Tag Archive for James Preller’s writing process

Sneak Peak: Cover for SCARY TALES #5, “The One-Eyed Doll”

When I think of the five books I’ve written so far for the “Scary Tales” Series — currently working on #6 now — I sometimes consider their relative “fear factor.”

I have been open about my debt to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Many people mistakenly think of TZ as a horror series. It was not, almost never. The stories were strange and always came with a twist. I’d call them intellectually ticklish. What I’ve tried to do with ST is capture some of that strangeness while still delivering the goosebumps.

This upcoming one, The One-Eyed Doll (September 2014), might be the scariest, creepiest of all. I’d put Home Sweet Horror in second place in terms of traditionally “scary,” Good Night, Zombie in third, with Nightmareland fourth. The least scary, but possibly most surprising, more in the thriller mode, is I Scream, You Scream. Of course, we all react differently. Some folks are afraid of spiders, others jump on chairs at the sight of mice.

When I started this series, I had big ambitions. I imagined — this is true — a painter working on a large canvas. I told my editor, “I don’t know if people will really see what I have in mind until I’ve done 20 titles, a color here, a splash there, because I want this to cross genre, move the “Horror” into Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Realistic and even Historical Fiction. I am most eager to do some Sci-Fi with this series, because in space they can’t hear you scream. But that’ll have to wait for now.

Here’s the new cover. I am so grateful for the opportunity given to me by Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla to write these books. Don’t they look great? Aren’t I lucky? And what do you think of Iacopo Bruno’s latest cover? I love it!

Advice for Children’s Book Writers

I published my first children’s book in 1986, back when the Mets won their last World Series. So from time to time, perfect strangers will assume that I know my way around the block. They ask for directions, “Do you have any advice for writers?”

It’s a question that’s always stumped me. I don’t feel like Moses coming down from the mountaintop, tablets in hand –- it’s not a role that suits me — and most of the things I have to say are obvious and have already been said. To wit: reading helps, and writing is also essential.

(It is amazing to me, by the way, how many people want to be authors before they become writers.)

Upon reflection, I can point to one practical activity that’s been absolutely critical to my work as a children’s author: I spend time in classrooms. Not as a visiting author, but as an observer. I sit in the back, out of the spotlight, and watch.

So that’s my advice. Contact a local school, explain yourself, try to find a teacher who would be willing to allow you into the classroom. You might find some resistance, but I’ve discovered that in every school there’s going to be a teacher who loves books, and writers, and believes in an open classroom. Most folks are very happy to share their world if you approach them in the right way.

Even if your book is not set within five miles of a classroom, it’s a world worth knowing –- because that’s where kids live, six hours a day, five days a week, ten months of the year.

In the best arrangements, I’ve found teachers who have let me come and go as I pleased. Maybe I won’t show up for three weeks, maybe I’ll come and stay for half an hour, or half a day. I am always respectful that I am in their domain, and aim for invisibility. In short order, the students forget that I am present –- and busily get on with the business of being completely themselves. Children in the wild. Which is exactly what I’m after.

Speaking of that, I’ve also learned that children are more themselves outside of the classroom. It’s beneficial to spend time in the cafeteria, the school bus, or outside during recess. I’ve set many, many scenes out on the playground.

For me, I usually begin with a blank notebook -– figuratively and literally. I’m not looking for anything particular, beyond what’s real for these kids. That’s what writing for children comes down to, I think. You have to know their world.

In recent years, I’ve hung out a bit in fifth-grade classrooms. I noticed the way one girl –- frowning and alone — set herself apart during P.E. There was a red circle on the floor and the teacher asked the kids to sit inside it. Everyone did except for this one girl, who sat down outside it, the tip of her foot just touching the line. I’ve seen the way a teacher’s eyes rolled in her head when, in the middle of a lesson, a boy stood up to sharpen his pencils: Whirrrr, whirrr, whirrrr. I’ve learned how kids are disciplined during recess, where in one school they were forced to stand by “the wall.” The punishment: watching everyone else run and play. All of those observations informed my book, Along Came Spider.  Currently I’m trying to get my foot into the door of a particular Middle School that’s not in my local community. I want something different, with a more diverse population. How is it going to help my next book? No idea. But at the very least, I know it will help get those heavy, dull gears in my head rolling again.

Mostly, it’s been a accumulation of details, little truths, seeds. And what happens for me –- what always happens –- is that I begin to see the possibilities for story. I get inspired. And my blank notebook fills with words.

