Archive for the writing process

Fan Mail Wednesday #276: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

 

I’ll transcribe this letter from Annabel in Massachusetts. The original was lightly written in pencil and my scanner wasn’t up to the task:

Dear James Preller,

My name is Annabel. I read The Courage Test. William is awesome.

One of the things I like is the adventure. The bear and the water rapids parts have a lot of adventure. In the book it said, “If she is making this display to terrify me, it’s working.” It shows William is scared and has encountered something dangerous. There will be a lot of action in that part of the story that’s interesting to read.

How long have you been an author and what’s your favorite type of book?

Sincerely,

Annabel

 

I replied:

 

Dear Annabel,

I’m so happy to receive a letter from a reader of The Courage Test. With a new book, I’m never sure if anyone will find it. So: yes, thank you and hooray.

I like the exciting parts, too. It’s those moments when you can almost feel, as a writer, the reader leaning in. One of these days I should try to write a book composed entirely of exciting parts, like those movies that are two-hour car chases. Actually, the thought of that exhausts me.

Ideally, I think we want our stories to have shape and pace, quiet moments, important conversations, laughter, insightful description –- and, sure, somebody almost drowning in the rapids. I think when my writing is at its best, all those elements are woven together.

Yesterday I wrote a dramatic scene for an upcoming book, Blood Mountain, that centers on a brother and sister who are lost in the wilderness for six suspenseful days. A lot happens in this book, so if you like exciting parts, you’ll have to check it out. In the scene I wrote yesterday, the boy, Carter, is alone, exhausted, near hypothermia, desperately hiking through a bog. Oscar Wilde has a great quote: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

And also, it’s helpful to try to come up with characters that readers care about –- and then do awful things to them. That’s an idea put forth by author Kurt Vonnegut in his famous “8 Rules for Writers.” You might like my newest book, Better Off Undead. It’s about a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian, who meets a girl who can see into the future, along with a beekeeper and a detective, and there’s evil billionaires, and, I promise you, exciting parts.

I published my first book in 1986. The last time the New York Mets made the World Series. And truthfully, I like all kinds of books –- even some of mine!

My best,

James Preller

Where James Bond Meets Jigsaw Jones

One of the pleasant things about writing a continuing series is that I get to revisit secondary characters. I first wrote about Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III in the 19th book in the series (as they were once numbered by Scholastic), The Case of the Golden Key. Reginald is the richest kid in town: he and Jigsaw do not immediately hit it off. After some opening tensions, they eventually become friends.

I brought Reginald back in another book, The Case of the Double-Trouble Detective. Again, I enjoyed bouncing these two opposites off each other. Jigsaw is a regular guy, a hardboiled 2nd-grade detective, whereas Reginald wears bowties and eats cucumber sandwiches. Jigsaw, again, helps Reg out of a jam. To repay that debt, Reginald becomes Jigsaw’s “go to” guy in The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery when he needs to borrow some advanced technology. 

 

Illustration by Jamie Smith from THE CASE OF THE SANTA CLAUS MYSTERY. Jamie contributed so much to this series, drawing the interior illustrations for approx. 30 titles. Thanks, my friend, forever in your debt!

In The Santa Claus Mystery, I first used Reginald to pay sly tribute to the classic “Q” character from the James Bond movies. An aside: I very much enjoyed how “Black Panther” updated Q in the character of Shuri, charismatically played by Letitia Wright. It’s a hoot to have that high-tech expert on hand to assist our hero with funky (and entertaining!) gadgets. The scene I wrote in Santa Claus so tickled my funny bone, I felt compelled to bring back a variation of it in the new book, The Case of the Hat Burglar, amazingly the 42nd title in the grand opus.

Let me give you the setup and a brief excerpt. In chapter 7, Jigsaw needs help. Someone has been stealing items from the school’s “Lost and Found.” Jigsaw and Mila visit Joey’s lab seeking assistance:

At the front curb, my brother Billy rolled down the driver’s side window. He called, “I’ll be back to pick you up in an hour, Worm!”

“Thanks for the ride,” I called back. “But don’t call me Worm!”

He zoomed away, leaving Mila and me at Reginald’s front door. I did a few push-ups on the doorbell. Gong-gong-gong.

Mila shivered. She blew clouds of cold air from her mouth.

“Reginald expects us,” I said. “I told him all about the case.”

The front door opened. “Jigsaw and Mila! Splendid, splendid!” Reginald ushered us inside. “It’s frightfully cold out there.”

“Yeah, frightfully,” I echoed.

