Archive for the writing process

Joan Didion . . . Thank You!

 

We lost one of our greatest writers today. She was in life, and remains in death, a treasure. Just a remarkable woman.

Regarding that quote up above, it is one of the reasons why I am often paralyzed by the idea of outlines. More and more, publishers require them. A box to be checked. I used to balk at that, because — of course! — how would I know what’s going to happen until I start writing? But I’ve learned that they don’t expect writers to doggedly follow the outline. Editors want a general idea — and, yes, managing editors certainly like to check off that box. A way to keep things moving along the conveyer belt. 

When writing, I always have a plan. At least for that day, that scene, that chapter. An idea of what I want to accomplish, the ground I need to cover. And I always have a more general idea of where I hope to end up.

A metaphor: I’m in a sailboat, I’m aiming for an island in the distance, but the currents are strong and the wind is kicking up. I might get blown off course. And even in the best circumstances, I’ll have to tack back and forth; I won’t get there in a straight line.

Just today, in fact, I was finally ready to begin outlining the final chapters of a book that’s two-thirds finished. So rather than blasting out a lot of words, I spent the day plotting in detail that final sequence of events. It took that long for me to reach that level of clarity, far different from anything I might have imagined, or “outlined” to my editors, three months ago.

I noticed how much of the original outline didn’t make the final draft. Some ideas (and characters) got crowded by other (hopefully) better ideas.

Writing as discovery. A way to find out. A path into the deep, dark woods. For me, it’s impossible to plan in advance what exactly I might find there. 

If you have not read The Year of Magical Thinking, that’s a terrific way to meet Joan Didion. But there are many avenues of entry. You can’t go wrong. Just pick up something/anything that she’s written . . . and start reading.

Fan Mail Wednesday #316: Eight Questions from an Old Fan

You never know what’s going to be in ye olde in-box. In this case, more sophisticated questions and, in return, more realistic answers. 

 

Michael writes . . .

Growing up I was a big fan of your Jigsaw Jones books. I can’t remember when I last read them, but I’ve never forgotten them! I am currently enrolled in an English Capstone college course that features an assignment for me to interview someone with an English-related occupation, and my mind jumped to authors, which then jumped to you. If you are willing to answer a few questions within the next couple days, I’d greatly appreciate it. If you do not wish to or are unavailable after Wednesday, no worries. Thank you very much for your writings and I hope this message finds you well.

 

I replied . . . 
Sure, let’s see what you’ve got. Obviously if it’s too many questions, under a tight deadline, that’s not going to work.
Michael again . . .
I appreciate your interest! To make it easier, as the professor okay’d the e-mail method, I will send you the questions here and you may answer them at any time, at any length you wish. Here’s what I have:
1) What is your favorite aspect of your job?
2) What is the biggest con about your job?
3) What traits or skill would be most useful for someone or desirable for someone entering the field you are in?
4) What was the deciding factor for you in choosing this career over other ones?
5) What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing the career you are in?
6) What is a typical work day like for you?
7) Did you find unexpected barriers in pursuing your work and / or communicating with others in the field?
8) Is there anything you would have done differently in preparing for your career?
Please take your time, and whenever you can respond is excellent. I am eager to learn about you and your field! Thank you very much!
My reply . . .


1. The writing, when it is going well. There’s a lot about the business that is wonderful and parts that are heartbreaking and awful. The act of creating is the thing that pulls me back every time. It’s the core of what I do. The pleasure and satisfaction of making things, of self-expression, of putting something out into the world that would never exist without me.

