Archive for the writing process

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #334: A Desi Girl Writes . . . .

 

Let’s check the mail!

It’s funny, thinking of this now, I remember the later years of my mother when she lived in her last house in Greenport, Long Island. Checking the mail — putting on a light sweater, struggling into a pair of shoes, walking down the driveway to the road and the mail box — that was an adventure right there. Then she’d sit, have a cup of tea, light a cigarette, and think about having a little coffee cake later on. 

Anyway!

Ananya writes . . . 

 

Hi Mr.Preller,

I hope you are well. My name is Ananya ____. You recently visited my school (Jericho Middle School), on March 27th. You mentioned that if I had any questions in the future I could ask you. My questions for you are; What is your favorite genre? What is the best writing tip you ever received?
Thank you,
Ananya

I replied . . .

Ananya!
Hey, I remember you very well. Please send my regards to the Desi Girls!
I was so impressed with your school — the teachers, staff, principal, and students. Everything. I’ve walked into a lot of school buildings in a lot of different states, and I can tell that you’ve got something special going on there in Jericho. Make the most of it.
My favorite genre? I probably go back to realistic fiction most frequently. That’s the baseline, I believe, for all writing. I tend to like (boring) scenes where people sit around the kitchen table and talk. Plot is the tricky part for me, and I have to work to make things happen (which most readers seem to want). That said, I might be different than other authors because I like to bounce around, writing mysteries and “horror” and thrillers and even fantasy. Someday I hope to write a true work of science fiction. I mean to say, I’d like to publish one. I’ve written one, but had no luck selling it. Rats!
As a reader, I’m the same way. I bounce around. After reading a couple of novels, I’ll hunger for nonfiction. Maybe a biography or a book about birds or essays about politics. Then I’ll read about music, or baseball, or whatever random thing catches my eye. Then it’s back to novels. Round and round it goes.
Best advice? Oh, goodness. I really ought to write up a list one of these days. I sort of love Elmore Leonard’s semi-snarky advice, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
And I love Kurt Vonnegut’s line, which I often share on school visits: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Otherwise, the cliched answers are usually still true. Read often, read widely, read like a writer (meaning: be hyper aware of the writer behind the words). Try to write as often as you can. Keep a journal. Pay attention to the world. Eyes open, mouth closed. Be filled with wonder. And read aloud what you’ve written.
I try not to overwrite, because that’s probably my biggest private demon. We’re mortal enemies! That’ s the ego, when I might try to get fancy and show off how smart I am (not very, honestly). So I try to keep my sentences simple, my thoughts clear. We almost never want a confused reader. Clarity is king.
Thanks for saying hello!
James Preller

On Watching “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” and David Shire, and a Sneeze, and Chekhov’s Gun

Netflix recently added a bunch of movies from the 70s and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” caught my eye (the original 1974 film, not the remake). I remembered seeing it in the theater in my early teens. Walter Matthau and the gritty old NYC vibe. Not quite the caliber of “The French Connection” or “Serpico,” but drawing from those same mean streets. And what a cast, in addition to Matthau, there’s Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, and more, including Lee Wallace spoofing NYC Mayor Koch. 

    

Anyway, I watched it again. I don’t know that it stood up all that well, but I enjoyed it, partly for nostalgic reasons. It brought me back.

That said: The opening theme, written by legendary composer David Shire, is out of this world good. Brassy and propulsive and energetic, a jazz-funk theme that announces a city that is alive and muscular, gritty and tough.

Give it a listen . . . it’s fabulous. 

 

One thing of note. There’s a moment early in the film when one of the bad guys sneezes and Matthau’s character — Garber — says “Gesundheit.” It was enough of a moment, including that extra beat, that made me think, Hmmmm, why are they doing this here?

I knew something was up with that sneeze.

The film goes on and, wow, again, the bad guy (Green) sneezes. And again, Gesundheit. So not only do we notice it, we notice Garber noticing it. And if I didn’t realize after the first sneeze, by this time I knew for damn certain that the movie would include one more sneeze. A pivotal sneeze. And that it would be how Green gets caught.

