Archive for Readings

DEEP SURVIVAL: Researching “Blood Mountain”

When I speak at schools to an audience of grades 4-up, I’ll sometimes talk about my wilderness survival novel, Blood Mountain

There’s a scary moment in the process that many writers face. After the initial idea for the book — two kids and a dog lost in the mountains! — that happy burst of boing! eureka! — I realized that I didn’t know nearly enough to write it.

It was time to hit the books and talk to experts. Which I did. 

The other day, a few years after the fact, I reread for pleasure one of the books that informed my thinking: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, by Laurence Gonzales. It’s an amazing book, profound in many respects, and a great read. It’s very much the kind of thing I love. 

When you think about it, just about every story comes down to what a character is made of, the content of that character’s character, and survival stories are so powerful because they bring this question to the forefront. Does this character have the right stuff?

And what is the right stuff?

Rereading Gonzales’ book, I kept coming across ideas that I first encountered there, busily jotting concepts in my notebook, underlining passages, discovering ideas that I would try to incorporate into Blood Mountain. I came to his book wanting to know more about why people got lost, what mistakes they commonly made. And moreso, what attitudes best served “the lost,” and which attitudes might get a lost person into serious trouble. 

Here’s something from page 154: “Psychologists who study the behavior of people who get lost report that very few ever backtrack.”

There’s a deep urge, particularly in goal-oriented people, to keep moving forward. Our eyes look forward, after all. So I made sure to write Grace (13) and Carter (11) that way, a dogged determination to keep going (even when the expert advice is to stay calm, stay put, stay warm, stay dry).

Another bit of wisdom that true survivors arrive at fairly quickly is the ability to make peace with their environment, a clear-eyed acceptance of the new reality. This becomes Grace’s path. While both characters ultimately need to be rescued, only Carter really needs to be saved. 

Earlier, Grace and Carter, on Day 2, form a plan to climb to a summit for a better view. That’s how they will see the clear path home, as if looking down on a giant map. The mentality, described by Gonzales, is fairly sound but not without risk (p. 160): “Maybe if he just got up high . . . if he could just see the whole area, then everything would snap back into focus and he could calm down.

Unfortunately, when people are without food and water, depleted already and possibly not thinking clearly, the expenditure of that effort can exhaust or injure them, possibly leading to outright panic. 

So, yes, in Blood Mountain we see exactly that, leading to Grace’s fall (from grace). Psychologically, it has to do with a person’s intense desire to map the self, map the environment — to create a mental picture. So that the interior mind and the exterior environment sync up.

Losing that inner map is the essence of being lost. 

Also from Gonzales: “Part of the terror of being lost stems from the idea of never being seen again.

I loved that one, because that’s all any of us want in this world, isn’t it? To be seen. To be valued. Without being seen, do we just fade out of existence, vanish into nothingness? 

Again, Gonzales: “Being lost, then, is not a location; it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind.”

To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won’t matter where you are.

The rule is simple: Be here now

In Blood Mountain, I separate Grace and Carter and give them different experiences and, more importantly, different ways of responding to those circumstances. 

Grace, though injured and alone (with her dog, Sitka, thankfully), comes to a state of acceptance. Even appreciation of the beauty around her. She begins to set small goals for herself, simple tasks: get water, make a more comfortable bed, ration the supplies, etc. 

A holocaust survivor (p. 169) described the process this way: “Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of . . . the survival voyage.”

I share all this — just a fraction of the insights (borrowed, stolen) that went into writing Blood Mountain. (I’m not an expert, but I played in the writing of this book!)

There’s an intellectual reason for everything that happens on every page. Each scene, each moment, is intentional. Again, it is Grace’s sense of wonder about the natural world around her. The trees and plants and animal life. From Gonzales (p. 240): “It is a decision not to be lost wherever you happen to find yourself. It’s simply saying, “I’m not lost, I’m right here.

All this is to say: THANK YOU, LAURENCE GONZALES. I couldn’t have written my book without you!

BLOOD MOUNTAIN is now available in paperback for only $8.99.

Three Children’s Books That I Loved: Featuring a Plucky Peacock, A Wild Acorn, and Animals in Pants!

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I recently opened a new folder and titled it, “Beginnings.” I’ll keep starter files in there. Ideas. Words. Phrases. Seeds for possible stories.

It’s interesting how a line or phrase can open the door to a story. When I have ideas without words, it’s like I’m standing outside a giant egg and I can’t find my way inside.

Words are the voice, the tone, the key.

These past few years, I’ve been teaching a recurring class for Gotham Writers: “Writing Children’s Books: Levels 1 and 2.” We sometimes have special guests, which we all enjoy immensely. Recently we hosted Jen Arena, who has quietly put together an admirable career in children’s publishing. We talked, among a great many other things, about her most recent book:

 

Jen mentioned that the idea came in the form of a simple sentence that popped into her head one day: Acorn was a nut.

