I often wonder when I’m reading something what the writer was reading while she or he was writing it. Sometimes it’s because I suspect the influence of a certain earlier work, sometimes it’s because the period or procedural details suggest a lot of research.
So in case anyone gives a hoot, this is a list of things I read or re-read during the period I was writing Underground Airlines (divided into a few different categories and using some sort of vaguely correct-looking bibliography format.)
Category 1: history of racism and slavery
Baptist, Edward A. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
Coates, Ta-Nahisi. “The Case for Reparations,” from The Atlantic Monthly, June 2014
Cover, Robert. Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process
Farrow, Anne; Lang, Joel; & Frank, Jennifer. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery
Genovese, Eugene. The Political Economy of Slavery
Genovese, Eugene. Roll Jordan Roll: The World The Slaves Made
Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death
Various. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938
My new novel, Underground Airlines, won’t be in stores until the distant date of July 5, 2016, but I’m now allowed to show you what it will look like, courtesy of the good people at Mulholland Books/Little, Brown.
I started writing this novel late in 2013, while I was still wrapping up World of Trouble, the last book in the Last Policeman trilogy. So it’s been a good long time that this story and this world have existed in my head. Showing you the cover, though it is still many months until the actual book is released, feels like a kind of dividing line between the terrifying/exciting period of writing it and the exciting/terrifying period of sharing it with the world.
This beautiful cover was designed by Oliver Munday. The art director at Little, Brown is Keith Hayes.
You can read a bit more about Underground Airlineshere or here.
(Hey, I wrote this a couple years ago as a guest post on Pub Crawl) and lately I’ve been seeing a couple quotes from it posted around, so I’m reposting the whole thing so it can live here on my site).
I am not the kind of writer, in general, who goes around giving advice to other writers, because I feel like I have no idea and am making the whole thing up as I go along, every day. (It is my impression, by the way, that most writers to some degree feel this same sense of day-to-day fraudulence, which I call writer’s blech—as opposed to writer’s block—but I think a lot of other writers are better than I am at hiding it).
This might actually be terrible advice. There are writers who would say that working on two books at once—especially if one of them is poetry and one is prose, especially if one is for kids and one is for adults—will muddy the mind, slow your progress, and confuse your style.
But what I find, what I have found throughout my working life, is the opposite. I like to be doing two things at once. I sort of need to be. One thing in active motion and one in the starting gate, warming up, ready to come out swinging—something else I’ve started to play around with, to make notes on, maybe done a wild first pass on.
Because as any writer will tell you, an IDEA for a book is like falling in love, it’s all wild emotion and headlong rush, but the ACTUAL ACT of writing a book is like building a relationship: it is joyous, slow, fragile, frustrating, exhilarating, painstaking, exhausting, worth it. So when I get through the lovey-dovey stuff on Project A and I’m deep into the difficult and complicated part, it is sheer anticipatory pleasure to have Projecet B, still in the pure-joy IDEA phase—waiting, patient, a temptation to which I can look forward.
See what I’m getting at here?
(And yes, I recognize that if I extend the love/relationship metaphor much further, what I get is a new lover waiting for me to get done with the current one. That’s why I switch over to a new metaphor right about now).
I call this The Theory of Rotating Dessert. Because you do, no matter how excited you are about your book when you first set out, you reach a point where you feel like it’s murder, it’s killing you, you hate it and you wish you’d never started. But there! There in the distance, far but not too far, is this other project, your delicious dessert, and the sight of it, the knowledge of it, will keep you going, maintain your excitement and your inspiration and your diligence until you get to the end.
And then when that Project B is actually underway, when you’re deep into it, banging your head against the wall trying to conjure up clever ways to rhyme with “ghoul”, you know you’ve got a whole new detective novel waiting for you: the part of your writing life that was active is now in beautiful abeyance, gleaming under lights in the magic part of your mind, like a slice of diner pie in a rotating glass case.
Hopefully I haven’t mixed my metaphors too terribly. And hopefully the books themselves—which, let’s face it, are all that matters—are satisfying and delicious.
I want to do some blog entries around writing craft this month, in support of my writerly sisters and brothers immersed in NaNoWriMo, where you try and bang out a 50,000-word novel in a month. For this entry, forget all the fancy artistic stuff about plot and character and symbolism, and let’s focus instead on the French expression mise en place, which is a culinary term literally meaning “putting in place,” but which I translate as “being on top of your shit.”
