Archive for the writing process

Here are 6 Videos I Made for Teachers and Homeschoolers to Share with Young Readers

I posted a week ago about our collective struggle to find ways to do something meaningful, helpful, positive during this challenging time. As a children’s book author, my immediate goal has been to provide some online material that teachers and parents can share with young learners.

As of today, March 26, I’ve created six videos and posted them on my own Youtube channel (link below). I’ve also learned how to embed them here, also below. For me, that’s saying something.

Technology: ick.

But, as we’re finding in these days of physical distancing, a valuable way to connect.

Please feel free to share these videos with fellow teachers, media specialists, parents, students, children.  If you have ideas or suggestions for future videos, I’ll be happy to respond to that. Thanks for what you are doing.

Stay smart, keep safe, and enjoy the moments we are given. In my house in upstate New York, we are hunkered down with two of our three children, Gavin (20) and Maggie (19), along with my midwife-wife, Lisa (no age given). Our oldest, Nick (26), is in his NYC
apartment, working online. We miss him terribly. Each night, we’ve been enjoying lovely family dinners. We’re rotating who cooks and (purportedly) who cleans. In many respects, it’s been a beautiful experience. Trying to hold onto those positive feelings. Not worrying, for now, about all the lost income, the stress about bills, all the money stuff. There will be time to recover from that. For now, we embrace the now.

Here’s a link to my Youtube Channel.

I’ve included a brief description and target age level immediately below each video

 

THIS IS THE FIRST VIDEO I made, and the shortest, and it touches upon a theme I try to emphasize before every student I meet, regardless of age (though the delivery gets more sophisticated at middle schools): “You are unique. You have stories inside you that only you can tell.”

 

I MADE BOOKS WHEN I WAS a little kid. I sold them to my friends and neighbors. My mother saved one and I read it here. Kind of funny, I think. Hopefully this video inspires young people to make their own books. In the case above, I needed help with the words from my oldest brother, Neal. Ages 4-up.

 

FOR FANS OF JIGSAW JONES: Here I talk about what I was like as a kid — more of a spy than a true detective — and how I gave my favorite childhood toy to Jigsaw Jones. I read a scene from THE CASE OF THE BICYCLE BANDIT.

 

FOR GRADES 4-UP, JUST RIGHT FOR MIDDLE SCHOOLERS. THIS VIDEO LESSON centers around a writing tip first offered by Kurt Vonnegut Jr: make awful things happen to your leading characters! I discuss that idea and, to make the point, read two passages from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, my most recent middle-grade adventure novel and a 2019 Junior Library Guild Selection.

 

HERE’S ONE FOR THE YOUNGEST READERS, ages 3-up, where I read from WAKE ME IN SPRING. I also describe the creative process, the thinking, behind the story. And again, as always, I try to turn it back to the reader, to inspire their own creativity moving forward.

 

MY “SCARY TALES” BOOKS are often wildly popular on school visits. Though the books seem to hit that sweet spot of grades 3-5, I’ve met very young readers who are impervious to fear, second graders who love them, and also, by design, readers in uppers grades and middle school who have enjoyed this high-interest, low-reading level stories with the super cool artwork by Iacopo Bruno. For some, their first successful reading experience of a full-length book that is not heavily illustrated. Here I read from the first two chapters of GOODNIGHT, ZOMBIE. 

 

I’LL CONTINUE TO POST MORE VIDEOS — including a full reading of “ZOMBIE” — as time allows. Please, by all means, feel free to share these videos far and wide. Obviously, if I hear positive reports, I’ll be encouraged to do more. Thanks for stopping by.

In Praise of Extremely Short Chapters

I remember in college reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It contained an extremely short chapter that kind of blew my mind: 

My mother is a fish.

That was all, just five words — a playful idea that appealed to me enormously. I’m not sure why, because you could easily dismiss it as gimmicky. But to me, then and now, I thought of it as clever and refreshing.

Last week, I was in the midst of finishing up a middle-grade novel (a prequel/sequel to Bystander). During this late stage, the work was all-consuming. For example, last week I woke up at 3:40 AM, rolled over and jotted down additional notes toward the chapter that I intended to write later that morning. For this upcoming chapter, I had a clear idea about what I hoped to accomplish: I had notes, scribbled lines of dialogue, established goals. At the end of the chapter, there was going to be a brief but crucial exchange between siblings. I wondered if I should separate it, give that moment it’s very own short chapter. It would break from the format of the book — with chapters coming in around 1,000 words each — further highlighting its importance. But I fretted that it might be jarring and disruptive. Decisions, decisions.

