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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: James Preller, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Setting the Scene for My Next “Scary Tales”: The Importance of Place

I’ve had a semi-solid idea for the next “Scary Tales” book (number 6, untitled), for a while.

But nothing real specific.

I’ve been fleshing out characters, still debating the introduction of a third character, wondering if she’s necessary or not. Definitely going with twin boys.

As for place, I always thought — without giving it much thought — some kind of swamp. Down south, I assumed. Had to be, right?

Lately that notion of place has gotten more specific. I’m zeroing in on Southeast Texas somewhere. Still have more research to do, more looking at maps, more figuring and fact-checking. And, of course, all that in turn effects my characters. How they talk, how they live.

I recently spent time on Google, looking at images, checking maps, gaining inspiration. It seems to be something I’ve been doing of late, part of my writing process.

Here’s a few you might enjoy . . .

And last but not least . . .

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2. Photo: Cat Eyes

I took this photo of my fat cat.

For an author of a series called “Scary Tales,” it impossible not to feel a little inspired.

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3. FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #171: 10 Questions and Answers (Mostly About My Book, BYSTANDER)

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Okay, I’m reaching my arm deep into the giant barrel of letters I keep here in my office . . . I’m swirling my hand around . . . and what’s this? . . . an email from Virginia!
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How’d that get in here?
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Thanks so much for coming to our school today. The students were very excited, and as an English Teacher let me personally thank you for writing a book (BYSTANDER) that interested 7th graders. Many a day, the students wanted to continue past the points I stopped to know what was coming next. All students were able to participate in discussions. On that note, my students had some questions I’m hoping you can answer when you have a moment. Thanks again.
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1. When was your first book published and how old were you?
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2. How long did SIX INNINGS take to write?
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3. What had been your favorite book and why?
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4. Is there going to be a movie for BYSTANDER?
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5. What advice would you give to young writers?
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6. What made you decide to be an author?
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7. How long did BYSTANDER take to write?
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8. Was Eric’s dad really in the crowd at the end or was that wishful thinking?
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9. What is the premise of your next book?
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10. Who was Eric based upon?
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I replied:
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1. I published my first book in 1986. I was 25 years old. It was titled MAXX TRAX: AVALANCHE RESCUE! It sold more than one million copies. I signed a bad, flat-fee contract and earned only $3,000 from the book. No royalties. I’m not bitter! That was 27 years ago. I’ve forgotten all about it! Really!!!
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2. Hard to remember, but probably about 3 months to reach a finished, first draft. Revision was tough on that one, because I had to cut 10,000 words. I guess I wondered down a lot of side paths and needed to get back on the main road, or what I think of as the “through-line” in the narrative.
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3. I don’t think in terms of favorites, but I really do love the character of Jigsaw Jones.
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4. There are no plans for a movie, but — ca-ching! — that sure would be fun.
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5. Writers come in all shapes and sizes. We all have stories to tell. You need to read a lot — and read, at times, slowly, thoughtfully, with the mind of a writer. Rather than getting totally caught up in the story, try to become aware of the writer behind the words, the choices, the decisions. Also, obviously: Spend time writing.
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6. The dream formed in college. I wasn’t one of those kids who loved going to library.
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7. I research BYSTANDER for a couple of months, visiting schools, talking to experts, reading widely. The writing, which took four months, grew out of that.
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8. That’s wishful thinking. Look at the words on the page. “All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, were secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted . . .”
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9. The book I’m writing now returns to some of the themes in BYSTANDER, but is sympathetic to “the bully.” For me, I don’t like to label kids as any one thing, especially as “a bully.” Bullying is a behavior, not a thing, not a person. I’m looking at it from that perspective.
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10. Eric is not based on anyone in particular. I see him as witness, observer. He’s new in town, so the reader meets the characters in school at the same time as Eric.
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Thanks, I loved visiting Virginia and I hope to make it back again someday soon.
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JP

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4. Sneak Peak: Cover for SCARY TALES #5, “The One-Eyed Doll”

When I think of the five books I’ve written so far for the “Scary Tales” Series — currently working on #6 now — I sometimes consider their relative “fear factor.”

I have been open about my debt to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Many people mistakenly think of TZ as a horror series. It was not, almost never. The stories were strange and always came with a twist. I’d call them intellectually ticklish. What I’ve tried to do with ST is capture some of that strangeness while still delivering the goosebumps.

This upcoming one, The One-Eyed Doll (September 2014), might be the scariest, creepiest of all. I’d put Home Sweet Horror in second place in terms of traditionally “scary,” Good Night, Zombie in third, with Nightmareland fourth. The least scary, but possibly most surprising, more in the thriller mode, is I Scream, You Scream. Of course, we all react differently. Some folks are afraid of spiders, others jump on chairs at the sight of mice.

When I started this series, I had big ambitions. I imagined — this is true — a painter working on a large canvas. I told my editor, “I don’t know if people will really see what I have in mind until I’ve done 20 titles, a color here, a splash there, because I want this to cross genre, move the “Horror” into Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Realistic and even Historical Fiction. I am most eager to do some Sci-Fi with this series, because in space they can’t hear you scream. But that’ll have to wait for now.

Here’s the new cover. I am so grateful for the opportunity given to me by Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla to write these books. Don’t they look great? Aren’t I lucky? And what do you think of Iacopo Bruno’s latest cover? I love it!

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5. Fan Mail Wednesday #177: Second-Grader Turns Into Reading Monster

Okay, gather round, people, nice and tight. Here’s one from a proud mother in Indiana . . .

Mr Preller,

Oh boy, you have created a Monster at my home!

My 2nd grader 8 yr old is hooked and In love with Scary Tales.  I found Home Sweet Horror, and she begged to stay up late to finish it.  Seeing this enthusiasm I was able to reserve I Scream, You Scream.  This was history in one afternoon/night.   Together we read the peak into Good Night, Zombie.    Oh NOoooooo, We can not find it anywhere!!   What is wrong with these libraries???   Ha ha, I’m just saying Thank you for a truly appropriate scary tale for kids.  Natalie loves bugs, frogs, rides and gross scary things…she now loves you :)

Thank you again,

Christina S

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I replied:
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Christina,

Thank you for that kind letter. The Irish call it “flowers for the living,” that you don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying nice things to or about him. I’m saying that I appreciate this did not come in the form of a eulogy.

