Tag Archive for james preller writing process

Sloppy Copy, Ugly Beginnings & the Sense of Smell

I could never write a book about writing well — not smart enough, for starters — but I can give you a glimpse into how it sometimes works for me. I don’t speak from a pedestal; this missive comes from the trenches.

I was recently writing Book #3 for my new SCARY TALES series for grades 2-5 (read: solidlly 3-4).

Plot: There are three kids trapped in a school at night and strange creatures gather outside the building, shuffling closer. And, sure, maybe there’s already something frightening downstairs, too.

As I was working on the story, it hit me that there was a smell to it, a smell of evil that drifted into the building like smoke, lingering and circling and rubbing against your legs like a cat. So I jotted down a few words. They are an ugly mess. And I didn’t know at the time where in the story this could possibly occur, if at all.

Let me show you . . .

Yes, this is not a beautiful beginning, but precisely because it is a beginning, I am here to celebrate it. Anything that gets you started — that opens a door — is a good thing for a writer.

Worst handwriting ever. Plus, it looks like I left the paper in a puddle, or used it to soak up a spill. This is the moment in writing when you unexpectedly receive the kernel of an idea, the beginning of something, and you need to quickly get some words on the page — even if they are only 33% of the right words, and in entirely the wrong order. You know it isn’t right, not even close, but it’s not a real worry either. Those concerns come later on, like mosquitoes at dusk.

Since this will ultimately be a scary story for children, I want to be careful about how far to go with it. Where is the line I won’t cross? My intention is to push that line a little, but I don’t want to get too dark. Everyone is going to have a different opinion on what’s “too scary” and what’s not scary enough. In terms of how that plays out as a writer, I suspect it’s best to push the limits in a rough draft, since you can always pull back in revision — and again after the input of an objective editor.

Grumpy Answers to Great Questions: Wastepaper Prose (and Other Literary Woes)

I was recently invited to participate in Round 7 of “The Author Insight Series,” hosted by the outstanding Wastepaper Prose blog.

It was exciting to get an invitation anywhere, frankly, so I went out, bought a lightweight seersucker suit, and dithered over which holiday present to re-gift.

(Little known fact: I am 51 years old and have never owned a suit. Or a watch. Carry on!)

The Insight Series is actually quite impressive. In this case, Susan sent along a list of 16 questions to 23 authors. We all answer the same questions in our own way. My way was, naturally, the grumpy way; I feel like that’s my turf.

It’s strange to experience the compare-and-contrast effect of 23 writers answering the same question. I didn’t want to lose! Didn’t want to be the one lame author limping along in last place every time, feet blistered, clutching my side, gasping for air. Everything in life is a competition, as I tell preschoolers at every opportunity, and I was determined to avoid that kind of embarrassment.

Here are the answers to Question #1: “If someone had a behind-the-scenes pass to observe your writing process what would they see?”

My writing process in a picture. Do we really need

a thousand words?

In all seriousness, across four-plus years of blogging I’ve tried to write openly and honestly about my writing process . . . without sounding too precious about it. Click here if you care about that stuff.

I was glad for the opportunity to participate. Glad to be able to bring some sliver of attention to my upcoming YA novel, Before You Go. Authors come in all shapes, shades, and sizes — all with our own fingerprint — and it’s worthwhile, perhaps even inspiring, to celebrate that variety of voices. And guess what else? There was be PRIZES and GIVEAWAYS, signed books and such, at the end of the series. Go to Wastepaper Prose and knock yourself out. Hopefully you’ll discover some new writers in the process.

Sneak Peak 2: My New Series of Scary Tales

Last month I handed in the manuscript for the first book in a new series — my first since Jigsaw Jones. Though Jigsaw is still around, with many titles still available, I haven’t consistently written new books in that series for the past six years.

In the intervening time, I’ve published hardcover books, a first for me, in picture book format (Mighty Casey, A Pirate’s Guide for First Grade) and for older readers (Six Innings, Along Came Spider, Justin Fisher Declares War, Bystander, and Before You Go).

I haven’t written specifically for what was once my core readership, the grades 2-4 crowd. I needed to step away, explore different things. But now I’m back, writing 80-page chapter books for exactly that age group. And I have to tell you, I’m absolutely in my comfort zone with this new, evolving series — my “Twilight Zone” for younger readers.

Here’s a sample page 1 from my first draft, scribbled out on a yellow legal pad (as if my usual practice):

Kind of messy, right? Not sure you can read this. Lots of interesting changes/revisions/improvements on the fly. I gave the sister an early line of dialogue, then to the side, later, asked myself: “still sleeping?” Brought “Our new home” up into the first paragraph, deleted words and phrases, etc.