For the record, I did fulfill a writing ambition with an extremely short chapter in Better Off Undead. The previous chapter, “Fight,” describes a confrontation between Adrian (who is a zombie) and a group of tough kids. The next chapter is titled, “Not Really.” The entire contents of that chapter: 

Kidding.

That’s it, one word.

The next chapter is titled “Actually,” which goes on to describe what really happened. Hopefully a reader finds it all playful and amusing, in the same way Faulker’s short chapter pleased me. 

Top that, Bill Faulkner!

What about you, Dear Reader? Can you think of other examples of extremely short chapters in literature?

I’ll give you one more favorite. This is from Stephen King’s It

Nothing much happened for the next two weeks.

Ha!

 

INSPIRATION: When Trees and Haiku Meet — Robert Bly, A Pine Tree, and Basho

 

I try to spend some time each day thinking in haiku. Often I find that space while walking the dog in the woods or by the river or an open field. It’s a quiet, interior time without earbuds or podcasts. My haiku is almost always written in the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 form, with a focus on nature. I usually try to include a kigo word (a reference to the season of the year) and a division, breath, or caesura (often in the form of a colon or a dash that both separates and connects). There are endless variations, and that’s the beauty of haiku. Sometimes a lighthearted one might come, more senryu than serious haiku, and that’s what gets written. It’s something I started doing with more intention a few years ago. I’m not saying that I’m great at this. My focus is on process, not product. Basho’s great line, “The journey itself is home.” I accept that most of the ones that come to me aren’t going to be exemplary.

Thinking in haiku has given me an outlet for calm reflection, a brief time for thinking outside myself and the endless, grim news feed of our troubled world. This morning I wrote this one:

 

This pine has a life             

Of its own: there is nothing

It requires of me.

 

However, I’m not posting today to show one haiku. Mostly I was eager to share one of the sources of my inspiration, taken from the introduction to Robert Bly’s book of prose poems, The Morning Glory

I love this passage so much, as if it were written precisely for me, bringing together in one page my growing enthusiasms for trees and haiku and poetry and, importantly, this essential idea of getting “the self” out of the way. I hope you like it. Maybe Bly’s passage here, along with Basho’s haiku, will inspire thoughts and feelings in you, too. Embrace the process. Forget thoughts of “good” or “bad.” And see what happens. 

 

While we’re gathered here, I might as well tack on a few others . . . I’ve got hundreds of them.

I have failed to learn

The name of the bird that calls

From the high poplar.

Three twisted sisters

Beneath the great canopy,

Roots and arms entwined.

The soft grasp of dusk

Upon the winter shore: black-

Hooded plover waits.

Steel-gray buckets tapped

Into maples; the crows watch

From snow-covered limbs.

January rain –-

The old cat stretches, circles,

Eyes slant shut again.

The beech holds its leaves

Shimmering like winter moons

Papery and light.

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #295: When Joseph Basically Asks Me to Do His Homework

 

It happens often enough that just about every middle grade and YA author has experienced it. The ever-so-brief fan mail from a student that turns out to be an indirect request to do their homework. On one level: Resourceful! On another: Hey, you’re not fooling me, I see what you are doing, think for yourself

Over the years I’ve responded differently, depending on my mood. For this one, I felt chatty and gave an honest answer. Yes, I wanted a good grade! When I received Joseph’s response, I realized I probably let him down. Oh well! You’ll see.  

Here’s the first note from Joseph:

Hello, James. I am a fellow student who’s in high school in my sophomore year, I was curious to ask some questions about your book, THE FALL. I wanted to know what type of rhetoric device fits well in this story?

Thank you!

Joseph

 

I replied: 

Ha, Joseph, I am so glad I’m not in high school anymore. I would have failed this assignment!

There are a lot of different rhetorical devices in the world, most of them I’m not ever consciously employing. Asterismos and eutrepismus, hypophora and parallelism, procatalepsis and tmesis.

Oh boy, good times.

Can you tell I had to look all those up? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve used them at different points in my career, but not quite knowingly.

I think a lot of what we do as writers becomes instinctive, based on years and years of reading. You kind of eat it. Digest it. Absorb it and internalize all those storytelling strategies. So when you are telling your own story — trying to communicate — you just reach for whatever tool seems handy at the time.

The biggest conceit to The Fall, the Big Device, is that it’s presented as if it were Sam’s journal entries. He’s recounting the events to himself as a way to understand this really big and terrible thing that happened. He’s processing and, in turn, owning responsibility for his role in Morgan’s tragedy. As readers, we are looking over Sam’s shoulder, going through that experience with him.

Another device that comes to mind, which I used in one spot of the book, the “Not Me” chapter, is that Sam writes as if he’s on trial, addressing the jury. And you, the reader, of course, are on that jury. I didn’t carry that device throughout the book — I think it would have felt forced — but it seemed right at the time. And as readers, we are making those judgments of each character. Sam is acutely aware of being on trial.

