Tag Archive for the writing process

Writing Advice from a Master: “There’s Only One Question and One Answer.”

I have an uncomplicated relationship with the books of Stephen King.

For the longest time, I ignored ’em.

The problem was two-fold:

1) for whatever reason, I didn’t get around to them in high school, which was too bad, because of what happened next;

2) next, I went to college and got educated.

College can mess you up. I was a Lit major, trying my hardest to be a good student and a sublime writer, and for the most part that meant dealing with IMPORTANT BOOKS and LITERARY WRITERS and DIFFICULT TEXTS. I don’t regret any of that — it’s where I learned to love books, and I enjoyed many great teachers —  but I wish somebody said, “You know, don’t underestimate the value of a good story.”

It sound ridiculous, of course, since “a good story” is only everything.

But it took me a long time to grasp that plain fact. My head was in the clouds; my nose was in the air.

In college, I learned a lot, and later in life I had to unlearn a lot.

So I’ve come to Stephen King late in life. And now that I’m here I am filled with great respect for the man and the writer. I previously wrote about his excellent book on writing, titled — wait for it — On Writing. I’m not an expert on these things, but I found it to be the best, most relatable, no-nonsense book on THE JOB (& CRAFT) of writing as anything I’ve come across before or since.

I’m currently reading 11/22/63, King’s great novel about time travel and a man who seeks to change history by thwarting the Kennedy assassination.

Here’s a few lines from p. 150, which struck me as great advice and, for a writer with my flaws and proclivities, an essential reminder. Maybe it will help you, too?

“In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This . . . and this . . . and this, too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.”

I posted this long ago, but thought I’d hurl it into the maw of the internet once more just in case you didn’t catch it the first time around:

Here’s a quick recap of Stephen King’s 12 guidelines:

1. Be talented

2. Be neat

3. Be self-critical

4. Remove every extraneous word

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

6. Know the markets

7. Write to entertain

8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”

9. How to evaluate criticism

10. Observe all rules for proper submission

11. An agent? Forget it. For now

12. If it’s bad, kill it

Uncorrected Proofs, Living with ARCs: One Author’s Perspective

I’ve never been comfortable when people describe themselves as “perfectionists.” Especially coming from writers. It implies that, somewhere down the line, they actually do get it “perfect.”

We don’t, not ever. But many of us — though not all — try our best. And often, our best takes time.

Part of the hardcover publishing process is for publishers to send out Advance Reader’s Copies, or ARCs. These ARCs typically go out for review months in advance of publication to selected bloggers, review periodicals, and influential librarians. To be clear: In most cases, an ARC is what the reviewer reads, not the finished book.

So ARCs are not final, and not perfect. In fact, in the case of my upcoming novel, BEFORE YOU GO, I had/have two rounds of opportunities to make corrections before the book goes to print. These are mostly small details, corrections, not wholesale revisions (and this is in addition to the copyediting process that goes on in-house). So, sure, the ARC is basically a good representation of the final book.

So long as you aren’t a perfectionist.

On the back cover of every ARC I’ve ever seen, it typically reads something like this: PLEASE NOTE: This is an uncorrected proof. This edition should not be quoted without comparison with the finished book.”

I’ve been living with my ARC for about a month now. For various reasons, it came out eight months before the publication date. The ARC does not reflect what I’d estimate to be several hundred minor changes, revisions, corrections. Maybe that’s a lot, I don’t know; and maybe it was all my fault, probably so. It might be because I’m a perfectionist . . . or that I can’t let go . . . or that I should have caught all that before we got to this point. Maybe I’m an idiot. These revisions range from changing a character’s name, to eliminating a comma, to deleting or inserting a single word, to trying once again to get that sentence exactly right. Here’s some examples:

It seemed funnier, changing it to “in the food-service industry.”

I’m adding a hypenated word here, now it’s “like some kind of tree-climbing forest creature.” This revision — everything I’ll show you here, in fact, we discussed with my editor, Liz Szabla. At the bitter end, we roll up our sleeves and talk it out, comma by comma. And I absolutely love that attention to detail. Liz and I will go months without discussing a work — I like to do my own thing for long stretches — but when we do get a change to get down to it, well, for me, that’s pure joy. I don’t understand writers who don’t like revision. That’s the fun part.

Deleting an unnecessary phrase, for speed.

