Christopher Swiedler

the charactery

Category: Middle-grade

IN THE RED

Hey! So my first book, IN THE RED, is coming out March 24, 2020, from HarperCollins. Working with Chris, Sarah, and Tara from Harper, as well as my wonderful agent Bridget Smith, has been a great experience.

I’m thrilled at the awesome cover that Harper has put together for IN THE RED! Now all I have to do is wait 18,921,600 seconds for it to be on bookshelves.

 

 

There are really just three steps to learning how to write well

Writing is hard.

Boy, howdy, is it hard. There are a million things you need to learn if you want to master the craft. There’s big, story-level stuff like character arcs, plotting, theme, and pacing. There’s small, line-level skills like writing clearly, using proper grammar, and not overusing your favorite part of speech (whether that’s adjectives, adverbs, or participle phrases).

But really, there are only three basic steps to becoming an accomplished writer. (And two of them are the same thing.)

Don’t believe me? Here they are.

Step One: Write something as well as you can

“Oh, is that all?” you might say. “Just write well?” Except I’m not saying you need to write something at any particular level—just that you write it as well as you can. It doesn’t have to be David Copperfield. It doesn’t have to be anything other than the best you can do.

It’s still easier said than done! Writing something to the best of your ability means not putting up with anything less than your best.  It means taking everything you’ve learned so far and applying it to the entire story. It means rewriting sketchy passages until they’re as polished as you can make them. It means trying to get your characters as human as you know how to make them. It means making it your very best.

It also means finishing. Not just finishing the first draft (and aye, that’s hard enough) but taking the time to clean it up so that it’s consistent. It means not stopping with your rewrites until there are no areas that you know how to make better.

I know this seems blindingly obvious, but it’s important. You can only fix problems that you know how to fix. Furthermore, you won’t know how to fix every problem until you’ve mastered the craft (and maybe not even then). You have to force yourself to solve the problems you know how to solve, while also not beating yourself up about the problems you don’t know how to solve.

Curtis Sittenfeld said it much better than I can:

“It’s OK to let your book be [finished] if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be [finished] if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.”

I’m paraphrasing, here, since she wrote “published” instead of “finished,” but the same principle applies.

So you’ve completed step one! Congratulations. You’ve written something that you can justifiably be proud of, whether it’s your first time at the keyboard or whether this is your tenth novel in ten years. You’ve looked it over and found no problems that you know how to fix. What do you do now?

Step Two: Learn how to make it better

You figure out some of those problems you don’t know how to fix. You figure out how to make it even better.

Once again, this is easier said than done. Didn’t you just write this to the best of your ability? Didn’t you stop precisely because you couldn’t make it any better? Well, yeah. Except you know that it can get better, in a hundred different ways. You just don’t know precise solutions yet. And it’s now your job to figure some of those out.

The first thing you need to do is set it aside for a few months. When you come back to it, you’ll have a much more objective eye, and poorly-written passages will stand out like sore thumbs. Or a particular plot arc (one that you were so proud of) will make you roll your eyes.

But in the meantime, you need to get help from other people. Read books, attend classes, go to conferences and seminars. Ingest their advice like an elixir of learning and store it in your belly. Take notes, highlight, bookmark, record. When you go back to your manuscript, take your notes and see how they apply to your story. You’ll likely find a half-dozen ways to use the advice to improve your manuscript.

Even better: get people to read your story! Preferably, get critiques from other writers who are at least as accomplished as you are. There are a lot of online critique groups which will help you do exactly this. Your fellow writers will helpfully (and constructively) point out a dozen more major things you can do to improve your story. Remember, though, that it’s their job to convince you of things that need to change. You’re not looking for someone to hand down edits from on high. You’re looking for someone to show you what things aren’t working and suggest fixes. Most of the time, you won’t take their fixes exactly as suggested. But their suggestions will spark ideas of your own for how to improve the piece. And more importantly, their feedback will help you understand how to write better, meaning that even if you never actually go back and revise this particular manuscript, you’ve still advanced your knowledge of the craft.

Which brings us to the final (?) step…

Step Three: Do it again

In Step One, you worked on your manuscript until there were no problems left that you knew how to solve. In Step Two, you spent months learning how to fix things that you suspected were broken and finding out about new types of problems that you didn’t even know existed.

Now you put that knowledge to use by looping back around and writing again.

It doesn’t have to be the same manuscript. It’s up to you whether you spend time improving something you’ve already written versus starting on a new project. Sometimes you’ll spend months learning and yet still feel like there’s no specific way to improve the manuscript you’ve just finished. In that case, move on! Start something new.

But a lot of the time, you’ll come back to that manuscript with a mental list of the things you can do better. It’s almost like those daydreams you have about how much better you could do high school if you could do it all over again. (Everyone has those daydreams, right?) You’ve gained wisdom. You’ve gained confidence. You’ve leveled up.

And so whether you start a new project or rewrite an old one for the umpteenth time, you’re writing better. That’s the only thing that matters.

When you look back at something you wrote ten years ago, what’s your first thought? I’ll bet it’s oh, man, I can do so much better than this now. That’s the one-and-only sign of becoming an accomplished writer. There’s no reliable way to measure yourself in any absolute sense. But you can certainly measure yourself relative to your skill in the past. And if that writing you see in your rearview mirror always makes you scream holy cow I’m better than that, then you’re learning your craft.

To put it another way, it doesn’t matter where you are as a writer right now. The only thing that matters is your trajectory. If you’re improving, and you keep working at it, you’ll keep improving. You’re upward-bound. Think of it like this: would you rather have $100 now, or $10 per year for twenty years? Growth is the thing that matters, not your current skill. If you keep growing as a writer, you will eventually achieve your goals. Full stop.

