Archive for the writing process

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!

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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. 

 

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Beep!

 

 

5 QUESTIONS with Rachel Vail, author of “Sometimes I Grumblesquinch”

We’re back with the fourth installment of “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that invites some of the best folks in children’s literature to answer five — and only five! — questions. 

My guest today is Rachel Vail, a wide-ranging writer with many books to her credit. I think of Rachel as an intentional writer. Rachel knows what she is doing — and exactly why she is doing it — and who she is doing it for — with each and every book. A total pro and a very conscious writer.

 

1. Are you one of those people who knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age?

Absolutely not. I always loved reading, listening to stories, telling stories, and writing. A good sentence has always had the power to make my day. But what I wanted to be was never a writer. I thought all writers were at least old if not dead, neither of which I was at the time, and anyway it didn’t seem like a real job. I always knew exactly what I wanted to be. That thing changed often but I was always certain. (Not knowing seemed terrifying to me, and like proof that I wasn’t “gifted” or “a genius” or “meant” to do the thing, which made me feel like a plodder, a fake.) Also I wanted to do something hard, like be a spy or an actor or a senator. Writing, I naively believed, was easy.

2. So I’m looking at the Oxford English Dictionary — the annotated, expanded version — and  I’m not seeing the word Grumblesquinch in there anywhere. Then I realized that twenty years ago you published Sometimes I’m Bombaloo. What’s going on? Did you decide, after 20  years, “It’s obviously time for sequel!”

Was that not an obvious move?

Katie Honors, the narrator of Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, has lived in my imagination all these years, and in fact there were two sequels already (Jibberwillies at Night; Flabbersmashed About You).

Ah, my bad. Flabbersmashed? Pretty sure that happened to me last Saturday night. No regrets! I’m sorry, I interrupted. 

Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, in particular, has continued to sell and even be studied by a wide range of childhood specialists, from psychologists to educators and beyond. When my brilliant gang –- editor Liza Baker and agent Amy Berkower –- asked if there were any more Katie Honors books in my mind, I jumped at the chance to listen to her again. The illustrator of Bombaloo, the great Yumi Heo, had unfortunately died, so I’d thought that was the end of Katie’s journey. But Liza and Patti Ann Harris of Scholastic were able to engage Hyewon Yum to illustrate the new book, and oh my gosh her seemingly simple art just absolutely blows me away with its evocative emotions and hidden magic.

About those WORDS: I am writing about BIG feelings in little kids. Feelings so big they sometimes feel bigger than the kids can contain. It felt to me like feelings that big, and that complex, need new words to describe them. I want to put the parent and the child in the same position: of beginner, intuiting what the word means from the context, becoming fluent together. Also, I wanted to invent feelings-words that sound like what they mean.

3) To me, the heart of Grumblesquinch — what elevated the book — was the mother’s  response. Was that there from the beginning?

It was.

As a grumblesquincher myself, I know intimately the desire to please the people I love, to be a pleasure, to feel in my bones that it’s my job to be easy to be around. It is such a challenge to own the negative feelings, and to share them.

What I have found, as a recovering good girl, is that the world is often very accepting of us in all our chaotic, contradictory, flawed selves, if we find the courage to share them. It is a balm to discover that. I try to be that kind of mom to my kids –- open to hearing all their feelings and thoughts, even the angry, hostile, frustrated, sad, worried thoughts. There’s such a temptation to push the rough feelings away, as a parent: NO! Don’t be melancholy! Don’t be anxious! Don’t be rageful! When you see a little person for whom you are responsible in pain, you naturally want to just ERASE IT immediately. Your child’s pain is too painful for a parent to bear! So we want to solve it, or deny it, or cajole it away. That comes from love. BUT. I think it feels awful for a kid (or an adult!) to have their negative feelings erased, denied, even solved for.

Sometimes we just need to be heard. We need to know the people who love us can still love us, and can hear the full thing we are feeling. So it was important to me that, though the parents do have the impulse to keep the day light and happy, they can also eventually really be present and understanding. That there will be room for the whole Katie. I had the idea of Chuck being a frustrating buttery baby in my mind for years, and Katie holding in her feelings about him. It was only when I realized what she was really afraid of (letting down her parents, exposing who she really was and disappointing them with her imperfection) that the story clicked for me.

Also, my own mom is really, really nice, deeply accepting, and loving. So that is a constant struggle for me, as a writer.

