Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

February 7, 2012

Behind the Book — Writing Advice from My Uncle Bill

My mother, Penelope Niven, and I are both writers, and because of this my family often participates in our author events, traveling with us on tour (when possible) and purchasing multiple copies of our books to give to everyone they know. When my grandmother Eleanor was alive, she would call up bookstores in the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area and ask if they carried the latest books by Mom or me. If they didn’t, she would say, “Well you should!” and hang up.

While most of my family members, wonderful as they are, don’t understand the actual day-to-day process of writing a book, they are our greatest and most enthusiastic fans.

My mom’s brother, Bill, however, seems to get it. Bill isn’t a writer, but he is creative. He is brilliant, possessing a wonderful kind of downhome, folksy wisdom. He’s tall and rambling—and, at 65, is the same big-hearted country boy who, at least once a week, used to “find” stray animals in the bushes outside the house where he and my mother and their two sisters grew up. He has a North Carolina accent a mile wide.

Historically, Mom writes very long books. Her biography of Carl Sandburg, the definitive work on his life, is 843 pages and her biography of Edward Steichen, the definitive work on his life, runs 808. Her upcoming, hugely anticipated biography of Thornton Wilder, due out in October from HarperCollins, is 836 pages. (Voices and Silences, the book she wrote with James Earl Jones, is a mere 394 pages.)

As I am in the thick of edits/copy edits of my upcoming novel, Becoming Clementine (from Plume this fall!), and as I prepare to return to the researching and outlining of the novel that will follow it (title still to be determined), I keep Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing nearby, along with a picture of his daddy, my granddaddy, who also had wise things to say about the writing process, namely: deadlines are really lifelines and, when editing, you can almost always lose the last sentence of every paragraph.

While most of Bill’s comments originated with my mother’s work, they are certainly relatable to my own, especially as I am faced with editing and cutting and trimming down the length of Becoming Clementine, and trying to think of alternate ways to say “like,” “said,” and “just,” all of which I tend to overuse.

Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing

1. A book should not be so long and big and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow.

(Case in point, each first draft of each Velva Jean book has been cut down drastically, and my first draft for The Ice Master was 813 pages long. In the end, I cut 300 of those pages before it ever went to print.)

2. You have to remember that there were parts of Carl Sandburg’s life that were boring even to Carl Sandburg.

(Or Velva Jean’s life, or Ada Blackjack’s life, or ice master Robert Bartlett’s life, or my own life, goodness knows, as told in my high school memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries. In other words, you don’t need to relay everything that ever happened to your character/subject. Pick and choose the moments to write about.)

3. If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it.

(I remember this every time I conduct research or write a new scene and find my attention wandering off in the middle of it, or, most recently, when I reread Becoming Clementine and feel the slightest bit restless.)

4. It must be easier to write short than to write long.

(Even as I’m stripping out words or lines or paragraphs or whole chapters of Clementine, I’m thinking to myself: Why didn’t I just leave these things out the first time around? The answer, for me at least, is that even when I remove sections of a manuscript, I know the material was once there. I think writing long to end up writing short helps the book seem deeper and more layered, even if you’re the only one who knows what’s missing.)

5. A lot of people seem to think that just because they can write the alphabet they can write books. From what I’ve seen of your work, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

(It is, truly, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize it and how astute—I would even say profound—this observation is. I work all the time. ALL the time. Yet one of the things I hear most often from well meaning people is: “I’ve always thought I would be a writer if only I had the spare time,” as if we are talking about Canasta or kite flying or crossword puzzles. My mother hears this frequently too, and once, at a party, she heard it from a prominent brain surgeon. When he said, “I’ve always thought I would write a book if only I had the time,” she replied, “That is so funny. I’ve always thought I would practice brain surgery if only I had the time!”)

6. I remember the little girl who looked at one of your mom’s books and said, “Wow! I didn’t know anybody knew that many words.” And your mom said, “It’s not so many. I used a lot of them more than once.” Still it must be hard to keep track of them so you don’t repeat words too often and get on your reader’s nerves.

(It is hard to keep track of them, particularly when you write two nonfiction books about Arctic expeditions and have to describe ice again and again. This is one reason Mom and I love to read the dictionary because even when you use a lot of words, there are still so many to learn.)

January 24, 2012

Behind the Book — Naming a Book

Book titles are tricky. Sometimes they come to you naturally and easily and sometimes (most of the time) they’re more evasive. John Steinbeck said, “I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called.” But I do. I think titles are important.

Tennessee Williams said, “The title comes last.” This has, for the most part, been my experience. I spent two years researching and writing The Ice Master before choosing the title, which was suggested by my mother. After my editor and I settled on The Ice Master, we came up with a subtitle: “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk and the Miraculous Rescue of Her Survivors,” which became simply “The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk” because my editor felt the former was too wordy and gave too much away.

I went through at least fifty titles for my memoir about high school (including the uninspired High School and the more inspired Riding in Trans-Ams with Boys) before my editor– during our brainstorm of 1980’s-related words and phenomena– came up with The Aqua Net Diaries.

In the case of my first novel, Penguin originally wanted to change the name Velva Jean Learns to Drive so that it wouldn’t be confused with a children’s book or a young adult book, but I stood firm and convinced them otherwise. When it came time to choose a title for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Penguin wanted to change the name to something that could stand alone and didn’t mention Velva Jean (the sales and marketing teams have very good and convincing reasons for this). But I wanted Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and I fought for it.

With this third novel in the Velva Jean series, sales and marketing have again stated their case– more emphatically this time– about leaving Velva Jean out of the title. After all, they argue, she’ll be mentioned in the jacket copy and also on the front cover (which will say: “Author of Velva Jean Learns to Drive“). The few readers I’ve mentioned this to have reacted almost violently– they want Velva Jean’s name in there! I understand this because part of me does to. I like the symmetry of Velva Jean Learns to… But this third time around, I’m ready for a change.

Maybe it’s because I don’t want potential readers to pick up the book and think, “Oh, it’s some series about some girl named Velva Jean, and I haven’t read the first two so I can’t start with this one,” or maybe it’s because I’m, every now and again, feeling the itch to move beyond Velva Jean into new characters and new settings, or maybe it’s because of the nature of this third book– it’s a darker, broader, more epic tale, full of adventure, danger, intrigue, and action (and a grown-up love story!). Or maybe it’s because sales and marketing make a really good case. Whatever the reason, I feel ready for a new title.

The challenge about revealing said title is that, until you read the book, it’s going to be hard to really get its meaning and impact. But then, aren’t so many good titles like that?

E.L. Doctorow said, “You’ll find a title and it’ll have a certain excitement for you; it will evoke the book, it will push you along. Eventually, you will use it up and you will have to choose another title. When you find the one that doesn’t get used up, that’s the title you go with.”

That’s how I feel about this new one. I had a couple of other titles for it at first, but I wore those out. Then my editor suggested one– what ultimately became the final one– and I wasn’t sure at first. I mulled it over, I tried to think of others, I tried living with this one or that one for a day or two. But I kept coming back to the one she suggested. And now I like it. I really do.

So what is the final title for Velva Jean #3? You’ll have to tune in here tomorrow for the reveal…