Archive for Fan Mail

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #312: Follow-Up Questions After a Zoom Visit

Ye Olde Fan Mail Wednesday has been quiet of late for an assortment of reasons, including summer — all exaggerated by Covid. This past week I thoroughly enjoyed a  Zoom visit with 6th-graders who all read Bystander over the summer. The class was impressive, prepared, and focused. A pleasure all around. At the end of the visit, we still hadn’t gotten to all the questions. I agreed to answer the remaining questions via email. 

Here are the questions . . .

Good morning! I hope you had a great weekend. Here are some follow up questions from my students. Thank you again!

1. After Upstander, will you consider making a trequal?
2. Do you see yourself in any of the characters and why?

3. Is there anything you would want to change about the book? 

4. Do any of the characters/events relate to an event/thing that happened to you/others.
-aa
5. Do you get unmotivated when writing books? If so, how do you get motivated again.? 
6. When Griffin and David were talking in the book, were they able to connect because of any similar or shared experiences?
Thank you so much.
Alex

I replied . . .

I want to begin by thanking you for that Zoom visit the other day. I don’t often get the opportunity to do a deep dive on my books, and it’s a pleasure to talk thoughtfully about the art & craft & intentions that go into a work of fiction. 
We ran out of time and you still had a few questions. Let’s do this.
Would I consider writing another sequel to Bystander? Yes, if the market was there —- meaning if my publisher believed it was worth putting out, i.e., that they’d make money doing so. With Upstander, I began by thinking of it not as a “longer” story, but as a “larger” one. A bigger canvas. Everyone has stories. By focusing on Mary’s story, it gave me a glimpse into how to enlarge the canvas even further to accommodate future narratives. If there’s another book in the world of this middle school, I think it should be about Griffin. Honestly, I think Upstander has to sell enough to encourage my publisher, Macmillan, to keep going with it. I don’t control that stuff, I can only put it out into the universe and hope that readers will find my books in a crowded, cluttered world. 
Do I see myself in any of the characters? Well, yeah, sure. The writer Eudora Welty had a good line about this. She said, “In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves.; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about —- these become our characters and go to make our plots.” I really couldn’t say it better than that. There’s a part of me in every character, each one grew out of me. But as I’ve developed as a writer, across many years, I’ve learned to give those characters the space to be Not-Me, Not-Jimmy, and become their own fictional selves.
Would I like to change anything about the book? No, not really. Which is not to suggest that I think it’s flawless. Far from it. But I’ve learned to let it go, allow it to exist as it exists, and move forward. I don’t linger and look back too often. I did like how with Upstander I was able to add a new wrinkle to the ending, Eric’s wish for his father in the stands. While his exact wish doesn’t come true (at least so far, in the written record), now there is at least someone there for him, cheering. It pleases me when the two books “talk” to each other.
Do events/characters relate to specific events in my life? Yes and no. I mean, yes, of course, it all grows from my life experiences. For example: I was once mugged in NYC and when the thieves handed back my wallet —- sans money, of course —- I actually said, “Thank you.” What a well-mannered dope! I took that emotion and gave it to Eric on the basketball court, when Griffin returned his ball. But, again, this is important: readers seem to want to be able to trace these direct lines from real life to fiction. But I think when you are fully successful with a fictional story, those sources become obscured, more hidden, the lines disappear, and the characters operate fully in their own fictional world. 
Do I get unmotivated? Oh, yes, it’s a recurring problem. Sometime the problem is the idea, that I’m not ready to write it, or that my idea lacks layers, depth: something, in short, is missing. Another problem for me is audience. That nagging doubt that no one really cares whether I write another book or not. And I guess the answer to that is . . . so what. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll create something for the sake of the story, for the satisfaction of making something and putting it out into the world. Something that nobody else in the world could make. Would I love to be super popular, the worth breathless in anticipation for my next book? I think so, yeah. But in the absence of that, somehow I still have to keep going, keep writing. Write the poem, paint the picture, sing the song. There’s joy there, and happiness, and personal fulfillment —- regardless of audience or “acclaim” or awards or any outside approval. I find that to write requires a gathering of energy, enthusiasm. When that’s not there, the writing doesn’t go well. Sadly, I don’t know how to bottle it.
Regarding David and Griffin, that’s an interesting question. How were they able to connect? To be honest, I don’t think that I examined their relationship that deeply. To me, I saw it as Griffin, the manipulator, using David for his own purposes. David was a puppet on strings. As to why David allowed this to happen, I think it goes back to his desperate longing to fit in, for approval at almost any cost. That’s a dangerous place to be, the quality that made him vulnerable. And because Griffin is such a smart, perceptive guy, he recognized that vulnerability in David and used it.
Ah, I think that covers it. I just wrote almost a thousand words to you guys. You are probably sleeping already! Forgive me, I realize that I replied with a high-level of sophistication. I’d probably answer much in the same way to college freshman. I figure you are smart and should be treated that way. Have a good school year — and if any of you read Upstander, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
My best, 
James Preller
For Zoom visits,
educators and reading groups
may contact me directly
at Jamespreller@aol.com.
-NOT

