A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. “Why it works” is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Feed was a much-loved and much-awarded young adult novel when it was published way back in 2002. What’s incredible about it now is how totally prescient it turned out to be.
Long before the advent of social media and when a lot of people were still on dial-up modems, Anderson predicted the warping power of hyper-tailored advertising and an always-connected online culture with uncanny accuracy.
But instead of focusing on its prescience, as remarkable as it is, I want to focus on other elements of Feed that I think make it work.
Building intimacy through quirky gestures
The book hinges on the relationship between two teens, Titus and Violet. Anderson does an amazing job of building a genuine feeling of connection between them. Making a relationship come alive is tricky, but Anderson does it splendidly.
One tool for making this happen: showing two characters understanding and mirroring each other’s weirdness. Here’s an exchange between Titus and Violet after he remarks on how much she writes:
I looked at her. “You’re one funny enchilada,” I said.
She nodded real quiet.
“Doesn’t your hand get all cramped up?” I asked. “Don’t you end up like, hook-hand?” I made hook-hand. She hook-hand. We pawed each other with hook hand.
She shook her head and smiled.
These are sweet and dorky gestures. With this mirroring and understanding, Anderson shows how they’re on the same wavelength.
Even the parents are affected by the setting
Feed has a very, very slangy style (The opening line: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck”), and I’ll be honest that I struggled with it at times. But there’s a very good reason for the heavy-handedness of the slang and Anderson utilizes it to great effect.
There’s an incredible payoff when Titus’ dad arrives to pick him up in the hospital after an accident, and you realize that even his dad is using the slang of this world, even more immaturely than Titus:
He stood there staring at me for a a few seconds, and I was like, “What? What?“
He seemed surprised, and then blinked. He said, “Oh. Shit. Yeah, I forgot. No m-chat. Just talking.”
I was like, “Do you have to remind me? What’s doing? How’s Smell Factor?”
“Your brother has a name.”
“She’s like, whoa, she’s like so stressed out. This is . . . Dude,” he said. “Dude, this is some way bad shit.”
This has an amazing effect. Rather than showing the typical contrast between childish slang and adult speech, when Titus’ dad uses even stronger slang you suddenly realize the extent to which the entire world has been warped by the Feed.
Letting characters be jerks
Without giving away too much of the plot, Violet eventually becomes ill and Titus really struggles to know what to do, partly because the Feed has so thoroughly warped how people deal with problems.
Rather than making Titus a magically kind and understanding person, Anderson just lets him struggle, to devastating effect. He’s a jerk, but we mostly forgive him because we can see how much he just doesn’t really know what to do.
Anderson mirrors some of the hand gestures from the beginning of their relationship, but this time to emphasize the distance:
We flew back. It was night. I had never been someplace with that much of angry in the air, like it was crammed. Like the whole air was buzzing. Like all of the lights on the dashboard were teasing us. We were hurtling forward, and it was like we were fueled by how much we hated each other.
She was crying. It made her ugly. She crossed her arms on her lap. I thought how ugly she was. Her one hand was limp, like a flipper.
I realized it wasn’t working anymore.
I closed my eyes. There was nothing but air in between us. I could say I was sorry. I was almost saying it. We were flying, and I was close to saying it, if only she wouldn’t say something sarcastic, something snotty, something about how she had watched us all and tried to be as dumb and fun as us. She looked really alone, sitting there in her seat, with the harness around her, and her crippled flipper-hand cradled between her legs so I wouldn’t see it.
This is a pretty brutal scene, and Anderson does just enough to show Titus’ competing impulses to retain some of our sympathy. But even though Titus is the narrator, Anderson isn’t afraid to let him be a jerk.
You can see why Feed was an award-winning novel. Even with a slangy style and a very sci-fi premise, Anderson is able to craft depth and nuance through these subtle moments.
Audible released a statement to Publishers Marketplace, arguing the technology “does not replicate or replace the print or eBook reading experience—small amounts of machine-generated text are displayed progressively a few lines at a time, while audio is playing, and listeners cannot read at their own pace or flip through pages as in a print book or eBook.” (Doubtful publishers will be satisfied with that.)
