The big, big sky of craft

July 20, 2010

Last summer I ate pancakes with Jandy Nelson.
We were staying at Betsy’s, a delightfully eccentric guest house down the road from Vermont College of the Fine Arts in Montpelier. A group of us were round the homespun table, laden with Vermont-style breakfast goodies. I’m kind of rough that time in the morning, but raised my bleary eyes from the maple syrup long enough to say to my neighbor, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah, who are you?’

She beamed her big smile, swished her glorious hair and told me she was Jandy.

Jandy?! Jandy as in Nelson? As in author of THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE which everyone was talking about and which had just sold to Dial and Walker UK? The very same.

Caramba, it was the breakfast motherlode!

That book has been on my wishlist for months, and I finally bought it the other day, along with a mouth-watering stack of others: Kathi Appelt’s KEEPER, Patrick Ness’s THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO. And one illicit pleasure – THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters. (Illicit because adult reading is sequestered to vacations only – pressure of the industry forces this.) Even more slip-smackingly good, these are REAL BOOKS, all glossy jackets and creamy, strokeable paper. Take that, boring old Kindle, you utilitarian and dreary text purveyor!

I opened SKY with reverence. Jandy Nelson has an MFA in poetry; an MFA in writing fiction for children and teens. She’s loaded with learning, she’s smart as a whippet, beautiful as a flag – oh, and in her spare time she’s a literary agent. (Do you ever feel a little . . . inadequate?)

This book is gorgeous. Every word is to be savoured. Every word has intent. If character were a suitcase waiting to be filled with language, then Jandy’s travel items are packed to the brim with brightly coloured garments. You can tell she’s a poet – she writes with miraculous concision, and personality and originality burst out of every line like a peony. Good grief, even her Acknowledgements are sumptuous!

THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE is just one lesson among many in the art of writing. Considering every word. Avoiding cliché as if it’s leprous. Not relying on overwriting – ie, barrages of adjectives and adverbs in an attempt to make the writing ‘powerful’. Deftly wielding your literary paintbrush to create character. Showing, showing, showing rather than just telling your reader. Finding new ways to bring to life a subject (loss of a sibling) that has been fictionalized many times before, so the reader feels it’s brand new. Making us see the world in a different way.

If you’re a new writer, you won’t learn everything in this book, but you can learn a heck of a lot.

THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE has been retrospectively added to my list of ‘best books of 2009’. And because I like supporting great new authors, here’s the Amazon link so you can flourish your credit cards:

Reading excellent books is essential, I find. A kind of cleansing of the palate; a reminder of how a great claret really tastes. Why we are doing what we do, and how we can do it better. And to that end I’m also starting to study the craft of writing myself, so that I can better help you guys who are toiling in the vineyards. I know lots of you enjoyed my HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL series (see back issues of blog) and have said how little access you have to this kind of advice. So let’s try to keep it going as and when we can.

I have just started on FROM WHERE YOU DREAM – The Process of Writing Fiction – by Robert Olen Butler. It comes highly recommended by many ‘serious’ writers, including Greenhouse clients, so I offer it up to you also as a learning tool.

I love this early quote: ‘Before I wrote my first published book , I wrote literally a million words of absolute dreck. Five god-awful novels, forty dreadful short stories, and a dozen truly terrible full-length plays. I made all those fatal errors of process I would bet my mortgage you’re making now. I want to help you get around that. But you’ve got to open up and listen to me about this.’

OK, Mr Butler, Pulitzer-Prize winner. I am all ears – for the myriad aspiring writers who frequent this Greenhouse site. For the hundreds of manuscripts I read each year. For the thousands of submissions that arrive in the same timespan. For the very, very few whom we can truly launch into a new career as a professional author.

Bring it on, Mr Butler. We’re ready to learn about craft while kneeling in the vicinity of your shoes.

And here’s to you, Jandy Nelson, whose sky is spacious, glowing, and indeed everywhere.

We are ready to learn.

P.S. For those of you who are interested: The big-sky shots on this post are 1) me on the cliff path in Dorset, England, looking across to Lyme Regis. 2) Somewhere off the California coast, near Monterey.