Archive for the writing process

Writing Process, from “Notes” to Final, plus a Brief Excerpt from NIGHTMARELAND

images-2I didn’t want to get an iPhone, but now I’m fighting an addiction. One feature that I use, in the absence of pen and paper, is the “Notes” function. Perhaps because of the inherent limitations of typing into a phone, any notes I input tend to be condensed, telegraphic, coded, and therefore borderline poetic. At least, sharing some of the qualities of poetry.

In the example below, I was thinking of a scene I had to write in Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland and I came up with a plot idea: He would write a message in the snow.

nightmareland_cvr_lorezMore background: The main character, Aaron, is trapped inside a video game. He is outside in the snow, hunted by a pack of wolves. It is very cold, a very dangerous situation. At the same time, his sister has just discovered his frozen body on the living room couch. She turns to the television screen and lo, there he is, inside the game.

Here are the exact notes I wrote to myself, followed by the scene I actually got around to writing and publishing.

 

< notes >

Moon falling into snow

Branches stars hands curled

Tight the cold air solid

In his chest winter

Pressing into his skull

Clouds form

From his mouth

He thought of Carrie

His sister his only

Hope

But how but how

And he knew

To reach her

He wrote in the snow

I’ve always liked that technique in poetry, by the way, the line rolling over into the next one, for example: “Branches stars hands curled/Tight . . .” Or, say, “His sister his only/Hope.”

I don’t think I was consciously “writing” at that point. Closer to scribbling. There were images, concepts I needed to get down so that later on I could recall them, write them out properly. So in that sense, the outline, if you will, was really just a bunch of trigger words. Seeds. Starting points. It was sort of interesting, though, how upon re-discovering these notes today I couldn’t help but appreciate the poetry in them, those jotted words clumsily & hastily thumbed.

Here’s how it went in the book, where really the only idea that survived in this section — outside of some of the mood I needed to capture, “moon falling into snow,” — was that he would write a message in the snow, drag his boot through it, to reach that someone who (he somehow sensed) was watching on the television set.

The rest is all iceberg theory. That 90% of what we write remains unseen, hidden beneath the surface.

Got it?

From pp. 43-44, “Nightmareland”:

Aaron inspected the torch. It was burning down, dropping gray ash. The flame wouldn’t last much longer. The wolves were patient. They sat on their haunches, biding time. The biggest wolf — the black one with the scar — lay down in the snow. The others in the pack followed suit.

The wolves were willing to wait for their next meal. 

Aaron was surrounded on all sides. Behind him loomed the great, iron fence.

He was trapped.

The flame began to sputter, like a candle in the wind.

Again he felt it, a presence.

Someone was watching him. He felt like a character in a movie. And he sensed something else: Whoever was watching Aaron, he or she was rooting for him.

He was not alone after all.

It gave him an idea. Acting quickly, Aaron dragged a heel across the snow. Up, across, down. Up, across, across, across . . . 

Scan

SCARY TALES #4: “Nightmareland” — Now Available Where Fine Books Are Sold!

Happy to remind you that this book was published on Tuesday and is now available. This is a story that came directly from suggestions from students on class visits — a basic idea I heard over and over again. Welcome to Nightmareland. Where you’ll meet Aaron, Addy, and Freddy the pizza guy.

 

nightmareland_cvr_lorez

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I published my first book almost 30 years ago, in 1986. By now, most of them have gone out of print. That’s the way it goes, I guess. Especially with my old publisher, Scholastic, where they recently let every book I’ve done with them go out of print, including beloved titles that sold more than a million copies each, such as WAKE ME IN SPRING, HICCUPS FOR ELEPHANT, and the entire “Jigsaw Jones” series.

Just, poof, gone.

(Note: You can still find the books, for now, but it’s not easy.)

So much for immortality. It’s a tough business, not for the meek or, I’ve learned, the idealistic. It’s hard not to feel discouraged by it all, as I do.

