Finale My Books

First off, the lovely reviews that Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It has gotten are now posted on the website. You can visit them, if you like, and rejoice with me!

I believe this is the final post about my books, at least until more questions accumulate. The first questions come from Elizabeth: Does A Tale of Two Castles take place in the same world as Ella Enchanted? And does Ever take place in the same world as Ella Enchanted? Basically, how are all the different countries in your books related to each other and which ones are?
Fairest and Ella Enchanted take place in the same world although not in the same kingdoms. Fairest is set in Ayortha and Ella in its neighbor Kyrria. The languages are different, but the exotic creatures (ogres, gnomes, elves, giants) and the fairies are the same. A Tale of Two Castles takes place in an entirely different world,in the kingdom of Lepai, likewise Beloved Elodie and any other books I may write about Elodie and the dragon Meenore. Ever unfolds in a fantasy version of ancient Mesopotamia and The Two Princesses of Bamarre in Bamarre of course. The fairies in the Disney Fairies books flit about in the Never Land of Peter Pan, which was created by James M. Barrie. My Princess Tales romp through the kingdom of Biddle.

I enjoy inventing worlds and especially making up fairy tale and mythical creatures. What can my ogres or my fairies be like this time? I wonder and start writing down possibilities. I think about the roles that the creatures are going to play in my story. For instance, I needed a detective in A Tale of Two Castles, so I gave the job to the dragon. Lately, my medieval fantasies incorporate facts about daily life during the period, but I’m not reliable – don’t count on me for a research paper!

And Caitlin Flowers wrote, ….I know that it took you nine years to get Ella Enchanted published, but what was it like writing the book? How did you think of all the languages? And how did you turn the classic story of Cinderella into something so new and exciting?

Thank you. To take the last question first, the newness comes from the curse, I think, which was merely a plot device to explain to myself Cinderella’s strange obedience and kindness to her horrible stepfamily. I didn’t understand or like her compliance or her unrelieved sweetness, so, after a couple of weeks of misery and writing in circles, I thought of a fairy’s gift, and then I had her. Ella’s magic book was another plot device to help me over the limitations of writing in first person. The book enabled me to drop hints about events Ella would otherwise have been ignorant of.

It took nine years to get anything published but not Ella, which I discussed last week. Much of the novel was written on the train, commuting home from my job in New York City. (On my morning commute, I slept.) Writing it wasn’t so different from writing any of my books. Some parts flew out of my fingers and others dripped out like little beads of sweat. If I remember correctly, the romantic parts with Char, like their letters or sliding down the stair rails, went smoothly, the languages, for example, not so much.

As for creating the languages, I wanted each one to sound different, so I gave the gnomes a lot of throat sounds and the giants those emotive noises. I made Ogrese soft and slithery, a sneaky tongue. Ayorthaian reminds me of Italian, in which most words ends in a vowel; in Ayorthaian they all begin and end with the same vowel. My teacher (I was taking a writing class) suggested that each should look different. Not all do, but Abdegi, the giants’ language, is interrupted often by whoops and hollers. In Ogrese all the double letters are capitalized, and Gnomic is capitalized and punctuated backwards. I kept a glossary. If a word appears twice it means the same thing in both places. I didn’t do much with grammar, though. My languages aren’t linguistically real, like, for example the tongue of the Na’vi in movie Avatar. My languages weren’t hard to write, just dull. But I’m glad I put them in. I think they make the book richer, and I love made-up languages when I read.

The last question goes with this from writeforfun ….how did you make up all the names in your books, like some of the ones for your fairies and the ones for the ogres and gnomes in Ella and Fairest? They are very original.
Some of them in Ella and Fairest derive from the languages. The human names in Fairest follow the Ayorthaian rule; they start with a vowel and end with the same vowel, like Aza and Ijori. Ivi’s name had to change from Ivy to Ivi when she came to Ayortha. The king’s name is Oscaro – take Oscar and add an o at the end. The ogre names are soft, while the gnome names are, to my ear, harsh. Gnomes themselves aren’t, but they are uncompromising, like their names.

Often I try for names that reflect something about the character, like the ogre in A Tale of Two Castles is Jonty Um, which comes from the French gentil homme, which means gentleman. But I don’t like to be obvious. I wouldn’t call a happy character Merry, for example. The young wizard in The Two Princesses of Bamarre is Rhys, which seemed like a mysterious name. For Beloved Elodie, I’m Googling German names.