I’m glad that Natalie has enjoyed the Scary Tales books so far. I have already completed #4 (Nightmareland) and #5 (The One-Eyed Doll), which will come out this June and October, I think.

It’s funny. I have two boys and a girl. The boys never cared from scary anything, but my daughter, Maggie, can’t get enough. She loves that stomach-churning, heart-pounding sensation. Maggie is the one who first told me about the urban myth of “Bloody Mary,” which I used in Home Sweet Horror.

My best to Natalie!

JP

P.S. The art is by Iacopo Bruno from the upcoming title, Nightmareland.


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6. A Perfect Passage from THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich

No offense to any librarians out there, but I prefer to own books, not borrow them. I realize there’s a financial downside to my predilection, but what can I say? It feels good to support the industry, the book stores, the publishers, the authors themselves. If I can manage it, I don’t mind spending the money on books.

For starters, I like having them around, living in my rooms. Books make great furniture and, in a way, furnaces: they warm homes.

Secondly, I usually read with a pen in my hand. I underline passages, write comments, exclamation points, stars, notes and complaints. It is the dying art of marginalia, a direct reader-response. I can’t do that with library books, and Post-It Notes simply do not satisfy.

I’ve been on nice reading streak lately — have picked out some good ones. I just finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir. Fabulously entertaining, and a celebration of science and the intelligence of man. A geek-hero who survives through his attitude, his determination, and his brilliant mind.

Before that, I read THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich. I loved it, every word. What a great writer. Seamless sentences, never a crack showing, and such human insight. A writer with soul. But I’ve got a problem and you can probably guess it: I borrowed the book from my local library and it’s past due.

I’ve been reluctant to return it, to drop it into the slot and hear the dull thunk as it hits the bin. Gone, gone, gone. My book no more.

One first-world problem is that I’ve been rereading, almost daily, the book’s perfect last paragraph. Over and over I return to it, stunned and speechless. That penultimate sentence, especially. What a beautiful evocation of lost innocence, the crossing over into something harder, more brutal and cold, adulthood and loss, “when we all realized we were old.”

I really didn’t want to let the book go, and maybe I’ll buy a copy for myself one day. In the meantime, I’ll type out that last paragraph here, so I’ll have it safely tucked away in the white, high-ceilinged halls of cyberspace. I don’t think there’s any spoilers revealed, it’s not that kind of book. A 13-year-old boy and his parents return home after a long drive.

Quick aside: I don’t play a musical instrument, but I love music. One of the things I’ve always envied about musicians is that they can play all these great songs, have those enduring melodies and fat riffs run through the fingers as they channel greatness.

That’s how I feel typing this passage from Louise Erdrich. Like I’m playing the guitar part from “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

How I wish that I could write as simply, as beautifully.

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IN ALL THOSE miles, in all those hours, in all that air rushing by and sky coming at us, blending into the next horizon, then the one after that, in all that time there was nothing to be said. I cannot remember speaking and I cannot remember my mother or my father speaking. I knew that they knew everything. The sentence was to endure. Nobody shed tears and there was no anger. My mother or my father drove, gripping the wheel with neutral concentration. I don’t remember that they even looked at me or I at them after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old. I do remember, though, the familiar side of the roadside cafe just before we would cross the reservation line. On every one of my childhood trips that place was always a stop for ice cream, coffee and a newspaper, pie. It was always what my father called the last leg of the journey. But we did not stop this time. We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.

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7. 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.

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8. My Boys Never Did This

It was a busy weekend. Around here, that’s like saying the ocean was damp. It’s how we roll.

On Sunday, I dropped Maggie off at her AAU basketball’s coach’s house in Castleton at 9:00, because she had a 10:00 practice in Troy and I couldn’t get there, since I had to be in Schenectady to coach a travel baseball game at 10:30. It was my son Gavin’s team, but he wasn’t able to be there because he was spending the night in New Hampshire (taken by my wife, also in NH) for a Regatta. Gavin recently joined the Albany Rowing Club, you see. The college-age son, Nick, visiting for the long weekend, picked up Maggie at the end of practice and brought her out to lunch and then, finally, home.

By the time I returned, everyone was gone. Maggie to her friend’s house, Nick at some other place. I don’t believe my family is all that different from anyone’s else. We’re all running around. That’s not the point of this post anyway.

On the kitchen counter, I found this pad.

(Sorry for the sideways shot, it’s one of the kinks in the Apple dynasty, an impossible thing to solve — the ordinary photo sent from an iPhone that shows up sideways on certain blogs.)

Obviously: Maggie was home alone, grabbed some markers and the nearest pad, and wrote out the names of everyone in her family. It wasn’t a gift, it wasn’t intended for anyone. Just something she did to pass the time, the names of the folks she loved, made to look pretty.

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9. Neil Gaiman: “Well-Meaning Adults Can Destroy a Child’s Love of Reading.”

“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy

a child’s love of reading.

Stop them reading what they enjoy

or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like

–- the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature –-

you’ll wind up with a generation

convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

– Neil Gaiman.

In a recent lecture, Neil Gaiman passionately warned of the danger of adults trying to dictate what children should or should not read. He believes children should decide for themselves, they should read what they love, and that the wrong kind of interference, no matter how well-intentioned, can snub out a child’s interest in reading forever.

From The Guardian:

[Gaiman] said: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.” Every now and again there was a fashion for saying that Enid Blyton or RL Stine was a bad author or that comics fostered illiteracy. “It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.”

This all reminded me of an interview I conducted with Thomas Newkirk, author of the important book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, Newkirk spoke to these same issues — the imposition of adult tastes on students, particularly young boys.

Newkirk told me:

“I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.”

He continued: “I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.”

