McKinley—after Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain in the United States. And indeed, McKinley grew into a very large animal.
McKinley became the classic family dog, loved by all of us and full of love for us—each in a different way. He was a wonderfully sweet fellow, perhaps not the smartest, but intensely loyal. If you know my book The Good Dog, he became the prototype of that euphonious protagonist. Even Jack is in the book.
One of my favorite stories about McKinley is when Jack became engrossed with Harry Potter, so much so that he ignored McKinley. One day when Jack took a break from endlessly reading the book, the dog got on Jack’s bed and deftly tore out the complete chapter that Jack was reading. Maybe he was smart.
McKinley was not just large, he looked very much like a wolf, so much so that when people first met him they often backed away. That wolf-look fascinated me, and led me to learn much about wolves. You will see some of that in The Good Dog, too.
Large work dogs like McKinley usually live to about thirteen or fourteen years. Sure enough, when he became thirteen, McKinley became ill with a variety of age-related sicknesses. Over time, despite many vet appointments, he became racked with pain and old age. Understandably, his personality changed. Once, when I was trying to help him stand he snapped my hand, drawing blood. He died peacefully as we held him.
All of this is the background for my novella, Old Wolf, which is about an aging wolf who has been badly wounded. It’s also about the wolf’s relationship with a mysterious raven named Merla, the Welsh name for Raven. (Remember Merlin the magician?) Remarkably, such relationships happen in the real world. It’s also about a boy whose knowledge of life and death comes through video games—until he meets the old wolf.
The story was set in my Colorado mountain world. Brian Floca, who did the illustrations, came for a visit to get the settings right. There is an image of my rural post office, which has a portrayal of Dick Jackson, the editor of the book. As for Brian’s cover illustration, I never had a better one.
As for McKinley, I still retain a slight scar on my hand where he, in pain, bit me. Now and again I look at that scar, and have many a loving memory. Scars can do that.
Mind, it was not the writing as such. It was because I was revisiting a world I recalled as full of fear, confusion, and danger.
I was fourteen years of age in 1951. Living in New York City (in Brooklyn) with my solid family. But this was the time of Senator Joe McCarthy, relentless anti-Communism, the Korean War, a constant fear of nuclear war, a time when you had to be careful what you said, and also careful about what you heard.
Indeed, the working title of the book was Season of Suspicion.
This was also the time when NYC had three baseball teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers, their arch-rivals the New York Giants and the New York Yankees. To live in Brooklyn meant you were a Dodger fan. An Obligation. A requirement. But 1951 was the time of my first major teen-rebellion. I became a Giant fan. Indeed the “Traitor,” in the title, Catch You Later, Traitor, is what Pete Collison is called (by best friend Kat) because of his change of baseball allegiance. And while the book is, in part, about that, it’s mostly about how Pete goes about trying to find the political truth about his parents—are they Reds?
Because Pete is a fan of pulp fiction, detective stories, (as I was and remain) with a particular passion for Sam Spade, he decides to be a tough detective, see like a tough detective, talk like a tough detective, and go wherever the truth leads him—like a tough detective. What he discovers is not just shocking, but completely unexpected—as it has been for most readers.
In the day—the 1950’s—I was taught that these subjects were not for public chatter. Taboo. Yet there I was writing a very public novel about all of this. Even though the story is a work of fiction—and Pete’s family was not my family—it all became very real to me, and therefore painful to write. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Paula Fox’s notion that “the writer’s job is to imagine the truth” didn’t apply here. I just remembered what those days were like.
The major aspect of the book that is based on something that did happen to me is that I worked for a blind man, whose name was Mr. Smith. My job was to visit him twice a week and read the newspaper to him. He also had a small coffee import business and I delivered that coffee. I learned about the job, and secured it because I was a Boy Scout, and such jobs were, from time to time, posted.
That said, my relationship with Mr. Smith was nothing like the relationship Pete had (in the book) with blind Mr. Ordson. But the metaphor of a blind person being Pete’s confidant, advisor, and friend, in this great time of crisis, was impossible to resist.
Of course, 1951 was a great time to become a Giants fan. That was the year the Giants came from fourteen games behind to beat the Dodgers in the most famous (Bobby Thompson homerun) playoff game ever played.
I will admit that the ending of the book is perhaps the most satisfying I have ever written. Because I remembered it.