But you keep writing, because that’s all you know, and you keep trying to do the best work possible. Let that be the best revenge. And you hope that maybe it adds up to something the end.

Fortunately, my books with Macmillan are almost all still available (except for Mighty Casey, which never sold).

In addition, I have regained the rights to many of those out-of-print titles, including the entire 40-book Jigsaw Jones series, so I’m holding out the faint hope that another publisher might wish to revive ‘em. I would love to write a new Jigsaw Jones book someday.

Though there are days when I feel like guy . . .

hamster

A Children’s Book That Left a Lasting Impression

I was recently contacted by a journalist for a national newspaper who wanted me to name a book I read as a child that left a lasting impression.

That’s a tough question for me, because I sense that my answer is never exactly what the questioner is seeking. I don’t have a poignant story about Charlotte’s Web or Harriet the Spy, that glorious day when I suddenly knew that reading was for me, and forever. I can’t describe in loving detail the book I encountered as a fresh-faced welp. (Though I do recall loving Splish, Splash, and Splush.)

Nonetheless I did somehow grow up to become an author, and therefore my answer is, I guess, legitimate. It’s the only story I’ve got.

Here’s how I replied, limited to 150 words:

Born in 1961, I have no memory of my parents reading to me. That’s not a complaint, by the way. I grew up surrounded by six older siblings and they were (mostly) all readers. I guess I got the message by sheer proximity. As a baseball-mad boy in a world without ESPN, I devoured the sports pages in the daily newspaper. Those were the first writers I desperately needed. By age 13, I encountered Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” It was funny and easy to read. There was no YA back then, my generation naturally graduated to Steinbeck, Bradbury, Brautigan, Vonnegut, Plath, whomever. “Breakfast” blew me away. Here was something as devilish as the kid in the back row, irreverent, rebellious, hilarious, wild. In a word, subversive. In those pages I first recognized the possibility that a book could be supremely cool. Thanks, Kurt.

Setting the Scene for My Next “Scary Tales”: The Importance of Place

I’ve had a semi-solid idea for the next “Scary Tales” book (number 6, untitled), for a while.

But nothing real specific.

I’ve been fleshing out characters, still debating the introduction of a third character, wondering if she’s necessary or not. Definitely going with twin boys.

As for place, I always thought — without giving it much thought — some kind of swamp. Down south, I assumed. Had to be, right?

Lately that notion of place has gotten more specific. I’m zeroing in on Southeast Texas somewhere. Still have more research to do, more looking at maps, more figuring and fact-checking. And, of course, all that in turn effects my characters. How they talk, how they live.

I recently spent time on Google, looking at images, checking maps, gaining inspiration. It seems to be something I’ve been doing of late, part of my writing process.

Here’s a few you might enjoy . . .

And last but not least . . .

Good Advice from Ira Glass

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The Story Behind This Illustration: Art Inspiring Art

When I first saw this illustration, I thought to myself, “Yes! That’s exactly what I hoped for — but better.”

Drawn by Iacopo Bruno, the image will appear in SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND (June, 2014).

For years, on school visits, I heard the same request from students — always boys. “Write a story about a kid who gets sucked into the television while playing video games.”

I’d always reply, “Yeah, nice idea, but, no. I write realistic fiction. So, um, I just don’t see that happening.”

Then I started writing the SCARY TALES books, inspired by South American magic realism and “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” and Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, etc. And in doing so, I began to say “yes” to impossible things.

I accepted, rather than rejected, the notion of ghosts, zombies, androids, witches, aliens . . . and a video game-playing boy getting sucked into a television set.

But how would that work, exactly?

He’s playing a game. On the tv screen, a hooded figure moves in the woods. The boy, Aaron Wheeler, safe and warm in his living room, begins to identify strongly with this character in the video game.

Would his entire body get sucked into the game?

I decided, no. The husk of his body would remain — to be discovered by his sister.