Yes, some of this strikes a chord in me. I’m an ex-kid myself. But I’ve already encountered glimpses of this — and open hostility — for my new SCARY TALES series. I was at a book festival in Chappaqua when a daughter and her father (after he put down the phone) had a long argument at my table. She wanted one of my SCARY TALES books. She said, “I really, really want to read this book.” He did not think it was worth her while. She countered, he hunkered down. This went on for five minutes while I sat there like a rubber dummy, agog and aghast.

This doesn’t just happen with girls.

In another situation, I was asked not to mention my new series to anyone at an elementary school where I had been invited to speak. I could come, I was told, they loved my books — just don’t talk about, you know, the books that should not exist.

I declined to meet the contraints of the dis-invitation. I concluded a long letter to the librarian with this:

Oh well. In the end we both know that many elementary school children love scary stories — many librarians I’ve talked to can’t keep them on the shelves — but in this case that’s not what you, or nameless others, want them to read. Or to even be made aware the books exist. We also know about the power of a motivated reader. And how readers grow and develop over time. How one good book leads to another. But this is what boys have always been told, that what they like isn’t worthy, what they enjoy is somehow “wrong.” We deny their maleness. And the “we” is usually well-meaning women. Rather than building bridges to literacy, some people put up obstacles. And thus: there is a national crisis in boys reading scores. And until attitudes change, that crisis will continue.

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10. WHERE’S JIMMY: “If This Is Saturday, It Must Be Austin.”

I won’t be blogging for the next 7-10 days, but I’m confident the world will keep spinning. But don’t think that I’ll be relaxing, people. I’m actually going on a book tour, my first ever, and I’ll be talking up the new SCARY TALES series.

Check out this schedule:

Monday, 10/21: Flying to San Francisco, staying in Petaluma. I’m having dinner with educators and young readers, arranged by the kind folks at Cooperfield’s.

Tuesday, 10/22: Visiting the Old Adobe Charter School, Liberty School, and McDowell School for presentations to about 550 students. Swinging by Cooperfield’s to sign books. Then driving to San Francisco for the night.

Wednesday, 10/23: Thanks to Books Inc, I’ll be visiting at the San Francisco Day School and Brandeis Hillel Day School. Flying to Los Angeles.

Thursday, 10/24: In a day arranged by Miss Nelson’s Book Store, visiting at Telesis Academy and Shelyn Elementary. Flying to Chicago.

Friday, 10/25: Thanks to Anderson’s book store, I’ll be visiting with students at Builta and Churchill Schools, and later that night should enjoy a fun-filled Halloween celebration at Anderson’s, book signing, and free dental.

Saturday, 10/26: Flying to Austin, where I’ll be attending a cocktail party and then heading off to a cemetery for a literary walk with R.L. Stine to scare readers silly.

Sunday, 10/27: Flying home.

Monday, 10/28: The New York State Reading Association Conference in Albany, NY, for a luncheon, then a panel discussion with Ann Burg, and a brief dinner presentation along with Joe Bruchac and Adam Gidwitz.


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11. How I Survived a Night in a Texas Graveyard with R.L. Stine

For a minute there, I wasn’t sure.

I didn’t know.

I was not exactly confident that we would make it out alive.

The hordes kept shuffling toward us out of the darkness, closer and closer they crept . . .

Art by Iacopo Bruno, from Good Night Zombie (Scary Tales #3), by James Preller.

Well, okay.

Let’s backtrack a minute.

I was in Austin, Texas, on a Saturday night, scheduled for a reading in the Texas State Cemetery with R.L. Stine. A creepy literature crawl in a graveyard. What mad genius, I wondered, devises such things?

I met Bob in his 15th-floor hotel room — yes, he lets me call him “Bob,” a name that no one under the age of seven actually bears anymore, they’re all named “Brendan” and “Colby” and “Luke.” We sat and chatted for half an hour or so, the old days at Scholastic, our experiences with school visits, this and that and whatnot. Time passed amiably. At seven, we were driven to the cemetery where we were to meet, we had been led to believe, a representative from the Texas Book Festival.

She never showed up. Oh well. The crowd sure did.

Austin is not just good beer and great music. It’s also a town that loves books.

Forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, hundreds of R.L. Stine fans had already gathered amidst a sea of tombstones. It was an incredible vision. Many sat under the high flood lights, but others sat on the edges, and waited patiently in the graveyard’s deeper, darker, gloomier pastures.

My task was to serve as the opening act, like a lone slice of cucumber on a plate. Bob was the hearty main course and the reason they came, so ravenous. By 8:00, it was time to get the show started. I spoke, elicited a laugh or two, told them that the scariest thing I ever encountered was kids who didn’t like books (because they grew up and voted, and sometimes even got elected to Congress). I read the “Bloody Mary” section from Home Sweet Horror, the creepiest part of the first book in my SCARY TALES series. I had the sense to keep it brief, with no intention of messing with Texas. Next I had the pleasure, the honor, to introduce the beloved author, R.L. Stine.

Beloved? Revered? Idolized? Worshiped? Words fail me. What I witnessed was that deep connection between reader and book. I saw what it was all about. The power of the word.

The crowd, I mean to say, went a little bananas.

They love him, you see. On a deep and profound level, the books of R.L. Stine had impacted these people — and they were there to see the man, to shake his hand, to thank him, to tell him what those stories meant to their lives.

The first books they ever really, really loved.

Goosebumps. Fear Street. The most trusted name in book-learnin’: R.L. Stine.

After the reading, it was time for us to sign. They don’t really do lines in Texas, unless, I guess, it’s for dancing. Somebody should have brought a fiddle. Fortunately a couple of good-natured cops came by restore order (at the end, after thank you’s, they even asked us both to sign a few books for ‘em, which we gratefully did).

Of course, R.L. was the star attraction. I mostly sat nearby, making sure Bob had water, a Sharpie, a small flashlight to see, and, sure, I even signed a few books of my own, basking in that borrowed light. I took a few lousy snapshots, which you see here.

The entire night was a revelation and a confirmation. The power of story. The impact of books. And how lucky I was to do this job, to be in this place, to share in these moments.

