FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #293: from Genesis to Revelation!

This letter was mysteriously left on a table, near my things, on the day of a school visit to Somewhere, CT. 

I replied . . . 

Dear Genesis,

My apologies for not responding sooner. In my haste, I stuffed your letter into my bag and, well, basically spaced it out. Hopefully my reply will arrive as a nice surprise, sometime after you’ve given up hope.

I must say that you wrote kind of a brilliant letter, Genesis. You are obviously a reader, but more than that, you are a deep reader, someone who seems to have natural insight into the fact that there’s an actual person who wrote the book. Doing research, getting inspired, making choices. You recognize the creative process that informs the book.

When asked to give advice to young writers, that’s often what I tell them: read like a writer, try to think like a writer as you read. So you are correct. Most people just want to happily enjoy the entertainment. Like you said, “they just like the book, but they miss the effort it takes to write a book, the long hours, days, or months to just write a chapter.”

You asked about my thinking process and inspiration. I don’t have an easy answer. When I’m at my best, I think of my brain as particularly “spongy.” I absorb things, receive the signals (like an antenna), maybe with a heightened sense of insight into others: how they feel, how they think. There’s no shortage of inspiration out in the world. The key is to be open. Eyes, ears, heart, brain. Seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking. Then giving yourself time –- and a blank page — to sort it out.

Today I had an idea about the character that I’m writing about, Mary from Bystander. I decided she could have a tarot card reading. I’m not sure why that popped into my brain today. I met a woman over the summer, at the dog park, who gives tarot readings. We’ve talked about it a little. I’m not sure I believe in any of that, but I do find it interesting. For me to write the scene, I’d need to talk again to her, maybe go out for coffee, ask questions, take notes. Or perhaps I should go for my own tarot card reading? Experience it for myself.

The important thing is that the idea appeals to me. It sounds like fun, learning that stuff, writing it. What does Mary discover in the reading? Does she believe it? Does she become upset? Who gives the reading? So many questions to answer. I think, maybe, it could be a friend’s older sister. Somebody just learning about the cards, fooling around with them a little bit. Maybe during a sleepover.

I don’t know, Genesis! The thing is, I’ll work it around in my brain, chew it over, talk to my expert, see if I can fit it into my story. I may ditch it -– or it might become a crucial scene, a pivot point in the story.

As for my desire to write, ha, it comes and goes. This is a tough business, filled with disappointments and great satisfactions. Up and down and up and down and up and down. Endlessly. Like most writers, I’m a reader. And I am perfectly okay with being alone. That’s important. I have the right disposition for the job. I know writers who are very disciplined. They sit in a chair and refuse to rise until they churn out 500 words. That kind of thing. For me, I need to have a certain feeling of fullness. Like, I don’t know, I’m ready. I can’t force it or fake it. Some days, I wish I could.

Thanks for your terrific letter. And thank you for expressing interest in my new book, Blood Mountain. If you do read it, please write back. I’d love to hear what a smart, thoughtful reader like you makes of it.

My best,

James Preller

 

 

Reading “Harriet the Spy” — and One Tip About Writing Dialogue

I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I don’t have memories of reading any “literature” or novels. It was mostly the sports pages in the newspaper — those were the first writers I loved — Dick Young, Phil Pepe — the guys who covered the Mets, Jets, Knicks. And I read random sports biographies here and there, but not often. 

When I became more of a reader, it was a direct jump into adult writers: Vonnegut, Bradbury, Brautigan. So as you might imagine, I
have these huge gaps in the field of children’s literature. From time to time, I play catch up, tossing a shovelful of dirt into a gaping crater. 

Which is to say that now, at age 58, I’m reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. 

I liked this exchange between Sport and Harriet early on in the book:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

There’s much to admire in this little bit of dialogue. The wit, the charm, the realistic cadences. You know what. But something I try to show young writers — a lesson that took me years to learn in my own work — is the simple effectiveness of all those brief descriptive tags that make the conversation come alive. 