I freely admit that I’ve glossed over nearly all of the important details about writing. This advice, on its own, is almost useless. You’ll need to study and follow the guidance of writers who are much better than I am if you’re going to actually accomplish any of this.

And yet.

That advice can be overwhelming, frustrating, and painful, because you can’t always follow it. You’ll pore over a book on writing better dialogue, and then you’ll apply it, and you’ll say wow I still screwed that up. It takes a long, long time to learn everything there is to know about even a small part of the craft of writing.

But you can always follow these three steps. Nothing can ever stop you. Write, improve, write again. When everything else seems bleak, you can look back and know that you’ve learned something new and put that knowledge to use. If you keep following that path, you’ll always get where you want to go.

from the lather-rinse-repeat-dept

Best middle-grade book you’ve never heard of: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Latham, won the Newbery Medal in 1956, but since then it seems to have slipped into obscurity. An aunt gave it to me for my eleventh birthday, and while it didn’t seem terribly interesting based on the cover, I was fortunately at an age where I would read just about anything, so I lay down on my bed, set the book on my chest, and cracked it open.

A full explanation of the story wouldn’t have gotten me much more interested, either: a historical novel about a mathematician from the eighteenth century? Meh. But Latham does a fabulous job of endearing the reader to young Nat Bowditch, who was born near Boston just before the start of the Revolutionary War. His mother and  grandmother die at the start of the story, and a sister and brother not long after–if there’s one thing this book teaches you, it’s how fragile life was before modern medicine–and Nat is left with his father and older sister. Nat demonstrates a knack for mathematics, to the point where he’s punished by a schoolteacher who doesn’t believe he’s actually solving arithmetic problems on his own.

Nat dreams of going to Harvard, but is forced to quit school to help his father with the bookkeeping at their cooperage. When the business is sold–“lock, stock, and bookkeeper,” as the new owner jokes, Nat becomes an indentured servant, meaning he won’t be free to go to Harvard (or anywhere else) for nine long years.

This is where the main theme of the book starts to show through: when life throws up obstacles, the only thing you can do is just find your way around them. A fellow bookkeeper complains that he and Nat are ‘becalmed,’ but Sam, an older captain, tells Nat that when the wind dies, a ship has to ‘sail by ash breeze:’

Nat asked, “How do you sail by ash breeze?”

Sam grinned. “When a ship is becalmed, the wind died down, she can’t move, sometimes the sailors break out their oars. They’ll row a boat ahead of the ship and tow her. Or they’ll carry out anchors and heave them over, and the crew will lean on the capstan bars and drag the ship up to where the anchors are heaved over. Oars are made of ash–white ash. So when you get ahead by your own get up and get, that’s when you sail by ash breeze.”

Nat takes Sam’s advice to heart and sets about learning Latin, French, and Portuguese with the help of people he meets around Boston. He gets access to a local library and teaches himself mathematics.

When he’s finally releases from his indentured servitude, he goes to sea as a “supercargo,” a term for anyone who isn’t able to directly help with the mechanics of sailing. He’s tasked with keeping the books for the ship’s trade, but he develops an interest in the mathematics of celestial navigation. Many sailors of the time prefer traditional dead-reckoning because they don’t understand or trust the newer mathematical techniques. Nat tries to reassure them that math can be trusted, but he has a hard time winning anyone over.

One night, while reviewing the primary navigation text of the day, The New Practical Navigator by John Moore of the English Royal Navy, Nat finds an error in one of its tables. He bursts into his captain’s stateroom:

Captain Prince jumped to his feet. “What’s happened?

“I found an error in one of Moore’s tables!”

Prince looked at him in utter disgust. “Is that what you came slamming in here about? An error in which table?”

Nat told him.

Prince gave a short laugh. “My dear Mr. Bowditch, Moore didn’t compute that table. Do you know who did? Nevil Maskelyne, the royal astronomer of England!”

“I can’t help who computed it!” Nat barked. “There’s an error!” He showed Prince his page of figures. “There! I checked it! See? Why didn’t Moore check those figures before he accepted them?”

Prince looked at the paper covered with Nat’s tiny figures. “All that, to find one error? And there are probably two hundred thousand figures in those tables. Maybe that’s why he didn’t check every figure, Mr. Bowditch.”

“But he should have! Mathematics is nothing if it isn’t accurate! Men’s lives depend on the accuracy of those tables! It’s, it’s, criminal to have a mistake in a book like this! Do you hear me! It’s criminal! Men’s lives depend on these figures!”

Nat invents a new way of calculating a ship’s position by sighting the moon and eventually decides to write his own navigation text, and spends years of his life making sure that it is accurate enough for sailors to rely on. He becomes a captain of his own ship, and demonstrates the usefulness of mathematical navigation by sailing to trading ports around the world.

This book was engrossing enough that I’m pretty sure I read it five or six times as a teenager. I suppose I knew that it was more-or-less historically accurate, but I didn’t realize at the time how important Nat Bowditch was to sailing and navigation. The book he published in 1802, The American Practical Navigator, is still carried on every commissioned US Navy vessel. When doing research on celestial navigation for a science-fiction novel, I read through online forums which referred to Bowditch’s book. I felt proud, as if I’d just heard about the triumphant success of an old grade-school friend. These sailors and navigators might know everything about Nathanial Bowditch’s navigation text, but they didn’t know Nat Bowditch like I did.

filed under newbery-gets-it-right