Tag Archive for Writing tips Preller

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writers



Kurt Vonnegut is definitely one of my writing heroes (I have quite a few, in fact, but he’s in that top rung for me). This list is really excellent, IMO.

I particularly love number 6, because it directly relates to the survival story — tentatively titled, Blood Mountain, that I’m currently writing. Those poor kids are going to have a really rough time.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #269: Gerard in the Philippines!




Dear Mr. James Preller,
I am Gerard _______, a Grade 11 student of Mapua University in the Philippines. I became fond of your book “Six Innings” because as a former student-athlete myself, I love sports and this book particularly caught my attention as one of my favorite sports is actually baseball. I got interested to playing baseball growing up as my father was once a baseball pitcher.
I would like to commend you for your amazing book and its success. Personally, every detail of the book was very well put together and I liked the fact that I can visualize every word of the book. You put a lot of thought into making this book, and that is a testament of how passionate you are about your career. I genuinely enjoyed reading every bit of your book.
paperback-cover-six-inningsApart from that, I know playing sports really does instill valuable lessons in life. As an author, where do you find the inspiration in writing “Six Innings?” I know every author has his or her inspiration. I would like to ask you this because I would try my luck in writing and telling my own stories, and garnering information from you would really help me.
You really did inspire me through your book. As I was reading your book, I keep getting flashbacks of my time as a former student-athlete, and looking back, I realized how much I have grown and I saw the things I was not able to before.
Keep inspiring your readers as we have, hopefully, inspired you as well. I would like to express my sincerest gratitude for inspiring me in all aspects of my life as a son, as a student, and as a person. I wish you all the best in your career. Thank you for taking the time reading my email. I will be looking forward to hearing from you.
Gerard _______
Manila, Philippines


Inspired by Gerard’s inquisitiveness, I replied at length . . .

Dear Gerard,

Thanks for your letter all the way from the Philippines (that’s one “l” and two “p’s” for the spelling-challenged, I tell myself). While I have previously enjoyed receiving letters from far-flung places, it never ceases to amaze me.
Some dude named Gerard in the Philippines read my book!
We connected across all the distance.
Aren’t books amazing? Such a solitary process — the writing of a book, as well as the reading of a book — and yet here we are, connected, a lit fuse.
You asked about my inspiration for Six Innings. 
Since you are obviously a thoughtful reader, a little older and — maybe? — a writer yourself, I thought I’d try to answer that with a little more detail than usual.
Inspirations are slippery things, very hard to pin down. Once you think you’ve got it — ah-ha! that’s why I wrote the book! — it squirts away like a bar of soap. There is rarely, for me, one single inspiration. It’s more of an accumulation of events, perceptions, feelings. At a certain point you commit to a path, start hacking away in the jungle, and there’s no turning back.
But let’s begin with my mother. She was a huge baseball fan when I was growing up. My mother loved the Brooklyn Dodgers when she was a girl in Queens, NY, and later transferred her allegiance to the NY Mets. At a certain point, I came along, her seventh (and best) child, and shared her love of the game. I now believe that my love of baseball is also an expression of my love for my mother, the two are deeply connected in my mind and heart.
I have vivid memories of playing Little League baseball when I was a small boy — I can tell you exactly what happened on baseball diamonds nearly 50 years ago, which is crazy. That stuff stayed with me. Forever, it seems. And that awareness informed me that it was also true for other kids. These games were important to them. It mattered. It was where they lived. Later as a father, I had the opportunity to coach and manage many teams and hundreds of games at every level (even adult). So I began to see the game from that perspective, too.
I also enjoy reading baseball books, and I’ve read quite a number over the years. In fact, I have a pretty good collection of baseball classics on my bookshelves. It felt inevitable that one day, I would give it a try. I wanted one of my books on that shelf.
Then I had my “magic ball” idea (which I ultimately abandoned, but nevermind!). I was watching a film by John Sayles, I can’t recall which one, and it featured a long tracking shot. It occurs to me that I might be making this all up, something I imagined, but hang with me, Gerard. The camera follows a man as he enters a crowded party, people coming and going. A woman walks by and — whoosh! — the camera shifts and follows her. She bumps into someone else and — whoosh! — the camera swerves and now follows that person. It was all fluid and organic, not accomplished with editing, but via one long shot with a camera on wheels. The camera simply followed the next person to come along.
And I thought, Could I do that with a baseball?
The pitcher holds the ball. I tell his story. The ball is thrown, the batter hits it, the center fielder races it down in the outfield. I tell his story. And so on. It could be that a foul ball goes into the stands — I can now tell that person’s story, the mother, the uncle, the friend. Just keep following the ball. My idea was to use the game to explore all these characters on the field. Through the initial writing process, and the editorial back-and-forth, we decided to hone tighter to the game itself. I had to cut more than 10,000 words of character sketches, background info.
It struck me that books move in two directions. Forward, or down. Forward means action, the plot moving along. Down is when we develop character, go deeper into things, stop time. When you write a book, that’s the tension — between forward or down. It’s very hard to do both at the same time (but possible in brief moments of revelatory action, where the action serves as a revelation of character). However, when a writer spends too much time exploring character, too much time digging, the plot stalls. There’s no forward motion! At the same time, if a book is only forward motion, a giant chase with nonstop action, then readers won’t connect with the characters.
Which is to say: My notion for the book ultimately failed in the first draft, in part, because I lost track of the forward motion (which was, of course, the game). Once I revised and got tighter to the game, I found there was still room to explore character; I just had to strike the proper balance. Every reader, of course, has his or her own preferences. Some people like a lot of plot, the page-turner; others want the depth of character, the closely observed scenes.
Thanks for your letter, Gerard. Dream big & swing for the fences!
James Preller