We talked this over and stayed with “fractures.” There’s a great danger at this point, for someone like me, to gild the lily. To over-think.  Sometimes I’ll suggest a change and Liz will say, not unkindly, “I think it’s fine the way it is.” William Wordsworth, you know, rewrote many of his poems toward the end of his life. And the consensus is that he usually made them worse. There’s a point when you’ve got to put down the pen and back away.

I cut two lines, considered some new text, and cut that, too. Actually, I think I revised and inserted that revision into a different moment in the book. There was an idea that I was trying to get to, which resulted in this sentence: “He decided to believe in life.” But this particular paragraph ends, “Jude made a truce with that unknowing.”

Have you deciphered my lefty scrawl?

He forced himself to retrace his blessings, the people and things he would never wish away, yet the exercise proved small solace. Some secret part of him that he dared not confess longed only for annihilation.

The idea of death.

Just a little faster this way.

He’s a strong runner, an able runner. It was only two miles. Jude didn’t need to catch his breath, he wasn’t panting. He needed to find some pebbles to throw at Becka’s window. For dialogue, not “I’m sorry,” but just, “Sorry . . .”

Probably one of the more worked moments in the book. It now reads:

. . . And he reached back to cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.

——

PLEASE NOTE: If you are a reviewer and you are interested in reading the flawed, imperfect ARC to BEFORE YOU GO, please shoot me an email and we’ll see what we can do. I’ve got the perfect book for you. Well, not exactly perfect.

What Is a Smile If Not a Baring of Teeth?

The end of summer? Oh, let’s call it the beginning of autumn.

I’m excited to embrace the daily routine, my kids at school while I quietly hum along downstairs. We break out the sweaters, play soccer and baseball, rake leaves, build fires in the backyard, clean the gutters one last time, throw an extra blanket on the bed.

Blog-wise, I’m eager to get going on a lot of projects. I want to start talking about Bystander in earnest, background stories and such. That begins today, below. Honestly, I have notes for dozens of potential topics. I want to attempt a series of posts on “How to Plot a Mystery,” since so many teachers seem to work on that in the classroom. I’ve found some amazing videos to share, want to talk about books I’ve recently read (The Grapes of Wrath, In Fed We Trust, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, Columbine, Swordfishtrombones, The Hunter, etc.), so many things to discuss!

Anyway, a cyberpage has turned. I’m energized and enthusiastic. I’m finishing a manuscript this week and starting another immediately.

Let’s talk about smiles . . .

I began my work on the book that would become Bystander by hanging out in the local library with a composition notebook. At the top of the first page of that notebook I see that I copied a line from Michael Connelly’s  Echo Park: “What is the bad guy up to?” I was excited. After writing 30-plus Jigsaw Jones mysteries for younger readers, I finally had a bad guy. It wasn’t going to be all benign misunderstandings and well-intentioned foul-ups; here, I had a character with potential for real darkness.

I see that I was reading Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, by Jonathan Kellerman. A powerful, disturbing book that looks at antisocial youth, from aggressive bullies to cold-hearted killers.

And right there on that first notebook page I started a list of potential “bully” characteristics. I wrote:

Smart, charismatic, charming, popular, superior, tortures animal?, trouble with police?, lights fires, COLD, raised by grandmother?, non-compliant, poor grades, not affected by discipline, causes fear, lucid, psychopathic?, free of angst, free of insecurities, (later, when caught, self-pity), preternaturally CALM.

I was in the first stages of character development — and for me, I’m at my best when character evolves into story, as opposed to plugging character into plot. That is: character first. With my focus exclusively on this “bad guy,” I even came up with a potential book title: Predator.

It became important to me that my main antagonist, Griffin Connelly, was divorced from the bully stereotypes we often see in books and movies. You know, the bully as gross coward, unlikeable lug, dim-witted brute, dirty, ugly, unpopular. It simply wasn’t realistic, and by turning bullies into  one-dimensional characters, we surrendered much of the complexity (and difficulty) of the topic (and story).

A quick plea: There’s a tendency to slot any topical book, such as this, into the bibliotherapy shelf. But Bystander is a story, a page-turner with thriller elements that a biased Jean Feiwel called, “Unputdownable.” It’s not a thesis paper. It’s a good, fast read. I hope boys find it.