I noticed that Reginald had on a pair of baby blue bunny slippers. The slippers looked toasty, but they didn’t match his outfit. He wore a sweater-vest over a white shirt and a yellow bow tie. Neat and tidy, as always.

I was glad I didn’t have holes in the toes of my socks.

We shed our winter clothes and kicked off our shoes. Those were the house rules: no shoes, sneakers, or boots. Reginald handed our things to a tall butler, Gus, who had appeared at his side.

“May I take your hat?” Gus asked.

“No, thanks, Gus,” I replied. “There’s too much of that going around already.”

He raised an eyebrow, confused.

“Hat burglars,” I explained. “It’s a thing now. I’d prefer to keep this one on my head, if you don’t mind. We’re kind of a team.”

Gus harrumphed and said, “Suit yourself.”

I harrumphed back.

“Reggie, your house is amazing!” Mila gushed. And she was right. It was amazing — if you liked things like indoor swimming pools and private game rooms and seventeen glistening bathrooms with gold faucets.

I thought it was a little much.

We followed Reginald down a long hallway.

A while back, Reginald had started his own “secret agent” business. It didn’t work out so well. He thought being a detective would be fun, a chance to play with fancy gadgets and gizmos. But Reginald learned that solving mysteries could be a rough business. It took hard work and brainpower. Reggie was a nice kid, but he was as tough as a silk pillow. He promised I could borrow his gadgets anytime.

Today, I needed him to keep that promise.

Reginald pushed open a door, then said over his shoulder to Mila, “Please come into my research room.”

I’d been here once before. The room looked like a laboratory. Various objects had been placed on marble countertops. “This is all your spy equipment?” Mila asked.

She picked up an old boot.

It was a mistake I’d once made myself. “Be careful, Mila,” I warned.

Sploinnng! A suction cup attached to a spring popped out of the sole.

“Whoa,” Mila said, jumping back in surprise.

“Suction-cup boots,” Reginald explained. “For walking on ceilings.”

“It really works?” Mila asked.

Reginald shrugged and admitted, “I’m afraid to find out.”

Mila picked up two plastic goldfish. “What are these?”

“Underwater walkie-talkies,” Reginald explained.

“Glub, glub,” I commented — for no reason at all.

“And this?” Mila pointed to a tray of cucumber sandwiches. “Let me guess. Is it some kind of secret listening device?”

“No, it’s a tray of cucumber sandwiches,” Reginald said. “For snack time.”

“Cucumber sandwiches, yum,” I groaned. It was the last thing in the world I’d want to eat. I was a peanut butter and jelly kind of guy. “Sadly, Reggie, we don’t have time for snacks. We’re here on business.”

Reginald perked up when I told him we needed a way to keep an eye on the Lost and Found.

“We can’t be there to watch it all the time,” Mila explained.

“Ah, I have just the thing.” Reginald walked across the room and picked up a guinea pig plush toy.

“A plush toy?” Mila said.

Reginald used a pinkie to push his glasses back up his nose. “It contains a motion-sensitive camera. The very latest technology,” he said. “Daddy got it on one of his business trips. Just point the nose to the area you wish to watch, and the camera automatically snaps a photo whenever anyone walks past.”

Mila examined it closely. “Perfect,” she announced. “And cute, too.”

“I can have the photos sent to you — to a cell phone, laptop, home computer, whatever you’d like,” Reginald offered. He handed me a headset. “If you’d like, we can communicate using this. Stereo sound, naturally.”

I shook his hand. “Reggie, you’re the cat’s meow.”

He smiled broadly. “My pleasure, Jones. I’m happy to help. But before you go, please take a moment to enjoy a delicious cucumber and cream cheese sandwich.”

He looked up at me through round, hopeful eyes.

I frowned at the tray of sandwiches.

Mila’s eyes twinkled and she gave me a secret nod. I knew what I had to do.

“Sure,” I said to my friend, Reginald Pinkerton Armitage III. “Who doesn’t love a cucumber sandwich?”

 

For those keeping score at home: The brand-new Hat Burglar will be published in Fall, 2019. Golden Key is currently out-of-print, but coming back revised and updated sometime in 2020. Double Trouble and Santa Claus are both out of print — but you never know! By 2020, there will be 14 titles available in bookstores, all published by Feiwel & Friends at Macmillan. Several titles will be offered on Scholastic’s SeeSaw Book Club this year.

Writing Tips from the Guys at Orange Country Choppers

Paul and Paul Jr. over at “Orange County Choppers” have had some fierce arguments over the years. But nothing gets these hot heads going quite like a debate about the writing process.

At least, according to this meme.