RULES FOR WRITING: “Go to the Thing Which Frightens You Most.”

I was in Chicago — which I believe is somewhere in Illinois — attending the annual ALA Conference. (Quick report: fun and inspiring.) Macmillan put together a dinner where authors had the opportunity to meet librarians from places near, far, and beyond.

It was like a speed dating scenario. And weird for me, because (despite the navel-gazing evidenced on this blog) my preference is NOT to sit down with a group of strangers and talk about myself. But it would be lame, in that situation, if the conversation didn’t shift over to me, me, ME, Me, mE, me!

So I cringed and tried to meet those expectations as gracefully as possible — while: 1) Eating; 2) Being “Interesting”; and 3) Staying true to myself.

So, um.

I got too talking about my new Scary Tales series with two women seated to my right. They asked about what I was writing now (always a good question to ask a writer) and I sighed and said, “Well, I’ve got two ideas. I started on one, it’s my first science fiction story and it scares me to death. I’ve never written anything like it before.” They nodded, smiled. I continued, “The other story idea is very solid — I can see it already — but it’s more familiar, more conventional.”

I told them that I was ready to put aside the sci-fi story for the relative safety of my more conventional tale. One story I knew I could write; the other was far less of a sure thing. Shouldn’t I write what I already knew I was good at?

And both of them were like, “Oh no! You have to write the one that scares you.” They had no doubt about it whatsoever. And as they were talking with me, these words came to me: GO TO THE THING WHICH FRIGHTENS YOU MOST.

That was the lesson of the day, what I learned as a writer. And maybe as a person in general (which most of us are).

Go to the thing that isn’t easiest, isn’t safest. Go to the job that has the greater challenge, and the greater risk (i.e., chance of failure). I knew that the science fiction story could be a massive failure, and possibly wrong for the series, whereas I was certain that the other story would be a good, solid, next step for the series.

The risk, I guess, was that I wouldn’t be meeting expectations. Of course, the trouble was this was a game played out inside my own skull with little bearing on reality. Who had any “expectations” at all? I mean, yes, a committee would not have said, “Now do a SCARY TALE set on a distant planet.” But this was my work, the thing that I’d be throwing out into the world. There was no committee, no guidelines to follow.

As I thought more about it, I understood that it was also a theme of the story itself. Go to the thing which frightens you most. I needed my central character, Levi, to do just that, too.

Know what you have to do, be frighened by it, and then do it anyway.

Be brave.

And, of course, that’s also the journey for the book’s potential readers. They seek a scary story, a fright, a perplexing twist.

So that’s what I learned in Chicago that evening. That thing which makes your pulse quicken? That sends your heart hammering in your chest? That makes you want to turn off the dark path?

That’s when you’ve got to keep walking, deeper into the woods.

If you really want to feel alive. If you want to grow.

