Archive for February 27, 2009

Big Picture Revision

Essentially, revision comes in two stages: 1) What I think of as “Big Picture” Revision; and 2) All the little details, which is really better understood as “copyediting.”

I think kids groan whenever revision is discussed for many reasons, and probably the most basic is that they want to be done; revision translates into “more work.” Who wouldn’t groan at that? But also it’s the work itself, because for so many revision overwhelmingly represents the second stage, all the boring little details; the fun is definitely over. These kids want to splash bright, bold colors on a wall . . .

. . . and we’re asking them to paint the trim. Nothing wrong with that — you’ve got to paint the trim — but I sympathize with the groans.

Sometimes when I meet with students, and we talk about revision, I remind them of the root meaning of the word, re/vision. Literally to see, again.

It’s why so many writers talk about needing to step away from the work, like a painter backing from the canvas, in order to see the work from a new perspective.

How can the story be funnier? More exciting? Of course, the essential element is that you’ve got to care, you’ve got to take pride in your work. Not every student has that feeling about his writing — and I’m not at all sure you can teach that — but I’m certain that revision is a hopeless process without pride in one’s finished product. Which is equally true for house painters.

Back in the day when I was a copywriter, I’d often send out these thirty-page packets to as many as fifteen different readers. They were all invited to make comments, criticisms, suggestions. Then I’d get all those packets returned, many covered with heart-breaking scribbles, unfriendly remarks, sentences crossed out, hacked at, sometimes improved, sometimes ruined. I’d take all those comments and have to consider each one . . . and revise.

The mental trick I learned was to intentionally try to save energy for that stage, even to the point of holding something back in the first draft; because once you think it’s perfect,  once you think you are done, after you’ve given 100% and all the creative energy is spent, then all those comments will crush you. So it’s important to understand the process — to know from the very beginning that, toward the end, you are going to have to paint the trim.

One quick example I like to give kids, because it always generates lively discussion when I ask them to revise with me: I tell them how I once wrote a scene in a Jigsaw Jones book, where he’s in the art room and needs to search someone’s desk. I wrote the chapter and it was okay enough, though maybe a little flat. In revision, at my editor’s suggestion, I tried to think of how I could make it funnier. It was a scene set in an art room. Did I have any memories of funny things that happened in school? Did I know someone who had a funny memory? And what about an art room, anyway? There’s glue!

Glue is funny. And there’s paint — paint that can spill or splatter. The comic possibilities unfurl. The paint spills on whom? Jigsaw? Big Maloney? Maybe the teacher! See: We’ve circled back, we’re brainstorming; we’re throwing around paint again.

In the end, my revision to that scene was minor, and not really hysterical; it just added an extra beat to the rhythm. But the thinking process behind the revision was fun. I enjoyed it. How do you make a scene more scary? Or move it along faster? How do you make this thing . . . better? That’s the heart of revision, an opening up of possibilities, before that final narrow focus of copyediting.

NOTE: I’m going away for a few days to visit friends. Maybe we’ll even take pictures!

Sunrise Doesn’t Last All Morning: George Harrison’s Birthday

Yesterday was the anniversary of George Harrison’s birthday, so I’m a day late. This is one of my favorite songs of his post-Beatles career, and seems most fitting, though I have many that I love: “What Is Life,” “Isn’t It a Pity?,” “Beware of Darkness,” “Wah-Wah,” and on and on. In a time of celebrity superficiality, of gross excess, George Harrison remained a seeker and a spiritual man. And let’s not forget what he did for Bangladesh. (Okay, he lived in a castle — but still!) Enjoy this tribute.

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Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
It’s not always going to be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away

Sunset doesn’t last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After all this, my love is up and must be leaving
Its not always going to be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So I must be on my way
And face another day

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
All things must pass away

Fan Mail Wednesday # 32

Oh yeah, unh-huh, hands in the air, that’s right — Fan Mail Wednesday, coming at ya!

Dear Mr. Preller:

My name is Henry.  I am a sixth grader in Washington, D.C. and I read your book.  My school librarian tries to have the kids read at least two with Newbery potential.  Six Innings was one of the five I read.  I really like the book because I play Little League and my team got into the championship, but we lost.  Luckily, we didn’t have anyone who had a tumor like Sam.  I thought Six Innings should be a Newbery winner — either the main one or an Honor Book. I’m sorry you didn’t win but I bet you will sometime in the future.

Your friend and reader,

Henry

After contacting a lawyer and spending several hours on the paperwork, I was thrilled to send Henry this reply:

Dear Henry:

I am sending over the adoption papers post haste. Please have your parents sign them and return the papers to me, along with your very self, carefully packaged in a box (remember air holes!). We don’t have an extra bedroom, but you can sleep on the ping pong table in the basement. Because after that kind note, you are like a son to me!

The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” In other words, you don’t have to wait for someone to die before you say something nice about them. So thank you for that, those generous words.

Be well, Henry, er, son . . . now go clean your room!

JP

P.S. That’s really great that you got to play in a championship game. I’ve watched quite a few at the Little League level, and I always want to grab a bat and take a few cuts. What happened in your game? What was the score? How did you do?