(Sidenote: I assume this is where Tarantino lifted the idea for all the criminals in “Reservoir Dogs” using colors for code names: Mr. Brown, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, etc.)

Anyway, this is why my long-suffering wife Lisa hates watching movies with me. To the point where I’ve had to promise to keep my big mouth shut. Or else I’ll ruin things by musing out loud on the (obvious!) ending in the first few minutes of a movie. I’m sure other writers, especially mystery writers (there are 42 Jigsaw Jones books, after all, so I’ve learned a thing or two about laying out clues), do this all the time. We notice things. The odd clue that’s put forward unexpectedly, with just a touch too much emphasis. Why have that minor character sneeze like that? It must mean something. Or we know that it will mean something later on.

This is, of course, Chekhov’s Gun. The idea that if a writer introduces a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third act. Otherwise, don’t include the gun at all. Or the sneeze. Every element is essential to the story or irrelevant.

Anyway, the film dutifully gives us that sneeze at the end of the film, as I knew it must.

                           

       

               

                       

 

And the scene was perfect, and waiting for it held its own deep satisfaction. And then we got the film’s final shot, Matthau’s mug, hearing it, and knowing: he’s got his man.

End scene, end movie.

Just perfect.

Three New Picture Books That I Loved: A Kitten, A Plant, and Everything In the World

I go to the library fairly often. My job is one of solitude, of aloneness, and there are times when I just want to be among people. Watch them walk, listen to them talk, see what they are up to. 

And the other thing about libraries is: that’s where the books are.

While I usually try to stay current, there are times when — well — it’s nice not to know. Not get hung up on what’s happening out there. The buzz, the trends, the hype, the books that make me think: Why, why, why? The work for any writer begins, primarily, with what’s happening in here. The rumblings of the head & the heart.

I am newly resolved to take ten picture books out of the library every time I visit. Read them, think about them. Be inspired or annoyed. 

Here’s three from a recent batch that I particularly enjoyed . . . 

 

The great Kevin Henkes does it again. Can he do no wrong? It occurs to me that he’s probably helped by a wise agent and discerning editors who help bring out the best in him . . . while maybe holding off the crummy ideas. Because even Kevin Henkes must have crummy ideas, right? Right?

Oh, God, I hope so.

The book begins:

There are big things and little things in the world.

The text is spare and the illustrations are simple and yet resonant. He’s so good. He has a full page illustration of pebbles and it could break your heart. It’s a small miracle in a book full of them. Somehow Henkes embues heart and soul into everything he does, that’s what I love about him.

But for this book, it’s the Voice that I so admire. He simply strikes a tone — kind, knowing (without being a know-it-all), gentle and wise.

This is a beautiful, lovely book.

Confession: I love Audrey Vernick. She’s my pal and she’s the greatest. If you don’t like Audrey, then you are dead to me. It’s that simple. But: Confession II: I don’t love everything she’s ever done. 

Besides writing solo, Audrey has successfully teamed up with Liz Garton Scanlon, who is such a fine craftsperson with the soul of a poet. A writer’s writer. They made this book together. 

And for me, this might be their best book yet. It’s expertly crafted and takes place in a world that will be instantly familiar to young readers.

It begins:

Room 107 has a cockatiel. Room 108 has a chinchilla. Even the Art Room has a bearded dragon!

[Writers: Not the rule of three, the comfortable pattern that readers enjoy.]

But in Room 109, Arlo’s classroom, there is a plant. A mostly green, hardly growing, never moving plant. 

Again: the Voice here is unerring and the story unfolds with (mostly) realism and calm and great affection for Jerry (that’s the name of the plant). 

Question: Is Voice the single most important aspect of a children’s book? Maybe yes. 

Warmly illustrated by Lynnor Bontigao. 

