Archive for the writing process

Madeleine L’Engle: I Am Still Every Age That I Have Been . . .

“I am still every age that I have been.
Because I was once a child, I am always a child.”


“Because I was once a searching adolescent,

given to moods and ecstasies,

these are still part of me, and always will be…

This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in

any of these ages…the delayed adolescent, the childish adult,

but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide…

Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things

means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel

and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old

or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old

means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids,

feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up,

then I don’t ever want to be one.

Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy,

and be fifty-one,

then I will really learn what it means to be grownup.”

-Madeleine L’Engle

A Few Thoughts on Writing in the “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” Format — Everything is Backwards!

“If you build a wee home
with love and care,
a magic fairy will come. It only takes faith
and a little imagination.”

Something different from me, a lighthearted project in the CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE format (thank you, Chooseco). Despite their popularity, I never felt that a fairy story was my domain. But why not? After interviewing author Liza Gardner Walsh (who is fabulous, and a fairy *expert*), I was inspired by the possibilities — beginning with the hope-filled activity of building a fairy house with natural materials. Of course, my fairy is not called Silverwings or Emerald Dancer. He’s named Bert the Below Average, and not all of his magic works out as planned. Hopefully a lively, funny, entertaining book that can be read, and reread, again and again, each time with a new ending. Now available, 80 pages, ages 5-8, wonderfully illustrated by Norm Grock.


I wanted to talk a little bit about writing in this crazy format, because it was so different from anything I’ve done before. You see, the books are backwards.

Briefly, the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure (CYOA) format, trademarked by Chooseco, requires a unique set of assumptions and rules. The idea is that YOU, the reader, has agency: the story is about you, and you make decisions along the way. So it is written in the second person, a first for me.

Talk to the owl? Turn to page 16. Hide from the owl? Turn to page 36.

But there’s something else that makes these stories so weird to write: The endings don’t matter.

I mean, they don’t matter in the usual way that endings matter. In the case of Fairy House, a book of only 80 pages, there are 13 different endings.

When most of us write books, the ending matters a lot. I mean, a really lot. It’s the dramatic conclusion, the culmination, the part where full meaning takes place. The last joke, the grand finale, the end of the trail — the part we’ve been driving toward the entire time.

Well, throw that all away.

As the writer of a CYOA story, you can’t get too invested in any one ending. In fact, this is very important: there’s no “true” ending. It’s not like there’s one “right” ending and then a bunch of dead ends. That would be the wrong way to think about a CYOA. Every ending is valid; every ending has to work and satisfy the reader. You are not driving the boat — it’s the reader at the wheel, making all the decisions.

You have surrendered the most important part of your story — usually the reason for telling the story. No, you’ve handed it over to some unknown reader in Boise, Idaho . . . or Burbank, California . . . or Istanbul, Turkey. 


So what’s the trick? It’s the beginning that matters most. Think of a CYOA story as a tree. Picture that image in your mind. The unseen roots, the powerful trunk, the many branches. The opening of the story is the trunk. The many possible choices, or pathways, are the branches that grow from out of that trunk.

The CYOA form is dendritic. Tree-like.

If you don’t have a strong trunk — a sturdy set-up — than it will never hold the weight of all those possible storylines.

It takes a little time for the opening to Fairy House to establish itself. The reader doesn’t begin to make choices until page 9. Here’s the opening of the story . . .



You sit on a tire swing in your backyard. Kicking the air, going nowhere. Bored, bored, bored. Your parents work at home and stare at their computers all day long. You feel lonely and there’s nothing to do. But you remember something your grandmother once said: “If you build a wee home with love and care, a magic fairy will come. It only takes faith and a little imagination.”

Could it be true? You decide to find out.

You pick a spot beneath an oak tree. You gather up acorns, tree bark, pine cones, a cardinal feather, flower petals, stones, and more. You make a little bed of sticks, cushioned with soft fir needles. You add a layer of moss for a blanket. You finish it all off with two magnolia leaves framing the front door. 

Your fairy home looks awesome — a magical little world — and you want to show someone.

“Maybe later,” your mother says, click-clacking on the computer keyboard.

“Maybe later,” your father says, scrolling through rows of numbers on the computer screen.

Neither parent even looks at you.

The black cat, Midnight, seems curious. She follows you outside, prowling softly on padded feet.

And you wait, and you wait some more. But nothing happens — because nothing ever does. Oh well. You set up your stuffed bunny, Old Mister Ears, to keep watch. You go inside for the night. 

