Archive for the writing process

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

IT’S A SCARY TIME OF YEAR: The Craft of Anticipation & Suspense

As someone who likes scary things at any time of year, I’m often surprised when October rolls around and suddenly . .  . IT’S SCARY SEASON!

I had thought a good story was a year-round thing.

But here we are. The bulletin boards turn to black and orange, the featured books in the library are about witches and zombies, and readers of all ages start looking for something creepy that will keep them turning the pages late into the howling night.

Even classroom teachers decide to share a not-too-terribly-spooky story with their class.

Just for fun.

Isn’t it nice, by the way, to remember that: reading a story just for the fun of it? More of that, please.

Have I got some books for you.

                   

There are six titles in the “Scary Tales” series, each with different characters in different settings. No need to read them in order. I think of these in the old vernacular as hi-lo books — high-interest, low reading level. Perfect for a wide range of reading abilities, from 3rd-grade to 5th, though I’ve met many 2nd-graders who adore these frightening stories as well as 6th-and 7th-graders who love the triumph of reading fast-paced, easy-to-read books filled with chills, thrills, and supercool illustrations.

What follows is a complete chapter from Home Sweet Horror, which you might wish to read aloud with young readers. But first, the setup: Do you know when you are watching a movie, someone will say, “Whatever you do, don’t go into basement.”

You know what must happen next, right?

The character goes into the basement!

You’re thinking, “No, no, no! Don’t go down there!”

But you are also kind of glad at the same time. The story is about to get more exciting. So you lean forward on the edge of your seat as, step by spooky step, our misguided character plunges down into the dimly-lit gloom.

Surely horrible things are about to happen. You’ve already been warned. Oh, joy.

Importantly, our sense of story requires it. This is the Rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The Russian novelist and playwright famously put forth the dramatic principle that every element in a story must be necessary. Elements shouldn’t make false promises. Here’s Chekhov:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” 

Allow me to put it another way:

If the basement is described as dangerous, then a character must inevitably go down there — or else the writer shouldn’t mention the basement!

That’s what I love most about scary stories. The craft of anticipation and suspense, when readers lean in, feeling excited and nervous about what might happen next. As a writer, those are the dreadful moments I seek to create in this series.

Remember that great line by Oscar Wilde from The Importance of Being Earnest (later famously borrowed by Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”)?

The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

Exactly right.

Here’s Chapter Three . . . give it a try with your students. After all, it’s October! A great time of year to read just for the shivery thrill of turning the page.

Liam stood in the hallway of the kitchen, peering into the basement. The stairs were ancient wooden boards nailed across empty space. One false step and it was a long drop to the cement floor below. The basement gave off a smell of decay, of things gone rotten. A place where mice had crawled off to die. Home to cobwebs and spiders, trapped flies and ruined toys.

Liam flicked the switch on the wall. Nothing happened.

At the bottom of the stairs, he could make out a bare bulb that hung from the ceiling. It had a pull string. Maybe that would do the trick.

But an inner voice made Liam cautious. He remembered his father’s warning during breakfast. “I’ll be gone most of the day,” he said. “I know you like to explore, Liam. And that’s fine. Up to a point. But stay out of the attic, and don’t go into the basement. I don’t trust those old stairs. And that old furnace needs to be replaced. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

When Liam stepped back to shut the basement door, a metallic sound came to his ears. Clang, clang, clang.

The sound came from . . . down there.

“Hello?” he bleated.

Again, in a stronger voice, “Anybody down there?”

Liam wiped his hands on his pants. He looked around. Puffed on his inhaler and thought about things. Breathe in, breathe out. Kelly was upstairs in her room. Still asleep, most likely. Or texting, texting, texting — like always. His father away on errands: groceries, the lumber yard, who knows where.

All Liam really knew was that he was alone.

In the house.

Or alone with the house.

Clang, clang. Clang-clang-clang.

The sounds echoed up in rhythm, like a voice calling to him, a song in the dark.

Come, Liam, come.

Doolin stood protectively at Liam’s side. Grrrr, she growled. A warning sound, low, from deep inside the animal’s chest. Grrrr, grrrr.

The metallic noises came louder now, more urgent. Clearer. They were calling to Liam. Come, come.