I’ll be honest. I am sick to death of overt message books. So obvious and pedantic. So adult-centered. And yet, of course, there’s nothing wrong with signals. Every story sends signals, embedded with values. So it becomes a matter of craft. Of art. How do you send the message without, you know, hammering someone over the head with it? So that maybe when it comes, you didn’t completely see it coming?

But wait. 

First: The illustrations in this are tremendous. The colors rich — not cartoony — and not too vibrant. Carson Ellis is very, very good. You know instantly that you are in good hands.

There’s so much art and skill in how this book is put together. It begins with a single-page illustration of a window, a sky, some trees, two birds. The next page is a double spread: a few homes, more trees, and small (but centered) a mother and child about to take a dog for a walk. No words yet.

(I guess it really isn’t about a kitten!)

And then, whoa, the title page. Cool.

It begins:

This story is not about a kitten.

Turn the page, close up of a kitten cowering under a parked car:

A kitten, hungry and dirty, scared and alone, meowing sadly, needing a home. 

The story builds cumulatively as the different members of the community step forward and come together in compassion, and affection, and common decency.

So, yeah, the message does come and it is pretty straight-forward. But how we get there, Dear Reader, that’s the difference.

This story is about the 

stopping

and listening,

the holding

and bringing,

the offering

and asking

and the working together

it takes, sometimes, to get there. 

An absolute marvel of a book. 

Writing Tips #2: A Look at One Page from DOCTOR DE SOTO by William Steig (Scene & Summary)

I recently wrote a throwaway post on Facebook that got a surprising amount of attention. It was about soaking dishes. Yeah, wild, I know. I wrote a sentence that owed something, perhaps, to a specific moment in William Steig’s Doctor De Soto picture book. 

I say “perhaps” because it’s hard to pin down where influences end and ideas originate. It spins in a circle, consciously and unconsciously. Who knows. 

What I had written was: “I’m a pot and pan soaker. So was my father, and his father before him. It’s always been that way with my family.”

It made me remember De Soto and look up the scene:

Forgive the blur. The good doctor informs his wife, “Once I start a job, I finish it. My father was the same way.”

So, sure, he does it far more economically & elegantly than I managed to on social media. In my defense, he’s William Steig writing a book and I’m only James Preller blasting out a few thoughts on Facebook. 

Here’s the full text from the page in case the blur is too hard to read:

That night the De Sotos lay awake worrying. “Should we let him in tomorrow?” Mrs. De Soto wondered.

“Once I start a job,” said the dentist firmly, “I finish it. My father was the same way.”

“But we must do something to protect ourselves,” said his wife. They talked and talked until they formed a plan. “I think it will work,” said Doctor De Soto. A minute later he was snoring. 

One comment before the main thing:

I’m as opposed to adverbs as the next guy, probably more, but “firmly” sure does a lot of good work in that phrase, said the dentist firmly

A clear signal. There would be no debate. This strikes me as that rare thing: a good adverb.

Something interesting happens on this page, where “scene” meets “summary.”

We are in a scene from the beginning, of course, announced by those two words: That night. It’s a variation on the “one day” trope of so  many picture books: things are always so until . . . one day something happens. Story begins with scene.

We find ourselves with the De Sotos, flies on the lavender wallpaper, listening to them discuss the mortal danger of treating the fox’s toothache. Then comes that great sentence:

They talked and talked until they formed a plan.

The camera doesn’t move to a new perspective, it just pulls back and suddenly there’s a great distance. We are transported to the land of summary: They talked and talked until they formed a plan

I wonder how Steig arrived at this sentence. Did he try to write out that full conversation in early drafts? Did he wrestle with it for days, weeks? Did he worry about the length, the slowness, the slog? This was intended, after all, for a 32-page picture book. There wasn’t time to waste. It could be that Steig immediately went to summary, instinctively knowing that he had to keep the plot moving forward. 

So there’s this: Summary allows the writer to play with time

The writer can make time move quickly, cross decades in a single sentence, or can slow it down to a drip, drip . . . drip. Even slower than real time. 

