Archive for March 31, 2011

Fan Mail Wednesday #111 (Re: Book Titles)

Don’t you love the icon that I use for every Fan Mail Wednesday? A word of explanation for younger readers: It’s an illustration of something we used to call “a letter.” You see, long ago, we used to — and you’re not going to believe this — write words on actual paper (made from trees!) to our friends and relatives and business associates. Then we’d place the paper in a sealed envelope, called an ENVELOPE, and then . . .
A girl sent this one via the interwebs. I removed her name for privacy:
Hi, I was at the school that you were at today at Vail Farm 3/30.  I was wondering how you come up with titles because I’m a writer too. I’m writing a book that is about a girl who gets picked on a lot just like the book bystander. But just so you know I didn’’t steal it from you.  But any way I can’t come up with a title for it so that’’s all I want to know.
I replied:
Hey, X. Thanks for writing. You must have been one of those students with your hand raised when we ran out of time. Sorry I didn’t call on you.
Titles are a tricky business. I can’t say that I’m an expert. With books like Six Innings and Bystander, I had those titles very early on. In fact, writers will often plug in a “working title” for a book in progress. It’s not the final title, or at least doesn’t seem to be, it’s just something handy to call the untitled book. For Six Innings, my working title was . . . Six Innings. That was always the concept for the book from the beginning, very clear in my mind. So when it came time to officially name the book, I used the working title.
With Bystander, my first title idea was Predator. That’s because I began by focusing my research and note-taking on the bully character, Griffin Connelly. But after a short while, I became convinced that the real story was with the bystanders. In life, there are a few bullies and some victims, and then there’s the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, the bystanders. We are often silent, yet hold all the real power. I knew it should be the focus of my book, and the title. Of course, there are all sorts of bystanders. The floaters and the enablers, the watchers and the cheerers and the ones who simply walk away — all with our own roles to play in the schoolyard drama. Few of us are purely innocent.
Speaking of bullies, have you ever noticed that they almost always need an audience? They don’t bully unless there’s somebody to watch it, to cheer them on, to laugh. Fights are the same way. It’s interesting when you think about it, isn’t it? What would happen if there was no audience? Do bullies need bystanders in order to exist? Are we their oxygen?
Back to titles: In many cases, writers don’t have a title until the book is finished. Editors have told me not to worry about the title, just write the story, worry about the title later on. It can be hard, because you do need a good title. I wanted my title for Justin Fisher Declares War to be Justin Fisher Declares War on Fifth Grade, but that was vetoed due to length. I never felt that we got that title right.
When I begin a book, I often purchase a composition notebook. My working title for Justin was Talent Show. Maybe I should have stuck with that.
Here’s the first page from that notebook. I wrote it in the Bethlehem Library in Delmar. I had this idea of Justin defacing a poster in school and it’s the first scene I wrote, event though it doesn’t happen until Chapter Four of the book.
Often writers will go back over a story and see if there’s a word or phrase in the text that somehow stands out. You’ll see that a lot when you read books, the book’s title buried somewhere deep in the pages of the book. I’d recommend that strategy for you. Reread your story. Does a character say something that could work as a title? Is there a symbol in the book that somehow represents a character or an idea?
With Jigsaw Jones, my publisher wanted a title from me before I even wrote the book or, in some cases, knew what it was about. It drove me crazy.
The other strategy is to ask for help. That’s what I do. I’ll have a reader — my editor, almost always — read the manuscript and we’ll talk about titles together. Sometimes it takes another person who has some distance from the story to see what it’s really about. And isn’t that nice, when someone can give you the title?
Lastly, brainstorm. I’ve created long lists of potential titles. Then you can review them, whittle them down, and maybe share them with other people. Maybe even people who haven’t read your story. Which titles appeal to them? Is there a title that gets them curious? Nowadays this is called “crowd-sourcing,” when you simply ask a bunch of random people for their opinions.
Anyway, sorry, long letter. Good luck with your story. It’s always nice to meet a young author.

So How About Dem Mets?

I’m off again to another couple of hotels, and more schools to visit. The trips always turn out nice, and I’m grateful for them, but I’m such a homebody.

And also: I miss my desk, my work, my wife, my kids, my brain.

On a different note, it’s almost baseball season and I’m not optimistic about my New York Mets. I laughed at this piece from The Onion, “Carlos Beltran Has Impressive Day of Not Falling Apart and Dying.

Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, whose past several seasons have been hampered by nagging injuries, had a successful outing Monday, managing to get through a spring training workout without crumbling into a pile of dust and dying. “It was one of his best days in years, because he was still breathing and alive by the end,” Mets manager Terry Collins said during a press conference, adding that he was amazed with Beltran’s ability to pump blood from his heart to other parts of his body for a whole session of batting practice.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Frog-Jumping Contest

There’s a little bit of Mark Twain in this book, mostly from two sources, his short story “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and, of course, his Huckleberry Finn character.

