Archive for the writing process

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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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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