Tag Archive for Preller Writing Tips

Fan Mail Wednesday Double Dip: #277 & #278!


Two quick ones, featuring Bystander and Jigsaw Jones.

William zinged over a quick email:


In my class, we are going to read Bystander as a group activity, and I have one question. How did you become such a good author?

I replied:
Every February I spend two weeks meditating in a yurt in Mongolia.
Pro tip!
That’s pretty much it.
Oh, and: I mostly learn from reading. Slowly, thoughtfully — not blazing through to get it over with, but reading as a writer.
And then, of course, now that I’ve written so many things for so many years, I learn from writing, too.
My best,
James Preller

Rees writes:


Hi Mr. Preller,
My mom is letting me use her phone and write to you. I have a book report to do about my favorite character. Mine is Jigsaw. What color are his eyes? What color is his hair? What do you think is special about him?

Thank you for your help.
2nd grade
(My mom helped with punctuation and capitals.)

I replied:
You have a nice mom. Don’t drop the phone in the toilet or she’ll be mad. My wife, Lisa, has done that — twice!
Jigsaw has brown hair and . . . I don’t know what color eyes. If you look at drawing, it’s just black dots. 
You can say hazel and no one will ever know the truth.
There are many things that make Jigsaw special.  In no particular order:
* His honesty.
* His sense of fairness.
* His kindness — he’s a good friend.
* His determination.
Jigsaw isn’t perfect. He makes mistakes. But he never, ever gives up. 
Now give that phone back to your mom before I hear a splash.
Thanks for writing. I just finished writing a new Jigsaw Jones book, The Case of the Hat Burglar. It’s about how items from the school “Lost and Found” begin to disappear. Someone has been stealing them!
Your friend,
James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #157: Author Advice, Before You Go . . .

Dear Mr.Preller,

I am a big fan of your books.  I am in seventh grade this year, and two years ago, in fifth grade, you visited my school.  You talked about a book you were writing, about four teenagers/young adults, and they were in a car crash, and one of them died.  I was trying to find the book, but I don’t remember the title, and I was wondering if you just haven’t published it yet, and what the title is.
Also, when I am older, I hope to become an author.  So I was wondering if you have any helpful hints to writing a book, or publishing one.
Thanks so much, and please write back!
A huge fan!
I replied:

What a sweet note, thanks for remembering that I exist.

For remembering, that is, during your busy life, that oh, somewhere on this planet there’s a guy who came to my school two years ago.

The book is titled BEFORE YOU GO, and will be available on July 17th.

Helpful hints? Oh gosh. You know, the disappointing thing is that there’s nothing really new or profound to tell you. And it’s not like I’ve got it all figured out, by any stretch of the imagination. But #1, you’ve got to read. Widely, deeply. And pay attention as you read. By that I mean, sure, it’s fun to escape into a story, to get lost in a book. But I think writers also read on a different level, with more awareness about the craft. Such as, “Wow, I’m really scared right now, I can’t turn the pages fast enough.” Ask yourself, how did the author do that? If an author paints a vivid picture in your mind, if you can really see something, go back and reread that section. Notice the language.

In other words, think like a writer.

The other tip, I think, is there are no shortcuts. If you want to write, then you really should have a journal. And give yourself time to be alone, to be quiet with your thoughts, and put some of those words on the page. You don’t have to start to write your own amazing 400-page novel (unless, of course, that’s what you really want to do). Mostly, read and write, watch and live. Enjoy life, enjoy people. See them, try to notice things, imagine how you might describe someone you know, the way a friend maybe crosses her arms & squeezes the skin of her elbows when she’s nervous . . .

Hey, I’ve got to run. Sorry if this is a little disorganized, I’m feeling rushed today. Take care, Megan, and good luck!


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.


Fan Mail Wednesday #90-91 (Friday Edition)

I received two similar emails, so I’m going to post both and give one reply to avoid repetition:

Letter #90:

Dear Mr. Preller,

I love your book Bystander. My teacher read it to my class for a read aloud. It was very well written. I could really relate to it since I have been bullied. I understand what it feels likes to not have anyone stand up for you. I strongly suggest you should write a sequel from the different characters points of view. I love reading and writing! Do you have any good writing tips for me? I would love to hear back from you!

Yours Truly,

Letter #91:

Hi, I’m Jake. I’m a 5th grader. I have read Six Innings and Along Came
.  They were both very good. We read Bystander for a read
aloud in school. That was fantastic. Do you have any new books coming
out. Also do you have any tips for me as a writer?

My reply:

Marissa & Jake,

I hope you don’t mind sharing the same response, but this seemed faster and easier for me. And that’s what we’re all about here at jamespreller.com: me, Me, ME!

(Sorry, I got excited.)

Thanks for reading my books. Marissa, when I began to dig into the research on bullying — and part of that research was about memory, looking back and really thinking about what I’d seen and experienced in my own life; that is: heart work — I realized that I could write a 100 different stories, from 100 different perspectives. Ultimately a writer has to make choices. I tried to tell one story the best that I could. But you are totally right: There’s a lot more there to be explored, more stories to be told.

Jake, I have a follow-up book to Along Came Spider coming out in August, called Justin Fisher Declares War! It’s set in the same school, and some characters recur (Spider, Trey, Ava, Ms. Lobel in minor roles), but the focus shifts to a different classroom and new characters. Honestly, it’s a light, quick, easy read — hopefully funny — and it concludes with a school Talent Show, something I’ve wanted to write about for some time. And yes, there is barf. I’m currently finishing my first true “Young Adult” novel, featuring 16-year-old characters. It’s been the best writing experience ever, I’ve learned so much, and will come out in Fall 2011. Still pondering the title.

