Archive for the writing process

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

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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:

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I replied:

Tyler,

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,

JP

 

Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies


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: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 

 

 

These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.

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Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.

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There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

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And Then There Were 5 (Plus a Few Words About an Upcoming Hardcover)

The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised — now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:

Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”

(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)

It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

This Is Remarkably Accurate to My Writing Process

Thanks to Algonquin Books . . . and cartoonist Tom Gauld, who nails it.

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Incoming: Revisions!

I got a big package in the mail yesterday . . .

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This bit, four real books, finally published, represents a final payoff. It’s done, it exists. There’s also something a little, I don’t know, deflating about it. An ending. Now it will go out into the world, probably to be largely ignored. That might sound a touch maudlin, or even self-pitying, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the business these days. So many books don’t make it, even the good ones. It can be disheartening. And, yes, scary.

Hey, check out my new shirt . . .

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Cool, right? I love it.

And lastly, most exciting of all, came the editorial revisions for my upcoming book, THE FALL, a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I try to enter the process of revisions with an open mind and an open heart. I trust my editor, Liz Szabla, and endeavor to deeply consider all of her comments, thoughts, suggestions. This is a new opportunity for me to try to make this book better than ever. That involves, sometimes, letting go of old ideas, favorite sentences. It means stepping back — to truly re/vise, to see again — and, well, take another whack at it.

In a moment, the sound you’ll hear will be that of a writer rolling up his sleeves.

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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 . . . 

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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.

 

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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 . . .

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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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