Sam includes a few of his own poems, the way someone like Sam might. Maybe there’s a name for that, maybe it’s a rhetorical device, I don’t know. I just wanted to show Sam’s depth of feeling, how this stuff was pouring out of him, how he thought and felt, and the simple poems, again, seemed right for this journal format. It’s what I did as a kid in my journals, anyway.

Hey, Joseph: You forgot to tell me how much you loved the book! Don’t you know that’s how you are supposed to begin these letters? It’s a rhetorical device called “blowing smoke up someone’s butt.” Writers love that stuff. It gets our attention! And we immediately think, “What a smart young fellow!”

Next time: 1) Begin with a compliment; then 2) Ask me to do your homework!

(By the way, the above numbering technique is an example of eutrepismus, separating speech into numbered parts. We all do it, but 99% of us have never heard the name before. That’s writing, I think.)

All good things,

James Preller

Joseph politely replied the next day:

Thank you so much! So sorry, but this book was inspiring though haha! Its just I had include one Rhetorical Devices. those are 1. Repetition 2. Parallelism 3. Slogan and saws 4. Rhetorical questions

I had to choose one of them and explain why I chose it and how you used it in this book.

Oh well, I tried!

On Dialogue and “Harriet the Spy”: A Further Conversation with Author Kurtis Scaletta

 

Back in November I posted about reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I was struck by the crisp dialogue in that book, and ended up focusing my post on that aspect of her writing. I even included a PRO TIP! free of charge. That led to a comment from my friend, Kurtis Scaletta, who told me that he uses Fitzhugh to teach dialogue. I decided to invite Kurtis, who is an accomplished author, for a further chat on the subject.

        

Greetings, Kurtis. What is it that you admire about Fitzhugh’s dialogue? 

When I was re-reading her books as an adult, I realized how dialogue-heavy they are, and how much of the character and even the plot is revealed through dialogue. I don’t think it was clear to me as a kid, but I really noticed it as an adult. I mean, I guess good writing is like that–you don’t notice what the author is doing.

That’s what I say on school visits when asked to give advice. Read like a writer. Try to notice what the author is doing. If you feel excited, if you strongly dislike a character, or even if you grow bored. What is the author doing to create that effect in you?

I’ll try to remember that answer because it’s better than mine. 😉

You mentioned that you use Fitzhugh’s work to teach dialogue. Could you give us a mini-lesson?

I have used the first chapter of Sport, which is about two pages and almost completely dialogue. It’s an emotionally devastating passage because the mother is really a terrible person. But in her little harangue you learn everything you need to know about the premise, a sketch of the three main characters (Sport, his mom, and his dad) and their personalities. I would just have people read it and then take a few minutes to write what they know about the characters and their situations. It actually helps here that not nearly as many people have read Sport as Harriet, because they had to draw only on that chapter instead of their memory.

That’s a heartbreaking scene. What a way to open the book.

It is, and I’ve learned that “unlikeable mother” is one of the hardest things to slip past the gatekeepers of middle grade, right up there with killing an animal. Fitzhugh could do what she wanted to because she was Louise Fitzhugh.

Why do you think dialogue is important?

It helps creates a scene from something that’s just. . . a passage, if that makes sense.

For example, I’ll have written something that’s all expository then think, oh, I could have this kid talking to another kid and give people all this info while also introducing the other character. And then I can show their personality and crack a few jokes at the same time. And even then, once I’ve revised, I find it all happens in fewer words and is more fun to read.

It’s definitely faster to read. And, of course, it gets us away from too much interior monologue. In dialogue, the presence of “the writer” really falls away and the characters step forward.

I also pull up a scene in Harriet with three friends chatting — Harriet, Sport, and Janie — which is less expository but the interactions, the way the characters talk to each other, is very revealing of character. I love the scene where she and another girl are talking about the best way to get away with murder–like literally, how they could kill someone and get away with it. Girls are allowed to be so human in her books.

There are parts of Harriet’s personality that are shocking by today’s standards. Fitzhugh allows Harriet’s flaws to shine through. She thinks awful things. Even better, Harriet goes right on without always learning the easy lessons. There isn’t a big group hug at the end of the book –- and I love that.

The scene I actually use in class was from chapter two, where Harriet and Sport and Janie meet up before the first day of school and size up the other kids. They are being pretty mean to the other kids, but it really reveals their own insecurities. And even with the meanness there’s some empathy there. I feel like the topic of bullying has become very cut and dried; there are victims and bullies. This scene shows it as more complicated. But as I’ve told you before, I think your book Bystander is special for the same reason, it shows that the same kids can be bullies one day and victims the next.

