FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #215: Advice to a Young Writer & the Idea of “Downshifting”

I’m posting this one for two reasons. First, Megan’s sweet reply, so simple and direct, surprised and moved me. That last sentence. And secondly, because I am frequently asked for “advice” and often fail to give a satisfactory answer. In this case, I don’t fail quite so miserably as usual and it included a notion that applies to a great many young writers I’ve encountered over the years — the idea of downshifting. I don’t have time for many exchanges like this, but I do what I can.
This begins, atypically, with my response. Megan, I’d guess, is 13 or 14, and she genuinely aspires to be a writer. This wasn’t a question of a student dutifully asking a question that her teacher would approve of. No, Megan wanted to send me her book and I was like, “Oh, please, don’t do that. Send me an excerpt.”
This is my reply, which she waited for patiently.
Greetings. I’m very impressed with your story, and I’m grateful for your persistence & patience.
I am wrestling with a deadline of my own, have a pile of unanswered letters, etc., so I hope you’ll understand that this will be brief, of necessity.
In general, I’m not a great advice-giver when it comes to writing. I’m not full of tips, largely because I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. The standard pieces of advice are still the best: Read widely, read often, & read with a writer’s eye; and write. You’ve got to write. Have a place where you can write, a crummy journal, anything. And try to write everyday. Don’t let all your best work be text messages.
The other thing that I really believe in is that you should trust your enthusiasms. If you are excited about a topic, an idea, a writer, a series of books, an activity — then pursue it. Don’t worry so much if it will be practical or publishable or realistic. Just try to find those things that get your heart racing. That make you happy. And trust that good things will come out of it.
As for your story, you are filled with many interesting characters and ideas. When I read, I know there is a lively mind at work here. An interesting mind. That’s very good to see. So many good, descriptive details. At the same time, your work reflects an inexperienced writer. That makes sense, because it’s true. You are young and inexperienced and you have not yet honed your writing muscles.
The one idea I want to convey to you is “downshifting.” Slowing down. You have enough ideas in here for a 500-page story, so all of it feels rushed, like you are in a hurry to get to the next thing, then the next, then the next. You need to slow down, add a beat, let each scene, each moment, have it’s own moment (if you will).
I loved the initial sense of the magical in the air that begins the story. The girl in the woods. (I didn’t like that she was trudging, especially after I learned that she was sent to give an urgent message; to me, that’s not a trudging errand, that’s running, exhaustion, resting, eating, running, and so on). It’s lungs burning, muscles aching. Then as readers, we are caught up in that feeling. There’s a deadline, a rush, and something important is at stake. We are eager to know why.
The visit with Corporal Hillson’s needs to slow down. Take your time. I didn’t understand why Hillson was telling Vivian all this. Why did he trust her? What was she doing there? I didn’t completely get it. His news is “extremely secret,” yet he blabs it to her. Why? You need to set this up better.
Next, almost as suddenly, she is in a cavern. That’s cool. The two girls. Again, slow down. Stay in the moment more, linger over the details, set the scene.
Good work, Megan. You have talent and, as I said before, a lively, inventive mind. You probably have more story here than you are fully capable of writing at this point in your life. Keep at it. Focus on individual scenes. Word by word, sentence by sentence. And also, write poems, write short stories, and keep writing.
You are already much more accomplished than I was at your age.
Good luck,
James Preller
Megan replied:
Dear Mr. Preller,
Thank you for your support. You have no idea how much this means to me. I will edit my story so that I do that. Thank you for your time. I would give anything to write like you. 

I Took the “Page 69 Test” for THE FALL


I was recently invited to take the “Page 69 Test” for my new novel, The Fall. Since I rarely get invited out, I put on my best slacks & my cleanest dirty shirt, and decided to give it a shot. The idea is simple. You turn to page 69 of your book and discuss how it is (or isn’t!) representative of the rest of the book. I was also asked if it would encourage a reader to keep reading. One would hope so.

Here’s the link to the site, which is part of the “Campaign for the American Reader” initiative, where you can find many other examples from a wide range of authors.

And here’s what I wrote:

12000905_679002038902805_5407176596026301396_oThe conceit for The Fall is that a boy, Sam, is writing in his journal. He’s reflecting upon the events of the past year, piecing together the narrative entry by entry, writing about events which led to the tragic death of his secret friend, Morgan. I write “secret” because that’s one of the book’s themes, one of identity, and of owning one’s own actions. The things we did and didn’t do. The footprint we make in the snow.