The next morning, you check. Strange, the moss blanket has been tossed to the ground. Perhaps it was the wind. Or a restless chipmunk. An acorn falls, landing with a dull thump. You hear a groan: “Oof!” You see a flash of movement, quick as a hummingbird. But it wasn’t that. These wings glowed

You spring to your feet to investigate. Moving quickly, you peek around the old oak to gaze at the quivering stems of April daffodils. Something cowers behind them.

You drop to your hands and knees, scarcely breathing. 

Hardly taller than your thumb, the creature has unusually large eyes, long skinny legs, and small, delicate wings of a honeybee. 

And so you say, ever so gently, “Well, hello there.”




Let’s close out with another (happy!) illustration by Norm . . . 


Thanks, as always, for your interest & support.














The Blessed Unrest: On Teaching, Writing, Ted Williams, and Martha Graham’s Splendid Advice to Agnes de Mille

I’ve tried something new recently. I’m teaching an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books: Level 1.”

I’m enjoying the experience, mostly because of the students. I find myself thinking about them a lot, how to structure a lesson, how best to respond to a wide variety of writing and ambitions. I suspect that if I calculated the pay per hour, I’d be making below minimum wage. But payment isn’t just about money, as we know. I’m getting things out of it, too. Inspiration, engagement, clarity, connection.

But how best to respond to student writing? I mean, sure, say something positive, say something constructive, be encouraging. That’s all pretty obvious & within my nature. My friend, a far more experienced teacher, told me that every writing student wants to get published. That’s the dream, the aspiration. Maybe I’ll write a book one day. Lots of people have that thought, and certainly most anyone taking a writing class. I don’t know why, but the notion surprised me. Could it be true? Probably yes, I guess. 

In life, we receive when our antenna is up; we absorb when we make ourselves spongey, receptive. When I came across an amazing quote by Martha Graham, I was ready to hear it. Her words clarified so much for me. The excerpt comes from Agnes de Mille’s 1991 biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. At the time, de Mille was experiencing great uncertainty and dissatisfaction with her work, both in her own sense of it and how it was received by others. 


I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and (will) be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours. Clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open . . .  No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”


Beautiful, right? 

And in so many different ways. 

I’ve decided, for my class, that there are essentially two paths open for me when responding to someone’s work. The first might be to address it from a publishing point of view. Discuss the marketplace, the types of things that are published, the “proper” length & format, things that are typically frowned upon by editors today, etc. All to help them realize the great & noble dream of publication. And I have pretty much zero interest in that type of instruction. I mean, there’s a whole cottage industry out there making promises to unpublished authors, “The 7 keys to becoming a bestselling author,” etc. I can’t help but suspect there’s a degree of flimflam to all that, snake oil salespersons preying on the innocent. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s surely good information to have at some point along the journey. But I’m not that guy.

As for the second path, yes, I can align myself with that. If I can encourage someone to express themselves, to tap that vein of creativity and authentic feeling, it seems worthwhile. One true thing. Help them in some small way to become better artists and writers. Because if you can do that, the “author” part just might follow. Eventually.

When the class started, I mentioned baseball legend Ted Williams. When asked about his goals for the upcoming season — Did he hope to bat for a .350 average? Mash 40 homers? — Williams replied, simply, that his goal was to put a good swing on the ball. Process over result.  

Here’s to putting a good swing the ball, folks. The rest will be what it will be. But somehow in the process you’ll express something of yourselves, get in touch with some meaningful memories, awaken the sleeping spirits that reside deep within, experience Martha Graham’s “blessed unrest” and possibly become a little more alive as you move through the days.

Oh, one line that I especially love in that whole thing?

It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda.

I admire the simplicity and directness of that sentence. In a passage full of spoken words and abstractions, that simple line grounds us in the reality of the scene. Two women talking in as ordinary setting as one could imagine. It is not easy for writers to leave a sentence like that alone: It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It seems too artless, too plain: the clever writer all too invisible. Of course, that’s the point. De Mille gets out of the way. She disappears. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. It’s all the reader needs.

So that’s the last thought bubbling up the straw. Companionship. Connection. Conversation. Two women, two artists, sitting together and supporting each other. Just talking. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson of all. Be there for each other.

Maybe it’s time to give that friend a call.










Joan Didion . . . Thank You!


We lost one of our greatest writers today. She was in life, and remains in death, a treasure. Just a remarkable woman.

Regarding that quote up above, it is one of the reasons why I am often paralyzed by the idea of outlines. More and more, publishers require them. A box to be checked. I used to balk at that, because — of course! — how would I know what’s going to happen until I start writing? But I’ve learned that they don’t expect writers to doggedly follow the outline. Editors want a general idea — and, yes, managing editors certainly like to check off that box. A way to keep things moving along the conveyer belt. 

