Tag Archive for The one-eyed doll

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #170: Seth from Iowa Is Scared & Happy About It

Here we go, folks. It’s time for Fan Mail Wednesday — and it’s actually Wednesday, a first for the entire staff here at Jamespreller.com!

I’m reaching into the big box of letters . . . ah, here’s one from Seth in Iowa!

Dear James Preller,

Hello, my name is Seth. I am a fourth grade student in Iowa. Our class is writing letters to our favorite authors. I chose you. You write Scary Tales. What do you do when you get stuck? Also, what book are you writing now? Here are some suggestions; Scary Tales: Slenderman’s Eye because it is really scary. My favorite book is Good Night Zombie. It is captivating! You keep me into the book and the characters. I liked your book because it’s scary and fun to read. What book did you make and like the most? I obviously like GOOD NIGHT ZOMBIE!!! It’s really scary. You also give me courage to read your books. You give me the chills when I read the books. You inspire me to read and write. Thank you for writing stuff like scary books!

Sincerely,

Seth

I replied:
Seth,

Thanks for your email. You just saved me fifty cents on a crummy stamp. And stamps don’t grow on trees. (Though trees grow on stumps, sort of. Nevermind!)

I’m especially happy to read your email, because you are one of the first readers to write about my new SCARY TALES series. I’m glad you enjoyed Good Night, Zombie, which is the third book in that series. I love that story, just wall-to-wall action and suspense. I’ve written two more in the series that are due to come out around June or so, I’m not really clear on the dates. It takes a lot of people to make a book, and now is the time for the designer, illustrator, editor, and copyeditor to do their part. Except for some proofreading, my job on those books is pretty much done.

Scary Tales #4 is called Nightmareland. It’s about a boy who loves video games. Unfortunately, he gets sucked into one of them and it’s up to his sister to find a way to help him escape. Yes, there are wolves. Yes, there are dangerous snowmen who guard a castle. Yes, there is fire and adventure. It’s a lot of fun. The 5th book will be called The One-Eyed Doll and my editor thinks it’s the creepiest one yet. Around here, I consider that a compliment.
EDITOR: “Your story is really creepy and gruesome.”

WRITER: “Oh, thank you very much. You don’t look so bad yourself!”

I currently have several projects in the fire. My focus right now is a new novel along the lines of my middle grade book, Bystander. Many of the same themes, but all new characters and situations. I’m writing, researching, and zinging along. It’s the first book that I’ve written in the first-person since my old “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series. Other two works in progress are both middle grade novels, a crazy one tentatively titled Zombie Me in the wild and wooly tradition (I hope) of Kurt Vonnegut, and a straight-on science fiction story set on a distant planet. In that one, I’m trying to bring “scary” into outer space.

There will be a 6th book in the Scary Tales series, but at this point I have no idea what it will be about. What is this “Slenderman’s Eye” you are talking about? Seriously, I’m open to new ideas, just as long as we are clear about one thing: I’m not sharing the money, Seth!

I don’t believe in writer’s block and don’t worry too much about getting stuck. My father was an insurance man who ran his own business. He had a wife and seven kids. As far as I know, he never sat around complaining about “insurance block.” Sometimes you just have to strap yourself into the chair and . . . make something up! I do think we experience “stuckness” when we are bored. That is, we are writing a story that has become boring to us. How awful is that? If you are bored by your own story, imagine how the readers might feel. At that point, you’ve got to sit back and try to figure out how to get your story back on track. Or dump it and start a new one.
The world does not need any more boring stories.

Thanks for writing, Seth!

My best,

James Preller

NO NEW IDEAS: Writing Within the Tradition

I was speaking to a large audience of students, at one point explaining my writing process for an upcoming SCARY TALES book, titled The One-Eyed Doll.

The first image that came to me was the discovery of a door, or a hatch, in a bedroom floor. An old rug had been pulled away and there it was. Strangely, the door was padlocked.

That image got me thinking. Why the lock? Over time, I played around with the idea, moving the hidden door to a basement and, later, to the woods, obscured below the leaves. It evolved into a locked box buried behind an abandoned house and discovered by three children.