Near 10:00, the last of the line had finally wound down. Time to go.

We headed to the car through the big iron gate, which swung shut behind us with a clang.

Bob smiled. “It was a good night,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It was.”

And I thanked R.L. Stine — Bob, my friend — for the gift of letting me share a small part of it. And to see again what it can mean to write a book, and for that book to be read, and for it to be loved by someone, by anyone, somewhere, anywhere.

It’s a beautiful thing. Even in a graveyard. Even at night. Especially with R.L. Stine.

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12. COMINGS & GOINGS: The Rochester Children’s Book Festival, November 16th

I’ve always heard great things about the Rochester Children’s Book Festival, but never got invited. I tried to weasel an invitation a few years back (clever Cynthia DeFelice reference), but that went nowhere. Finally, at last, I wore ‘em down. Good thing, too, because I’m hoping to promote my SCARY TALES series as well as, you know, meet some kindred, book-loving spirits. So if you are near the area — a teacher, a librarian, or merely a stalker — please stop by and say hello.

Some of the many authors & illustrators who’ll be there: MJ & Herm Auch, Julie Berry, Michael Buckley, Peter Catalanotto, Bruce Coville, Cynthia DeFelice, Jeff Mack, Daniel Mahoney, Matt McElligott, Linda Sue Park, Matt Phelan, Robin Pulver, Jane Yolen, Paul O. Zelinsky, and more.

Holy crap! What a list of luminaries! My knees are sweating already. I better pack a clean shirt.

I’m looking forward to it, with thanks to my publisher, the kind folks at Macmillan, for putting me up with a family of Armenian immigrants at a nearby trailer park for the weekend. I just hope they remember to roll out the red carpet. Remember, I’ll only eat the blue M & M’s.

Happily, the event places me in close proximity to my oldest son, Nick, who attends Geneseo College. And by “attends” I mean, I certainly hope so!

Over Halloween, he and some friends decided to go as “Dads.” I functioned in an advisory capacity, the content of which he politely ignored. My big idea was to get a Darth Vader helmet and cape, then pull on one of those t-shirts that reads: “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD!”

Because, you know, irony!

Anyway, check it out. Nick is the one in shorts, pulled up white socks, bad mustache, and “Lucky Dad” hat. Hysterical, right?

Lastly, hey, if you happen to be in Elmira, NY, on November 6th, or Richmond, VA, on November 13, you can catch a lively, fast-paced musical based on my book, Jigsaw Jones #12: The Case of the Class Clown.

I did get to see it a few years ago, with a knot of dread in my stomach, and came away relieved and impressed. Everyone involved did a great job and, to be honest, the story is sweet, too.

Here’s the info on Richmond, VA (where, coincidentally, I’ll be visiting middle schools in early December, mostly giving my patented “Bystander/Anti-Bullying/Author ” presentation. Anyway, the info I promised:

Families, elementary schools and preschools are encouraged to make reservations soon for performances of a children’s show.

A 55-minute performance of “Jigsaw Jones and the Case of the Class Clown” will be performed at 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Civic Hall Performing Arts Center in Richmond.

The show is based on a children’s mystery series written by James Preller. Theodore “Jigsaw” Jones and his friend, Mila, are investigating who’s playing practical jokes. It includes music and humor.

“Jigsaw Jones” is presented by Arts Power, a professional theater company touring the nation.

Admission is $2 per student because a grant from the Stamm Koechlein Family Foundation is helping offset the cost for Civic Hall’s Proudly Presenting Series educational programming.

Teachers and chaperones are admitted free.

For Elmira, click here or call: 607-733-5639 x248 (and tell ‘em Jimmy sent ya!)

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13. Two Images I Love, and Why I Love Them

For starters, apologies to the artists, Iacopo Bruno (SCARY TALES #3: Good Night, Zombie) and Greg Ruth (A Pirate’s Guide to Recess).

The art represented below might make them sick to the heart; I can only guess. The shots below were taken from the books via my iPhone. The quality of the original artwork is in no way reflected here. But as far as I’m concerned, these crude snaps serve the conversation. Also: I’m going with what I’ve got.

The art immediately below comes from a spread late in the book, Good Night, Zombie. It’s an exciting moment of peril and temporary escape, of dead hands reaching, clawing. I love it. And I’m grateful for the design here, which breaks away from the usual layout of the book, with the art leaking across the gutter, where for a moment the chapter book takes on more of a picture book aesthetic.

“Up, up, up!” Carter cried.

The picture below is a detail of a larger piece of art from my most recent picture book, A Pirate’s Guide to Recess.

To me, as an ex-kid who became a published author, the moment depicted here feels like the story of my imaginal life. I was that boy. Dreaming things, imaginary games, battling monsters or tough pitchers, walking the plank or ducking for cover. Bombs exploding, tacklers approaching. Inside my private skull, it was one “Yikes!” moment after another.

And when I ran, the life of my imagination trailed after me. Stomping in heavy boots.

That’s what I tried to get at with this book — what I hoped to celebrate — and it is a personal thing. The stuff of dreams. It’s amazing that an artist I’ve never met helped bring it vividly to life.

Thank you, Greg Ruth.

And for the zombies, and all the great art in the Scary Tales books, thank you, Iacopo Bruno. I can’t wait to see what you do with Scary Tales #4: Nightmareland.

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14. Barbara Park: A Conversation Remembered

“I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value

if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two.

It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time,

giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”

Barbara Park (1947-2013)

-

I was surprised and saddened to read that Barbara Park passed away on November 15th at the young age of 66. I never met Barbara in person, but I certainly got a strong sense of Barbara through her books. Every reader knows and feels this experience. When we read the best books, when we feel that electric connection, there is a communion that endures beyond time and space and even death.

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to interview more than a hundred authors and illustrators. One of them was Barbara Park, who was genuine in every way. We spoke sometime in the late ’90s,  and a bunch of those interviews were later compiled in a Scholastic Professional Book called, rather klunkily: The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators.

Good luck finding it. The book is long out of print (big sigh), but there are treasures within. It’s worth seeking out on eBay or wherever. I seriously wish I could write another someday.

