Fan Mail Wednesday #197: Emily, Age 11, Writes an Alternative Ending to BYSTANDER

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I get a lot of great letters from readers, but this one is particularly awesome because it’s from a future author . . . who maybe already writes better than me. Rats!

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

9780312547967My name is Emily _____, age 11, and I wish to be an author someday. I read your story Bystander and loved it!  Although I didn’t like how the story ended between Eric and Griffin. I was expecting some sort of face off between them but it never happened. So, I wrote my own ending to the story. I go to school in Portland. I handed in the story into my teacher for her advice and she made a note that said (and i quote):

Emily,

There are so many great qualities in this story — wow!

  • really suspenseful and exciting
  • great phrasing description
  • believable plot

You should send this to author to read — really he will appreciate it i’m sure.

Anyway, so i decided to send it to you! here it is:

How Bystander should have ended…

It was November. A couple months have passed since Griffin and Eric interacted with one another. Griffin and his new crew ruled the halls of the school. Eric wished that if he imagined it enough Griffin would leave, but when you enter reality, it’s not something you can expect to happen.

Day by day, the boys exchange dirty looks with one another… until Eric decided to tell the  “Griffin crew,” who was boss.

“Ok, Griffin, I am going to tell you this, and I’m only going to say this once…” Eric said grabbing Griffin by the shirt.

“We need to settle this like men,” Eric spoke with rage.

“On the basketball court. If I win, you stop bullying people forever. But if you win, then I leave the school…forever.”

Griffin almost laughed.

“Really? And who would be on your team?” Griffin snickered. Eric’s face turned pale as sleet.

“I can find a team,” Eric trembled as he spoke.  A crowd of people came fast, swarming like bees. Everyone was there. Then Eric heard a voice he hadn’t heard in a while.

“I’ll be on his team!” shouted a voice. Everyone looked back to see David Hallenback standing, head held high.

“Ha-ha. Are you kidding?! Hallenback you can’t even do a push up!” Griffin teased. Eric knew he couldn’t be a bystander again.

“I’ve seen him do a pushup!” Eric lied. David’s cheeks got less red as if Eric’s words soaked up all the embarrassment.

“Well you can only have two people on your team… who would join?”

Then Griffin heard a voice that he recognized call out:

“I will,” It was Cody. Who knew someone so annoying could be so kind?

“Uhh, dude! You’re in my crew!” Griffin called out.

“I ditched you remember?” Cody said. He walked over to Eric and high fived him. It was then three on Griffin’s team and three on Eric’s team. Griffin was with, a new kid named Caiden, and tomboy named Piper. Eric was with David and Cody.

“I’m going to win this thing,” Griffin said.

“I beg to differ,” Eric smirked.

—–

It was the day of the game and everyone was there. Eric’s team started with the ball. By the time it was almost over, Eric was losing, 39 to 40. There was 8 seconds on the clock. Griffin’s team had the ball.

1280px-Basketball_through_hoopThen the horn blew. Griffin was heading towards the basket when Hallenback made a quick steal from Griffin and was heading towards the basket. 3 seconds, 2 seconds… then you could hear the most amazing sound in the world, the swoosh of the ball going into the net. Eric won. It was like Eric could walk on air.

“HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK!” everyone chanted. Griffin’s anger was boiling up more than dry ice in hot water. Let’s just say, sometime’s a fairytale can turn into reality.

Thank you for your time.

farewell,

Emily

My reply:

Dear Emily,

Thank you for sharing your alternative ending to Bystander. I’m really impressed. I feel like a stranger handed me a gift out of the blue. “For me? Thank you.”

You are such a good writer. Great action and suspense. It’s smart how your brought basketball back into the story, a tale of justice settled on the “court.” Best of all, I think, was your convincing use of dialogue. To me, believable dialogue is the key to writing compelling, fast-paced stories with lively characters. 

