Archive for the writing process

WRITING PROCESS: About that Epigraph

writing

An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote  many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.

That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:

 

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Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”

 

I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .

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For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.

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In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

My book was about just such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.

I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:

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What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”

 

and . . .

 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,

“Anthem”

 

For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!

Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

A Writer’s Dilemma: The Challenge w/ Cell Phones

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Let’s start by looking at this clip below. The illustrated video, created by Steve Cutts for Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” is dark and disturbing. You can even watch it with the sound off, since my interest is almost entirely with the story told by the visuals.

 

 

Wow, right? A bleak look at cell phone addiction. Or maybe it’s just a slightly exaggerated look at our world?

Contemporary cell phone culture presents unique challenges to any children’s book writer. Not the phones themselves, of course, but the way in which so much of contemporary teen life is spent on those phones. A quick Google search reveals reports that claim young adults will take more than 25,000 selfies during their lifetimes. More than 93 million selfies are taken each day; and so on and so on. You get the picture.

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In that regard, cell phones must be considered central to any telling of realistic fiction. It’s where so much of their lives are played out. But, confession: that’s not the version of life I’m personally interested in exploring. Maybe this reveals me for what I am — an old guy who grew up in a time before cell phones and personal computers. Their world is not my world. Maybe it’s beyond me. And yet I’m typing this on a laptop with an Apple phone at my side.

None of this was an issue for Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston.

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How do writers of children’s literature deal with phones? How do we tell contemporary stories? One way, of course, would be to embrace the phone fully. Make it a central character — that’s where the drama plays out, so dive right in. That’s a legitimate approach, but feels gimmicky. I also suspect that technique would quickly become dated.
In my books, I’ve dealt with phones in a number of ways.
Here are a few:

* I recently wrote a new Jigsaw Jones, The Case from Outer Space. The characters are in second grade, so cell phones are not an issue. Nice!

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* In my “Scary Tales” series, phones present a different sort of challenge. The phone makes the world less scary. I don’t want a kid who is trapped in a cave to be able to pick up her phone and call 911. And the inverse is especially true — any sense of isolation, of disconnectedness, raises their discomfort. In I Scream, You Scream, the phones are confiscated before a thrill ride (no photos). Other times, the Wi-Fi is mysteriously down (Good Night, Zombie). I’m often trying to get the phone out of the way.

img_1992* In The Fall, a book that deals, in part, with teenage cyber-bullying, there’s no way to pretend that phones don’t exist. My characters send and receive texts, and “cell life” is inherent in the story. Interestingly, while the phones enhance our ability to connect electronically, they can also limit our real-time connections. Here’s a moment in the story when Sam recounts his second meeting with Morgan. They are both walking their dogs off-leash behind the middle school. They talk a little bit, thanks to the dogs. And then, this:

I stared at my phone, scrolled.

Morgan pulled her cell out of a coat pocket.

We stood there in awkward proximity, alone on a field, playing games with our phones. Silence drifted over us like clouds.

I pocked the cell.

“Bye,” I said.

I don’t remember if she answered me, but Morgan called to Max, “See ya, boy!”

* For The Courage Test, a father and son go on a long camping trip together. It would have been perfectly valid for them to lose a signal at different points in the story (and they do). But I still had the problem — if you can call it that — of a kid with his phone. Rather than ignore it completely, I wrote a scene where they are driving along in Montana. William is playing a game on his phone, not, to his father’s mind, fully appreciative of the landscape. They argue about the phone. The argument escalates.

He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.

Now, this next part is funny.

Hilarious, almost.

And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight — a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe. 

My right index finger pressed the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.

I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window. 

Problem solved.

* In Before You Go, possibly my only true YA, Jude has a phone and uses it. But at the same time, I mostly write around it — to a point that might present a picture that’s somewhat untrue to life as it is currently lived. Again, it’s hard to move a story along if people are constantly staring at Youtube videos and Snapchat. Or maybe you can? But yuck.

* Picture books, where characters can be talking pigs or pogo-sticking hyenas, offer another way for a writer to sidestep phone culture. Just create an alternative world and write for very young children. Though lately I’ve seen a few picture books where kids are dealing with parents who won’t stop looking at their phones.

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* Write Historical Fiction. Set stories in a time before cell phones. The same is true for dystopian novels and science fiction. “Electricity’s out, folks, you’re going to have to talk among yourselves!” Maybe that’s why we see so much of it these days?

I share these musings not because I have the answers, but because I think it’s an issue which confronts contemporary writers. Phones are awfully tedious, and people staring at phones — while super realistic: just look around! — is even worse.

What do you think? Can you think of books that dealt with phones in an innovative or effective way? In our efforts to be realistic, do we need to incorporate more phone-drama in our books? Thoughts?

The idea of writing that Civil War story never looked so good.

BOY: A Poem

A couple of boys I know.

A couple of boys I know.