Fan Mail Wednesday #310: Emir Calls My Book a “Literary Wonder” — I Take the Rest of the Day Off

A reader, Emir, wrote a nice letter about a Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery. By way of background, somebody in room 201 has been leaving behind anonymous notes that read:

It’s time for Jigsaw and Mila to figure out who’s behind these mysterious notes. Let’s move on to Emir’s letter . . . 

Dear Mr Preller,

I am writing to you to express my great appreciation for the book which you have written called The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery.

I have found the book to be fascinating and absorbing. I like mysterious stories which keeps me eager to read. I was very curious and excited throughout the story and I was really surprised at the end. I really enjoyed reading about Jigsaw and Mila’s mysterious mission. Also the way they inspected and found the suspect was brilliant. The illustrations of the book were actually really helpful to recognize the character and to visualize the plot.

Illustration by Jamie Smith.

Additionally the book gives a really good message to the reader. I think giving such a good message like be a better person through an interesting story is a brilliant idea. The girl in the story makes an experiment to invent goodness and it works, that raises awareness of being a better person
Again, I would just like to express my deepest thanks that you created this literary wonder which has raised my awareness about being a better a person.

I replied . . .

Emir,

Thank you so much for your kind letter. I’m glad that I managed to surprise you at the end.
And wow, you called my book a “literary wonder” — what a fine compliment! I’m just going to take the rest of the day off. Sit by the bird feeder and see who flies by.
You inspired me to pull that book off the shelf and read the last few lines:
“I looked around at the class. Everybody seemed happy, smiling, laughing together. Eddie had his invention back. He seemed happy, even if it didn’t turn out to be a million-dollar idea. And there, sitting quietly at her desk, was Geetha.
Just watching.
Maybe we can invent goodness after all. I guess it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Or a mystery.
Just one piece at a time.
We’ll all get there, together, one step at a time.”
Well, here we are, years after I first wrote those words, and I still think they are true. One day. One person. One kind thought at a time.
I believe your letter, Emir, your small kindness, brings us all a little closer to that dream.
Have a great summer, my friend!
James Preller

PC Culture or Fair Criticism? A Reader Complains, A Writer Replies

I recently received a letter that made me think. And without disclosing my own conclusions, I thought I’d share that letter here, then pass along my reply, as well as provide an excerpt of the offending scene.

If you’d like, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. 

I almost titled this, in part, “a writer listens.” But that sounded far too pretentious and self-satisfied. Yet it is what I hoped to convey to Cathy in Nova Scotia. That her thoughts are worth hearing — these are good conversations to have — that Cathy’s feelings are valid and valued. I’m happiest with the talking and the listening. We need more of that in our world, less about who is “right” and who is “wrong,” fewer assignations of blame. 

It’s worth noting, too, that Cathy wrote to me with a question rather than an accusation. More than anything, that’s what started us off on the right foot. 