The bulk of most books, of most writing, is made up of characters talking. Conversations floating in space. The trick is to ground those conversations in a concrete reality. They are playing putt-putt golf. Fishing on a boat. Hiking up a mountain. Sitting on a park bench. Running from zombies. Or, in the example above, squatting by a big tree, with Harriet bending over her notebook. Sport is tossing a football in the air. The scene is set.

Let’s read it again without those very simple descriptive sentences. That is, all dialogue:

“That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” 

“Looks like an old tree root.” 

“Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” 

 

I find that when I’m inspired, I’ll often begin this way in my notebook. Hearing the voices, scribbling down the conversation. Writing only what is said. But how does a reader see what’s going on? It’s those simple little sentences that I’ve come to admire so much. He set the hat on the table. He flicked a pebble with his thumb. She leaned forward. Whatever.

One more time, highlighting what Fitzhugh does here to help us see the people in this conversation:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

 

There’s nothing fancy about those sentences. They don’t get in the way, don’t draw attention to themselves. Harriet looked up to his face. Anybody can write that. All you have to do is imagine it. The writer has to see it and, here’s the trick, recognize that the reader doesn’t. Or can’t. Or won’t — not without help. 

One other sidenote: Fitzhugh doesn’t use much standard attribution here. Only once, with “he muttered.” The way she indicates who is talking, and it’s never confusing, is through these simple descriptive sentences.

Mrs. Garcia shook her head. “I do the best I can.” [from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar]

A writer doesn’t need to add, she said, because after you’ve included that descriptive sentence, it’s already obvious who is speaking.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to turn this into a writing lesson when I began this post. Just wanted to share a line from the book, one that resonated with me: I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.

No reader can argue with that.

And this, Dear Reader, is the end.

Together We Can Change the World

I took these snaps last week at an airport in Florida. I also took a similar (though less successful) photo at middle school in CT, which is not included here.

I love this movement with our public drinking fountains: A place to easily fill water bottles. The counter was a new one on me, and I liked that, too.

Do you have one in your public school?

As a visiting author, I’m always asked what I’ll need on my visit. If I have dietary restrictions, what kind of technology I’ll be using, and so on. And I always ask for water. Because of all that talking.

And because I’m a hypocrite. 

So when I visit, I’m provided with an endless supply of plastic water bottles. This year, I’m finally trying to put an end to that by bringing my own reusable bottle. A simple thing, a small thing, and long overdue. 

But that’s where I’m at these days. Whoever you are, whatever you believe, do what you can do to be a little bit better than yesterday. No judgment. Nobody’s perfect. And no matter where you stand, just trying pointing those feet in the right direction. You don’t have to become an entirely new person. You don’t have to become the best and the most. Every little bit helps. Think of the planet and do what you can. Make that small shift.

Together we can change the world.

Sorry, Kids!

Still Accepting (and Enjoying!) Skype Visits

I recently Skyped with this wonderful group of students and, toward the end, snapped a few photos of my computer screen. These young people were impressive in every way: great demeanor, attentive and courteous, insightful questions, joyful vibe. It felt good all the way through, a true pleasure. This 6th-grade class is taught by the most excellent Ms. Kramer, and the Skype was arranged by Barbara Scott, from PA’s Waldron Mercy Academy. They were especially interested in hearing about my plans for a sequel to Bystander

No, it’s not finished yet. Hang in there.

I enjoy Skyping. Typically I accept a modest (negotiable) honorarium. The conversations run for 30 minutes and employ a simple Q & A format. My strong preference is to work with a group that has read the same book, to give our conversation shape and focus. I’ve Skyped about Bystander, The Courage Test, Jigsaw Jones, Scary Tales and more.

So far, because it’s new, no Skypes yet on Blood Mountain. Boy, I’d love to have that conversation. Just zing me an email and we’ll figure it out.

I was glad to receive a follow-up note from Barb shortly after the visit: “Thank you for such an interesting and engaging Skype visit with our students. They truly enjoyed it, and they are not an easy group to please!”

The feeling is mutual, and I’m not so easy to please, either. Who wants to be “easy to please” anyway? 

Here’s those terrific kids again, waving good-bye . . .