Archive for the writing process

The Beauty of Bare Winter Trees: Haiku & Bill McKibben

Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.

Especially in the winter.

That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.

These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.

On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:

 

In the winter trees

her bony grip, long fingers

twisted and wind-whipped.

 

The wolf’s moon hangs low

beckons through bare branches, come:

a headlight drives past.

 

Where a branch broke off

the grandfatherly red oak

a barred owl now nests.

 

The plump winter wren

moves through the understory,

trills and whirls, tail down.

 

The tall trees lie down

in shadow across sunlit

snow, ever patient.

 

Amidst the white field

a stand of resolute oaks,

but not forever.

 

The sparse silhouette

against a gray winter sky

declares: hickory.

 

The beech holds its leaves

shimmering like winter moons

papery and light.

 

Steel-gray buckets tapped

into maples; the crows watch

from snow-covered limbs.

 

Crows seem skeptical

of melting snow in cold rain,

perched on bare branches.

 

The bare winter elms

reveal the assassin’s shape:

hawk perched on a limb.

 

Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”

It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:

And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down. 

 

AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.

From Sketch to Final: Jigsaw Jones, Before and After

I love the journey from written word to sketch to final art. Here’s a quick glimpse at two examples from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones title, The Case of the Hat Burglar, illustrations by R. W. Alley — but you can call him Bob.



  

I wrote the first Jigsaw Jones book in 1997. Since that time the series has rolled along, gone painfully out of print, and then miraculously sprang to life again — like Lazarus and Beef Jerky and Toto’s “Africa.” Yesterday I received the Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) for the newest title, coming this summer, the 42nd Jigsaw overall. Creating a book is a lengthy process, and nothing makes it feel like a real book quite like the day when the ARCs arrive. Still excited, still think it’s the best one yet, but now feeling more grateful than ever. Thanks, all. Carry on! Cover art & interiors by the great Bob Alley.

I have a few spare ARCs in my possession. If you are a teacher or librarian who would like to share this “unfinished” book with young readers — they’d be the first students on the planet to read it — please send me a note with your address at jamespreller@aol.com. 

That Feeling When . . . You Just Hit Send!

 

Yesterday I hit “send.” A year late, but I got there. Wilderness survival story, involving a brother and sister. Think “Hatchet” meets “Misery” . . . and there’s a dog.

I can’t wait to see this book out in the world. It might be the best thing I’ve written.

Oh, while I have you: When I start a new book, I have a ritual. I go to CVS and purchase a composition notebook. It begins that way. Brainstorming, reading, filling a notebook with random ideas and inspirations. Eventually I get to the computer and start writing. With this book, because I had to learn so much, the pre-writing process — which includes note-taking, tons of reading, and a lot of scribbled ideas — took about 18 months before I could even start. Funny how that works.

For this book, I had the title from the beginning. Same thing with Six Innings and Bystander. Other books, titles can be a wicked struggle.

I love all the characters in this book, but most particularly Grace. She is fierce and strong and courageous. In some respects, it was easy to write about her. I just had to think of my daughter, Maggie.  

Should be published in Fall, 2019. Only my wife, Lisa, has read it so far. But as Pusha T says, “When you know, you know.”

 

Artist’s Sketchbook: A Glimpse into the Process

I recently received a zippy little email from R.W. Alley, who is illustrating the next Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Hat Burglar.  I think that Bob — yes, I call him Bob — is a remarkable, sensitive talent. He really captures Jigsaw’s world, the essence of everything I hope to achieve through my words. Bob lifts it all up and makes it better. He’s done all the covers to the books, and (so far) the full interiors to three titles. The first two, much beloved, are currently out of print (grumble, grumble): The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and The Case of the Christmas Snowman. Last year, Bob illustrated The Case from Outer Space, which is available, published by Macmillan. Very simply, I love his work. So grateful, so blessed.

Hey Jimmy,
I feel moved to let you know what fun I’m having sketching up this mysterious hat story of yours.
Here’s a little peek.
Happy wet Wednesday,
Bob
I’m a huge fan of process — except when it comes sausages — and it’s great fun for me to see how a book comes together over a long period of time. So many people touch it, shape it, contribute to the final “real” book. Mostly after I’m out of the picture. Just yesterday my editor, Anna Poon, sent along flap copy for my approval. Maybe I’ll share that another day. 
Must run now. Headed down to Westchester to speak at a middle school where all students (purportedly) read Bystander. Then on Saturday, it’s the glorious Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. Hope to see you there! Please say hello.

Fan Mail Wednesday #276: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

 

I’ll transcribe this letter from Annabel in Massachusetts. The original was lightly written in pencil and my scanner wasn’t up to the task:

Dear James Preller,

My name is Annabel. I read The Courage Test. William is awesome.

One of the things I like is the adventure. The bear and the water rapids parts have a lot of adventure. In the book it said, “If she is making this display to terrify me, it’s working.” It shows William is scared and has encountered something dangerous. There will be a lot of action in that part of the story that’s interesting to read.

How long have you been an author and what’s your favorite type of book?

Sincerely,

Annabel

 

I replied:

 

Dear Annabel,

I’m so happy to receive a letter from a reader of The Courage Test. With a new book, I’m never sure if anyone will find it. So: yes, thank you and hooray.

I like the exciting parts, too. It’s those moments when you can almost feel, as a writer, the reader leaning in. One of these days I should try to write a book composed entirely of exciting parts, like those movies that are two-hour car chases. Actually, the thought of that exhausts me.

Ideally, I think we want our stories to have shape and pace, quiet moments, important conversations, laughter, insightful description –- and, sure, somebody almost drowning in the rapids. I think when my writing is at its best, all those elements are woven together.

Yesterday I wrote a dramatic scene for an upcoming book, Blood Mountain, that centers on a brother and sister who are lost in the wilderness for six suspenseful days. A lot happens in this book, so if you like exciting parts, you’ll have to check it out. In the scene I wrote yesterday, the boy, Carter, is alone, exhausted, near hypothermia, desperately hiking through a bog. Oscar Wilde has a great quote: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

And also, it’s helpful to try to come up with characters that readers care about –- and then do awful things to them. That’s an idea put forth by author Kurt Vonnegut in his famous “8 Rules for Writers.” You might like my newest book, Better Off Undead. It’s about a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian, who meets a girl who can see into the future, along with a beekeeper and a detective, and there’s evil billionaires, and, I promise you, exciting parts.

I published my first book in 1986. The last time the New York Mets made the World Series. And truthfully, I like all kinds of books –- even some of mine!

My best,

James Preller