 

Hi James,
 
I am a literacy coach working in Nova Scotia. I have been putting several of your books from the Scary Tales series in the hands of students. They are really enjoying them. I have the task of compiling a list of books to be purchased for schools. In preparation, I am reading and completing a bias evaluation tool on each book. I am currently, “Scary Tales: One-Eyed Doll”. On page 59, I encountered the sentence, “No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams.” This was in response to the custodian saying Malik may take his job one day. I question how this line could be interpreted by the reader and does it imply that a custodial job is less than?
I thought I would bring this to your attention as I was enjoying your book but this sentence made me stop as it makes me feel uncomfortable. 
Kind regards,
Cathy
I replied . . .

Cathy,

Thank you for this note, and for sharing my books with struggling readers. It was always in the back of my mind with this series, that older readers — thanks to the sophisticated look of the artwork — would embrace and succeed with these high-interest, easy-to-read stories.
Yes, I believe that I did intend for Malik’s thought to be exactly that: He had bigger plans.
But I can see where the phrasing of that might have given you pause. If I had the chance of a do-over today, I’d make a simple change: He had other plans.
That would remove the unfortunate (embedded) value judgment.
It is complicated. Because if we are honest, not many people “dream” of becoming custodians, service workers. This doesn’t mean that they are “less” than anyone else or unworthy of our respect. It’s just not where Malick hopes to end up; he’s dreaming big. Writers put thoughts into the minds, hearts, perceptions of invented characters — but at the same time have to be vigilant about what we (they/I) put out into the world. I wish I found a different way to express Malik’s ambitions without making the comparison. Still, there’s “truth” in his thoughts and he treats the custodian with kindness and respect.
I am grateful for the sensitivity of your reading. I’m glad you pointed that out to me. I’ll try to do better in the future.
James Preller
HERE’S AN EXCERPT FROM THE SCENE IN QUESTION (Chapter 9, One-Eyed Doll)
It was a quick bike ride to the nursing home — if you pedaled like your hair was on fire.
Malik made it in six minutes flat.
His mother had worked in the kitchen since he was a baby. Malik was a familiar face to the nurses on staff. When he was little, before he could fend for himself, Malik spent a lot of time in the back rooms. Drawing pictures, building with Legos, eating snacks, looking at picture books. It was cheaper than hiring a babysitter.
The home was a curious world, full of odd smells and old people. Most folks were frail, like glass figurines on a shelf you shouldn’t touch for fear they might break. Some still had sharp minds. They played cards, watched tv, and carried on conversations. Then there were the folks who seemed . . . finished. Like burnt-down candles. When Malik walked the halls, he would sometimes glimpse them sitting in their rooms. Alone and silent, waiting for a bus that would never come.
It was sad, and Malik tried not to think about it.
“Say, Malik! What are you doing here today?” Curtis the custodian chirped. He stopped pushing a mop around the floor and, instead, leaned on it with both hands. Happy to pause and chat. 
“Just thought I’d stop by,” Malik said.
“Getting big!” Curtis observed. “If I don’t watch out, you’ll be taking my job.”
No, thanks, Malik thought. He had bigger dreams. But he said with a grin, “I just might.”
He started to walk away, then thought twice. “You’ve been here a long time, right?”
Curtis looked up, as if the answer was written on the ceiling. “Twenty years, next September.”
Malik whistled. He decided to take a shot. “You remember the old place on my block. Right? The one nobody lives in.”
The brightness left the custodian’s eyes. “I know it,” he said. “That place is bad business. Bad voodoo over there.”
“Do you know anything about . . .” Malik said, stepping forward. “I mean, can you tell me about it?”
“It’s not my place to say,” Curtis said.
“It’s important,” Malik said. “It means a lot to me. Please.”
Maybe the old man was in a talkative mood that day. Maybe there was something in the way Malik asked. The look in his eyes.
“There’s a patient here,” Curtis said. “Miss Delgado. She was the last person who lived there — but that was, oh, thirty-something years ago. She used to be in the mental hospital, you know, the asylum. But she’s no trouble anymore.”
“She’s here?” Malik asked.
“Room 17, just down the hall,” Curtis said. “I don’t think she can help you, Malik. She hasn’t said ten words in all the time she’s been here.”
“Can I see her?” Malik asked.
Curtis looked up and down the empty hall. “She been through enough. Leave an old woman alone.”
“Please, I’ll be respectful,” Malik said. “Just for a minute?”
“If you get caught,” Curtis said with a sigh, “I don’t know anything about it. Understand?”
He turned in the opposite direction from Room 17 and pushed the mop down the hall. The conversation was over. Malik was on his own.

