Hey everyone, this hit Twitter and Facebook last week, but I sold another YA novel. In classic writer-blog fashion, I’ll post the deal blurb here:
I feel good about it. More surprised than good, actually. I never assume I’m ever going to sell a book again. My sales are pretty solidly in the midlist, in that I’ve never really underperformed expectations, but that also means, as you’ll know if you’ve read my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry, that there’s no particular compulsion to buy another book by me. That means with every idea I’ve got to create the notion that this might be my breakout book. Anyway, this one is pretty good. I’ve been writing it—the book is good—you’re gonna like it. The characters are just very…sweet. Of course this is the Naomi version of sweetness, which probably means the rest of the world will be like…are they sociopaths?
It’s been interesting to work on a book that’s on proposal after spending basically my entire career writing on spec. It feels a little…ho-hum. Like I get up, make my coffee, start writing the book, and it’s fun and everything, but I’m like, yep, this is definitely the book I was going to write! Not that there aren’t surprises, but I’m not surprised by the surprises. It’s so weird. Is this what it’s like to have a real job?
I feel intensely grateful to still be in the publishing game for at least another two years! What a shock! Ever since my debut year (2016), I’ve routinely had the thought that this year will be my last. It’s a gift. Not from the gods of publishing, but from the fates. Although honestly in this case my editor, Steph, had a ton to do with it. Someday I’m sure they’ll fail to buy a book from me, or they’ll move on or retire or whatever. Maybe it’ll even be the next book. But they didn’t have to buy this one! They’re definitely one of the good ones.
Okay enough mushy stuff. I’m sure I’ve mentioned, but I’ve gotten really into old and middle English lately. Middle English is relatively simple. The biggest trick is just learning how to pronounce everything. I’m not the best at it, but I’ve listened to a bunch of recordings, and I’m starting to internalize it. The key is that all the vowel sounds are different. Like ‘different’ in Middle English would probably be dee-fah-RAYN. The tendency to heavily emphasize the last or second-to-last syllable in the word really makes rhyming easier by the way. Like early in the General Prologue Chaucer rhymes ‘Courages’ and ‘Pilgrimages’. You couldn’t do that in modern English, but if you pronounce them coh-RAHJ-es and peel-grim-AHJ-es, then you can. This really frees up the text and allows Chaucer to write the whole thing in rhyming couplets without it ever seeming dull or too elevated.
I’ve also, just for reference, started reading Shakespeare. I read books about The Plantagenets and The War of the Roses, and afterward I was like wow I could probably understand Shakespeare’s history plays if I wanted to. It’s really fascinating to read Shakespeare after reading so much Chaucer and old English. Because my tendency before was to assume that Shakespeare was so ornate because that’s how people wrote back then, and that’s true…sort of.
Basically my understanding is that sometime in the early 16th century everyone in Britain started reading Petrarch, and they were like THIS IS IT, THIS IS THE WAY TO WRITE—we need to be making extremely elaborate metaphors about everything. And Shakespeare, although he is working in a more refined and nativist version of this tradition, is kind of in that vein too. That’s why his language is so figurative. Not that old English doesn’t have that, but an old English metaphor tends to be very compact, and it’s often within the word itself. Anyway, it’s not important—the point is—Shakespeare’s style is definitely a style.
I am not entirely certain the style is totally to my taste. I read Henry VI parts 2 and 3 the other day (not his best, I know, but not his worst, either!) and it’s often tedious. Like whenever there’s a battle, do they always have to reiterate how much they hate each other for killing each others’ dads? That’s like half of both plays. But the characterizations are also incredibly complex. I loved Henry VI himself. I wanted more of the man. His followers hate him for being weak-minded, and in life he actually had fits of catatonia (he once didn’t speak for eighteen months), but he is also very gentle. He’s always trying to give away his kingdom. He just doesn’t want to fight and doesn’t want to be king. Margaret of Anjou is also one of Shakespeare’s classic villainesses. She comes off better in part 3 than part 2, because in part 3 she’s not fomenting discord out of pure ambition—she’s defending herself and her rightful throne! I really like when she torments Richard, Duke of York, and says: “Alas but that I hate thee deadly / I should lament your miserable state.”
That’s a really fancy way of calling someone pathetic. And that’s the thing about Shakespeare: he finds really fancy ways of saying pretty simple things. But there’s some value in the fanciness. I do think Shakespeare’s example inculcated the idea that this is the core of writing: putting plain thoughts into complicated writing. And I think that’s done harm to the language. But that’s not his fault. And anyway it’s his language to do harm or to help as he pleases. We’re just borrowing it.