Archive for the writing process

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.

Learning to Be Gentle with Myself

Here’s a meme that resonated with me, and it might do you some good, too (more thoughts below):

I published my first official book in 1986, though I made many books with spare paper and tape as a young kid, probably starting around 1966.  So it’s been a long time of me making things.

And a very long and hard time of me beating myself up over all those times when I’m not-making-things. 

Of me being uninspired, or lazy, or too slow and dim-witted, unoriginal, shiftless, and on and on. All the hateful words.

How does one write without a generous heaping of self-loathing?

I’ll never know. 

But I am not so far gone that I can’t see my own ridiculousness. I can look on my book shelves and see that I did some work along the way, and it’s not all terrible and useless. 

Lately I’ve been in a fallow period. 

Lacking in some essential thing.

An empty vessel in need of filling up. 

And thus, the meme. 

Remembering that I’m a human, not a machine, not a bot, not an AI program. 

I’m learning — I’m trying to say — to give myself a break. Because I’m doing the best I can. That has to be enough. 

 

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #334: A Desi Girl Writes . . . .

 

Let’s check the mail!

It’s funny, thinking of this now, I remember the later years of my mother when she lived in her last house in Greenport, Long Island. Checking the mail — putting on a light sweater, struggling into a pair of shoes, walking down the driveway to the road and the mail box — that was an adventure right there. Then she’d sit, have a cup of tea, light a cigarette, and think about having a little coffee cake later on. 

Anyway!

Ananya writes . . . 

 

Hi Mr.Preller,

I hope you are well. My name is Ananya ____. You recently visited my school (Jericho Middle School), on March 27th. You mentioned that if I had any questions in the future I could ask you. My questions for you are; What is your favorite genre? What is the best writing tip you ever received?
Thank you,
Ananya

I replied . . .

Ananya!
Hey, I remember you very well. Please send my regards to the Desi Girls!
I was so impressed with your school — the teachers, staff, principal, and students. Everything. I’ve walked into a lot of school buildings in a lot of different states, and I can tell that you’ve got something special going on there in Jericho. Make the most of it.
My favorite genre? I probably go back to realistic fiction most frequently. That’s the baseline, I believe, for all writing. I tend to like (boring) scenes where people sit around the kitchen table and talk. Plot is the tricky part for me, and I have to work to make things happen (which most readers seem to want). That said, I might be different than other authors because I like to bounce around, writing mysteries and “horror” and thrillers and even fantasy. Someday I hope to write a true work of science fiction. I mean to say, I’d like to publish one. I’ve written one, but had no luck selling it. Rats!
As a reader, I’m the same way. I bounce around. After reading a couple of novels, I’ll hunger for nonfiction. Maybe a biography or a book about birds or essays about politics. Then I’ll read about music, or baseball, or whatever random thing catches my eye. Then it’s back to novels. Round and round it goes.
Best advice? Oh, goodness. I really ought to write up a list one of these days. I sort of love Elmore Leonard’s semi-snarky advice, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
And I love Kurt Vonnegut’s line, which I often share on school visits: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Otherwise, the cliched answers are usually still true. Read often, read widely, read like a writer (meaning: be hyper aware of the writer behind the words). Try to write as often as you can. Keep a journal. Pay attention to the world. Eyes open, mouth closed. Be filled with wonder. And read aloud what you’ve written.
I try not to overwrite, because that’s probably my biggest private demon. We’re mortal enemies! That’ s the ego, when I might try to get fancy and show off how smart I am (not very, honestly). So I try to keep my sentences simple, my thoughts clear. We almost never want a confused reader. Clarity is king.
Thanks for saying hello!
James Preller

On Watching “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” and David Shire, and a Sneeze, and Chekhov’s Gun

Netflix recently added a bunch of movies from the 70s and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” caught my eye (the original 1974 film, not the remake). I remembered seeing it in the theater in my early teens. Walter Matthau and the gritty old NYC vibe. Not quite the caliber of “The French Connection” or “Serpico,” but drawing from those same mean streets. And what a cast, in addition to Matthau, there’s Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller, and more, including Lee Wallace spoofing NYC Mayor Koch. 

    

Anyway, I watched it again. I don’t know that it stood up all that well, but I enjoyed it, partly for nostalgic reasons. It brought me back.

That said: The opening theme, written by legendary composer David Shire, is out of this world good. Brassy and propulsive and energetic, a jazz-funk theme that announces a city that is alive and muscular, gritty and tough.

Give it a listen . . . it’s fabulous. 

 

One thing of note. There’s a moment early in the film when one of the bad guys sneezes and Matthau’s character — Garber — says “Gesundheit.” It was enough of a moment, including that extra beat, that made me think, Hmmmm, why are they doing this here?

I knew something was up with that sneeze.

The film goes on and, wow, again, the bad guy (Green) sneezes. And again, Gesundheit. So not only do we notice it, we notice Garber noticing it. And if I didn’t realize after the first sneeze, by this time I knew for damn certain that the movie would include one more sneeze. A pivotal sneeze. And that it would be how Green gets caught.

