Archive for the writing process

Setting, Character, Plot: A Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse into SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER

 

One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).

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Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.

But anyway!

Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.

That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.

Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:

lrg_bald_cypress_swampSpanish Moss

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mangrove-roots-4rootsofswampthingg

 

Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:

The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.

A few paragraphs down:

DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.

What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.

More dangerous, too.

The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.

That was their first mistake.

Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.

Character meets Setting:

The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.

STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!

My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest.  I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.

SWAMP-MONSTER_Interiors_03

But where was the horror in that?

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.

“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.

“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”

“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”

At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.

“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”

And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.

At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.

If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.

I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.

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I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.

To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.

With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.

A thought troubled her mind.

Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.

So she hid, as she always did.

She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.

Was the egg stolen?

Had it been taken . . . by the Others?

Those faces in the woods?

She had glimpsed them.

Their ugly, round eyes.

Their skin like smooth stones.

Little monsters.

New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.

Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.

Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.

Squilch, squilch, squilch.

Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.

SWAMP-MONSTER_Interiors_06

An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.

Of the door opening, of her entering.

“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.

The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.

The swamp monster stepped into the house.

I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.

Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.

 

That Time I Was Asked to Give Advice to Aspiring Writers About “Rejection”

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I recently received a note from a friend. She wrote: “The topic of our local authors’ & illustrators’ meeting is ‘rejection.’ Would you mind sharing an anecdote about either a rejection or an acceptance that I can share with our group? Hearing about these from you will mean a great deal to our members.” 

A few days later I banged out the response below.

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I wish I had something remotely wise to offer you on this topic, some helpful insight that would give you the strength and wisdom to move forward in the face of a cruel, indifferent world.

I assume you already know all the stories. The books that were rejected 37 times only to become classics of children’s literature. The writers who wall-papered their offices with rejection slips. The realities of the business, how sometimes books are rejected simply because they don’t fit into a publisher’s overall plan — not the fault of the writer or even of the book itself.

And also, as I’m sure you know, there are things to be learned from rejection. For a long time early in my career, I hoped for “quality rejections.” Often a good rejection — anything beyond a standard form letter — can become the beginning of a relationship between writer and editor. And I guess it’s also true for standard rejections too. Proof of your hard work, your determination, your persistence. You are a writer sending out manuscripts and receiving replies from publishing companies. That places you inside the process, whether you are happy with the result or not.

Hey, folks, while we’re at it: Let’s hear it for persistence!

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I am saying to you: Rejection is awful. It’s heartbreaking. I first published in 1986, almost 30 years ago, and I still experience professional rejection in many different ways. Just a scroll through my daily feed on Facebook and I’m ready to start drinking. The awards I didn’t win, the amazing books I didn’t write, the terrific ideas I never had, the wonderful schools I’m not asked to visit, the ALA this and the mid-winter that and on and on and on. The world, it seems, is always telling us that we aren’t good enough. I’ve wanted to give up many times, just wave the white flag: I surrender.

That’s when you have to get back to basics. Get back to story. Back to the core of creativity. Read some books. Fill your heart, your mind. Sit back, close your eyes, rest, and imagine.

And write.

Something new, something better.

The world of publishing — of “being” an author — is filled with distractions. The business of it, the tweets and status updates, the self-promotion and networking. Most of it is utter bs. Because none of it is about writing, making things, being a true artist.

You have to keep returning to the purity of words, the insistence of language, the value of story. You have to be a writer. And if you are, if that thing is alive inside you, no amount of outside rejection can ever put out that flame.

Burn brightly, keep creating. And if in the end you never get published, if the world does not fall at your feet, so be it. That’s life. You will have done real work, you will have done your best. I truly believe there’s value in it, personal growth, something. Just to participate in the creative process, to be alive in it, to enter the dance.

It just may feed your soul.

So it’s not really about the world accepting or rejecting you. All of that is beyond your control. It’s about you . . . accepting the world, holding it your heart, and putting forth your best words, thoughts, and feelings onto the page. That, to me, is a triumph.

Congratulations. Now, keep going, and good luck.

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mood-writing

All Over the World: Selected Titles in Arabic, Indonesian, German, Korean, Greek, Spanish and More

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For someone who has such difficulties with the English language, it’s something of a shock for me to realize how many of my books have been translated into different languages.

Yesterday I got two new ones in the mail: Jigsaw Jones in Arabic and Scary Tales in Indonesian. I always discover these translations in a haphazard way. They just come in the mail or, in many instances, never come at all. I gather that the Arabic translations of Jigsaw have existed for years. Who knew? Not me. They keep us writers in the dark; like mushrooms, we prefer damp, dank places.