2. The biggest con? Oh, gosh. The financial insecurity.
3. Talent. To do this job, you have to believe that good work will find a way.
4. It wasn’t a cold analytical decision. Certainly not a “reasonable” one. I’ve always believed in following your enthusiasms, trusting your enthusiasms, and that worthy considerations such as benefits and a solid health plan never entered into it. I wanted to do something that I loved. You don’t really go into it as “a career,” so much as you try to do this one thing in front of you, then the next, then the next, etc. For me, it started with a love of books and writing that has never let go. Not to be over-dramatic about it, or too self-regarding, but writing well — for years and years and years — is extremely hard and not always rewarding. You have to pick yourself up off the floor a lot.
5. Know that it’s going to be difficult and uncertain, that you’ll most likely need to make money another way. I’d advise doing it on the side until you are firmly established. Get a good job. Or, hey, partner up with a lawyer! OTOH, I think there’s a period — oh, youth! — when you should pursue your dreams to the fullest with total commitment. But there may be a point when you realize that you’ll never play shortstop for the Yankees. It’s good to have some kind of backup plan.
6. Desk, laptop, normal hours.
7. Being a mid-list author with a proven track record — quality work, solid working relationships, hitting deadlines — all the stuff that comes with being “a pro” — can become a negative at a certain point. I didn’t expect that. You are clearly not the Next Big Thing. The numbers don’t lie. In our culture, we tend to discard too easily and are forever chasing after the Next Big Thing.
8. I am not positive that I should have done this at all, at least as a primary job. Might have been a mistake. But here we are, feels like it’s too late now. The final chapters haven’t been written yet.
James Preller
Art by R.W. Alley.



FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #314: On Math & Writing — the Rule of Three — and Ted Lasso

 

Sometimes questions come from far afield — in this case, the field of mathematics. Natalie — who could not have been any nicer or more considerate — wrote to me with questions for a school project. 
Natalie wrote . . .
I would like to ask you a few questions. If you do not feel comfortable answering my questions please don’t feel pressured to! I’m doing a project for one of my classes about writing, and how it can relate to math. For this project I need to ask a writer questions, and I heard you reply. My questions are;
1.) Can you describe what you do for a living?
2.) How is math used in your career?  Can you provide examples?
3.) How often is problem solving used in your career?
4.) Is there anything else you would like to tell us about how math relates to your career?
I replied . . . 
Natalie,
These are interesting questions. I’ll do my best.
1. I am a children’s book author. I write a range of books, from picture books for very young readers to young adult novels.
2. I get complicated royalty statements filled with numbers that make me cry. Seriously: confusing numbers, percentages, discounts, etc. Creatively, I think that math enters into story structure, the classic three-act formula. Beginning, middle, and end. Picture books are almost always 32 pages due to folios and printing standards. At some point, you have to be very aware of how (and where) your story is landing on the page. 
3. In storytelling, there’s the “Rule of 3.” We see it in humor, particularly, i.e., his bedroom smelled of old socks, axe body spray, and stale cheese. For some reason, it’s funniest with 3 items. Four is too many; two is not enough. Another example would be, oh, let’s see, a penguin who is determined to fly. For some reason, it appeals to the mind when we show the penguin fail once, twice, three times . . . and then succeed (in some way). I think that’s because it takes three to establish a pattern, a rhythm. It’s somehow comforting to the reader. My old picture book, Hiccups for Elephant, is extremely mathematical, since it is centered around patterns and repetition. All the animals are asleep. Except for elephant. Chimp wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Lion wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! Zebra wakes up, offers advice. It doesn’t work. Hiccup! See that, Natalie? One, two, three. Now, finally, mouse wakes up, offers advice. It works! Ah-choo! The funny twist at the end. Simple mathematics. 
4. Not really, no. Ha! But, okay, as you know, math is hardwired into our brains. When I read a book — this is just me & my own idiosyncrasies — I am always doing the math. That is, I first like to locate the last page and note the number. The book I’m currently reading is 278 pages. I don’t have to look that up, it’s burned into my brain. While I read it, I am aware of when I’m 1/3 of the way through, 1/2 way through, 2/3 through, etc. It’s not just racing to the end, it helps me sense the shape and body of the story. Do you watch Ted Lasso? That was originally conceived as a three season arc. A beginning, middle, and end. Season 1 was wonderful because it set up the situation, introduced all the characters, established the problem. Season 2 suffered, in my opinion, because it was the middle. The inevitable sag. Middles are very, very difficult to write. But it will lead us to the conclusion, the end, Act 3: the satisfying resolution. Simple math, yes. It’s everywhere. 
Hope that helps.
James Preller
Natalie, again . . .
Thank you so much for the reply! I love these answers, and the examples used. I didn’t expect to get a reply from anyone until, I found a thing of you showing that you do try your best to reply to anyone, and everyone. I will be sure to put your quotes, and phrases into my presentation! Sorry for the random email. And if there was anything you felt uncomfortable with. If you have any questions as to why I asked, or maybe as to what the presentation is about don’t be scared to ask! If there is anything you wouldn’t like in the presentation let me know!