James Preller, 2nd Grader

First, please note this blog’s snazzy new “Search” function. With more than 200 posts since May, I figured it was time.

I’ve also added a couple of childhood photos to the, um, “Photos” page. I hope to add a couple more, as time allows.

A lot of kids who read Jigsaw Jones are in second grade. In fact, Jigsaw himself is in second grade — and has been, for eleven years now.

This is what I looked like in second grade on the day of my first communion. That is, washed up, combed, wearing clean socks and, for a time at least, decidedly on the side of angels. This was when I attended St. Frances de Chantel in Wantagh, Long Island, New York. I am quite certain that this was (and will forever remain) the only time in my life that I wore a white clip-on bow tie. One can only hope.

James Preller Interviews . . . Author Karen Roosa

A while back, I stopped by Julie Fortenberry’s most excellent blog and noticed the cover of her new book, Pippa at the Parade. The author’s name was Karen Roosa.

And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!

– – – – –

Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?

It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy.   It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others.  They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.

Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.

Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.

Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.

I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.

I get the sense that your first love is poetry.

I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.

Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.

I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator.  I saw her work online and really liked her style.  Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.

What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.

It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time.  It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful.  They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.

I see you already got a great review from Kirkus Reviews. And I quote in part:

“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”

Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.

It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.

Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?

I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children.  Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .

Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.

Yes, of course!

We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.

Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!

Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”

A  touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever.  It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.

As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.

That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.

Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?

You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”

I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!

Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.

It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.

Not to mention posters of cute kittens.

I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.

Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.

I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell.  I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day.  It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests.  And the camaraderie was great.

There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?

I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania.  My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.

Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?

I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.

Did you celebrate?

I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.

Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.

Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.

What about favorite adult books?

Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.

I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”

Last question: Favorite movies?

The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.

Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!

As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)

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Old Photo

I found this old photo, taken with my sister Jean in a photo booth. It was, as you can see, before I got the hang of these things . . .

unlike today . . .

Bystander: Revising Galleys

I’ve been messing with the “second pass” galleys for Bystander (Fall, 2009). These last corrections are minor, twenty pages can go by untouched, and these last changes won’t be reflected in the ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) that go around to reviewers, etc.

So I warmed up my scanner — a new toy for me — and decided to give a blow-by-blow of a minor revision through four separate stages. Of course, there were many more stages of doubt and second-guessing (I mean: revision!) that happened before I sent the book out. To me, it’s an uncountable process.

Part of me thinks: No one cares, this is all too self-obsessed. But the other part of me loves process, the journey, and thinks that maybe somebody else does too. If  you think this is a worthwhile thing for me to do with this blog, let me know.

FROM THE FIRST DRAFT that went to Feiwel and Friends editor, Liz Szabla:

SECOND DRAFT. You’ll note two changes: 1) I felt that the prairie dog reference, though okay for a kid from South Dakota, was wrong for Eric, wrong for Long Island. I felt that he wouldn’t think to make that comparision. 2) I cleaned up that last sentence, he’s no longer “racing,” because that was the wrong word; there’s now the specific “gap in the fence”; and overall it’s just a little leaner and better, IMO.

FIRST-PASS GALLEYS. Here we see the manuscript set into type. I still disliked the sentence, “. . . those Meercats on TV.” Somewhere in there I changed it from “TV” to “Animal Planet,” went singular rather than plural. But a new concern entered, or more likely I began to listen to an old concern: Was the image too contemporary, ephemeral. Would it date the book? “Meerkat Manor” wasn’t going to last on TV forever. Maybe in five, ten years people won’t be as conscious of meerkats as they seem to be now. And like the prairie dog image, even a meerkat simile seemed too much of a reach. You’ll see below my hasty script, where I’m fooling around with more localized comparisons: “a rabbit in the field, hawks in the sky, snakes in the grass.” Searching for something that might work.

SECOND-PASS GALLEYS. I spoke with Liz on the phone. What you see below is the scribblings I made before I spoke with Liz, and then the result of that conversation. First, I was still hating that sentence: “He was nervous, like a meerkat on Animal Planet.” I tried to come up with some other images, and scribbled below: “and watchful, like a small animal in dangerous woods.” That wasn’t a proposed sentence so much as the kind of image I was grasping for, a frightened chipmunk sort of thing. Not working.

At that point, I solved it the way so many of these things are solved. Because often when a sentence gives you this much trouble, it’s a sign that maybe it should go away completely. I crossed it out and wrote “NO” on the side of the page. On the phone, Liz and I looked at it and agreed. We already saw he was “tensed,” saw that he was watchful. I didn’t need a simile; what I needed was to keep this boy on the run — because the bad guys are coming. We lose the distracting simile, which I never got right, and move on to the next sentence: “Then he took off without a word.” By cutting we didn’t actually lose anything; and we gained pace, forward movement.

FINAL NOTE: You may notice that I flip-flopped on that last line, “was long gone,” or the simpler alternate, “was gone.” Liz and I both thought about it, talked about it, that extra word “long,” and decided to reinstate it.