Today I warmed up the trusty, rusty scanner to share a random few translations with you. I have others in French, Italian, Portuguese, and more, but nevermind that. Look here . . .

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Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

Arabic versions of The Case of the Race Against Time and The Case of the Golden Key.

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Here’s a sample page . . .

Cool, right? Here's Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist's rendering of the suspect.

Cool, right? Here’s Geetha, the class artist, showing Mila and Jigsaw an artist’s rendering of the suspect. Illustration by Jamie Smith.

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In German, Jigsaw Jones was entirely re-illustrated and translated into “Puzzle Paul.”

Jigsaw Jones -- I mean, Puzzle Paul --searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

Jigsaw Jones — I mean, Puzzle Paul –searches for a valuable coin in the German translation of The Case of the Christmas Snowman.

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Here’s the back cover of one of my Scary Tales titles, newly translated into Indonesian.

Scan 1

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They love baseball in Korea too:

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

Six Innings, the Korean translation.

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Let’s see, how about an interior from the Spanish translation of Hiccups for Elephant?

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

Poor Mouse was trying to sleep. Illustration by Hans Wilhelm.

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I’ll stop here with this one, a favorite, the Greek translation of Bystander. Isn’t it amazing? Aren’t I lucky? Doesn’t it just blow your mind to think about it, writing books that are read all over the world?

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On Writing: “Are You Jigsaw Jones?”

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I love this illustration by Jamie Smith from one of the Jigsaw Jones books. I mean, the glove looks like it might have been drawn by an Englishman, which it was, but the spirit is right. I am very grateful that Jamie illustrated so many books in the series; he was, I think, exactly right.

And, yes, I’m glad to see my love of baseball creep into another book.

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Scan 5

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On school visits, readers often as if I am a particular character.

Am I Eric in Bystander? Jude in Before You Go? Am I the great detective Jigsaw Jones? Or the mouse in Wake Me In Spring?

(Okay, no one has ever asked that last question. And the answer is: no, I am not the mouse in Wake Me In Spring! Yes, we both have beady little eyes and whiskers, but beyond that the similarities are purely accidental.)

Back to the Jigsaw question. No, I’m not Jigsaw Jones. It’s rare for any character to fully stand in for the author. But, of course, there are elements of my life and personality — most definitely exhibited in Jigsaw’s sense of humor — in that character. And there are trappings of my childhood in his world.

Like me, Jigsaw is the youngest in the family. Like me at that age, Jigsaw’s grandmother lives with him. And like me, the boy loves baseball.

It was easier to write that way, more natural; I intimately knew those feelings.

But as I’ve grown as a writer, especially from my early days in college, I’ve learned how to distance myself from my characters. The writing, in my case, has become less autobiographical and more fully its own creation. The characters seem to stand and move around on their own two feet, acting according to their own (fictional) inner compasses. I don’t ask what I would do; I ask what they might do. At the same time, parts of my life, my world, leak into everything. How can it be any other way?

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Art by Jeffrey Scherer.

Anyway, I didn’t expect to write this muddled post today. I mostly wanted to share my excitement about the coming baseball season. I am coaching again this year, a really nice group of 15-year-old boys. We’ll play a travel season and enter some tournaments. My 10th-grade son, Gavin, will be playing JV baseball. It’s an impressive accomplishment; not so easy to make those teams in our town. And last but not least, my heart is filled with hope about my beloved New York Mets.

Dare I say it? I think they might actually be good this year.

I often sign copies of Six Innings the same way. “Dream big, and swing for the fences!”

Is there any other way to play?

 

Thoughts on Books: Please Disturb

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“The writer whose words are going to be read by children 

has a heavy responsibility. And yet, despite the undeniable fact

that the children’s minds are tender, they are also far more tough 

than many people realize, and they have an openness

and an ability to grapple with difficult concepts

which many adults have lost.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of disturbing readers.

Shaking them up.

In fact, I believe that many readers, consciously or unconsciously, crave the experience.

When I think about personal growth — perhaps in viewing my own three children — I imagine that it can be characterized by periods of equilibrium, followed by passages of disequilibrium, followed (hopefully) by a new, higher level of equilibrium.

Comfort, discomfort, growth.

 

disturb-the-universe

 

I came to understand some of this through my experience writing my first “horror” series, Scary Tales, for young readers. I placed horror in quotes because, well, it’s not that scary; nobody gets hurt, everything turns out okay in the end. Every time. But, sure, there are some clammy palpitations along the way.