Entenmann’s & Dad: Part 1, from memory to realistic fiction

Though sudden, it didn’t feel traumatic when my father died a few years back. He was in his 80’s and, well, it seemed about right. He went the way he wanted to go, puttering around in the yard. Then gone. I had the honor of giving the eulogy.

I find that I miss him more than I expected. Or, no, that’s not quite it. I find that I miss him more, now, and that’s not what I expected. I figured that the pain, or loss, would lesson over time. I’d get used to it. Dad’s gone. Okay.

And it is okay — but I keep thinking about him, remembering things, expressions he used, his odd habits. The memories have gotten sharper, more frequent. I do what I can to keep them coming. And I cling to them.

Growing up, my mother did not drive. Unusual, yes, but I simply saw her as a rare lady who did not drive a car. The roads were safer, I was sure. So my father always did the grocery shopping. And he did it with flair; he had a sweet tooth and made poor nutritional choices, week after week, year after year. Soda, peanut butter cups, sugary cereals!

Because of that, I can’t wheel past a supermarket display of Entenmann’s breakfast cakes without thinking of him. Dad was a sucker for Entenmann’s. I guess I inherited my father’s sweet tooth.

I submit to you: the raspberry danish . . .

. . . as constructed by the friendly folks at Entenmann’s.

These days, my wife Lisa is all about local produce, organic this, free range that, healthy choices, blah blah blah. I get it. She’s smart, she’s good to us, she’s doing the right thing.

Infrequently, I do the shopping. The way these things work, of course, is that I’ve become my father. I’m dad pushing the cart. I eye that Entenmann’s display and ask myself, WWDD? What Would Dad Do? So I toss that raspberry danish into the cart and roll on, pleased, full of good cheer. It drives Lisa a little crazy, how I undermine her best efforts. The kids don’t seem to mind. Mostly, it’s just a dance we do. When dad goes shopping, everybody knows he’s going to come home with a couple of things mom would never buy. It’s not really about Lisa, or me, or even the kids. It’s about my father, and keeping some things — even the silly stuff that seems to have no meaning at all — alive in our hearts and our kitchens and even our books.

And honestly, the danish is delicious.


Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar

As part of a continuing (read: sporadic) series of posts, I take a look back at old Jigsaw Jones titles with the intention of providing my Nation of Readers with more “extra juicy” background info.

If you are like me, you might gag at the thought of yet another writer describing his “creative process.” There is something oh-so-wearying about it. The phrase, “Don’t be a gasbag,” leaps to mind. But let’s see if I can pull this off without too much self-aggrandizement. The simple truth is that I am proud of this series and I sometimes (often?) wonder how much longer they’ll be around. I see this blog as document, as archive.

Today’s title is seasonally appropriate, Jigsaw Jones #29: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. It begins with Jigsaw chatting with two of his brothers, Daniel and Nick, as they prepare for a family ski vacation.

Some background: My father was a veteran of World War II, who returned home, got married, went to college on the G.I. Bill — a great investment by the Federal Government, by the way — and looked with my mother for a nice place to settle down and raise a family. Suburbia, preferably. He found a newly-built home in Wantagh, Long Island, designed after the Levittown model (for a fascinating history on that, click here). They bought a three-bedroom house for somewhere along the lines of $12,500.

One problem: My parents kept having children. Seven in all. It got crowded. At one point when I was still quite young, my folks slept in the back bedroom, my two sisters (Barbara and Jean) shared a small room, three boys had the front room (John, Al, me), and my father turned the garage into a bedroom for the oldest boys (Neal and Bill). I have strong memories of those early childhood days, sharing that crowded room with two big and somewhat mysterious brothers.

Below, here’s my whole family except for Mom, 1967. We always dressed that way! I shared a bedroom with the two goons on the right — don’t let the ties fool you.

The dynamic in the book’s first chapter, with two older brothers schooling Jigsaw, springs directly from my sense of those times.

They are teaching Jigsaw how to talk cool, in the snowboarder’s hipster jargon:

“Let us quiz you, Jigsaw,” Nick said. “What do you call someone if you don’t know their name?”

I thought for a moment. “Dude,” I answered.

“Excellent!” Nick cheered. “What’s a face-plant?”

“It’s when you fall into the snow face-first.”

“Awesome, Jigsaw,” Daniel said. “Totally gnarly!”

“Gnarly?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It means very, very cool,” Nick explained. “Do you smell me?”

I sniffed, confused. “What?”

“Do you smell me?” Nick repeated. “It means, do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” I groaned.

In the next chapter, Jigsaw gets to try out his new language skills on Mila Yeh, his partner and best friend:

“I’m jealous,” Mila complained. “I wish I were going  on a ski trip.”

