Tag Archive for preller writing advice

Write Your Elsewhere

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: "As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end.” In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

Write your elsewhere.

That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it, but it was written by Colum McCann, one of the great writers of our time. I love his work.

McCann issued that phrase in a brief blog post titled “Don’t Write What You Know,”  words that had me nodding my head in emphatic agreement. It felt like a post that I could have written, though not nearly as well, for I’ve shared those same thoughts. The way I’ve often put it in the past was: Write what you don’t know. That is, the inverse of the time-tested trope: Write what you know (which is also good advice — sometimes!).

Here’s McCann:

Don’t write about what you know, write towards what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Adventure in the elsewhere. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the street corner, beyond your town, beyond your country even. A young writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t even know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is there to be created. In the process of creating it we find out how varied and complex we are. The world is so much more than one story. Don’t sit around thinking about yourself. That’s boring. Don’t be boring, please please please don’t be boring! In the end your navel contains only lint. The only true way to expand your world is to think about others. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. But once you go there you can be changed. The cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their limited nostalgia. Leave them be. Step into an otherness instead. Believe that your story is bigger than yourself. In the end we only write what we know, but if we write towards what we don’t know we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet aware of. Rage on. Write your elsewhere.

As writers, people who are basically just wanderers with words in white space, it’s important not to be limited in our imaginings. Sure, it’s fine to tell young writers, “Hey, you’ve been to Cape Cod? You can write about that!” or, say, “You play soccer? Great, center a story around a soccer game!” But it’s not necessary that we end there, limited to only the things we’ve experienced. To write only what we know. For what is writing, if not some bold new experience? Or some new exciting way of knowing?

Step into an otherness instead. 

Believe that your story is bigger than yourself.

CourageTestFrontCvrIn my upcoming middle-grade book, The Courage Test (September, 2016), a father and son travel from Minneapolis, MN, to Seaside, OR, linking their trip to the trail originally followed by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. However, I had a problem. I hadn’t been to most of those places, and I didn’t have the time or the budget to engage in that kind of direct research. Fortunately in today’s world there are incredible resources available to the (resourceful!) writer.

You don’t have to write what you know, as long as you make the effort to find out. To learn. To explore. To discover.

McCann again:

Adventure in your elsewhere.

A young writer is an explorer.

To site one example from my book, I knew that I wanted to get my characters on the water. Because, of course, that’s predominantly how Lewis & Clark traveled, and, hey, water. Ever since reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s “Odyssey,” I’ve been wise to the metaphoric possibilities of water: the passage of time, the collective unconscious, our watery beginnings in amniotic fluid, and so on. Water in literature is always a good thing. So after poking around in books and websites, looking at photos and blogs, I decided they would travel on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Judith’s Landing, backtracking east with the current.

To that end, I ordered a Boaters’ Guide to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The 64-page booklet was perfect for my intentions, rich in detail, and covered the exact passage that my fictional characters would travel. I imagined, appropriately, that they would possess a copy of their own. The booklet came with great maps and information about landmarks and hikes — places where my characters would walk, visit, see, and feel.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

 

From The Courage Test, page 85:

That night, we camp where the Corps of Discovery camped more than two hundred years ago. Meriwether Lewis and his men. Under the same starry skies, staring into the same fire, beside the same chalky cliffs.

I want to tell my father about the bald eagle Ollie and I saw. And the pronghorn. And about the hard, dangerous hike to the top of the Hole in the Wall trail. How it looked so tiny from the river, but was twice my size when we finally got up to it after some dicey scrambling. How Ollie had pointed out ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. Instead, I ate and yawned and climbed into my sleeping bag. Dog tired. My heart confused.

This is the spot where Ollie, Will, and his father camped.

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That’s one message I sometimes share with young writers when I visit schools. A faint echo of McCann. Write what you know, surely. But don’t feel constrained by that. Break those chains. Travel that blank white space, pen in hand. Dare to write what you don’t know.