Meanwhile, it was a really disturbing, dustbin fire of a news week replete with heavy doses of racism and xenophobia from the president that I would feel remiss if I didn’t speak out about. One of the best analyses I read came from Doreen St. Felix at The New Yorker, who noted that white conservatives were trying to maintain the power to define the semantics of what can be called racist:
This is the dull semantics of racism. The white conservative twists the discursive field so that he is the sane arbiter of what is or isn’t racist; everyone else is frivolous and excessive, “recklessly” invoking the most sacrilegious offense. This logic rests on the illusion that racism is mythically rare, that “racist” is a dangerous slur rather than a common condition.
I don’t think it occurred to me that children don’t see themselves as adults do – perhaps on a subconscious level – and adults certainly don’t see themselves as children do, either. Children think that adults rather enjoy cleaning and cooking – after all, it’s the adults role to look after their children, and have their house looking great for visitors..
So children love to escape from that mundane world of routine and work into one that’s unpredictable and filled with fun and adventure and whimsy. For adults, its finding romance and philosophies that are life-changing, but for children it’s turning into that mysterious lane, or exploring that colourful forest and happening upon wonderful surprises and magical characters who are happy to focus their time and energy upon them in an engaging and imaginative way.
Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I’ll present the query without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.
Random numbers were generated, and thanks to SarahWrites, whose query is below:
I am seeking representation for What Stars Are Made Of, a 28k word middle grade contemporary that will appeal to fans of R.J. Palacio and Gary Schmidt.
Libby (age twelve) has a rare genetic condition called Turner Syndrome. This means she was born with an oversized heart, has to take daily growth hormone shots, can never have kids, and can’t do the monkey bars very well. But it doesn’t mean she won’t get an A+ in biology or be a scientist when she grows up, like her latest unsung hero, astronomer Cecilia Payne.
Then Libby’s other hero–her big sister–comes to town with a gigantic surprise: she’s pregnant, and she’s staying with the family while her husband finishes basic training. Libby knows about all the things that can go wrong with a baby or a pregnancy (like miscarriages and genetic disorders and oversized hearts). So Libby makes a deal with the universe, and with Cecilia Payne Ph.D., who Libby knows is looking down and aware of what’s happening. She promises that she will do a favor for Cecilia, honoring her memory, if Cecilia will take care of things from the other side and make sure the new baby is born safe, healthy, and perfect. With an Apgar score of ten. (A+ in biology, see?) So maybe the favor turns out to be more difficult–much more difficult–than she thought. Libby won’t give up. She will do whatever it takes to keep this baby–and her sister–safe.
I have been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest.com. I also received an MFA from Brigham Young University. Like Libby I was born with Turner Syndrome. (The daily shots actually weren’t too bad.)
Thank you for your time and consideration
The structure of this query is in good shape. I think we have a reasonably good sense of Libby’s personality (trying hard in the face of a genetic condition), and there’s a complicating moment when her sister comes home pregnant.
My main concern is that I don’t understand the relationship with Cecilia, and thus have a hard time understanding what Libby is literally doing:
Do Libby and Cecilia interact in some way?
What basis does Libby have to believe that her efforts will succeed, is there some sign that encourages her?
And what does Libby do? What’s the favor for Cecilia, and why, specifically, does it become difficult?
With more specificity on the spine of the plot, I think this query will better come to life. It’s so important that we understand what the protagonist is actually doing for the bulk of the plot.
I also tend to believe that leading with the story is most effective and saving comps for the end (since it prioritizes what agents care most about), but opinions vary on that.
Here’s my redline:
Twelve year old Libby (age twelve) has a rare genetic condition called Turner Syndrome. This means She was born with an oversized heart, has to take daily growth hormone shots, can never have kids, and can’t do the monkey bars very well. But it doesn’t mean she won’t [“it doesn’t mean she won’t” feels passive, as if it’s just getting bestowed on her. Try to make it active] she’s determined to get an A+ in biology or so she can become a scientist when she grows up, like her latest unsung hero, astronomer Cecilia Payne.
