Tag Archive for preller writing advice

Fan Mail Wednesday #127 (Writing Advice)

Certainly by this point, faithful readers of jamespreller.com have realized that for me, “Wednesday” is a mystical proposition rather than, say, an actual day. Fan Mail Wednesday happens when I get around to it, basically, and these days it’s been tough. I’m traveling like never before. On Tuesday I was in Hudson, NY, and yesterday in Deep River, CT. In both cases, everyone had read my book, Bystander. Teachers, administrators, students, everybody. Incredible. Even the janitor gave me hug (no, not really).

I gave my fancy new Power Point presentation and I think I’m getting the hang of this thing. Talking about Bystander — my writing process, yes, but also about the bullying themes in the book — really challenged me. In the end, I realized that I did not write an anti-bullying prevention program; I wrote a story. And that story, and literature in general, can be a powerful tool for standing in someone else’s shoes. For learning compassion, empathy.

Frankly, at this point, I sense that many of us are becoming a little sick to death of bullying as the pervasive “it” topic. As I darkly joked with an administrator yesterday, predicting the spat on new bully-themed books that are surely to come, “Bullies are  the new wizards.” But I do know that this subject matters. And matters deeply, urgently. Character matters. Building community matters. Caring, tolerance, relationships, peacefulness, civility — all these things are a vital part of school, and life. Bullying is just a subset of those overall goals. There is no learning until community exists.

Anyway, here’s an absolutely terrific letter from K . . .

Hi, it’s the girl that was going to email her piece of writing to you at Mt. Greylock Regional High School (AKA: K_____)

I’ve never actually written an email to an adult before, so I have no idea how or what to type. I wish I could’ve had more time to talk to you at the workshop — Bystander was AMAZING. I spent hours reading it and then had to hide it in my bed with a flashlight when I was supposed to be in bed. Please don’t tell my parents. (:

(Oh, and I have a question. I was dying to ask you but completely forgot to. When you were in the auditorium with us, you said you had some pictures in your books (I’m having a short-term memory loss at the moment, can’t remember which books they were…) that were done by somebody that also drew graphic novels, if I’m correct. Which graphic novels were they? I could’ve sworn I heard you say “Kanon” and “Clannad,” which are my two favorite books/shows ever. )

Your blog is also amazing. The picture of the little kid getting “eaten” by the shark costume made me smile. It made my day.

By the way, when I got home, I showed the paper that you signed to my little sister. She said that you actually showed up at her school, too. Lanesborough Elementary. And she was incredibly jealous about the autograph. She says hi, by the way. 🙂

And… I’ve decided to type out the writing piece that I wrote on here because I reaaally want your advice on how I can become better at writing. (I’m starting to think about being an author, it sounds fun. ♥)


[K’s Writing Sample]

The adrenaline flowed through me, being the only thing that made me keep moving onwards. Whenever I slowed down, the fear crashed into my mind, interuppting all tired thoughts.

I was running from my once-best friend. Dakota, the girl I had once shared my feelings with and had fun with, was now hunting me down. Slowly, a little hand grasped my bigger one, our fingers entwining. Angel. I would never let you go.

Staring downwards, still running for my life, big blue eyes met my brown ones. They were curious, wondering what exactly what was happening, but overall, terrified. Her lower lip trembled.

“Why is she chasing us?” Was Angel’s question. I had no idea myself. Shaking my head, I turned away. Angel whimpered softly, and clutched my hand so tight my fingers went numb. “I’m scared.”

Smirking, trying to stay brave (although my insides were crashing apart), I turned back around. “Me too.”

“I miss Dakota,” Angel started wiping her face with her dirty sleeve. How long had we been running? Gritting my teeth to keep back tears, I sniffled.

“Me too.”

Then, like God despised the both of us, he performed his “magical powers,” and created a miracle. Rain. I finally let my tears go, collapsing to my knees as I called out Dakota’s name over and over again. Wide-eyed, Angel stared at my tear-stricken face. She gripped my shoulders, glancing around cautiously.

