Archive for the writing process

Teachers: Please Kill This Book

Teaching books, teaching stories,
is a positive thing
and we need to start doing a better job of it,
and doing it proudly.
There’s nothing wrong with teaching literature.
Don’t believe those memes
that would try to tell you otherwise.

NOTE: I APOLOGIZE

In a lapse of judgment, I included a meme on this site

that included an unfortunate curse word. I’ve never done that

before and, after hearing a complaint, I’ve moved to correct it.

The meme in question set up a Venn diagram with two slightly

overlapping circles. The first was labeled “What the author meant.”

The second, “What your English teacher thinks the author 

meant.” Below that it used an example of a teacher who insists

on a complicated, symbolic, highly improbable reading of 

blue curtains, compared to an author who claims there 

was no deeper meaning or intent whatever. The curtains

were simply blue.

 

Here’s a popular meme, at least a variation on a popular theme, that goes around from time to time. It’s often posted by highly-literate people. And — disheartening to me — by leading educators. And the overwhelming reaction on social media is always one of agreement, even angry agreement. A lot of folks clicking “like.” I’ve even seen writers chime in about how they’d fail tests on their own books!

It’s the oft-quoted idea that teachers kill books, teachers kill the joy of reading, by teaching.

And I’m here to say that I deeply, passionately hate that notion, that somehow it’s “bad” to teach students how to read and comprehend literature.

I find memes like the above to be not only insulting to teachers, but also anti-literature, anti-intellectual, anti-ART.

Can a teacher ruin a good book? Of course! A misguided teacher can kill anything, even sex education. And that’s why so many people on social media react the way they do. In their experience, being taught books wasn’t fun — and, in fact, it was often nonsensical! I remember two of my children slogging through Great Expectations in high school for more than two months. Their teacher knew and admitted that most of her students hated it. But, you know, hey. It was bloodless and cold and somehow weirdly seen as “necessary.”

But that’s not what a good, effective teacher should do with a book. Young people need to learn how to read critically, how to understand the dynamics of story, to see and grasp what is happening. The layers: the expectations and fulfillments and disappointments. The reasons why an author made certain choices. And for readers to develop the critical tools to articulate those insights, perceptions, feelings.

Teaching literature isn’t limited to teaching symbolism — in fact, that’s just a minor aspect of (most) literature. Close reading is about thoughtful questioning, reflection, discovery. What is happening in this story? And those are cognitive lessons that students carry forward to every book they read in the future. In other words, a good teacher is teaching readers how to fish. 

George Saunders, arguably the greatest living American writer, and a professor as well, describes how he teaches in his terrific new book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. He begins one exercise this way:

The basic drill I’m proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you’ve just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it’s valid. If it confounded you, that’s worth mentioning. If you were bored or pissed off: valuable information. No need to dress up your response in literary language or express it in terms of “theme” or “plot” or “character development” or any of that.

Saunders goes on to make a deeper point, with wider implications:

To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time. What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read (trying to reconstruct how we felt as we were, just now, reading). Why would we want to do this? Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality. 

 

 

Teachers, please feel free to try to kill my new book with your students! Upstander is a prequel/sequel to Bystander, a middle-grade novel that stands alone. You don’t have to start with Bystander to enjoy it. Also, teachers, feel free to contact me to set up a virtual visit if you’d like (cheap). Teaching books, teaching stories, is a positive thing and we need to start doing a better job of it, and doing it proudly. There’s nothing wrong with teaching literature. Don’t believe those memes that would tell you otherwise. Upstander is a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. It comes out on May 11th. So far, there are no other reviews. 

Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” as It Figures in My Book, “The Fall”

It began almost twenty-five years ago when I first started writing the Jigsaw Jones Mystery Series. I’d drop quick references to actual books that my characters were reading. Bunnicula, Shiloh, Nate the Great, and so on. Sometimes I’d do more with it, as in The Great Sled Race, where Jigsaw’s class is reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. In another example, The Case of the Buried Treasure, the students in room 201 had to do a “story maps” assignment based on Wolf in the Snow, the 2018 Caldecott Medal Winner by Matthew Cordell. This strategy was a nod of appreciation and a  way to connect the real world with Jigsaw’s fictional world. Maybe a reader would think, Hey, I read that book, too

I carried on that tradition over to longer works for middle-grade readers and beyond. It wasn’t a plan, exactly, it just sort of happened. In some ways, it poses a good question for a writer to ask of any character: What book would this person love? In Blood Mountain, there’s a former marine with PTSD. He’s living off the grid in the mountains. The dog-eared book he carries around is Lau Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. The fact of that book served as an entrance point into the struggles and mindset of the character.

