Archive for the writing process

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

Where James Bond Meets Jigsaw Jones

One of the pleasant things about writing a continuing series is that I get to revisit secondary characters. I first wrote about Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III in the 19th book in the series (as they were once numbered by Scholastic), The Case of the Golden Key. Reginald is the richest kid in town: he and Jigsaw do not immediately hit it off. After some opening tensions, they eventually become friends.

I brought Reginald back in another book, The Case of the Double-Trouble Detective. Again, I enjoyed bouncing these two opposites off each other. Jigsaw is a regular guy, a hardboiled 2nd-grade detective, whereas Reginald wears bowties and eats cucumber sandwiches. Jigsaw, again, helps Reg out of a jam. To repay that debt, Reginald becomes Jigsaw’s “go to” guy in The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery when he needs to borrow some advanced technology. 

 

Illustration by Jamie Smith from THE CASE OF THE SANTA CLAUS MYSTERY. Jamie contributed so much to this series, drawing the interior illustrations for approx. 30 titles. Thanks, my friend, forever in your debt!

In The Santa Claus Mystery, I first used Reginald to pay sly tribute to the classic “Q” character from the James Bond movies. An aside: I very much enjoyed how “Black Panther” updated Q in the character of Shuri, charismatically played by Letitia Wright. It’s a hoot to have that high-tech expert on hand to assist our hero with funky (and entertaining!) gadgets. The scene I wrote in Santa Claus so tickled my funny bone, I felt compelled to bring back a variation of it in the new book, The Case of the Hat Burglar, amazingly the 42nd title in the grand opus.

Let me give you the setup and a brief excerpt. In chapter 7, Jigsaw needs help. Someone has been stealing items from the school’s “Lost and Found.” Jigsaw and Mila visit Joey’s lab seeking assistance:

At the front curb, my brother Billy rolled down the driver’s side window. He called, “I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour, Worm!”

“Thanks for the ride,” I called back. “But don’t call me Worm!”

He zoomed away, leaving Mila and me at Reginald’s front door. I did a few push-ups on the doorbell. Gong-gong-gong.

Mila shivered. She blew clouds of cold air from her mouth.

“Reginald expects us,” I said. “I told him all about the case.”

The front door opened. “Jigsaw and Mila! Splendid, splendid!” Reginald ushered us inside. “It’s frightfully cold out there.”

“Yeah, frightfully,” I echoed.

I noticed that Reginald had on a pair of baby blue bunny slippers. The slippers looked toasty, but they didn’t match his outfit. He wore a sweater-vest over a white shirt and a yellow bow tie. Neat and tidy, as always.

I was glad I didn’t have holes in the toes of my socks.

We shed our winter clothes and kicked off our shoes. Those were the house rules: no shoes, sneakers, or boots. Reginald handed our things to a tall butler, Gus, who had appeared at his side.

“May I take your hat?” Gus asked.

“No, thanks, Gus,” I replied. “There’s too much of that going around already.”

He raised an eyebrow, confused.

“Hat burglars,” I explained. “It’s a thing now. I’d prefer to keep this one on my head, if you don’t mind. We’re kind of a team.”

Gus harrumphed and said, “Suit yourself.”

I harrumphed back.

“Reggie, your house is amazing!” Mila gushed. And she was right. It was amazing — if you liked things like indoor swimming pools and private game rooms and seventeen glistening bathrooms with gold faucets.

I thought it was a little much.

We followed Reginald down a long hallway.

A while back, Reginald had started his own “secret agent” business. It didn’t work out so well. He thought being a detective would be fun, a chance to play with fancy gadgets and gizmos. But Reginald learned that solving mysteries could be a rough business. It took hard work and brainpower. Reggie was a nice kid, but he was as tough as a silk pillow. He promised I could borrow his gadgets anytime.

Today, I needed him to keep that promise.

Reginald pushed open a door, then said over his shoulder to Mila, “Please come into my research room.”