Whew. I see that I’m letting this post get away from me, because I’m trying to talk about too much. So I’ll get specific:

I wanted Griffin Connelly to be  a great-looking kid, with charm and verbal dexterity and a great smile. He would be, in every sense of the word, attractive. All the surfaces would shine. The ugliness concealed.

His smile was one of the keys to his character. But what is  a smile if not a baring of teeth? The smile beams beatifically, but also represents a flashing of fangs. A threat. The wolfish grin. There’s menace under the surface.

Griffin Connelly was the kind of person who would smile at you while he stuck a knife in your back. And maybe, for pleasure, gave the blade a twist. The toothy smile was the mask he wore, this master of the mixed message.

Page 7, when Eric first meets Griffin:

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

Some random examples now . . .

Page 11:

Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning.

Page 18:

Griffin flashed a smile, that hundred-dollar smile he could turn on in an instant. He reached out his fist. “Are we cool, buddy

Page 50:

“Mrs. Chavez!” Griffin exclaimed, smiling cheerfully. “Please let me help you with that . . .”

Page 68:

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

Page 78:

“You want to hang out, don’t you?” Griffin asked. He smiled, put an arm around Hallenback’s shoulder.

Page 130:

Griffin winked at Eric. Then gave that big Hollywood smile, and swept the hair from his eyes.

Page 130:

“What are you going to do? Punch me?” Griffin taunted, grinning.

Page 131:

“I’ll be seeing you around, Eric,” Griffin said. His smile was like a pure beam of distilled sunlight. His long lashes blinked, his cheeks pinkened. He wore a perfect mask of kindness and light.

Page 165:

Griffin smiled wide, folded his hands together, and said in a soft voice, “We’ll see about that.”

Page 186:

Griffin grinned through the insults.

——-

Presented in this way, it may seem a little much. But  in the context of the story, I suspect it’s unnoticed. The accumulated effect, I hope, is creepiness. Here’s a guy you can’t trust. Every threat comes with a smile. White teeth gleaming in the sunlight, fangs bared.

“My Grandma, what big teeth you’ve got?”

Don’t let that smile fool you.

Mighty Casey: Editorial Letter Excerpts

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits, book signings, and book fairs over the past two months. It’s been a lot of fun, distracting, joyful, happy, hard, and humbly rewarding. One of the highlights of my act — between juggling chain saws and wrestling live bears — has been reading Mighty Casey, illustrated by Matthew Cordell, to audiences up to 200 (squirming, wriggling) children. The book really goes over well (if I don’t say so myself), especially when I stop and go into great uproarious detail about Ronald the Runt, who has to pee, “and decided left field would do.” Kids love that part, and it’s absolutely true to my coaching experience. Happens every year. Some of those little boys just want to play and play until the lastpossiblesecond, not missing a thing, and they don’t always make it all the way to the bathroom.

When Ernest Thayer wrote the original “Casey at the Bat,” published in a San Francisco newspaper in 1880, he considered it a mere doggeral. He even used a pen name, to disassociate himself from the poem that would later (ironically) define his career.

I never really thought of Mighty Casey as a poem, per say. It rhymes and bounces along well enough, but it’s not, to me, poetry. Like most published books, it went through various drafts and revisions. And it was definitely made better through the help of my editor at Feiwel and Friends, Liz Szabla. As a rule, anybody with two z’s in their name has to be awesome. Name your child Buzzy and you are guaranteed a terrific kid. Anyway, here I am digressing once again, suggesting names for your children, which, let’s face it, is probably a personal decision and none of my business. But: Buzzy. Think about it.

I just came across an editorial letter from Liz, with comments and suggestions in response to the first draft of Casey (that is, the first  draft that Liz saw; not the first draft I wrote). The way this works for Liz is like this: We’ll talk on the phone, go through things in a general manner, and she’ll follow that up with a more detailed “formal” letter. Most editors seem to work this way. Below you’ll find the bulk of that letter, with only a few passages removed to save the author from further embarrassment. I should also note, for those interested in the publishing process, that I didn’t see that first draft as a finished piece. It needed work and I knew that. But I had reached the point where I needed another eye, another point-of-view. I needed, that is, HELP! And Liz was there to catch me.

MIGHTY CASEY is mighty charming and we’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent with it. I’m delighted now to be sending you our thoughts as well as a line-edited manuscript. You and I haven’t worked together before – please know that all my suggestions are open to further discussion if anything doesn’t feel quite right.