I often visit schools and the response to “scary” in grades 3-5, particularly, is wildly enthusiastic. Kids love this creepy stuff with its twisting plots, and they have long before I ever entered the scene. But I’ve also learned that there is a lot of fear out there — from adults. The redoubtable gatekeepers. A question I’ll hear at Book Festivals: “Will this book give my child nightmares?”

Of course, I don’t know the answer to that. How should I respond?

SWAMP_MONSTER_Esec02_ES_loresOkay, I’m a parent. I get it, mostly. We don’t want our kids to wake up screaming, scared out of their minds. And to that end, we don’t want to irresponsibly expose them to content that might be developmentally inappropriate. Well, a caveat there: Most people have no problem, bizarrely, with “inappropriate” content if it’s on TV or a movie. Even something as cherished as the Harry Potter books and movies — where characters are murdered, and the stories get continually darker as agents of pure evil plot death and destruction. Everybody is fine with that! But a story about a kid trapped in a cave with bats? Or unfriendly snowmen guarding a castle? Or a swamp monster?

Those things might prove . . . upsetting.

And here’s the thing: Maybe we like scary stories exactly because of that disturbance. On some deep level, maybe even unconsciously, we want to be disturbed. Because we know that it is necessary to our growth.

What does the reader learn, after losing her balance, when she discovers, Whew, I’m actually okay. I survived this.

Might there be value in that discovery?

I recently got a letter from an 8th-grade reader who was disturbed by a scene in my middle-grade novel, Bystander, where a boy, Eric, gets beaten up. It upset his sense of fairness. In the letter-writer’s mind, “Eric was being very friendly,” and he “didn’t deserve to get beat up.”

The scene bothered this reader. It shook him up a little. A part of him preferred that it didn’t exist at all.

And I think, well, good. It was supposed to do that. It was designed to make you feel something. These are the troubling scenes we remember our entire lives.

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

Speaking of scary, how about the Teletubbies in black and white?

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Now I’m not talking about pure shock, artlessly rendered. The head lopped off and bouncing, boing-boing-boing, down the carpeted staircase. Though, I guess, that might have value too. I’m talking about the fiendish clown in Stephen King’s It. Or the heartbreaking moment of when Travis is forced to shoot his rabid dog in Old Yeller. The moments that give us dis-ease.

I think that’s one of the things that good books can do for us. They disturb our tranquility a little bit. Which is also why, an aside, this entire notion of eliminating “trigger books” in the college curriculum is so misguided. The notion is that some people might be upset if they encounter certain kinds of things, or triggers, in assigned books: a mother with cancer, a rape, social prejudice, world hunger, whatever their personal trigger might be. Some believe that students should be warned about these triggers, in the hope of avoiding them.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be upset.

And I think: Good luck with that.

And also: Isn’t that kind of the point?

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno, from Scary Tales: One-eyed Doll.

When I’m not writing Scary Tales, which is most of the time, I tend to write realistic fiction. My books have included childhood cancer, fistfights, bullying, suicide, lost pets, and car accidents. Scary stuff, life.

A book, of course, is a safe way for a child or adult to address different fears. A book can be mastered. A book can be closed. It can, simply, not be read at all. Or put aside to be read another day when the reader feels prepared. And then, on that day, guess what? The reader miraculously survives. Calm is restored.

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.”

– Neil Gaiman

Finally, Writing Advice I Can Get Behind!

I get asked for writing advice from time to time. And every once in a great while I try to tackle it sincerely — here, and here, and here, and here, for a quartet of random samples. If you are really interested in my collected blather on the topic, just use the nifty “SEARCH” function to this blog and type in “writing advice” or “writing tips” or “aardvarks in bathing suits” and swim through the murky wisdom. Under “CATEGORIES” in the right sidebar there’s one titled “the writing process” which loosely gathers that kind of material too.

But for today, we’ll let this suffice. Carry on!

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“You Can’t You Can Never Be Sure” & Other Thoughts This Morning

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I’ve been reading more poetry lately, like returning to an old friend, and this morning want to share two things.

John Berryman.

Poet John Berryman, who died without knowing.

 

First, from this morning, rereading a poem by W.S. Merwin titled “Berryman.” I’ll give you the last seven lines, you can look up the rest:

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I asked how can you ever be sure

that what you write is really

any good at all and he said you can’t

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you can’t you can never be sure

you die without knowing

whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don’t write

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As for me, I hear those words and accept them in my heart as true. Self-doubt seems central to the experience, though it’s nearly impossible to write without wild spasms of self-confidence. It’s why some writers drink, I’m sure, to trick yourself into feeling that way.