If you’re a chef or a cook you know what mise en place is, and you live by it. It’s the range of careful work that is required before service begins: all the chopping of raw ingredients, all the checking and double-checking of prep lists, all the sharpening of knives and arranging of utensils so they are in easy reach. It’s the tons of mental and physical preparation required before the work itself can begin.
I don’t think I got to be any good as a writer until I learned to embrace the notion of mise en place.
So much of what happens during the writing day can’t be planned or controlled. You have a vague idea, or maybe even a good idea, of what is going to happen in the chapter or scene you’re working on, but you don’t know for sure. You discover as you go, and this uncertainty is thrilling but also terrifying and overwhelming—the idea of sitting down before the blank page ,or the page covered in your own scribbled notes, or the page covered in a first draft that you know isn’t working yet.
So to counter that sense of the unknown—which can lead to a feeling of helplessness, which can lead to going to check your email or whatever you do to throw time down the gutter—the counterweight to that weightlessness and wildness is controlling as much as can possibly be controlled.
Meaning, don’t just sit down and say “I’m going to write today. Here I go!” And then, what, you lean and loaf under a tree like Whitman and wait for the muse to start singing?
No way. You sit down with a goddamn plan.
“For 45 minutes today, from 9:15 to 10, I’m going to work on the first chapter. Then, from 10:05 to 11:30, I’m going to revise my outline. From 11:30 to 12 I am going to do some research on oil rigs, because I am writing a scene about a roustabout.”
That’s mise en place. Time is one of your ingredients, right? It’s your resource. Use it with intention.
And yes, of course, if at 10:00 there’s more you want to do on the first chapter, if you’ve caught the spark of the idea and your fingers are on fire, you keep going. That’s the beauty of being your own boss! But start with walls, and let the walls fall away when you hit them. That’s a lot better than spending 9:15 to 10:00 asking yourself where to start, trying to gin yourself up to get going, and then checking Facebook…and then checking Twitter…and then putting in a laundry…
Know, too, before you begin, all the nitty-gritty mundane details of the writing process. Where are you going to work tomorrow? Library? Home office? Starbucks? Is there an outlet there, or do you have enough battery power? Is there a bathroom you feel comfortable with? Do people talk too much there? Are you going to run into a friend who wants to (God forbid) settle in for a chat?
Make your plan. Start the day exactly where you want to be. That’s mise en place! Preparation. Intention. Control—control in this case of your physical environment. Know where you’re going to be, so that there will be no unwelcome distractions (which are really welcome distractions, because by trying to write in a bad place, you have probably purposefully sabotaged yourself so as not to do the hard thing, which is sit and actually write.)
It’s weird, but there is always a part of your brain, when you sit down to write, that wants to be doing something else. Something easier, emotionally and intellectually. Something you might get paid for, in some immediate logical salary-based way. One of your jobs as a writer—not as a fancy-pants artiste, but as a real serious day-to-day craftsperson Writer— is to find strategies to trick that shifty, nervous, terrified person and keep her at her desk.
I’ve been trying to put my finger on the logical explanation for something I know instinctually to be true, which is that coincidences, while so delightful in real life, are so obnoxious in fiction. (Not always, but almost always.)
My tentative conclusion is that our main job, as fiction writers, is to create an illusion of reality. (I’m talking just in general here, just with realistic fiction and its close cousins—so not, for example, meta-fiction, or even high-genre stuff like thrillers and romance, witch & wizard stuff. ) The basic requirement of the gig is to create and maintain what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls “the vivid and continuous dream,” to make the reader feel like they’re immersed not in the product of a writer’s imagination but in an actual time and place. To make the fictional world, in other words, feel like it is the real world.
Anything that makes the reader question the reality of the fictional world (consciously or unconsciously) must then be edited or excised. Gardner talks about this in the context of “infelicitous” or “lumpy” writing that distracts from seamless storytelling, or a narrative voice that is too clever or too constructed, where the story is not being treated with due seriousness.
On the same list, for me, is a storyline that is full of wild, improbable events, not related at all to the motivations or needs of the characters—long-lost lovers meeting by chance on a city bus, that sort of shit. The sorts of events that make a reader go “oh, come on,” break faith with the reality of the story, and throw her book against the wall.
