Myth: Writers don’t need to worry about spelling because their editors will take care of it for them.
Truth: Writers care about their ideas and communicating those ideas clearly to their readers. They use every tool they can to explore their ideas, in draft after draft, often inventing a new process for each novel they’re writing. They cut and shift around chapters, write in and delete characters, streamline plot threads, lop off endings, try new ones, and get lost in research of obscure facts. They confer with their editors about their characters’ motivations, how best to show a character’s change of heart, when an emotion is convincingly earned, and whether a love triangle is worth including. In all this thinking about characters and story, the writer is using words on a page, and as the draft comes closer and closer to being ready for readers, the writer focuses more and more on clearing up any ambiguity, including catching any misspelled words. The editor catches what she can, too, and when the book is as polished as they can make it, they send it to the copyeditor and the proofreader, who check for consistency of details, spelling, usage, and grammar. Then the editor and writer read the manuscript again to see if they can catch any other distractions.
So spelling matters. It’s just a very small piece of what it takes to write a novel.
Curiously, some beginning writers and teachers focus on correcting misspelled words even before ideas are developed. This is probably because spelling errors are so obvious and easy for teachers to see. The risk, unfortunately, is that some students come to believe that writing is mainly about being told they’re doing it wrong. They worry about having their mistakes circled when they could be rejoicing in telling a story. They’re putting their audience (the teacher) before their creativity.
If I could, I would say to these writers, just write the words however they come. Get them down. Plunge off the gangplank into the sea of your story, and think about the spelling later, after your character has learned to swim.
Long ago, when my nieces and nephews first came on the scene, my husband suggested that we stake out territory as the aunt and uncle who always send books for gifts. It was the perfect decision. We love the kids, and books, and giving. We live far from our families, so it was harder to create bonds with kids we seldom saw, and being book-senders gave us an identity that would have been diffused if we’d sent a toy one year and toe socks the next. Books led to conversations with the parents beforehand and with the kids afterward, and over time, we’ve built a tradition that feels special, at least to me.
As I’m thinking about books to send to 24 nieces and nephews this holiday, here is a look at some of the favorites we’ve sent over the years. A few are out of print and worth a search, but most are contemporary and easy to order. The real nieces and nephews have their own personalities and interests, but for the sake of simplicity, here I’ve compiled titles into one list each for a favorite niece and a favorite nephew, by age.
Age, Title, Author
1 Bath Time, S. Boynton
2 How Many Bugs in a Box?, D. Carter
3 The Game of Finger Worms, H. Tullet
4 The Red Book, Lehman
5 Giants Come in Different Sizes, J. Bradfield
6 The Mysterious Benedict Society, T. Stewart
7 Don’t Feed the Boy, I. Latham
8 The Invasion (Animorphs #1), K. Applegate
9 No Dogs Allowed, B. Wallace
10 Hatchet, G. Paulsen
11 The Dark Game: True Spy Stories, P. Janeczko
12 Trapped, M. Northrup
13 Crash, J. Spinelli
14 Homeland: The Dark Elf Trilogy (Drizzt #1), R. Salvatore
15 I Sing the Body Electric, R. Bradbury
16 Ship Breaker, P. Bacigalupi
17 The Things a Brother Knows, D. Reinhardt
18 Life of Pi, Y. Martel
19 Something Like Normal, T. Doller
For a Favorite Niece
1 Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks A-Z, R. Scarry
2 Mirette on the High Wire, E. McCully
3 The Fourteen Bears in Summer and Winter, E. Scott
4 Sam and the Firefly, P. Eastman
5 The Castaway Pirates, A Pop-Up Tale, R. Marshall
6 Emma’s Rug, A. Say
7 The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, C. Van Allsburg
8 A Little Princess, F. Burnett
9 Ella Enchanted, G. Levine
10 The Tale of Despereaux, K. DiCamillo
11 Yolonda’s Genius, C. Fenner
12 Alanna (Song of the Lioness #1), T. Pierce
13 Mouse Guard: Fall 1152, D. Petersen
14 Shadow and Bone, L. Bardugo
15 Please Ignore Vera Dietz, A. King
16 Every Day, D. Levithan
17 The Knife of Never Letting Go, P. Ness
18 The Mists of Avalon, M. Bradley
19 Girl with a Pearl Earring, T. Chevalier
When you throw a stone in the water, the ripples spread outward in predictably widening circles. When you throw a stone in a novel, it has ripple effects, too, especially if the stone kills somebody off. This makes sense as long as I’m writing from the beginning to the end of a novel, in order, but sometimes when I’m revising, I add an event later in the book and realize I have to go back in, earlier, to set it up. In such a case, I’m working from the ripples back to the stone.
It’s kind of fun. I especially like working with ripples where plot and setting dovetail. For fictional space to feel natural to me, my characters need to inhabit a location (like a tower or a basement) more than once. It makes me feel grounded to return to a familiar place, and I like to play with patterns where the place is the same but the stakes keep rising.
A clear example of this happens in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace when Gene and Finny keep returning to a tree beside a river. Gene is terrified and resentful that he must climb the tree, step out along a high limb, and jump into the water, time after time. The activity parallels his relationship with Finny and ultimately leads to disaster.
In my own latest novel, my characters keep circling back to certain key locations, and it’s interesting to me how first impressions of a place change as the risks there become more dangerous. My characters aren’t repeating the same routine, as Gene did, but they engage with the locations by climbing them, or working there, or in one case, dropping pebbles down a pit. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, and that will in turn cause more ripples.
