There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
Saturday, February 28, 2015
(The first in a new series of brief interviews with authors of forthcoming books)
1. Tell us a little bit about your book.
Burning Nation is the second book in the Divided We Fall trilogy. It continues the story of seventeen-year-old Idaho Army National Guardsman PFC Danny Wright and his friends as they are stuck in the middle of a tense stand-off between the state of Idaho and the federal government of the United States. In the first book, Divided We Fall, Idaho has voted to nullify the Federal Identification Card Act. When Danny’s National Guard unit is sent to quell a protest/riot resulting from this nullification, he accidentally fires his rifle, which causes other people to shoot, leaving twelve dead and nine wounded. The president demands an investigation and prosecution. The governor of Idaho refuses to cooperate, saying that he gave a lawful order to the National Guardsmen under his command.
Burning Nation begins right where the first book left off, with the president sending the military to force Idaho to comply with federal law. Right from the beginning, Danny and his friends are caught up in the fight, but as the country descends into the chaos of the Second American Civil War, losses begin to take their toll. It becomes hard to understand what has been won, but easy to see what’s been lost. As the sacrifices mount and betrayals abound, Danny and his friends begin to think about the wounds they’ve suffered, inside and out.
It’s an action-packed book that continues to explore what happens when America’s current political divide widens into tomorrow’s nightmare, and it’s alarming how many real-life headlines seem to have been predicted by Divided We Fall and Burning Nation.
2. If this book had a theme song, what would it be and why?
Ten years ago, when my fellow soldiers and I were serving in Farah Province in Afghanistan, we were struck by how much the landscape resembled that featured in the movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. That movie features a song by Tina Turner called "We Don’t Need Another Hero." My fellow soldiers would joke about this song, with one man saying, “We don’t need another hero” and another replying, “We don’t even know the way home.” The video is a bit dated and cheesy, but if you listen to the words, the song really fits as a commentary on the brutality and waste of war that is very appropriate for Burning Nation.
3. Please name and elaborate upon at least one thing you learned or discovered about writing in the course of creating this book.
When I began work on Burning Nation, I was under the naive assumption that writing the book would be easier because I had already finished Divided We Fall. I knew the characters, the setting, and at least the situation that led to the events in Burning Nation. I should have known that Burning Nation would be as significant if not a greater challenge than the first book. One of the challenges came from the situation the characters face. Throughout most of Burning Nation Danny and his friends must endure a federal military occupation of their small northern Idaho town. With U.S. soldiers hunting for them all the time, their movements, and thus my options for the kinds of scenes I could include, felt rather limited. I began to feel almost as claustrophobic as Danny and his fellow soldiers.
Another challenge with writing Burning Nation was that it was the second part of a story that already had its first part on the market. I was facing a situation that was new to me, that of having public feedback on characters and other aspects of the larger Divided We Fall story, while I was writing that story’s second installment. It felt like having many, sometimes too many, advisors in my office with me while I worked. Cheryl was wise, as she usually is, when she encouraged me to stop looking at reviews and reader comments as I worked on Burning Nation.
4. What is your favorite scene in the book?
I’m really quite happy with a lot of the scenes in Burning Nation, so I’m going to cheat and list two. First, since Burning Nation isn’t merely an action/war book, but is a piece which, I hope, encourages the reader to think about the terrible nature of war and its effects on those who live through it, I’d like to point out a scene that happens after Danny Wright has been through terrible physical and emotional torture. He is out of his mind from sleep deprivation and other torments, and when his one-time rival TJ bursts into his cell to rescue him, Danny isn’t sure if what is happening is even real. He’s confused and kind of cries, “Travis?” Travis Jones realizes that Danny is seriously messed up and it’s going to be harder to rescue him than he and his friends supposed. It’s a small moment, but I hope there’s a lot of emotion in that simple question, that exhausted and near-breaking-point, “Travis?”
And since I love some good action, I’m also quite happy with a hand-to-hand fight scene near the end of the book. It’s a fight between Danny and a U.S. Army major, a desperate fight to the death where Danny has to make an important decision about how deep into the war he’s willing to go, and how much of himself he wants to save. In addition to the moral question the fight raises, I just think it’s a clear scene, a tense and suspenseful fight. And the conclusion of the scene is really quite chilling.
5. What are you working on now?
I am hard at work on the third book in the Divided We Fall trilogy, entitled The Last Full Measure. The story follows America’s further final decline into a terrible civil war, and the difficult consequences this has for Danny Wright and his friends. I’m having lots of fun working on it, and it’s on schedule for a 2016 release.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
This appeared today in the Publishers Weekly Children's Bookshelf e-newsletter:
Amy Cherry at W. W. Norton has acquired Cheryl Klein’s book on writing children’s and young adult fiction. Previously self-published as Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, Klein will be revising, re-writing, and updating the book. Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/ Scholastic, where she served as the continuity editor for the last two books of the Harry Potter series, and she also teaches in the publishing program at the NYU School of Professional Studies. Publication is planned for September 2016; Brianne Johnson at Writers House negotiated the deal for World English rights.Hooray!
Some PAQ (Possibly Asked Questions):
W. W. Norton!
I know! The Norton Anthologies! And Michael Lewis! And Patrick O'Brian (swoon)! I am thrilled.