Last week I received the copyedit in the mail, which I reviewed over the phone with my editor, Liz. So now that same section looks like this:

The ring, I learned as I wrote, figures large in the story. There is a power to it. So during revision I made sure to get it into that opening scene, underscoring Kelly’s relationship to it, giving it, in other words, its moment.

I was grateful to receive positive feedback from my publisher, since the first book in a new series can be tricky. You make many decisions that you’ll have to live with for the length of the series. Jean Feiwel sent me a note, “I love love love this book.” That was good day. I was not asked to make any big changes, just light revisions. In another month or so I’ve receive the galleys, with the corrected type set in a carefully-selected font, exactly as it will appear in final book form, and with it the opportunity for another round of tweaks, improvements. The artwork will come in within the next two weeks — and there will be a lot of it. That’s exciting. I can’t wait to see what the (super-talented, surprise) illustrator does with the story. All the while, I’m writing the second book of the series, which is due in another month.

The series, tentatively titled “Shivers,” will launch in the summer of 2013.

EDIT: Now called “SCARY TALES.”

Starting a new series presents many challenges, the thrill of creating something brand new. Hopefully this will be the beginning of something great. That’s always my dream going into a job, “Maybe this one will be great.” I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet, but I keep hoping.

We are not interested in creating a formulaic set of stories, stamped out by a factory. We want each book to stand alone, featuring different characters and different settings. Again, in this sense, I am inspired by Stephen King and “The Twilight Zone” (and yes, I own the complete series on DVD), which rather than one type of story, featured a comprehensive variety of sub-genre, including science fiction, horror, social satire, fantasy, ghost stories and countless variations. My hope is that across a number of books we’ll be able to accomplish something similar in terms of scope and content, while still maintaining a signature fingerprint. When a reader opens a “Shivers” book, he’ll know that he’s about to get strapped into the roller coaster, taken for a wild ride, and returned back safely again — hopefully screaming, “Again, again, again!”

For fans of process, here’s another example of how the story moved from first draft to copyedit:

The copyedited version, which arrives after many revisions by me at home before it goes to the publisher, represents the first edited response from my publisher. Again, this sample shows a light touch by the folks at Feiwel & Friends, thank goodness. Note the circles around “Liam.” We commonly refer to this as an echo. Sometimes when we use a word too many times over a few sentences, or when, in this case, the paragraphs open in the same way. Doesn’t mean it must be changed, just that it should be looked at, considered, before it is changed or not. Alert readers will also note that I changed “‘Hello,’ he called” to “‘Hello,’ he bleated.”

A little lamb, lost in the wilderness.

Have a great Memorial Weekend, everybody. And please remember why we celebrate it. Be grateful to the uniformed men and women who have served our country over the years.

Einstein on the Beach: How a Quote Informed a Scene from BEFORE YOU GO

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.

It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion

is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,

is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”Albert Einstein.

It’s a simple quote, really, and I came across it when reading his biography, brilliantly written by Walter Isaacson.

And I kept returning it to my mind when I was writing the closing chapter to Before You Go. The scene takes place on the beach, Jones Beach specifically, a place I know well. It’s a feeling, too, not just a place. Because when you stand at the edge of the world like that, the ocean crashing before you, it’s impossible not to feel like a tiny part of something enormous and beautiful, the power and wonder and vastness of nature. The mystery of God or whatever you want to call it.

And I wanted the book’s endnote to convey some sliver of that. When I look at my notes on the final galleys, I see that I fussed with that passage to the last. Deleted a comma and the word “and,” cut a compound sentence into two short ones. I toyed with gilding the lily on the line, “There was another world across it,” but I suspect I got talked out of that by my editor, Liz. Or, hey, sometimes I have the sense to talk myself out of those things. Understatement, you know — it’s what all the kids are clamoring for.

Understatement and subtlety, that’s where the money is!

This brief passage doesn’t live up to the great Einstein quote. I know that. But the echo is there for me and, I hope, reaches readers in some serpentine way. Just the sense of that word, mystery. The ocean gives that to me, and to many other people I know. A sense of peace, and calm, and belonging to some greater thing.

So two teenagers walk on the beach, a broken-up couple heading to the shore:

Becka led the way through the dark, down the long West End beach toward the ocean. Jude smelled the briny air, tasted seaweed on his tongue before the ocean’s hum had even reached his ears. His vision limited to shades of gray and black, Jude sensed something in the distance that couldn’t be seen, something vast and mysterious called the Atlantic. There was another world across from it. He reached out for Becka’s hand. They walked barefoot and together to land’s end.

