Archive for the writing process

RoboCop, Ronald Reagan, and How a 1984 Campaign Commercial Gets Reimagined in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

“This uproarious middle grade call to action
has considerable kid appeal
and a timely message.
A strong addition to school and public library collections.”
— School Library Journal.

One of the most enjoyable aspects about writing Better Off Undead was that it was set in the not-so-distant future. That was a first for me, and a revelation. A simple fact that turned everything in the book into social commentary. And at the same time, I felt inspired to include everything but the kitchen sink into my creative blender: climate change, makeover shows, train bombs, pollution, GMOs, school testing, zombies and bats and bees and whatever else hit my radar.

RoboCop-1987-PosterI was also inspired by the faux-commercials and sly asides throughout the original 1987 “RoboCop” movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller. It was a movie that satirized popular culture in all sorts of astute and clever ways. To cite one example: Instead of Battleship, the popular family game is called Nuke ‘Em! Ha-ha. The movie does a terrific job skewering corporate greed and immorality. The corporate machine just wants to be a machine; it doesn’t care about sunsets or art or, you know, us. (It might serve us, but it won’t ever care.)

This is one of the powerful aspects of science fiction. The moment we begin to describe a future society, we automatically comment on the values and efficiencies of our current one. When characters sit on a bench and watch the evening sky for hologram advertisements (page 120, “Under a Hologram Sky,”) I’m saying something about the monetizing impulses of our world. And when I have young Dane watch a commercial on page 82 for “EarthFirst Gas Masks” — “Sleek and stylish and eighty percent more effective than ordinary surgical masks for protection against air pollution and other contagion!” — I’m taking articles I’ve read about pollution in China’s cities, with ordinary citizens walking around wearing surgical gas masks, and extending it into the future, broken world of my book. “That’s right, Vanna,” a gray-haired man chimes in. “These masks will keep you safe from airborne diseases like dengue fever and superflu and –“

And so on.

ScanThis sort of thing goes on throughout Better Off Undead. It’s a world gone wrong. How else explain a zombie, Adrian Lazarus, walking around in Nixon Middle School? (By the way, I did not realize until today that “RoboCop” included a reference to Lee Iacocca Elementary School. Nice, right? In the future our heroes will be corporate CEOs; “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko, and all that. What could possibly go wrong?)

When I created the evil corporation, K & K Corp, central to Adrian’s adventure, I naturally drew inspiration from the despicable Koch brothers. I tried to imagine how they might attempt to manipulate public opinion for personal profit and remembered a famous television commercial from the 1984 Presidential Election (I was fresh out of college and definitely paying attention). It was Ronald Reagan’s classic “It’s Morning Again in America” commercial that proved so effective for his campaign. Could have been titled, “It’s all good!”

reagan2_3

g19bq11068_640x480

hqdefault

Anyway, here’s the scene at the end of Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”:

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I clicked on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and a moving van pull into the driveway of a huge home, a teary-eyed grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: a logo on the side of a huge glass-and-steel building for K & K Corp.

NOTE: I have to interrupt here to point out that the paragraph above and immediately below is a fairly accurate description of the 1984 commercial. I watched it and wrote. And also, yes, of course, flags and jobs and weddings and boats and farmers and grandmothers are all good things. It’s just, you know, exponentially manipulative. And super white, by the way. Anway, back to our excerpt:

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words scrolled across the screen in block letters as he spoke:

BE AT PEACE.

THERE IS NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT.

ALL IS GOOD, ALL IS WELL.

THE BIRDS ARE SINGING.

IT IS MORNING IN AMERICA.

BE HAPPY, RELAX, SMILE.

WE ONLY CARE ABOUT YOUR HAPPINESS.

{FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400In smaller print, it read: THIS HAD BEEN A PAID ADVERTISEMENT BY K & K CORP.

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “Nothing. I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said while slicing into a giant, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry.

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.

 

For reference, here is the full text of the original commercial, which I encourage you to watch by clicking here:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you check out the book. 

Here’s the full review from Booklist . . .

star-512“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review

 

How There’s a Touch of “M.A.S.H.” in My Book, BETTER OFF UNDEAD

MASH_7171

My parents rarely took the whole family to movies. In fact, they rarely took themselves. Money was tight and with seven children covering a twelve-year span, a night at the movies was an expensive, unrealistic outing. However, I do recall a few family outings to the theater and can still name each movie: “The Immigrants” with Liv Ullman (I was too young and bored out of my mind), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman (politically incorrect but I love it to this day), “The Godfather,” “Frenzy” (Hitchcock!), and “M.A.S.H.” And that’s it, the sum total of all the films I saw with my parents in the theater.