Both of you asked about “tips” for writers. As much as I enjoy talking about writing, or at least illuminating my own writing process, I’m always hesitant to break it down into rules and quick tips. We’re all different, and all of us need to find our own way. That said, I have written about my experiences as a writer — some of the things I’ve learned along the way — in various blog posts. Here’s a few of them:

* The Reading Feeds the Writing (about how one writer reads with pen in hand)

* Writing from Memory to Realistic Fiction

* Asking “What If” Questions

* Rules for Writing (from other authors)

* Rereading The Elements of Style (notes on a classic book)

If you are really interested, just click on “the writing process” under CATEGORIES in the right sidebar column. There’s lots to explore at your leisure, and it was all written with young writers like you in mind. It’s all about transparency here at jamespreller.com and BP Petroleum. I don’t possess any magic knowledge, there are no great secrets, but I am willing to share my own fumbling, idealistic efforts at writing the best I can.

Ultimately, I don’t feel comfortable playing the role of expert, handing out a nifty cheat-sheet of tips. The obvious suggestions remain true: Read, read, and read some more. Value your own perspective, your individuality; no one else can be you, can offer up your unique observations, thoughts, and feelings. As a writer, that’s what you’ve got above all the others: Nobody else can be you. Treasure those things in your life that formed you, that in-formed you; your family, your life experiences, your secret dreams and feelings.

Like I said before, writing is heart work. And that’s where it begins.

I’ve come to view dialogue as the single most important part of writing. Maybe that’s overstatement, but work with me here, guys. In some ways, it’s the easiest to try — everybody talks! — and yet the hardest thing to get right. Dialogue crosses all genres, whether you are interested in writing about wizards or warrior rats or realistic fiction. There are always characters, and we always meet them best when they open their mouths.

So that’s my other advice: shut up and listen. Eavesdrop. Jot down notes, little phrases you hear. Listen to how people talk. Really talk. Also — and this is tricky — step back and listen to yourself. What comes out of your mouth? What do you say when you see a friend? How do you greet each other in the hallway? What’s actually said at the dinner table? Take notes in a little memo pad, even just a snatch of conversation. Later, you can add description, set the scene, write about the interior (a character’s inner thoughts and feelings) as well as the exterior (the outside world, the cup on the table).

Story is a natural outgrowth of character. Or, wait, another way: Story is character revealed. Begin with character. Add conflict. Stir.



P.S. Oh, hey, by the way: Try this “Instant Story Recipe” from the englishbanana.com just for fun! Plug in the words and it writes the story for you! Uh-oh. I just realized that soon some computer is going to put me out of a job! Oh, wait. I have one thing a computer can never possess.

The Reading Feeds the Writing

I read with a pen in my hand. Mark up the pages, underline passages, use check marks and asterisks, write in the margins. It’s one of the things that makes me uneasy with library books, because I lose that activity, that physical engagement with the text.

One of the things I’ve learned about book reviews, and conversations about books, is that we all read differently. I’m a slow, attentive reader, conscious always of the writer. I love sentences more than plot, closely observed details over dramatic twists and turns. When I encounter readers, especially on the blogs, who somehow seem to ingest books, one after the other after the other, I’m amazed by the pure quantity of reading. I am also, I must admit, a little distrustful. When a reader goes from book to book to book in rapid-fire fashion, isn’t that similar to watching a movie, then another movie, then another movie? How do they keep it in their heads? Doesn’t yesterday’s movie get pushed out too soon? Where’s the reflection? The after-pause? To me, the best part of reading — the part that sticks — is all the stuff that happens when you are not actually reading.

I love those books (and films) that come back to me days later, lingering in the mind. We’ve all said it, “I was thinking about that movie we saw last week.” The best ones adhere to you, but my sense is that you’ve got to leave room for that to happen. How can that essential critical experience be possible when there’s always the next thing pressing to the front of our consciousness?

Anyway, that’s preamble. I’ve recently been getting a similar question from readers: “Can you give me any writing tips?Oy. I’ve never been real comfortable with that, though I do have my ideas and convictions. I guess I don’t like the mountaintop perch. Everyone has to find his or her own way.

But in an effort to respond seriously, to point to one thing about writing, I decided to scan a few pages from three recent books I’ve read and enjoyed. Because the reading feeds the writing. And if a book isn’t useful to me in that way, I’m generally not all that interested in reading the book. A writer has got to eat.

The first scan is from The Gathering by Anne Enright. It won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Told in the first person, it offers a wounded woman’s singular perspective. And on every page, Enright crafts sentences that blow me away. She can flat out write.

This passage floored me. I especially liked the unexpectedness of that opening phrase, “There is something wonderful about death.”

This is from John Hart’s The Last Child:

This is probably more representative of what a page from a good book that I’ve read looks like. Again, I admired the subtlety of the final two lines, how the boy pushed memory aside by concentrating on specific details, “the man’s thick wrist, the clean, blunt nails.” It reminds me that every scene has its particulars, that as a writer imagining a scene I have to pay close attention.

The last example — and all of these are highly arbitrary, by the way, the result of taking three recent books and opening them to a random page — is from Colum McCann’s amazing (spectacular!) book, Let the Great World Spin:

Just a great piece of description expressed with a point of view. A man is about to walk into a hospital. I can see it. The comparison to the ash of a cigarette is brilliant, and that final sentence is funny, fresh. A hospital in need of a hospital. Definitely deserving of a check mark.