I enjoyed memorable, lively conversations with so many great artists. A few of my favorites were Molly Bang, Aliki Brandenberg, Ashley Bryan, Barbara Cooney, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, Karla Kuskin, James Marshall, Bill Martin, Patricia Polacco, Jack Prelutsky, Faith Ringgold, Lane Smith, Peter Spier, Bernard Waber, Vera B. Williams, Charlotte Zolotow . . . and, of course, Barbara Park.

Barbara was warm, and kind, and modest, and funny, and absolutely genuine, just as you’d expect.

Here’s what ended up in the book, which was intended to be shared with students:

Best-selling author Barbara Park did not take the usual path to becoming a writer. “As a kid, I didn’t even read much,” Barbara confesses. “I bought books from the school book club because I liked the smell of them. It was nice to have this pile of new books. But I really had no great desire to read them!”

Barbara was a lively, active child with a motormouth and a sharp sense of humor. She had a great many interests, but writing was not one of them. “To me, writing was an assignment, period. I was no particularly imaginative. I didn’t sit around and make up stories to entertain my friends. But I was always the class clown. In high school I was voted ‘Wittiest,’ which, let’s be honest, is just a nice way of saying ‘Goofy!’”

It wasn’t until after college, marriage, and the birth of two children, that Barbara began to think seriously about writing. “I wanted to see if I could put my sense of humor to work. Because, sad to say, it was the only thing for which I’d ever got any recognition. I thought, Maybe I can write funny.”

Working at home while her two boys were in school, Barbara concentrated on books for middle-grade readers. Barbara lists The Kid in the Red Jacket, My Mother Got Married (and Other Disasters), and Mike Harte Was Here as personal favorites. She considers her best work to be Mike Harte Was Here. Many readers agree. In a stunning achievement, Barbara addresses a boy’s tragic, accidental death with writing that is at once deeply heartfelt and — amazingly — joyously funny.

In all of her books, no matter the seriousness of the theme, Barbara’s humor spontaneously bubbles to the surface. In fact, Barbara has made something of a career out of focusing on funny, irreverent, wisecracking kids who, like her, just can’t walk away from a punch line.

Though Barbara’s books are moral in the truest sense of the word, she steers clear of heavy messages and “life lessons.” Says Barbara, “I happen to think that a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. It’s perfectly okay to take a book, read it, have a good time, giggle and laugh — and turn off the TV. I love that.”

In the early 1990s, Barbara was approached by Random House with the idea of writing a series for younger readers. It scared her half to death. Barbara admits, “There was some question as to whether or not my dry sense of humor would be picked up by younger kids.”

In the end Barbara decided that she’d have to write to please herself, to be true to her own sensibilities. “I can’t change my sense of humor,” Barbara explains. “If I did, it wouldn’t even be me trying to write this book. It would be me trying to write like somebody who didn’t think like me!”

Barbara soon created the irrepressible character Junie B. Jones. This best-selling children’s character, who often said and did all the wrong things, elbowed her way into the spotlight. Barbara didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “Junie B. is me in an exaggerated form,” Barbara admits. “I think the core of most of my characters is me. I mean, where else is it going to come from? It’s got to be from you.”

Though Junie B. is in kindergarten (with a move to first grade coming soon), Barbara has an uncanny knack for inhabiting her world. She says, “I’ve never had a problem becoming five years old in my head. I really think that you basically stay the same person all your life. I fell the essence of me hasn’t changed.”

Junie B. is by no means perfect. She acts out in class, she’s not always respectful, and she tends to massacre the English language whenever she opens her mouth (which is often). An ideal role model? Forget about it. Junie B. is much more than that — with her foibles and mistakes, she is as genuine as her readers. Junie B. is a pretty terrific kid doing her best to get it right — and happily succeeding most of the time.

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15. Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

When I started this blog, one of my guiding concepts was to pull back the curtain . . .

. . . .to show some of the inner workings of the writing process. It’s not all gazing into the luminous sky, folks; more often, you’re digging in the muck, shifting dirt around.

On Monday, I got a quick note from Holly, an editor who was working on Book #1, Home Sweet Horror, in my new SCARY TALES series (July, 2013). I think this offers a glimpse into the issues that demand a writer’s attention — even after the manuscript has been read, copy-edited, approved, and “final” (a word that must always appear in quotes, alas, until the book is printed).

That is, the illustrations finally arrive from the artist and there might be minor problems, tweaks, oddities, etc. So, thus . . .

Holly wrote:

Hey,

We have been going over the second pass of Home Sweet Horror (which looks amazing!) and:

On pg. 28, the lead in to chapter 4, the artist has drawn a great picture featuring a creepy old-fashioned rotary phone (see attached for the rough image).  It’s really got the right tone and will look fabulous in the book, but we are afraid that it might throw readers off a little bit. Would it be possible for you to add a quick description of the creepy old phone to the chapter so that we can keep the image?

Holly’s right: cool illustration. I reviewed the text, which read:

An hour later, Kelly came down and planted herself on the living room couch. Her nose was in a book, a tender love story about killer zombies.

“Do you think there’s anything creepy about this house?” Liam asked.

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Creepy? Yeah, you.”

“Can a house be . . . alive?” Liam ventured. “Like with, I don’t know, a spirit or something?”

“Oh, please, just shoot me now,” Kelly groaned. She turned her attention back to the book.

The phone rang.

And rang.

“Get it,” Kelly snapped.

“I’m not your slave. You answer it,” Liam replied.

No one moved.

After the fifth ring, the machine picked up.

Fourteen minutes later, I wrote back to Holly with my suggestions (amended text in red):

Does this work for you? If length is issue, could cut out “Dad says” and “Kelly laughed” lines. I’m open about this kind of thing, whatever you need. Cuts, additions, etc.

JP

“Do you think there’s anything creepy about this house?” Liam asked.

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Creepy? Yeah, you.”

Liam frowned. “You know what I mean.”