What should he look like? How would his image transform, now that his “spirit” or mental energy was inside the game?

I thought of “The Shining,” the final image of Jack Torrance out in the snow, frozen in the maze. I even studied a still of the movie image when I described the boy.

A section from the manuscript, upon the discovery of Aaron:

His eyes were rolled up, showing mostly white. He did not blink. He did not stir. His lips were parted and his mouth was frozen into an awful frown. Only his bottom row of teeth showed through. Bizarrely, there was a dusting of snow on the boy’s shoulders.

I sent along a jpeg to my editor, not knowing if the suggestion would reach Iacopo Bruno in Italy, or how he’d respond if it did. I believed then, as I do now, that even if it did, that it would be within Iacopo’s right to reject my idea and go with a vision of his own.

Anyway, I’m not sure how it all worked out. But you might notice a resemblance, especially in the mouth. Our sly tribute to a great author, a fantastic book, and a terrific movie. Thank you, Stephen King.

RE-POST: Pretty Lights on the Tree, I’m Watching Them Shine

Sometimes you can hear a song a hundred times and on a random afternoon it will hit you in a new way. Whap, right upside the head. As a huge Bob Dylan fan, that happens to me frequently, where I’ll suddenly appreciate, say, Dylan’s piano technique on “Blind Willie McTell” — and need to hear that song every day for weeks.

That happened to me recently with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” written by Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and Phil Spector.

Specifically, these simple lines:

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me

Those lines have all the qualities of a successful haiku except for the syllable count — that attention to concrete detail, the lean clear prose (no purple or wasted words), and a darting movement from exterior, objective reality to an interior emotional state, where “outside” and “inside” become linked through juxtaposition.

I admire lines that can be as unadorned as, “Pretty lights on the tree/I’m watching them shine.” I love how that straight description conveys an inner depth (I’ve talked about that quality before, most recently here). I think it’s difficult to pull off, using simple words, yet evoking a depth of feeling that lies somewhere below language.

“You should be here with me.”

And, absolutely, it’s Darlene Love’s vocal performance that puts it over the top.

A lot of people have done this song, with mixed results: U2, Death Cab for Cutie, Mariah Carey, John Martyn, Hanson, Bruce Springsteen, etc. But nobody, but nobody, touches Darlene Love’s version, produced by Phil Spector on this 1963 LP: “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.”

On this essential disk, Spector lends his signature “Wall of Sound” treatment to a number of secular holiday tunes, enlisting the vocal talents of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. A few years back, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #142 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time — not bad for a holiday album.

Here’s Darlene Love on a 2012 visit to “Letterman” — just a stunning version, given the full arrangement it so richly deserves. Violins and cellos, nine backup singers, a horn section, random percussionists pounding on the kitchen sink, and . . . snow!

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The snow’s coming down
I’m watching it fall
Lots of people around
Baby please come home

The church bells in town
All singing in song
Full of happy sounds
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

Pretty lights on the tree
I’m watching them shine
You should be here with me
Baby please come home

They’re singing “Deck The Halls”
But it’s not like Christmas at all
‘Cause I remember when you were here
And all the fun we had last year

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home

Here’s Bono and the gang giving it a go:

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In this recent cover by Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard eliminates the celebratory element that has crept into recent versions, to capture the sadness and longing that is at the song’s (true, I think) core.

If there was a way
I’d hold back this tear
But it’s Christmas day
Baby please come home.

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RE-POST: Imaging the Character of Griffin Connelly in BYSTANDER

I just enjoyed a terrific visit to Virginia, three nights, visiting Matoaca Middle School and Davis Middle School. I stayed in Richmond, was treated like a conquering hero, and all I can do is express my heartfelt gratitude one more time. Thank you to three librarians, Mrs. Masters, Mrs. Green, and Miss Warshen (I hope that’s how you spell it). Most singularly: The trip would not have been possible without the near-heroic efforts of Amanda Brata — and all the teachers/administrators who decided to make Bystander a school-wide read for their students. That’s an amazing honor I don’t take lightly.