In particular, Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” stuck with me — it felt wild and irreverant — and then the popular television series further reinforced its influence on me. Without consciously thinking of the source, I borrowed a technique from the movie for my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead.

108e9cb85fc051d3ceaa32a12f560cfc--first-friday-mad

I am thinking of the absurdist, omniscient P.A. announcements sprinkled throughout the film and, later, the series. What a brilliant device for satire and social comment. And not only that idea, but visually the way Altman fixed the camera on speaker. No reaction shots from beloved characters. We don’t even know the source of the voice who gives the announcements; it’s as if the words had fallen from the skies.

4d11ba6909abb6cbf30d1feb3053c302

And on and on it goes. Here’s a great source for announcements from the television series. Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some favorites.

0be53eca1b0d806f4a97174c77a0df3d--mash-tv-mash-

For my part, I believe young people experience this absurdity in a unique way each school day. Suddenly the voice blares on, interrupting whatever might be happening at any time during the day. I decided to feature the school principal in this manner. For example, the “Morning Announcements” chapter that begins on page 104:

On top of everything else, our principal was losing his mind. Maybe it was the job, I don’t know. There were days when our school felt like a madhouse — and the students weren’t the loony ones. Take today’s morning announcements for example, which began as usual with an ear-splitting buzz:

Kkccchh. “Is this on?” Kkccchh. Tap-tap, TAP-TAP. “Miss Shen? Is this thing” — whirr — “hey-ho, ouch! — What the . . . ? Good mooooorningggg, Nixon Middle School! This is your principal, Mr. Rouster!”

pa-speakersFrom my seat in the back corner of my homeroom class, I watched as everyone turned to the loudspeaker in listless silence.

The substitute teacher, Mrs. Perez, never looked up from her smartphone. Principal Rouster crowed. “All righty, then! I’ve got some good news, some bad news, and some really bad news. First, the good news! Our school recently received a large federal grant involving enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. I’m please to announce that there will be construction going on throughout the school. You may be inconvenienced by the occasional disruption.”

On cue, a series of loud noises — banging, chiseling, and the vibrating cacophony of a jackhammer — erupted out in the hallway. Next came a calamitous crash, a thud, and a muffled “Oops.”

Principal Rouster chattered on in a nasal voice, unruffled. “The bad news is that the construction will cause changes to our normal schedule. Until further notice, the cafeteria will be moved to the gymnasium. But P.E. will go on as scheduled. Just don’t confuse the meatballs with the dodgeballs! Heh-heh. The Choir Club will share a room with the Chess Club; they will both meet in the science lab. On Tuesday we’ll follow the Wednesday schedule, except for band members, who will adhere to their Thursday schedules — but only on Mondays. Lastly, the literacy center will be closed because of the asbestos problem recently brought to our attention by Janitor McConnell’s alarming rash. Get better soon, Mike!”

The girl next to me, Desiree Reynolds, muttered, “I wonder what the really bad news is.”

Principal Rouster continued, “The really bad news is that all bathroom privileges have been temporarily suspended. This should last only a few hours. In case of emergency, a temporary porta-potty has been set up in the mail hallway. I don’t have to tell you that with seven hundred students in the school, we’ll require a high level of cooperation and an almost Zen-like self-control of your bodily functions. Please avoid all liquids, and I strongly suggest that you tread lightly on today’s lunch special, the New Orleans gumbo. That stuff runs right through you.

“Thank you and happy learning!” 

I had originally intended to do more of this kind of thing throughout the book, but over time I felt it interrupted the pace of the story. I decided that a little bit would go a long way. That was my hope anyway! Here’s another quick bit, later in the book:

On Friday, the day of the “Halloween Fandango” — don’t look at me, I don’t name these things — Principal Rouster made another major announcement:

Kkkccchh. Kkkccchh. Tap-tap. TAP-TAP — SQUAAAWWWKKK. “Good afternoon, Nixon Middle School! Due to the recent discovery of toxic mold in various locations around the school, the Department of Health has temporarily shut down gymnasium B, our proposed setting for tonight’s Halloween Fandango! < snip > Not to worry! We’ve moved the dance to . . . THE PIT!”

Churlish screams, anguished cries, and wails of despair filled the room. “Not the pit, anything but the pit!” Desiree Reynolds moaned. 

“It smells like stale cheese!” groaned Arnie Chang.

