Archive for the writing process

Making Connections (and Friends) with a Little Free Library!

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Here’s a quick story:

It was love at first sight. I first heard about Little Free Libraries five or six years ago. There are so many things to like: the community building, the celebration of literacy, the connectivity, and the creativity & craftsmanship of the objects themselves.

When I started writing a new Jigsaw Jones book — my first in ten years, my 41st overall — I knew I wanted to celebrate this small but powerful idea. Take a book, leave a book. So I centered the mystery in The Case from Outer Space around a note left inside a book found in a Little Free Library.

This one of the illustrations from my book, drawn by R.W. Alley:

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I had to create the character who put up this particular Little Free Library. What should he or she be like? Well, wonderful, right? Giving, kind, literate, fun-loving, happy. I decided to model this character — a key witness in our story — after my friend, author Robin Pulver. (She writes the “Language Arts Library” series and the classic “Mrs. Toggle” books, which were also illustrated by R.W. Alley, so there was a nice symmetry to it: you can learn more about Robin here.)

urlI didn’t ask Robin’s permission, I decided to surprise her. Fingers crossed, sensing she’d get a kick out of it.

I enjoyed writing that scene when my imaginary detective, Jigsaw Jones, interviews the fictional “Mrs. Pulver.” It was very meta. Here’s the essence of it, from Chapter 4:

I did push-ups on the Pulvers’ doorbell. A smiling woman with short hair answered the door.

I told her that I was a detective.

“How thrilling,” she said.

“I am working on a case,” I explained. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

I showed her my card:

NEED A MYSTERY SOLVED?

Call Jigsaw Jones or Mila Yeh, Private Eyes!

Mrs. Pulver whistled. “Wowee zowee.”

“It’s a living,” I said.

She told me about the library. She said that she read about Little Free Libraries on the Internet. “I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “So I asked Harold to build one.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Harold?”

“My husband,” she replied. “He’s retired. I like to give him little jobs.”

I asked, “Have you noticed anything . . . strange?”

“Oh, Harold has been strange for years,” she said, laughing.

“No, I mean about the library,” I said.

She clasped her hands. “Lots of folks come and go. Friends, neighbors, even people I’ve never seen before. It’s lovely, actually. The books connect us.”

Here’s a sadly dark photo of Robin and me from last week’s Rochester Children’s Book Festival.

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But wait, I have to tell you about one more cool connection.

Yesterday I received this beautiful book in the mail. A gift from the author herself. A stranger to me, but now a friend.

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Margret Aldrich had discovered the Little Free Library reference in my book and was moved to send along a copy.

Once again I ask myself, How lucky am I?

Books really do connect us.

Margret included a kind inscription:

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Notes on Revising Jigsaw Jones, Confronting Sexism, and a Changing World

This piece was originally posted with the help of my friend Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer) at the Nerdy Book Club, a great site for teachers and librarians and book lovers of all sizes and shapes and backgrounds. On school visits, I’m often asked about revision. Actually, teachers often ask — the kids, not so much. Which pretty much underscores the issue. Revision is essential to all good writing, but most young writers just want to be done. They want to type those two glorious words, THE END. Maybe my little essay below will help pull the curtain back in an interesting way into one writer’s experience with revising books . . . that were already finished. It never ends, it never, ever ends.

 

Writers are not often given the opportunity to revise our work post-publication. We labor like the dickens throughout the writing process -– drafting, daydreaming, dithering -– until those last desperate hours of corrections. Then we let the book go scampering off into the wild. Not perfect, not ever perfect, but the best we could do at the time.

In the case of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I’ve enjoyed a unique experience. The books had gone out of print with my original publisher. And then, to my great delight, the good folks at Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) decided to bring the books back into print. The plan was to launch with a brand-new title, The Case from Outer Space, but also to bring back eight previously published titles that had been unavailable.

I was given the rare chance to go back and fix things. Update, revise, tweak, correct. It’s been an instructive experience. I’ll begin with a specific example. Early in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, Jigsaw is having a catch with Mila. The book read:

 

I threw the baseball in a high, long arc to Mila. She drifted back and caught it easily. Mila is a pretty good ballplayer. She is also my partner. We’re detectives.