Those words — it always comes down to words, doesn’t it? — provided a way into the story, a door opening for the writer to walk through.

But better yet, that line didn’t survive the editorial process and didn’t make it into the final book. It became: Acorn was a little wild.

Definitely better.

Here’s to the wild ones.

Gorgeously illustrated by Jessica Gibson, who manages to give the whole thing vibrancy and energy.

 

Jen’s experience reminded me of the great Frank O’Hara poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.”

Why I Am Not a Painter

Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

The place where inspiration begins isn’t always where the work ends. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.

The more I think about Jen Arena’s book, btw, the more I consider it a wholly successful picture book on every level. That is, I think: this is truly a great book. A quiet triumph.

Another book that I absolutely loved was Leave It to Plum by Matt Phelan.

 

 

This is a bright new series — planned as five richly illustrated chapter books — featuring an adorably upbeat peacock named Plum.

Plum resides at the Athensville Zoo, where the peacocks serve as proud ambassadors, enjoying freedom to come and go as they please. Their prime directive: “Mingle! Guide! Delight!”

Phelan’s cheerful illustrations grace very nearly every spread, imbuing the story with warmth and humor. 

 

 

Many of us know Phelan as an award-winning illustrator, author of groundbreaking graphic novels such as Storm in the Barn, Snow White, Bluffton, and more. But it’s his rich, robust writing that commands center stage here: 

Every morning the ambassadors met for the Mandatory Morning Meeting of Athensville Zoo Peacocks. As today’s meeting came to order, Hampstead, the head peacock, stood as usual under the Great Tree. All peacocks were in attendance.

All but one.

“PLUM!” bellowed Hampstead.

Plum skidded around the path and joined the congregation.

“Here, O Great Leader!” shouted Plum. “Bright-eyed and feathery tailed!”

“Kind of you to join us for the Mandatory Morning Meeting, Plum,” grumbled Hampstead.

“Wouldn’t miss it!” piped Plum. 

Last but surely not least, I fell in love with Suzy Levinson’s Animals in Pants.

 

This is such a fresh, clever, original twist on a children’s publishing standard: poems about animals. But these poems are different, for these animals are wearing all kinds of pants!

You’ll have to read it to believe it.

As someone who looks at a lot of picture books, I confess that after a while many of them blend together: too slight, too predictable, too familiar, as if we’ve already seen it all before. Not so here, for Levinson’s Animals in Pants strikes like a thunderbolt. It’s just nutty enough — silly, playful, joyous enough — to feel utterly fresh and completely new. 

Levinson’s short, sharp poetry is highly skilled, rhythmic and impeccable. And the art by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell make this animal world come alive in bright colors with almost old-fashioned illustrations (read: a classic vibe), brimming with compositional inventiveness and color. But don’t take my word for it, take a gander for yourself:

 

This book is a winner and, for debut author Levinson, it marks what should be the beginning of a brilliant career.

Writing Tips #2: A Look at One Page from DOCTOR DE SOTO by William Steig (Scene & Summary)

I recently wrote a throwaway post on Facebook that got a surprising amount of attention. It was about soaking dishes. Yeah, wild, I know. I wrote a sentence that owed something, perhaps, to a specific moment in William Steig’s Doctor De Soto picture book. 

I say “perhaps” because it’s hard to pin down where influences end and ideas originate. It spins in a circle, consciously and unconsciously. Who knows. 

What I had written was: “I’m a pot and pan soaker. So was my father, and his father before him. It’s always been that way with my family.”

It made me remember De Soto and look up the scene:

Forgive the blur. The good doctor informs his wife, “Once I start a job, I finish it. My father was the same way.”

So, sure, he does it far more economically & elegantly than I managed to on social media. In my defense, he’s William Steig writing a book and I’m only James Preller blasting out a few thoughts on Facebook. 

Here’s the full text from the page in case the blur is too hard to read:

That night the De Sotos lay awake worrying. “Should we let him in tomorrow?” Mrs. De Soto wondered.

“Once I start a job,” said the dentist firmly, “I finish it. My father was the same way.”

“But we must do something to protect ourselves,” said his wife. They talked and talked until they formed a plan. “I think it will work,” said Doctor De Soto. A minute later he was snoring. 

One comment before the main thing:

I’m as opposed to adverbs as the next guy, probably more, but “firmly” sure does a lot of good work in that phrase, said the dentist firmly

A clear signal. There would be no debate. This strikes me as that rare thing: a good adverb.

Something interesting happens on this page, where “scene” meets “summary.”

We are in a scene from the beginning, of course, announced by those two words: That night. It’s a variation on the “one day” trope of so  many picture books: things are always so until . . . one day something happens. Story begins with scene.

We find ourselves with the De Sotos, flies on the lavender wallpaper, listening to them discuss the mortal danger of treating the fox’s toothache. Then comes that great sentence:

They talked and talked until they formed a plan.