My editor at Macmillan, Liz Szabla, made the decision not to have the book over-designed; to my pleasure, the book is straight-forward. We didn’t jump through hoops to make it look like someone’s faux-journal. There is on some pages a fair amount of white space, and that’s the case in this instance.

On page 69, Sam basically fails to write. The page is nearly blank. He does write, “I need … I need … I need … something.” There’s a bit more, but that’s essentially it for page 69: It conveys, I hope, Sam’s struggle and failure to write. The idea is that he’s promised himself to try to write in that journal each day, focusing on Morgan, for at least fifteen minutes. Some days are better than others, and on this day nothing comes easily for Sam. This page, this emotion, directly follows upon the events and feelings of the previous pages, so my intention is for the reader to “get” why Sam can’t write that day. Will the reader be curious enough to keep reading? I sure hope so. Part of the book’s appeal is in the format, it’s loose and easy, and it zips along at a swift pace. Some pages include poems and snippets; others offer more traditional, expository narratives. He tells the story in a variety of ways. There’s no reason to stop reading. The craft is in the slow accumulation of detail, the sedimentary layering of thoughts and feelings, as readers slowly learn more about Sam’s role in Morgan’s life and death. The things he did and didn’t do. His footprint in the snow.


For more reviews and information about The Fall, you can stomp on this link with both feet while shouting loudly, “Cowabunga!”


Ideas In the Shower: Brian Eno, Don Music, and the Creative Process


(RE-POST: This piece was originally posted on June 7, 2011.)

I’ve admitted it more than once: I know my work is going well when I have ideas in the shower. That is, those times when I’m thinking that I’m not thinking.

By the way, whenever I think about the creative process, and the difficulty of forcing ideas, I think of this classic Sesame Street sketch featuring Don Music: “I’ll never get it, never, argh!

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I’m posting today to direct your attention to this piece from the fascinating 99% blog by Scott McDowell, “Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno.”

It does not hurt that I have been a big Eno fan since the 70’s.

Read the opening quote from McDowell’s piece and you’ll see why it grabbed my attention . . .

Current neuroscience research confirms what creatives intuitively know about being innovative: that it usually happens in the shower. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax in order for a “Eureka!” moment to arise. It’s often the mundane activities like taking a shower, driving, or taking a walk that lure great ideas to the surface. Composer Steve Reich, for instance, would ride the subway around New York when he was stuck.

Comments Eno:

The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.

The 99% piece references a July, 2008 article that I recall reading in The New Yorker, written by Jonah Lehrer, in which he investigates the nature of ideas, “The Eureeka Hunt.” Lehrer brought joy to procrastinators everywhere when he opined:

The relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers. … One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.

Always an intellectual with a lively mind, Brian Eno, along with Peter Schmidt, developed a deck of cards in the 1970’s called Oblique Strategies, a series of prompts intended to help push people through periods of creative block. Now the Strategies are available for FREE on your iPhone or iTouch — just click here.

To close, here’s a cool fan video of Eno’s beautiful “By This River,” taken from the disk, Before and After Science. The album, by the way, has very distinct sides to it — something that’s lost in today’s CD era. For Side 1, Eno delivers traditional pop structures. But Side 2 plays like a series of dream songs, lullabies, hinting at the ambient sounds he’ll explore more fully on later disks.

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This Saturday, Come Say Hello at the Fabulous Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival



It will be a veritable cornucopia of . . .

a sumptuous who’s who of . . .

a delicious medley of . . .

Oh, just come. Bring the kids. And please, above all, bring the credit card! This is Chappaqua, after all.

This is a beautiful community event, one of the great ones in all the land, jam- packed with incredible (kind, generous, talented, bookish) people.

It’s a righteous scene, I’m telling ya!

Whirlwind Trip to Long Island & Warwick, NY — with Photos!


I figured I’d share some snaps from my recent trip down to my old stomping grounds on Long Island.

On Wednesday night I drove to New London, CT, to take the ferry to Greenport, Long Island. That’s where my dear old mom lives, so I crashed at her place for two nights. Mom is 89 years old and, these days at least, a very happy Mets fan . . .