Thanks, I appreciate that — and, hey, I agree! But let me ask: Where are you teaching? I thought you were a fancy children’s book author, sitting on soft cushions, looking down from some high tower?

Well, cushion dry cleaning isn’t cheap. I teach (and work full time) at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I’ve run a middle grade fiction class every couple of years, sometimes online and sometimes in person. 

When I was in college, I spent a summer recording conversations with friends. We’d just hang out and I’d roll tape. Then I’d type up all the spoken words –- the pauses and ums, the wrong turns and overlaps and abandoned thoughts — eventually adopting a free verse style of spacing and line breaks. I was such an English major! It taught me a lot about how people really talk. But books are artifice, even realistic fiction, so I also learned that you can’t often do that in a written work. You have to veer away from “real talk” in order to tell a more realistic story.

Yeah, people don’t talk in dialogue do they? Even Sam Shepard and David Mamet with all their incomplete sentences and non-sequiturs and interruptions are making something a bit tidier than real dialogue. So dialogue is an artifice, sounding realistic but still artifice.

Are there common mistakes that you see in students when they are writing dialogue?

I think in middle grade with dialogue or first-person narratives writers can try too hard to “sound like a kid,” and it generally means a lot of sarcasm, self-deprecating remarks, and slang. That’s probably the most common problem. I think it’s OK to do that in a draft, then dial it back. But it really comes down to getting a feel for your characters and not making them cookie-cutter “kids,” but real people.

Tell us a little about your next book?

I have a book coming out this year about a video game competition now called Lukezilla Beats the Game. It’s entirely inspired by my own gamer son, his interests and ambitions, so that made it a lot of fun to write. It’s probably not going to win any Newbery awards or get starred reviews describing it as “beautiful and important,” but when I tell kids about it they get really excited. 

That’s how I feel about my “Scary Tales” series. The enthusiastic readers are out there – it’s just a matter of getting through the gatekeepers who may not, you know, really dig the scary thing. Or, in your case, approve of video games. 

My son was an enthusiastic reader of those books, in fact. Especially the one with the swamp monster and the twins.

What a great kid! But again, as an author, you are able to watch your (obviously amazingly intelligent) son, Byron, interact with books –- and also NOT interact with books. He’s not the biggest reader in the world. How has it changed your perspective on children’s literature?

He’s nuts about Dav Pilkey, and so are all his buddies. He loves Phoebe and her Unicorn by Dana Simpson. He met her in person and she was incredible. And he likes the Dragon Master series by Tracey West. Those are about the only books he’ll drop what he’s doing for. Like mom comes home with a new book and he quits his video game or turns off the TV to read it.

It’s great to see kids get as excited about a new book as they are about a video game or a toy. He’s a very different kid than I was. I was a pretty quiet and solitary kid, and write books like the ones I loved reading as a kid. He’s very social and hates to be alone. His favorite books are the kind Ramona calls “noisy.”

Right. We sometimes forget that when we ask children to read, we are asking them to be quiet, and solitary, and passive. For many boys, that’s the direct opposite of what they love to do — to be active and boisterous with a gang of friends.

I think that’s the big difference in this new book, which was written more for him than the kid I used to be. It’s noisier. But there’s still some quiet stuff.

That’s really interesting. And I relate. There’s long been a literary conversation about audience, the ideal reader, this question of who we’re writing for: to try make the general reader happy, or a specific person, or maybe write for the child we used to be. With this book, you are clearly writing primarily for one specific reader. Did it clarify the task for you?

Very much, I didn’t have all these other critics in my head saying different things. I just had one real kid who’s the target audience actually reading it with me as I went.

Yeah, you weren’t trying to please the librarians on the awards committee. You wanted to write a book that Byron would actually read and enjoy. I love that.

He wants the next book — the one I haven’t even started writing — to be about cats. He loves cats and there aren’t as many cat books as dog books. I think he’s imagining something like Dogman but with cats. We’ll see where that goes.

Ha, it sounds like the perfect Hollywood elevator pitch: “It’s Dogman – but with CATS! We’ll get Julia Roberts to play the lead!”

Or Taylor Swift, since she has experience. Hmm . . .

Thank you for your time, Kurtis. It’s always a great pleasure talking with you, because you are a real book person and it comes through in everything you do and say and ponder. I wish you the best of the luck with Lukezilla Beats the Game. Sounds like a winner to me.

 

 

Kurtis Scaletta lives in Minneapolis with his wife, nine-year-old son, and five (!) cats. His website is kurtisscaletta.com and not-always-child-appropriate twitter is @kurtisscaletta. You can get occasional essays by email at tinyletter.com/skutir.