Fan Mail Wednesday #121 (re: Teaching “Bystander,” and Some Thoughts on Bullying)

I’ve been in summer mode, the quiet season for teachers and librarians, and taking a break from my weekly Fan Mail Wednesday posts. But here’s a happy letter that might be useful to some of you out there, edited ever-so-slightly for privacy . . .

Hello, Mr. Preller.  I am a Library Media Specialist in Virginia.  Your book is on the Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards list and is a Battle of the Books selection. Because of that, I read it last spring.  I loved it so much I convinced my principal to buy 1200 copies for a One School, One Book unit.  She just authorized the purchase of books and has put me in charge of writing a unit for the whole school.  As a former English teacher I have written many novel study units, but this time it is for the WHOLE school.  To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement.  Any suggestions from you will be greatly appreciated.
Again, thanks for writing this wonderful novel which accurately portrays middle schoolers and the seriousness of bullying.

I replied . . .

Dear P,

I am always floored when I hear something like this, it’s such an honor. I appreciate your support for the book and, I’m sure, your commitment to the greater causes of bullying and social responsibility in your school community.

I confess that while it is great news to learn that my book will find its way into the hands of readers, there’s a nagging part of me that worries about assigned reading. I know, I know. Even if you believe in the importance of self-selected reading, as I do, there’s no getting around the value of assigned books and shared reading experiences. Still, it’s disconcerting to see that I’ve become what I once hated most — homework.

That said, let me see if I can help you a little bit. Be warned, I’m not a teacher and I don’t play one on television.

One of the most important ideas embedded in this book — an idea I learned along the way, and came to understand better only upon reflection — also happens to be nearly-impossible to convey to middle school students. It might even be advisable to not even try. But it’s worth saying to you, here. Research shows that bullying peaks at middle school. Why is that?

Well, for starters, let’s agree that one of the most difficult achievements in life is to become, simply, yourself. It seems easy, but it is not. To be content in your own skin. To not look at others for all your cues. To accept and trust who you are, following your own inner compass. And at no time in life is this tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to listen to or watch on television, how to act, where to sit, who to speak with, who to avoid. This is how we forge an identity, an awareness of self — and all of these details are determined, to varying degrees, by the pack.

These kids care so much about what their peers think, and yet part of becoming a true individual is casting off those concerns. It’s a challenge for ANYBODY to stand up against the crowd. For a middle schooler, it’s nearly impossible. On a deep level, in terms of self-identity, they are the crowd. Generally speaking, the individual is almost indistinct from the amorphous mob, as if swallowed by a great whale. They are only gradually becoming aware of, at ages 12-14, who they are. The group, the social context, provides the first hints toward that great journey to self-discovery. You see where you fit, where you don’t. You watch others to learn about yourself. And at a time when they define themselves only as part of the larger group, we ask these children to not worry about what anybody else thinks. “Who cares what anybody thinks!”

Well, they care. A lot.

So in my heart of hearts, I think the lasting answer to bullying is to become a genuine, authentic, free-thinking, responsible individual. People are good, I believe that, and the closer people are to their true selves, the better and more moral they become (see, for reference: The Bystander Effect). Be yourself, and in doing so you are far more likely to give others the freedom to be themselves. Responsibility is the ability to respond, to act according to the courage of your convictions.

I realize that none of this helps in your task. It’s all background.

There are many pieces of me in this book, and I’ve often blogged about “inside” aspects of Bystander on this site. Here’s a few that might be useful . . .

* The story of one boy who helped inspire this book, “When I Stood By and Did Nothing.

* Here’s a note about the inspiration for the ketchup in Chapter One. I’ve found that kids today don’t generally know about Columbine,  but for me it was an event — and an awareness — that changed everything. The stakes were raised forever.

* The Bystander Effect — this strikes me as such a crucial idea, really the key to overcoming the bystander, do-nothing mentality. There’s a bunch of videos on the web about this, touching upon “the diffusion of responsibility.”

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

* Martin Luther King, Jr and bullying. One quote in particular had to make it into the book.

* Dr. Milgram’s experiments and how they connect to bullying and the larger, more profound issues of individuality in the face of seeming consensus, the “authority” of the clan.

* Eric’s father, who struggled with schizophrenia, was modeled after my late brother, John.

* Creating the character of Griffin Connelly, the bad guy with a killer smile.

* How my hometown, Wantagh, Long Island, informed the book — and made it necessary to include Nixon’s dog.

* A rare interview with the author!

