Archive for February 17, 2012

Advice for Young Writers

“All the work necessary to learn how to write

boils down to reading and writing.” Scott Raab

I’ve been paying my bills with writing since the mid 80’s. I went freelance in 1990 and, at this point, have pretty much zero skills to bring to the job market. I’m unemployable — because, you see, I’m a writer. People buy my books, offer me contracts for work not yet written, and often schools pay for me to speak to their students. I actually get on planes, stay in hotels, so I can talk to students about my books and, more or less, my life as a writer. So it’s natural for folks to ask me, “What advice do you have for young writers?

And one of these days I might come up with an answer, instead of doing my usual stammering thing. I mean, I must know something. Right? So for me the problem is that temperamentally I don’t like acting like I’ve got all the answers, especially when most days I feel like this . . .

And it’s also because the answer is just sooo dull. The words come out of my mouth and thud to the floor. They don’t sound wise or insightful. There’s no penetrating insight, no secrets to reveal. I’ve got nothing. Nada. Or, at least, nothing that gets anybody sitting upright, shouting, “Eureka!”

The good news: I recently came across a short piece by Scott Raab titled “Writing” where he tackles the same question. And I loved the tone he set, his directness and utter lack of bull, the way he nailed it to the wall, a nice guy sincerely trying to tell it straight:

I get asked for advice by young writers and never know what to offer beyond a few things that sound absurdly simple. I don’t want to be discouraging. I don’t want to be overly encouraging, either. Print may or may not be dying, but writing isn’t. People still want to become writers, hope to make a career of it, think of it as something special — all that jazz.

I think the fundamental force behind writing is passion. The writers I know are insane. They don’t know how NOT to write about stuff. It’s like pro athletes often say about their sport: They’d play for free. Writers love to write — and not because it’s easy. Getting it right isn’t easy at all, and that challenge is a big part of why writers love to write. It’s a high, working on your game, a way of being in the world that feels absolutely honest and true.

Raab continues for a few paragraphs more, and you really ought to tap the link for it. Ultimately, Raab doesn’t offer shortcuts. I’d say he “refuses” to offer shortcuts, but that would be wrong. I’m sure he’d give you a shortcut if he knew a faster way to get out of the woods — but there is no shortcut, that’s the deal in a clam shell. And the dirty truth is, that’s exactly the opposite of what most people want to hear. “How did you get published? How did you become a writer?”

As if I could scribble a phone number on a slip of paper and whisper, “Ask for Lori, mention my name, she’ll take care of you.”

And by the way, you don’t become a writer. You are one, or you aren’t. You write, or you don’t. And that’s perfectly okay. Quick story: I’ve been reading a biography on Kurt Vonnegut, and old Kurt had a rough time of it for many years. It was hard to get published, a trial to make money. His books didn’t sell, quickly went out of print. There was zero acclaim. So sometimes, down in the dumps and ready to give up, he’d complain. And one time his fed-up agent (or editor) snapped back, “Nobody asked you to be a writer!”

The world didn’t owe him anything.

I quoted my favorite line from the Raab piece up at the top. You want to be a writer? You want advice?

Write, read, rinse and repeat.

Fan Mail Wednesday #136: Happy Dance

Here’s one I got from a second-grader — Lauren in Kentucky — via the miracle of the interwebs!

Dear Mr. James Preller:

How are you today? This year I’ve been reading

your Jigsaw Jones Mystery books and I think

you have been doing a great job on them because

I like Mysteries!

Your fan, Lauren

I replied:

Dear Lauren,

I’m fine today, how are you?

Actually, I’m terrific. Things are really good these days, my three kids are healthy and thriving, my wife is great, I’m writing well, exercising, and I’m happy.

Have you ever seen Carlton’s happy dance? This is me, inside . . .

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I’m glad you’ve been reading my books, and relieved (whew!) to hear that you think I’ve been doing a great job. It means a lot to me.

My best,


Quote of the Day: Jim Jarmusch, “Nothing Is Original”

I appreciate the distinction made here between authenticity and originality.

It makes all the difference.

As a reminder, here’s a scene from a movie I loved when it first came out, Jim Jarmusch’s classic, “Down By Law,” featuring Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni. This is a wonderful soliloquy by Roberto’s character about his strange and terrifying mother . . .

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And here, a brief clip of Jarmusch talking about the importance of music in his life, and thus, his art. I can relate.

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Announcement: My Return to Series Publishing

Publishers Weekly recently reported:

Jean Feiwel of Feiwel and Friends has acquired an early-middle-grade series, called Shivers, by James Preller, author of the Jigsaw Jones series, and the recent novel Bystander. The first in the planned four-book series, which Feiwel calls “Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone for kids,” will pub in spring 2013. The deal for world rights was negotiated by Rosemary Stimola at Stimola Literary Studio.

So I guess the cat is out of the bag.

I don’t know whether it’s superstition, false modesty, and just good sense, but I don’t like talking about a book before its written. I think it’s bad form and bad practice. In sum: Shut up and write it.

But, hey, this is very exciting. As you may know, I wrote the Jigsaw Jones series for many years. These days it doesn’t look like Scholastic, the publisher of those books, is interested in continuing the series beyond the 40 books that have already been published. I’ll always feel a degree of sadness about the fate of Mr. Jones.