Last question, this from Brianna: ….why was the ending of the Princesses of Bamarre so sad? (It was, in my opinion.) I think all of your other juvenile books have a relatively “happy” ending.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read Two Princesses and intend to, I suggest you jump to the prompts.

Yes, most of my other books end unambiguously happily, although there’s some bitter-sweet at the end of Ever. It’s funny; not everyone thinks the Two Princesses ending is sad. But some agree with you. I received a letter from a girl who had nightmares for months after reading it and wanted me to rewrite the book or write a sequel that fixed the ending.

Seemed to me that if Aza simply saved Meryl it would be too pat, too easy, disappointing. And if Meryl just died that would be just tragic and I hadn’t built up to a tragedy, and everything Aza had done would have come to nothing. So I found a middle way that satisfied me.

Last week the prompts were about fairies. Let’s try some with other creatures this time, a witch, two genies, a golden goose, a little gray man. Think about what these beings are usually like and see what you can come up with that’s different. Here goes:

•    In “Aladdin” there are two genies, the lesser genie of the ring and the more powerful genie of the lamp. Write a story about them and how their world intersects with the story. I’d like to know how the lamp genie can make an enormous, ornate, splendid palace overnight and how it feels to do so.

•    Donna Jo Napoli wrote Zel, a fascinating young adult retelling of “Rapunzel” that explains how the witch becomes the witch. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do, but only after you try the prompt, which is to write the witch’s back story and explain why she’s trapped Rapunzel in the tower.

•    My The Fairy’s Return is a version of “The Golden Goose.” In it I use the goose as a story prop, much as she’s used in the original fairy tale, and I substitute the fairy Ethelinda for the little gray man. Your challenge is to explain either the goose or the little old man or both. Reread the original fairy tale if you need to.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

More my books

News! Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is getting a lovely short review in The New York Times Book Review this coming Sunday, March 11th. I’m so happy! It will be great for the book.

Last week I overlooked this question from Charlotte about the Fairies books: Can fairies die of old age, or just disbelief/hawks/drowning/etc.?

In my idea of it these fairies don’t age. If disbelief, hawks, drowning, and so forth don’t get them they can go on forever. The fairies in Ella Enchanted, on the other hand, do age, but slowly. I never had to imagine fairy death in Ella’s world but I guess they can die of old age, probably not of disease – they would be able to cure themselves with unicorn-hair soup or something else. The fairies in The Two Princesses of Bamarre are probably immortal and probably never seem to get older, since they’re whirls of light, although I can’t be sure because the problem didn’t come up so I didn’t have to decide.

Next question, this one from Elizabeth: ….how long did it take you to write Writing Magic? It seems like it wouldn’t have taken very long, because you have so much writing advice stored up, but you never know!

You’re right. Writing Magic grew out of my writing workshops. The narrative was sitting in my head and the exercises were in my workshop notes. When I wrote, it all came pouring out, took about six months, which is quick for me. The publication was delayed, however, because the people at HarperCollins felt they could launch the book more successfully if they paired it with my next novel, which was Fairest, and that was not quick! The dual publication allowed me to tour for both books, whereas HarperCollins generally tours me only for my novels. And Writing Magic has found lots of readers and writers – oh, joy!

As I’ve mentioned here before, my editor and I are thinking about a second writing book, this one based on the blog, which should go quickly too, as it will be more of an assembly job and deciding which blog posts are worthy and which aren’t.

Back to Charlotte, who had more questions:

I was going to ask which is your favourite, but I think you’ve already said it’s Dave at Night. What’s your second favourite?

There are contenders for second place: Writing Magic, Ever, Ella Enchanted, The Princess Tales, especially Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep and For Biddle’s Sake. The Princess Tales don’t come up often here, but I’m very proud of them because they’re funny, and I love humor and I laughed my way through writing them.

And: How do you start a book? Like, do you have a bunch of tentative ideas and when you finish one you start working on another? And when do you tell your publisher what you’re doing? (You said you have x amount of time to finish Beloved Elodie, right? So there’s contracty stuff already?)

After I finish a book I give myself a little break, a few weeks generally. When I finish Beloved Elodie I plan to start excavating the pile of I-no-longer-know-what on my desk and cleaning out the closet downstairs where the ruined boots of winters past have collected. If I’m going to do the writing book next that will be easy to jump into, but when I start my next novel, yes, I will look over my list of idea notes. I hope the novel will be a third Elodie book, so I’ll be hunting for an idea I can frame as a mystery. If I don’t see anything in my notes that appeals to me, I’ll let my mind wander and take notes on anything it brings back. I may read a mystery or two. Often I reread fairy tales in my home collection. As I go along I write more notes. The ideas that appeal to me generate more musing and more writing than the others. Eventually I find most of my speculation settling on one big idea. The next thing that happens is that a beginning swims up to me. And I’m off.