This despite the fact that, reality being the infinite and infinitely interesting thing that it is, long-lost lovers must, from time to time, meet by chance on a city bus. Right? But when those things happen in real life, they make us say things like “I never would have guessed it!” Or “I never would have believed it, unless I had seen it with my own eyes!” That’s what coincidences are, right, they are events that don’t seem like they belong within the confines of normal existence.
Coincidences by their nature seem to be somehow off the playing field, occurring outside the “rules” of real life. They almost seem like cheating, like someone circumvented the natural ways things are supposed to go, in which our actions and circumstances lead us inexorably but unpredictably toward our life’s next events. Which is exactly why they stink in fiction, because they give us the feeling that the author is not playing fair—he’s moving pieces around on a chess board instead of letting what is inside his characters drive them through the story.
Crucially, when coincidences happen in life, they do not actually cause us to question the the realness of reality. There is no book to throw across the room, no vivid and continuous dream to be interrupted. Because we know that no one literally authored this unlikely event, our response is to go “that’s weird” and move on; in fiction, because we know that someone did literally author this event, we say “oh, come on” and throw the book across the wall.
Final note: There are a lot more elements that have the opposite property, i..e. they are good in fiction but bad in real life. Like, for example, terrible people. The obnoxious pretentious asshole at the dinner party is a nightmare if you’re actually have a dinner party, but if you’re writing about one, he’s a goldmine.
Final final note: I’m going to try and write about writing a lot in the next month, since we’re entering November, in which a lot of people participate in NaNoWriMo, where you try and write a whole novel in a month. Which some people dog on, saying it’s silly or whatever, but I say more power to ’em. Everybody who wants to write should write all the time, for any reason. Right?
It probably goes without saying that I am super-excited about this news, not least because I’ve been working on this project for quite a while already—over a year at least, moving slowly from mulling to drafting to writing—and it’s a relief to arrive at a moment where it’s real, it’s happening, it’s going to actually be a book.
The big concept of Underground Airlines is that it’s a crime drama that takes place now, in present-day America, except the Civil War was never fought, and legal slavery still exists in pockets of the South. You can already tell, if you know the Last Policeman books, that there are some familiar elements: it’s speculative fiction, it’s a counterfactual, it’s the that world we know except for this one thing that changes everything.
But I can tell you that the hero of Underground Airlines is seriously about as different from Detective Palace as you can imagine, both as a person and as type of hero. And while the Policeman series was about the end of the world, about death and how we live with death, this book is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery (and in particular the Constitutional nightmare of the Fugitive Slave Law), and it’s about compromise.
Well, I mean, I think that’s what this book is about—that’s what it’s about so far. I’m not done. It’s a big book—it’s going to be a big book—so I hope you’ll read it when it’s done and we can talk about it then.
P.S. The only blue note in this happy news is that Underground Airlines will not be published by Quirk Books, who did the Last Policeman trilogy and my earlier novels, too. A kinder and more hardworking group of humans you will never meet, in or out of the publishing business. You should buy their books—although if you’re one of the billions who read Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, you already have.
Much like the Bob Dylan world tour that began in July of 1988 and has continued ever since, my planned summer-long Reverse Blog Tour to support the release of World of Trouble is threatening to become a Never Ending Tour, unanchored from any specific purpose or unifying principal, much like the whole rest of the Internet. Well, so be it! Especially if it means I can keep soliciting entries from people like Ethan Gilsdorf, the Boston-area journalist and memoirist and cultural critic and goodhearted Somerville fella—who besides being all those things is a native of New Hampshire, where I set my Last Policeman books.
People kept asking me why I set the trilogy in the Granite State, so I asked Ethan to please answer that for me, and here’s what he says:
I began writing this postduring a visit to my former home state. The Granite State. The Mother of Rivers. The White Mountain State. The Switzerland of America.
Yes, I mean New Hampshire. Tax free, lawless, kooky, flinty, opinionated New Hampshire.
Land of no sales tax and no income tax. Land of no motorcycle helmet laws and no laws against selling fireworks. Land of cheap liquor. Land of the first presidential primary. Land of “Get your government out of my [insert latest Big Government tirade here].”
At least, that’s the popular image of New Hampshire.