* A few possible talking points about Bystander.

* How one teacher’s offhand comment made it into the book.

Okay, well, sigh, I’m afraid that I didn’t help you very much. Too much philosophy, not enough practical info. But that’s your department. If you have any specific questions, please let me know and I’ll answer them. If you want to include a brief Q & A with the author in the Teaching Guide, let’s do it!

In the end, I’m an author and this is a story, a work of fiction. And as an author, I strive to “show, don’t tell.” I want to take readers on a journey, open up their minds, and hopefully inspire them to think about things for themselves. I don’t have the answers. I’m more like the Great Oz behind the curtain, a phony, a faker, but with enough wisdom to say to any reader, “There’s nothing I can give you. The answers are already inside you. They’ve been inside you all along.”

Thank you, again, for your kind note. I’ve felt from the beginning that this book, in the hands of a good parent or educator, could serve as a starting point for conversations. A talking book. I think the success of what you do will depend upon the interaction of students, their feedback and personal observations. As educators, it’s not what we pour into these kids, as if they were empty vessels, but how we help each child make connections to the outside world and draw that information out of themselves.

Good luck!


Fan Mail Wednesday #81 (Thursday Edition)

Woo-hoo, it’s Fan Mail Wednesday! Wait, no. Today is Thursday. It can’t be Fan Mail Wednesday. Can it? That’s impossible. No recurring feature on an author’s blog could possibly be so powerful that it transcends the laws of time and space!

But oh, yes, faithful readers. Witness the power and majesty of Fan Mail Wednesday. It doesn’t care what day it is . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name is Gizela. I like your Jigsaw Jones Mystery books. They are so awesome. I always want to solve the mystery before I read it. But it is so hard for me. Most of the mysteries are so interesting.

I just like it when the mystery is solved. Why do you write these books? What made you write these books? When did you first write your own book?

Why did you make these characters? Where did you get all these ideas? Why did you put a dog in these books? Why did you name the books Jigsaw Jones?

I like your Jigsaw Jones Mystery books because it has a problem and they solve it. I like the dog too. I like your books because they have funny mysteries. I hope to hear from you!


I replied:


Boy, I love your name. It’s a name I want to sing, not say. So much more melodious than, oh, Frank or Bert or even Prunella. Gizela, Gizela . . . GIZELA!

I love books. I love reading. Now maybe as a young kid, that wasn’t so much the case. I read, but I don’t remember totally loving it. I loved physical things like baseball and wrestling and eating cinnamon Pop-Tarts. But I was lucky. I had four older brothers, two older sisters, and most of them read books. It seems like such a minor detail, but I think it’s important: I SAW them reading! It looked like a reasonable activity, something a boy might do and enjoy. In fact, my brothers often pressed books into my hands, telling me I’d love them.

But the next question is . . . how did I cross over from reader to writer? It seems like a wild leap across a great distance. I guess it felt natural. I liked to draw. I filled notebooks with dice games and baseball statistics. That is: I happily spent time alone with a pencil or crayon in my hand. Writing became a natural extension of that physical activity. There’s only so much you can do when you’re alone with a piece of paper and a pencil.

How can I explain this? I love music. It’s a big part of my day, every day. Yet I can’t play an instrument. I never had a lesson. I’m in awe of people who can do it. Growing up, I came to understand — wrongly, of course — that OTHER, MORE TALENTED PEOPLE did that stuff. That was the message I got: Leave the music to the professionals. Step away from the tuba. But for some reason, when it came to books, I thought to myself, I can do that.

That’s an important sentence right there, Gizela, so let’s say it again:





And because I believed it, so it was true. If I could wish anything for you — or for my children, or my friends — it’s that they can feel the same way about things they care about. I want you to look at a beautiful painting, or the achievements of an athlete, a dancer, a doctor, whatever, and say to yourself, “I can do that.”

Because I really believe you can.


P.S. Oh, yes, the dog. As a kid, I never had one. No dog. I lived for years in a sorry state of doglessness. As an adult, dogs came into my life and I’ve (mostly) enjoyed sharing my house with them. When I make up stories, I sometimes give characters little gifts. Jigsaw has an awesome tree house — another thing I never had as a kid. How I wanted one! Because I like Jigsaw, I gave him the tree house I never had. I also gave him . . . a dog. It felt right.

This is our family dog, Daisy. She drives!