Kelly set down the book. “There’s lots of things that are creepy about this house, Liam. Everything is so old and musty and gross. Even the phone is like a million years old. A rotary phone? Really? What’s up with that?”

“Dad says it’s a fixer-upper,” Liam countered.

Kelly laughed scornfully. “Ha!”

“Can a house be . . .

NOTE: Now, of course, there’s the small issue of “the machine” picking up. When I wrote the book, I imagined a contemporary household, not rotary phones. So maybe that’s a new level of concerns. Or maybe, more than likely, we’ll decide that it’s perfectly fine and no biggie and we’re tired and let’s move forward. After doing 40 Jigsaw Jones books, also illustrated, I’m familiar with triage. In defense of the artist — the incredible Iacopo Bruno from Italy! — there’s a great tradition in horror to set stories in slightly olden times. By removing the contemporary sheen, you invite the timeless. So his instincts feel right to me.

We are publishing four books this year, working carefully, but also with pace. It’s fun to work this way, and it suits me. Part of that is the fast turn-around, the go-go-go, and the fine art of letting go. Because after a while, you’ve turned “the phone” into this Big Deal Thing, when all the reader wants to do is move forward without a glitch. In the end, that’s what we’re trying to do here: remove the glitch, anything that might slow the reader down.

We are focusing on the phone, briefly, so the focus won’t be on the phone, oddly.

Another random thought about “scary stories” and the various permutations: I’m conscious of writing within established cliches, variations on familiar themes, following a long and powerful tradition. You have to, I think, embrace the cliches while at the same time endeavor to punch something new into each story. For me, that’s usually character. Who is in the scary house. Who is being chased by wraiths. And so on. The relationships, the dialogue. Because I’m not sure I’ll ever write a sentence that’s as good as, “The doorknob slowly, slowly turned.” And it’s hard to top a cabin in the words. Or the idea of someone being watched, or worked on by unseen forces, or . . . you get the idea.

I’m loving these books. So. Much. Fun.

Thanks, Holly!

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16. Fan Mail Wednesday #161: In Which Juan Hopes I Am Happy

This is just lovely . . .

Seriously, how lucky can a guy get? To open an envelope and find something as pure and kind and good as this?

Plus — it came with a drawing. Be careful, it’s a little spooky. . .

I replied to Juan this way, knowing that my letter could never be as good as his:

Dear Juan:

Thank you for your kind letter. I am always pleased when someone (finally!) notices that I’m cool.

Do not worry, Juan, because I am happy. I am fantastically, terrifically happy. I have three great kids, an awesome wife, two black cats, and a dog that barks and barks and barks. I think she’s insane! Perra loca!

Guess what? I just read a beautiful letter – from YOU! And it came with the coolest, spookiest picture! And guess what else? Now it’s hanging up on my office wall!

Thanks, also, for saying that I am a nice person. I try, every day. I bet you try, too, because writing that letter to me was a very, very, VERY nice thing to do.

I hope you can find plenty of Jigsaw Jones books in the library. Free books to read! What could be better? (Okay, free chocolate, sure. That’s tough to beat. But books are pretty tasty, too.)

The good news is that I’ve been writing a new series for readers your age. Every book will be a scary story. The series will be called –- are you ready for this? are you holding onto your hat? – SCARY TALES. The first book is called Home, Sweet Horror and it will be available in July. I’m most excited about Book #3, though. It has zombies in it!

My best,

James Preller

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17. Fan Mail Wednesday #162

I’m one of those people who doesn’t feel particularly proud or accomplished, much more aware of what I haven’t done — and maybe can’t ever do — than what’s already past. I know, I know. But that’s just how I’m built, so you’ll have to write a letter to the manufacturer.

The truth is, I got a few great letters recently. I haven’t been sharing them of late, or been particularly tuned into the “James Preller” franchise — this business of being “James Preller” — just generally weary of this Industry of Self. Not the writing, not the books, not the real work: that stuff is great.

Anyway, here’s a letter from someone I met long ago . . .

Hi Mr. Preller,


I’m sure you wouldn’t recognize my name, but my name is Katie F. and I was in Ms. Goeke’s 2nd grade class when you visited back in ‘98. Now I am 22 and about to graduate with my MBA, my how time flies! I still own the first couple of Jigsaw Jones books, and while reorganizing my bookshelf to make room for some textbooks I came across the second book, The Case of the Secret Valentine. I remember vaguely having a visitor in the class who Ms. Goeke had explained was an author. However, I had completely forgotten that my name is on the second page! You have clearly had great success with this series, I see there have been many more books published since I left that target age group; congratulations!

My question is, what inspired the main idea of the series? The characters? Did you already have a kids detective series in your head when you came to observe my class?

I used to jokingly tell people I inspired a kid’s series in elementary school because I used to play detective on the playground all of the time back then. I doubt I was actually the true inspiration, so I was wondering if you didn’t mind sharing that with me? I’ve been very curious!

Apologies if you have already answered this question on your blog somewhere!
Katie (Kathryn) F.
I replied:
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The author mumbles to himself: “I am only as young as I feel, I am only as young as I feel, I am only as young . . .
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Oh, hey, Katie, I didn’t see you standing there!
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Thank you so much for that remarkable letter. I remember that time well, though you are correct, the names of the individual students in that class have long since slipped away.
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Back then, fifteen or sixteen years ago, I was given a four-book contract to write a mystery series. This was based on something I generated myself, gave to an editor, and Scholastic decided, “Let’s see if he can do it.”
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It was important to me to write accurately about the school life of children. Fortunately, I knew your teacher, Jen Goeke, and she welcomed me into her classroom. I visited many times, actually. In fact, I loosely modeled Jigsaw’s teacher, Ms. Gleason, after your (our!) Ms. Goeke. I admired so many of the little things so did with her students, the affection, the calm, the deft way of balancing the needs of individuals with the pedagogical objectives of the classroom. I’m sure you’ll agree, mostly she was really, really nice. There’s a lot of Ms. Goeke in those books.
-
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I love this illustration by R. W. Alley from the first book in the series, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster.
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Here’s a snatch of dialogue from that scene:
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“Ms. Gleason,” I said.