On Thursday, I drove out to the Sequoya Middle School in Holtsville where I was invited by Jennifer Schroeder and Sandy Bucher. Like all the best days in my life, it started with lunch! I ate with students from the Summer Reading Club.

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What a great way to start the day. With pizza . . . and a great group of young, intelligent, enthusiastic readers.


I didn’t just eat and chat. I also signed books, gratefully.


This is Sandy and Jennifer, who made the day the possible.

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These three won prizes in a raffle, though I felt like the real winner all day long.

On the way to the assembly with an audience of 260 students, one girl asked me in a soft voice if I’d seen the poster. “Yes, it’s fantastic,” I said. And after a pause, I wondered, “Did you make it?”

She sure had. Of course, I demanded her name and a photo. Angela looks proud, doesn’t she? So much talent and a great smile, too. How is that fair?


Later I drove home and watched the Mets with my mom. It’s how we roll.

On Friday, I visited Bellport where I presented to a large group of librarians from Suffolk County. There were about 100 in the room, my guess, and I think it went well. Librarians are my kind of people, so hopefully it was relaxed and enjoyable for all concerned. My fingers are crossed in the hope it will lead to more school visits in the area. Thank you, Gail Barraco for the invitation!

Next I took a ferry . . .

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. . . and drove to a hotel near Warwick, NY. The next morning, Saturday, I signed books at the fabulous Warwick Children’s Book Festival, thanks to Lisa Laico, Christina Ryan-Linder, and Judy Peterson. The amount of work that goes into these things — the months of planning, the degree of detail — is mind-boggling. What a great gift to the community.

As an author, I am always grateful for a chance to meet other “real, live” authors. Every time I meet someone new . . .

I loved meeting Rita Williams-Garcia. She was so warm and friendly, we got along instantly.

I loved meeting Rita Williams-Garcia. She was so warm and friendly, we got along instantly.


. . . and I also get the chance to catch up with established friends.

I've become a real fanboy when it comes to Wendell and Florence Minor. All they do is quietly make high-quality books, year after year. I have huge respect for their work and for way they conduct themselves: wise, kind, grateful, modest, and so talented!

I’ve become a real fanboy when it comes to Wendell and Florence Minor. All they do is quietly make high-quality books, year after year. I have huge respect for their work and for the way they conduct themselves: wise, kind, grateful, modest, and so talented!


After that, it was time to head home. My real job, the essential job, is for me to sit alone in a quiet room. That’s where I’m at now, trying to figure out the next book. But it’s trips like this that energize and inspire me to keep at it, even during the difficult times. Many thanks to one and all!


“A Deserving Porcupine.”


Yesterday I reread Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.

It was published 60 years ago, btw, in two-color.

Weird format, too.

And, of course, it’s perfect.

But what I keep thinking about these past 24 hours is that throwaway phrase, “a deserving porcupine.”

Do you recall it? Possibly not.

Harold thinks about a picnic, and pies, and being Harold, he goes a little overboard.

He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste.”

Here’s what kills me:

So Harold left a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine to finish it up.”



That phrase: a deserving porcupine.

How did Crockett Johnson even think of that? Out of all the available adjectives for a porcupine, he deemed this particular one “deserving.”

What did it do to deserve such treatment? I guess we’ll never know, but it feels to me like there’s a story there, somewhere off the page. The deserving porcupine appears on only one page of the book, then off Harold goes, in search of a hill to climb . . .

I should add this postscript:

TheFallIt’s pub day for my new book, The Fall

I really think everybody should buy it. That would be awesome. Thanks!

Princeton Book Festival, September 19th!




The lineup of authors and illustrators will make your head spin. Seriously, if you like children’s books at all — or if you just enjoy creativity & the arts in general — this is such a good scene smack in the heart of downtown Princeton. Check it out. And if you, please say hello.

Great News from a Young Writer I First Met Three Years Ago


Three years ago I wrote a post titled, “I May Have Just Met the Best 6th-Grade Poet in America.

Her name was Erin, and she was in 6th grade, and I was lucky enough to meet her during a school visit outside of Chicago. You can read an excerpt from that post below, or click on the link. Anyway, since that time we’ve kept in touch. Mostly Erin letting me know what she’s doing, and me saying clever things like, “Wow!” Or, “You’re awesome!” And always always always, “Keep writing!”

This weekend I received a box in the mail . . .


And inside there was a self-published book by Erin Rosenfeld . . .


And a very kind note . . .