Then Libby’s other hero–her big sister–comes to town with a gigantic surprise: she’s pregnant, and she’s staying with the family while her husband finishes basic training. Libby knows about all the things that can go wrong with a baby or a pregnancy (like miscarriages and genetic disorders and oversized hearts). So Libby makes a deal with the universe, and with Cecilia Payne Ph.D., who Libby knows is looking down and aware of what’s happening: She promises that she will do a favor for Cecilia, honoring her memory [be more specific: what’s the actual favor? What gives her hope that Cecilia is watching/listening?], if Cecilia will take care of things from the other side and make sure the new baby is born safe, healthy, and perfect. With an Apgar score of ten. (A+ in biology, see?) [This feels a tad redundant]
So maybe the favor turns out to be more difficult–much more difficult–than she thought. [How? Be specific about what happens that makes it difficult] Libby won’t give up. She will do whatever it takes to keep this baby–and her sister–safe. [What does she actually do?]
I am seeking representation for What Stars Are Made Of is a 28k word middle grade contemporary that will appeal to fans of R.J. Palacio and Gary Schmidt.
I received an MFA from Brigham Young University and have been published in The Evansville Review, Allegory, and on WritersDigest.com. Like Libby I was born with Turner Syndrome. (The daily shots actually weren’t too bad.)
Yes, yes, we all want to write books that move people and change the world. But, uh, how exactly do authors get paid? Read on, friends. Here’s how authors make money.
In this post I’m going to cover all the different ways authors make money from their books:
Subrights (through a publisher)
Self- and hybrid publishing
Note that this won’t cover other ancillary ways writers may make money like “freelance gigs” and “scrounging for spare change in the couch at your parents’ house.” It’s going to focus on the books part.
How authors make money through traditional publishing
Before we get to fun things like advances and royalties, let’s start with a word about literary agents.
In order to secure traditional publication, chances are an author will need to find a literary agent. Agents do not charge authors until their work is sold, except for ancillary expenses like photocopying and postage.
When an agent sells a book or other rights on behalf of the author, they receive 15% of the proceeds in perpetuity in the case of domestic rights, and 20% of the proceeds for foreign rights, which is split 10% between a primary agent and 10% between the subagent.
So when you’re doing your book economics calculations, be sure and lop 15% off the top if you work with an agent (which, you should. They earn that commission).
How book advances work
When a book publisher is interested in a book project, they will offer the author an “advance,” which is a sum of money in exchange for the right to publish the book. (Here’s more on publishing contract terms).
An advance is the author’s to keep regardless of how many copies the book sells, as long as the author fulfills the terms of the publishing contract.
Advances are typically paid in installments tied to benchmarks in the publishing process, such as signing, delivery and acceptance of the final manuscripts (D&A), hardcover publication, and paperback publication.
Agents will try to negotiate for the author to receive as much of the money up front as possible, but this will still typically result in a $50,000 advance being split up something like:
$25,000 on signing
$15,000 on D&A
$10,000 on hardcover publication
$5,000 on paperback publication
Splits on the advance vary wildly. Advances may also be for multiple books, in which case there may be further benchmarks as those books move through the publishing process.
A publisher will pay the advance directly to the agent, who will take their commission and send the balance to the author.
How book royalties work
Royalties are the proceeds from book sales, stipulated as certain percentages in the agreement. Some royalties are based on the list price of the book, some are based on “net amount received” by the publisher. Here’s what that means:
List price royalties – Let’s say a hardcover book has a list price of $25.00 and the hardcover royalty is 10%. This means the royalty will be $2.50 regardless of the actual price charged for the book.
Net amount received – In this case the royalty is based on the amount the publisher receives from the retailer for the copy sold. Note that this still may not relate to the actual price charged to the customer for the book, but rather is based on whatever split the publisher has agreed upon with the retailer or distributor. (For instance, if the publisher receives 50% of the list price for every copy sold by the retailer, the “net amount received” is based on the publisher’s 50%).
Royalties first go to toward paying down the author’s advance. An author only receives royalties above the advance after the book “earns out.” So if an author receives a $25,000 advance, they have to earn $25,000 in royalties and/or subrights proceeds before the publisher will pay them additional money.
Joint accounting – the author has to earn combined royalties/subrights proceeds of $100,000 before they receive additional income.
Separate accounting – the books are accounted separately so that one book might be accounted as $60,000 and the other as $40,000, and each book’s individual proceeds counts to that book’s earn out threshold.
There are many different types of royalties, including:
Hardcover (typically 10-15% retail)
Trade paperback (typically 6-7.5% retail)
Mass market paperback (typically 8-10% retail)
E-books (typically 25% net)
Special sales (definitions and splits vary)
High discount sales (definitions and splits vary)
Good agents have “boilerplate” arrangements with publishers for standard royalties by format. (Yet another reason to get an agent).