Ms. Gleason looked up and smiled. “Yes, what can I do for you two?”

“We really, really need to learn about snakes and hamsters,” I said.

Ms. Gleason put down her blue pencil. “This sounds serious.”

“It is,” Mila answered.

“Very serious,” I whispered. “It’s a matter of life and death.”

Ms. Gleason put her hand over her mouth. Her eyes got wide. “Oh, goodness,” she said.
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Yes, I see that you are right. I dedicated book #3, The Case of the Secret Valentine, to the students in your 2nd-grade class. One other thing I tried to put into those books, and that I re-learned partly from those visits with Ms. Goeke, was how a child can truly and deeply fall in love with his or her teacher. She was beautiful and lovely and most of all she was kind. I wanted to pay tribute to that.
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I am sorry to say that you were not the inspiration for the series. (Actually, my team of lawyers has advised me to say that, in fear you will be seeking a claim on royalties earned.) I already had the basics in mind before I walked into your classroom. But I did get inspired there, and I’m sure you played a part in that.
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I wonder: Do you have a class picture? Could you send a file to me? I’d love to see one, if that isn’t too much to ask.
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Thank you for taking the time to write. I was nice for me to find an excuse to revisit those times and that place. Congratulations on your MBA. Now go out there and fix the world! That was one of the things I learned, you know. Hopefulness. Belief in a better future. I’d sit in that classroom, surrounded by kids exactly like you, who were being taught by a young woman like Jen Goeke, and I knew that somehow we’d make it through, that it would all be all right somehow.
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My best,
-
JP

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18. OVERHEARD: “I guess science is my favorite class — I just wish it wasn’t so serious.”

Lisa had asked Maggie, grade 6, about her classes and received the above reply. Which at first struck me as a hilarious thing to say about science. It was like saying, I don’t know, math should funnier.

But then I realized she might be onto something. When we think of our science teachers, most of them are dry, dull, strict. This is science, this is important: this is serious business!

And in fairness, it often is, kids can get hurt, things might explode.

But then there are those rare science teachers — and scientists like Bill Nye, on television — who bring the joy of discovery into the process. Or should I say, keep the joy. The wonder.

They find the fun and the funny. Like a child with a new toy, figuring out what makes it go. Discovering the awesomeness of it all.

On Facebook I “liked” a site called, “I Love F***ing Science.” I’ve always regretted the F***ing in that title because it makes it harder for me to share with others, especially anyone who might read my books.

This post reflects a few things I’ve picked up from there, and other places.

Just trying to bring the fun, Maggie. I’m glad you like science.

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19. A Murder of Crows, Etc.

In Book #3 of my SCARY STORIES Series — launching this summer, so don’t make any plans — and I mean that, no plans whatsoever — I featured a whole mess of crows in the story. You know, when it comes to foreshadowing and a general air of ominousness, nothing beats a murder of crows.

We have Van Gogh to thank for that, his intimations of mortality in the great painting, “Wheat Field with Crows.”

And, of course, there’s Hitchcock. This is one of my favorite scenes in the history of film, the essence of suspense, the knot slowly tightening, the shots of the crows gathering, cut to Tippi Hedren smoking her cigarette unawares, and back and forth, back and forth, until we get that great shot of Tippi watching one crow in flight across the sky until it lands on the playground. And her eyes grow large. In the background all the while, children sing an American variation of a Scottish folktale, “Risseldy, Rosseldy.” Young, innocent voices. That’s cinematic perfection right there. I’ve watched it a dozen times.

So I stuck some crows into my story, black harbingers of doom!, and even included a small tribute to a scene from “The Birds.” (Kids these days are always clamoring for more allusions to 1960’s films. It’s just the kind of thing that young readers nowadays expect to find in their chapter books.)

Crows are basically gross, for the most part. But useful as nature’s trash collectors. They eat the road kill, smashed squirrels and flattened chipmunks, and I think we can all agree that we’re grateful for that. Thanks, crows!

Quick crow story:

My wife Lisa is the best mother in the world. She’s tied, actually, with a long list of other mothers, but she’s right there at the top, tied for first place. One Easter long ago, when Gavin (13) and Maggie (12) were probably 3 and 1 1/2, Lisa woke early in the morning to set up an Easter egg hunt. We had a nice, woodsy backyard at the time. Plastic eggs? What? Is that what you’re thinking? Oh, please. No, Lisa used actual hard-boiled eggs and hid them around the lawn. Under bushes and often right there in the middle of the lawn, since at the time the kids were young and not exactly the best Scotland Yard had to offer.

Later it was time for the egg hunt. And lo, there were no eggs. Or, at least, very few to be found.

What happened to them? Where’d they go? We didn’t know. So we set out an egg in the middle of the lawn, ducked back inside, and watched by the window. Within two minutes, a big black crow landed, grabbed the egg in its talons, and flew off for a hearty breakfast.

While thinking about crows, and researching them ever-so-slightly, I came across this, which is why I began this post in the first place.

Oh, and here’s the brief excerpt from SCARY TALES, Book #3. In this scene, three students are trapped inside a school, surrounded by zombies, or ghouls, or whatever creepy thing they are out there. It’s not good. For a variety of reasons — the best one being “for dramatic purposes” — Carter decides to go for help. He needs to quietly make his way two blocks through the night fog, avoid the zombies that seems to be aimlessly milling around, find his folks, get help, and save the day.

(I know, it’s sounds kind of dumb, but it’s a lot of fun.)

Here goes . . .

Carter stepped out into the mist with supreme calm. Cool as a lake. It was foggy, but he could still see about 30 feet in any direction. He gave a thumbs-up to the worried faces that stood vigil at the door.

It’s all good.

A crow landed near his foot, cawed noisily. Then another, and another. Carter stepped cautiously, not wishing to disturb the birds. He noticed a dark figure ahead and veered away from it.

CAW-CAW! Carter looked up to see a crow dive-bombing from above, talons out. The black bird hit Carter’s head at full force, wham, and tore into his scalp.