The state’s inspiring and absurd slogan, “Live Free or Die,” certainly hasn’t helped change that perception. You’ll find that phrase imprinted onto the state license plate (presumably by inmates in the state’s penal system), just above an image of the now-crumbled Old Man of the Mountain. The Old Man used to be a granite cliff outcrop on top of Cannon Mountain in the White Mountains. Viewed from a certain location, the rocks formed a profile of a face that I always thought looked like Abe Lincoln (who was not from N.H.). The Old Man’s face collapsed in 2003, but that craggy dude has not died. Not only on the state’s license plate, he’s also emblazoned on the state route signs, the back of New Hampshire’s Statehood Quarter. I’m guessing he’s also tattooed on the backside of Lyndon LaRouche, the famous political moonbat and New Hampshire native.
Alas, my home state is no longer my residence. I live just over the border, in Massachusetts, aka “Taxachusetts.” From that healthy remove, I periodically gaze northward to my mother country. I cross its borders, too, to visit my family who still resides there. And I see that despite my years living away, my N.H. DNA remains strong. I cut my teeth as a writer here. Some of the first serious books I read were written by New Hampshire residents, who set their plots in the state’s small towns, bucolic boarding schools, and tangled woods and political backwaters.
What makes New Hampshire a great state for writers to set their stories?
Think of the novels, plays, and poems that take place here (in addition to Ben’s Last Policeman trilogy). Probably the most famous is Peyton Place, the 1956 novel by Grace Metalious. There’s also Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Tory Lover; several novels by John Irving, including The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year; A Separate Peace by John Knowles; Labor Day by Joyce Maynard; River Dogs by Robert Olmstead; Affliction and Continental Drift by Russell Banks; Before And After by Rosellen Brown; The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis; Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult; and Sea Glass, The Weight of Water, and The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. Don’t forget the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and two Newbury Award-winning kids books, A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl’s Journal, 1830-32 by Joan Blos and Amos Fortune: Free Man by Elizabeth Yates. Not to mention, the many poems which take place here by Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall. (Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in Vermont, but published it in a volume of poems calledNew Hampshire — take that, Vermont! — and the tome earned Frostie the first of his four Pulitzers.)
Among other books. I’m sure I’ve missed a few.
A Separate Peace was the first book I ever knowingly read that was set in my home state. In 1979, this novel was 8th grade required reading at Oyster River Middle School. I didn’t get that Knowles had modeled his Devon prep school after Phillips Exeter Academy, just down the road from where I lived. Still, the story of Gene and Finny’s macho-competitive friendship, their strange game of “blitzball,” and Gene having a hand in Finny’s death, rocked my world as a 12-year-old. (Partly because that same year, my own mother had become dangerously sick.)
So how does New Hampshire lure writers? I think New Hampshire’s appeal as literary place is partly due its contrasts. You can still find that craggy, iconoclastic, “Old Man” persona. Even if the state’s id has largely shifted from redneck-only, Libertarian-leaning right winger to Target-loving bedroom community for Boston (at least in the southern part of the state where I’m from), the state’s ego is still grumpy old man.
“We only got 13 miles of coastline, see?” The Old Man still grouses. “But that’s the way we like it. Now git off my beach or I’ll shoot you.”
Who is the Old Man telling to get of his property? The Massholes. The outsiders. The folks who dare to tread on me.
This includes candidates for the highest office in the country. Presidential hopefuls must flock here, if they want to win. They must jibber-jabber with the locals at diners and VFW halls, and endure the sometimes frosty reception from locals, because all roads to the White House begin in the crucible of New Hampshire. We’re the underdog, but despite our obscurity and seeming insignificance, N.H. gets its say.
One of the earliest works set here is Coniston, a 1906 best-selling novel by American writer Winston Churchill (no relation), who was a state legislator in the 1900s and an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate. Naturally, Coniston is about N.H. politics. I have not read it.
The other reason I think N.H. appeals to writers is that it embodies conflict. You might say N.H. is the evil twin doppelganger of similarly-shaped Vermont, whose politics are about as polar opposite to N.H.’s as you can find. Within its borders, there’s always been a marked tension between New Hampshire’s rural, hardscrabble, working-class image and its use as a playground for prep school kids and tourists hitting the trails, lakes and ski lifts. In their novels, Irving and Knowles often tapped into the highfalutin “gown” side. Other writers delved into the townies.
