word craft


Story Behind the Story #47: The Book Without Words

The Book Without WordsWhen the phone call came telling me that I had won the New­bery award for Crispin: The Cross of Lead, tru­ly, my very first thought was, The next book had bet­ter be good.

How to explain? It’s my expe­ri­ence that writ­ers, despite an out­ward appear­ance of cheer­ful belief in their own tal­ent, are quite often, in fact, inse­cure. It’s not hard to explain why: you sit alone and work for long peri­ods of time on a project. You are con­stant­ly think­ing, is this right? Is this any good? Will any­one like it? As one of my ear­ly men­tors told me: “To be a suc­cess­ful writer, you have go to bed think­ing what you’ve writ­ten is ter­rif­ic, as long as when you get up in the morn­ing you know how bad it is. To reverse the process is to go mad.”

And there is anoth­er lev­el of inse­cu­ri­ty. Win an award and the inter­nal (and eter­nal) ques­tion is inevitably, can I do that again? The painful truth is, prob­a­bly not. When a very young writer wins a major award, I tru­ly feel sor­ry for them. They may well be chas­ing that award for the rest of their writ­ing lives.

Hence my reac­tion to the New­bery award: The next book had bet­ter be good.

The next book I wrote was The Book With­out Words and, indeed, it proved one of the most dif­fi­cult books I have ever writ­ten. That was me chas­ing the award, want­i­ng so much to make it good.

That said, the book was well received, and enjoyed a recep­tion such as this Ama­zon post­ing: “This book has every­thing in it that my daugh­ter loves and she trea­sures this book! She orig­i­nal­ly got this book at the book fair when she was younger and it got mis­placed. She was ecsta­t­ic when I gave it to her to replace the one she lost years ago.”

The sto­ry, a medieval fan­ta­sy, deals with mag­ic and alche­my. The title comes from a medieval book, an absolute­ly blank book. Magi­cians would claim they could read the book, and bring forth spirits.

Not alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent, I once heard the poet Don­ald Hall explain what makes for good writ­ing:  “A good writer writes, as it were, some­thing shaped like the let­ter C. If the gap is too great, the read­er can­not fill it. If it is too small, there is no rea­son for the read­er to fill it. But if that gap is just right, the read­er fills it with their own expe­ri­ence and the writ­ing is complete. ”

It is rather like the proverb quot­ed in the begin­ning of The Book With­out Words: “A life unlived is like a book with­out words.”

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