I’d been here once before. The room looked like a laboratory. Various objects had been placed on marble countertops. “This is all your spy equipment?” Mila asked.

She picked up an old boot.

It was a mistake I’d once made myself. “Be careful, Mila,” I warned.

Sploinnng! A suction cup attached to a spring popped out of the sole.

“Whoa,” Mila said, jumping back in surprise.

“Suction-cup boots,” Reginald explained. “For walking on ceilings.”

“It really works?” Mila asked.

Reginald shrugged and admitted, “I’m afraid to find out.”

Mila picked up two plastic goldfish. “What are these?”

“Underwater walkie-talkies,” Reginald explained.

“Glub, glub,” I commented — for no reason at all.

“And this?” Mila pointed to a tray of cucumber sandwiches. “Let me guess. Is it some kind of secret listening device?”

“No, it’s a tray of cucumber sandwiches,” Reginald said. “For snack time.”

“Cucumber sandwiches, yum,” I groaned. It was the last thing in the world I’d want to eat. I was a peanut butter and jelly kind of guy. “Sadly, Reggie, we don’t have time for snacks. We’re here on business.”

Reginald perked up when I told him we needed a way to keep an eye on the Lost and Found.

“We can’t be there to watch it all the time,” Mila explained.

“Ah, I have just the thing.” Reginald walked across the room and picked up a guinea pig plush toy.

“A plush toy?” Mila said.

Reginald used a pinkie to push his glasses back up his nose. “It contains a motion-sensitive camera. The very latest technology,” he said. “Daddy got it on one of his business trips. Just point the nose to the area you wish to watch, and the camera automatically snaps a photo whenever anyone walks past.”

Mila examined it closely. “Perfect,” she announced. “And cute, too.”

“I can have the photos sent to you — to a cell phone, laptop, home computer, whatever you’d like,” Reginald offered. He handed me a headset. “If you’d like, we can communicate using this. Stereo sound, naturally.”

I shook his hand. “Reggie, you’re the cat’s meow.”

He smiled broadly. “My pleasure, Jones. I’m happy to help. But before you go, please take a moment to enjoy a delicious cucumber and cream cheese sandwich.”

He looked up at me through round, hopeful eyes.

I frowned at the tray of sandwiches.

Mila’s eyes twinkled and she gave me a secret nod. I knew what I had to do.

“Sure,” I said to my friend, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III. “Who doesn’t love a cucumber sandwich?”

 

For those keeping score at home: The brand-new Hat Burglar will be published in Fall, 2019. Golden Key is currently out-of-print, but coming back revised and updated sometime in 2020. Double Trouble and Santa Claus are both out of print — but you never know! By 2020, there will be 14 titles available in bookstores, all published by Feiwel & Friends at Macmillan. Several titles will be offered on Scholastic’s SeeSaw Book Club this year.

Writing Tips from the Guys at Orange Country Choppers

Paul and Paul Jr. over at “Orange County Choppers” have had some fierce arguments over the years. But nothing gets these hot heads going quite like a debate about the writing process.

At least, according to this meme.

Paul Sr. seems to favor an instinctive approach to writing, along the lines of Jack Kerouac, distrustful of the rational mind’s tendency to over-polish and refine; he wants the full truth of the unconstructed soul to pour forth in all its messy glory. However, Paul Jr. believes that the very essence of writing is revising, that the first draft is only the raw material that needs to be worked, revisited, laboured over, buffed and shined.

Bizarrely, the argument takes a stunning twist at the end when a seemingly ambivalent Paul Sr. screams, “Kill your darlings!” which is clearly a call for cold, heartless revision. What’s up with that, Paul Sr.? No wonder Paul Jr. is always flinging down his cap in frustration. His father wants it both ways! But how much revision is too much? And where’s the line? Nobody knows at Orange County Choppers, that’s for damn sure. I’ll say this: they are passionate about good writing, and that’s a great place to start.

We don’t really have any answers here at James Preller Dot Com, either. We’re just making it up as we go. Fifty-seven years and counting.