And again, a few pages later, with Jude alone, I reached for it again . . .

He didn’t know what would happen with Becka. Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything. Sometimes life seemed impossibly hard, full of car wrecks and souls that shined like stars in yellow dresses. So much heartbreak and undertow. Jude bent down, picked up a smooth white stone, measured its heft in his hand. And he reached back to cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.

“My Life’s Sentences” by Jhumpa Lahiri (on the art and craft of writing — and reading!)

I have to share this brilliant piece from The New York Times Sunday Review, March 18, 2012, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri. I powerfully identified with it.

In it, she expresses her love of sentences. Everything about this piece confirms, echoes, and expands upon my own feelings as a writer and a reader. Though we’re told that Lahiri’s piece is part of a series about “the art and craft of writing,” it is just as much about reading. Perhaps more so. Teachers, librarians, editors, readers, please check out it.

Art by Jeffrey Fisher.

Here’s the opening . . .

In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be.

As I’ve said before on this blog, that’s how I read — pen in hand, underlining sentences, making marks, asterisks and exclamation points, my beloved marginalia. But the thought that really had me nodding in agreement was how the best sentences made me stop reading. I looked up from the page, thinking, feeling, dreaming. It’s counter-intuitive. We want readers to keep turning the pages, right? To devour the book, consume it. Well, maybe not. Maybe we want them to slow down, or stop altogether.

From my copy of Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.

That’s why, I think, that I’m so often uncomfortable when I encounter the counters and the tickers, the well-meaning folks who inform us how they read exactly 214 books this year and so on. I don’t mean to insult anyone, but I’m so tired of the idea of quantity.

Pause and reflection, that’s reading too.

Of course, there are different kinds of reading. Librarians, for example, tend to read with an ultimate user in mind. So he burns through a Percy Jackson book (doesn’t that kill you when folks use that language, burning through a book), wanting to be familiar with it, but mostly thinking, “I can’t wait to give this book to about twelve boys I know.” That’s an altogether different reading experience — and probably a topic for another day.

Speaking of sentences, here’s a sturdy one:

The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail.

And in the next paragraph:

They remain the test, whether or not to read something. The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold.

This is exactly why I could not continue reading Twilight, for example. For me, there was no spark in the sentences, no electric connection between writer and reader. I couldn’t even get past them to story.

Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way.

Another sentence to underline:

My work accrues sentence by sentence.

So true, could it be any other way? Bird by bird, sentence by sentence, brick by brick.

I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone. They are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, handed to me in no particular order, with no discernible logic. I only sense that they are part of the thing.

I talk to students about this in a different way, more about ideas than sentences. Those times when you are thinking that you are not thinking. That’s often when the ideas come, when the sentences, unbidden, line up inside your skull. I know a book is going well when sentences come to me in the shower.

Last  thought — and please, go to the original piece, read it in full — I also connected with Ms. Lahiri’s concept of revision:

All the revision I do — and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation — occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character becomes clear to me, that a plot unfolds. To work on them so compulsively, perhaps prematurely, is to see the trees before the forest. And yet I am incapable of conceiving the forest any other way.

Students are taught the writing process in school, the five steps, brainstorming and so on, that it’s easy to imagine each as isolated, distinct from the other. In fact, many experts advise writers to “just write” in the beginning, get the words on the page, don’t worry about mistakes. And while I understand that point of view, that’s never been how I do it. Revision begins instantaneously, inextricably linked to the writing impulse. In this age of trumpeting daily word counts on status updates — “1,687 words today!” — it’s nice to read that maybe I haven’t been doing it completely wrong after all.

When something is in proofs I sit in solitary confinement with them. Each is confronted, inspected, turned inside out. Each is sentenced, literally, to be part of the text, or not. Such close scrutiny can lead to blindness. At times — and these times terrify — they cease to make sense. When a book is finally out of my hands I feel bereft. It is the absence of all those sentences that had circulated through me for a period of my life. A complex root system, extracted.

I have just been through this with my upcoming book, Before You Go (Macmillan, July 2012).

And though all my favorite writers are great sentence-makers, with this novel I came closest to that ideal. This book has my best sentences. Each confronted, inspected, turned inside out. Yes, the sentences are vehicles for ideas, feelings; they carry story on their shoulders. But story itself consists solely of sentences, sounds, rhythms, meanings. And  now that my book is at the printer — hey, before you go! — too late, too late! — I too feel a bit bereft.

The only way out of that hole is to write a new story. Sentence by sentence.

Go here to learn more about Jhumpa Lahiri.