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL, captured by iPhone (so forgive the poor quality).

THERE ARE 6 TITLES IN THE SCARY TALES SERIES, MOST POPULAR IN GRADES 3-5 . . .

Fan Mail Wednesday #309: It’s Easy (and cheap!) to Arrange a Virtual Visit with Your Class

“That was amazing!
The students are beaming and can’t wait
to talk about you!
They also can’t wait to write!”
— Rachel M, 2nd-grade teacher

 

Here’s a correspondence that I enjoyed with a classroom teacher from Queens, NY. I wish I had more visits with classrooms or entire grade levels. They feel so positive, and cozy, and joyful. I especially believe in book-specific visits, where the class knows my work and we can engage in a lively Q-and-A conversation. I can do this with any title or series. 

Is it terribly expensive? No, nope, not really, no. 

Read on . . .

 

Hello there!

I work at a school in Queens, NY.  Currently, I am the teacher of 30 second graders…was previously the drama teacher:)

My students are fully remote, meaning that they are all home and we learn virtually during the day.

I have been reading your books to them as our read aloud, and they are LOVING them! We have created a class detective notebook, where along with Jigsaw, they write their guesses, clues, thoughts, and suspects.

They have just started their writing unit on realistic fiction.

I was wondering what your pricing was, and if you are still doing virtual visits?

I thought a virtual visit from you, where they can ask you Jigsaw questions, and get some creative writing tips would make them smile from ear to ear!

Please let me know, thank you!

Rachel 

 

I replied . . .

 

Rachel,

Thank you for this lovely note.

I would love to visit with your class.

I like to get $150 for a virtual visit — but if your budget is limited, I’d work with whatever you’ve got that seems fair and reasonable to you.

I appreciate that you share my books with your class.

James Preller

 

And shortly after our visit, Rachel wrote back . . .

 

That was amazing!

The students are beaming and can’t wait to talk about you! They also can’t wait to write!!! 

I may have to give them a whole afternoon of writing time because they are so excited!!

Again, thank you so much. Everything that you said was beyond perfect for them to hear.

Of course their first question was, when can they talk to you again…

So, you may hear from me again and next year and so on and so forth 🙂

I will of course share your information with other teachers and the parent coordinator at my school, who usually shares things with all other schools in the area.

Thank you again for everything, that was a wonderful experience:)

Rachel

 

    .                    .   

Fan Mail Wednesday #308: Advice to an Adult for Publishing a Children’s Book

We all get them. Sooner or later, every published author receives the query. It’s from a person who wants to know how to get published. These letters can be touchingly sincere or — at times — presumptuous and annoying. The annoying ones are typically a dashed off, two-sentence email with the request: Explain publishing to me . . . while I sit around and drink wine.

As if we have nothing better to do. 

They want, of course, for “the published” to hand over the Secret Key that lets them inside the Golden Egg where the rich and famous authors and illustrators all sit around sipping fabulous cocktails, gazing at our royalty checks and, endlessly, complaining about our publishers who don’t do enough marketing. 

(Publishers never do enough marketing.)

Alas, there is no Secret Key.

Anyway, I always answer and try to provide some helpful information. Or at least, basic human recognition — I see you — and hopefully a few encouraging words. 

Because it is really hard to feel like an outsider, that sense of how do I get seen? What do I do? Is there a trick? A short-cut? Anyway, I’m sympathetic to that feeling, even though there’s really nothing new or insightful I can possibly say.

See that rock: Start pushing it up the hill.