Subrights through a publisher
Royalty rates apply when a publisher chooses to exercise rights and publish themselves. However, publishers may also choose to sell certain rights to third parties who will be the ones to publish. These are called “subrights.”
Subrights are allocated as percentages of proceeds. So for instance, if the publisher’s territory is “world English” (worldwide rights in the English language) or “world all languages” (worldwide rights in all languages), a US publisher may sell publishing rights in the British Commonwealth to a UK publisher and the subright split would apply.
The author will then receive a percentage of the proceeds of the advance and royalties of that deal, which, again, goes first toward paying down the author’s advance until the book earns out.
Subrights may include:
Film (agents will try to retain these rights for the author)
Audio (agents will try to retain these rights for the author)
First serial (excerpts published prior to publication)
Second serial (excerpts published after publication)
Merchandise, video games, theme parks, you name it
Sometimes agents may request that subrights payments “flow through” to the author when they are received, rather than being held to the end of a royalty period.
Subrights retained by the author
Good agents will try to hold onto as many rights as possible, especially audiobook and film. When the author retains these rights and the agent sells them directly on their behalf, the author does not have to split the proceeds with the publisher and instead receives all the money after the agent’s commission.
Many agencies either have dedicated film and foreign rights departments or work with film/translation subagents to try to place those rights.
These rights can be extremely lucrative, which is yet another away agents earn their commission. Authors going direct to publishers without an agent may give up too many rights and not even know they’re missing out on this potential income.
(Subrights may also be a way self-published authors earn income, but it’s rarer for them to sell these rights, which is why I have it in the traditional publishing section)
How authors make money through self-publishing and hybrid publishing
Self-publishing book income tends to be a bit more straightforward.
Self-publishing direct distribution
When self-published authors go directly to the platforms that are publishing their books, they receive a percentage of every copy sold.
Here are the current splits from some of the major platforms when you publish through them directly. There are some additional wrinkles, but here are the basic terms:
Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing:
Paperback: 60% of proceeds
Ebook: 70% of proceeds if it’s priced between $2.99 and $9.99, otherwise 35%
Audiobook: 40% exclusive, 25% nonexclusive
Barnes & Noble Press:
Paperback: 55% list minus printing costs
Ebook: 65% of proceeds if it’s priced above $2.99, otherwise 40%
Ebook: 70% of the list price if it’s priced about $2.99
In addition, Amazon also offers KDP Select, which is a program that confers additional benefits if you exclusively publish through Amazon, such as earning the 70% royalties in more territories.
Self-publishing via a distributor
In addition to going direct, there are also ebook distributors that will facilitate publication across many distributors. The two most prominent ones as of this writing are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. (These are also called “aggregators”).
These distributors will make your ebook available in places that may be tricky to reach yourself. It’s also easier to manage changes in one place.
Here are the current splits:
Draft2Digital: 10.5% of list price
Smashwords: 10% of list price
There are many, many new publishing models proliferating, and it would be really tricky to capture them all. Many of these are now being categorized under a new umbrella: hybrid publishing.
Some of these models skew more toward traditional publishing and some skew more toward self-publishing, but you usually receive a royalty that’s more than traditional publishing but less than if you were to self-publish on your own.
Writing for children is such a unique challenge. In order to write children’s books that appeal to youngsters it’s so important to engage them at their level. There’s a high premium on craft, readability, and really nailing the voice.
I have tremendous admiration for children’s book authors, having experienced just how difficult it is firsthand while writing the Jacob Wonderbar novels.
Here are some tips!
Write for how children see themselves, not how they are
Adults who are surrounded by children, whether they’re parents or teachers, have a pretty solid grasp on what kids are like, including their inner lives. If you live with children you may feel like you know them backwards and forwards.
But be very, very careful with this confidence. Remember that you are seeing kids through an adult’s lens.
When children’s book writers anchor too close to this adult perspective on childhood, the characters can often seem overly excitable and/or petulant. Which, let’s be honest, kids really can be.
But the important thing to anchor to is not how children appear to you, but rather how kids see themselves. Your best toolkit here isn’t necessarily the children in your life. It’s your memory.
