This summer I’ve been ploughing through bestselling children’s books. Sadly, many of them were disappointments. I had to drag myself through some, and some I just had to put down. Others I raced through, skimming, skipping till I got to the good parts, and then limping again when through more not-so-good parts. Then suddenly today, I put down quite a good contemporary book that I was halfway through and picked up a classic that I had been yearning to read.
I wasn’t reading the classic because it was by my favorite author and it was old and it was exactly the kind of book I’ve always liked to read, and so not at all in line with my mission to really know the current YA market, to read as much and as widely as possible. But today I just thought if I’m at a natural stopping point with this one book, why not go on reading with another and then come back?
And when I did start to read Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, I was amazed. From the first line, I was hooked. It didn’t matter that there was no opening action, that the heroine was not a strong female protagonist, and that it didn’t open in scene. I also suspect that Diana Wynne Jones didn’t come back after the book was finished and rewrite the entire opening to make it do all the things that would make a reader pick it up and keep going. Evidently, there is something else about a book that makes a reader keep going, other than a screaming book commercial promising high concept and flying action. I am not at all sure what it is about the contemporary YAs out there that makes a resistant reader instantly pick them up because it’s making me into a very resistant reader indeed. On the other hand, when I return to a book I love, I am instantly lost in it all over again and I can’t put it down.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare contemporary books to classics that have been culled out of their period through years of selection by millions of readers. And to be fair, which I often forget to be, there are many, many contemporary books that I absolutely admire that I think will stand the test of time. But still. I think all of this hyper focus on what sells a book and how to be super commercial and super attractive and make first impressions on a resistant audience might be slightly mislaid, if only because it makes a very jumpy writer out of me.
I think in one of my nighttime ramblings through blogs on writing I happened upon a quote by Jerry Spinelli, which I can’t find now. But to misquote Spinelli, I think he said something like he had been writing carefully for years until he realized that writing is a dance. So then he started write really fast.
Okay, I found it. The interview is from Cynsations. And here is what Spinelli really said: “Space Station Seventh Grade (1982) was my first published book–and the fifth that I had written. The first four provoked enough rejection slips to paper our house. In those days, I think I tried to be perfect. I remember once taking a month to craft a single metaphor. Somewhere along the line I must have discovered that writing isn’t mathematics. It’s not marching, it’s dancing. The faster I wrote the better I got.”
I love that. Of course! It’s a dance, which means as a writer you have to let go, and you have to return to a place of imagination, which is outside of all structuring and reasoning, and definitely marketing, a place that only the devil can access. So I am going back to that place, and the writers who reside there.
Here is the opening of Howl’s Moving Castle: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league books and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”