That’s the genius of this book — and, really, any great picture book. To take something that’s complex and distill it to its essence in a way that conveys a simple, clear, authentic truth. I mean to say: You are spectacular, Rachel Vail.  I also love that you write a range of books. I have a similar affliction. You know, totally confuse any  potential “audience” that might possibly exist. (This does not count as a question! Please ignore.)

It is a problem. We suck. 

4) I remember a conversation I had with an editor at Scholastic, my old pal Craig Walker. We were  talking about the strengths and weaknesses of different writers. He said to me — this is back in the 90s — “Rachel Vail knows girls. She really, really knows that world.” Yet I think one of the  challenges with getting older (sorry), and then having your own children become adults, is  staying in touch with the world of our readers. Is there anything that you do to help keep that  connection strong?

       

Ah, Craig Walker! What a lovely man. Thank you for that!

Yeah, it’s deeply rude of my kids to grow up so quickly. I do like getting their input. (Though it’s not always pleasant, it is useful!)

I continue to talk with kids, and listen to them, more importantly -– friends’ kids, family, at school visits (virtual and now again in person!) and online -– to stay current with what’s going on in their minds, hearts, and language. But I also think that many of the issues facing kids are the same as when we were growing up, when our grandparents were growing up, when their grandparents… we’re trying to figure out who we are in the world and in our souls, how to be a friend, what love costs and is worth, how to choose when neither or both options seem good. The details change (having a way to contact the other person easily at any point wrecks many old plots, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy and beyond, for example) and keep changing, so that’s a lot to stay on top of, and important. I’m finding it nearly impossible to write a truly “contemporary” novel, now. The circumstances of our lives in these past 3-5 years change so quickly that by the time I get something to an editor, it’s already historical fiction. Nothing written with details of, say, May 2020 would be current now. It’s definitely easier to write contemporary fiction for younger kids in that sense –- the big dramas of their lives will continue to be a too-early bedtime or too-big feelings about how annoying their toddler brother is, regardless of whether there is an ongoing global pandemic, or whatever happens with the newest technological or world political upheaval.

And of course, we are all so distractible now, the forms may need to change, too.

5) When I first saw your book, A Is for Elizabeth, I thought: Wow, you’d think a professional writer of Rachel Vail’s caliber wouldn’t make this kind of careless error. Then I thought: Oh, hold  on a sec. Um, seriously. I love (love!) the format of this book. The size, length, content,  everything about it. I don’t think we see enough very young chapter books that contain real stories and characters with depth. Well done. You’ve given me something to aspire to. Tell us  where this book came from and what’s happening with this series.

 

Ahahahahaha thank you! 

I love love love these books, too. I love Elizabeth, so bold and forthright and trying so very hard. I also find her hilarious. I loved writing her so much I actually spent time scheming: how can I make the publisher need to publish tons of these; all I want to do for the next few years is write from Elizabeth’s perspective! That’s why you’ll notice the alphabetical theme of the first four books… they’d have to let me do 26, I thought!

But so far, no. JUST 4. Time will tell. I haven’t given up hope.

Elizabeth started as the younger sister in my 3 books about Justin Case. Justin is a really terrific third grader with a lot of worries. I wrote them because I wanted a book about a really terrific third grader with a lot of worries to give my son Liam, when he fit that exact description. Justin was in some ways like Liam but also a bit like my older son Zachary, and also of course like me, and also just himself. But his little sister Elizabeth (who was also like all of us but also sui generis just herself) kept stealing the scene, for me. She cracked me up. So I knew I wanted to give her center stage. I loved writing in her voice, which became so clear to me.

My favorite part of the writing process is definitely revision –- when the book is clearly a full story and you just have to cut it, hone it, improve it… and you can feel it getting there. There’s a moment in that stage, usually, where something your main character says is just so perfectly them, so not a thing anybody else would say or has said… and you feel it, you feel that thing where it’s like you’re taking dictation from this person who has until that moment existed only in your imagination but now seems to exist whole, complex and vivid, beside you. Oh, man, that’s the buzz I chase, the magic that makes the whole writing flog worth it.

 

JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, 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, 2023. 

On Painting Houses & Writing Books

I painted my house this late summer into fall.

The outside.

Up on the roof, high on ladders. Scraping, priming, the works. A slow process. A day here, a day there. Weekends when it didn’t rain. Physical work, too. Hauling ladders, standing braced on steep inclines, literally hanging on for dear life with one hand in some places. It took some getting used to. Not my usual line of work. 