Most kids who grow up in any small N.H. town learn to straddle that fence. My parents arrived in N.H. from the Midwest because my father got a job teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Half of my childhood pals in my tiny neighborhood had professional parents who lived in refurbished historical colonial homes; the other kids lived in dilapidated ranches and had parents who worked as mechanics, ran the general store, drove snow plows and hunted deer. Our leisure time vacillated between intellectual pursuits, like reading books, and redneck ones, like setting things afire in the sandpit.
As I’ve established, we don’t got much oceanfront property in New Hampshire, so don’t expect plots of novels to twist in the cool breezes of quaint seaside towns. Rather, stories tend to be set in small, isolated hamlets, miles from anywhere. Many novels take place in [insert name of fictional of small town here], N.H. In that town, you’ll find: general store, town hall, church, gas station, guy selling roses for $5 from beat-up van. Coniston takes place in the fictional small town of Coniston. Our Town is set in the made-up Grover’s Corners. Peyton Place’s imaginary “Peyton Place” is a supposedly a composite of several small towns: Gilmanton, Gilford, Laconia, Manchester and Plymouth.
One of my favorite story collections, Leah, New Hampshire: The Collected Stories of Thomas Williams, is set in the fictive “Leah,” just a letter away from my own hometown of Lee. Like my father, Williams taught at U.N.H, and his “Leah” some have compared to Masters’s Spoon River and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Williams, a Minnesota native, called New Hampshire, “a state that can be cruel, especially to its poor, or sick, or old. In its public, or collective stance, it can act as a skinflint and a buffoon among its neighbors.” But he also found that Granite Staters “can be decent and generous if, for a moment, they forget dogma, forget ‘conservatism,’ and sanctimony, and the myth of an imaginary history.”
Why this literary focus on the wee New Hampshire town? Perhaps it’s because events in N.H. towns, at least in the minds of novelists, occur in a time-space wormhole. Whatever happens in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town] stays in [insert fictional name of small N.H. town]. Our hamlets and villages and “corners” are trapped in amber. So, too, are our small town weirdos, who drive half-rotted pick-up trucks, shoot guns into the night, live in trailers, and go mad in the woods. They run well drilling companies out of their homes and mow cemeteries (one of my former jobs). They hold down two jobs. They yearn for upward mobility, while nursing their Bud Lites.
While the rest of the world has progressed, these characters are still hanging out at the store at the town crossroads, just as I did growing up. Growing up, I knew of a village store not far from where I was raised called “Liar’s Paradise.” It’s still there.
The small, isolated town died in the rest of America, but in New Hampshire, it survives.
That’s the myth, anyway. Of course, New Hampshire has been gentrified, and strip-mall-ified. These days, you can get decent organic produce at Hannaford’s or even the troubled Market Basket (once the strike is over). But for every Dartmouth or Exeter graduate, there’s a family living in a double-wide set on concrete blocks just a mile from some fairyland campus, and a working class kid who is struggling to get through community college, if that.
Embedded in that small N.H. town are enough conflicts between stock characters — the wizened Yankee farmer versus the button-down vacationer — to fuel the plotlines of a thousand stories.
In a previous entry on this blog, Lori Rader-Day eloquently suggested that the “Midwest has its own particular brand of darkness and dread” lurking behinds its friendly and smiling populace. New Hampshire has never pretended to be friendly. Outspoken and abrasive, sure, but cheery, never. We also don’t have those big open spaces. N.H. is claustrophobic. Sub in for the wide-open expanse of Iowa cornfields a truck stop by the rotary, or a freshly denuded house lot carved from a thicket of pine trees and poison ivy. Not necessarily creepy, but depressing and hermetic.
New Hampshire breeds this kind of existential loneliness, and it’s a force that many writers tap into. Great for poets who take walks in the woods. Great for novelists who dream of a better life. Great for writers to end their careers. New Hampshire is where J.D. Salinger went to disappear. Want to re-live his life? His former house is for sale.
Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Perhaps New Hampshire is like a lot of small town America everywhere. But it’s my homeland, and my tax-free haven. In the minds of some writers, the New Hampshire small town will never change. Of course everything has changed. To paraphrase Robert Frost, and that has made all the difference.
To learn more about Ethan and the mangy things he knows about—he writes better on Dungeons & Dragons and nerd cultural topics than most anyone living—visit Ethan Gilsdorf on his website. (And while you’re there congratulate him on his recent engagement!)