By the way, I love the idea of characters believing they found something — that they acted upon an object — when the truth is the exact reverse: the object had acted upon them.

So: What was inside the box?

A crummy old doll.

Why was it locked inside a box, nailed shut, padlocked, and buried?

Well, there must have been something strange about that doll. Right? We all know that. Every kid knows it, too. This isn’t our first rodeo.

Now as the writer of this story, I had not yet figured out the issues surrounding this doll. The whys and wherefores. I had not yet answered the essential question a writer must answer for every character, in every story: What does this doll want?

At that point in my presentation, an excited boy raised his hand and said, “Like Chuckie!”

Well, yes, I guess. Like Chuckie. There are not many original ideas left. So, sure, absolutely, the evil doll is like Chuckie, though I’ve never watched those movies. Chuckie, of course, is not the original evil doll. Twilight Zone had several, the old Bat-Man comics — often a ventriloquist figures into these things — and so on. It’s a familiar conceit, a cousin to the Gingerbread Man and even Pinocchio. This is not depressing to me, as a writer. It’s inspiring.

Likewise, the secret door has been done a million times, most notably in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books, and just about every time-travel novel ever written. Stephen King used a storage closet for his “secret door” in the terrific novel, 11/22/63. The door is just a device that gets you to the other world — or get the reader (and writer) to the story. Just push on through and don’t worry too much about how that door got there in the first place.

On and on it goes. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Now it is fair to ask: If you can’t come up with your own ideas, why bother?

And I’m here to say that is exactly the wrong way of looking at it.

Because I am talking today about tradition, ladies and gentlemen, specifically about writing within a tradition — an awareness, conscious or not, that we’ve inherited a rich past. All those stories mining the same turf. Every storyteller throughout history with a pick axe and calloused hands.

The Japanese artisan Kaneshige Michiaki said it well: “Tradition is always changing. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.”

It’s not copying. It’s creating a new thing using familiar elements. In that respect, it’s a lot like cooking. Here’s a chicken, here’s an oven, here’s some herbs and spices and all the vegetables ever invented. And, sure, if you are like my mother, here’s a frying pan and a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup.

The challenge is to cook up something new.

Something satisfying and delicious.

I experienced this same thing when writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. That same sense of jumping into a river, pushed on by the current. And then, treading water, I start to move my arms, kick my feet for fear of drowning. The water of tradition — Chandler and Hamitt, Connelly and Sandford, Sobel and Christie — whomever! — carrying me along (so long as I kept swimming).

Did I ultimately make something new? I can’t be the one to say, but I’ve sure enjoyed getting wet.

Finding Inspiration for SCARY TALES: A New Part of My Writing Process (and an Excerpt, Too)

I just handed in the revised manuscript for my SCARY TALES series, which is chugging along. I have to say, I love writing these books, it’s like a faucet has been turned on all the way. I’m just gushing words, plot twists, stories.

This next one, the fifth in the series, will be titled either “The One-Eyed Witch” or “The One-Eyed Doll.” Honestly, doll is more accurate, but witch might be more appealing, especially to boy readers looking for any excuse NOT to pick up a book.

When I wrote the story, I paused early in the action to cast around the internet for images that would help me, and perhaps help the artist, Iacopo Bruno. It’s a new part of the process for me, which I started on the previous as-yet unpublished manuscript (that was set on a distant planet).

I have to admit, I feel a touch pretentious whenever I talk about “my process.” But at the same time, I find it interesting and know that others do, too. If there’s a take-away, maybe it’s that I published my first book in 1986 and that my methods of working are in constant evolution. It’s not like I’ve figured anything out yet. I’m still groping in the dark, searching.

Here’s the one image that really stuck in my head for the fifth book. Check it, people:

Don’t you love her? Don’t you want to hold her tight?

Or does she spell trouble?

Now maybe I shouldn’t do this, exposing my warts, but here’s a sample from the UNEDITED, UNCORRECTED manuscript I just handed in. The raw material. I think the scene explains itself, three kids, Malik and his little sister, Tiana, and a boy nicknamed “Soda Pop.”