You should know that I’m not practiced at this stuff. No one would mistake me for a handyman. Others might handle this easily, but for me it was a challenge. My own mountain to climb. But for a variety of reasons — the $7,000 estimate and some spare time (virtue of grown children) — I decided to take on this big project. I sought out different friends for advice, tips, strategies. Bought the supplies. And got started.

There were times I was absolutely frightened. Because I so did not want to become that guy with the broken back, or worse. A distinct possibility. As time wore on, I get better with the heights. Felt safer, more secure. Used to it. But never ever fully comfortable. I don’t think you want to feel too comfortable. That’s when mistakes are made. 

One day, for instance, I purchased a long rope at Lowes. Came back home, looked at it for a long time, then went back and bought a thicker rope. I tied it around my chimney, put on a borrowed harness from my good neighbor Bill, tied the rope to it, and stepped out on the steep incline that I’d been dreading for weeks. Seriously, I’d look at that spot every day and wonder: How am I going to do that without falling? I hammered a nail into the trim and hung a small red paint can from it, so I’d have a free hand to hold onto the rope. Not so bad after all. Steady as she goes. 

I very much enjoyed it. Being alone. Slowly making progress.

In many respects, it was much easier than my regular job. The key was to accept the process, take my time and do what had to be done. Slowly, patiently, carefully. I didn’t have to finish the entire house. If the windows needed to be reglazed, I’d do it. Some rotted wood? I’d patch or replace. Just do what was in front of me. Winter was going to come regardless. I accepted that I might run out of time. Miss my deadline. And that it would have to be okay. 

Doing the job, I found myself dreaming up new thoughts about the book I’ve been writing. Or, actually, not writing. Stuck, trapped, bored, angry, blocked, uncertain. Whatever you want to call it. But I’ve finished enough books in my life to know that eventually I’d land the plane. Meanwhile I was circling in stormy skies, seeking open ground. 

I got distracted for days, weeks, months. Wasted time. Uninspired. Full of doubt. Did the world really need another mediocre manuscript? But I could gradually sense a thawing. Maybe the words would come after all. Maybe I’d have something to say.

The reality that no one — or very few — will care to read the final result was and still is part of the problem for me. To work so hard and fill it all with hope, only to be disappointed is, well, disappointing.

And yet, and yet.

Here’s the thing:

There was a moment that happened to me, and it happens to pretty much anyone who paints a house. I was up on the ladder, frowning. One coat wasn’t going to be good enough. It looked okay enough, but. Then I glanced down and to the street. Two women were passing, walking a dog. Could they tell? Would they ever know, from that distance, if I only painted only one coat?

No, I decided, they wouldn’t notice. 

But I would. 

And I realized, of course, that I was going to put on that second coat. The entire house. The walls and the trim. And with that decision, the job got a lot bigger. And more satisfying. 

Yes, I thought, painting is a lot like writing a book — even if no one reads it.  

UPSTANDER: Listening to the Audiobook

Here’s something I’ve studiously avoided until now — I’m actually listening to one of my own books on audio, borrowed from the library via Libby (though you can buy a copy if you prefer). Normally the idea of that gives me hives. But Upstander is read by a talented voice actor named Caitlin Davies and, to my relief, she does an incredible job conveying tone, pace, meaning, all the while somehow managing to “voice” a wide array of characters.

That’s a curious sidenote, btw: how many characters have spoken dialogue in this book? I’d never considered that before, never added them all up, but it must be more than 20.

Let’s see . . . I’m curious. There’s Mary, Jonny, Chrissie, Alexis, Chantel, Griffin, Cody, Hakeem, Mrs. O’Malley, Mrs. Williams, Ernesto, Mrs. Brown, Drew, David, Eric, Dez, Vivvy, Officer Goldsworthy, Sinjay, Tamara, Beatrice, Azra, Jamilah, Football Player #1.

I was wrong. Caitlin was required to give voice to 24 different characters.  And she does it far, far more masterfully than anything I could have stumblingly mustered.

This listening experience once again underscores the basic truth of publishing: it takes so many people to make a book & put it out into the world. These folks are dedicated, serious, and talented. Art directors and copyeditors, administrative assistants and production managers and, yes, even professional voice actors who can take a text on the page and make it come alive. Thank you, most especially, Caitlin; you are very good at what you do and I’m grateful for that. I’ve actually enjoyed the book so far. What a relief. But I’m only halfway through, so — NO SPOILERS PLEASE!