“What’s wrong?” Her horrified whisper made a lump appear in my throat. I swallowed.

“N-Nothing,” I stuttered, although the tears kept falling. Angel stroked my cheek, trying to stop the tears. How great, I thought despite myself, for a 6 year old to be comforting a 13 year old.

Angel sighed, and her eyes caught something glowing in the shadows.

“Celeste,” She whispered my name, terrified. I don’t like the tone of her voice…

“What?” I tried to stay somewhat calm-sounding, but not even her could miss the panic.

“Flashlight beam.”


I got up.


So that would be it. ♥ If I ever do become a author, I’ll aim to make that a part of the first book that I publish. ♥ What do you think of it? 🙂

Sincerely, K_____

I replied:

Dear K_____,

Thank you for your fantastic email and writing sample. I loved visiting Mount Greylock. I don’t normally get the opportunity to teach writing workshops, since schools usually want me to see as many students as possible, and workshops are of necessity small and intimate. I feel inexperienced, like I really have no idea what I’m doing. Yes, I’ve been writing professionally for 25 years — I must know something! — but teaching is a different skill. And teaching writing, well, I’m not at all sure how to go about that.

Personally, I never really took writing classes. I did one workshop in college and didn’t like it. I tried another one some time later, for poetry, and it was okay. So my experience is that I’ve learned by reading — deeply, widely, attentively — and by doing. That is, by writing. Getting published, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with editors who’ve been very smart, so I’ve learned from them, too.

I have no memory of writing in school, though I suppose it must have happened. I did keep journals, though, in my teenage years and beyond. Note the distinction, “journal” not “diary.” I was never one for documenting the day. “Dear Diary, today I went to Auntie Em’s for lunch. We had grilled cheese sandwiches.” And so on. I used my journal to write thoughts, ideas, observations, poems, short stories. It was a place to go with my thoughts, and every writer needs a blank page.

The artist I mentioned was Greg Ruth, who illustrated A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. You can learn more about Greg by clicking here.

Illustration by the insanely talented, Greg Ruth.

Your writing sample was very dramatic, very exciting — and left me, the reader, with so many questions. In short: I want to know more! I love how you drop us right into this thrilling moment, running for their lives (I think), frightened, desperate. And also, the relationship between the sisters, the hands clutching. This is exciting stuff. Even the name, Angel, is arresting. So, really, I think you’ve GOT TO KEEP GOING with this story.

What’s the deal with Dakota?

You can do that in at least three ways, it seems to me: 1) By seeing your sample as somewhere in the middle of your story, and going back to write what led up to this moment; 2) Through flashback, perhaps entering the thoughts, memories, of the main character; 3) By having Dakota herself appear, and all of this come out through dialogue. My point? You’ve grabbed us, gotten our attention, now you’ve got to answer our questions.

You wrote your piece in our workshop, probably not knowing the answers yourself. Don’t worry; that’s writing. Sometimes we write to figure it out, to discover, to learn. Think of it as a journey — and follow, follow, follow.

I don’t think that it’s productive to worry too much, at this stage in the journey, about getting things perfect. But as a reader, I did feel some confusion about Dakota. They were running from her . . . but missing her? They were running from her . . . but suddenly stopping to cry out her name? Has she transformed in some way? Is the real Dakota gone? What’s happening? You don’t need to answer every question in this one scene, but you do need each character’s actions to make sense and be consistent. Every moment has to ring true.

Thanks for your letter. And say hello to your sister. Good luck with the writing. And please, above all, HAVE FUN with it. Enjoy yourself. I like how in real life you have a younger sister. I think you could go deeper into that fictional relationship in your story. Sisters. It’s something you know in your heart.

My best,


Fan Mail Wednesday #92 (Monday Edition: Writing Tips!)

