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Posts Tagged ‘Publishing’

On September 1, my new book, Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year, comes out on Peachtree Press. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting some thoughts about the book and my process.  Here’s a video trailer about it.

It’s the first in a series of six books that will be coming out every season (fall and spring) for the next three years. So far, so good, with a nice review in Publishers Weekly, and it’s a  Junior Library Guild selection.

Here are several  things I’ve learned. They might not be true for all authors, but I know they’re true for me.

1) Books take forever. They take forever to write. They take forever to edit. They take forever to get accepted. They take forever to edit again. They take forever to come out.

There is some author somewhere (Nora Roberts, I guess) who thinks of a book one week, writes it in the next three weeks, and has it published by the end of the year.

I do not know that person. I am not that person.

I wrote the first draft of Charlie seven or eight years ago. It was in the hands of a number of editors who politely demurred. It sat on one editor’s desk for two years. I rewrote it numerous times, on the advice of editors and friends and agents. It was accepted and then the publishing house that accepted it died. It found another publisher and editor. And then I got to edit it again.

I began to feel singled out. Why me? This is ridiculous! And then I started talking to other authors. They all nodded, “Yup. Happened to me.” Not so special, evidently.

I don’t really want things to take forever, but I will admit (when tied down and approached by someone brandishing terrifying implements of torture) that the finished product I hope you will hold in  your hands is much better than the one I started with. Believe me – I know who this kid is, and I like him a lot, and I wouldn’t like him as much if all those people weren’t involved. The book is better for the time it took – although I wouldn’t mind cutting the process by a couple of years. Which I guess I get to do, since the second book is due to my editor next week.

2) It takes a lot of people. My book is a child and requires a village. Or at least about thirty or forty people. Again, the smart writer does not need this, maybe – although if I look at any acknowledgement page in any published book, I see there are many idiot writers that require help just like me.

I need readers – a lot of them – people with different skills from mine. And I take all of these people’s names in vain because of the things they say or suggest or intimate. Behind their backs, I call them idiots and fools. I do not say these things to their faces, since I need them, and will need them again. My name is on the cover, but that is a shabby egotism which will not stand to scrutiny.

3) The book you’re working on is yourself. I won’t get too spiritual about this, but there’s a discipline required here, and this long arduous process has tested me about as much as anything else I’ve done. Failure is possible (Even after it comes out!). Success is never assured. Few things are under your control. Mostly, what you control is whether you sit down and write.

In the meantime, I have a book coming out that I’m proud of, and that I’ve read over so many times, I pretty much have memorized. And another one in process.

Call me lucky.

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The writer, happy at his work...


I have been working on a book over the past nine months. Well, really three years, but more intently for the last nine months. My schedule being what it is, and my brain chemistry preventing me from sitting still for eight hours at a time, I rarely write for more than an hour or two. But I kept working. As I got into the process, the story became more and more complex. More characters appeared.

And the end seemed to get further and further away.

But I have learned this about writing a longer piece – you stop looking at the end. You just write a certain number of words a day, or for a certain amount of time, then you walk away from it until the next day. The process is Sisyphean – just keep pushing the rock. It’s there waiting for you. Getting impatient does no good. You can’t just get it over with– it’s too long a climb. All you can do is show up.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who, as a mid-life-crisis kind of experience, decided to ride her bike across the country. She was hoping it would be some kind of transforming experience, and she would have a revelation about who she was and what she should do.

“Was it a catharsis?” I asked.

“Not really” she said. “It wasn’t a big thing. It was just a whole bunch of little things. It wasn’t one 3000 mile ride, it was 75 forty mile rides, one after another.”

Which is like life, I guess. Or at least writing this damn book. In the past month I have been writing pretty regularly, and am now up to about eighty thousand words (many which will have to die later on – I don’t edit much as I go along the first time). One thing about writing on a computer – you can always check exactly how many words you’ve written in the past five minutes. Which is good and bad. Actually, mostly bad.

One scene after another. Just plugging away. Not looking at the ending, but filled with the vague sense of dread that it would never end and I would just be hanging out with Tantalus and Cerberus for the rest of my time on this mortal coil.(Mixed metaphor there, I think…)

Annie Dillard said that writing a book is like sitting up with a sick friend and hoping he doesn’t die.

Then on Monday I had a weird thing happen. I went out in the morning to stare at the computer, then checked the story line I had written months before, including possible scenes

Wow. There wasn’t much more to write. I’d taken care of all the scenes leading up to the climax of the story, and it was time to spring the trap. Suddenly, I could see the end. I knew where it was going! How did that happen? I still have another thirty or forty pages, but I know what’s going to happen. And I’m going to get there in the next week or two.

And I’ll tell you what – it’s easier to write when you can see the end.

The secret – there is none. Like Jane Yolen says – “The secret to writing – butt in chair.”

Of course, then there’s the next dumb step. Trying to sell it. Another rock waiting for me.

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So many cool friends. Here’s two:

My pal David Holt just put up his new web page and it’s like Disney World for fans of traditional music – you can spend an hour there, easily. (Actually, not like Disney World – much cheaper and more real.) One of the best parts is David’s documentation of his mentors – a blurb on a score of people who have influenced him – from Bessie Jones to Doc Watson and to a bunch of people I didn’t know but wish I did. David’s a great photographer, too, and the photos of these folks are as good as everything else. Check it out.