In my current work-in-progress, a middle-grade novel tentatively titled Shaken (Macmillan, 2024), I decided to make a leap of four months from one chapter to the next. Those four months occur in the gap between those two chapters, the way that in a comic or graphic novel there’s a sliver of time in the spaces between each panel. This leap required a sentence or two of summary. Time passed. Winter turned to Spring. That kind of thing (but not those words). 

Aside: Do you ever notice, btw, how very young children are unable to summarize when they recount, say, a movie they just watched? it’s always: and then, and then, and then, and then, etc. The art of summary is really about prioritizing. Recognizing what’s significant and what isn’t. Elmore Leonard’s great rule for writing: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

Let me make up an example on the spot:

He spent the summer working on the cabin, rising early and laboring until dark, while the loneliness filled up inside him. One September day, there was a knock on the door . . . 

Summary –> Scene. The storyteller (and his listeners, one assumes) is not interested in all those dull empty days of summer. That part is boring. Let’s skip it. So the storyteller makes time fly by, an entire summer in a sentence.

Then there’s a knock at the door.

Time slows to a crawl.

He pauses, uncrosses his legs. Puts down the novel — Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men — spine up on the end table. He gazes out the window. The last light of evening had long ago died.  A faint drone of tree frogs pressed against the panes. Who could it be at this hour? Should he rise to answer it? He coughs, and waits.

Anyway, yeah, it’s cool how Steig pulls that off in the middle of a scene — a sentence of summary, omitting at least an hour of discussion — before he returns us right back to that same “moment” (without ever moving the camera; the focus just gets tighter). 

He ends the page with another great understated sentence. 

A minute later he was snoring. 

A minute has passed in the distance from a period to the capital letter of the next sentence. A minute later. And lo, the good doctor is asleep! Resolved and at peace. Troubled no more. The plan has been set and he needs his rest. 

I’d turn the page, right?

Wouldn’t you?

What is the plan, anyway? 

Steig didn’t tell us. He withholds. That’s actually another technique worthy of discussion. The vital importance of being clear, and answering questions for the reader as soon as possible (to avoid confusion), but also to recognize the value of not answering every question.

How those unanswered questions can prod the reader to do the single best thing that any reader can ever do — turn the page. 

William Steig was a writer who knew what he was doing.

CLICK HERE for Writing Tip #1.

Oh, Look! Here’s An Article on Yours Truly from the Albany Times-Union!

My local newspaper, The Albany Times-Union, just ran a feature article about me.  

Yes, I find that vaguely horrifying but also a good thing, I suppose. 

It’s nice to be seen.

It’s funny, in this business people will commonly say things like, “If this book reaches just one kid, impacts just one child, it’s all worth it.”

And I always think: Yeah, no. 

I’d like to reach a lot more than that. 

Articles like this help. 

Thank you, good folks at the Times-Union newspaper for making this happen. Just one question: What’s a newspaper?

Ha, ha, ho. Sorry, that hurts. 

Naturally, it took me 48 hours before I could actually force myself to read Jim Shahen’s piece. Today I wrote and thanked him for making me not look too much like a total blithering idiot. Some writer!

Anyway, perhaps my out-of-town fans will enjoy reading this . . . 

Delmar author James Preller releases newest children’s book in “Exit 13” series

Photo of Jim Shahen Jr.
Delmar resident James Preller has been living in the Capital Region for about 33 years and writing novels for kids of all ages at a prolific rate for even longer than that. Most famously known for the elementary school-reader “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series, he’s the author of more than 80 books that run from picture book to young adult in appropriateness.

His most recent work, the middle-grade mystery-thriller “Exit 13: The Spaces in Between,” came out at the end of July. “The Spaces in Between” is the second installment in the “Exit 13 series” (Preller describes it as a hybrid of “Schitt’s Creek” and “Stranger Things”) which tells the story of siblings Willow and Ash McGinn. On a family vacation, they’re forced to stop at the Exit 13 Motel where spooky mystery surrounds the business and its employees. Various confounding events to keep the family from checking out and resuming their trip, forcing the McGinn kids (and their goldendoodle Daisy) to get to the bottom of it all, lest they stay stuck at the Exit 13 forever.