“I got sick in the pit last year,” little Jessica Timmons confessed in her tiny voice, “and they still haven’t mopped it up.”

{FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400

 

Oh, one final note of appreciation. At the end of the film, in a truly meta moment, the PA announcement is used to break through the fourth wall. It closes with this message:

“Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”

mash

Making Connections (and Friends) with a Little Free Library!

static1.squarespace

Here’s a quick story:

It was love at first sight. I first heard about Little Free Libraries five or six years ago. There are so many things to like: the community building, the celebration of literacy, the connectivity, and the creativity & craftsmanship of the objects themselves.

When I started writing a new Jigsaw Jones book — my first in ten years, my 41st overall — I knew I wanted to celebrate this small but powerful idea. Take a book, leave a book. So I centered the mystery in The Case from Outer Space around a note left inside a book found in a Little Free Library.

This one of the illustrations from my book, drawn by R.W. Alley:

IMG_3170

I had to create the character who put up this particular Little Free Library. What should he or she be like? Well, wonderful, right? Giving, kind, literate, fun-loving, happy. I decided to model this character — a key witness in our story — after my friend, author Robin Pulver. (She writes the “Language Arts Library” series and the classic “Mrs. Toggle” books, which were also illustrated by R.W. Alley, so there was a nice symmetry to it: you can learn more about Robin here.)

urlI didn’t ask Robin’s permission, I decided to surprise her. Fingers crossed, sensing she’d get a kick out of it.

I enjoyed writing that scene when my imaginary detective, Jigsaw Jones, interviews the fictional “Mrs. Pulver.” It was very meta. Here’s the essence of it, from Chapter 4:

I did push-ups on the Pulvers’ doorbell. A smiling woman with short hair answered the door.

I told her that I was a detective.

“How thrilling,” she said.

“I am working on a case,” I explained. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

I showed her my card:

NEED A MYSTERY SOLVED?

Call Jigsaw Jones or Mila Yeh, Private Eyes!

Mrs. Pulver whistled. “Wowee zowee.”

“It’s a living,” I said.

She told me about the library. She said that she read about Little Free Libraries on the Internet. “I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she said. “So I asked Harold to build one.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Harold?”

“My husband,” she replied. “He’s retired. I like to give him little jobs.”

I asked, “Have you noticed anything . . . strange?”

“Oh, Harold has been strange for years,” she said, laughing.

“No, I mean about the library,” I said.

She clasped her hands. “Lots of folks come and go. Friends, neighbors, even people I’ve never seen before. It’s lovely, actually. The books connect us.”

Here’s a sadly dark photo of Robin and me from last week’s Rochester Children’s Book Festival.

IMG_3165

But wait, I have to tell you about one more cool connection.

Yesterday I received this beautiful book in the mail. A gift from the author herself. A stranger to me, but now a friend.

PAR52_Books_Cover_LittleFreeLibrary_web2

 

Margret Aldrich had discovered the Little Free Library reference in my book and was moved to send along a copy.

Once again I ask myself, How lucky am I?

Books really do connect us.

Margret included a kind inscription:

IMG_3168

Notes on Revising Jigsaw Jones, Confronting Sexism, and a Changing World

This piece was originally posted with the help of my friend Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer) at the Nerdy Book Club, a great site for teachers and librarians and book lovers of all sizes and shapes and backgrounds. On school visits, I’m often asked about revision. Actually, teachers often ask — the kids, not so much. Which pretty much underscores the issue. Revision is essential to all good writing, but most young writers just want to be done. They want to type those two glorious words, THE END. Maybe my little essay below will help pull the curtain back in an interesting way into one writer’s experience with revising books . . . that were already finished. It never ends, it never, ever ends.

 

Writers are not often given the opportunity to revise our work post-publication. We labor like the dickens throughout the writing process -– drafting, daydreaming, dithering -– until those last desperate hours of corrections. Then we let the book go scampering off into the wild. Not perfect, not ever perfect, but the best we could do at the time.

In the case of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I’ve enjoyed a unique experience. The books had gone out of print with my original publisher. And then, to my great delight, the good folks at Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) decided to bring the books back into print. The plan was to launch with a brand-new title, The Case from Outer Space, but also to bring back eight previously published titles that had been unavailable.

I was given the rare chance to go back and fix things. Update, revise, tweak, correct. It’s been an instructive experience. I’ll begin with a specific example. Early in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, Jigsaw is having a catch with Mila. The book read:

 

I threw the baseball in a high, long arc to Mila. She drifted back and caught it easily. Mila is a pretty good ballplayer. She is also my partner. We’re detectives.