When I first started writing, I often got stuck writing long passages filled with interior thinking. Nobody every moved! You know what I mean? Those times when we’re trapped inside a character’s head. So he thinks and thinks and thinks, and shares with the reader lots of interior thoughts. But on the page, that can get boring very quickly. Nothing happens. It took me years to learn a lesson that you already instinctively know: get characters talking to each other, create conflict . . . and get out of the way! I guess it’s obvious, really. Good writing does both, it goes inside and outside. It’s important to get inside a character’s head, at least once in a while, but in terms of showing action — that is: showing, not telling — we need to give readers a clear picture of “the outside.” You do that masterfully.

The ending of Bystander has generated more comments than any other aspect of the book. When I wrote that final scene, I realized that it might not be satisfying in the conventional sense, especially to a reader with a sense of fairness. In stories and movies, we like to see the bad day get it in the end. But my ending was anti-climactic; I did not opt for the big dramatic finish (which you accomplished so well). I went the other direction. For me, I wrote the ending that I thought was most true to the world as I understood it, even if, well, it was not a storybook conclusion. But I hear you, Emily, and you are not wrong to feel the way you do. I just wanted you to know why I wrote the ending the way I did. I followed my own idea of true.

Thank you so much for your work. And thanks, too, for your fabulous teacher who suggested that you share it with me. I’m grateful to your both. Great job all around.

I’m sorry that it took me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I could sense your eagerness for a reply, but I’ve been deep into the final stages of a book — deadlines are tough, you know — and it’s been hard for me to address my growing (virtual) pile of letters. Plus, my mother-in-law has been visiting. And, well, maybe someday you’ll understand the difficulty of that particular distraction.

By the way, I have a companion book to Bystander coming out at the end of the summer, titled The Fall (Macmillan, 2015). It’s an entirely different story, all new characters, but in it I explore some of the same themes and issues found in Bystander. It’s probably a little bit darker, a little tougher. I’m really proud of it. As a writer, you probably how that feels.

I wish you a happy holiday, however you might celebrate this wintery season. As the band Devo said, “Merry Something To You!”

James Preller

On the Passing of Norman Bridwell, Creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog

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I was hired by Scholastic as a junior copywriter back in 1985 for the princely sum of $11,500. To get the initial interview, I mailed in my near-empty resume and a writing sample, which addressed the hot topic of the day, Bernie Goetz, New York’s “subway shooter.”

After the first set of interviews with Willie Ross and Carol Skolnick, I was given a bunch of children’s books and asked to write about them in two voices. First, for young children, and secondly, for teachers. Writing about Curious George to students, I wrote something like, “Yikes! That silly monkey is in trouble again!” For teachers, the idea was to take a different tone, such as, “In this classic tale, award-winning author H.A. Rey conveys the hilarious antics of Curious George, one of the most enduring and beloved characters in all of children’s literature.”

I got the job writing the SeeSaw Book Club.

One of the first assignments I was asked to perform was to write brief promotional brochures on three authors: Ann McGovern, Johanna Hurwitz, and Norman Bridwell. I was given their phone numbers, told to call them, set up an interview.

“Call them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“On the phone?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Um, me?”

“Yes, you.”

I stared at that phone for a few minutes, mustered up my courage, and pushed the numbers.

That’s the first time I spoke with Norman Bridwell. He was then, as he would forever remain, a humble, soft-spoken, generous man. The first Clifford book, published in 1963, came out in two-color, in an inexpensive, horizontal format. It looked cheap, because it was. But in the early 80s somebody at Scholastic had the bright idea of repackaging those books in a mass market, 8″ x 8″ format — and in vibrant full color. The books took off and the Big Red Dog became one of the great success stories in children’s literature. In fact, one can accurately imagine the Scholastic corporation as a great sled with Clifford the Big Red Dog hauling it through the snow. That benign character helped propel a company to greatness.

Through it all, Norman remained the same kind, gentle man. No one ever spoke badly of him. No one, not ever.

He was always courteous, generous, kind. Even grateful, I think. Norman always seemed to consider himself lucky. And the truth is, he was fortunate. I don’t think anyone makes it really big in this business without a little luck shining down on you. Norman understood that.