Keep checking back with me for more essays from more writers who I dragoon into contributing, and yes even the occasional blog post from me, the putative owner of this space.
The official title of Eric Smith at my publishing house, Quirk Books, is Social Media and Marketing Manager, but I just think of him as Internet Man. He spends his days tweeting, posting, blogging about Quirk authors—except when he’s writing his own books, like the hilarious (and handy) Geek’s Guide to Dating, pubbed by his Quirk colleagues, and the upcoming YA novel Inked, which’ll come out from Bloomsbury in the spring.
Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the online marketing for The Last Policeman, getting the series up on blogs, producing the book trailer, arguing over cover redesigns in meetings, running giveawas across countless websites… and just having a blast throughout all of it.
When I’m not talking to the Internet about books, sometimes I like to write. Looking back at the marketing campaign for Ben’s fantastic trilogy (which I’m very sad to see coming to an end), I realized there are a few fun things writers can take away from marketing a trilogy.
So, here’s a list, in trilogy format, of what you can learn from about writing from marketing a book trilogy.
Part I: Never Stop Looking for a New Story to Tell: The tricky thing about working on a series, is that after the first book hits and you’ve roped in lots of people to talk about it… there are still potential reviewers out there who might have missed out or passed the first time around.
Going back and reintroducing a series can be tough, so you have to think of fun new angles and new stories to make it enticing. What’s an angle I missed that could be touched on this time around? Should I talk more about the genre or the character? What thrilled the people who read it earlier? What can I do to bring new people in?
As a writer, this is an obvious tip, right? That you should never stop looking for that new story to tell. If you constantly stick to the same thing, you can get stale. Keep things fresh.
Part II: Read More Books: Whenever I find myself working on a book in genre I’ve never really explored, I try my best to really delve into that genre.
When I worked on Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series, I started reading more YA. The book Taft 2012, which was a bit of political satire? Picked up some Christopher Buckley. The Last Policeman? It was time to check out more books about detectives, from novels by Duane Swierczynski to spending time with Bigby Wolf in Fables.
Why? It helps me out when I’m building those marketing campaigns. I can’t stand it when someone who is marketing something tries to infiltrate a community without at least knowing something about them. If you’re familiar with the genre, then you can actually talk to people about these kinds of books. You can be genuine. You can be real.
Same applies to writing. There’s a quote someplace from Stephen King, where he says if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. True story.
Part III: Don’t Kill Your Darlings, Save Them: When a book is coming together, a lot of things go into it on the publishing side. The production, the design, the book trailers, the promotional materials… man, that list just goes on and on. And sometimes, something along the way gets cut. Maybe it’s a proposed cover you absolutely adored or some clips from a book trailer you thought were amazing.
Instead of dragging these things into the recycle bin, I always open up a folder, and save them for a rainy day. Those little extras can tell a brand new story. The covers that didn’t make it. The original ARC compared to the finished copy. Photo stills from the book trailer. These are all fun glimpses behind the scenes that real fans get a kick out of.
There’s a popular term in writing, a bit about killing your darlings. Don’t do it. Keep those bits of writing, and give them life somewhere else. Maybe those first two chapters that got cut can become a prequel short story. Or that character you really liked that didn’t quite fit… maybe he or she can appear in a new novel. Keep them in a folder, writers.
All excellent pieces of advice—thanks, Eric! For some more advice, this time from me, click here. To see me on my summer tour, click here. To read the last few installments of my 2014 Reverse Blog Tour , stay tuned!
So, although I have written for kids, and I have a bunch of kids, I’m one of these weird adults who mostly reads fiction written for adults. I make an exception, however, for the novels of my old pal Suzanne LaFleur—her debut, Love, Aubrey, was so heartbreaking and good that I’ve read her two followups (Eight Keys and Listening For Lucca). Suzanne and I met a long time ago, when we were both working at the same elementary school for eccentric young geniuses, deep in the heart of the Upper West Side.
She’s a shy and thoughtful kind of person, but I goaded her into participating in my Reverse Blog Tour by promising to ask easy questions. I lied, though, they’re all ready hard.
OK, Suzy. Is there any difference in what kids books are supposed to do (comfort, challenge, scare, excite) as opposed to what adult literature is supposed to do?