 

One word troubled me. Pretty. Mila was a pretty good ballplayer. There was something condescending there, a hint of sexism. It doesn’t read “for a girl,” but it’s implied. So, working closely with assistant editor, Anna Poon, we decided to simply strike that word. Now it reads: Mila is a good ballplayer.

There, much better. Plain and simple, a stated fact. For the most part, that’s been the kind of revision I’ve done. Sure, the world has changed; there were issues with phones in several places. But overall I was relieved to see that the sentences didn’t bother me. I wasn’t constantly pulling out my hair, ashamed at sloppy constructions. I didn’t feel a need to rewrite the books in a major way.

I’d learned while writing the series to (mostly) avoid specific cultural references. But even so, I slipped up. So I needed to strike references to Britney Spears’ bellybutton (shaking head, even now), Blue’s Clues, baseball slugger Mike Piazza, and Barney the (annoying) Dinosaur. It would be more relatable for young readers if I shifted to generic descriptions, i.e., the hit song on the radio.

Wait: Do radios still exist? Do stereos? Better to have the music blast from the speakers and leave it at that.

The world keeps shifting, and it was fascinating to see that change through the perspective of books that were written only 10-15 years ago. In The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, Jigsaw makes “photocopies” of a flyer. “Camcorders whirred” in The Case of the Mummy Mystery. But not anymore, folks.

I didn’t find much in the way of terrible, shameful mistakes. Some issues crept into a book here and there. Nothing horrible –- and even defensible from the perspective that the book’s narrator, Jigsaw Jones, might himself be a little imperfect. He’s just a boy after all. I didn’t want to sterilize the books, but here was my chance to revisit these stories and think them through one more time.

There was a star athlete in The Case of the Smelly Sneaker (formerly titledThe Case of the Sneaker Sneak, a title I loathed and was eager to change), Lydia Zuckerman. Something a little off slipped into my descriptions of Lydia. Her nickname, for example, was “The Brown Street Bruiser.”

At one point, Jigsaw made this regrettable observation: “She’s not a girl. She’s a . . . a . . . terrorist in tights.”

Um, not cool, not now, and not really what I meant to say. Also there was this description:

 

Lydia Zuckerman was in fifth grade, but she already looked like an NFL linebacker. Lydia was tough – a stomping, sneering, snarling mass of muscles.

 

On another page, Lydia is described as “big and mean.”

Okay, I get it. I was trying to be lightly humorous. I played up the fear that Jigsaw and the other boys might have for a strong, powerful, imposing girl. But in retrospect I feel like I missed an opportunity to say something deeper, more meaningful. After all, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is a strong, tall, dedicated athlete. I didn’t want to reduce Lydia to a cartoon. So instead of “big and mean,” Jigsaw now describes her as “tall and talented.” And Lydia is now known as “The Brown Street Superstar.”

Nuance, mostly.

I feel better about it, glad that I had a chance to revise these eight books and share them again with a new generation of readers. And what is revision if not the chance to step back, to see again? And maybe, here and there, in small ways, to go back and try to make it better.

 

James Preller is the author of the acclaimed novels Six Innings, Bystander, The Fall, and The Courage Test and the Scary Tales series, all published by Feiwel and Friends. He has also written several picture books, but is perhaps best known for the Jigsaw Jones series. He travels to classrooms around the country and maintains a blog about writing and literacy. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his family.

Bill Watterson on Creativity, Inspiration, Playfulness, and Artistic Integrity

4f7dd2ab3558e43106243135c5ecb0b8

Today, thanks to the genius Brainpickings site, I discovered a wonderful commencement address by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comics.

I have so much respect for the integrity and wisdom of this artist. Here’s a small sample:

“If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

[…]

At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.

[…]

A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.”

Go ahead and click here. You might be inspired.

As for the comic above, I think Mr. Watterson is correct. And I am sure he’s writing from personal experience. There’s nothing like a deadline for a kick in the pants.

Students often ask about writer’s block. They seem fascinated by it. I tell them that my father was an insurance salesman with seven children. He never had insurance block. Nope. He just went to work.

In this profession, when you are stuck?

Make something up!

I discussed this with author Todd Strasser the other day at an event in Walkill, NY. He agreed and said [sic]: “No reader ever opens a book, points to page 112, and complains, ‘You just made this part up.'”

Because: of course.

It’s how we roll.

Thank you, Bill Watterson, for your great shining example.