Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Even more my books

Thanks to Agnes last week who posted the link to The New York Times Sunday Book Review review of Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, which came out yesterday. For those of you who missed it, here it is again: And for you poetry buffs, there was an amazing essay in The Atlantic online at: I’m delighted to say the book has gotten a marvelous send-off!

Now for more questions from Charlotte. Here’s the first: Did you get annoying non-writers asking to read it (your manuscript) when it was so rough it wouldn't have made any sense to anyone?
No. My non-writer friends were encouraging about my new and then not-so-new and then unending endeavor, but no one asked to read. I asked the children’s librarians at the main branch of the Brooklyn public library to look at my first effort. They did and were enthusiastic and set up a reading for children - who got bored and wandered away mid-reading. The librarians stuck around to the end, though. The book was never published, but it was lovely to have that little cheering section wishing me well.

And the second and third: Did anyone ever say something so mean (well-intentioned or not) that it still haunts your writing confidence today? Not a publisher, I mean (I remember you said in Writing Magic you got a terrible letter about Ella when you were starting out...), but a friend?

No one did. I did take a class in getting published that was taught by an editor, and she was discouraging to all her students, so I didn’t feel singled out. The terrible letter wasn’t for Ella, it was for a picture book manuscript called Sweet Fanopps about a kingdom that had forgotten how to sleep and had lost all the words associated with sleep. When sleep is rediscovered no one has language to go with it. Fanopps, of course, means dreams, and I invented other sleep-related words. Poodge was the one for sleep. In the course of the letter the editor misspelled Fanopps as Fanoops. Tut tut.

And more: What did it mean (monetarily and emotionally) to be "able to quit your day job"? Or is that too personal a question?

Not too personal. Money first. I quit seven months after Ella Enchanted came out and two months before it won the Newbery honor. I was fifty years old, and I had worked for New York State government for twenty-seven years. At fifty-five I would collect a small pension no matter what happened with my writing career, so I had a measure of security although I had five years to get through. My husband and I decided to risk it. My friend, the wonderful young adult author Joan Abelove, who was supporting herself as a technical writer, promised to teach me technical writing if I needed something to fall back on, which I still feel grateful for. But luckily the Newbery honor came along and my prospects improved and have stayed pretty darn good.

Now for emotional. My work with New York State government mostly had to do with welfare. By the end my job was administrative and I was in an unhappy patch. I was glad to leave. But I’m a social person, and I worried about the solitary life of a writer, so that’s when I started my workshop, and I continued to take a writing class and participate in a critique group. Naturally I was delighted to be able to devote myself to writing, but sometimes I missed feeling part of a shared enterprise, which is what my job gave me.

And: Do you still muse about characters whose books are written and over?

Sometimes I think about Ivi in Fairest. Because I wrote hundreds of pages that I tossed, I know much more about her than the reader does. For example, I wrote a scene in which she worries to her brother (cut) that she won’t be a good queen. And one in which we see Ivi’s mother’s mindless approval of Ivi no matter her deficiencies. I wrote scenes between her and Skulni in which she tries to win his approval and he toys with her.

And I wonder about the future happiness of Addie and Rhys from The Two Princesses of Bamarre. His life span is so much longer than hers. She’s going to get caught up in the drama of ruling and he in his wizardly studies. What will they share?

There’s also Irma Lee from Dave at Night, with her over-protective mother and the Great Depression on the way. Dave, who’s known nothing but poverty, will be okay. But Irma Lee? And I left Mike with tuberculosis. I don’t even know if he lives.

Then, on December 9, 2011, Melissa asked, ...How come you never self-published Ella Enchanted since it was taking so long?

Ella Enchanted didn’t take that long, only a year or so, and it was rejected only once. It was the many other manuscripts that nobody wanted. All but one of them (Dave at Night) were picture books, and I would have had to find an illustrator. Also, self-publishing, although possible, wasn’t as available as it is now. Print-on-demand was in its infancy, I think. There were no online booksellers, so I would have had to try to get stores to carry my titles, an uphill battle. The opportunities in self-publishing are much improved today.

On October 5, 2011, Lizzy wrote, ....If you had started writing Ella Enchanted today instead of a couple years ago, how different would you think the story would turn out? Do you think that it would turn out as a totally different story, or would it stay around the same?

Hard to speculate. If I’d written all the other books first and was working on Ella now, it would certainly be a different book. I once heard the wonderful children’s book writer E. L. Konigsburg (author of the Newbery winning From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and many others) say in a speech that you can only write your first book once. She may have meant something else, but what I understood was that you have a wealth of ideas stored up from however many years of living and reading, and the riches come pouring out in a first book. After that, you have to work harder. I think I had two first novels: Ella Enchanted and Dave at Night, because each drew on different parts of my writing imagination. And two other books have felt utterly fresh, Writing Magic, because it was my first nonfiction venture, and the new book, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It, because it’s entirely unlike anything else I’ve done. If I were writing Ella now and I’d delayed writing until now, well, I can’t guess what would come out. Who knows what I would have done in the intervening years.

More about my books next week, but, looking ahead, I think that will be the final post about them, at least for the time being.