The story begins with a standard thriller device, the ticking bomb. Throw a deadline into a standard mystery and you immediately ratchet up the tension. In this case, look at the book’s opening paragraphs:

“My frog is missing,” croaked Stringbean Noonan. “And I MUST have him back by this Sunday at noon.”

“Sunday at noon?!” Mila exclaimed. “That’s only twenty-four hours from now.”

Stringbean stuffed two dollars into my coin jar. “There’s more where that came from,” he sniffed. “Just find that frog.”

Adonis, the missing frog, was no ordinary frog. (Love that name, btw.) He was a champion jumper with hops to spare, and there was a big frog-jumping contest coming up — with a $20 cash prize for the longest leap.

So already we’ve added motive to the mystery.

“Twenty dollars,” I whistled. “That’s a lot of money.”

I borrowed the first Twain idea in Chapter Five, “Want to Bet?” Most famously, there’s a character in Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog from Calaveras County,” a noted gambler named Jim Smiley, who loves to bet. On anything. And everything. Twain describes him thus in the story:

“If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to — to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”

Anyway, I reread the story during the brainstorming stages of the book, when I was casting about for ideas, so I decided to give that character trait to a minor character, Jigsaw’s classmate, Eddie Becker, who I had established in previous books as being highly motivated by money.

Eddie loved to bet — and there wasn’t anything in the world he wouldn’t bet on. Two birds might be sitting on a telephone line. Eddie would bet which one would fly away first. He’d bet on a ball game or the color of the next car that drove down the street. The weirder the bet, the happier he was. Eddie was just one of those guys who needed to keep things interesting. Regular life wasn’t quite enough for him. Nah, there had to be something riding on it.

Jigsaw and Eddie enjoy a friendly bet. Later Eddie casually mentions a new suspect, Sasha Mink (another name I love). With Adonis now out of the way, Sasha stands to win the frog-jumping contest with her entry, Brooklyn. Eddie tells Jigsaw that she lives in the big house on the corner of Penny Lane and Abbey Road.

(These Jigsaw Jones books are loaded with pop culture references that likely float over the heads of 98% of readers. Just for fun — and for Mom or Dad who might be reading the story aloud.)

Jigsaw eventually decides he needs to learn more about frogs, so he enlists the aid of Slim Palmer, the best frog trainer in town. Here’s an illustration of Slim, as drawn by the book’s wonderful illustrator, Jamie Smith.

Look like anybody you know?

That’s Huckleberry Finn, folks. And the resemblance is intentional.

I had great fun writing the “frog whisperer” chapters, where Jigsaw meets 14-year-old Slim Palmer (and there’s a nod to Chili Palmer here, too, from the movie “Get Shorty,” based on the book by Elmore Leonard, just his casual cool). Another side note: that’s one of the advantages of writing detective stories. Each new mystery takes the detective out into the world — a bastion of moral integrity in a world gone sour: in this case, the second-grade version — where he meets new characters, good and bad. It keeps the series fresh for readers, and entertaining to write, too. Whenever the series felt boring or stale, I knew it was time for Jigsaw (and me) to encounter new faces and places.

“You’re going about this case all wrong,” Slim told me. “First thing you got to do is you got to start thinking like a frog.”

“Thinking like a frog?” I repeated.

“Exactamundo,” Slim said with a sharp nod.

“Ribbit,” I croaked.

“I’m not joking,” Slim protested. “Frogs are serious creatures. They don’t joke around.”

I researched on the internet how to catch frogs, learned some things about using a burlap bag and a flashlight, so wrote a scene where Slim urged Jigsaw to step (reluctantly) into a rather gross lake. Together they succeed in snagging a frog, and before he departs, Slim offers one final bit of advice:

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Slim said. “You’ll be fine. Just remember what I said. You have to be kind to that frog. Treat him nice, like he’s your little brother or something. A happy frog is a good jumping frog. You have to love him. A frog gets scared or nervous, he’ll jump sideways, backways, anyways. You’ll never win nothing with a jittery frog.”

Slim also advised Jigsaw to keep his frog with a pan of water. It was important to keep them wet. As he explained, “You don’t want a dry frog. They don’t jump so good when they’re dead.”

POSTSCRIPT: I have to share this letter that I was handed last week on a visit to Tioga Hills Elementary. One student, Alyssa, apparently read a book a day in preparation for my arrival — and wrote a letter to me about each one. Amazing, amazing. I have more than a dozen letters from Alyssa. Here’s the one she wrote for The Case of the Frog-Jumping Contest. Thank you, Alyssa, you rock.


Thought for the Day

I put this up on the Fathers Read blog, but had to double-dip. Thanks to Deb Hanson (Real Men Read with Kids) for the heads up.

And if you are not checking out Fathers Read, then you’re dead to me. Seriously: you’re missing out on my labor of love.

Random Scans: Artwork, Letters, Assorted Awesomeness

I’ve mentioned that I’m in school visit mode, and it’s a trying time in terms of productivity. When I’m at a school, I’ll often be handed a package of notes or artwork, along with a cupcake and a smile.

Here’s a recent sampling . . .