And Pete Reptile (aka Albert Bitterman) of the Reading Reptile bookstore in Kansas City, MO has a GREAT new book out called Fortune Cookies, illustrated by Chris Raschka.

You can look at it on online, but you can’t know how cool it is until you get to open up the fortune cookies inside – it’s like Pat the Bunny with a narrative line. Okay, better art, better story, but you know what I mean – tactile. Definitely not for e-books – you have to hold it. He doesn’t need my help – it’s out two weeks and already in the third printing, but it’s going to be around for awhile.

It all makes me wonder what I’ve been doing lately…

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A. Bitterman - children's literature curmudgeon

My friend Pete Cowdin runs one of the best children’s book stores in the country, the Reading Reptile, in Kansas City. He’s smart and funny, and obviously a little weird, since he’s a big enough fool to run an independent bookstore (and for children no less) in these days of the uncertainty of marketing the printed word. I walk in that store and it’s like a liberated zone – things slightly askew, more like his family’s living room (which is very askew) than a business. Pete’s my go-to guy about good books for kids – he was onto Harry Potter before Scholastic picked it up, knew Lemony Snicket was going to be a big hit, and suggested Rick Riordan’s series to me years ago, long before anyone thought about making a movie about Percy Jackson.

Pete’s alter ego is a curmedgeon named A. Bitterman, and he looks at the world with a jaded eye. I recently got a piece from Pete (or Mr. Bitterman? Hard to tell sometimes…) about the future of bookstores and I asked him if I could put it up here. Long for a blog, but worth the read.

If you like it, or think about this stuff (I do), then there’s an interesting article in the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein, who started the Library of America series, on the future of books, Publishing: The Revolutionary Future.

DIGITAL BURN: the Remaking of the Independent Bookseller
(more…)

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Sometime in the early Nineties, I started to write a book about a kid and a bicycle. At the beginning, I had only a vague idea of what the story was, and an even vaguer idea of how to write a book. I got rid of the parents in the early chapters (first rule in children’s literature – get rid of the parents so the children can become the lead actors in their own lives). The mother died in a horrible accident involving an umbrella, a can opener, and an English muffin; the father disappeared in a hot air balloon. I inserted some mean people (Aunt Inga, who makes our hero sleep in the basement of her home). Following my mentors’ leads (Dickens and Dahl) I gave people compound names that reflected their personalities (Dickens had Thomas Gradgrind, I had Anthony Gritbun).

The book had promise. I sent it out and it got rejected. People said they did like it but not enough to publish it. (Hmm, maybe just being nice…) I rewrote it again. And again. I let it sit, neglected, for three or four years. I picked it up again and had friends read it and be as brutal as they could in their comments. I threw out characters, created new ones, rewrote the biographies and back stories of major characters. A couple of publishers nibbled.

Then, success, of a sort. Tim Wadham at the Maricopa County Library in Phoenix decided to publish it as a serial novel online. Simultaneously, Peachtree Publishers took it on.

The editors at Peachtree challenged every weak link in the plot. I had to rewrite again and again. Another year of rewrites. We changed the title from “Flyboy” to “The Amazing Flight of Darius Frobisher.”

Darius came out in 2006 – over ten years after I wrote the first draft. Fame and fortune? Not quite. Relief and a sense of accomplishment. Yes, those things.

It’s had a pretty good life. At shows, I regularly run into kids who say, “This is the best book I ever read.” Children are given to hyperbole, but hey, it works for me. A number of teachers have told me it’s their favorite read-aloud book to their classes.

This fall, two new milestones – it’s out in paperback, and it’s printed in Japanese. I got the Japanese edition in the mail the other day. It is drop dead beautiful. Who knew my name could be written in kanji? The text is beautiful, it’s a wonderful size, and it has a ribbon book marker in the spine. I wonder what “Anthony Gritbun” and “Colonel Crapper” sound like in Japanese.

Darius in Japanese!

Darius in Japanese!

And as far as a paperback edition, one of my joys is seeing a kid scrape together enough dollar bills and quarters to buy a book on their own. Paperbacks make it more possible.

I am not an incredibly patient person. I write something and I want it to be in a book or on a recording the next day. And I’m not as brilliant as I’d wish. It takes me a long time to figure things out. I guess if I were smarter, and more diligent, things would happen faster and I wouldn’t have to be patient. But my experience with art (and life) is that things take a very long time to come to fruition, they sometimes ,can’t be hurried and they usually don’t look like what you thought they were going to look like when you started.

But Darius is alive and kicking. One of the questions I get regularly from teachers and parents and children about the book is, “What happened to Darius? Where is his father? When is the next book coming out?” I’ve put all those things off. But after all these years, Darius is reappearing regularly in my thoughts, and I think I know what happens to him.

I just hope it doesn’t take another ten years.

Like Hippocrates said, “Life is short, art is long”. I take that to mean it lasts, but it takes a long time to make it. You just hope that the art you’re making gets a chance to live.

Oh, and by the way, I’d love it if you’d read the book. You don’t have to get the Japanese edition.

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