NETFLIX, INC. SCHOLASTIC INC. CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG

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He deserved his success, for he had created something pure and genuine that touched hearts, and through it all he remained faithful to the essential core of what those books were all about. The love between a child and her dog, with a bunch of jokes and gags thrown in to get you to that final hug.

One other quick story about Clifford. It was sometime later, let’s call it the early 1990s, and I was in Ed Monagle’s office, chatting away. At that time, I’d moved upstate, gone freelance, and was trying to survive as a writer. (True story: I’m still trying to survive as a writer.) Ed was a terrific guy, but also a numbers guy. A financial analyst, chief bean counter at Scholastic. Ed cared about the books, and believed in the central mission of the company, but he was also impressed by profit-and-loss statements. He admired Clifford’s sales numbers, and respected the size of Norman’s royalty checks.

So on this day, Ed gave me some friendly advice. He said, “Jimmy, this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to invent a character that everyone loves. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. Do you have any idea how many of those books we sell? You could do that!” he continued. “I mean, think about Clifford. He’s a dog. He’s big. He’s red. How hard could it be?!

That’s the thing with magic, I guess. It never looks difficult.

Ed was right, of course, the idea was laughably simple. He was also completely wrong. Clifford the Big Red Dog was an exceptional idea, marvelous in its simplicity, executed to perfection.

Not so easy after all.

Norman Bridwell passed away this week. And I’m here to say, very quietly, that he was a really good guy. I’m sorry to see him go.

 

I Am Becoming This Guy . . .

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Ha, well, that’s a little bit of me, I guess. I’m 53 and I did, in fact, grow up in a different world, one that would be increasingly unrecognizable to young people today.

I loved my stick.

And sometimes when I look at my own kids, half-watching TV as they half-scan their cell phones, fully nowhere, I wonder about what might have been lost.

I spent last week observing in four different second-grade classrooms (I want to write about that another time, when I have time), talking to teachers, or I should say, listening to teachers, and they do generally have concerns about this age of technology and what it might mean for listening and conversational skills. But whenever I get on this topic, it’s hard not to feel like that cliche, “back in my day . . .”

Carry on!

Fan Mail Wednesday #196: In Which Adam Calls Me “Ms. Preller” & Other Indignities

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Here we go, folks: “Fan Mail Wednesday!” This letter begins with an inadvertent salutation — and a cool statement of purpose.

Adam:Fan Mail

I replied:

Adam, dude.

Or should I call you Shirley?

What do you mean addressing this to “Dear Ms. Preller”?

That’s Mr. Preller to you!

M-I-S-T-E-R.

Ha-ha. I thought that was a funny mistake in your letter. At least, I hope it was a mistake. I don’t have anything against girls — I like girls, I do! — it’s just that, well, I’m a boy. Or an ex-boy. Now I’m an old geezer with gray whiskers growing out of his chinny-chin-chin. But in my head, I’m eight years old.

I loved the first line of your letter. “I am going to ask you some stuff.” You got right to the point. No messing around with chit-chat.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and Ralph Jordan talk on the bus. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

Mila Yeh, Jigsaw Jones, and Ralph Jordan talk on the bus. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

I actually did enjoy writing this book, thanks for asking. It was a fun mystery, because it combined “slightly spooky” with “very silly.”  As for when it was written, all you have to do is look at THE PAGE THAT NO ONE ON THE PLANET EVER READS.

Which page is that? It’s called the copyright page. In this case, it’s directly opposite the “Contents” page. It has the author’s dedication, followed by a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo in tiny type, including the book’s ISBN. Below that, you’ll find this:

Text copyright, © 2004 by James Preller.

There it is, the answer to your question. I wrote that book ten years ago. Time flies!

Here our detectives solve the mystery -- it was good old Mr. Copabianco, the school janitor, all along.

Here our detectives solve the mystery — it was good old Mr. Copabianco, the school janitor, all along. He’s into the arts.