Charlotte’s question about the future fate of some of my characters got me thinking about sequel possibilities, which led me to these prompts:

∙    J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan leaves Peter unresolved, and he’s kind of a tragic figure at the end. Write the rest of his story. You can give him a sad or happy ending, but make the outcome settled for him.

∙    What happens to Jack and Jill after the nursery rhyme? Jack’s skull is cracked, I think. Does he live? How badly injured is Jane? Are they modern protagonists? Or when else do they live and possibly die? Continue their tale.

∙    How does Pinocchio’s story go after he becomes a real boy? Write it!

Have fun, and save what you write!


  1. I loved this post,I just wanted to add a few things. E.L.Konigsburg is one of only five people who have won the Newberry twice here are the others.

    * Joseph Krumgold
    * Lois Lowry
    * Katherine Paterson
    * Elizabeth George Speare
    Also there is sometimes another line in Jack and Jill in which their "Mother fixed his crown with vinegar and brown paper" although it's a bit hard to sing(:

  2. 3 cheers for Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It!!!

  3. I'm so excited to read Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It! It sounds so cool! I loved this post also. Something I noticed is that in some of your books, the main conflict is already identified at the beginning of the book (i.e. Aza's ugliness, Ella's obedience) and the book I'm writing can't have the conflict at the beginning. How late is too late to start the main conflict? How soon will the readers get bored with setting the stage for the conflict and introducing the characters?

  4. This post reminded me about self publishing--what do you think about it as opposed to "normal" publishing?

  5. Sophia--I think you can delay the main conflict as long as there is conflict. Anyone else have thoughts about this?

    Dragon-Dudette--I'm not an expert, but I Googled the topic and found this link: I just skimmed some of it, and it looked worth reading. Also, there's a Wikipedia entry on the subject.

  6. Reading these posts have been so fun! Thanks so much for them!
    Sophia- I agree with mrs. Levine. ;)
    I actually just read the last post too- very interesting. ;)

  7. Sorry, this has nothing to do with the post! You see, I have a problem. In my last book, the beginning was really good. The conflict is introduced on the second page. For 15 pages, it's all exciting and keeps the reader's interest. After that, it goes downhill. The first 50 pages cover one week. During that week the MC never leaves the apartment he's in, and the only action is his conversations with the others that live in that room and the secrets he learns about them (of which there are many). The reason for that is because he's been kidnapped, and I needed all that time to learn about the kidnappers, who become co-MC's, and to make them seem likable, as they are actually good guys. The trouble is, readers start to get board. They tell me that they like knowing all this about the kidnappers, but it seems a little dragged-out, although they can never tell me what I should omit. I guess all I'm asking is, how do I know what to cut, and how do I keep the reader's interest until AFTER the 50 page mark, when the action kicks up again?

    1. Sounds like you need to increase the tension. Maybe a scene of near escape like welliewalks suggested, or have the kidnappers say/do something that could be interpreted as good or bad (so the MC worries, and thereby the reader worries). Maybe something is as stake and the longer the MC is missing the more dire the situation back home. Increase stress for the MC and you'll increase the interest for the reader.

  8. writeforfun- how do you know that the reader gets bored? it sounds pretty interesting to me :). you could add a scene in which the MC almost escapes. or the kidnappers almost get found out. something like that. :) hope this helps!

  9. Hi Mrs. Levine! I think you wrote something awhile back about writting our own Forgive Me I Ment to Do It poems & I recently came up with one:

    I'm sorry to cause you all this stress,
    and that I made your bathroomone big mess.
    I overflowed your bathtub with bubbles
    though I knew it would cause you troubles.
    But I admit it was fun to stay
    in that bubbly bath for half the day.
    So I wrote this poem to express,
    how sorry I am for the bubbly mess.
    Fogive me, I ment to do it.

  10. Just out of curiosity, did Aza ever get rid of her marble toe? It's not mentioned at the end of Fairest, and I was wondering. By the way, Fairest should be made into a movie. :)

  11. writeforfun--I'm with April and welliewalks. And I'm adding your question to my list.

    Inkling--I like it too! Thanks for posting.

    Maddie--She has the marble toe forever. And I agree about the movie, but someone else needs to make it.

  12. Welliewalks, April, and Gail - thank you! It's kind of a tricky situation, because it's hard to know what's necessary and what's not, and I'm not really sure what I could add (although those are good suggestions - thanks! I will try them out). It would be great if I could just knock that week down to thirty pages, but I'm clueless on what to cut. It all seems important to me!

  13. writeforfun-- if you really wanted to mix it up, alternate viewpoints with the kidnappers! Then you can explain whatever's in their head while they're, I don't know, tying him up-- it would be hilarious if one was really apologetic, like, "I'm so sorry! Would you like me to loosen the duct tape?" because if they really are good guys, make them seem so. A good example is in the beginning of Claim to Fame by Margaret Peterson Haddix, in which Lindsay gets "kidnapped" by these two teenage guys who think they're actually helping her, and are totally feeling bad about it.
    Sounds fascinating!

  14. Lark - actually, the viewpoint thing is a really good idea! I would have to be careful not to give away certain things in their thoughts, but the viewpoints could give little hints and make the reader wonder. Great suggestion! And yes, there are a couple kidnappers that would totally feel bad about it like that! I love it!