FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #336: The Fate of EXIT 13

 

This one sort of stopped me cold, wondering how to reply, writing to an adult teacher and also, at the same time, 22 third-grade readers. How to tell them that the world can be a sad and disappointing place?

How to let down a reader? 

But one of my core beliefs as a writer for young people is that children can deal with anything. And they do, in their actual lives, all the time. Friends move away. Invitations are never sent. Pets grow old and die. So I just try to be authentic, and age-appropriate, and honest. 

And, of course, long-winded.

Here’s the email I received . . . 

Hello!

My name is Kaelyn D____ and I teach 3rd grade in Michigan. We have just finished the second Exit 13 book as a whole class. It has kept my students on their toes!
They were so sad to see that there wasn’t a 3rd book out quite yet, I told them I would do my best to let them know if one comes out soon. 
They have loved the mystery and being able to make theories about what happens next and compare it to what really happened. I told them I would try my best to reach out and at least let you know how loved those books are in my class. Seeing them so engaged and excited about reading is my favorite! So thank you for writing these novels!
We hope to see another book and hear about Ash and Willow’s adventures moving forward.  
Thank you so much,
Kaelyn D____ and her 22 third graders! 🙂 

I replied . . . 

 

Dear Kaelyn D____ in Michigan, and to your 22 miraculous students,
Thank you so much for your kind letter. For reasons that I’ll explain, it made me both happy and sad.
I appreciate that you read and enjoyed both books. I loved writing them and I’m very proud of EXIT 13. There’s a section in Book 2 where the chapters alternate between Ash in the woods and Willow in danger back at the motel. The book jumps back and forth between those two characters and I thought it worked really well, building tension and suspense. As a writer, I felt like yes, this is exciting. After writing all these years, I’ve finally learned enough to pull this off. Real adventure and mystery. A page turner!
You might know my Jigsaw Jones books. In those mysteries, all 42 titles, I stay with Jigsaw’s point of view all the way through. The camera, so to speak, never leaves Jigsaw. But in the EXIT 13 books, I was able to shift the focus from one scene to the other, back and forth, and it was exciting to toggle between them. I hoped that it would be exciting to read, too.
I worked a similar trick — or literary device — in my book Blood Mountain. There’s a sister and brother, Grace and Carter, who get lost in the mountains. Once they became separated, I was able to do that same thing as in EXIT 13, where I leap from one scene to the next, keeping the plot moving but also building suspense.
I think of it as a magician trying to keep a number of plates spinning in the air. Have you ever seen anything like that? Maybe you can find an example on Youtube. There’s a little video titled “Plate spinning routine by Henrik Bothe” that gives you the idea. You want to keep all the plates spinning before they come crashing to the floor.
That’s what it’s like to tell a rousing story!
By the way, I have three children. Nick is the oldest. But my two youngest, Gavin and Maggie, are only 18 months apart and grew up more tightly together. I guess I like that dynamic between a brother and a sister. There’s friendship and rivalry. 
Where do we get ideas? From our own lives, of course. That’s the beginning, anyway. Then you add imagination. Make stuff up.
(I wonder if you’d like my “Scary Tales” books? You might want to check those out from the library.)
When I started the series, I was hired by a publisher, Scholastic. The editor asked me to write two books, though we both hoped there would be more. I planned for more. I certainly had enough ideas for at least six overall. After all, I got these characters into the motel, I had to find a way to get them out. That was the job. But at the beginning, I had to get the ball rolling.
Anyway, here comes the sad part, because it’s about the business of publishing. I wrote the first book, The Whispering Pines, and it was offered on Scholastic Book Fairs. While that was happening, I finished the second book, The Spaces In Between. But before the second book even came out, before anyone in the world read it, Scholastic had already decided that sales were not strong enough for the first book. They did not want a 3rd title. 
It didn’t matter if the books were good or not. The only thing that mattered was how many people bought the first one in those first two  months at the Book Fairs. When sales were not robust enough, they pulled the plug. It was not a home run. No more books, gone, goodbye. 
The series was over before it ever got a chance to catch on. 
Unfortunately, that’s publishing these days. It’s also true, I guess, of television shows and songs on the radio and the arts in general. Instant success or they move on to the next thing. We are forever moving on to the next thing.
It’s hard and disappointing. A writer puts so much into his books. Heart and soul. Sigh. 
I had notes for a 3rd and 4th book. Ideas I wanted to pursue. The alien visitors. The strange, somewhat damaged animals in the forest that needed rescuing. I had the notion that the McGinns were brought to EXIT 13 for a reason. That there was a mission to complete. And that once Ash and his family understood the mission, and succeeded, once they figured out the deep mystery, they’d be “allowed” to leave EXIT 13. 
I so much wish I could write those books for you. But without a publisher, there can be no book. Hopefully you were able to enjoy the first two in the series. I know it’s a true bummer that I was unable to finish the larger story. I’m really sorry to disappoint readers. Believe me, it’s the last thing I ever wanted to do. 
Publishing is a tough business. As someone once wrote, “It’s a bunny eat bunny world.”
But summer is almost here. There’s so much more to do in this life — more to read and write. I’m grateful to you, Ms. Davis, for sharing my work, and this letter, with your class. They are lucky to have a teacher who loves books, who reads out loud, who shares that enthusiasm for the written word. We’re both book lovers, you and I, and that will always connect us. Thanks for everything. 
Forever your friend,
James Preller

One comment

  1. Ann says:

    Well done, Mr. P. As a former third grade teacher, I applaud your response.

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