Transfixed, Liam took one cautious step down the stairs. He shifted his weight from his left foot to his right. There, creak, the old board held strong. Some fluttery something brushed across Liam’s face, like the shadowy hand of a ghost.

Apologies for the poor quality of my phone-camera shot. Illustration by Iacopo Bruno.

No, it was only a cobweb, a spider’s trap.

“Come on, girl,” Liam called to his dog. “Let’s explore together.”

The dog sank to the floor, head on her paws. She growled, a rolling rumble of fear and warning.

“What’s the matter? Too dark for you?” Liam asked, honey in his voice. “You’ve never been bothered by stairs before.”

The dog whined.

“Come,” Liam ordered, his voice deeper. The sound of command.

Doolin inched away.

Liam shrugged, moved down another step, and another. Halfway down, he could bend at the waist to peer into the vast, dank basement. It was filled with crowded shelves, boxes, and broken furniture.

Clang, clang, clang banged the noises. It was something in the far back corner, a heavy, black shape. The furnace, perhaps. That was the source of the sounds. At last Liam reached the lightbulb, pulled on the string. There was a burst of wild electrical light and — pop! — the bare bulb shattered into pieces.

It startled Liam. He sensed a shape drifting through the basement, soundless and black, moving toward him. He turned and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, landing heavily with each step. Crash! A board cracked and Liam fell, slamming his shin hard against the wood. He grabbed the top step, catching himself before he fell. He wheezed, felt dizzy, woozy. Liam’s left leg dangled in the air, kicking at nothingness. He felt a thin, skeletal grip around his ankle. Like a claw pulling, dragging him down.

Liam yanked his leg free, and scrambled to the top of the stairs. He crawled into the kitchen, into the light. He slammed the door shut behind him and twisted the lock, heart thundering, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.

His back against the door, Liam sat on the floor, legs splayed. He took a puff from his inhaler. And another. Breathe in, he reminded himself, breathe out.

Down below, through the door, he swore he heard the sound . . . of laughter.

 

 

 

 

Pro Tip: Eudora Welty

“The first act of insight is throw away the labels.
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.”
Eudora Welty
Wow, Eudora Welty explains it so simply with one clear distinction.
We don’t write about ourselves . . .
we write out of ourselves.
Exactly!
So well expressed that it clangs like a bell in the skull.

Writing Process: Making Up Mary

In my new book Upstander, I gave myself the opportunity to learn more about Mary, a minor (but crucial) character in Bystander.

And by “learn more,” I guess that I mean: “make up more.”

It’s all just stuff I make up, right? Characters don’t really talk to me, and heaven knows the books don’t write themselves. 

But in a way, once a character is introduced, and participates in some scenes, that character does seem to take on a life of her own. If A, B, and C are true . . . then it organically leads the writer to D and E. 

Obviously the writer is making choices all the time. Mary doesn’t exist except in my imagination. Until you read the book, and then she exists (and transforms) in your imagination, too. 

Anyway, I decided a lot of things about Mary that I didn’t need to address in Bystander. We enter her home; meet her family; see her interact with new characters; learn that she used to play softball and keeps a stash of marshmallows in her room; and so on.

She’s also creative, artistic.

Here are two moments that show that. The first is from page 93:

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it.

So here’s the deal. Once I decided that she should paint something, I had to figure out what that something would be. I looked at my college-age daughter Maggie’s artwork and selected an image:

If it was good enough for Maggie, it was good enough for Mary. Not that a reader would ever see it, or even think much about it. The iceberg effect, once again.

The other scene just shows the way Mary thinks. And I loved that image of her floating in the pool, goggles on, head in the water, starting on page 127. It was a way to get into her head, explore her liquid thoughts . . . and also, at the very end of this section, to restate another important theme of the book, the need for us all to be seen . . .

It was such a calming shade of blue-green. Soothing, peaceful. Mary drifted on an inflatable pool mattress, her head hanging facedown in the water, wearing goggles and a snorkel. She gazed deeply at the bottom of Chrissie’s pool and thought of all the names she remembered from acrylic paint tubes and other places: turquoise, olive, emerald, cadmium, mint, lime, sea foam, lagoon, teal. She settled on aquamarine, which was basically green with a bluish tint. It was the color of the pool that she was absorbing into her bloodstream through her eyes. A serenity seeping into her body. Mary had earrings that were aquamarine gemstones, a color she avoided during the gray winter months. But for August afternoons in the blistering sun? Perfection.