 

One word troubled me. Pretty. Mila was a pretty good ballplayer. There was something condescending there, a hint of sexism. It doesn’t read “for a girl,” but it’s implied. So, working closely with assistant editor, Anna Poon, we decided to simply strike that word. Now it reads: Mila is a good ballplayer.

There, much better. Plain and simple, a stated fact. For the most part, that’s been the kind of revision I’ve done. Sure, the world has changed; there were issues with phones in several places. But overall I was relieved to see that the sentences didn’t bother me. I wasn’t constantly pulling out my hair, ashamed at sloppy constructions. I didn’t feel a need to rewrite the books in a major way.

I’d learned while writing the series to (mostly) avoid specific cultural references. But even so, I slipped up. So I needed to strike references to Britney Spears’ bellybutton (shaking head, even now), Blue’s Clues, baseball slugger Mike Piazza, and Barney the (annoying) Dinosaur. It would be more relatable for young readers if I shifted to generic descriptions, i.e., the hit song on the radio.

Wait: Do radios still exist? Do stereos? Better to have the music blast from the speakers and leave it at that.

The world keeps shifting, and it was fascinating to see that change through the perspective of books that were written only 10-15 years ago. In The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, Jigsaw makes “photocopies” of a flyer. “Camcorders whirred” in The Case of the Mummy Mystery. But not anymore, folks.

I didn’t find much in the way of terrible, shameful mistakes. Some issues crept into a book here and there. Nothing horrible –- and even defensible from the perspective that the book’s narrator, Jigsaw Jones, might himself be a little imperfect. He’s just a boy after all. I didn’t want to sterilize the books, but here was my chance to revisit these stories and think them through one more time.

There was a star athlete in The Case of the Smelly Sneaker (formerly titledThe Case of the Sneaker Sneak, a title I loathed and was eager to change), Lydia Zuckerman. Something a little off slipped into my descriptions of Lydia. Her nickname, for example, was “The Brown Street Bruiser.”

At one point, Jigsaw made this regrettable observation: “She’s not a girl. She’s a . . . a . . . terrorist in tights.”

Um, not cool, not now, and not really what I meant to say. Also there was this description:

 

Lydia Zuckerman was in fifth grade, but she already looked like an NFL linebacker. Lydia was tough – a stomping, sneering, snarling mass of muscles.

 

On another page, Lydia is described as “big and mean.”

Okay, I get it. I was trying to be lightly humorous. I played up the fear that Jigsaw and the other boys might have for a strong, powerful, imposing girl. But in retrospect I feel like I missed an opportunity to say something deeper, more meaningful. After all, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is a strong, tall, dedicated athlete. I didn’t want to reduce Lydia to a cartoon. So instead of “big and mean,” Jigsaw now describes her as “tall and talented.” And Lydia is now known as “The Brown Street Superstar.”

Nuance, mostly.

I feel better about it, glad that I had a chance to revise these eight books and share them again with a new generation of readers. And what is revision if not the chance to step back, to see again? And maybe, here and there, in small ways, to go back and try to make it better.

 

James Preller is the author of the acclaimed novels Six Innings, Bystander, The Fall, and The Courage Test and the Scary Tales series, all published by Feiwel and Friends. He has also written several picture books, but is perhaps best known for the Jigsaw Jones series. He travels to classrooms around the country and maintains a blog about writing and literacy. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his family.

Bill Watterson on Creativity, Inspiration, Playfulness, and Artistic Integrity

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Today, thanks to the genius Brainpickings site, I discovered a wonderful commencement address by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comics.

I have so much respect for the integrity and wisdom of this artist. Here’s a small sample:

“If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

[…]

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

[…]

A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.”

Go ahead and click here. You might be inspired.

As for the comic above, I think Mr. Watterson is correct. And I am sure he’s writing from personal experience. There’s nothing like a deadline for a kick in the pants.

Students often ask about writer’s block. They seem fascinated by it. I tell them that my father was an insurance salesman with seven children. He never had insurance block. Nope. He just went to work.

In this profession, when you are stuck?

Make something up!

I discussed this with author Todd Strasser the other day at an event in Walkill, NY. He agreed and said [sic]: “No reader ever opens a book, points to page 112, and complains, ‘You just made this part up.'”

Because: of course.

It’s how we roll.

Thank you, Bill Watterson, for your great shining example.