Think back to what it was like being a kid. Did you think of yourself as petulant? Did you think of yourself as overly excitable? Or did things just really matter to you?
Write for the child you used to be instead of the child in front of you.
Don’t teach lessons
Kids are constantly being told what to do. They go to school and there are rules. They come home and there are rules. They’re constantly being criticized and corralled and admonished and constrained.
Let their books be a respite from all of that.
Kids can sniff out a lesson in a book a mile away and chances are it will feel pretty patronizing. Don’t do it.
Now, that’s not to say that kids can’t learn from books or that you shouldn’t try to infuse values into a book. Just don’t be overt about it. Let kids learn from the choices the characters make rather than handing down lessons from up on high.
Get the age right
One of the absolute hardest things to get right in a children’s book is really nailing the right sensibility for the characters’ age. Heck, I wrote a trilogy for 8-12 year olds and I still struggle with it.
First, you have to actually know your character’s age, and it shouldn’t be something you arbitrarily choose out of a hat.
Then you need to make sure that all of their thoughts and actions are age appropriate. If their thoughts are too sophisticated they may seem too adult. If their thoughts feel too juvenile, they may also seem unconvincing.
Be particularly careful with crying, whining, pouting, and other child-like expressions of emotions. Use them exceedingly sparingly and make sure you’re not making your characters seem, in a child’s parlance, like a big baby.
Mind your pacing
One of the very hardest thing about writing for children is the demands you will feel writing with a child’s attention span in mind.
The pacing in children’s books is tight. There doesn’t tend to be a lot of fluff. The best children’s books get right into the heart of the story and don’t let up.
From a craft perspective, modern children’s books are absolutely incredible specimens. There’s not usually an ounce of fat and yet they don’t suffer for their parsimoniousness.
Can reading make you happier? The New Yorker has an awesome article about bibliotherapy and the extent to which books can improve happiness. This isn’t an opinion, it’s science. Studies have shown that reading activates the same regions of the brain as if the reader were experiencing those activities, people who read fiction are better at empathizing with other people, and people who read literary fiction are better able to guess what other people might be thinking or feeling.
Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
But if you’re reading this blog you probably already knew that.
There was a Twitter dustup a few weeks ago as bestselling author Angie Thomas of the fantastic The Hate U Give (read my interview with Angie) made a pretty basic request of book reviewers: don’t tag authors with bad reviews. A very vocal minority of book reviewers proceeded to flood her with abuse, some of it flat out racist. Shaking, as they say, my damn head.
Jane Friedman updated a pretty cool chart showing different publishing paths, from traditional to self-publishing and everything in between.
The “rules” for submitting memoirs are somewhere in between novels and nonfiction, which can be quite confusing for authors. Literary agent Jessica Faust has a post breaking down how to submit memoirs.
Author Jennifer Hubbard has a great post on how the things we seemingly discard may be useful later.
And very sad news, as legendary bookseller Michael Seidenberg, creator of the magical “secret bookstore” Brazenhead Books in New York City, passed away this week. Here’s a New Yorker profile of him from a few years back. He will be missed.
This week in bestsellers
Here are the top five NY Times bestsellers in a few key categories. Let me know if you would like me to add any:
I have seen arguments very similar to George Packer’s made as a way of diminishing works by diverse authors, as well as the continued need for diverse voices. The basic premise is usually that the success of a POC or female or queer author is undeserved and just due to “political correctness.” It’s deeply patronizing and rooted in a very myopic, monochrome view of what Real Literature is.
Publishing is a mostly-White industry in which POC and LGTBQ authors are still routinely denied entry because “oh, we already have a Black/Muslim/trans book,” and in which female and POC authors are reviewed far less often than their White male counterparts in non-trade pubs. (Pubs like, ahem ahem, The New Yorker.) Suggesting that a diverse author’s work has value only inasmuch as it functions as some sort of leftist virtue signal is incredibly arrogant and dismissive.
And finally, readers of a certain age may remember the debacle that was New Coke way back when. Well, Mother Jones posted a deep dive about what happened that shows to extent the pretty dumb (and mostly fake) backlash was a harbinger of our modern times: New Coke Didn’t Fail. It Was Murdered.
A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. “Why it works” is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Today’s entry: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, which I recently re-read for the first time since I was a kid.