When writing, I always have a plan. At least for that day, that scene, that chapter. An idea of what I want to accomplish, the ground I need to cover. And I always have a more general idea of where I hope to end up.

A metaphor: I’m in a sailboat, I’m aiming for an island in the distance, but the currents are strong and the wind is kicking up. I might get blown off course. And even in the best circumstances, I’ll have to tack back and forth; I won’t get there in a straight line.

Just today, in fact, I was finally ready to begin outlining the final chapters of a book that’s two-thirds finished. So rather than blasting out a lot of words, I spent the day plotting in detail that final sequence of events. It took that long for me to reach that level of clarity, far different from anything I might have imagined, or “outlined” to my editors, three months ago.

I noticed how much of the original outline didn’t make the final draft. Some ideas (and characters) got crowded by other (hopefully) better ideas.

Writing as discovery. A way to find out. A path into the deep, dark woods. For me, it’s impossible to plan in advance what exactly I might find there. 

If you have not read The Year of Magical Thinking, that’s a terrific way to meet Joan Didion. But there are many avenues of entry. You can’t go wrong. Just pick up something/anything that she’s written . . . and start reading.

Fan Mail Wednesday #316: Eight Questions from an Old Fan

You never know what’s going to be in ye olde in-box. In this case, more sophisticated questions and, in return, more realistic answers. 


Michael writes . . .

Growing up I was a big fan of your Jigsaw Jones books. I can’t remember when I last read them, but I’ve never forgotten them! I am currently enrolled in an English Capstone college course that features an assignment for me to interview someone with an English-related occupation, and my mind jumped to authors, which then jumped to you. If you are willing to answer a few questions within the next couple days, I’d greatly appreciate it. If you do not wish to or are unavailable after Wednesday, no worries. Thank you very much for your writings and I hope this message finds you well.


I replied . . . 
Sure, let’s see what you’ve got. Obviously if it’s too many questions, under a tight deadline, that’s not going to work.
Michael again . . .
I appreciate your interest! To make it easier, as the professor okay’d the e-mail method, I will send you the questions here and you may answer them at any time, at any length you wish. Here’s what I have:
1) What is your favorite aspect of your job?
2) What is the biggest con about your job?
3) What traits or skill would be most useful for someone or desirable for someone entering the field you are in?
4) What was the deciding factor for you in choosing this career over other ones?
5) What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing the career you are in?
6) What is a typical work day like for you?
7) Did you find unexpected barriers in pursuing your work and / or communicating with others in the field?
8) Is there anything you would have done differently in preparing for your career?
Please take your time, and whenever you can respond is excellent. I am eager to learn about you and your field! Thank you very much!
My reply . . .

1. The writing, when it is going well. There’s a lot about the business that is wonderful and parts that are heartbreaking and awful. The act of creating is the thing that pulls me back every time. It’s the core of what I do. The pleasure and satisfaction of making things, of self-expression, of putting something out into the world that would never exist without me.

2. The biggest con? Oh, gosh. The financial insecurity.
3. Talent. To do this job, you have to believe that good work will find a way.
4. It wasn’t a cold analytical decision. Certainly not a “reasonable” one. I’ve always believed in following your enthusiasms, trusting your enthusiasms, and that worthy considerations such as benefits and a solid health plan never entered into it. I wanted to do something that I loved. You don’t really go into it as “a career,” so much as you try to do this one thing in front of you, then the next, then the next, etc. For me, it started with a love of books and writing that has never let go. Not to be over-dramatic about it, or too self-regarding, but writing well — for years and years and years — is extremely hard and not always rewarding. You have to pick yourself up off the floor a lot.
5. Know that it’s going to be difficult and uncertain, that you’ll most likely need to make money another way. I’d advise doing it on the side until you are firmly established. Get a good job. Or, hey, partner up with a lawyer! OTOH, I think there’s a period — oh, youth! — when you should pursue your dreams to the fullest with total commitment. But there may be a point when you realize that you’ll never play shortstop for the Yankees. It’s good to have some kind of backup plan.
6. Desk, laptop, normal hours.
7. Being a mid-list author with a proven track record — quality work, solid working relationships, hitting deadlines — all the stuff that comes with being “a pro” — can become a negative at a certain point. I didn’t expect that. You are clearly not the Next Big Thing. The numbers don’t lie. In our culture, we tend to discard too easily and are forever chasing after the Next Big Thing.
8. I am not positive that I should have done this at all, at least as a primary job. Might have been a mistake. But here we are, feels like it’s too late now. The final chapters haven’t been written yet.
James Preller
Art by R.W. Alley.