Archive for jimmy

Rules for Roadrunner: A Lesson for Series Writers from Chuck Jones

 

Anyone who walks into a bookstore can see that series publishing dominates the children’s book marketplace. More and more, publishers seek out characters or situations that can appear again and again in books. From Harry Potter to the Wimpy Kid, Percy Jackson to Merci Suarez, Goosebumps to The Hunger Games, Dog Man to Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, it is series, series, everywhere. 

In fact, it’s probably never been harder to publish a “stand alone” novel.

And while that is disappointing in many ways — the compensations of commerce elbowing idealism in the gut — to quote a phrase that I’ve come to loathe: It is what it is.

The thought process is obvious. If readers enjoy one book, why not sell them another just like it. Different, of course, but also the same. Delivering the same promise, the same essence. Over and over again. Ca-ching!

And it’s not all ugly. Young readers genuinely like visiting with familiar characters and dependable storylines. There’s a comfort to it. Pleasure and satisfaction. When that reluctant reader (finally!) finds a book that he enjoys, it is wonderful for a librarian or parent to say, “Look, there’s more where that came from!”

It’s how some kids become lifelong readers.  A good thing!

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tif

I happen to be a writer with some experience in series publishing. Most notably, there’s Jigsaw Jones, solving mysteries across 42 books. I’ve also embarked on three other series: “Scary Tales” (6 in all), “The Big Idea Gang” (3 total), and — coming soon! — “Exit 13” (just 2 so far, fingers & toes crossed for more). Each of those series are quite different, operating under specific guidelines.

Jigsaw Jones, for example, has an out-of-time quality. No one gets older. Nothing accumulates. Each book is entirely self-contained and complete. Whereas for “Scary Tales,” I followed “The Twilight Zone” model. Each story had new characters and unique settings. However, I borrowed TZ’s classic intro and outro format (building some familiarity into every different story). In the “Twilight Zone” television show, even the genre vacillates from episode to episode. While the stories diverged wildly, the promise of the series was consistent. Each story would deliver the essence of the “Twilight Zone” experience: strange, creepy, intellectual, clever, well-written and constructed. Currently, “Exit 13” presents new challenges. These stories build upon each other. What happens in Book 1 informs Book 2, and so on. And while each book should stand alone in satisfying a reader, nobody suggests that you start with Book 7 (fingers crossed).

         

I’ve recently been in (top secret!) discussions with an editor and my agent about how to extend a manuscript into a series. Which is curious in that I had originally thought I was writing one simple story; the push for series came from the editor.

So what’s the thought process like?

For me, I start with the book itself. What is it that is repeatable? What is the essence? What is the heart of its appeal? In this case, there’s a character. What happens to the character? What qualities does that character possess? And once I decide on what might be consistent from story to story — I also have to decide what can be (or maybe, must be) changed. The setting? Can I introduce new characters? Can the nature of the main character develop, grow, shift? Does each story have to hit on the same emotions (tenderness, silliness, excitement, fear)?

For Jigsaw Jones, for example, there is of course always a mystery, a case to be solved. He writes in his journal. There is at least one secret code to be solved. Mila often sings a familiar song with made-up lyrics. He almost always references a real or imagined book. Jigsaw usually provides the energy, the forward motion; Mila, the smarts and steadiness. Each book tends to go deeper on a different classmate from room 201. And so on.

I’ve been thinking about Chuck Jones, the brilliant creator of the “Roadrunner” cartoons. Famously, Jones and his writing team developed a list of 9 rules (elsewhere expanded to 11) that would help guide (and more importantly, limit) the creative thinking for each and every Roadrunner episode.

The two rules added at a later date:

10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.

I’ve found this list to be extremely helpful to me as I cast about for answers for this Next Series Idea. A distillation of essences. And a way to avoid distractions, misguided meanderings, dead ends. The first book is easy in that respect. The playing field is wide open. But by the second book, you’ve made some decisions that you are going to have live with for as long as the series continues. 

Maybe the thought process behind Chuck Jones’s list will be helpful to you, too. It sure hasn’t hurt the Roadrunner. 

 

Beep

Beep!

 

 

James Preller Reads from EXIT 13 — Share with Your Students!

 

Publication day: February 7th, 2023.

That’s soon!

And Cheap, too!

Only $7.99!