For The Fall, I used Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There was a time in our world when seemingly everyone read that book — I remember grabbing it off an older sister’s bookshelf. I decided to make The Bell Jar an important book for Morgan Mallen. It was fascinating for me to read it again through the eyes of that character. After Morgan’s death, by suicide, the book finds its way to The Fall’s narrator, Sam.

Here’s one passage where Plath’s book comes into play:

Morgan had marked up The Bell Jar here and there, little checkmarks and passages underlined.

The evocative, transcendent cover of the Japanese translation of THE FALL.

I never found my name in it. There was no secret message. Believe me, I looked.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” was underlined in red.

There was a loopy star next to “I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.”

(Oh, Morgan.)

Another star: “I had nothing to look forward to.”

It was that kind of book, and I guess Morgan was that kind of girl. There was a sadness inside her, a darkness I couldn’t touch. Strange as it seems, all the while I imagined her reading those words, dragging her pen under important sentences, drawing stars in the margins.

Reading is the most along thing in the world.

But she was with me the whole time.

Weirdness. The book brought us closer, across time and impossible distance. We shared this.

=

 

ABOUT THE FALL . . . 

 

 “Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.

“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.

“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.

 “It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”Guys Lit Wire.

“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.” — Expresso Reads.

NOMINATED FOR THE SAKURA MEDAL IN JAPAN!

YALSA “QUICK PICK” FOR RELUCTANT YOUNG ADULT READERS!

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #308: Advice to an Adult for Publishing a Children’s Book

We all get them. Sooner or later, every published author receives the query. It’s from a person who wants to know how to get published. These letters can be touchingly sincere or — at times — presumptuous and annoying. The annoying ones are typically a dashed off, two-sentence email with the request: Explain publishing to me . . . while I sit around and drink wine.

As if we have nothing better to do. 

They want, of course, for “the published” to hand over the Secret Key that lets them inside the Golden Egg where the rich and famous authors and illustrators all sit around sipping fabulous cocktails, gazing at our royalty checks and, endlessly, complaining about our publishers who don’t do enough marketing. 

(Publishers never do enough marketing.)

Alas, there is no Secret Key.

Anyway, I always answer and try to provide some helpful information. Or at least, basic human recognition — I see you — and hopefully a few encouraging words. 

Because it is really hard to feel like an outsider, that sense of how do I get seen? What do I do? Is there a trick? A short-cut? Anyway, I’m sympathetic to that feeling, even though there’s really nothing new or insightful I can possibly say.

See that rock: Start pushing it up the hill.

This email came with the subject heading: ADVICE FOR PUBLISHING A CHILDREN’S BOOK. For some reason, I gave a longer answer than usual, so share it here.

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

I hope this email finds you well. My name is _____, and I’m a general surgery resident at ______ hospital. I’m writing to you for advice on publishing my first book. A woman [edit: name omitted] at the Medical Library encouraged me to contact you.

Late one night last fall, on call as the senior trauma surgery resident, I wrote a children’s book. The children I had spent the night examining in the pediatric ED were afraid and bewildered, and their parents were afraid and bewildered as well. I realized that a good picture book could comfort the kids and their parents, and could explain the unfamiliar hospital environment.

I cold-emailed a literary agent this week and sent her a query letter looking for representation, but haven’t heard back. I’ve read a few blog posts about publishing a book, but I still don’t know very much about the process.

Do you have any advice on how to get from a finished manuscript sitting on my computer to the next step in the publication process?

Thank you very much!

Best,

Tyler

 

I replied . . .

 

Tyler,

How dare you disturb the GREAT OZ!

 

No, not really.

 

I actually replied . . . 

 

Tyler, 

Well done on recognizing a need and writing a manuscript.

That’s a big part of the job. But you still have work to do (often this work is what separates the published authors from the writers and the dabblers).

The standard and correct advice is that most publishers will only look at manuscripts represented by an agent. The old “slush pile” days, when an assistant editor or hired “reader” might comb through a pile of unsolicited manuscripts are pretty much over. Harry Potter killed it; suddenly everyone figured out a new, easy way to become millionaires.

Write a children’s book! How hard could it be?

Ha, ha, ha.

Publishers got overwhelmed. Some still try to sift through unsolicited manuscripts; others do not. These days, agents tend to be the most reliable gatekeepers, helping to weed out the manuscripts that don’t meet publishing standards or the ever-shifting demands of the marketplace.