SIDENOTE: I know I’m forgetting the name of someone who took me around to classrooms on Monday, and it’s killing me. It’ll come to me, promise!

Over three days, I gave eight (fabulous) large-group presentations. I was also offered the opportunity to enjoy several brief classroom visits. One perceptive student asked about how my intentions when it came to creating the character of Griffin Connelly. It was thoughtful question that I tried to answer as best I could. The truth is, I suspect that I write better — clearer — than I talk. So while I was fumbling for an answer, I referenced this blog post about Griffin’s two-faced quality.

Here’s an excerpt of that old post.

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Let’s talk about smiles . . .

I began my work on the book that would become Bystander by hanging out in the local library with a composition notebook. At the top of the first page of that notebook I see that I copied a line from Michael Connelly’s  Echo Park: “What is the bad guy up to?” I was excited. After writing 30-plus Jigsaw Jones mysteries for younger readers, I finally had a bad guy. It wasn’t going to be all benign misunderstandings and well-intentioned foul-ups; here, I had a character with potential for real darkness.

I see that I was reading Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, by Jonathan Kellerman. A powerful, disturbing book that looks at antisocial youth, from aggressive bullies to cold-hearted killers.

And right there on that first notebook page I started a list of potential “bully” characteristics. I wrote:

Smart, charismatic, charming, popular, superior, tortures animal?, trouble with police?, lights fires, COLD, raised by grandmother?, non-compliant, poor grades, not affected by discipline, causes fear, lucid, psychopathic?, free of angst, free of insecurities, (later, when caught, self-pity), preternaturally CALM.

I was in the first stages of character development — and for me, I’m at my best when character evolves into story, as opposed to plugging character into plot. That is: character first. With my focus exclusively on this “bad guy,” I even came up with a potential book title: Predator.

It became important to me that my main antagonist, Griffin Connelly, was divorced from the bully stereotypes we often see in books and movies. You know, the bully as gross coward, unlikeable lug, dim-witted brute, dirty, ugly, unpopular. It simply wasn’t realistic, and by turning bullies into  one-dimensional characters, we surrendered much of the complexity (and difficulty) of the topic (and story).

A quick plea: There’s a tendency to slot any topical book, such as this, into the bibliotherapy shelf. But Bystander is a story, a page-turner with thriller elements that a biased Jean Feiwel called, “Unputdownable.” It’s not a thesis paper. It’s a good, fast read. I hope boys find it.

Whew. I see that I’m letting this post get away from me, because I’m trying to talk about too much. So I’ll get specific:

I wanted Griffin Connelly to be  a great-looking kid, with charm and verbal dexterity and a great smile. He would be, in every sense of the word, attractive. All the surfaces would shine. The ugliness concealed.

His smile was one of the keys to his character. But what is  a smile if not a baring of teeth? The smile beams beatifically, but also represents a flashing of fangs. A threat. The wolfish grin. There’s menace under the surface.

Griffin Connelly was the kind of person who would smile at you while he stuck a knife in your back. And maybe, for pleasure, gave the blade a twist. The toothy smile was the mask he wore, this master of the mixed message.

Page 7, when Eric first meets Griffin:

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

Some random examples now . . .

Page 11:

Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning.

Page 18:

Griffin flashed a smile, that hundred-dollar smile he could turn on in an instant. He reached out his fist. “Are we cool, buddy

Page 50:

“Mrs. Chavez!” Griffin exclaimed, smiling cheerfully. “Please let me help you with that . . .”

Page 68:

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

Page 78:

“You want to hang out, don’t you?” Griffin asked. He smiled, put an arm around Hallenback’s shoulder.

Page 130:

Griffin winked at Eric. Then gave that big Hollywood smile, and swept the hair from his eyes.

