Tag Archive for writing process preller

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar


UPDATE: I am reposting this from six years back. This book — like every Jigsaw Jones title — subsequently went out of print. Hard to find. I’m told that dedicated fans have success on eBay and Craig’s List. The good news is that Macmillan has contracted to bring eight classic titles back into circulation, beginning this August. I’ve also written a brand new mystery, The Case from Outer Space. And I’d gladly write another if anyone asks. To date, there are no plans for 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.”


Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

When I started this blog, one of my guiding concepts was to pull back the curtain . . .

. . . .to show some of the inner workings of the writing process. It’s not all gazing into the luminous sky, folks; more often, you’re digging in the muck, shifting dirt around.

On Monday, I got a quick note from Holly, an editor who was working on Book #1, Home Sweet Horror, in my new SCARY TALES series (July, 2013). I think this offers a glimpse into the issues that demand a writer’s attention — even after the manuscript has been read, copy-edited, approved, and “final” (a word that must always appear in quotes, alas, until the book is printed).

That is, the illustrations finally arrive from the artist and there might be minor problems, tweaks, oddities, etc. So, thus . . .

Holly wrote:


We have been going over the second pass of Home Sweet Horror (which looks amazing!) and:

On pg. 28, the lead in to chapter 4, the artist has drawn a great picture featuring a creepy old-fashioned rotary phone (see attached for the rough image).  It’s really got the right tone and will look fabulous in the book, but we are afraid that it might throw readers off a little bit. Would it be possible for you to add a quick description of the creepy old phone to the chapter so that we can keep the image?

Holly’s right: cool illustration. I reviewed the text, which read:

An hour later, Kelly came down and planted herself on the living room couch. Her nose was in a book, a tender love story about killer zombies.

“Do you think there’s anything creepy about this house?” Liam asked.

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Creepy? Yeah, you.”

“Can a house be . . . alive?” Liam ventured. “Like with, I don’t know, a spirit or something?”

“Oh, please, just shoot me now,” Kelly groaned. She turned her attention back to the book.

The phone rang.

And rang.

“Get it,” Kelly snapped.

“I’m not your slave. You answer it,” Liam replied.

No one moved.

After the fifth ring, the machine picked up.

Fourteen minutes later, I wrote back to Holly with my suggestions (amended text in red):

Does this work for you? If length is issue, could cut out “Dad says” and “Kelly laughed” lines. I’m open about this kind of thing, whatever you need. Cuts, additions, etc.


“Do you think there’s anything creepy about this house?” Liam asked.

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Creepy? Yeah, you.”

Liam frowned. “You know what I mean.”

Kelly set down the book. “There’s lots of things that are creepy about this house, Liam. Everything is so old and musty and gross. Even the phone is like a million years old. A rotary phone? Really? What’s up with that?”

“Dad says it’s a fixer-upper,” Liam countered.

Kelly laughed scornfully. “Ha!”

“Can a house be . . .

NOTE: Now, of course, there’s the small issue of “the machine” picking up. When I wrote the book, I imagined a contemporary household, not rotary phones. So maybe that’s a new level of concerns. Or maybe, more than likely, we’ll decide that it’s perfectly fine and no biggie and we’re tired and let’s move forward. After doing 40 Jigsaw Jones books, also illustrated, I’m familiar with triage. In defense of the artist — the incredible Iacopo Bruno from Italy! — there’s a great tradition in horror to set stories in slightly olden times. By removing the contemporary sheen, you invite the timeless. So his instincts feel right to me.

NOTE #2: I’m tripping over my revision suggestions. Maybe change “Liam frowned . . .” line to “Come on, Kelly. You know what I mean.” [No attribution, but implied.] And also, change “Kelly laughed . . .” to “Ha!” Kelly laughed. Kelly scoffed?  [Drop the adverb, transpose the quote & attribution.] Gosh, all these little puzzlements and small worries. I’ll never get it right. Help, Holly!

We are publishing four books this year, working carefully, but also with pace. It’s fun to work this way, and it suits me. Part of that is the fast turn-around, the go-go-go, and the fine art of letting go. Because after a while, you’ve turned “the phone” into this Big Deal Thing, when all the reader wants to do is move forward without a glitch. In the end, that’s what we’re trying to do here: remove the glitch, anything that might slow the reader down.

We are focusing on the phone, briefly, so the focus won’t be on the phone, oddly.