The Next Book, THE SPACE IN BETWEEN, comes out August, 2023!

5 Questions with Ann Braden, Author of “The Benefits of Being an Octopus”

I first met Ann Braden the same way as so many others, primarily through her debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An important book that gives face, and heart, and soul, to economically-disadvantaged children who have long been under-represented in children’s books. Ann is a former middle-school teacher and she clearly, deeply, knows that world and those young people. But there’s something else. Something even more significant. Ann has, I believe, a quality that we find in some of our best children’s writers: a generosity of spirit. Read her books and you’ll see what I mean. And so, Ann and I connected on Facebook. I wrote to see if she might possibly want to answer “5 Questions” for us. Happily, Ann said yes and so here we are. As always, keeping our interview down to only 5 questions was the real battle. Every night I kick myself and mutter, “Why didn’t I call it 6 questions??!! Arggggh! Dumb, dumb, dumb!”

 

 

 

1. There are two kinds of teachers in the world: those who “get” middle schoolers, and those who would rather not, thank you very much. You are a former middle school teacher, therefore I assume you have some insight into, and affection for, middle school children. What do you like about ‘em? 

I love that middle schoolers are just waking up to the world around them, and that when they recognize that something isn’t fair they want to DO something about it. I also love that they think they are opaque, but actually are usually transparent goldfish bowls of the basic human emotions of wanting to belong and doubting yourself.

2. Human goldfish bowls, I like that. As for me, I enjoy their plasticity, how they haven’t yet hardened into shape quite yet. Changeable, flexible, open. There’s still hope! Not many authors experience the great success that you enjoyed with your debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An overnight sensation! But hold on, it didn’t really happen overnight, did it? How much time — in dreams and effort — went into that first novel? Or was it really that easy? 

Yes, it was really that easy. 

JUST KIDDING!

So, the first manuscript I wrote got completely rejected by agents. So, I wrote a second one, which got lots of full requests, but then all ended up as rejections. So, I wrote a completely different manuscript (my first MG) and that was got me an agent! YAY!! And then, it was rejected by editors. And then I wrote two new manuscripts that I was really excited about (#4 and #5) and they went out on submission. Soon I was working on my SIXTH manuscript, convinced that at least ONE of the other manuscripts would sell by the time I was done with it, and so this time, I figured, I wouldn’t have to “sell” this manuscript. I’d already have an editor. This time I could just be honest.

And then both the 4th and 5th manuscripts were rejected, which meant the 6th manuscript was a lost cause, and I decided I never was going to get published and that there were probably better things I could do for this world than spending seven years writing things that no one else was ever going to read. So I quit writing.

And then after about 8 months, I started getting really grumpy, And I finally realized that even if no one was ever going to read what I wrote, even if I didn’t like the new story I was working on, even if it meant getting up at 5am…I still needed to write. Just for myself. Just to be able to start my days with the creative part of my brain churning.

And a few days later, I found out that a publisher had made an offer on that sixth manuscript. It’s jaw dropping, really, the way the universe can work. 

So, you’d think that would be the happy ending, right? 

Well…

Five months before the book, which now had an official title of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS was supposed to be published, I got a call from my agent. She told me to sit down. Naively, I thought it would be good news. But no. It turned out that my publisher had just fired their entire children’s division – my editor, my publicist, anyone who knew anything about children’s books – and it wasn’t clear if they were even going to still publish the book. 

That was a rough day.

But then, we thankfully found out that yes they would still publish it (it had just gone to ARCS), so that was a relief. But it was also clear that no one at my publishing house was going to do ANYTHING to get the word out about this book. I thought: maybe 100 people will read it – that would still be better than nothing. 

But then, when I got those ARCS into the hands of educators, magic started happening. I think it was partly that there are kids like Zoey in every school and partly that there just weren’t that many books yet that showed them as the heroes that they are, but the buzz started building over the next many months – entirely based on word-of-mouth among fabulous educators – and it just took off in amazing ways.

So, yes, basically an overnight success, if that one night is nine years (full of rejections and setbacks) long.

I lead an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books,” and I will be sure to share that story with the group. It will depress them all! So much work. Your new novel comes out in May, Opinions and Opossums. Are you only going to use “O” animals as major metaphors? Is there an Oxen in the book after this? An Ocelot? (My theory conveniently ignores  Flight of the Puffin. Anyway, none of this is a real question. I’ve only got 5 and I want to make them count.)