Let’s be clear: I did almost nothing. I read some pages, made a few incoherent comments. When it comes to the work, Erin did all of it. My role was to try to be encouraging across a few scattered emails. I wish I was one of those wise people who knew how to help writers take that next step, but I’m not very good when it comes to advice. Maybe it’s because I don’t really believe much can be done for someone else. The best work a writer can do is to write. That’s the classroom. That’s the job. It’s a solitary business.

I recognized Erin’s talent when she handed me one of her poems three years ago. But talent only gets you so far in this world. Obviously, Erin knows that. She gets her butt in the chair.

You can purchase Erin’s book, Half of Me, by clicking here. (Ha, ha, I already have my own signed copy in green ink!)

In the book, Erin gives a new twist to the classic theme of switched identities. Grace and Mia are identical twin sisters, and total opposites. But for one fateful day they make the switch . . . and things go horribly, tragically wrong. One twin dies. The other lives. In the days and weeks that follow, both sisters are forced to endure the consequences of their decisions: one on earth, and one torn between life and death.

Erin wrote Half of Me in alternating voices, employing two distinct writing styles. Mia tells her half of the story in prose, while Grace’s chapters are in spare, elegant verse.


Erin Rosenfeld, congratulations! I’m so proud of you!


I have a new book, too!



In education today, where the pendulum has swung far to the right with a misguided, misbegotten emphasis on testing and precise measurements, where the arts have been slashed and all but discarded, it’s important to remember what it can mean to invite an author into our schools — or a musician, or painter, or dancer, or even (heaven forfend) a mime! I am grateful every time I am given the opportunity to visit a school. To speak, and maybe be heard. Every time I try, in my small way, to make a difference. Thanks, Erin, for helping me believe that it’s still possible.


Originally Posted in October, 2012:

When I speak at schools, a teacher will often come up to ask if I wouldn’t mind wearing some kind of amplifier/microphone thingy around my neck for a student who is hearing impaired.

And of course I don’t mind. I put it on and forget about it. Easy.

Styles vary, but it usually looks something like this.

After a presentation last Friday at Northbrook Junior High, about 25 miles north of Chicago, a small female student approached to ask for the return of the assistive listening device that hung around my neck. She had a nice smile, a sweet presence, and I liked her immediately. We chatted for a short while. I asked how she managed when people didn’t wear the device, and about lip reading, and getting by. I told her that I suffered from hearing problems myself, a surgery with a specialist in Ohio and a second one planned. I understood, on a personal level, how terribly isolating hearing loss can be.

We said goodbye. As she left, I commented to a nearby teacher about how much I liked that girl. “She’s probably a writer,” I added. You can often tell. She was thoughtful and attentive, a watcher, an observer. In my experience, those are the types who make writers. The quiet ones. And there’s that other thing about writers: it’s something you sense in people, the way they absorb their surroundings. You can tell there’s something going on between the ears.

It’s rarely the way they talk, but more the quality of their listening.

“Yes, she’s a very good writer,” the teacher informed me.

A few minutes later, my friend, Erin, was back. She handed me a poem. A small group of teachers and I were about to have lunch in another room. But I read the poem while Erin stood by, watching. And finally, when I reached the end, I told her that it was incredible, that I was moved by it, that I admired and envied her talent. “You are such a great writer,” I told her, and I meant it. Erin smiled, a terrific smile, and told me that I could keep the poem. And I did, but not until I got her autograph. In green ink, no less.

Erin RosenfeldThe writer.

I don’t know. I do a lot of school visits, a lot of blabbering about me, me, me. But it’s always these small moments that make it worthwhile, that make me feel like there’s value in it. When out of the blue a connection is made, and I meet somebody like Erin, and maybe in some small way she’ll remember this moment, for I know I’ll remember her . . . 

<< snip >>

Click here if you wish to read Erin’s poem and the rest of my original post.

Coming In Two Weeks . . .

My son, Gavin (16), taught himself Photoshop a couple of summers ago. He’s enterprising that way. I asked him to put something together for me, in preparation for a few book festivals that are coming up.

Thanks, Gavin. I think it looks great. Nice to see all those kind words in one place.

The Fall Ad

Read This Terrific Letter to Teachers from a District Superintendent in NY.




I’m sharing this letter that’s been going around the interwebs today. I wish for all teachers that they can experience this level of support.

Have a great school year!