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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

My volunteer reader/editor/criticizers

In producing a book as an independent publication, you have to put together a team. I’ve been working with a web designer, an illustrator (that’s Sarah-Lee Terrat, who did the drawings above and the cover sketch below), a page designer, even a videographer (we’re going to post a discussion with kids and teachers next month) — but I could not also afford to hire an editor.

When you work with a traditional publisher, you interact with a series of editors: first the book editor, who gives you suggestions and criticisms big and small; then the copyeditor, who reads each page with a magnifying glass and covers it with quibbles, questions and suggestions; and then the proofreader, who reads with a microscope and points out (you hope) the very tiniest errors, inconsistencies and awkwardnesses.

I can’t afford those people! So instead I’ve recruited a series of expert volunteer readers and critiquers. Over the past weeks, the manuscript of True Shoes has been read by two middle school teachers in Vermont, a teenager and a prevention specialist in New Jersey, a well-known sportwriter who’s my neighbor and friend, and a guidance counselor in Maine. I’ve asked them all for criticism — and I’ve gone over their notes on the pages very, very carefully. Each has helped me take the manuscript another stage closer to final form.

The final set of readers is a group of English teachers in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the head of a high school English department is an old friend and a superb teacher. She and some colleagues have gone over True Shoes line by line, looking for, as Patty emailed to me last night, “minor punctuation/consistency things with a few comments on awk wording or word choice.” When I get their marked-up pages in a few days, I will go through the manuscript page by page, paragraph by paragraph, line by line, one more time. I’ll look carefully at everything they marked and suggested.

That’s the only way you can improve your writing — by listening as openly as you can to feedback and criticism, whether it comes from your own reading or from someone else’s. And that’s how important these volunteer readers have been to True Shoes.
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First sketch for the book cover: please comment!

This is a sketch for the cover of True Shoes, by Sarah-Lee Terrat — who also did the drawings of the characters above.

How does this drawing strike you? What's your first reaction? Can you give us any feedback or suggestions that will help us to improve this?

Tell us what you think!trueshsrevcoverbw5

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Some questions (and answers) about True Shoes

Here are some of the things kids are asking me about True Shoes ... with my answers:

Does it have all the same characters?
Yes — all the major characters, plus most of the minor ones, to one degree or another.

Do we find out what’s going on with Richie?
Yes. There’s a chapter called “Richie’s Secret.”

Are the kids still in Parkland Middle School?
Yep — they’re eighth graders. Richie is a ninth grader at the high school. But he's in the story a lot.

Are there any new characters?
Oh, sure! There are several important new characters. Like The Revealers but even more so, True Shoes is what’s called an ensemble story. That means there are a number of characters, various relationships between the characters, and different story lines and tensions that interweave — and all, eventually, come together.

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Why is the new book called True Shoes?

Why the title True Shoes? Two reasons.

First, the story deals with rumor-spreading by networked technology — cell phones and social networking sites (as in Facebook). The book opens with an old saying: "A lie can travel around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes."

Second, the story involves footwear. Competing fashions in a school.

Those are the reasons why.

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Please! Be critical!

When I visit middle schools, kids often ask, How long does it take to write a book? I say there's no simple answer but it always takes longer than you'd think because it almost always involves many drafts. Many. The Revealers went through 11 ... I've probably gone through the new book close to 20 times. I enjoy that! Each time you get a little better, a little closer. Because I'm not working with a professional editor this time, for this "indie" publication, I've asked a number of people — middle-school teachers, teenagers, another professional writer friend — to read the manuscript and mark it up. I urge them: Please! Be critical! Only honest feedback and criticism helps you to make the book better.

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Should we include illustrations?

Here's an important question about the drawings on the top of this page:

Originally I asked the artist, Sarah-Lee Terrat (she's also my sister; we've worked together often) to do these illustrations of seven key characters in True Shoes just for the new website. But her drawings have such fine energy, and so beautifully captured the spirit of my characters, that I decided: Why shouldn't a YA novel have drawings inside the book? Like in those great books for young readers that I grew up with?

So we've been thinking that these drawings will be featured inside True Shoes, on the "section break" pages — those pages that give the title of Part One, Part Two, etc. But this week, some students that I had lunch with at Hackettstown (NJ) Middle School said they don't always like seeing illustrations of the characters in a novel, because that limits their imagination. They said they'd rather picture the characters in their own way.

Having seen these drawings, what do you think? Should we include them inside the book? Or not?

This is an important question! Please post a comment, saying briefly what you think.

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Another author's comment

Books often feature quotes, called blurbs, by other authors on their back covers. Here's one that will appear on True Shoes:

"There are a lot of YA books. Some are moving portrayals of the complex lives of teens. A few — like this one — get into your heart and won't let go. These few books take us into the chaos, confusion, idealism, and hope that is adolescence. True Shoes shows us the inner lives of real young people trying their best to look out for themselves and others in a complex world. Highly recommended."
STAN DAVIS, author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs

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