I was recently talking to a highly successful editor, and she was telling me about the recent aesthetic evolution of book cover design. The essence is this: With the increase in sales of books on the internet, it has become important to design a book cover so that it can be read. Previously, one saw the book in a book store—and there it was—with carefully (one hopes) designed graphic art. Yes the title and author’s name were there, but they were embedded in the art. Now, online, we see very small images of the cover. The need to present author’s name and book title becomes more important. As a result more attention is being paid to cover size, font, and design of the type. I suspect that this will be less a factor in books for young people—surely picture books, and middle grade novels. But there it is, the latest word. But I suspect it will influence the title itself—for that will tend to attract (or not) the reader even more. It will also favor known writers over new or lessor known.
From the time I first contemplated the story that would become Sophia’s War, and the moment when the published volume came into my hands, it has been more than three years. By contract, I get some copies of the book, which usually arrive about one month prior to the official publication date.
What do I do when I get the first copy in my hands? I look at it. This is to say I get a sense of the physical book, the binding, the paper, the cover, the printing. (There is good printing and bad printing.) Does the book open flat enough? Is the gutter wide enough? How is the font? What does the book look like under the dust jacket? In this case I looked at the maps, because I had not seen them in place before.
(Once I discovered a huge printing mistake in my first copies of The Man Who was Poe, so bad the whole print run had to be called back, and redone!)
Then, what I always do is take that first copy of the book, sign the title page, add the date I received it. It then it goes on shelves of similarly signed books—and it just sits there.
In all probability—unless there is a particular reason to do so—I won’t read the whole book again. I have, after all, read it a few thousands of times. Yes, I may be called upon to read excerpts at various occasions—as I just did in NYC—and I enjoy that. But now, the book belongs to readers.
Besides, I’m working on something new.
On a recent trip I took along two books. One was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the second a nameless contemporary mystery by another British writer. Airplane reading. I had read Great Expectations a few times. It is one of my very favorite novels, and is, in my opinion, one of the greatest novels ever written. As I read it this time I marveled again and again at its brilliance. Many a time, while reading, I said to myself, “How can you call yourself a writer when you read such wonderful stuff?”
In any case I finished the book, deeply impressed, and in considerable awe.
My flight home was very much delayed so I was glad I had that second book. I did read it and found it was very poor stuff indeed. Again and again I said to myself, “I can do better than this!” Or, “I write better than this!”
It may seem odd to say, but sometimes, when reading great writing, such as Dickens at his best, it’s impossible to learn anything. It is simply too good. But read something very much down the scale and you can learn a lot, because one can learn more from the anatomy of mediocrity than from the flawless body of genius.
I get lots of letters from my readers telling me that they think I should make one of my books (one that they have read and enjoyed) into a movie. I take this as a compliment, and like to think that have I provided enough vivid descriptions so that the book sometimes feels like a movie. But of course I can’t make a movie of one my books, let alone any other book. I don’t know how to do it. Film-making, and book-making, I think, require very different skills and talents. Then too, look at the credits at the end of a movie and count the number of people involved. You can see that the making of a movie is a vastly more complex project than the making of a book. It also requires a great deal of money, a lot more than I could imagine having. Yes, from time to time I am approached by film-makers. Projects start, and then stop. There are a few in process even now. I stay as far away as possible. To be sure, I enjoy going to the movies. But from what I have seen, it’s the rare film that is as good as, much less better than, the book. So truly, I enjoy reading much more. Besides, the pictures in my head stay longer.
The most difficult aspect of Sophia’s War is the commingling of fact and fiction. The story of Benedict Arnold’s treason, and John André’s fate, is not just well known, it has been researched and detailed to an extraordinary degree. One of the books I used to research the event provided photographs and descriptions of everywhere André went during that extraordinary moment—virtually step by step. Moreover, my attempt to describe New York City during the British occupation (1776-7183) is based on detailed research that has been done by others. It is all as “correct” as I could write it.
But Sophia herself, and her story, is very much fiction. How can the two connect? It is because as the historians of the events record, there are two key moments in the Arnold/André saga that have never been satisfactorily illuminated. Historians speak of “luck,” “fate,” and “coincidence.” Perhaps. But it is just at those points that I have been able to create a character, motive, and means, for these mysterious events to be explained. Not the least of what makes it all work is that Sophia does not want to be noticed, is not noticed, and indeed, cannot be noticed in the context of who and what she is—an independent young woman. It’s very much like that wonderful book title, Anonymous Was a Woman.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said (if I have it right) “History is biography.” Sophia’s War is Sophia’s autobiography. Just don’t look for her in history books. You can only find her here. “The writer’s task,” as I once heard Paula Fox say, “is to imagine the truth.”
In the years since the book was published I have been asked that question many times, even before sequels became popular.