So, yeah: Do some internet searching and find children’s book agents. Read the descriptions. Send them queries. Know that it might take months to receive an answer.

Note that an agent will only represent you if s/he thinks that your book has a chance of selling. She will not waste her time if she suspects it has no shot. An agent agrees to represent your work in the hope of earning 15% of the profits. Also, an agent’s credibility is at stake. If that agent passes along too many “bad” manuscripts, editors will no longer trust in that agent’s ability or sense of the marketplace. No one wants their time wasted. So, yeah, in a lot of ways finding an agent is a critical step in the process.

Your book falls under what we used to call “bibliotherapy.” Books designed for specific needs, a narrow audience, often to help young children face social or physical problems. Most of the big publishers you know off the top of your head likely won’t be interested in a niche book like yours. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving or publishable book — it’s just not going to be a bestseller. However, there ARE small publishers who specialize in exactly this kind of thing.

Again, more homework for you –- some of which might have to wait until things open up a bit, Covid-wise. Go to the library. Talk to the children’s librarian. Look at books that fit in your category (“My First Visit to the Doctor,” “When Mommy Is Sick,” and so on, usually shelved in a separate section). Note the names of the publishers. Do more research. See if you can find the name of a specific editor and write a short query letter. It’s a long shot, but it’s possible. Such a letter would demonstrate a lot of good things about your level of interest and dedication.

Anyone can dash off a quick email to an author. But will you do the necessary work?

Also, please note the books that you admire. Their length. The word count. And so on. For example, just about all picture books are 32 pages, total. You know that, right? You have to give them something that fits into the publishing world as it exists. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t get that part, so they are eliminated right out of the box. No one is going to reinvent publishing for your book.

Good luck.

And lastly, thank you for the important work you do, especially during this most difficult year.

 

James Preller

P.S. Don’t quit your day job!

P.P.S. Funny coincidence. You wrote a children’s book while working as a surgeon in a hospital. Just yesterday, while working on a children’s book, I found a few spare moments to remove an elderly gentleman’s gall bladder! At least, I think it was his gall bladder.

My next book, Upstander, comes out on May 11th. How did I pull that off? Well, I have the Golden Key. (You didn’t think I was going to share it with Tyler, did you?)

 

 

 

 

 

FREE Pro Tip #46: About Those Chapter Titles

Horror of horrors, it dawned on me that I’ve been neglecting my obligation as a Big Deal in Children’s Publishing (cough, cough) to hand out FREE WRITING TIPS.

Please forgive the lapse. I realize that you come here for the swag.

I was thinking about chapter titles while in the shower yesterday. It’s a funny thing about showers — it’s where I get my best thinking done. I’ve heard that’s true for others, too. Maybe because it’s the one place where we turn off the social media, the relentless stream of feeds and shiny objects, and for a few minutes tune into our own watery thoughts?

Maybe we should all take more showers.

Or, I guess, sit in quietude as a regular practice.

Anyway . . .

Without really thinking about it all that much, I’ve used a variety of approaches for chapter titles in my books. Pro tip: If you want to be really cool (and who doesn’t?), don’t use titles for your chapters at all! Just number them: 1, 2, 3, etc. This says to the reader, yawn, I couldn’t be bothered. What’s cooler than indifference? I did that in my YA, Before You Go. Very sophisticated. If you want to win A Major Award, this is the recommended technique. (However, it did not work for Before You Go — not even close.)

But isn’t the untitled chapter just a big ripoff? You pay good money for a book, shouldn’t it include complimentary chapter titles for the price, like the warm, freshly baked cookies they give away in the lobby of DoubleTree hotels?

My book The Courage Test is fancy because we spell out (!) the numerals: CHAPTER TWO: THE RIVER OF TIME.

No extra charge.

There’s one device I’ve always gotten a kick out of, which was a convention in 17th- and 18th-century works: the extended title/subtitle that sums up the chapter’s main events. For example, um, let’s see: “In Which Our Hero’s Boat Capsizes — He Fights Off a Deadly Shark Attack — And Becomes Stranded on an Uninhabited Desert Island!

Bonus points if the chapter title, in italic, begins with the words, “In which . . .

While I have not gone that far (yet!), Justin Fisher Declares War! makes liberal use of longer titles. For example: CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Tied Up with Duct Tape and Stuffed into a Broom Closet.

