Friday, June 29, 2018

How I Learned to Write What I Knew

      In a few weeks, my new YA novel, Price of Duty, will be published. To the best of my knowledge, it will be my 103rd novel. I guess I’ve learned a few things about writing over a career that’s spanned more than forty years, but perhaps the most important lesson I ever learned was the one that came from writing my first novel. 
      This goes back to 1977. I’d just completed a semi-autobiographical story about a teenager on Long Island who, among other indiscretions, is arrested for selling drugs. Not aware of the budding new genre of literature called young adult, I found myself concerned that my story about teenagers falling in love and getting in trouble lacked the international scope, adult appeal, and historical perspective necessary to catapult it onto the best seller lists. 
      My solution to this problem was to purchase a copy of Writer’s Digest, from which I learned that at that moment in literary history the two essential ingredients necessary to insure vast commercial success were Nazism and cocaine. 
      Having failed to include either in my fledgling first novel, I immediately got busy creating a Nazi submarine commander who escapes in his submarine at the end of World War II and sails it to Colombia, South America. From there he regularly smuggles cocaine, via his submarine, all the way to the north shore of Long Island, New York (as opposed, say, to Florida). And, to tie it into my story, I made this Nazi the uncle of one of my protagonist’s best friends. 
      Thanks to an unrelated stroke of luck, I was able to secure the services of a reputable literary agent who began to submit the manuscript to publishers. A dozen rejections quickly piled up and the future for my first novel began to feel grim. Then came fantastic news: an editor named Ferdinand Monjo at a publisher called Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, wished to have lunch with me. A week later we met in the restaurant of a small, elegant East Side hotel. Mr. Monjo was a refined, dapper man who smoked cigarettes in a long gold cigarette holder. 
      We chatted amiably through lunch (his: three vodka gimlets and a salmon-egg omelet; mine: a hamburger and a Coke). Finally, over coffee and dessert, Mr. Monjo got down to business. Would I, he asked in a most genteel manner, possibly consider rewriting my story? The question was not unexpected. My agent had already warned me that this query would be the crux of the lunch. I replied that I’d be glad to. And did Mr. Monjo have any suggestions as to how he thought the story could be improved? 
      “Yes,” he replied, appearing pleased and relieved. He then launched into the small speech he had clearly prepared for the occasion.
      “In this business it is important to write about what you know, Todd. And it is obvious that you know a great deal about being a teenager in the suburbs.” At this point he paused to clear his throat and take another sip of his vodka gimlet. “However, I hope you will not be offended if I add that it is equally obvious that you know very little about Nazis who steal submarines and smuggle cocaine.” 
      Like the editors at the publishing houses that had rejected my manuscript, Mr. Monjo had found the original story I’d created neither plausible nor interesting. But unlike the others, he had detected a glimmer of potential which, given an opportunity, might eventually develop into something decent. 
      These days there are still many devoted and erudite editors around, but I wonder how many would be allowed to gamble on a brand-new author and an unmarketable manuscript the way Mr. Monjo did. The impression I have is that nowadays editors are rarely allowed to speculate on what a manuscript might become, and must instead base their decisions on what they have in hand (provided the marketing and sales departments give them the green light. I cannot imagine any marketing or sales department approving the manuscript Ferdinand Monjo read.). 
      Mr. Monjo offered a $3,000 advance to see if his hunch was correct. While small by today’s standards, in 1978 this was not an inconsequential amount to pay an unproven first-time novelist with only the promise of a story. In the months that followed I took his advice to heart, tossed Uncle Nazi and his submarine, revised extensively, and eventually produced a book that was driven much more by character, and much less by plot. 
      Sadly, Ferdinand Monjo died in October of 1979, just a few months before Angel Dust Blues was published, and never got to see the fruits of his sage advice (very good reviews and an auction for the paperback rights). I consider myself very fortunate to have caught the tail end of the era when publishing was called a gentlemen’s occupation, and to have received from him perhaps the most important writing lesson I ever learned.

Todd writing at Beloit College in 1973


“Compact and suspenseful, the novel raises important questions about war.” – Kirkus Reviews. 

“This thought-provoking book is both welcome and imperative.” – Booklist * (starred review). 

"Rather than attempting to sway the reader, it offers awareness." - VOYA 

“A tightly wound and compelling story... appropriate for an older middle school and high school audience. VERDICT: Highly recommended.” – School Library Journal 

“A timely, relevant critique of the American war machine and its dependence on idealistic and impressionable young people.” -- The Horn Book 

"A hard-hitting, thought-provoking, page turner that could change the lives of young readers. Encourage them to put down their video game controllers and pick up this book." - Richie's Picks 

"Although readers may be divided on [Jake's] final choice, they will respect the ethical struggle that led him there."--Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books (Recommended)

"War does not determine who is right -- only who is left." - Bertrand Russell