Chrissie and Alexis were lounging side by side, content to find themselves returned home after thirteen epic days on the Jersey Shore. Upon seeing their friend Mary again, they squeezed her tight and said all the best, gushy things—but Mary sensed the connection between the two girls was stronger than ever. They were rock-solid besties, and nothing would come between that. Their bond felt like a wall through which Mary could never pass. To her surprise, it upset Mary to feel like an outcast. It wasn’t logical, but a feeling was a feeling, not subject to notions of “right” or “wrong.” Some unspoken part of her simply wanted to belong. She’d felt sad lately and wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just everything. So she floated on the water, letting her thoughts drift to that cruel idiot Griffin Connelly, and Chantel, and, always, Jonny.

Everyone said it was better that he was living on his own. Yet Mary’s imagination kept her mind racing at night—a nervous, stressed feeling she couldn’t push aside. She woke up in the morning and felt tired. Everywhere she turned, Mary felt disconnected, as if she were fading into the background, as if she were absorbing the colors and designs of the carpets and wallpaper. Could she become a ghost, too? How come no one saw her, really saw her, anymore?

Upstander is a 2021

Junior Library Guild Selection.

Thanks for stopping by!

 

 

 

 

 

GREAT NEWS! “UPSTANDER” Steps Into the Spotlight, Including an Interview with Yours Truly!

I’m so pleased to share a link to Judy Bradbury’s impressive, educator-friendly blog. As a writing teacher and literacy specialist — and a children’s author in her own right — Judy’s blog is filled to overflowing with teaching tips, strategies for connecting books with readers, and so much more.

This month, Judy featured my new book, Upstander, and included a very cool interview with yours truly. Maybe that’s more Jimmy than you can stand? Anyway, I hope you can check it out — full link here — and bookmark Judy’s page for future reading.

IN THE MEANTIME, SOME HIGHLIGHTS

From Judy Bradbury’s introduction: 
Upstander by James Preller is the moving prequel/sequel to Bystander. The story captures the nuances of contemporary family relationships and how they can be both tested and strengthened by individual members’ actions and thoughts, as well as their wills, weaknesses, and wishes. Mary–a minor character in Bystander–struggles and ultimately grows from her experiences facing her brother Jonny’s substance use and her own school-related conflicts. Her story is at once heart-wrenching and heartening. 

AND HERE’S A FEW SNIPPETS FROM THE INTERVIEW

(Again, for the whole shebang, stomp on this link . . . right here!)

JB: How did you decide on the title?

JP: With Bystander, I was fortunate to write one of the first realistic middle-grade books on bullying. I stumbled upon the right topic at the right time. That book got a lot of attention and was often a “one book/one school” selection. Which is a mind-blowing honor. On visits, I kept coming across that idea, often expressed as a poster in the halls: “Be an upstander!” Anti-bullying, when it becomes too strident, can become a negative message. Many schools opted to emphasize the positive: kindness and community. I am 100% behind that initiative. Thus, Upstander.

JB: Tell about one hurdle you experienced in the creation of Upstander or provide a memorable (or humorous!) anecdote related to the making of this book.

JP: What happens frequently for me is that I’ll have an idea for a

Young Do and James Preller, after a celebratory lunch at The Cuckoo’s Nest in Albany.

book, then I’ll soon realize that I’m not nearly smart enough to write it. A lot of loose ends fell together when I reached out to Young Do, an executive director who operates a care and substance use treatment facility, Hospitality House, in Albany, NY. Young became a generous source of insight and information. In fact, the opening of the book grew directly from a personal story that Young shared about his own experiences with his brother. He told me a story and I thought, “Oh, that’s how the book begins!”

JB: What did you learn from writing Upstander?

JP: I think my compassion for everyone concerned— friends and family members—deepened significantly. The more I learned, the more empathy I felt. 

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT JUDY BRADBURY, THIS CONVERSATION WILL GET YOU STARTED!