 

 

True Confessions: Falling Out of Love with Your Own Book . . . And Back Again

I’ve found that my relationship with each book I’ve written changes over time. This must be true for other writers. We work intensely on the manuscript, through the endless revisions and copyedits, deeply engaged, and then the book goes out into the world. Done, finished. We’re proud, thrilled, hopeful. Our minds then turn to the next task, radars up, our occupation of daydreams and research.

Meanwhile, the world does what it does.

9781250090546.IN01I’ve found that my feelings about the book shift in subtle ways according to the response it receives. The reviews, certainly. There are sales reports and Amazon rankings and the craziness of GoodReads and the tone in my editor’s voice, who gives good news or says little.

Should I ask? I decide not to ask. Better not to ask.

And worst of all, that slippery thing: The Buzz Factor. Likes and shares and retweets and the cold, clammy horror of being ignored on social media.

You learn, once again, that you have not written an “it” book. Entertainment Weekly will not be calling. Oprah isn’t enthralled. Even Betsy Bird doesn’t seem to care.

Friends kindly ask, “How’s the book doing?”

And I think: Gee, I don’t know, but whatever it is doing, it is doing it very, very quietly. Because after all it’s a book — a silent slothlike creature moving stealthily about the forest, unaccompanied by fanfare and timbrels.

The feeling, accurate or not, is this: I made a book and the world just shrugged. It can be dispiriting. A vague disappointment settles into the pit of the stomach. A small distance creeps in between the book and me.

Stupid, I know.

And, in fact, monumentally stupid because before all that outside stuff wedged between us, I knew I had written a good book. Maybe even a very good book. Even so, the world so often yawns. Life goes on pretty much exactly as before.

The response to the book can create a rift between author and object. Maybe I don’t love it as much anymore. Maybe something’s wrong with it, or wrong with me. The perceived world’s indifference gets in the way.

Then time passes.

And for some reason I pick up the book I wrote four years ago and leaf through the pages. Parts surprise me. There are passages where I think: Hey, that’s pretty good. And in that moment, the book returns to me, it comes back like a bounding, beloved hound that had crawled under the fence for one long, wretched night.

Returned home again. Found.

So to celebrate that reunion, and the good things — and the extraordinary things, nominated for the Sakura Medal in Japan — that the world has given back about The Fall, I thought I’d share a small section of the story. It is a book about hard things written in short, accessible chapters. Here’s one example, where Sam writes in his journal about Morgan, who has died. He describes a moment between them that never happened. At least, not in the way he imagines.

 

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(Don’t worry, folks. Here’s a blow up that you can actually see with human eyes.)

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Epigraph Page: BETTER OFF UNDEAD

Today I thought I’d share the epigraph page from my upcoming middle grade novel, Better Off Undead (Macmillan, October 2017, grades 4-8).

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The top quote was with me during the years of writing this book (yeah, it took some time). That sense of outrage and astonishment over the state of things, “What a world, what a world!” Early on, I decided on a minor sub-theme where this story mirrors certain key scenes with the Wizard in the classic film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

The second quote came later, around the time of Leonard Cohen’s passing. I’ve long been a fan. And this quote gave me exactly what I needed, the darkness but also the light. The world does feel cracked and broken, particularly where it concerns environmental issues. But as Cohen beautifully reminds us, “That’s how the light gets in.”

What precipitated today’s post is that I’ve been going through the typeset proofs for the book. It’s already been shaped into an “uncorrected” advance review copy (an ARC, in the parlance), and these pages represent my last chance before letting it fly.

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I’ve slowly, slowly read through these 275 pages two more times, pen in hand, making mostly minor edits. A slashed word here and there, done with a flick of the wrist, like a blade across a neck. But also, there’s a couple of sections where I’ve taken a blunter axe to the proceedings. Second thoughts! Third thoughts! Tenth thoughts! I hope my editor — Hi, Liz! — doesn’t mind. We have a phone meeting set up for next week, where we’ll go through it all, page by page, comma by comma. Yes, we enjoy walks on the beach and long, romantic conversations about punctuation.

That famous Oscar Wilde quote, “Books are never finished, merely abandoned.”

Ah, you see, getting a book published is a long process. Across almost 9 years, this blog has always been motivated by the idea of pulling back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of how a book is made. In this case, as in all cases, yes, please: pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

Here’s the arc that will go out to various book review services:

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Looks like fun, right?

For more on epigraphs, click here.