———-

“Whatchu guys up to?” Soda Pop asked.

“Treasure huntin’,” Malik drawled. “You can come if you want.”

Soda Pop scratched his round belly, thinking it over. He said, “Got nothing else to do.” And he followed along.

Tiana skipped to the lead. The boys talked about baseball teams and how the all-star game didn’t mean nothing any more. “My dad says it ain’t what it used to be,” Arthur said.

Malik mused, “I can’t think of anything that is.”

“Take a look what I got,” Arthur said. He pulled out a thick stack of baseball cards from his back pocket. The two boys paused there on the ragged sidewalk, dandelions popping up from the cracks, flipping through the cards and commenting on each one.

After a while, Malik lifted his head. He looked up the street. He looked down the street. “Where’d she go to now?” he wondered aloud.

Soda Pop shrugged, unworried. “Off somewhere’s, I suppose.”

Malik peered down the road and there it stood in the distance, like a beaten fighter after fifteen rounds in the ring. The old place. A shivery feeling squeezed Malik’s heart like a sponge. “Come on,” he said, hurrying in the direction of the old place.

“Hold up,” Soda Pop said. He had dropped his cards to the curb.

“Not waiting,” Malik said. “Catch up if you want.” Off he went, walking fast, half running, in the direction of the old place. He called as he went, “Tiana? Hey, Tee? You holler if you hear me! Tiana, I’m not fooling around.”

There was no sign of his sister.

Malik walked the length of the block and now stood staring at the old place.

The dusty yard was overgrown with tall grass and untrimmed bushes. The front was closed up –- no easy way inside – and Malik figured it was unlikely that Tiana was in there. But his heart still had that squeezed-out feeling.

“Tiana!” he hollered. “You best not be inside that house.”

Malik’s nerves jumped like live wires on the street. An inner voice told him, This is no place for a little girl. Find your sister right now.

Pasty-faced Soda Pop pulled up, bent over and wheezing, short of breath. “Anybody –“ pause, gasp – “ever told you –“ pause, pant – “you walk too fast?”

“Let’s check around back,” Malik replied, all business.

“I ain’t going back there,” Soda Pop said. “Not for a bag of gummy worms, I wouldn’t. You know what folks say. A widow lady went crazy in there, before we was born. They took her away, loony as a jay bird. Place is haunted. Nope, I’m not going back there.”

“Suit yourself,” Malik shrugged.

And he went off, careful not to pass too near the old place, still looking for his lost sister.


——


He found Tiana squatting in the dirt about fifty feet behind the house. The edges of her dress were dirty and soiled.

“Tee,” he called out. “You shouldn’t be back here.”

“I found something.”

“Nevermind that, let’s go,” Malik said.

“For real,” Tiana said. “Come see for yourself.”

The girl held a short, thick stick. When Malik stepped up, he could see that she had scraped a gash about four inches deep into the earth. And sure enough, something was buried down there.

Malik got on his knees for closer study. “It looks like a piece of wood or –“

“It’s a box,” Tiana said.

Malik turned to look at her. “How would you know?”

Tiana shrugged and blew a wild strand of black hair from her eyes. “I just do.”

“Soda Pop!” Malik shouted. “Best come back here right now.” He waited, listening. He called again, “Tiana maybe found treasure.”

That got him moving.

It took some digging, but the work went faster after Malik fetched a small hand shovel from home. Twenty minutes later, they unearthed an old wooden box about the size of a loaf of bread. There was a padlock on it.

The three children sat wilting under the sun, staring at the box.

“Why would anybody bury a box?” Malik asked.

“Locked shut, too,” Soda Pop said. “Must be something valuable inside.”

“It’s been nailed closed, too,” Malik said. “See here?” He pointed to the nail heads, two on each corner of the box.

Tiana grew quiet, eyes shut. When she opened them, the little girl said, “She wants us to open it.”

Soda Pop snorted. “What are you talking about, Tiana?”

Tiana blinked, mouth shut. There was a far-away look in her eyes. “Nothing,” she answered. “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”