And that’s one glimpse into a late stage of the revision process.

NOW, ABOUT THE KETCHUP:

This is a reference I’m not sure many will get, but it’s something that I had to put into the book. To me, no discussion of bullying, regardless of how seemingly benign the form, can take place without a recognition of Columbine as an extreme result. It’s always there, that vision of what could happen if good people — the bystanders — don’t act. The two shooters in that massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were originally victims of bullying. This is a common scenario, “the bullied bully,” widely recongized in the literature. So many targets go on to target someone else in a cycle of hurt and intimidation. Anyway, Harris and Klebold were once severely humiliated when they were splattered with ketchup packets. When I came across that while researching Bystander, I knew I wanted to use it  somehow — so my book opens immediately after it happens to another boy, and the book’s protaginst, Eric Hayes, sees him running, running. Because even though my book does not go the extremes of Columbine, it’s a haunting scenario that remains forever present, like a ghost in the room, a reminder and a lesson we dare not forget.

Fan Mail Wednesday #31

Bang a gong — it’s another Fan Mail Wednesday! Here’s a good example of what it’s like to get a letter from a mob . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

We are kindergarten, first, second and third grade students at The Albany Academies in Albany, New York.  We enjoyed reading your book, The Case of the Stinky Science Project, during Book Clubs. As part of our assignment we came up with questions we would like to ask you about the book and being an author. We look forward to meeting you during the Academies Children’s Book Festival in April.

A few of our questions are:

* How does it feel to make a really good book? * Is making books fun? * How did you become an author? * Are you working on a book right now? * How many books have you written? * What is your favorite book you have written? * What gave you the idea for the Jigsaw Jones series? * How many Jigsaw Jones books have you written? * How did you come up with all your story ideas? * What is your favorite Jigsaw Jones book? * What is the latest book in the Jigsaw Jones series? * Have you ever made a volcano that was stinky? * Did you like science when you were little? * Have you written any other series? * What is your favorite book that you have read?

Thanks for your time!

Sincerely,
Mrs. Epstein, Evan, Vishal, Jack, Nicholas, Hudson, Devan, and Douglas

Here’s my reply:

Dear Mrs. Epstein, boys, girls, hamsters:

Thanks for your note. My gosh, those are a LOT of questions, and I do have this inconvenient full-time job thingy, so I’ll pick a few to answer and hope that’s not too terribly disappointing.

How does it feel to make a really good book?

It’s a great feeling when it comes together and you think, “Yes, this is what I wanted to say, this is how I wanted to say it.” Not every book comes out that way. In fact, with me it’s usually parts of books, moments, chapters that are “really good.” But to do that for a whole entire book? I’m still trying.

Is making books fun?

No, I wouldn’t say it’s fun. A lot of different feelings go into the process, and not all of them are “happy-happy, let’s do the Dance of Joy.” I’m not complaining; I’m just saying.

How did you become an author?

I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. What’s strange is that a lot of folks who claim they want to be authors are unwilling to take that necessary step. It’s simple: Before you become an author, you must become . . . a writer.

Are you working on a book right now?

Yes. I’m pretty much always working on a book. I’m currently in the “I hate myself” stage of the writing process. I think this answer relates to a previous question about “fun.”

What is your favorite book you have written?

Six Innings. I love my new one, Bystander, coming out in Fall, 2009. It’s about bullying, set in a middle school. Very proud of that one. I like my new picture book, Mighty Casey, that’s due in March. It’s just a light-hearted, hopefully humorous look at Little League baseball at the youngest, purest level — with rhyming text, for extra buoyancy!

What is your favorite Jigsaw Jones book?

I tend to like certain moments in each book, rather than whole entire books from beginning to end. I really like the opening two chapters of Super Special #2: The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery. But there are definitely a few that, to me, fall a little short of what I hoped they’d become. For example, in The Case of the Detective in Disguise, I tried to weave together two separate mysteries — but I think it was an experiment that failed. Yet as a writer, you learn with each failure, so in a way it was a successful experiment: I learned what didn’t work. Triumph!

Thanks for your time!

JP

P.S. For more on the Children’s Book Festival at Albany Academies, the date is April 17; click like there’s no tomorrow right here for full details.

This Week’s Coolest Thing Ever

I got this in the mail the other day, the Korean translation of Six Innings.

For the curious, these “foreign rights” things just sort of happen on the publishing side of things; the author has nothing to do with it. So every time it’s like a little gift.

To double your surfing pleasure, here’s the German version of Jigsaw Jones, renamed “Puzzle Paul,” which includes full-color interior artwork.

2009 Notable Children’s Books: The Official List

The official list is out — and I’m still on it!

Whew.

There are a lot of people to thank, and many of them signed this ball. Jean, Liz, Rich, Elizabeth F., Dave, Christine, Elizabeth U., Nicole, and Jessica: Thanks. Jean Feiwel came along and believed in me at a time when I needed exactly, precisely that. A cliche, but absolutely a dream come true: “Here’s a contract, now go write the best book you can.” Forever in her debt for that opportunity.