First and foremost, the Delmar Dogs are hilarious! Casey, as the unlikely hero, is wonderful. And the echoes of “Casey at the Bat” make Casey’s final triumph all the more satisfying, of course.

Let me break in here to comment that all editorial letters begin with a compliment. It’s a trick they teach you early on in Editorial School. The editor opens your ears by saying something positive. I tell this to kids who do peer writing in school: Always begin by saying something nice. Find a part in the story that you like and praise it. That way, you increase the chances of the writer hearing any critical suggestions you might later make. I’m saying: Liz didn’t fool me; I knew there was a big “but” in there somewhere.

You’ll see that I’ve make some suggestions and tweaks on the manuscript to fine-tune the rhythm or syntax in places. I won’t detail those suggestions here, but do let me know if I’ve fouled anywhere (heh, heh). Now onto a few issues to keep in mind as you consider the line-edit….

Note: the “line-edit” is the marked up manuscript, with more detailed comments and suggested changes in the dreaded red pencil. The general editorial letter comes along with a marked-up manuscript, which can be a cold thing, almost painful. Thus, the editorial letter serves as fabric softener to the line-edit’s starch. (Oh dear me, a laundry metaphor? Move on, people, there’s nothing to see here, nothing at all . . . .)

4th stanza
Although the “enjoyed…destroyed” rhyme is marvelous and unexpected, I can’t help but wonder if, in the fourth stanza, the parents’ feelings about the game are at odds with the Dogs’ pride at trying their best. To say that the adults don’t “enjoy” the games is a bit of a disconnect with the spirit of the Dogs. Still, I certainly see how it might be tough for the parents to see their kids trounced, and if this is what you intend, then let’s leave it. But if you want to work on another layer of subtlety – that is, the kids’ pride being stoked by their parents’ empathy, then I believe it’s worth exploring.

This is an example of an editor forcing the writer to think. I had to go back and look at what I was attempting to achieve in that stanza. I suspect Liz’s motherly instinct was to keep the parents cheerful and positive, whereas I wanted the recognition of how tough it can be to sit in those stands sometimes. In the end, I pretty much kept this stanza as is, but Liz made me to think about it and justify those words in my mind.

13th stanza
I’m a bit confused about why so few spectators notice or cheer when Jinn Lee bloops a double and later scores a run. Here’s where I see the Dogs and the parents on their feet, pumping their arms in the air!

Liz was right — and she was right in many places — so I changed it. The revision now reads: “When Jinn Lee clubbed a homer/The crowd stood and cheered.”

18th stanza
As Casey steps up to bat, there are a few things readers should know: How many outs are there? That is, is he the team’s last hope? If he strikes out, do they lose? If the situation is clarified, then you’ll really ratchet up the suspense in this last section.

Again, just some essential details that I completely neglected to add. Or perhaps assumed. The facts were there, but I didn’t make them clear, clear, clear. This is a common kind of editorial suggestion — to “pause a beat” — forcing the writer to slow down, to really set the scene for the reader. Sometimes we’re in such a rush to get to the next thing, we don’t always properly build up to that Big Moment. It’s a Hitchcock trick. Once you’ve built up suspense, it’s time to slow things down. Think of those movie shots when we see close-ups of the killer climbing the steps, footfall by footfall. The doorknob slowly, slowly turns . . . or Casey taps his cleats.

The finale
I suspect the ending could have more zing to it…. The mother crying and the father’s heart bursting with pride seem stereotypical amid all the other fresh action and description. The fact that they’re stereotypical does fit the tone and conclusion of “Casey at the Bat,” but I believe descriptions that are as fresh as the rest of the story will complement the tone and mood you’ve established and make for a stronger ending. Also, the “bursts with pride” description echoes the language of the 3rd stanza (“bursting pride”). Would you consider echoing some of the language in the ending for “Casey at the Bat” instead? “[H]earts are light…men are laughing…little children shout…”?

The very last line is also in need of some zing. “Three cheers” feels predictable and “our side” seems too general and not exciting or punchy enough for a conclusion. Perhaps you can work “Delmar Dogs” into the final line, so that it appears in the opening and conclusion, just as “Mudville” does in “Casey at the Bat.” What do you think?