Why “Treasure Island” works
Before I get to what I think works, let’s get this out of the way: by modern standards, Treasure Island is kind of a mess. It gets off to a meandering start, midway through the novel we suddenly and inexplicably veer off to Dr. Livesey’s perspective, and some action scenes feel confusingly short (the attack on the stockade) while others linger on almost endlessly (Jim in various small water craft).
And yet Treasure Island has had immense and justifiable staying power. While it built upon over a hundred years’ worth of seafaring novels that came before it, it is now almost single-handedly responsible, along with the relatively faithful 1950 Disney film adaptation, for our modern conception of pirate lore. People talking like pirates on Talk Like a Pirate Day are really talking like Stevenson’s Long John Silver.
Here’s what I think Stevenson does especially well.
Infusing characters with personality via precise description
One of the things I love most about 19th Century literature is the way writers like Dickens, Melville, Austen, and Stevenson are able to craft characters that to this day simply leap off the page.
One such character arrives early on, the old captain Billy Bones. Stevenson immediately grabs the reader on the first page not with plot fireworks or the appearance of his best character, Long John Silver, who arrives much later.
Instead, look at the way Stevenson invites us into the world of this novel through incredibly precise physical description and gestures:
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest–Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, linger on the taste and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard.
“This is a handy cove,” says he at length; “and a pleasant sittyated grog-shop. Much company, mate?”
The tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of a soiled blue coat, the stick he carries, the way he lingers over his rum, the scar that hints at a dark past. The iconic song that hints at a whole pirating world that we’re about to enter.
Billy Bones’ mere presence upends Jim Hawkins’ world. Stevenson only deepens the mystery from here.
Whether it’s Black Dog’s missing fingers, Dr. Livesey’s calm rectitude, and Ben Gunn’s strange exclamations and pinches, details and gestures make these characters come alive.
Long John Silver’s dialgoue
In contrast to many of the other characters, we don’t actually get that much description of Long John Silver. It’s memorable that he has one leg, a talking parrot, and he generally comports himself with an air of merriment, but Stevenson primarily relies on dialogue to build Silver’s character.
Long John Silver is able to talk himself out of nearly any jam. After Jim Hawkins spots Black Dog in Long John Silver’s tavern, Silver is able to allay Jim’s suspicions, even though Billy Bones had explicitly warned him about a man with one leg.
How? By talking:
“See here, now, Hawkins,” said he, “here’s a blessed hard thing on a man like me, now, ain’t it? There’s Cap’n Trelawney–what’s he to think? Here I have this confounded son of a Dutchman sitting in my own house drinking of my own rum! Here you comes and tells me of it plain; and here I let him give us all the slip before my blessed dead-lights! Now, Hawkins, you do me justice with the cap’n. You’re a lad, you are, but you’re smart as paint. I see that when you first come in. Now, here it is: What could I do, with this old timber I hobble on? When I was an A B master mariner I’d have come up alongside of him, hand over hand, and broached him to in a brace of old shakes, I would; but now–“
And then, all of a sudden, he stopped, and his jaw dropped as though he had remembered something.
“The score!” he burst out. “Three goes o’rum! Why, shiver my timbers, if I hadn’t forgotten my score!”
And falling on a bench, he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. I could not help joining; and we laughed together, peal after peal, until the tavern rang again.
This combination of self-deprecation, flattery, and humor is Long John Silver’s M.O. He invites Jim Hawkins to help him, playing the weakling, and he gets very far with these tactics over the course of the novel.
Also, the slang goes a long way to fleshing out his character. “Shiver my timbers,” incidentally, didn’t originate in Treasure Island, but Stevenson made it iconic because Long John Silver is so memorable as a whole.
Stevenson also uses dialogue to show the flipside of Long John Silver’s charm. He can make a threat with the best of them. After negotiations break down between the pirates and the good guys, Long John Silver spits and says:
“There!” he cried. “That’s what I think of ye. Before an hour’s out, I’ll stove in your old block house like a rum puncheon. Laugh, by thunder, laugh! Before an hour’s out, ye’ll laugh upon the other side. Them that die’ll be the lucky ones.”
That last line (and the incredible delivery by Robert Newton in the film version) haunted me as a child.
Jim Hawkins is a lowkey badass
Treasure Island is not the easiest book to read, even by adult standards. I remember struggling through it as a child. And yet it still captured my imagination.