The camera doesn’t move to a new perspective, it just pulls back and suddenly there’s a great distance. We are transported to the land of summary: They talked and talked until they formed a plan

I wonder how Steig arrived at this sentence. Did he try to write out that full conversation in early drafts? Did he wrestle with it for days, weeks? Did he worry about the length, the slowness, the slog? This was intended, after all, for a 32-page picture book. There wasn’t time to waste. It could be that Steig immediately went to summary, instinctively knowing that he had to keep the plot moving forward. 

So there’s this: Summary allows the writer to play with time

The writer can make time move quickly, cross decades in a single sentence, or can slow it down to a drip, drip . . . drip. Even slower than real time. 

In my current work-in-progress, a middle-grade novel tentatively titled Shaken (Macmillan, 2024), I decided to make a leap of four months from one chapter to the next. Those four months occur in the gap between those two chapters, the way that in a comic or graphic novel there’s a sliver of time in the spaces between each panel. This leap required a sentence or two of summary. Time passed. Winter turned to Spring. That kind of thing (but not those words). 

Aside: Do you ever notice, btw, how very young children are unable to summarize when they recount, say, a movie they just watched? it’s always: and then, and then, and then, and then, etc. The art of summary is really about prioritizing. Recognizing what’s significant and what isn’t. Elmore Leonard’s great rule for writing: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

Let me make up an example on the spot:

He spent the summer working on the cabin, rising early and laboring until dark, while the loneliness filled up inside him. One September day, there was a knock on the door . . . 

Summary –> Scene. The storyteller (and his listeners, one assumes) is not interested in all those dull empty days of summer. That part is boring. Let’s skip it. So the storyteller makes time fly by, an entire summer in a sentence.

Then there’s a knock at the door.

Time slows to a crawl.

He pauses, uncrosses his legs. Puts down the novel — Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men — spine up on the end table. He gazes out the window. The last light of evening had long ago died.  A faint drone of tree frogs pressed against the panes. Who could it be at this hour? Should he rise to answer it? He coughs, and waits.

Anyway, yeah, it’s cool how Steig pulls that off in the middle of a scene — a sentence of summary, omitting at least an hour of discussion — before he returns us right back to that same “moment” (without ever moving the camera; the focus just gets tighter). 

He ends the page with another great understated sentence. 

A minute later he was snoring. 

A minute has passed in the distance from a period to the capital letter of the next sentence. A minute later. And lo, the good doctor is asleep! Resolved and at peace. Troubled no more. The plan has been set and he needs his rest. 

I’d turn the page, right?

Wouldn’t you?

What is the plan, anyway? 

Steig didn’t tell us. He withholds. That’s actually another technique worthy of discussion. The vital importance of being clear, and answering questions for the reader as soon as possible (to avoid confusion), but also to recognize the value of not answering every question.

How those unanswered questions can prod the reader to do the single best thing that any reader can ever do — turn the page. 

William Steig was a writer who knew what he was doing.

CLICK HERE for Writing Tip #1.

Annals of Bad Ideas: Children’s Book Division!

Two things upfront:

1) Jean Craighead George is an absolute legend in the field of children’s books, considered one of the all-time greats, deservedly so;

2) This book from 2003, however, was a bad idea.

Well, not the book, actually. Jean Craighead George is a brilliant writer and a keen, informed naturalist. A book about the language of cats makes a lot of sense. But somewhere along the line, somebody — an art director? — came up with a nutty idea.

And nutty is good, right? To be playful and silly and fun? Um, right?

Usually that’s okay. There’s always room for bad ideas. Because over time, they get weeded out. People come to their senses. Like this book cover, for example:

 

I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong. 

Of course, we can understand how misguided ideas occur in the beginning. But you’d think that eventually, sooner or later . . . somebody would . . . 

Oh, nevermind.

Here’s Jean’s book, How To Talk To Your Cat

 

I imagine the conversation went something like this . . .  

Art Director: “Hey, you know what would be soooooo cool? We could take photos of Jean interacting with cats and . . .”

Editor: “Wait, real cats?”

Art Director: “No! Illustrated cats!”

Editor: “So, like, photos of Jean Craighead George — sometimes on all fours — combined with illustrations of cats? Have I got that right?”

Art Director: “Yes, that’s it exactly!”

Editor: “Genius! But how do we talk Jean into this?”

Art Director: “Leave it to me.”

Editor: “Oh no, you’re going to give her cat nip, aren’t you?”

Art Director: “I’ll slip it in her tea.”

Editor: “Anything else?”

Art Director: “Make sure Jean wears a big bangly necklace.”

 

I don’t know. Maybe it’s me. This is a book with 70 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4 1/2 stars. People love it. After all, it’s Jean Craighead George! She’s awesome. There’s great information in it, an engaging text, well organized, on a topic that any cat lover would find interesting. 

And the special effects are amazing.

 

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.