The quick-paced, supernatural series is a tonal departure from “Upstander,” the book Preller released immediately preceding “Exit 13.” That one deals with the heavier issues of having a sibling struggle substance abuse and being a participant in bullying. For Preller, being able to explore different genres, themes and difficulty levels has been crucial in enabling him to sustain his writing career.

“I published my first book in 1986; I was 25 then, and I’m 62 now. I’ve spent more than half my life as a published author,” said Preller. “It’s kind of a lot, when you think about it. I’m a little unusual in the breadth of my work. Whatever memo there is about branding yourself, I missed it.

“The master plan, to the extent that I have any control over it, is to write quasi-literary middle-grade novels, but also have something more commercial for mass-market release,” he continued. “I’m a survivor, I just keep scrambling around and I’m fortunate to keep coming up with new material.”

A Long Island native, Preller was drawn to children’s literature shortly after graduating from SUNY Oneonta in 1983. Upon graduating, he moved to New York City and waited tables at Beefsteak Charlie’s to make ends meet while seeking lofty literary goals.

Soon after, he got a job at Scholastic and his professional ambitions took a turn.

“I liked to write poems and took myself very seriously, but poetry wasn’t going to pay the bills at all, plus, I wasn’t very good at it,” he recalled. “I got hired as a junior copywriter at Scholastic and I saw ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ I realized what a kids’ book could be: anything. A world of possibilities opened to me.”

In 1986, he sold, wrote and published his first book, the picture book “Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue” about a truck that takes action when an avalanche threatens to destroy the energy station and imperils his family.

“Maxx Trax” eventually sold 1 million copies and Preller’s writing career was underway. He left New York City for the space to start a family in a more affordable climate here in Albany County. From a work standpoint, Preller’s output was varied, writing a mix of early readers and film adaptations — “Space Jam,” “The Iron Giant” and “Godzilla” — for Scholastic. From 1998-2007 or so, he struck gold with the 42-book “Jigsaw Jones” series. Since then, Preller has balanced the lighter, preschool-and-elementary-aged material with books that reflect more serious themes.

If there’s a throughline from “Maxx Trax” to something like “Upstander,” it’s that Preller tries to base all his work in reality. For his first middle-grade novel “Six Innings,” he relied on his own family’s experience with pediatric cancer as a reference. To add verisimilitude to the mountain hiking-based “Blood Mountain,” he regularly corresponded with a park ranger in Lake Placid. Even “Maxx Trax,” has a real-world connection: Maxx, like Preller, is the youngest of seven siblings.

“Every book is different and has its own challenges,” he said. “A lot (of the interest in mid-grade literature) was my own children getting older and wanting to write some things with a little more depth and grit in their content. I can go into deeper things than I can with ‘Exit 13’ or (the spooky story series) ‘Scary Tales.’

“I tell kids when I speak at schools, that even if you aren’t writing about a human, whether it’s super-powered trucks like Maxx Trax or writing about a dragon or a wombat, you’re still drawing upon your own emotions and experiences,” Preller added.

With the new “Exit 13” out in stores, Preller is now looking ahead. He has four more books under contract — a middle-grade novel dealing with a student-athlete coping with post-concussion syndrome and three picture books — that will keep him busy well into next year. And there’s another idea or two percolating for beyond then.

If Preller has it his way, he’ll sustain this level of activity for years to come, and hopefully continue inspiring kids to read.

“I’m 62 and live in a town with a lot of state workers who are retiring,” he said. “Do I want to still be publishing new books at 75? Absolutely.

“I have no ideas or high hopes when a book comes out and I’ve learned to let go of the outcomes,” Preller continued. “I’m very aware that this is entertainment and I just want to give the reader the best possible experience, so they’ll go, ‘Oh, I’ll read another book.’ ”