You die without knowing, that line, transcends the subject of writing. We can’t ever be sure, but we persist, and we can at times, in fact, think so. We may say, quietly, in bed to our loved one, “I think it’s a good book.” And we might even believe it. But in the next moment, in the silence between our last word and her reply, we can also know that our life has a been a delusion, a failure, and that none of it amounts to much of anything at all, when we had hoped for so much more.

Ah, the writing life.

300px-ErasedfromexistanceI’ve had so many books go out of print over the past two years. Just a staggering number, more than 40 books . . . going, going, gone. It’s the business I’m in, there are all sorts of rational reasons, excuses, palliatives I can apply. But still, it cuts deep. It just does. It feels like that photograph in the movie “Back to the Future.” Marty keeps looking at it, panicked, watching the images slowly disappear.

Maybe that’s what alzheimer’s feels like during brief snatches of clarity. You are helplessly aware that it’s all slipping away, and you can’t even be sure that any of it was real.

If you have to be sure don’t write, Berryman tells us, through Merwin. Such is life. You can’t you can never be sure. What can you do? You write some more, and hopefully it will be good.

Two nights ago I stood up at the head of the table — we were hosting friends and family on Christmas Eve, just a lovely evening — and I said a few words in preamble to a poem I wanted to share, Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes.”

Which is funny, right? The title got a chuckle. Typical Jimmy, to go dark at a time like this. But the truth about darkness is that it gives us an appreciation of light. Poems purportedly “about” death are really about life. At least, that’s certainly the case here. “I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement.”

I hope you like it.

 

When Death Comes

When death comes 
like the hungry bear in autumn; 
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut; 
when death comes 
like the measle-pox

when death comes 
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: 
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything 
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, 
and I look upon time as no more than an idea, 
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common 
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, 
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something 
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life 
I was a bride married to amazement. 
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder 
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, 
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Fan Mail Wednesday #194: I Actually Give This Poor Kid Writing Advice

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Here’s a letter that did not have to travel very far. However, it’s a little tough to read, but I’m sharing it anyway. So there:

Scan 4

 

I replied:

Tyler,

Wow, thanks for the letter and thanks, too, for reading so many of my books. You inspire me to write more. Here are three titles that are coming out in the near and distant future: Scary Tales: Swamp Monster (Spring, 2015), The Fall (Fall, 2015), and Dead, But Cautiously Optimistic (Spring, 2016). 

paperback-cover-six-innings-203x300I hope that by now you’ve been able to track down a copy of Bystander. Usually I describe that book as best for grades 5-up, but I’d never stand in the way of a motivated reader. I have a deep affection for Six Innings, and I’m proud that it was named an ALA Notable Book. I poured a lifetime of baseball obsession into that single book, while also writing about my own son’s struggle with a serious illness. 

I have to confess that I always feel a shiver of uneasiness when asked about writing advice. I know many authors who give it confidently and freely. They even charge money to teach it. In my case, despite all these books, I still feel like I’m someone who should be taking advice rather than giving it. 

But, okay, fair enough: I must know something. Right? So read, read often and read widely. Read for pleasure, yes, but also read like a writer. By that I mean, pay attention to what’s happening on the page. Be aware that there’s a real person, an author, behind those scenes on the page, making choices with every word, every sentence. If you are excited, or scared, and laughing out loud — if you feel anything at all while you read — go back and try to figure out what the writer did to cause you to feel that way. We learn best by reading other writers. 

Also, of course, you’ve got to write. And by that I mean, write anything at all — notes, poems, song lyrics, snippets of dialogue, true stories, anything. Purchase your own blank journal. I love those ordinary composition notebooks you can find at CVS. It’s so important to have a place you can go with your thoughts. Remember that it’s impossible to write without deep thought, deep feeling. Writing is an act of concentration and focus. You’ll need to give yourself the greatest gift of all: time to think. Space to feel. It requires that you turn off the television, shut down the computer, put away the phone and games. Hey, I love all that stuff, but in order to write, you must go inside your own skull for entertainment.