It seems to me that Charlotte’s story, among a number of things, is about her gaining the power and courage to make choices for herself—to decide what she wishes to do with her life. Of course, in the story, her biggest decision, her biggest choice, is what to do after the events on the Seahawk, after she returns home to Providence, RI. Since I feel Charlotte’s achievement is the ability to make choices for herself, to tell the reader what that choice might be would diminish the book’s power. That openness is what, I think the book is about. I am a strong believer that a book, once written, belongs to the reader, not to the writer. Since I have no idea what Charlotte might do, I want every reader to make that choice on their own, even as I want every reader to have that power in their own lives. We all have the power to write our own sequels. The sequel I won’t write is one for The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Isabelle, you are going to have to do that on your own.
The most common question asked of authors is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Consider my newest book, Sophia’s War, a tale set in New York City (NYC) during the American Revolution.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn (NYC), close to the site of the biggest battle fought during the American Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn.
In 1947, when I was nine, The American Past, an illustrated history of the United States, came into my home. The first of its kind, its pictures fascinated me. I went through it countless times, gained a basic outline of US history, and a life-long love of history. I still have that book. I still read history.
From 1947 to 1950 I was an avid listener of the CBS radio series, You Are There, which reported great moments in history as if they were just happening.
Not far from my home was the place where the notorious British prison ships lay at anchor. At some point—I don’t know when—I learned of what happened.
As a teenager I read Kenneth Roberts’ Rabble in Arms. Roberts was the foremost historical fiction writer of his time, and my introduction to historical fiction. This book focused on General Benedict Arnold. The book gave me my first real introduction to Arnold, his fascinating history, his tragic downfall.
In high school I began to buy (and read) books offered by the History Book Club. Some still sit on my shelves.
In college I majored in history, mostly American and British history.
My first historical work was Captain Grey, (1977) a novel about the bitter aftermath of the American revolution. I would write some 35 other works of historical fiction.
In 1976 I watched battlefield enactments of the Revolution. Those experiences led me (1984) to write The Fighting Ground, about a boy fighting in the American Revolution. It’s one of my most successful books, and the first historical fiction for which I did serious research.
In 2007, I published Iron Thunder, a Civil War novel about the Monitor and Merrimack. I wanted to write an historically accurate account of that battle, while inserting a fictional character, and thereby creating an exciting adventure (and historical knowledge) for my readers. That was followed by Hard Gold—same format—about the Colorado gold rush. Before I had finished it, I conceived a similarly constructed story about the American Revolution. I decided it would begin with an account of Nathan Hale’s death. Three years before I started to write the book I knew the first line: “It is a terrible thing to see a man hang.”
Where did I get the ideas for Sophia’s War? Throughout my life.
I said, “Pushing the alphabet keys. You?”
She replied, “Working the delete key!”
I suspect that the most important aspect of writing is what’s not on the page. The white space. What you take out. Leave out. Cut. An editor once told me it’s much better to over- write, than under-write. Better to cut than to add, so you have only what is necessary. I once heard a lecture by Donald Hall, poet, picture book writer, a former US poet-laureate. If I remember his words correctly, he said, “The good writer tries to create the perfect O. But he leaves a gap, so that it’s like the letter C. If that gap is too large, your reader cannot fill it. If it’s too small, there is no reason for the reader to fill it. But if it is just right, your reader fills it with his/her own experience and the circle is complete.”
Want to study writing? Take three courses.
1. A journalism course will teach you what to put in.
2. A poetry course will teach you what to take out.
3. A voice class will teach you to hear if your words sing.
“Few historical novels are as closely shaped by actual events as this one during the last 100 pages. Working within the bounds of credibility, Avi manages to keep the fictional narrator on the scene for a good deal of the action and uses real moments to bring the imagined story to its dramatic heights.” —Booklist, starred review. Read more of this review …
“Newbery Medalist Avi (Crispin: The Cross of Lead) channels the mood, language, and danger of the Revolutionary War in this seamless blend of history and fiction, set in British-occupied New York City.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review Read more of this review …
Most (not all) writers I know write every day. My own personal goal is five pages a day. Sometimes I do more. Sometimes less. I have written a book (S.O.R Losers) in one twenty-four hour period. The longest time it took me to write a book (Bright Shadow), start to finish, was fourteen years. Needless to say I didn’t work on that one every day. The shortest time elapsing between the time I started to write to when the published book was in my hand was eleven months (Encounter at Easton)
The other day I read an interview with a British author who said she tried to write a thousand words a day. A writer friend told me he gets up at four o clock each morning and stays at his desk till he gets ten pages done. Someone once told me that Stephen King used to write a hundred pages a day. Anthony Trollop, an important British Victorian writer wrote, “I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And … my page has been made to contain 250 words… I have had every word counted.”
But—as I like to remind would–be writers—if you wrote just one page a day, at the end of the year you’d have 365 pages—a pretty big book!