 

 



Subject: Interview questions (school project)

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #312: Follow-Up Questions After a Zoom Visit

Ye Olde Fan Mail Wednesday has been quiet of late for an assortment of reasons, including summer — all exaggerated by Covid. This past week I thoroughly enjoyed a  Zoom visit with 6th-graders who all read Bystander over the summer. The class was impressive, prepared, and focused. A pleasure all around. At the end of the visit, we still hadn’t gotten to all the questions. I agreed to answer the remaining questions via email. 

Here are the questions . . .

Good morning! I hope you had a great weekend. Here are some follow up questions from my students. Thank you again!

1. After Upstander, will you consider making a trequal?
2. Do you see yourself in any of the characters and why?

3. Is there anything you would want to change about the book? 

4. Do any of the characters/events relate to an event/thing that happened to you/others.
-aa
5. Do you get unmotivated when writing books? If so, how do you get motivated again.? 
6. When Griffin and David were talking in the book, were they able to connect because of any similar or shared experiences?
Thank you so much.
Alex

I replied . . .

I want to begin by thanking you for that Zoom visit the other day. I don’t often get the opportunity to do a deep dive on my books, and it’s a pleasure to talk thoughtfully about the art & craft & intentions that go into a work of fiction. 
We ran out of time and you still had a few questions. Let’s do this.
Would I consider writing another sequel to Bystander? Yes, if the market was there —- meaning if my publisher believed it was worth putting out, i.e., that they’d make money doing so. With Upstander, I began by thinking of it not as a “longer” story, but as a “larger” one. A bigger canvas. Everyone has stories. By focusing on Mary’s story, it gave me a glimpse into how to enlarge the canvas even further to accommodate future narratives. If there’s another book in the world of this middle school, I think it should be about Griffin. Honestly, I think Upstander has to sell enough to encourage my publisher, Macmillan, to keep going with it. I don’t control that stuff, I can only put it out into the universe and hope that readers will find my books in a crowded, cluttered world. 
Do I see myself in any of the characters? Well, yeah, sure. The writer Eudora Welty had a good line about this. She said, “In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves.; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about —- these become our characters and go to make our plots.” I really couldn’t say it better than that. There’s a part of me in every character, each one grew out of me. But as I’ve developed as a writer, across many years, I’ve learned to give those characters the space to be Not-Me, Not-Jimmy, and become their own fictional selves.
Would I like to change anything about the book? No, not really. Which is not to suggest that I think it’s flawless. Far from it. But I’ve learned to let it go, allow it to exist as it exists, and move forward. I don’t linger and look back too often. I did like how with Upstander I was able to add a new wrinkle to the ending, Eric’s wish for his father in the stands. While his exact wish doesn’t come true (at least so far, in the written record), now there is at least someone there for him, cheering. It pleases me when the two books “talk” to each other.
Do events/characters relate to specific events in my life? Yes and no. I mean, yes, of course, it all grows from my life experiences. For example: I was once mugged in NYC and when the thieves handed back my wallet —- sans money, of course —- I actually said, “Thank you.” What a well-mannered dope! I took that emotion and gave it to Eric on the basketball court, when Griffin returned his ball. But, again, this is important: readers seem to want to be able to trace these direct lines from real life to fiction. But I think when you are fully successful with a fictional story, those sources become obscured, more hidden, the lines disappear, and the characters operate fully in their own fictional world. 
Do I get unmotivated? Oh, yes, it’s a recurring problem. Sometime the problem is the idea, that I’m not ready to write it, or that my idea lacks layers, depth: something, in short, is missing. Another problem for me is audience. That nagging doubt that no one really cares whether I write another book or not. And I guess the answer to that is . . . so what. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll create something for the sake of the story, for the satisfaction of making something and putting it out into the world. Something that nobody else in the world could make. Would I love to be super popular, the worth breathless in anticipation for my next book? I think so, yeah. But in the absence of that, somehow I still have to keep going, keep writing. Write the poem, paint the picture, sing the song. There’s joy there, and happiness, and personal fulfillment —- regardless of audience or “acclaim” or awards or any outside approval. I find that to write requires a gathering of energy, enthusiasm. When that’s not there, the writing doesn’t go well. Sadly, I don’t know how to bottle it.
Regarding David and Griffin, that’s an interesting question. How were they able to connect? To be honest, I don’t think that I examined their relationship that deeply. To me, I saw it as Griffin, the manipulator, using David for his own purposes. David was a puppet on strings. As to why David allowed this to happen, I think it goes back to his desperate longing to fit in, for approval at almost any cost. That’s a dangerous place to be, the quality that made him vulnerable. And because Griffin is such a smart, perceptive guy, he recognized that vulnerability in David and used it.
Ah, I think that covers it. I just wrote almost a thousand words to you guys. You are probably sleeping already! Forgive me, I realize that I replied with a high-level of sophistication. I’d probably answer much in the same way to college freshman. I figure you are smart and should be treated that way. Have a good school year — and if any of you read Upstander, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
My best, 
James Preller
For Zoom visits,
educators and reading groups
may contact me directly
at Jamespreller@aol.com.
-NOT