Funny, I just discovered this poem in an old file. Never printed a copy, never thought about it again, though I can faintly recall writing it a few years back. I don’t write many poems anymore, though I used to write them often. My first love as a writer, in fact, and certainly a good education for any aspiring wordsmith. As Donald Trump says, “Even bad poems can teach us bigly.” In this case, I surely figured, not good enough, and rolled on. Like usual. I’m not sure I’m even okay with the idea of attaching the word “poem” to this rambling meditation-slash-manifesto. But today, before I think better of it, I’m going to take this forgotten thing down off the shelf and place it before you. Kick it, pull it apart, ignore it, whatever. Because what are blogs for? My poem, “Boy.” 

 

BOY, by James Preller

 

I am a boy.

I can pee standing up.

Some days my dad knows

exactly how I feel.

Other days, it’s my mom

who understands.

I am more than farts and fire trucks.

Though I won’t deny — 

farts are funny

and fire trucks are cool,

especially if they let you

scamper up,

wear the hat,

and blast the horn.

I am more than

rocks and spitballs,

dirt and hammers —

though I am that, too.

I am boy

and I am friend,

tustled head

and wicked grin.

I am sweetness,

I am love,

I am trees in the wind,

kites crossing a pale blue sky

like the billowing sails

of pirate ships at sea.

I am pieces of bright glass

found by the curb,

jagged things,

bee stings and

dead birds and fascinating bugs,

cars and dinosaurs

and trampolines.

I love secret places to hide

and spy

and see unseen, invisible

to every eye.

I am boy,

so much more

than cupcakes

and rainbows, farts

and firetrucks,

but I’m those things, too.

I am laughter and I am love.

I am boy.

 

My cousin Billy and yours truly, 1968.

My cousin Billy and yours truly, 1968.

Writing Process: How a Photo on Facebook Influenced JIGSAW JONES: THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE

Illustration by R.W. Alley, from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Illustration by R.W. Alley, from the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE. That’s Jigsaw with his father and grandmother.

When writers are fully engaged in their work — not just writing, but actively (or unconsciously) thinking about the writing — it tends to create a state of unique receptivity. Everything we see, hear, read, or smell becomes fodder for the work. A face we see in a coffee shop becomes exactly the face we need for a minor character. Someone’s small gesture — the way a girl crosses her arms and squeezes the skin of her elbows when she’s nervous — soon worms its way into our writing.

We have our antennas up. We’re sticky like flypaper, catching the signals in the atmosphere. I’ve heard it described as a time of being particularly “spongey,” a state where writers are especially absorbent, like quality paper towels. The song in the elevator becomes the key song in the book, and so on. The whole world feeds into the writing in unexpected ways.

I suppose I was in that sticky/spongey condition when I began casting about for ideas for a new Jigsaw Jones book. After a while, I figured out that it would revolve around a note stuck inside a book, found at a Little Free Library (because I love them). Without disclosing too many spoilers, the found note would lead some to believe that aliens were coming from outer space. Spoiler #1: They are not. Coincidentally (or not), Jigsaw and Mila’s teacher, Ms. Gleason, has been talking about the planets in class. Spoiler #2: She was even planning a surprise Skype visit from a real, live astronaut.

I was eight years old on July 20, 1969, sitting before my television watching grainy, black-and-white images of Neal Armstrong walking on the moon. At the same time, “Star Trek” was the most popular show with my older brothers. “Lost In Space” was also on television, feeding that fascination. The idea of space, the final frontier, has always loomed large in my imagination.

Below is a photo of the only twelve people who have ever walked on the moon. This is what the astronauts looked like:

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Notice anything about them? Go ahead, study hard; this might take some time. Hit the buzzer when you are ready.

BUZZZZZZZZ!

Yes, correct, they are all white men! Good work. I don’t recall questioning it at the time. But times do change, and many things do get better, even though it doesn’t always feel that way. Even so, this concept of what an astronaut looks like had been planted deep inside my brain. It just . . . was. Then one day the internet coughed up this image on my Facebook feed:

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Beautiful, perfect. This was just what I needed. One of the tricks with plotting mysteries is to run counter to assumptions, gender or racial or otherwise. The reader leans one way, you go the other. Also, politically and personally, I want to celebrate the diversity in our world. I want to jar readers a little bit, perhaps. Remind them to rethink those assumptions. Or, maybe, help them see themselves reflected from a new distance . . . under a new light . . . maybe even a world away.

From the book:

A gasp filled the room.

We were meeting a real live astronaut.

“Hello, boys and girls!” the astronaut said.

I heard Lucy whisper, “Major Starmann is a woman.”

“And she looks like my mom,” Danika said.

 

Rough sketch from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (Macmillan, August 2017).

Rough sketch from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE (Macmillan, August 2017).

 

NOTE: One of the primary missions of this blog is to provide readers with a glimpse behind the scenes into the writing process and a writer’s working life. If you go to the Jigsaw Jones page and scroll through, you’ll find links to many other “Stories Behind the Story” posts. This new book will come out in the summer of 2017, along with the repackaging of four more titles that are currently out of print. I’m happy about that.