The other thing about the titles in that book is that they all reflect actual dialogue (!) contained in the chapter. For example, CHAPTER EIGHT: Did We Just See One of the Teachers Doing the Funky Chicken?

Somebody actually says that. 

For Jigsaw Jones, my chapter titles are straight forward, falling well within accepted conventions. Easily 93% of all published books use this boring approach, the bland two or three-word summary. Randomly pulling Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space off the shelf, there’s “Room 201” and “Our Solar System” and “The Stakeout” and so on.

Of course, it’s always a Big Plus if you can title a chapter using a reference to pop culture, particularly song lyrics. That’s a pretty standard trick which signals to the reader that the author is “with it” and effortlessly cool in an insidery sort of way. YA is riddled with it. So Chapter 8 is, “A Little Help from My Friends.” Mom or Dad, blearily reading aloud, might get a kick out of that (and I often try to throw ’em a bone). 

Here’s an idea: It might be awesome if an entire book went all-in on that concept, you know what I mean? Every chapter title featuring a snippet of David Bowie lyrics:

 

Chapter 1: We Can Be Heroes

Chapter 2: Hey Babe, You’re Hair’s Alright

Chapter 3: Turn and Face the Strange

Chapter 4: Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

And so on and so forth.

Like most writers, I generally adopt the summary technique in my books. It’s quick, clear, and does the job without any fuss. A lot of times good writing just wants to get out of the way. For my “Scary Tales” books, I seem to have gone with short, dramatic, nearly breathless chapter titles: “The Hunt,” “Full Dark,” “The Chase,” “Captured,” etc.

Who knows? Surely not me!


My upcoming novel, Upstander (May, 2021), is a stand-alone story, but it is also a prequel/sequel to Bystander, featuring the same characters.

For reasons I cannot defend on grammatical grounds, for Bystander I titled every chapter using just one word, lower case, in brackets:

 

1

[ketchup]

2

[pretty]

 

and so on.

 

Upstander picks up that same strategy, subtly connecting the two books:

 

1

[gravel]

2

[triangle]

 

You get the idea.

Wait, you might ask, “Where’s my free pro tip? I’ve traveled all this distance and there’s no free tip?”

Easy there, trust me.

PRO TIP #46: Whatever strategy you employ for your chapter titles, they should be consistent within the world of that book. Each book should have its own logic, its own internal rules and strategies, and that should be reflected in the chapter titles. Or, of course, not!

CONFESSION: I took about 15 minutes with my shelves, leafing through various classic and quasi-popular children’s books. I hoped to find creative examples of chapter titles. It was a huge bust and I got bored after a while, though I did notice that funny books tended to have funny chapter titles (but not always). I did rediscover Half Magic, the 1954 classic by Edward Eager. His book has 8 chapters:

  1. How It Began
  2. What Happened to Their Mother
  3. What Happened to Mark
  4. What Happened to Katherine
  5. What Happened to Martha
  6. What Happened to Jane
  7. How It Ended
  8. How It Began Again

Pretty righteous, I think. Old Eager went the extra yard.

How about you? Can you think of any good examples? 

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #302: Hard Beginnings, Saggy Middles, and Fizzled Endings

 

Here’s a short one from Helin — who thinks I am James Preller! — along with my saggy reply.

 

Hello! My name is Helin. I think you are James Preller. I read “The Case Of The Disappearing Dinosaur” book for my English project. I understood it very well and I liked it. I got the beginning, middle and end very well. I think it was fun and enjoyable. I am glad to read this book. 

 

My response . . .  

Helin!

Thank you for your kind note. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur
Beginnings are hard: that blank page staring back at me, waiting, as if to say, “Yeah, so what?”
Middles tend to sag. I work hard at middles, because nobody wants a saggy middle. I try to keep the plot/mystery zipping along, cutting away the lazy bits. 
And endings, well, a book has to have a satisfying ending. That’s the part everyone remembers, the last pages they read. If the ending fizzles, the whole thing is a fizzled book. 
Nobody wants to read a fizzled book.
I’ve written all types of books over my long career. I published my first book in 1986, at age 25: that makes me something like 136 years old! Go ahead, do the math. The trick with mysteries is that you pretty much have to know the ending before you can begin! Other books you can sort of meander there like a stream and gradually work your way to the ending, a discovery. For mysteries, I start with “the crime” and figure out what happened, who did what. Until I know that, I can’t begin.
That’s a pro tip right there, free of charge.
Thanks so much for writing to me.
I hope this letter wasn’t too very weird.
Did it sag in the middle?
James Preller