IT’S A SCARY TIME OF YEAR: The Craft of Anticipation & Suspense

As someone who likes scary things at any time of year, I’m often surprised when October rolls around and suddenly . .  . IT’S SCARY SEASON!

I had thought a good story was a year-round thing.

But here we are. The bulletin boards turn to black and orange, the featured books in the library are about witches and zombies, and readers of all ages start looking for something creepy that will keep them turning the pages late into the howling night.

Even classroom teachers decide to share a not-too-terribly-spooky story with their class.

Just for fun.

Isn’t it nice, by the way, to remember that: reading a story just for the fun of it? More of that, please.

Have I got some books for you.

                   

There are six titles in the “Scary Tales” series, each with different characters in different settings. No need to read them in order. I think of these in the old vernacular as hi-lo books — high-interest, low reading level. Perfect for a wide range of reading abilities, from 3rd-grade to 5th, though I’ve met many 2nd-graders who adore these frightening stories as well as 6th-and 7th-graders who love the triumph of reading fast-paced, easy-to-read books filled with chills, thrills, and supercool illustrations.

What follows is a complete chapter from Home Sweet Horror, which you might wish to read aloud with young readers. But first, the setup: Do you know when you are watching a movie, someone will say, “Whatever you do, don’t go into basement.”

You know what must happen next, right?

The character goes into the basement!

You’re thinking, “No, no, no! Don’t go down there!”

But you are also kind of glad at the same time. The story is about to get more exciting. So you lean forward on the edge of your seat as, step by spooky step, our misguided character plunges down into the dimly-lit gloom.

Surely horrible things are about to happen. You’ve already been warned. Oh, joy.

Importantly, our sense of story requires it. This is the Rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The Russian novelist and playwright famously put forth the dramatic principle that every element in a story must be necessary. Elements shouldn’t make false promises. Here’s Chekhov:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” 

Allow me to put it another way:

If the basement is described as dangerous, then a character must inevitably go down there — or else the writer shouldn’t mention the basement!

That’s what I love most about scary stories. The craft of anticipation and suspense, when readers lean in, feeling excited and nervous about what might happen next. As a writer, those are the dreadful moments I seek to create in this series.