Page 130:

“What are you going to do? Punch me?” Griffin taunted, grinning.

Page 131:

“I’ll be seeing you around, Eric,” Griffin said. His smile was like a pure beam of distilled sunlight. His long lashes blinked, his cheeks pinkened. He wore a perfect mask of kindness and light.

Page 165:

Griffin smiled wide, folded his hands together, and said in a soft voice, “We’ll see about that.”

Page 186:

Griffin grinned through the insults.

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Presented in this way, it may seem a little much. But  in the context of the story, I suspect it’s unnoticed. The accumulated effect, I hope, is creepiness. Here’s a guy you can’t trust. Every threat comes with a smile. White teeth gleaming in the sunlight, fangs bared.

“My Grandma, what big teeth you’ve got?”

Don’t let that smile fool you.

My Interview at “Author Turf”

I was recently invited for an interview by Brittney Breakey over at AUTHOR TURF. Brittney has really accomplished a lot with her site. It’s worth checking out. She’s recently interviewed Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sally Nicholls, Gennifer Choldenko, Jo Knowles, Kathryn Erskine . . . and my great pal, Lewis Buzbee.

For me, that’s a double-edged sword. I’ll be honest, I’ve always hoped to be the kind of person who somebody wanted to interview. It’s an incredible compliment. And a true honor.

In my career, some of the first work I ever did was interviews of authors for promotional brochures. I think Ann McGovern was my first interview, back when I worked as a junior copywriter for Scholastic. Or it might have been Johanna Hurwitz. I don’t think I saved them. This would have been in 1985, I guess. Life went on and I’ve interviewed some talented authors and illustrators over the years.

You’d think I’d have learned some things along the line, but my basic feeling is usually one of disorientation, a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing, most likely saying the wrong things, awkwardly. Oh well.

I do have lucid moments, times when I think, “Okay, not terrible.” But in general I can’t read things like this without wincing, without twitching and blinking too often. I don’t know, it’s weird. I try to be honest, authentic, and hope for the best.

Below, you’ll find a brief excerpt of a much longer interview. Click here for the whole shebang.

What’s the worst thing you did as a kid?

It’s interesting you ask this, because I recently wrote about it in my journal. A theme that I’m exploring in the book I currently writing (or should be writing), which is a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I have superstitions about talking about books before they are finished, but I’ll say this: In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, a girl in my homeroom died unexpectedly. I didn’t know her well, and wouldn’t call her a friend. When I first heard about Barbara’s death, I was with a bunch of friends –- I can picture it vividly, a bunch of us lounging around — and I said something dumb, snarky, immature. Of course, the death of a peer was completely new to me, a big deal, and I didn’t know how to react. I still feel a sense of shame about it, across these forty years, that one dumb thing I said that no one else even noticed. I’ve been reflecting a lot about identity lately, the idea of self not as a revelation, but as a made thing. Something you earn. Bryan Stevenson gave an incredible presentation for TED Talks -– everyone in America should Youtube it -– and he said, “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s a huge, complicated, controversial idea –- and it speaks directly to the topic of my next book. [NOTE: I've embedded Stevenson's talk, below.]

Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?

Yes, I’ve wanted to quit. Absolutely. Mostly because it’s hard, and because I’ve felt (and still feel, though less so) insecure about my own ability –- that I was a pretender, a self-deceiver, a fake. Also, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny business that can crush your soul at times. As a husband and father, I’ve worried about my ability to provide for my family, to keep paying the bills. But that’s life, right? You have to keep getting up. You can’t just lie there on the canvas. That said: Every day I feel blessed that I can do this for a living. The hard is what makes the good.

What’s your favorite writing quote?

It’s not a quote, so much as an attitude about doing the work, a sort of blue collar distrust of pretentiousness. In a phrase, shut up, sit down, and write. Or not! But either way, shut up. It’s hard, writers are told that we need to promote ourselves, we need to “have a presence” on the web, we need to “get out there.” And I just keep thinking, we need to write great books. That’s all that matters.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?