I would say the main purpose of both—and of literature in general—is to engage people with written language. Kids’ lit might need slightly different language or content to achieve that, but in terms of emotional investment, the criteria should be the same. People of any age will of course gravitate towards that which interests them, so there should be an equal variety of choices available for kids as for adults. Maybe not every kid wants to be scared, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be scary books for kids.
How does writing make you feel inside?
This question wins the award for “highest potential for an abstract answer.”
When writing isn’t going well, it feels really frustrating. I get up a lot, pace, do things around the house. I typically abandon it, and then at the end of the day, I feel bad because I didn’t produce anything. I gave up. But there’s no sense sitting to write if there’s nothing ready in your head.
When writing is going well, I go into a sort of trance, which can happen whether or not I’m physically writing or just walking around or swimming or something. When that happens, the story spins itself along and I observe, record, replay. I don’t notice the time passing. Sometimes it will be hours. I suppose that part feels good, because it’s kind of relaxing and the story unfolds very genuinely, but I’m definitely not aware enough to consider how it feels. I have recently put my awareness to the test a little bit, because in the past year I have become much more of a coffee-shop writer. At home, there are fewer signs of time passing in chunks around you, but at the coffee shop, I’ll realize I didn’t see people around me sit down or get up to leave their table; they will just suddenly seem to have appeared or vanished. Sometimes it’s scary, because—where have I been?
You’re probably thinking at the end of those days, living in the minds of my characters, I feel good, right? Nope. I feel bad then, too, because I can’t account for my time. Whole hours disappeared and I’m not even sure how I spent them. If you sit down to work after lunch and blink and realize it’s time to make dinner, it’s a bit disconcerting. Even if you’ve filled ten notebook pages. You should have noticed the day passing, right? Or filled the notebook pages and then moved on to something else? How do you hold yourself accountable for how you’ve spent your time when you literally make your living daydreaming?
If both kinds of days leave me feeling bad, why do I continue? I think my markers of accomplishment happen on a much larger scale. For example, I’ll scribble in my notebook for weeks, and then type it all up, and WOW, my document is fifty pages longer! That’s a day on which I feel like I’ve made progress. I can print it, read it—that feels good! Those days occur? Once every couple months. Even more rare: once every two-three years, I get to THE END of a draft. THE END. The elation of knowing you’ve reached the end—I can’t even explain it. It’s awesome. Then I get a letter from a nine-year-old reader: “your book [aka the result of all those hours of pacing as well as the ones that disappeared] has changed my life.” Changed a life! Hmm. Perhaps I wasn’t making a living daydreaming after all, but changing lives.
I’m reminded of something my dad said to me when I was a teenager. My first official job was as a lifeguard. I hated lifeguarding because it made me so nervous. But very little ever happened. Every time I came home from lifeguarding, my dad would ask, “Did you have to save anybody?” and I would say, “No,” feeling defeated, and then he would say, “Then you saved everybody.” I think writing is like that on some level. On most days, there’s not a big event. There may not be any sense of accomplishment after hours of sitting, watching and listening, and there may not be anything concrete to show for your work. Odds are you didn’t write a whole novel that day, so you would have to answer the question “did you write a novel today?” by saying “no.” But those hours still mattered. At the pool, my presence and advice prevented my patrons from needing someone to dive in after them—they’re not not changed. And their existence itself is actually quite concrete—without a dramatic event, they all walked away from my pool, to go home and have their dinners and live their lives. A million things that never happened actually add up to something positive, something whole and beautiful and maybe thoroughly unacknowledged by anyone. Writing, I sit and think for hours and hours, selecting a few words sometimes, and while nothing seems to be happening, a book emerges. I’m never not writing. One day, children will interact with my book for just a few hours of their lives, and walk away, perhaps declaring in a letter that they’ve been changed, the vast majority not noticing that anything’s different, but still, they’re not not changed.
So, after that, writing makes me feel good inside. The hours spent get forgotten; the words you’ve decided on stay, the impact you’ve had stays.
What did you learn from teaching little kids that has been valuable to you as writer, besides learning what sorts of stuff they’re interested in, content-wise?
I learned what they consider injustices and what they get excited about.
–Your friend plays with someone else and not with you.
–Your friend give away his/her candy to someone else and not to you.
–Your friend goes to someone else’s house—without you.
–Your parents are the only ones who don’t come to the classroom party.