How will the new book be different from Second Sight?
We are still talking this through, but my goal is that it will be a more complete and fully integrated guide to writing fiction for children and young adults, with a structure that walks writers through all the major elements of fiction and the writing process, accompanied by exercises, worksheets, and practical examples to help them apply the ideas on the page. Much of the material will be new, and much of what is taken from Second Sight will be extensively revised.
So you're not self-publishing anymore. Why not?
This new project started because I wanted to revise Second Sight into the book I describe above. As I thought about what it would take for me to do that, I realized that I was (and am) at a different place in my life than I was when I put Second Sight together, and I could really use the support, structure, challenge, and deadlines provided by a traditional publisher.
When people have asked me about self-publishing in the past, I've always said that neither traditional nor self-publishing should be the universal prescription for every writer and every project -- that the choice always depends upon the nature of the book, its market, and the writer's abilities and expectations in relation to the project. This was the right book and the right time for me to switch to traditional publishing, and I'm very grateful to Brianne for encouraging me and connecting me with Amy at Norton.
What will happen with Second Sight?
Second Sight is now going into its fourth printing (also hooray!), and should remain on sale for at least the next year and a half. It is still available through Amazon, at my appearances, or by contacting me directly at asterisk [dot] bks [at] gmail [dot] com. I also remain enormously grateful to everyone who has supported the book through the years, and everyone who's told me about their experiences with it, good and bad. (Much of that criticism is informing the new draft.)
What's it like to be on the other side of the editorial desk?
Pleasant and yet extremely weird.
What will the title of the new book be?
We're still working on that, but I have faith the right title will come in time. Most titles do. (And suggestions welcome.)
Thank you for your interest!
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Today, February 4, 2015, is the ten-year anniversary of Brooklyn Arden!
This blog took its current form one Friday night when I was home alone and lonely, and consequently decided to talk out loud to the Internet. The years I've spent talking out loud here since led directly to writers' conference appearances, new publishing projects, my website, my book, and many, many great conversations and connections. (As well as much enjoyable silliness: See here and here.) The Internet and my life have changed enormously since I started writing in this space, and I'm a little sad I don't chatter as much here anymore. But I am also enormously grateful to this blog for the chance to "know what I think when I see what I say" for the past ten years, and to all of you for coming here, seeing it, and sometimes saying back. Thank you.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
I published eleven books this year -- my most ever! I did not write about those titles here so much, however, because I was spending much of my time readying my 2015 books. (Such is publishing.) But I'm very proud of them all, and as always it was a pleasure to have such a wide-ranging list . . . to be able to turn from the proofs on Divided We Fall, say -- a YA novel about the start of the second American civil war -- to figuring out what piece of classic artwork would match a particular stage of our heroine's journey in I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed A Dreidel. (You'd have to see the book to get it.) So yay for my 2014 list!
Monday, December 22, 2014
A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently: How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control.
First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:
Imagination: The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth: a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful: Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new.
Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.
Dramatic Skill: The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people: Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere.
Writing Craft: The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard.
All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:
Unconscious Reading: Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better.
Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:
Practice: So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it: "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins: You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.
Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:
Conscious Reading: Separate from the Unconscious Reading above: This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.
Cultivating a Process: Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.
Choosing the Right Material: In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge: She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg.
So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.)
Cultivating a Purpose: Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.)
Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.
If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:
Perseverance: Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between.
Writers, readers, reviewers: Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer?
Saturday, December 20, 2014
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Guess what? Those two things in my subject line are one and the same thing! We have a new episode of the Narrative Breakdown up, which also happens to be a recording of a panel I mentioned many moons ago: me, fellow editor and publisher Stacy Whitman, and our authors Eric Gansworth and Joseph Bruchac, respectively, discussing their books If I Ever Get Out of Here and Killer of Enemies, respectively. It was a really great, meaty, interesting conversation (IMO) about how Stacy and I came to edit these books, editor-author relationships in general, writing YA, privilege, and cross-cultural publishing. And now you can see a writeup of it from Publishers Weekly at this link, and listen to the full recording here. Thanks for checking it out!
Saturday, November 22, 2014
I'm delighted to say that I'll again be teaching a Book Editing Manuscript Workshop in Editing Children's and YA Novels at the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, starting in mid-February 2015. I had a ton of fun putting the course together and working with my students this past year, and I'm looking forward to getting to know a new group of aspiring editors next spring.
(And I should say this course is very much intended for publishing professionals who want to know what goes into editorial work or get ideas for developing their own editorial work -- editorial assistants or aspiring assistants, agents, fellow practicing editors. Writers might get something out of it, but the focus is entirely on on how to be an effective editor for others, not on how to improve your own novelistic craft.)
Here's the course description in full:
Calibrating a characterization. Structuring a plot. Developing a theme. Polishing the prose. And bringing all of these elements into perfect balance to help a book become what it should be. In this eight-week course, we’ll learn how to practice these editorial skills, with special attention to the particular requirements of the child and young-adult audiences, and discuss the creation of the right public image for a book through its flap copy, cover, and editorial presentations.If you're interested, you can see more details and register here, and I'd be happy to answer any questions in the comments. Thank you!
Posted by Cheryl at 12:18 PM