There’s no set time when I tell my editor what I’m doing. I don’t make a secret of it. The contracty stuff specifies only that the book has to be fantasy, and of course it has to be a novel for kids. Rosemary (my editor) doesn’t have to approve my idea. Naturally, if I tell her and she spots a problem I want to know about it. For example, at one point I was considering extending a short story I wrote several years ago into a novel. I told her and she said there was a glut of dystopian books. What I had in mind was more utopian than dys, but I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to take the story. If I had worked it out (or if I do in the future) I would have had another conversation with her. After I explained what I wanted to do, if she thought it was still dystopian I might have held off on the idea until the dystopian craze faded.

And: Which is the more agonizing first draft–Two Princesses of Bamarre or Beloved Elodie? Or another one?

There are three contenders, the two you named and Fairest. Fairest might have been the worst. I couldn’t get the POV right. I thought I wouldn’t be able to write from Aza’s perspective because she’d be in a coma, so I tried it from the gnome zhamM’s, Prince Ijori’s, and third-person omniscient, and I wrote about 300 pages in each before realizing it wasn’t working. Finally I figured out the coma and I was able to have Aza tell her own story. I was able to use some of the 900 pages, but I had to recast everything.

On the other hand, whatever book I’m working seems toughest because the struggle is uppermost in my consciousness. Past pain fades.

On the third hand (hah!), each of these miserable books had its own delights too. In Two Princesses I loved fooling the reader with the specters and I loved writing the epic poem fragments. In Fairest writing the songs was a joy. In Beloved Elodie my favorite part is switching POVs chapter by chapter and finding voices for the four different speakers. Masteress Meenore’s dry voice is the most fun to write. And figuring out the mystery is fascinating, plus there’s some reader fooling here too.

And: Before you published Ella, were you feeling a bit lost, like you might not ever get published? Did you get that “why am I wasting my time on this?” feeling? The one where everyone looks at you funny because you’re the only person you know who’s writing a book on top of everything else?

Yeah, at around the nine-year mark I did get discouraged and thought of quitting. I don’t know how much longer I would have kept going, but then I got lucky and Harper accepted Ella. It’s even harder to get published today, I believe, when no publishers I know of look at unsolicited work. And yet people break in all the time. There’s hope, but writing and publishing both call for reserves of patience.

More questions from Charlotte and others next week.

Here are three prompts:

•    Fairies are absent from many fairy tales, like “Snow White” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” In some, however, they’re critical, like “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Toads and Diamonds.” Pick one of these tales with fairies and imagine a back story that causes the fairy or fairies to care about the plight of these particular humans. Invent your own species of fairies and write a back story scene or an entire novel in which the known fairy tale is only a small part of the action.

•    Imagine that Cinderella’s stepsisters have their own fairy godmothers. Rewrite the fairy tale and get these new fairies involved. What happens to them and to Cinderella? Heck, you can give everyone a fairy godmother: the stepmother, Cinderella’s father, the prince.

•    Speaking of beginnings, see what you can do with this (you can change any of it): Once upon a time a girl saw a dryad slip out of a tree. The tree was oak. The girl was eleven and her eleven-year-old beagle had just died.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Disney FAIRIES, of course

A few months ago, some questions came in about my books. Maybeawriter started it off with this: You know, I’ve been wondering about the Disney thing for ages, but for some reason never brought it up. I was wondering, how much did Disney give you as a jumping-off point, and how much was your own ideas? Was it your idea to make the sequels, or did Disney want you to? What about Vidia? How much of her was your idea? Do you feel annoyed that they changed her personality so much in the Tinker Bell movies? And the Tinker Bell movies as a rule. It grates on me every time somebody calls her “Miss Bell,” although it’s mostly this one fairy that you could argue is incomplete.

I adore Rani! She’s my favorite fairy, although Beck runs a close second. Water talent powers are just so awesome! In fact, if I got my wish to be able to switch between a human and a fairy whenever I wanted, I’d want to be a water talent. I also love Rani because was her selfless, noble sacrifice of her wings. – Sniff – It’s so beautiful!

Also… I think you said at some point that even though the fairy you named your sister after was your personal favorite, she wasn’t completely happy about it. I wonder, what could she possibly dislike about such a noble fairy?