“Snowboarding,” I corrected her.

“It sounds hard,” Mila said. “I hear that beginners fall down a lot.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I think it will be sick.”

“Sick?” Mila asked. “Who’s sick?”

“Not who,” I said. “It. Snowboarding will be sick.”

Mila frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s the opposite of wack,” I explained.

Okaaay,” Mila murmured.

“Do you smell me?” I asked.

Mila sniffed. “Well, now that you mention it, you do smell a little ripe.”

Don’t they have a nice friendship? Anyway, some random things:

* I loved the setup for the book, with Jigsaw away from Mila for the first time. It gave the book a different shape — and put Jigsaw in a tough situation. After all, this was #29 in the series, so I was eager to find new ways to keep it fresh. I know that some successful series, like The Magic Tree House, tend to follow a more rigid formula. And I understand the reasons why that’s appealing and reassuring for young readers. But it just wasn’t me. For better and for worse, I kept trying to mix things up.

* Mila mentions to Jigsaw that she’s practicing for a piano recital. Her song will be “The Maple Leaf Rag.” This comes from my son, Gavin, who also played that song in a recital.

* Grams and Billy are left behind to “mind the fort.” This expression, used by Mr. Jones, was something my father commonly said. I love his old verbal habits, the phrases he often used, and I try to keep them alive as best as I can — more than ever now that he’s gone. It’s a way of keeping that connection alive. I hear those phrases and think of Dad, all the more so when his words come out of my mouth.

* I once edited a book on snowboarding, written by Joe Layden. I learned a lot about the sport in the process, so it was comfortable territory for me to explore in the context of a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

In my story, a star snowboarder named Lance Mashman (love that name!) is at the lodge for an upcoming exhibition. However, someone steals his lucky bandanna — and with it, his confidence. While working on No Limits, I was impressed by many of the top female snowboarders, such as Shannon Dunn and Victoria Jealouse. They had a vitality and strength that inspired me, qualities I love to see in my own daughter. Also, they conveyed a refreshing take on competition, much different than you normally hear in the context of traditional athletics. So I invented the character of Tara Gianopolis, a rival to Lance, and a very cool young woman:

Illustration by Jamie Smith — crudely scanned.

“But you two compete against each other,” I said. “You are enemies . . . .”

Tara shook her head. “Man, you don’t know much about snowboarders, do you? This isn’t like football or basketball. We’re athletes, but we’re just trying to be the best we can be. It’s about nailing a backside rodeo or pulling off a perfect McTwist. It’s not about winning medals or beating people. It’s about freedom and creativity.”

“So you don’t care if you win?” I asked.

“I care, I guess,” Tara said with a shrug. “But as long as I ride well, I’m okay with whatever happens.”

* One of the suspects turns out to be Lance’s manager, Bubba Barbo, named in honor of my former editor, Maria Barbo. Once again, that’s a great aspect of writing mysteries. The genre forces the detective out into the world, this moral compass encountering life, making observations, going places, meeting new people all the time. As a series writer, that holds tremendous appeal — new characters in every book. Here’s a snippet from a conversation between Jigsaw and Bubba:

“It sounds like you think Lance is annoying,” I commented.

Bubba growled. “I don’t think he’s annoying. Lance is annoying. He’s always late. He drives me up a wall and across the ceiling.”

“You don’t like him?” I asked.

Bubba made a face. “Whaddaya, kidding? I love the kid,” he said. “Lance has talent. He’s a genius on a snowboard. A great athlete. And besides that, Lance has heart. He’s good people. You know what I’m saying?”

Yes, I knew what Bubba was saying. “I heard that he fired you this morning,” I said.

Bubba stepped back, surprised. Then he laughed out loud. “Lance fires me every week and twice on Sunday,” Bubba claimed. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re a team.”

For fun, here’s a clip of Victoria Jealouse (and others) in action:

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:

Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog

Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

Jigsaw Jones #28: The Case of the Food Fight

Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Here’s another in a series of “inside stories” about my Jigsaw Jones books, with the idea that it might be interesting and/or useful to teachers and students engaged in the writing process. Hopefully I’ll work my way through all the titles eventually, but don’t hold your breath. For similar posts, click here, or here, or here.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

I’m not great at saving things; I’m more of a chucker than a keeper. But before writing this post, I pulled out my folder for this book, Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow. In it, I found a mess of index cards with words scribbled on them. Brief, typed passages had been taped to most cards (see below).

