Archive for November 24, 2014

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


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:


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,



Fan Mail Wednesday #193: Stinky Science & Secret Codes



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:

Scan 1

Scan 3

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,


Sign in a School Hallway

This photo was snapped by my friend, author Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, on a recent school visit.

Stephanie is a great talent and an even better person. As S. A. Bodeen, she’s written The Compound, The Raft, and several other “The” titles. These days the book-loving world is buzzed about her new adventure series, Shipwreck Island.

But enough about Stephanie. Today I want you feast your eyes on this lovely sign in a school somewhere. I know that many schools post signs like this, messages of intent, statements of mission, but this one in particular gets all the notes exactly right.

I like it.




Letter from a Former Teacher

It’s something I don’t do enough: say thank you, say I remember you. But recently I recalled a former teacher, Mr. Mullen, whom I studied under for two art classes at the College of Oneonta. I was an English major, but the approach I took at the time was to take as many classes as possible, with an emphasis on the best teachers regardless of discipline. That’s how I found Mr. Mullen, who taught a variety of art survey and appreciation courses in addition to studio art classes for practicing artists.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen -- and the cover of the card he sent to me.

Original digital drawing by James Mullen — and the cover of the card he sent to me.

I really liked and admired this man. I’d see him around campus and he always had time for me. I’d stop by his office to talk. I can still remember the thrill I felt when he suggested we go for a cup of coffee, as if we were equals. At the time I’d been writing sporadically for the school newspaper — freelance style, where the editor basically printed whatever I gave him, without deadlines — and Mr. Mullen was always interested and thoughtful in his comments. He liked my righteous indignation, I guess. We talked about stuff. And, obviously, clearly, he cared about me. I’m still grateful for that.

I located Mr. Mullen a few years back. He’s retired now, living in Endwell, NY, of all places. We joked about that, how I supposed he had picked the perfect town for his retirement years. Let’s hope so, right? Anyway, I hadn’t written to him in a while until recently when, out of the blue, I popped a book in an envelope and included a brief note. I’m sure I told him how well I remember his kindess, and what a great teacher he was, and, well, thank you, again.

Still a practicing artist who favors working in the miniature, Mr. Mullen replied with a card of his own, a paean of sorts to Wegman’s, and to friendship.

Inside it read:

Mullen 2


I think that card tells you something about Jim Mullen and the graceful, dignified way he walks through life. He is a good man and, therefore, a treasure.

I don’t often do the right thing. Or at least, not often enough. But I’m trying, in my old age, to do a little bit better in terms of kindness and generosity. And what I keep learning, over and over, is that every time I give, I invariably receive more in return.

I wrote an old teacher a letter. A note of thanks. And I’m here today to suggest to you that maybe you should consider trying it yourself, if you haven’t already. Send that note. Say thank you, say I remember. I promise that you’ll be glad you did.

In his response to me, Mr. Mullen recalled a book I had sent him a few years back, a Young Adult novel titled BEFORE YOU GO. I hesitated about including a section of his handwritten response here in blogland, but in the end I think there’s value in sharing it, if only to underscore that it meant something to him.

Teachers’ hearts are made glad to be remembered. And now I have a new goal in life: to have a cup of rotisserie chicken noodle soup in Wegman’s with good, old Mr. Mullen. Wouldn’t that be something?


Mullen 3

Fan Mail Wednesday #192: Kaiya from Illinois Begs a Little Bit (and I Like It)






We’re going to do this on Wednesday today, just to keep readers guessing. This letter involves a little bit of groveling . . .



I replied:

Dear Kaiya:

How did you know I like it when readers beg? It makes me feel fabulous and powerful, like a king sitting on a throne. Please, please, please beg some more.

Ho-ho, I kid. Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you liked the first book in my “Scary Tales” series, and it was awfully nice of you to say so. I liked your bonus picture too. Good artist!

homesweethorror_cvr_highrezThe way this series works is that each book is completely different. New characters, new setting. I’ve written six so far (five are currently available). I’m sorry to say that I don’t have plans to revisit the characters in Home Sweet Horror. My wish is for Mr. Finn, Liam, Kelly (and their dog, Doolin!) to find a new home close to where they used to live in Hopeville. That said, perhaps you’d like to write something about their further adventures. Maybe Bloody Mary finds a way to tag along?

Anyway, please please please forgive me!

Your friend,


P.S. I got the dog’s name from my old dog, Doolin, who passed away years ago. Doolin, named after a wicked cool town in Ireland, was the best dog I ever had (sorry, Daisy).