The tree house office is actually in Jigsaw’s backyard. In the summer, he works out there, because he loves it. He must like the nebulous heights. In the winter, he moves his office into the basement, next to the washing machine. Mila is Jigsaw’s partner. I think of her as the brains of the operation, while Jigsaw is the one with the unstoppable spirit. He never gives up. Together, they make a great team.

Oh yes, I’m glad you mentioned the illustrations in this book. They were done by a terrific guy who lives in England named Jamie Smith. We’ve never met, but we have exchanged a few emails over the years. I love his work — and I even have a few of his original pieces hanging in my office, nicely framed.

Take care. I hope you don’t mind a little good-natured kidding!

Your friend,

“Ms” James Preller

 

 

 

“Library” — An Animated Poem by Scroobius Pip

 

What is a Scroobius Pip? Well, from what I can gather, Scroobius is no relation to any of the “pips” that — or who? — hung out with Gladys Knight. Born David Meads, Scroobius is a poet and hip hop recording artist out of England. Essex, specifically. A word guy. According to The Independent: “Mellifluous magician, street scribe, punk-poet with pop sensibilities, Pip conjures truly modern verse of genuine incision.”

Looks like a lot of fun to hang out with, too.

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For what it’s worth, I dug around the interwebs and unearthed this comment to Mr. Pip from a fan. Too cool:

“Hey Scroobius Pip, You saved a life.

I just wanted to let you know that one of the main reasons i am alive and am able to type this is because of you. After being on the verge of suicide multiple times in the past, i stumbled upon your song “Magicians Assistant”. Your words filled my mind and distorted my view on my situation.

I will keep this short, but you changed the way i thought, and in turn snapped me the hell out of my mindset. It was a long journey, but recently i can look in the mirror and say im happy with my life. I just wanted you to know that, and i thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

 

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ABOUT SCHOOL LIBRARIANS: So We Can All Sing Together, One Voice, Loud & Strong

 

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

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I’m primarily writing to pass on a link about school libraries. Maybe the article states the obvious. Essential stuff we already know, or certainly sense.  I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. But what I’ve come to believe in life, and politics, is that it’s important to preach to the choir. That’s how we can all open the hymnal to the same page, how we all sing out together, loud and clear. Not a bunch of scattered voices, but a powerful choir.

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Here’s the link to a terrific article by Carol Heinsdorf and Debra Kachel, “School Libraries Are Essential to Learning,” along with a copy of the first few paragraphs. Their immediate focus is on Philadelphia public schools, but this represents a national trend:

In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This year there are 11 and only five are known to be actually doing what they were trained to do. Five librarians for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.

Leaving Philadelphia’s public school libraries without professional staffing is a grave mistake. It will have consequences for the students for the rest of their lives. Study after study shows a clear link between school libraries staffed by certified librarians and student achievement.

In 2012, research showed that students who had school library programs and certified librarians were more likely to have advanced reading and writing scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. And they were less likely to have “below basic” scores.

The same study found that school library programs have their greatest impact on students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, or have disabilities. African American students in schools with certified librarians are twice as likely to earn advanced writing scores as those in schools without librarians.

A Mansfield University paper that looked at studies done in 23 states verified that schools with a trained librarian – someone who teaches students and works with teachers to develop information and research skills – have a consistent positive effect on student achievement regardless of demographic and economic differences among students.

In my professional life, I’ve been fortunate to walk into hundred of schools around the country as a guest author.  Increasingly, I see libraries that are understaffed, and I meet librarians who are tasked to provide full-time services on part-time pay (and hours). On many days, these librarians are simply not in the building. In many schools, the library is increasingly marginalized and treated as non-essential — though, of course, no one on a school board ever admits to that out loud. “We may have cut the job in half,” they will tell anyone who’ll listen, “but it will not effect our children.”

Sorry, folks, but I’m calling bull***t.