I’ve been bad with the fan mail lately. Here’s one from a young writer:

Hi Mr. Preller,
I hope you remember me. You wrote a message in one of my jigsaw Jones books saying that I have talent and that I should keep writing.  Well I have been writing a lot since you taught me “show, don’t tell” in fifth grade at Hamagrael. Can you please give me some advice on how to  be a better writer? I am writing a novella, an anthology, and I am not  sure if I am ready to start a novel draft. How can I make a plot more interesting? What can you tell me about the editing and revising process?


To my surprise, I replied at some length:


It’s nice to hear from you again. Yes, I remember.

The only difference between a novella and a novel is length — and length is largely determined by story. Some stories take more time to tell. At some point, either in writing this novella or another story, you’ll find that the telling of it requires more words. The story will naturally grow longer, because there’s simply more to be said.

It’s a funny about plots, I always come back to a very simple idea:

Make something up!

Really, in some ways, it’s that simple. If you find the story drags, or if you sense that you are getting bored, it might be time to insert some new element into the story. A new conflict, a new obstacle, something. Or it might be the opposite — time to take something out, to cut the fat, eliminate (cautionary note: don’t worry too much about cutting early in the process; first you build, later you can trim). As a writer, I worry an awful lot about pacing, the speed of the story, how quickly the plot moves along. I learned some of those lessons while writing the Jigsaw Jones series, where I balanced the elements of the traditional mystery (problem, clue, clue, clue, solution: fence-post scenes that gave me a powerful through-line for the narrative), with all the little asides and explorations I like to include to provide depth.

Am I confusing you? I don’t mean to, but I remember you as being pretty smart, so I’m keeping my answer at a high level, writer to writer.

Sticking with Jigsaw, you can look at those stories as containing two separate strands: 1) The mystery, the propelling force that pushes plot forward to its conclusion, like an arrow shooting through the pages of the book; and 2) All the other stuff — the character development, small moments at the dinner table, or the classroom — that tend to deepen the story without particularly driving it forward.

So “story” usually runs in two basic directions: Forward or Down. Of course, the two can work together, and a specific comment about, say, a character’s fear of snakes will later have huge implications on plot. It’s not either/or. Remember Indiana Jones: “I hate snakes.” He says it early in the movie, almost as a throwaway line; later on, the seed planted, it grows into a pivotal scene in the film.

(And if you haven’t seen that movie yet, it’s time you did. Fabulous storytelling.)

As a writer, you should always try to be aware of what’s happening in your story. Ask yourself, What is the purpose of this scene? What is its function? What am I trying to do here? And then you write with that intention very much in mind; you have to know what you are trying to accomplish with each sentence. It could be that two people are great friends, it could be that Aunt Rosie has a cruel streak, or that Rachel is really lonely. But with each scene you write, you need to understand what you are doing and how it pushes along or deepens plot.

I’m not a great one for advice. I don’t like giving it, to be honest. Writers have to discover these things for themselves. But here’s a link to two recent blog posts by Lois Lowry that I found instructive. She’s a smart writer, highly aware of her craft.

Lois Lowry: thinking in scenes, etc.

Lois Lowry on character description: some details, but not too much.

Likewise, if you look at my blog, you’ll find a sidebar to the right. Under the heading CATEGORIES, you’ll find “The Writing Process.” It brings together dozens of blog entries that concern my experience as a writer. I don’t have the answers for you; every writer has to go down that road alone. But I do try to share my own experiences, the things I’ve learned about writing over the years. You might wish to randomly explore the links at your leisure.

Advice? Keep on writing, keep on reading — and pay attention to the world and the people around you. Value your individuality, the things inside you that no one else in the world can offer. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. There’s a lot of subtle forces in the world, peer pressure and societal expectations (and writing teachers included!), that will try to mold and shape you into something that conforms with everyone else. Resist that, especially with your writing. When you write, that’s where you should be most free, most truly Peggy.

Have a great summer and stay in touch.