Another random thought about “scary stories” and the various permutations: I’m conscious of writing within established cliches, variations on familiar themes, following a long and powerful tradition. You have to, I think, embrace the cliches while at the same time endeavor to punch something new into each story. For me, that’s usually character. Who is in the scary house. Who is being chased by wraiths. And so on. The relationships, the dialogue. Because I’m not sure I’ll ever write a sentence that’s as good as, “The doorknob slowly, slowly turned.” And it’s hard to top a cabin in the words. Or the idea of someone being watched, or worked on by unseen forces, or . . . you get the idea.

I’m loving these books, and I think kids are going to love them, too. I’m shooting for Big Entertainment. (And I don’t say that about everything I do.)

So. Much. Fun.

Thanks, Holly!

Fan Mail Wednesday #111 (Re: Book Titles)

Don’t you love the icon that I use for every Fan Mail Wednesday? A word of explanation for younger readers: It’s an illustration of something we used to call “a letter.” You see, long ago, we used to — and you’re not going to believe this — write words on actual paper (made from trees!) to our friends and relatives and business associates. Then we’d place the paper in a sealed envelope, called an ENVELOPE, and then . . .
A girl sent this one via the interwebs. I removed her name for privacy:
Hi, I was at the school that you were at today at Vail Farm 3/30.  I was wondering how you come up with titles because I’m a writer too. I’m writing a book that is about a girl who gets picked on a lot just like the book bystander. But just so you know I didn’’t steal it from you.  But any way I can’t come up with a title for it so that’’s all I want to know.
I replied:
Hey, X. Thanks for writing. You must have been one of those students with your hand raised when we ran out of time. Sorry I didn’t call on you.
Titles are a tricky business. I can’t say that I’m an expert. With books like Six Innings and Bystander, I had those titles very early on. In fact, writers will often plug in a “working title” for a book in progress. It’s not the final title, or at least doesn’t seem to be, it’s just something handy to call the untitled book. For Six Innings, my working title was . . . Six Innings. That was always the concept for the book from the beginning, very clear in my mind. So when it came time to officially name the book, I used the working title.
With Bystander, my first title idea was Predator. That’s because I began by focusing my research and note-taking on the bully character, Griffin Connelly. But after a short while, I became convinced that the real story was with the bystanders. In life, there are a few bullies and some victims, and then there’s the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, the bystanders. We are often silent, yet hold all the real power. I knew it should be the focus of my book, and the title. Of course, there are all sorts of bystanders. The floaters and the enablers, the watchers and the cheerers and the ones who simply walk away — all with our own roles to play in the schoolyard drama. Few of us are purely innocent.
Speaking of bullies, have you ever noticed that they almost always need an audience? They don’t bully unless there’s somebody to watch it, to cheer them on, to laugh. Fights are the same way. It’s interesting when you think about it, isn’t it? What would happen if there was no audience? Do bullies need bystanders in order to exist? Are we their oxygen?
Back to titles: In many cases, writers don’t have a title until the book is finished. Editors have told me not to worry about the title, just write the story, worry about the title later on. It can be hard, because you do need a good title. I wanted my title for Justin Fisher Declares War to be Justin Fisher Declares War on Fifth Grade, but that was vetoed due to length. I never felt that we got that title right.
When I begin a book, I often purchase a composition notebook. My working title for Justin was Talent Show. Maybe I should have stuck with that.
Here’s the first page from that notebook. I wrote it in the Bethlehem Library in Delmar. I had this idea of Justin defacing a poster in school and it’s the first scene I wrote, event though it doesn’t happen until Chapter Four of the book.
Often writers will go back over a story and see if there’s a word or phrase in the text that somehow stands out. You’ll see that a lot when you read books, the book’s title buried somewhere deep in the pages of the book. I’d recommend that strategy for you. Reread your story. Does a character say something that could work as a title? Is there a symbol in the book that somehow represents a character or an idea?
With Jigsaw Jones, my publisher wanted a title from me before I even wrote the book or, in some cases, knew what it was about. It drove me crazy.
The other strategy is to ask for help. That’s what I do. I’ll have a reader — my editor, almost always — read the manuscript and we’ll talk about titles together. Sometimes it takes another person who has some distance from the story to see what it’s really about. And isn’t that nice, when someone can give you the title?
Lastly, brainstorm. I’ve created long lists of potential titles. Then you can review them, whittle them down, and maybe share them with other people. Maybe even people who haven’t read your story. Which titles appeal to them? Is there a title that gets them curious? Nowadays this is called “crowd-sourcing,” when you simply ask a bunch of random people for their opinions.
Anyway, sorry, long letter. Good luck with your story. It’s always nice to meet a young author.