This trend is true even in my own supposedly “quality” Bethlehem school district, in a relatively affluent suburb of Albany, NY. Former full-time librarians are now commuting between schools, splitting time and services. It’s a huge problem in New York, since the contract does not mandate a full-time librarian position (as opposed to, say, a P.E. instructor). A library should be the heartbeat of an elementary school. And in great schools, it clearly
serves that central, essential function. The librarian, or Media Specialist (if you prefer),
interacts with every child, in every grade, often across six years of learning. Consider that for a moment, the broad impact of that one person. A librarian works with and supports 640classroom teachers. And in response to this reality, the political leaders in our educational system can only think to fire those people, or force them to split schools, while they increasingly focus on standardized tests, purchasing more technology, saving pennies and wasting dollars.

It’s so maddening, and so wrong-minded, I could scream. And that’s why we preach to the choir. Because maybe if we all scream together, somebody will hear our cry.

Everything Was Swell Until the 6th Inning

I came across a photo today and figured I’d tell you about it. Blog fodder, you know.

This is me five years ago, after throwing batting practice on a hot night:

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It was the eve of the championship game for the 10-year-old All-Stars. Bethlehem vs. Colonie. I remember it clearly. My son, Gavin, got the nod as starting pitcher that day (I was coach, not manager, and did not make that decision), mostly by virtue of his being rested and available. He wasn’t our best arm, but on that day he was cool and in control. Gavin hit his pitch count limit after five innings and we had to pull him. Our team was ahead against a very resilient group from Colonie, leading 8-5. Time to go to the bullpen. At that moment, everything that could have possibly gone wrong, went wrong. Three outs from an elusive championship, those poor boys got smoked. It still makes me shake my head in grim wonder. We ended up losing by 10 runs, after one of the most brutal innings I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll never forget that game. I wanted to win, and I genuinely wanted for those boys to experience that championship feeling. Alas, and oh well.

It often amazes me how these games can linger in memory. When I wrote Six Innings, back in 2008, I was struck by how clearly I remembered Little League games that I had played back in the early 70s when I was 9-10-11 years old. It gave me the conviction to write the book in the first place. The games meant something to these kids. That I can vividly recall individual plays across 40 years is a testament to that fact. I can still see that ball rolling through Don Cognato’s spindly legs.

This is a place in life where these boys live. Where a lot of life’s momentous events are played out. It’s a cliche to say that a player leaves his heart out on the field, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I know I left my heart on a lot of ballfields across the years, and I wasn’t the only one.

There’s a moment in Six Innings when I try to capture that feeling. Well, not a moment, exactly; I try to achieve it throughout the entire book. But there’s one particular moment when I suppose I try to elevate the language a bit, try to lift off above the turf. The staccato rhythms give way to longer, more poetic sentences. It happens after a thrilling play at the plate in the top of the 5th:

In that instant, everything freezes, a DVD on pause, then explodes into action. Both teams, the fans, the coaches — shouting, cheering, hooting, protesting — every emotion galvanized at once, a kinetic charge of energy rising up through the five layers of the earth’s atmosphere, their cries and dreams climbing from troposphere to exosphere, soaring into the velvet void of deepest space. A roar that happens on Little League fields every day, in every town, city, state, and country all over the world, from Logansport to Osaka, San Cristobal to Little Rock. The sound the game makes when it is played passionately, with young hearts.

Hey, how’s this for cool? The cover of the Korean translation (uh, it’s the one on the left):

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Fan Mail Wednesday #195: Ashley Wants Scary Books for Older Readers

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Here’s an email that resulted from a recent presentation I gave to grades 6-8 while down in Virginia:

Hello, Mr. Preller,

I go to Norfolk Collegiate and you visited my school just a few weeks ago. I never got to really ask you any questions, but yet I gave you book ideas. I’m the Freddy Krueger Girl and the Bloody Mary Girl, remember? I just wanted to ask you if you ever plan to write higher level Scary Tales Books. I remember you telling me about them and I wish you wrote some for beginning high school level or a bit higher since I’m in middle school, I still have a high reading level which narrows my selections from any interesting books like yours. Also I can’t wait for your Bystander sequel to come out and i’m looking forward to any new books in the works.