 

3. I mean to ask: Could you tell us about the point when Opinions and Opposums clicked for you? When all those loose ideas come together and you realized, wow, this is actually going to be a book.

No, it’s a pattern, see? Octopus, Puffin, Opossum, then Pangolin, Ostrich… No, actually I think of these books almost like a trilogy that will conclude with the Opossum, exploring the economic divide, political divides, and then religion -– but more importantly spelling out a secret hidden code of O, P, OP – which conveniently aligns with one of the themes of the Opossum book: OPOPinions, AKA Other People’s Opinions, and if you say that three times at midnight, while at a secret meeting with your neighborhood opossum, you’ll be able to unlock the…. 

Ahem, I mean, let me answer your real question. 

Oh rats, I thought we were going to get into some deep Wicca enchantments there for a minute. 

I was doing lots of school visits in the spring of 2019, and I also had a book under contract with my dream editor, Nancy Paulsen, but it was a book that did not exist yet. So, I tried not to panic (and instead bask in this dream come true!) and I took my notebook and set up four pages with the headings THEME, CHARACTERS, SETTING, and PLOT. And I decided that for two months I would try to write down one thing a day in any of those categories. For me, plot is always the hardest, but theme (which to me basically means: stuff I’m angry about that I want to explore) usually comes first. And I remember being at a gas station in Kentucky when I realized that three big themes (which I had thought would have to all go into different stories) could actually play off one another in the same story, and be far more authentic that way then they would have been on their own. That was when the story really started coming to life for me. The themes were: 1) questioning some of the patriarchal assumptions that have been baked into Christianity — while still finding a way towards faith, 2) how the death of my father when I was a baby shaped me in ways that were different than simply missing a parent, and 3) how quirky friendships (especially cross-gender ones) have the power to push back against all sorts of misguided social norms. That was when the story really started coming to life for me.

Contrary to published rumors, Ann Braden has no plans to feature an ocelot in her next book. We’ve tried begging, but nope. 

 

4. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a suburban town in Connecticut, Fairfield. Opinions and Opossums is loosely based on a fictionalized version of it actually. There were some wonderful things about it as a place to grow up (there were so many places I could bike to!) but I was also very ready to leave the conformity and the outsized emphasis placed on Other People’s Opinions (those OPOPinions!) as I got older. And of course, all of that worked its way into this book.

5. Now that you are a published author — a dream come true — and you are already kind of a big deal — what’s the best thing about actually being a published author? The paparazzi? Getting all the best tables in the fancy restaurants? The private charter flights to exotic destinations? Um, no? Then what’s so good about?

The two things that are totally a dream come true are:

1. Getting to work with my editor Nancy Paulsen. Getting to create something alongside a pure genius is one of the greatest joys life can offer.

2. Being able to connect with kids at a deep level of understanding without even having to say a word. As a teacher, you work so hard to convince students that you love them for who they are, but it’s always a complicated process and you never quite know if it’s getting across the way you want. But when you write a book, it’s like writing a love letter to kids (taking all the time it needs to make sure you’re communicating that love exactly how you want), and then you get to send it not just to the kids in your town, but to thousands and thousands of kids all over the country! If I was wishing for a superpower, that’s what I’d wish for. I’m still dumbstruck that this is what I get to do.

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel comes out in August!

Short Excerpt, EXIT 13: THE WHISPERING PINES — Pub Date 2/7/23!

 

 

What follows is a brief excerpt from my new book, EXIT 13: THE WHISPERING PINES (Scholastic, February 2023, grades 4-6). The McGinn family, including siblings Willow and Ash and Daisy (their goldendoodle), find themselves in a mysterious motel. The family is caught in a rift in time, trapped in place, but they don’t know that yet. The elevator pitch for this series was “Schitt’s Creek” meets “Stranger Things” — and our first story in the series will take Willow and Ash deep into the dark, dangerous, forbidding woods. In this scene, we’re early in the book, after a fire alarm rouses the guests. Illustrations by Kevin Keele. 