There’s a burn-out that comes with series publishing. I was writing 4 Jigsaw Jones books a year. Next, next, next, next, etc. So it was liberating to attempt new types of writing with Feiwel & Friends, my first real experience with hardcover publishing. I wrote picture books and three novels: Six Innings, Bystander, and my YA debut, Before You Go (July, 2012). I spent a full year writing Before You Go, and it gave me great pleasure to really take my time with a book, and write a personal story that was wholly outside any considerations of the marketplace.

But at the same time, I began to miss the fun and feedback of paperback publishing.

A number of years ago, I wrote five “slightly spooky” stories that were collected in the book, Ghost Cat. These stories were experiments for me — an aside from the Jigsaw Jones books, and frankly outside my established comfort zone — stories about impossible things, ghost cats, dark basements, monsters, imaginary friends with bad ideas — and essentially explored magic realism, the stuff of dreams and nightmares. For those stories, I made a point of keeping them from becoming too scary. Today I think that three of the five in that collection were actually pretty good. I felt like I was onto something, but for a very long time it seemed as if no one else shared that perception. Now that’s changed in a big way.

I’m looking forward to returning to those readers ages 6-9, trying to make them think, and make them feel. And hopefully that feeling will be, “That was so scary, and so exciting, I can’t wait to read another!”

I’m honored to be supported on this project by my agent, Rosemary Stimola, and the team at Feiwel & Friends. Together we’ll work to make this a well-written, entertaining, popular and frightening series for chapter book readers eager to enjoy that kind of shivery experience. It will be nice to have something new for the Jigsaw Jones fans I meet on my many school visits.

Can’t wait. I’m getting started . . . this week!

Oh yes, I should also add that I’m deep into a new hardcover book, set in a middle school. This book also represents a departure of sorts, as this old dog keeps trying out new tricks. My goal is to continue publishing hardcover books every year or two — if it’s not too much for me to hope for such good fortune — while I write “Shivers” in paperback.

The Similarity Between Reading and Baseball

I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, to the baseball writer, Roger Angell. I’m sorry, that tag does him a disservice; Angell is a writer, period, a great one, a crafter of sublime sentences, a keen observer, a man who feels things and captures living moments. His writing goes deep into baseball and beyond it. Angell’s more than a great writer; I suspect he’s a great man.

I had written Six Innings and wanted him, an important stranger, to have a copy of my book. I wanted him to love it, of course, to recognize me as a fellow traveler, but writers don’t have much say over how the world responds. You release the work into the wild and hope it finds food, shelter, a home, and thrives. Six Innings went on to earn an ALA Notable. And almost as good, Mr. Angell wrote a kind, handwritten letter in return.

Lately I had been thinking about “the ideal reader,” and decided, perhaps cleverly, that my ideal reader would be someone who wasn’t afraid of being bored. That’s been my concern of late, because so many children’s books these days are high concept and plot-driven, because we hear over and over again that boys don’t read, and if they do open a book they will sit still only for wall-to-wall action. And I guess I sometimes fret that I don’t deliver that kind of pleasure. In truth, I only infrequently read that kind of book. So, yes, please, if I may order one to go, I’d like a reader who will hang with me during the slow parts.

And I heard in that wish an echo. And realized, once again, that the notion was not entirely my own. Authentic, yes; original, not exactly.

I remembered something I heard Mr. Angell say at a public reading on March 1, 1989, at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, dedicated to great writing about baseball, created by Roger Angell along with his friend, A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I remember the reading vividly. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and now revisit selections each Spring. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”

I recalled, most especially, the night’s opening remarks made by Angell. So I got out the CD, listened and listened again while scribbling on a yellow legal pad, until I could transcribe the brief exchange I’d remembered. As far as I know, there isn’t a transcription available on the net, so here you have one brief moment — an exchange that struck me, and has stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Angell makes a simple comparision, doesn’t extend it much, doesn’t labor over it, gets in and out, yet it made me laugh and it still gets me thinking today.

For here we are: Baseball season, pitchers and Molinas, is almost upon us. The massive spectacle of the Super Bowl has come and gone. It’s time for quieter pleasures. During my workday this past week, I arranged indoor practices for my 12-year-old Travel Team. Sent out emails, talked to the uniform guy about new jerseys. And today in my capacity as a Board Member for my local Little League, I ordered more than $4,000 worth of baseballs and assorted equipment.

All I really want to do is get out that old glove one more time. That simplest pleasure of all, a game of catch.

Well, here’s Angell and Giamatti, as they set the stage back in 1989:

A. Bartlett Giamatti:

“Why does baseball appeal to writers so much?”

Roger Angell:

The similarities between reading and baseball are evident to all of us, and may account for the enormous flood of baseball writing that goes on and on, and so much of it very high quality.

Baseball after all is a linear game. It’s the only one that is linear in the sense that one thing happens, and something else happens, and there’s a pause, and there’s a time for writers to think about it, and keep score, and take notes.

A Bartlett Giamatti:

It’s always occurred to me that intellectuals like baseball because it goes slowly enough so they can understand it.

Roger Angell:

Well, certainly I would hate to try to write intensely moving paragraphs about basketball, which is a swirling and beautiful sport of an entirely different nature, with a different feel to it. But one of the things about baseball which is like reading, in addition to the obvious things like chapters and, ah, is that if you think about both baseball and reading, they are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored. But — you can laugh, but — also it really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game. Not dissimilar.