The Freddy Krueger Girl,

Ashley

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I replied,

Ashley! 

Thanks for your note. I very much enjoyed my brief visit to Norfolk Collegiate. That was grades 6-8, I believe.  Of course I remember you.  How many “Freddy Krueger Girls” do you think I meet? 
 
scooby_doo_1_110562I think writing a scary story for older readers would be great fun. In my current series, as you know, I try to be responsible to younger readers. I want to scare them, but I am not looking to traumatize anybody. I’m not seeking to drive 9-year-old readers into the sanitarium, locked up in a rubber room. So I mostly focus on entertainment, building suspense — the knot that twists and twists. I make sure that each story is safely resolved, and nobody gets hurt. At the same time, it’s not Scooby Doo — where the ghost is usually just a portly janitor dressed in a sheet — but it’s not truly horrifying, either. I try to straddle that middle zone of scary . . . but not too scary.
 
I sometimes joke on visits with elementary school students, “I’m sorry, but no one gets murdered in these stories. And I’m sad to inform you that there are no gory scenes with blood gushing out all over the place.”
They politely try to hide their disappointment.
 
All of which makes me think that it would be liberating to write a story for older readers like you where there were no rules. Where I could say, “Well, in fact, teenagers get murdered and there’s blood all over the place! It’s delightfully gory!”
 
Wouldn’t that be swell?
 
Thanks for your letter.
 
JP
 
P.S. Thanks for your interest in the quasi-companion book to Bystander, titled The Fall. It’s due out in August, 2015 — I think! As I said before, it’s not truly a sequel, but it does address many of the same themes from a different, slightly darker perspective. 

Fan Mail Wednesday #194: I Actually Give This Poor Kid Writing Advice

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Here’s a letter that did not have to travel very far. However, it’s a little tough to read, but I’m sharing it anyway. So there:

Scan 4

 

I replied:

Tyler,

Wow, thanks for the letter and thanks, too, for reading so many of my books. You inspire me to write more. Here are three titles that are coming out in the near and distant future: Scary Tales: Swamp Monster (Spring, 2015), The Fall (Fall, 2015), and Dead, But Cautiously Optimistic (Spring, 2016). 

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300I hope that by now you’ve been able to track down a copy of Bystander. Usually I describe that book as best for grades 5-up, but I’d never stand in the way of a motivated reader. I have a deep affection for Six Innings, and I’m proud that it was named an ALA Notable Book. I poured a lifetime of baseball obsession into that single book, while also writing about my own son’s struggle with a serious illness. 

I have to confess that I always feel a shiver of uneasiness when asked about writing advice. I know many authors who give it confidently and freely. They even charge money to teach it. In my case, despite all these books, I still feel like I’m someone who should be taking advice rather than giving it. 

But, okay, fair enough: I must know something. Right? So read, read often and read widely. Read for pleasure, yes, but also read like a writer. By that I mean, pay attention to what’s happening on the page. Be aware that there’s a real person, an author, behind those scenes on the page, making choices with every word, every sentence. If you are excited, or scared, and laughing out loud — if you feel anything at all while you read — go back and try to figure out what the writer did to cause you to feel that way. We learn best by reading other writers. 

Also, of course, you’ve got to write. And by that I mean, write anything at all — notes, poems, song lyrics, snippets of dialogue, true stories, anything. Purchase your own blank journal. I love those ordinary composition notebooks you can find at CVS. It’s so important to have a place you can go with your thoughts. Remember that it’s impossible to write without deep thought, deep feeling. Writing is an act of concentration and focus. You’ll need to give yourself the greatest gift of all: time to think. Space to feel. It requires that you turn off the television, shut down the computer, put away the phone and games. Hey, I love all that stuff, but in order to write, you must go inside your own skull for entertainment.