Paul Sr. seems to favor an instinctive approach to writing, along the lines of Jack Kerouac, distrustful of the rational mind’s tendency to over-polish and refine; he wants the full truth of the unconstructed soul to pour forth in all its messy glory. However, Paul Jr. believes that the very essence of writing is revising, that the first draft is only the raw material that needs to be worked, revisited, laboured over, buffed and shined.

Bizarrely, the argument takes a stunning twist at the end when a seemingly ambivalent Paul Sr. screams, “Kill your darlings!” which is clearly a call for cold, heartless revision. What’s up with that, Paul Sr.? No wonder Paul Jr. is always flinging down his cap in frustration. His father wants it both ways! But how much revision is too much? And where’s the line? Nobody knows at Orange County Choppers, that’s for damn sure. I’ll say this: they are passionate about good writing, and that’s a great place to start.

We don’t really have any answers here at James Preller Dot Com, either. We’re just making it up as we go. Fifty-seven years and counting.

David Bowie died when I was writing this book . . . so I had to get him in there somehow

For some reason, the mansion’s sound system

began blasting David Bowie

— “Ch-ch-changes” — at earsplitting volume.

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized

that Talal Mirwani was a Bowie fan.

But then again, isn’t everybody?

— BETTER OFF UNDEAD.

 

Music is important to many artists and writers. Talk to us and we’ll discuss what we were listening to during different projects, either for inspiration or, you know, because it happened to be the summer when that particular album dropped. It was in the air we breathed.

We hear the sounds — they jangle through our synapses — and leak into our work. Often we can look back on that artwork and see traces of those tunes in the words and images we used.

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. It was a death that got a huge response on public media, bigger, perhaps, than many of us might have imagined. It hit us hard. The Thin White Duke, gone. It was difficult to wrap our minds around it. We realized the extent to which he was a part of our lives. Always there. Now gone.

At that time I was finishing up my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead. Listening to Bowie during those weeks after his death — so many of us went through it all again, the blessed discography: “Aladdin Sane,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Low,” and on and on and on — conjuring memories, visions of our youth, past friendships, the whole shebang — one phrase caught my ear: 

Turn and face the strange.”

It struck me: That would be a cool title for a book. I scribbled out a large, dramatic type treatment. I even thought it would have been a cool title for the very book I was writing. But by that time, I had an approved title and maybe I was just being sentimental. It felt too late to change it now. Too many hurdles and hassles. Yet I wanted to get Bowie into the book somehow.

To set the scene, it’s at the climax when Adrian Lazerus confronts the evil-billionaire Bork brothers (loosely modeled after the Koch brothers) and learns their dark secret. A lot happens in that scene. A drone drifts outside the window . . . sparks start and the sprinkler system gets set off . . . alarms blare . . . a dramatic fight between Gia and a massive bodyguard . . . pure chaos. And, admittedly, a little over the top. Hopefully entertaining.

From pages 258-259:

Halpert called out instructions to the bodyguard over the deafening blare of alarm bells. “Carry them through the tunnels to the heliport. Move quickly! I’ll initiate the self-destruct sequence from the communication center.”

The sprinklers slowed to a steady drip. Zander rose groggily from the wet floor. I could see that his nose was broken. Bright red blood puddled at his feet, turning pink on the floor as it mixed with the water. “Let’s go,” I yelled, yanking him by the arm. I lifted up Dane to my face and kissed him. Gia advanced to the lead, and the four of us swept out of the room. 

For some reason, the mansion’s sound system began blasting David Bowie — “Ch-ch-changes” — at earsplitting volume. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that Talal Mirwani was a Bowie fan. But then again, isn’t everybody?

Turn and face the strange!”

“What happened back there?” Zander yelled as we splashed and slipped down the hallway. 

“It was Talal!” I yelled over the noise. 

And so it goes, on to the book’s big finish. 

I’m glad I squeezed Bowie in there. 

It’s the little things that make writers happy. And, of course, praise and royalty checks.

On a similar theme, I once started a Jigsaw Jones book: 

“I woke up. I got out of bed. I dragged a comb across my head.”

Nobody ever said a word to me about that, either.

New Series Coming in January, 2019

This year I’ve written three chapter books about these characters and look forward to the launch of the series in January, 2018. Essentially: four friends use their powers of persuasion to drive positive change in their school community, i.e., a new mascot, a buddy bench, a bee-friendly garden. Think globally, act locally. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. I feel good about it. Good stories, diverse cast of characters, humor and heart. Hopefully elementary teachers who feature persuasive writing in their classrooms will enjoy these books and use them as mentor texts. Grades 2-4, I think.