At your age, I think it’s best to concentrate on short pieces. Little stories. Scenes. It’s very common for young writers to imagine a great, long, complicated story that would require a 100,00 words to tell properly. Problem is, 99% of the time those ambitious stories are never completed.

tools-belts-xxcge4-296x300I believe there’s value in finished work, and sometimes that’s a matter of adjusting your goals. Imagine that you were beginning to learn carpentry. You’d need to familiarize yourself with the tools of the trade. A hammer, some nails, a screwdriver, scraps of wood, a monkey wrench, etc. You’d begin, I’d hope, by attempting to build something relatively simple: a birdhouse, perhaps. You wouldn’t attempt a structure that was, say, a 2,000 square-foot log cabin for a family of five. Same thing with writing. Explore the tools. Play around with them. Write a scene with a heavy use of dialogue. Put together characters on a park bench, get them talking about something, describe someone’s room. 

Also: slow down. That’s one I have to keep learning in my own writing, over and over again. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next scene, and the next, and the next. We all want to be done, bang out those two wonderful words: THE END! Instead, take your time with the scene you are writing. Go deeper, think harder. Find the details that are worth sharing. I’ve heard writing teachers call it “downshifting.” If you’ve captured a good moment, linger there for a beat, a few extra sentences. Throw a line into the water. See what else might be just under the surface. You might get a bite.

Anyway, Tyler. You asked for it. But do you see what I mean? It’s so hard for me to say anything that’s truly helpful. I wish I could give you the magic key, but I can’t. In the end, writing is all about you and the blank page. No one can really help all that much. I wish you the best of luck in your writing life. If somebody like me can do it, I’m sure that you can, too.

My best,

JP

 

Give Student Writers the Freedom to Embrace Their Inner Zombies


1621704_667566729951571_1638043617_nNote
: A variation of this essay first appeared a while back over at the fabulous Nerdy Book Club, founded by Donalyn “The Book Whisperer” Miller, Colby Sharp (the man, not the cheese), and possibly several other folks. The history is not entirely clear to me. Nonetheless! You can follow all their nerdy, book-loving, classroom-centered hijinks on Facebook, Twitter, and various other social platforms, I’m sure. 

 

 

These days, young people are crazy about zombies. That’s just a plain fact. Not every kid, of course, but a lot of them.

And I’m here to say: Use that as an advantage in your classroom. Seize the day zombie! Particularly when it comes to student writing. Some girls want to team up to conjure a story about a zombie apocalypse? Here’s a pen and paper. Go for it, ladies.

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Many students, as young as third grade and on up into high school, are watching THE WALKING DEAD. The secret that quite of few of them don’t realize is that the hit television show is not about zombies at all. It’s about people surviving zombies. The zombies themselves are boring, without personality, almost irrelevant. They could be switched out for deadly fog, or World War II, a forest fire, or a tsunami. The zombies are simply a device to propel forward a character-driven story. It’s the engine that drives plot — all those pistons churning — and gives each moment heightened meaning.

That’s my point here. Any zombie story is almost entirely about character.

zombie-3-comingWhat we need to recognize is that, counter-intuitively, the zombie plot device perfectly lends itself to character-centered story. In the case of THE WALKING DEAD, it could even be argued that it’s about family, blended, modern, unconventional, or traditional.

With, okay, some (really) gross parts thrown in. Warning: Some characters in this story may get eaten. Hold the hot sauce. Ha! And why not, if that’s what it takes? If a little bit of the old blood and guts is the hook you need to lure in those writers, embrace it.

You can’t write a good zombie story without creating an assortment of interesting characters. Then you place those diverse characters in danger, you bring them into conflict with each other, you get them screaming, and talking, and caring about each other.

As, okay, they are chased by a bunch of zombies.

There’s no drama unless the writer makes us care about his or her characters. Your student writers will be challenged to make those characters come alive, become vivid and real. We have to care that they live or, perhaps, really kind of hope they get eaten alive in the most hideous way possible by a crazed zombie mob. Screaming, hopefully.

Don’t be turned off by that. Remember, it’s really all about character development, keep your focus to that. Dear teacher, I am saying this: embrace your inner zombie –- and turn those students loose. We can’t all write about dinner parties and visits from Aunt Gweneth.

What they will be writing will be no different than your typical Jane Austin novel. Except for, you know, all those bloody entrails.

——

There are currently five books available in my “Scary Tales” series.

OneEyedDoll_cvr_lorez     nightmareland_cvr_lorez     9781250018915_p0_v1_s260x420     iscreamyouscream_cvr_highrez-198x300

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And Then There Were 5 (Plus a Few Words About an Upcoming Hardcover)

The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised — now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:

Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”

(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)

It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!