Hey, I knew the ending wasn’t right (to put it kindly). I probably even said so when I handed in that first draft to Liz. I was struggling with it. I remember interviewing James Marshall, tape recorder rolling, back in the early 90’s. He said something that always stuck in my head, simple and profound: “It’s always the ending that gives me the most trouble. The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles in the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it. So it’s a puzzle that has to be solved. I remember with one of the Miss Nelson books, it took us [the author Harry Allard and I] two years to come up with an ending we liked.

Liz concluded her letter:

This is already so much fun – I believe that with some fine-tuning, it will be an even more dramatic and satisfying experience. Jean and I look forward to seeing what you come up with, Jimmy.

Please call or email me if you have any questions, or want to discuss any of these issues further.

Aren’t I fortunate to have such a warm, insightful, supportive editor? Liz made me think. She offered ideas and suggestions, but always made it clear that it was my book, my decisions. She got me to get back to work, keep hauling those rocks — but without feeling bad about myself, or my book. Instead I was energized, enthusiastic, ready to roll up my sleeves. Now you can see why so many authors dedicate books to their editors. We know we couldn’t have done it quite so well without a lot of help from the unseen hand of a talented editor.

Every time I read Mighty Casey out loud to a group of kids — when they laugh in the right parts, when they lean in to learn what happens next, when they burst into applause at the end — I always think of Liz and my publisher Jean Feiwel, and wish that they could be with me to share in the moment. The applause is also for them.

Calvin & Hobbes & Self-Taught Artists

Unconfirmed info states that the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip below, by the great Bill Watterson, was produced more than 15 years ago. It still resonates today, a little bit, don’t you think? (Click on the strip to see it larger.)

As a child, I learned to draw by copying the comic strips. I’d fill pages with my own renditions of Andy Capp, Beetle Bailey, and Charlie Brown. It was relaxing, soothing, almost meditative, that physical/mental activity of drawing. Somehow as we get older, we stop. We learn that there’s “good art” and “bad art,” and decide that it’s best to leave it to the professionals. We get the message and the message is: Don’t. Just don’t.

Our loss.

When it comes to art — and we could easily be talking about writing here — the most dangerous questions revolve around quality. Is it “good?” Is it “bad?” Because the unspoken question is: Can I continue, or would it be best for everybody if I just stop? Because if I’m making bad art, then I’m probably a bad person, and this is absolutely a bad idea. So I better quit now.

I’ve always been uncomfortable when it comes to teaching creative writing. It’s such a fragile thing, the courage it takes to dare make something. The artist is exposed, vulnerable. The last thing I ever want to do — as the so-called expert, the professional — is to kill it. And it’s so easy to do. With just a few ill-advised comments, we can suck the joy out of just about anything. At the same time, it’s why I have such respect for people like Ralph Fletcher, and the insights of Lynda Barry, or the impressive bloggers, Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers who work with such dedication to keep kids motivated and involved in the act of writing. All I know to do is say, “Great job, keep going, you’re fantastic.” And maybe — maybe — there’s a point where artists of any age need a little more help than that, though I have my doubts.

I remember being asked to interview Mark Teague very early in his career, late 1980s. In my preparation, I kept coming across information that stressed he was a “self-taught” artist. And I puzzled over that. Because, like, who cares? Why was that significant? What did it matter?

The conclusion I reached was that for most of us, we need permission to draw (or paint, or sculpt, or write). Sort of like going down to City Hall to pick up a fishing permit. You can’t be an artist unless you go to art school. Everybody else: Put the crayons down and please step away from the table.

The thing with self-taught artists is that somehow they manage to persevere without a license. They keep on making pictures, hand and mind in unison, and it seems to me like such a healthy, wholesome activity (in which we are made, figuratively, whole and at one, ommmmmm). Today my daughter Maggie still loves to draw pictures. We’ll sit down at the kitchen table, divide up the Sunday comics, markers and paper strewn everywhere, and recreate our favorite characters, music playing in the background. I hope she never stops. Because somehow the act of stopping is like a little death in all of us. An end of innocence, of participation, of creative joy, of play. We lose something very dear when we surrender our art (and our artistic selves) to the professionals.

FINAL COMMENT: Looking at the comic strip above, and how it reflects today’s financial climate, you are either struck by Bill Watterson’s amazing prescience . . . or by how little things have changed over the years. Given what we’re learning daily about the big corporations: The surprise in it is that anyone could find it the least bit surprising.