Remember that great line by Oscar Wilde from The Importance of Being Earnest (later famously borrowed by Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”)?

The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

Exactly right.

Here’s Chapter Three . . . give it a try with your students. After all, it’s October! A great time of year to read just for the shivery thrill of turning the page.

Liam stood in the hallway of the kitchen, peering into the basement. The stairs were ancient wooden boards nailed across empty space. One false step and it was a long drop to the cement floor below. The basement gave off a smell of decay, of things gone rotten. A place where mice had crawled off to die. Home to cobwebs and spiders, trapped flies and ruined toys.

Liam flicked the switch on the wall. Nothing happened.

At the bottom of the stairs, he could make out a bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. It had a pull string. Maybe that would do the trick.

But an inner voice made Liam cautious. He remembered his father’s warning during breakfast. “I’ll be gone most of the day,” he said. “I know you like to explore, Liam. And that’s fine. Up to a point. But stay out of the attic, and don’t go into the basement. I don’t trust those old stairs. And that old furnace needs to be replaced. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

When Liam stepped back to shut the basement door, a metallic sound came to his ears. Clang, clang, clang.

The sound came from . . . down there.

“Hello?” he bleated.

Again, in a stronger voice, “Anybody down there?”

Liam wiped his hands on his pants. He looked around. Puffed on his inhaler and thought about things. Breathe in, breathe out. Kelly was upstairs in her room. Still asleep, most likely. Or texting, texting, texting — like always. His father away on errands: groceries, the lumber yard, who knows where.

All Liam really knew was that he was alone.

In the house.

Or alone with the house.

Clang, clang. Clang-clang-clang.

The sounds echoed up in rhythm, like a voice calling to him, a song in the dark.

Come, Liam, come.

Doolin stood protectively at Liam’s side. Grrrr, she growled. A warning sound, low, from deep inside the animal’s chest. Grrrr, grrrr.

The metallic noises came louder now, more urgent. Clearer. They were calling to Liam. Come, come.

Transfixed, Liam took one cautious step down the stairs. He shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. There, creak, the old board held strong. Some fluttery something brushed across Liam’s face, like the shadowy hand of a ghost.

Apologies for the poor quality of my phone-camera shot. Illustration by Iacopo Bruno.

No, it was only a cobweb, a spider’s trap.

“Come on, girl,” Liam called to his dog. “Let’s explore together.”

The dog sank to the floor, head on her paws. She growled, a rolling rumble of fear and warning.

“What’s the matter? Too dark for you?” Liam asked, honey in his voice. “You’ve never been bothered by stairs before.”

The dog whined.

“Come,” Liam ordered, his voice deeper. The sound of command.

Doolin inched away.

Liam shrugged, moved down another step, and another. Halfway down, he could bend at the waist to peer into the vast, dank basement. It was filled with crowded shelves, boxes, and broken furniture.

Clang, clang, clang banged the noises. It was something in the far back corner, a heavy, black shape. The furnace, perhaps. That was the source of the sounds. At last Liam reached the lightbulb, pulled on the string. There was a burst of wild electrical light and — pop! — the bare bulb shattered into pieces.

It startled Liam. He sensed a shape drifting through the basement, soundless and black, moving toward him. He turned and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, landing heavily with each step. Crash! A board cracked and Liam fell, slamming his shin hard against the wood. He grabbed the top step, catching himself before he fell. He wheezed, felt dizzy, woozy. Liam’s left leg dangled in the air, kicking at nothingness. He felt a thin, skeletal grip around his ankle. Like a claw pulling, dragging him down.

Liam yanked his leg free, and scrambled to the top of the stairs. He crawled into the kitchen, into the light. He slammed the door shut behind him and twisted the lock, heart thundering, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.

His back against the door, Liam sat on the floor, legs splayed. He took a puff from his inhaler. And another. Breathe in, he reminded himself, breathe out.

Down below, through the door, he swore he heard the sound . . . of laughter.