The whole thing is a challenge. One thing about having published a bunch of things over a long period of time is that I’ve come to understand that each book is its own, self-contained thing. You write the story that’s in front of you. Then you write the next one. And the next. You don’t control what happens after that and, on good days, you accept that plain fact.

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #170: Seth from Iowa Is Scared & Happy About It

Here we go, folks. It’s time for Fan Mail Wednesday — and it’s actually Wednesday, a first for the entire staff here at Jamespreller.com!

I’m reaching into the big box of letters . . . ah, here’s one from Seth in Iowa!

Dear James Preller,

Hello, my name is Seth. I am a fourth grade student in Iowa. Our class is writing letters to our favorite authors. I chose you. You write Scary Tales. What do you do when you get stuck? Also, what book are you writing now? Here are some suggestions; Scary Tales: Slenderman’s Eye because it is really scary. My favorite book is Good Night Zombie. It is captivating! You keep me into the book and the characters. I liked your book because it’s scary and fun to read. What book did you make and like the most? I obviously like GOOD NIGHT ZOMBIE!!! It’s really scary. You also give me courage to read your books. You give me the chills when I read the books. You inspire me to read and write. Thank you for writing stuff like scary books!

Sincerely,

Seth

I replied:
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Seth,

Thanks for your email. You just saved me fifty cents on a crummy stamp. And stamps don’t grow on trees. (Though trees grow on stumps, sort of. Nevermind!)

I’m especially happy to read your email, because you are one of the first readers to write about my new SCARY TALES series. I’m glad you enjoyed Good Night, Zombie, which is the third book in that series. I love that story, just wall-to-wall action and suspense. I’ve written two more in the series that are due to come out around June or so, I’m not really clear on the dates. It takes a lot of people to make a book, and now is the time for the designer, illustrator, editor, and copyeditor to do their part. Except for some proofreading, my job on those books is pretty much done.
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Scary Tales #4 is called Nightmareland. It’s about a boy who loves video games. Unfortunately, he gets sucked into one of them and it’s up to his sister to find a way to help him escape. Yes, there are wolves. Yes, there are dangerous snowmen who guard a castle. Yes, there is fire and adventure. It’s a lot of fun. The 5th book will be called The One-Eyed Doll and my editor thinks it’s the creepiest one yet. Around here, I consider that a compliment.
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EDITOR: “Your story is really creepy and gruesome.”

WRITER: “Oh, thank you very much. You don’t look so bad yourself!”

I currently have several projects in the fire. My focus right now is a new novel along the lines of my middle grade book, Bystander. Many of the same themes, but all new characters and situations. I’m writing, researching, and zinging along. It’s the first book that I’ve written in the first-person since my old “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series. Other two works in progress are both middle grade novels, a crazy one tentatively titled Zombie Me in the wild and wooly tradition (I hope) of Kurt Vonnegut, and a straight-on science fiction story set on a distant planet. In that one, I’m trying to bring “scary” into outer space.

There will be a 6th book in the Scary Tales series, but at this point I have no idea what it will be about. What is this “Slenderman’s Eye” you are talking about? Seriously, I’m open to new ideas, just as long as we are clear about one thing: I’m not sharing the money, Seth!

I don’t believe in writer’s block and don’t worry too much about getting stuck. My father was an insurance man who ran his own business. He had a wife and seven kids. As far as I know, he never sat around complaining about “insurance block.” Sometimes you just have to strap yourself into the chair and . . . make something up! I do think we experience “stuckness” when we are bored. That is, we are writing a story that has become boring to us. How awful is that? If you are bored by your own story, imagine how the readers might feel. At that point, you’ve got to sit back and try to figure out how to get your story back on track. Or dump it and start a new one.
The world does not need any more boring stories.

Thanks for writing, Seth!

My best,

James Preller