Archive for the writing process

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.

 

Write Your Elsewhere

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: "As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end.” In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

Write your elsewhere.

That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it, but it was written by Colum McCann, one of the great writers of our time. I love his work.

McCann issued that phrase in a brief blog post titled “Don’t Write What You Know,”  words that had me nodding my head in emphatic agreement. It felt like a post that I could have written, though not nearly as well, for I’ve shared those same thoughts. The way I’ve often put it in the past was: Write what you don’t know. That is, the inverse of the time-tested trope: Write what you know (which is also good advice — sometimes!).

Here’s McCann:

Don’t write about what you know, write towards what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Adventure in the elsewhere. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the street corner, beyond your town, beyond your country even. A young writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t even know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is there to be created. In the process of creating it we find out how varied and complex we are. The world is so much more than one story. Don’t sit around thinking about yourself. That’s boring. Don’t be boring, please please please don’t be boring! In the end your navel contains only lint. The only true way to expand your world is to think about others. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. But once you go there you can be changed. The cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their limited nostalgia. Leave them be. Step into an otherness instead. Believe that your story is bigger than yourself. In the end we only write what we know, but if we write towards what we don’t know we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet aware of. Rage on. Write your elsewhere.

As writers, people who are basically just wanderers with words in white space, it’s important not to be limited in our imaginings. Sure, it’s fine to tell young writers, “Hey, you’ve been to Cape Cod? You can write about that!” or, say, “You play soccer? Great, center a story around a soccer game!” But it’s not necessary that we end there, limited to only the things we’ve experienced. To write only what we know. For what is writing, if not some bold new experience? Or some new exciting way of knowing?

Step into an otherness instead. 

Believe that your story is bigger than yourself.

CourageTestFrontCvrIn my upcoming middle-grade book, The Courage Test (September, 2016), a father and son travel from Minneapolis, MN, to Seaside, OR, linking their trip to the trail originally followed by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. However, I had a problem. I hadn’t been to most of those places, and I didn’t have the time or the budget to engage in that kind of direct research. Fortunately in today’s world there are incredible resources available to the (resourceful!) writer.

You don’t have to write what you know, as long as you make the effort to find out. To learn. To explore. To discover.

McCann again:

Adventure in your elsewhere.

A young writer is an explorer.

To site one example from my book, I knew that I wanted to get my characters on the water. Because, of course, that’s predominantly how Lewis & Clark traveled, and, hey, water. Ever since reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s “Odyssey,” I’ve been wise to the metaphoric possibilities of water: the passage of time, the collective unconscious, our watery beginnings in amniotic fluid, and so on. Water in literature is always a good thing. So after poking around in books and websites, looking at photos and blogs, I decided they would travel on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Judith’s Landing, backtracking east with the current.

To that end, I ordered a Boaters’ Guide to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The 64-page booklet was perfect for my intentions, rich in detail, and covered the exact passage that my fictional characters would travel. I imagined, appropriately, that they would possess a copy of their own. The booklet came with great maps and information about landmarks and hikes — places where my characters would walk, visit, see, and feel.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

 

From The Courage Test, page 85:

That night, we camp where the Corps of Discovery camped more than two hundred years ago. Meriwether Lewis and his men. Under the same starry skies, staring into the same fire, beside the same chalky cliffs.

I want to tell my father about the bald eagle Ollie and I saw. And the pronghorn. And about the hard, dangerous hike to the top of the Hole in the Wall trail. How it looked so tiny from the river, but was twice my size when we finally got up to it after some dicey scrambling. How Ollie had pointed out ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. Instead, I ate and yawned and climbed into my sleeping bag. Dog tired. My heart confused.

This is the spot where Ollie, Will, and his father camped.

Scan 7

 

That’s one message I sometimes share with young writers when I visit schools. A faint echo of McCann. Write what you know, surely. But don’t feel constrained by that. Break those chains. Travel that blank white space, pen in hand. Dare to write what you don’t know.

A young writer is an explorer.

Go, seek, find out.

And by all means, yes, bring back news of your adventures.