A huge part of that is how awesome it is to be Jim Hawkins.
Jim Hawkins starts as a humble kid who helps his parents run an inn, and he transforms into a virtual action hero who outsmarts and outfoxes seasoned pirates. But while he has incredible adventures and confronts danger and grows as a person, he doesn’t lose his Jim Hawkins-ness.
He’s open about his mistakes, and he recognizes that he sort of blunders into saving everyone by following some harebrained instincts.
Even after Jim Hawkins has managed to beach their ship, kill a pirate, and paddle ashore through rough seas, he is self-aware enough to recognize his desire to boast:
At least, and at last, I was off the sea, nor had I returned thence empty handed. There lay the schooner, clear at last from buccaneers and ready for our own men to board and get to sea again. I had nothing nearer my fancy than to get home to the stockade and boast of my achievements. Possibly I might be blamed a bit for my truantry, but the recapture of the Hispaniola was a clenching answer, and I hoped that even Captain Smollett would confess I had not lost my time.
Sometimes authors let their characters transform a little too much over the course of the novel, to the point where it stops being wholly believable. Stevenson’s treatment of Jim Hawkins shows how you can let a character grow while still retaining their essence.
Jump ahead in time when you need to
Want to know how Stevenson handled the several thousand mile journey from Bristol, England to the Caribbean? Like this:
I am not going to relate that voyage in detail. It was fairly prosperous. The ship proved to be a good ship, the crew were capable seamen, and the captain thoroughly understood his business. But before we came the length of Treasure Island, two or three things had happen which require to be known.
That’s it! Rather than proceeding linearly over the course of a several month voyage, Stevenson just brushes over the boring bits and picks out the few things we need to know.
This is a lonely time for people who want to do things the slow way.
Attention spans are short. Our chaotic, social-media driven world rewards brevity and simplicity. Purity tests are rampant; shades of gray are in short supply.
What if you want to write a blog post instead of a tweet?
What if you want to labor over a beautiful literary novel instead of cranking out a book a month to please Amazon’s algorithms?
It can easily start feeling like you’ve somehow been thrust into an onrushing, frenetic mob that you scarcely have chosen and feel powerless to escape.
A maximalist world
Right now it feels like the world is pushing, pushing, pushing for more. More content, more eyeballs, more pageviews, more clicks. We romanticize overwork, demand maximalism, let ourselves be provoked by minor outrages.
Algorithms are mining the reptilian recesses of our brains to hijack our attention. We’re bombarded by influencers who try to strip the ugliness from life and end up looking like horrific cartoons themselves (and yet we still take quiet note of their success).
Is it possible to actually slow down, calm down, and do what’s important but time consuming?
Well, yes. It is. But it’s harder than it should be.
Quality takes work
There’s still an appetite out there for quality and nuance, though I wish there were more of it.
It’s still worth pursuing dreams, even though it feels sometimes like they were primed for a different world.
Quality, now, takes work. Not just to produce it, but increasingly to consume it.
I don’t know that there’s ever been a time in history where the identity of the author of a book has mattered more to the publishing industry.
Sure, it’s always helped to be famous when hawking a book, and as I’ve stressed repeatedly, authors have always been expected to be good self-promoters. But in the era of social media we’re entering new territory where books seem much more inextricably tied to their author’s identity and presence than ever before.
Where in the past the author was just a name on a spine and a one inch by one inch author photo, we now have social media and instantaneous connections with our favorite authors. Rather than being mysterious figures, authors are now palpably human to readers and just a few clicks away.
Publishers very much care who the author is. And it’s definitely shaping the culture.
In a recent article on 1984, George Packer critiqued what he describes as a left-wing version of doublespeak that conflates art, politics, and the author’s identity:
For example, many on the left now share an unacknowledged but common assumption that a good work of art is made of good politics and that good politics is a matter of identity. The progressive view of a book or play depends on its political stance, and its stance—even its subject matter—is scrutinized in light of the group affiliation of the artist: Personal identity plus political position equals aesthetic value.
It’s gotten me curious:
How much does the author of a book matter to you? Is it something you look up after the fact? Do you follow your favorite authors on social media? Have you ever bought a book because you got to know the person first online?
Would you care if you personally disliked an author or their politics? Or is a good book just a good book and you don’t care who wrote it?