NOTE: Upstander is a prequel/sequel to Bystander. It begins before the Bystander timeline and then overlaps it in the second half of the book, offering a different perspective on a few “tentpole” scenes while also wandering down new avenues as well. It is not required that you read Bystander in order to enjoy Upstander. There’s no preferred order. However, I think that reading both would be pretty cool. As I have come to think of it, not a longer story, but a larger one. Thanks, as always, for stopping by!

5 QUESTIONS w/ Kyra Teis, author/illustrator of “Klezmer!”

My Nation of Readers will be thrilled to learn, one might hope, that I have decided to bring back my famous “5 Questions” interview format — but with a key difference.

This time I’m going to limit it to 5 actual questions.

Shocking, I know. 

In the past, I’d get too excited and ask too many questions and come away with a 2,000 word interview. Fun, but time-consuming for all concerned. And maybe a little bit daft.

Today I’m kicking off 5 Questions 2.0 with the preternaturally creative Kyra Teis. We’ll be focusing on her recent book, Klezmer

1) Kyra, you grew up in a household of creative people. I wonder if you can talk about that.

It’s true. Both my parents were artists — my father a painter, and my mother in textiles. Both had home studios and they gave my siblings and I full access to their materials and spaces. That said, because they were so knowledgable they were quite demanding — there was no, “That’s wonderful, dear! Let’s put this on the fridge.” It was more like, “That arm’s too long,” and “You need more contrast.” But overall, art was a way of life. Not something extra we added in. This picture is of me in 1976, I was six. At that time my mom was a weaver. She made us 1776 costumes and we went all around to craft fairs. She would make yarn on her spinning wheel while I sat at her feet carding wool.

2) I love your recent book, Klezmer! How did this particular book begin for you? A visual image? A phrase? A song?
Thanks! This is the book I can point to and say: “This is everything I am!” When I first heard Klezmer music, I was like: What the heck is this crazy music? It’s sad, it’s happy. It’s fun, it’s serious. When I dug into the subject, I was struck how much the music itself echoes the Jewish religion/culture it was born out of: Global, but connected to its roots. Keeping a finger on happiness, even in the midst of tragedy. I played with drafts over about ten years trying to figure out how to represent those ideas.
3) You do an amazing job capturing the joyful vibrancy of klezmer music — both in the artwork and the text. Playful and buoyant. “Klezmer’s oldish, and newish, Like jazz, but it’s Jewish.
What I love about klezmer as a music genre is its variety. Every musician gives it a unique twist — bringing in all different instruments, rhythms, sounds. I love to be surprised.
4) Your artwork seems to have evolved. The characters have a loose, rhythmic vibe — yet you incorporate collage techniques and even historical photos. It just feels to me like you were inspired and sort of let it all hang out with this book. 
I agree that my art has evolved. Some of that I owe to switching from traditional paper collage to digital. I had used paper collage for years in book illustration, but it became too heavy and static a medium for me. I wasn’t able to incorporate the energy of the hand-drawn line because I didn’t like the way lines would break over the edges of paper. To go digital, I scanned hundreds of my textural painted and blotted papers, I learned Photoshop (a year-long process!) and created about 20 portfolios worth of new artwork. After a while a new voice emerged. I like it: it still has the bright colors and deep texture of my earlier art, but it is much more gestural and layered.
5) When we first met more than 20 years ago, you had already experienced some success in children’s books. You had a passion for it and a knowledge of it. However, as it is for so many of us, the road has not always been smooth. Yet you’ve persevered. What has that experience been like? Any takeaways?
I’d rephrase that to say, the road hasn’t been a straight line. I’m at my best when I alternate time in my studio with epic projects involving lots of people and moving parts  — planning conferences for SCBWI; designing Nutcracker costumes for my daughter’s ballet school; helping friends’ political campaigns; starting a handmade clothing line — it’s all good, you know? I think the overall goal is to have a full and creative life. 
I love that answer. A full and creative life. Thank you, Kyra. I wish you success in all of your rich & varied artistic endeavors. Now I think I’ll go listen to some klezmer music . . . 
JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, All Welcome Here, and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13, on Scholastic Book Fairs and Book Clubs. It will be available in stores in February, 2023.