At your age, I think it’s best to concentrate on short pieces. Little stories. Scenes. It’s very common for young writers to imagine a great, long, complicated story that would require a 100,00 words to tell properly. Problem is, 99% of the time those ambitious stories are never completed.

tools-belts-xxcge4-296x300I believe there’s value in finished work, and sometimes that’s a matter of adjusting your goals. Imagine that you were beginning to learn carpentry. You’d need to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade. A hammer, some nails, a screwdriver, scraps of wood, a monkey wrench, etc. You’d begin, I’d hope, by attempting to build something relatively simple: a birdhouse, perhaps. You wouldn’t attempt a structure that was, say, a 2,000 square-foot log cabin for a family of five. Same thing with writing. Explore the tools. Play around with them. Write a scene with a heavy use of dialogue. Put together characters on a park bench, get them talking about something, describe someone’s room. 

Also: slow down. That’s one I have to keep learning in my own writing, over and over again. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next scene, and the next, and the next. We all want to be done, bang out those two wonderful words: THE END! Instead, take your time with the scene you are writing. Go deeper, think harder. Find the details that are worth sharing. I’ve heard writing teachers call it “downshifting.” If you’ve captured a good moment, linger there for a beat, a few extra sentences. Throw a line into the water. See what else might be just under the surface. You might get a bite.

Anyway, Tyler. You asked for it. But do you see what I mean? It’s so hard for me to say anything that’s truly helpful. I wish I could give you the magic key, but I can’t. In the end, writing is all about you and the blank page. No one can really help all that much. I wish you the best of luck in your writing life. If somebody like me can do it, I’m sure that you can, too.

My best,

JP

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #193: Stinky Science & Secret Codes

 

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Today’s letter comes from the International School in Palo Alto, CA, and it’s written by Chih-Hsuan. But that’s not the best part. The best part is that it includes a brand new code — and I cracked it!

Here’s the letter:

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I replied:

Dear Chih-Hsuan:

It’s always amazing to receive fan mail. When you think of the world today, how many people on the planet receive actual letters? What’s more, you wrote to me about a book that I wrote 15 years ago. That’s before you were born!

I’m glad that I’m still alive to read it.

And I mean, I’m very glad. The old ticker is still working!

I love your code, which is a variation of the List Code that Mila created in the book. At first it looks like a shopping list: 4 peanuts, 3 lobsters, 26 tomatos, etc.

The number, of course, is the key which directs me, the reader, to the proper letter. 3 lobsters means: “b.” What stumped me, briefly, was 26 tomatos. Hmmm? The letter “z”? Then I separated the number into its parts, a “2” and a “6.” Oooooooh. Double ooooooh!

Your secret message: FUN BOOK!

Thanks for that.

I should also thank you for getting me to pull that book off the shelf. I was actually charmed by the first page — a good beginning, I thought, in which I introduce a new character:

Illustration by John Speirs.

Illustration by John Speirs.

The pink bows didn’t fool me. I ignored the matching lace socks and the little red plastic pocketbook. I knew that Sally-Ann Simms was one tough cookie.

So what if she was only four and a half years old.

Sally-Ann stood in my backyard, hands on her hips. She shouted up to my tree house, “Jigsaw Jones! You up there?”

I was up there — and I told her so. “Take the ladder,” I called down. “The elevator’s broken.”

It’s a relief for me to read something I wrote long ago to discover that I still like it. Not bad, I think. And “not bad” is “pretty good.”

You asked why Joey didn’t simply throw his egg sandwich away in the trash. Good question. I think he felt bad about wasting food, so he wanted to get rid of the sandwich without anyone noticing. Of course, as a storyteller, I needed Joey to hide it in the volcano to help keep my plot moving forward. I have to confess that the smell of hard-boiled eggs makes me flee the room. It’s just one of those odors that I can’t tolerate. Yuck. Super yuck. 

Thanks for writing to me, Chih-Hsuan. And thank you, also, to the good folks at Scholastic for still sending along those letters, long after the book’s been published.

My best,

JP