Kristoff, dressed in black lace-up boots and a dark trench coat, walked along the length of the hotel, stopping to speak briefly with each guest. They scratched their heads, yawned, headed back inside. At last, Kristoff came to the McGinns. He paused for the briefest of moments as he observed Mr. McGinn’s blazing pink boxers, knobby knees, pale shins. He glanced at Mrs. McGinn, her face covered in a mask of green moisturizer. Something flickered in his eyes. A private joke. “I’m awfully sorry,” he finally said. “There was a small kitchen fire –- nothing, really –- it’s embarrassing — and, well, there are safety protocols to follow. It’s safe to go inside. I’m so sorry for your inconvenience.”

Mr. and Mrs. McGinn were too tired to talk. Feet dragging, they shuffled back into their room. Ash paused at the doorway with Willow. He watched as Kristoff rounded the corner, headed toward the back of the building. Ash shuddered and felt cold all over.

“That’s him,” he whispered to Willow.

“What? The clerk?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen him before.”

“Well, duh, yeah, he’s the cutie who checked us in,” Willow said.
Ash frowned at his sister.

“Cutie? Him? He looks like a vampire!”

“Yeah, and that’s my type!” Willow protested. “The haunted, hunted kind.”

“You don’t have a type. You never even had a boyfriend,” Ash said.

“Did, too. Angel Villar, we had two beautiful weeks together.”

“That was third grade!”

“So?”

“So?! You broke up with him when he put jelly in your hair during a spelling quiz.”

Willow grinned and held up her hands. “What can I say? We were wild and crazy kids.”

“You used to complain that he farted all the time,” Ash recalled.

“Well, yeah, there was that –- the whole toxic gas problem.” Willow paused, thinking it over. “Maybe Angel was lactose intolerant?”

Ash shook his head. He grabbed Willow by the sleeve and pulled her inside the room. “Anyway, he was the guy I saw outside the window.”

“Angel? My farting boyfriend? What’s he doing here?”

Ash groaned.

“I’m kidding!” Willow said. “Lighten up, LB. What do you mean, ‘He was the guy’?”

Ash turned serious. “I recognized the way Kristoff walked, like he’s leaning into the wind. And the coat, the way it billowed behind him. He was with that creature with red eyes. I saw those two go into the woods together.”

“You didn’t tell me there was a guy,” Willow countered.

“I’m telling you now,” Ash replied.

“There was a guy and a creature with red eyes?”

“Yes! And the guy was Kristoff!” Ash said.

Willow eyed her brother thoughtfully. Was he just imaging things? Why didn’t he mention it before? “Okay, color me curious,” Willow said. “Let’s do it.”

“Do what?” Ash asked.

“Let’s follow my vampire hottie.”

 

IN STORES, FEBRUARY 7th! PRE-ORDER NOW FROM YOUR FAVORITE LOCAL, INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORE. IT REALLY HELPS!

A Paragraph from Rebecca Solnit’s ORWELL’S ROSES: “How Much He Recounted Enjoyment”

Hang with me here for a minute. Rebecca Solnit’s first sentence on page 24 from Orwell’s Roses is a doozy — it carries a lot of weight — and I was tempted to not include it here. A challenging task for a distracted blog scroller like yourself, and maybe not necessary to convey the main idea from this brief excerpt, but I decided to roll with it. Who am I to omit even one sentence from Solnit’s brilliant paragraph, now with freshly-drawn stars and exclamation points in the marginalia of my copy. I defer to her genius. 

Okay, here we go . . . 

 

Perhaps his relentless scrutiny of the monstrosities and underlying dangers in the present and the future defines him, but it’s also been used to characterize him as though he was what he saw, or that was all he looked at. I returned to his writing after the roses startled me, and there I found another Orwell whose other perspectives seem to counterbalance his cold eye on political monstrosity. One of the striking things was how much he recounted enjoyment, from many forms of the domestic comfort that might be called coziness to ribald postcards, the pleasures of nineteenth-century American children’s books, British writers like Dickens, “good bad books,” and a host of other things, and most of all animals, plants, flowers, natural landscapes, gardening, the countryside, pleasures that surface over and over again in his books all the way through Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s lyrical evocation of the Golden Country and its light, trees, meadows, birdsong, and sense of freedom and release. 

 

That’s it, that is all. The thought for the day. Amidst the ugliness and the horror — perhaps even because of it — Orwell consistently took pleasure in the beauty, the joys, that life continually offers us. He planted a rose garden when the world was on the verge of horrific warfare.