She grew with the rest of the tree, part of its wooden trunk, content to support the limbs and leaves above and suck up the sap from the roots below. She was tree, mindless and free. Bugs crawled over her belly. Birds hopped over her, scouring for the bugs, but she felt no tickle. Winters came and passed while she felt no chill, and spring with its new leaves brought no joy.
Yet all that time, her shape was forming. She was gradually separating from the rest of the trunk. Her arms came free, her torso began its supple twist, and her legs tensed, ready to take a first step. For ages she was caught that way in expectation, not free but no longer mindless tree, either. She had no way to guess what she might become.
Then, one day, a human child passing through the forest paused to ponder the tree. The lady inside absorbed the power of the child’s gaze, and felt the parallel amazement when the child’s face lit with discovery. “There’s a lady in the tree!” For the first time, the lady recognized the human shape that mirrored her own, and in that instant, she glimpsed the awful, wonderful truth: she was not tree.
Then her true prison consumed her as it never had before. The child left the forest, and the lady was unable to follow her. Her arms extended higher to sprout into more branches. Her legs, never fully formed, stayed locked in the stubborn cells of wood, while her face, just when she was trying hardest to breathe, closed its mouth forever.
Her brain is fried, and she’s been sitting in the same chair for hours and hours. The house is quiet, it’s late, and the responsible adult in her tells her she ought to quit writing and go to bed. But she doesn’t. She hangs on, rereading sentences, pondering words, taking a long time to make small decisions and knowing as she labors that she’ll unravel the decisions in the morning at a stroke. In time, she starts to type with her eyes closed, so she can see the scene better, but she needs her eyes open enough to see the letters on the screen, so she squints and slow-blinks at them, like someone in a trance.
It’ll be just as bad once she puts the computer aside and shuffles to bed, because though the novel will be left behind sulking, a pad of paper will be within reach, and she’ll keep the light on, muddling over titles, as if the brilliant idea that has eluded her for months will hit her just as she’s letting go.
Then, even if she can reach the light switch and release the pen, she’ll be too tired to go to sleep. The novel will bumble around in her dumb brain for hours, deep into the night, never satisfying her and never letting her go.
She tried to set a rule for herself, back in the daylight, when she was still in charge. No writing after 9 o’clock pm. She thought a reasonable limit would give her a chance to disengage before she went to bed. But she breaks her rule all the time.
What is this obsession? Why does she feel this urgency to keeping pushing and pushing at the same recalcitrant novel? Why is she sucked in so many nights to the slippery, childish side of her that can’t let go? A new star, ages away, rolls in the black universe and sends its velvet light her way. This gift she senses only after the tipping point.
Visiting family in Minnesota this past weekend, I was delighted when my little nephew presented me with a gift: a winged figurine called “Courage.” He’s a sweet little guy in preschool who knows me primarily as the aunt who tickles, and I was touched that he thought of me at all, let alone in terms of spontaneously picking out a present for me. And courage, of all things! It’s exactly what I need just now.
My latest step of going forward with my writing has involved deleting the last third of my novel. I came to this realization when I was discussing the book with my editor last week, and now I’m searching forward into new, unexplored territory. Each book I write seems to involve its own process, and here I am inventing another one. For now, I’ve physically stepped back from the draft that lives in my computer. I’m working with pen on paper, writing notes and questions, spreading out the pages around my new courage figurine to look for patterns.
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably seen I spend a lot of time not knowing how ideas will come together. That’s what I’m doing again, so it’s familiar, but this time it’s also new, because these are new ideas that aren’t yet coming together. That’s progress.
I don’t add unicorns to my novels, but sometimes I can tell that a scene needs something more. The stakes need to be higher. A surprise needs to occur. A bone needs to get snapped. Last week, I tried adding a dead sister to my novel. For a whole day, I played around with how that could tie certain threads together and add resonance to family scenes, and then I realized I was crazy. It would mean telling an entirely different story from the one I’m telling. Dead sisters cannot casually be thrown into this novel. They would take over, emotionally, even if they’ve been dead for a while, and this is not a book about grief. I should know this. I do know this. But I’m experimenting, and anything is fair game.
I like my book. I do. It fascinates me and keeps me up nights, but none of this means I have it figured out yet. This creative puzzle is a stubborn, unyielding one, and all I know for sure is that the thinking I’ve done so far has set up nice problems, but not the answers. For answers, I need to cast out for other ideas, likely and unlikely, and play them around, which means maintaining an open-minded spirit of hope.
Let’s count this as progress. The dead sister is gone again, taking that day of work with her, but she left a teddy bear behind, and I wouldn’t have found the bear without her. Maybe today I’ll get another idea that’s just the one I need.
I have guy characters in this novel who are not doing what they’re supposed to do. They manipulate the system, they’re preoccupied by computer games, they smell like work, they talk back to adults, they take stupid risks, they’re restless, they’re competitive, and their timing is awful. They’re also thoughtful, generous with small things and big, intensely creative, loyal to their families, and fierce. One is good at kissing in the rain. Another is funny.
I know, as a writer, I should line up one of these guys in a proper swoony relationship with my teen girl protagonist, or work them all into a tight little triangle, but every single one of us is resisting. The guys could care less what I think. The girl is busy with bigger issues.
And yet, when certain people show up in a scene together, I can feel tiny charged particles zipping around, pushing and pulling the characters away from and toward each other. It hurts, somehow, and it’s fun, too. I wish I knew what was going to happen.
Maybe that’s a good sign.