And then Charlotte asked, also on the subject of the Disney Fairies books, Who chose David Christiana as the Fairies illustrator? Did you work with him in some capacity, or did your finished manuscript get shipped off to him for illustrations? Do you like what he did with it–are his illustrations true to what you imagined?

Three editors from Disney took me to lunch and proposed the idea of a series based on the fairies J. M. Barrie created in Peter Pan. I was interested because I adored the book as a child. The editors brought with them some drawings that had been done by Disney artists for one of their movies, Bambi, I think. Included in the drawings was one of a dove, which I loved. That dove became the inspiration for Mother Dove, although David Christiana’s interpretation of her is quite different, and I love his, too. Disney had been kicking around the idea for the series with their video department, and the editors also gave me proposed names of some fairy characters, one of which was a wicked fairy named Invidia. I didn’t like the In, so I shortened the name to Vidia, and that’s how she came about.

The only absolutes that Disney gave me were that Tinker Bell had to be in the story and Captain Hook couldn’t be. But I put him in anyway, only in the first draft I didn’t let him speak. I thought I might be able to get away with that. My editor asked for more Hook in the revisions!

My only absolute was editorial control. I had an editor, naturally. I need criticism! But not a word could be changed without my approval. The books I wrote are entirely mine. If you don’t like them, blame me. If you do, I take the bow.

I didn’t expect to write sequels, which was freeing. I knew there would be more books, but I thought other writers would write them. I enjoyed tossing in features that might give these future writers trouble, ha ha!, like the fact that fairies can’t fly with wet wings. Then, to my surprise, I was asked to write a second book and had to deal with the booby traps I’d built in!

Before I started writing, I reread Peter Pan and found that I still adore it. Barrie was a marvelously supple writer, who could make sentences do figure eights and turn cartwheels. I wanted to suggest a flavor of his writing but I found that I couldn’t imitate his style. The best I could do was to follow his habit of sprinkling the phrase of course willy-nilly throughout. If you’ve never read the original Peter Pan, I can’t recommend it highly enough no matter how old you are. If you have read it, I suggest you take another look and pay attention to Barrie’s sentences for their originality, fluidity, flexibility – they are triple-jointed!

More controlling than the few constraints imposed by Disney was my wish to do honor to Barrie. I hope that my Peter and my Hook are close cousins to his. The baby’s first laugh turning into a fairy comes directly from Barrie, likewise human disbelief killing fairies, and, of course, the clapping cure.

But the hundred years that divide my books from his also made some variation necessary. Barrie calls Tiger Lily and her tribe redskins, which would be objectionable today, so I eliminated this strand. And Tink’s only words in Peter Pan are “You silly ass!” She needed to say more and not that!

I watched the first movie, but I haven’t seen any after that. I’m not annoyed. Disney has the right to do as it pleases, and they know their market. I have Prilla call Tink Miss Bell in the first book, but Tink doesn’t like it.

Yes, Rani is my favorite, because of her deep feelings, her sympathy, enthusiasm, and generosity. My sister gave me permission to use her name, and I don’t think she’s entirely unhappy about the result.

I didn’t choose David Christiana. I’ve never picked any of my illustrators or cover artists. That’s generally the publisher’s purview, but I’ve rarely been disappointed (I like some covers more than others). I think David is a marvelous artist and illustrator and draftsman. Disney didn’t consult me on sketches either; I saw David’s work when it was finished or close to finished. We’ve since become friends, and when I wrote the second and third books, I emailed him secret hints of what I was doing. His illustrations weren’t what I imagined, which is fine, better maybe, for the surprise and for the insight into what my story brought out in one reader.

More about others of my books next week.

These prompts are based on Peter Pan. Questions have come up about using the prompts on the blog, and in general, go ahead. Write stories, novels, seven-book series. Publish them, and please let me know. It’s all good. In this case, however, a little caution: When I wrote the Disney Fairies books, the term of copyright for Peter Pan was at the edge of ending. The book may be in the public domain by now. If that’s the case, you can do whatever you like with Barrie’s characters, but not with the ones I wrote and the others in the Disney series, for which Disney owns the copyright. You can write anything for pleasure and for sharing with friends, family, teachers, but not for publication. So here goes:

∙    A submarine surfaces off the coast of Never Land. What follows is a meeting of modernity and the island. Write what happens.

∙    A UFO touches down on Never Land. Write the scene.

∙    Wendy, at eighteen, too old to fly over, starts sailing for the island. Write the story.

∙    Tootles and Curly, two Lost Boys, come down with a high fever. They’re close to death. Peter wants to save them. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!