As I recall, it was an experiment in plotting, inspired by a method employed by a famous film director (forget who). I had this vision of all these color-coded index cards thumb-tacked to the wall, helping me see the flow of story. Some examples:


Scene: Jigsaw talks w/ X about Solofsky, who is always a suspect.

“He’s a real stone in my shoe.”


“It’s like a pain in the neck. Only lower.”




Tough questions.

What If —

Who profits from this, and how?



Mrs. Rigby on sidewalk. With broom. Witch-like. Scary.

Gives credence to magic scarecrow theory.

Does she say something to support this notion?

This goes back to my haberdashery comment from the other day. Like many writers, I begin with scraps and remnants that occur to me in the early stages of brainstorming — snatches of dialogue, an idea for setting, a key moment for a character — and later try to stitch them all together. In the process, a lot of fabric get pushed aside, swept into a heap, thrown away. In this case, the idea on CARD #3 was never used.

An early draft of the book begins with Jigsaw opining:

Don’t get me wrong.

I like leaves. But I like ’em when they’re hanging around. Not when they’re falling to the ground.

Sure, it’s not their fault. You can’t blame a leaf for being a leaf. It’s not like they want to dry up and die. So I blamed my father instead. He’s the one with the big ideas. Every year he makes us rake the yard . . . .

By the final draft, I deleted that preamble and began the book:

Every fall my dad makes us rake the yard, front and back. He calls it “The Big Fall Cleanup.” I call it something else.


There’s a strong Beatles element to this story. At one point, Jigsaw has to venture out alone for a dusky, dangerous meeting:

I walked down Abbey Road. The evening chill nibbled on my ears like a pet parakeet. I turned right onto Penny Lane.

The other Beatles connection is the old, lonely widow who lives in the spooky house, “the Rigby place.” If she keeps her face in a jar by the door, I never mentioned it. But I did think of my own grandmother when I described her:

There was nothing remarkable about Mrs. Eleanor Rigby. There were probably ladies like her all over town. She lived alone in a big old house. She had white hair. She wore a pink sweater with large white buttons. Her right arm, I noticed, trembled nervously.

And she smelled of butterscotch.

What else?

* I usually reference a real book in these stories, and in this one it’s Owls In the Family by Farley Mowat.

* There’s a moment when Kim Lewis, clearly upset over losing a necklace, hires Jigsaw. I like the way he responds internally, when his thoughts speak to the heart of detective work.

I’d seen the same look on other clients. Kim was counting on me. That’s the way it is when you’re a detective. You’re the guy who is supposed to make everything right.

And for a dollar a day, you do the best you can.

* The book features a Double Backward code in a note Jigsaw sends to Mila: EM RETFA DESAHC DNA EVILA EMAC WORCERACS A YRROS.

* People ask me to name my favorite books, and I’ll often reply that I have favorite “moments” in my books, chapters that I like, passages. Here’s one sly bit of humor, with a brief description that I think deepens the mood. While searching for clues, Mila and Jigsaw inspect the scarecrow in front of the Rigby place:

Mila slapped her forehead and exclaimed, “How could I be so dumb!” She reached behind the scarecrow and fumbled with the shirt collar. “My father’s a neat freak,” Mila jabbered. “He organizes everything. He even writes my name in the back of all my clothes.”

She smiled triumphantly. “Look,” she said.

I craned my neck to read the label. “We’re looking for a kid named Eddie Bauer,” I said.

“That’s the clothing label!” Mila said. “Read the other name!”

I read the name that was printed in black marker: BUZZY LENNON.

I looked up at the trees. There were hardly any leaves left. The sky was crisp and bright. Halloween was next week, then Thanksgiving, then the frozen days and nights of winter. I turned to the front door of the sad, old, silent house. “Let’s see if the doorbell works,” I said.

The door slowly opened with an eerie squeak. Mrs. Rigby’s small, red-rimmed eyes blinked in the sun.

“Yes, what is it?” she asked.

* Mrs. Rigby’s name was originally McCartney, to complement the character of Buzzy Lennon, but that changed along the way. Do young readers notice such things? Do they care? Probably not. But I like it, these little homages, and figure a few parents might enjoy them, too.

Alas, Haunted Scarecrow is yet another Jigsaw Jones title that appears unavailable in trade. On sad days, when rain streaks the windows, it doesn’t feel like I’m promoting these books — it’s more like I’m giving them a proper burial. The good news is — and there’s always good news — you can contact Scholastic Book Clubs at a toll-free number, 1-800-724-6527, or go to this website for more information. I hear they are receptive to customer’s requests, and will try to do everything possible to be helpful.