–Your parents don’t let you have sleepovers on a school night. Even though someone else’s parents do.
–Your teacher seems to pick you to blame out of a group of people all doing the same bad thing.
–Your teacher gives you the previously-determined penalty for not doing your homework (I haven’t yet figured out why, but your teacher is always being unfair if you haven’t done your homework).
–SOMEONE WENT IN YOUR DESK. IN YOUR DESK. YOUR PRIVATE SPACE. AND STOLE YOUR PENCILS.
–Pizza lunch day is canceled with no warning. And it’s the only day you’re allowed school lunch and now it’s ruined. What will you EAT?
–You don’t get to finish eating in the allotted time. Even though you were able to draw three pictures, talk and laugh with your friends, and make fun of someone else, you definitely weren’t given enough time to eat and now you will be hungry and sad for the rest of the day.
–It rains. Unless you happen to prefer reading, rain interfering with recess is a terrible injustice.
–You don’t get to be Benjamin Franklin on biography day. Everyone knows that you love Benjamin Franklin the most. And that is why someone else claimed Benjamin Franklin first. On purpose. To be mean.
–Anything that disrupts the daily lessons routine in any way (unless gym is canceled—that’s an injustice)
–Parties. In school or out. Parties rule.
–Sugar. Sugar when combined with parties is particularly exciting. Too much sugar usually leads to additional events in the “injustices” category, but to start out with, sugar is great.
–Showing off a newborn sibling. Additionally, when asked to write a memoir about something important that happened in his or her life, a young child will most often write about the birth of a sibling, and each author will include what he or she ate for dinner that night. I checked this phenomenon against my own memory, and it’s true, I remember eating fried eggs for dinner the night one of my sisters was born, though I was four at the time.
–Riding on a school bus to anywhere (really doesn’t matter where).
–Anything with “land” in the name. Legoland. Disneyland.
–Singing. Everyone loves singing. Especially in rounds.
–A new friend coming over for the first time. Heightened by the fact that this event involves written record passed between parents and teachers, and must otherwise remain totally secret, so as not to create injustices for others.
–The return of anyone beloved. Even if the person was your student teacher for only a couple weeks. She comes back to visit, she is beloved.
–GRANDPARENTS. ARE THE BEST.
Kids’ emotions are almost palpable: hot, invisible bubbles of anger or joy bursting from their chests in silent waves. I would bottle up all these feelings—the lunchboxes lovingly packed, the ones that weren’t; the girl ecstatic to head to grandma’s, the boy who’d never met his dad—and take them home with me, where they would filter into the emotions of my characters.
There is a unique emotional state that comes along with starting a new writing project, a constant moody swing behind glee and misery. The glee is uncomplicated, it comes from the new burst of confidence that exists only at the beginnings of exciting new things—it comes from the sense of freedom and unrestraint, banging out the easy parts, knocking them off like those first ten clues of the crossword—you’ve got your great idea, you pick it up and you just fucking go.
The misery is more multilayered. There is fear, of course, there is always a dense layer of fear—fear of failure, fear of other’s people’s reactions. Fear (if you’re coming off of one long immersive project) of not living up to what you’ve already done—fear, I think, of not TOPPING what you’ve already done.
But the other piece of the misery, the other part that I think is uniquely hard, comes from the painful friction of your ambition grinding against your ability: you know what you want it to be—the structure, the tone, the story—and you are discovering, every second, the muscles requires to make it that way. Trying to make the ACTUAL thing as good as the IMAGINED thing that already lives in your mind.
In other words: as soon as you think of an idea for a novel (or a play or a story or, I don’t know, an opera) you have two creatures existing at once in your writing life: over here you’ve got this fully formed perfect IDEAL of the thing, living fully realized in this abstract space where only you can see it—and at the same time, you have this tiny little ill-formed thing, mewling and coughing at you from the mostly blank page, and you’re trying to coax it to larger and larger life.
The DIFFERENCEbetween those two things—between the gorgeous and complete thing you know that you want to create, and the trembling little fragile sickly thing that exists so far—the DISTANCE between those two places—that is one fraught and painful territory to be living in, is what I’m saying.
Can you tell I’m working on a new project? Can you tell it’s causing me some anxiety? Is everyone doing that teasing little gesture, where you pretend to play the tiny violin? That’s what I thought.