(Sidenote: I assume this is where Tarantino lifted the idea for all the criminals in “Reservoir Dogs” using colors for code names: Mr. Brown, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, etc.)

Anyway, this is why my long-suffering wife Lisa hates watching movies with me. To the point where I’ve had to promise to keep my big mouth shut. Or else I’ll ruin things by musing out loud on the (obvious!) ending in the first few minutes of a movie. I’m sure other writers, especially mystery writers (there are 42 Jigsaw Jones books, after all, so I’ve learned a thing or two about laying out clues), do this all the time. We notice things. The odd clue that’s put forward unexpectedly, with just a touch too much emphasis. Why have that minor character sneeze like that? It must mean something. Or we know that it will mean something later on.

This is, of course, Chekhov’s Gun. The idea that if a writer introduces a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third act. Otherwise, don’t include the gun at all. Or the sneeze. Every element is essential to the story or irrelevant.

Anyway, the film dutifully gives us that sneeze at the end of the film, as I knew it must.

                           

       

               

                       

 

And the scene was perfect, and waiting for it held its own deep satisfaction. And then we got the film’s final shot, Matthau’s mug, hearing it, and knowing: he’s got his man.

End scene, end movie.

Just perfect.

Three New Picture Books That I Loved: A Kitten, A Plant, and Everything In the World

I go to the library fairly often. My job is one of solitude, of aloneness, and there are times when I just want to be among people. Watch them walk, listen to them talk, see what they are up to. 

And the other thing about libraries is: that’s where the books are.

While I usually try to stay current, there are times when — well — it’s nice not to know. Not get hung up on what’s happening out there. The buzz, the trends, the hype, the books that make me think: Why, why, why? The work for any writer begins, primarily, with what’s happening in here. The rumblings of the head & the heart.

I am newly resolved to take ten picture books out of the library every time I visit. Read them, think about them. Be inspired or annoyed. 

Here’s three from a recent batch that I particularly enjoyed . . . 

 

The great Kevin Henkes does it again. Can he do no wrong? It occurs to me that he’s probably helped by a wise agent and discerning editors who help bring out the best in him . . . while maybe holding off the crummy ideas. Because even Kevin Henkes must have crummy ideas, right? Right?

Oh, God, I hope so.

The book begins:

There are big things and little things in the world.

The text is spare and the illustrations are simple and yet resonant. He’s so good. He has a full page illustration of pebbles and it could break your heart. It’s a small miracle in a book full of them. Somehow Henkes embues heart and soul into everything he does, that’s what I love about him.

But for this book, it’s the Voice that I so admire. He simply strikes a tone — kind, knowing (without being a know-it-all), gentle and wise.

This is a beautiful, lovely book.

Confession: I love Audrey Vernick. She’s my pal and she’s the greatest. If you don’t like Audrey, then you are dead to me. It’s that simple. But: Confession II: I don’t love everything she’s ever done. 

Besides writing solo, Audrey has successfully teamed up with Liz Garton Scanlon, who is such a fine craftsperson with the soul of a poet. A writer’s writer. They made this book together. 

And for me, this might be their best book yet. It’s expertly crafted and takes place in a world that will be instantly familiar to young readers.

It begins:

Room 107 has a cockatiel. Room 108 has a chinchilla. Even the Art Room has a bearded dragon!

[Writers: Not the rule of three, the comfortable pattern that readers enjoy.]

But in Room 109, Arlo’s classroom, there is a plant. A mostly green, hardly growing, never moving plant. 

Again: the Voice here is unerring and the story unfolds with (mostly) realism and calm and great affection for Jerry (that’s the name of the plant). 

Question: Is Voice the single most important aspect of a children’s book? Maybe yes. 

Warmly illustrated by Lynnor Bontigao. 

I’ll be honest. I am sick to death of overt message books. So obvious and pedantic. So adult-centered. And yet, of course, there’s nothing wrong with signals. Every story sends signals, embedded with values. So it becomes a matter of craft. Of art. How do you send the message without, you know, hammering someone over the head with it? So that maybe when it comes, you didn’t completely see it coming?

But wait. 

First: The illustrations in this are tremendous. The colors rich — not cartoony — and not too vibrant. Carson Ellis is very, very good. You know instantly that you are in good hands.

There’s so much art and skill in how this book is put together. It begins with a single-page illustration of a window, a sky, some trees, two birds. The next page is a double spread: a few homes, more trees, and small (but centered) a mother and child about to take a dog for a walk. No words yet.

(I guess it really isn’t about a kitten!)

And then, whoa, the title page. Cool.

It begins:

This story is not about a kitten.

Turn the page, close up of a kitten cowering under a parked car:

A kitten, hungry and dirty, scared and alone, meowing sadly, needing a home. 

The story builds cumulatively as the different members of the community step forward and come together in compassion, and affection, and common decency.

So, yeah, the message does come and it is pretty straight-forward. But how we get there, Dear Reader, that’s the difference.

This story is about the 

stopping

and listening,

the holding

and bringing,

the offering

and asking

and the working together

it takes, sometimes, to get there. 

An absolute marvel of a book.