This email came with the subject heading: ADVICE FOR PUBLISHING A CHILDREN’S BOOK. For some reason, I gave a longer answer than usual, so share it here.

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

I hope this email finds you well. My name is _____, and I’m a general surgery resident at ______ hospital. I’m writing to you for advice on publishing my first book. A woman [edit: name omitted] at the Medical Library encouraged me to contact you.

Late one night last fall, on call as the senior trauma surgery resident, I wrote a children’s book. The children I had spent the night examining in the pediatric ED were afraid and bewildered, and their parents were afraid and bewildered as well. I realized that a good picture book could comfort the kids and their parents, and could explain the unfamiliar hospital environment.

I cold-emailed a literary agent this week and sent her a query letter looking for representation, but haven’t heard back. I’ve read a few blog posts about publishing a book, but I still don’t know very much about the process.

Do you have any advice on how to get from a finished manuscript sitting on my computer to the next step in the publication process?

Thank you very much!

Best,

Tyler

 

I replied . . .

 

Tyler,

How dare you disturb the GREAT OZ!

 

No, not really.

 

I actually replied . . . 

 

Tyler, 

Well done on recognizing a need and writing a manuscript.

That’s a big part of the job. But you still have work to do (often this work is what separates the published authors from the writers and the dabblers).

The standard and correct advice is that most publishers will only look at manuscripts represented by an agent. The old “slush pile” days, when an assistant editor or hired “reader” might comb through a pile of unsolicited manuscripts are pretty much over. Harry Potter killed it; suddenly everyone figured out a new, easy way to become millionaires.

Write a children’s book! How hard could it be?

Ha, ha, ha.

Publishers got overwhelmed. Some still try to sift through unsolicited manuscripts; others do not. These days, agents tend to be the most reliable gatekeepers, helping to weed out the manuscripts that don’t meet publishing standards or the ever-shifting demands of the marketplace.

So, yeah: Do some internet searching and find children’s book agents. Read the descriptions. Send them queries. Know that it might take months to receive an answer.

Note that an agent will only represent you if s/he thinks that your book has a chance of selling. She will not waste her time if she suspects it has no shot. An agent agrees to represent your work in the hope of earning 15% of the profits. Also, an agent’s credibility is at stake. If that agent passes along too many “bad” manuscripts, editors will no longer trust in that agent’s ability or sense of the marketplace. No one wants their time wasted. So, yeah, in a lot of ways finding an agent is a critical step in the process.

Your book falls under what we used to call “bibliotherapy.” Books designed for specific needs, a narrow audience, often to help young children face social or physical problems. Most of the big publishers you know off the top of your head likely won’t be interested in a niche book like yours. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a deserving or publishable book — it’s just not going to be a bestseller. However, there ARE small publishers who specialize in exactly this kind of thing.

Again, more homework for you –- some of which might have to wait until things open up a bit, Covid-wise. Go to the library. Talk to the children’s librarian. Look at books that fit in your category (“My First Visit to the Doctor,” “When Mommy Is Sick,” and so on, usually shelved in a separate section). Note the names of the publishers. Do more research. See if you can find the name of a specific editor and write a short query letter. It’s a long shot, but it’s possible. Such a letter would demonstrate a lot of good things about your level of interest and dedication.

Anyone can dash off a quick email to an author. But will you do the necessary work?

Also, please note the books that you admire. Their length. The word count. And so on. For example, just about all picture books are 32 pages, total. You know that, right? You have to give them something that fits into the publishing world as it exists. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t get that part, so they are eliminated right out of the box. No one is going to reinvent publishing for your book.

Good luck.

And lastly, thank you for the important work you do, especially during this most difficult year.

 

James Preller

P.S. Don’t quit your day job!

P.P.S. Funny coincidence. You wrote a children’s book while working as a surgeon in a hospital. Just yesterday, while working on a children’s book, I found a few spare moments to remove an elderly gentleman’s gall bladder! At least, I think it was his gall bladder.

My next book, Upstander, comes out on May 11th. How did I pull that off? Well, I have the Golden Key. (You didn’t think I was going to share it with Tyler, did you?)