A young writer is an explorer.

Go, seek, find out.

And by all means, yes, bring back news of your adventures.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #215: Advice to a Young Writer & the Idea of “Downshifting”

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I’m posting this one for two reasons. First, Megan’s sweet reply, so simple and direct, surprised and moved me. That last sentence. And secondly, because I am frequently asked for “advice” and often fail to give a satisfactory answer. In this case, I don’t fail quite so miserably as usual and it included a notion that applies to a great many young writers I’ve encountered over the years — the idea of downshifting. I don’t have time for many exchanges like this, but I do what I can.
 –
This begins, atypically, with my response. Megan, I’d guess, is 13 or 14, and she genuinely aspires to be a writer. This wasn’t a question of a student dutifully asking a question that her teacher would approve of. No, Megan wanted to send me her book and I was like, “Oh, please, don’t do that. Send me an excerpt.”
 
This is my reply, which she waited for patiently.
 –
Megan,
 
Greetings. I’m very impressed with your story, and I’m grateful for your persistence & patience.
 
I am wrestling with a deadline of my own, have a pile of unanswered letters, etc., so I hope you’ll understand that this will be brief, of necessity.
 
In general, I’m not a great advice-giver when it comes to writing. I’m not full of tips, largely because I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. The standard pieces of advice are still the best: Read widely, read often, & read with a writer’s eye; and write. You’ve got to write. Have a place where you can write, a crummy journal, anything. And try to write everyday. Don’t let all your best work be text messages.
 
The other thing that I really believe in is that you should trust your enthusiasms. If you are excited about a topic, an idea, a writer, a series of books, an activity — then pursue it. Don’t worry so much if it will be practical or publishable or realistic. Just try to find those things that get your heart racing. That make you happy. And trust that good things will come out of it.
follow-your-enthusiasm
 –
As for your story, you are filled with many interesting characters and ideas. When I read, I know there is a lively mind at work here. An interesting mind. That’s very good to see. So many good, descriptive details. At the same time, your work reflects an inexperienced writer. That makes sense, because it’s true. You are young and inexperienced and you have not yet honed your writing muscles.
 
The one idea I want to convey to you is “downshifting.” Slowing down. You have enough ideas in here for a 500-page story, so all of it feels rushed, like you are in a hurry to get to the next thing, then the next, then the next. You need to slow down, add a beat, let each scene, each moment, have it’s own moment (if you will).
 
I loved the initial sense of the magical in the air that begins the story. The girl in the woods. (I didn’t like that she was trudging, especially after I learned that she was sent to give an urgent message; to me, that’s not a trudging errand, that’s running, exhaustion, resting, eating, running, and so on). It’s lungs burning, muscles aching. Then as readers, we are caught up in that feeling. There’s a deadline, a rush, and something important is at stake. We are eager to know why.
 
The visit with Corporal Hillson’s needs to slow down. Take your time. I didn’t understand why Hillson was telling Vivian all this. Why did he trust her? What was she doing there? I didn’t completely get it. His news is “extremely secret,” yet he blabs it to her. Why? You need to set this up better.
 
Next, almost as suddenly, she is in a cavern. That’s cool. The two girls. Again, slow down. Stay in the moment more, linger over the details, set the scene.
 
Downshift.
downshifting
 
Good work, Megan. You have talent and, as I said before, a lively, inventive mind. You probably have more story here than you are fully capable of writing at this point in your life. Keep at it. Focus on individual scenes. Word by word, sentence by sentence. And also, write poems, write short stories, and keep writing.
 
You are already much more accomplished than I was at your age.
 
Good luck,
 
James Preller
 
 
Megan replied:
 
Dear Mr. Preller,
– 
Thank you for your support. You have no idea how much this means to me. I will edit my story so that I do that. Thank you for your time. I would give anything to write like you. 

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

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.

mood-writing

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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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