“Ow, shoot,” Carter cursed. He staggered a step, dazed, and waited for the dizziness to pass. Carter tenderly probed the injury with his fingers. His scalp was torn. Under a loose flap of skin, his flesh felt like raw hamburger. It was wet.

He checked his fingers. Blood. Lots of it.

Oooooaaaaannnn, oooooaaaaannnn.

The moans came, louder and louder, from every direction. As if the creatures were calling to each other. Now more shapes appeared in the distance, moving toward him. “It’s the blood,” Carter thought. “They smell it.”

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20. SCARY TALES SNEAK PREVIEW: Art & Excerpt from Book #2, “I Scream, You Scream”

I just got to see the illustrations for Book #2 in my upcoming SCARY TALES Series: I Scream, You Scream. Actually, what I saw was most of the art placed on the typeset pages, with some pages blank, art still-to-come. It’s exciting to see a book come together, especially one where the illustrations by Iacopo Bruno are such a big part of the overall appeal.

The good news, I’m in a sharing mood.

At about the middle of the story, after all hell has broken loose, two characters, Samantha and Andy, find themselves hiding in a cave. The way out was blocked. They had to explore the cave to find a new means of escape. Which gave me an idea — bats! As an aside, one thing I’ve noticed about myself as I’ve been writing this series (I’m finishing up Book #4 now), is that when I’m trying to imagine scary things, unsettling things, I’m drawn to the natural world (as opposed to the supernatural). A pack of wolves. A murder of crows. A moist, dark, foul-smelling cave filled with bats. Maybe that’s the limits of my own meager imagination. Or maybe just a sense that real things are scarier than imaginary ones. Probably some combination of the two.

Here’s the scene from the manuscript:

The tight passageway opened up to a large cavern, with a ceiling at least fifteen feet high. “Wow,” Sam said. “Look at this place.”

Andy looked, as requested.

“But what’s that disgusting smell?” Sam complained.

She moved the beam to the rock floor. It was covered in some kind of thick, greenish slime. It smelled rank. Sam worked hard not to gag.

A steady trickle of droplets hit the rock floor. Plink, plink, plink. “Do you hear that?” Sam asked. “Could it be water falling from a stalactite?”

“No, not water,” Andy said. “I think it is called ‘guano.’”

“‘Guano’?’

“Bat droppings.”

Sam gulped. Bats. She hated bats.

Sam aimed the flashlight at the ceiling and stepped back in horror. The ceiling was alive. The roof of the cave was writhing, squirming, crawling with hundreds — no, thousands upon thousands — of bats. The bodies of mice, with human faces. Sam felt woozy, on the edge of panic.

This was worse than homework.

Way worse.

Oh, I should say another thing about my writing process here. When I realized that I was going to include bats in the story, I remembered that classic scene when Indiana Jones remarks, “Snakes, why did it have to be snakes?”

Part of the genius behind that scene was the script had previously established Indy’s fear of snakes. We learned it early in the movie and promptly put it away. So when he confronts the snakes, we know this isn’t just another obstacle for our hero. He’s facing one of his deepest fears.

Now, admittedly, my little book is operating on a simpler level. And I want to be careful about how scary to make this for my readers. So I went back to the first chapter and, while talking about Sam’s bravery (in the context of a thrill ride in an adventure park), I planted a seed:

Nothing frightened Sam Carver. Nothing, that is, except for dentists, bats, and homework. The usual things. Dentists, of course, with their fat fingers fumbling in your mouth. But bats creeped Sam out the most, with their leathery wings and tiny teeth and weird human faces.

I’m sure ideas for the cave scenes came from the light research I did on the topic. And, look, “research” is far too strong a word, implying more rigor than I applied. It was more a matter of casting about for inspiration by sorting through source material. I read about cave explorations and the bats of Bracken Cave in Texas, and tried to learn a little about bats in general. I even wandered over to Youtube, which can often be a spectacular research tool. This short, one-minute video really inspired me:


After their first bat discovery, Sam and Andy had to overcome their fears to figure out a way that the bats could help them escape the cave. They wake ‘em up. Which led to this short paragraph:

It was amazing. Even beautiful, in a way. The bats flapped and flew to the far end of the cavern and spiraled up, and up, through a shaft of light.


I found another video that I particularly liked, this one a bit longer, which offered more information. I decided that Andy would be the character who knew something about bats. He was an expert, the way many boys his age can reel off facts about baseball, or trains, or most anything that’s captured their imagination. They absorb like sponges. After that, I had what I needed to write those brief scenes in the cave with Sam and Andy lost in the dark . . . with all those bats.

Next it was just a matter of waiting to see what Mr. Iacopo Bruno would do with it. Of course, in my imagination I saw something different, a tight shot on Samantha’s face as the bats whirled around her, that high-pitched chaos, hands covering her head. But that’s not what he ultimately rendered. And I’m more than okay with that, I’m thankful for his work, grateful for these gifts.

Authors don’t control everything. We just hope for the best.

Gosh, I hope readers find these books.

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21. 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.”

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“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.”

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22. And Now There Are Three

My agent — who prefers not to be identified — in fact, she has asked me never to call her again — or even wave to her in public — says that “three is the magic number.”

There may be something to it. The third book makes this feel like an actual series, instead of two books that sort of look alike. You can begin to see what’s going on.

Confession: The number I’ve been stuck on, and this makes no logical sense, it’s just a number I latched on to from the outset, is twenty. I felt like I needed at least 20 books to establish what I am trying to achieve here. I want variety and the range, different genre under the large “scary/creepy/strange” umbrella. I want the books to be different, but they must also hang together as a family.

Anyway, today’s post has been brought to you by the number 3. I took this photo with my phone in the kitchen today, while talking to my 9th grader about his fantasy football team. It’s how we roll.

If you want to purchase any of these books, I want to say . . . thank you. Seriously, thanks. I really believe that kids will enjoy them. Not like my other books!

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23. JIGSAW JONES, The Musical: Appearing On Long Island, Suffolk County Community College, October 5

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QUICK INFO for Long Island-based fans of “Jigsaw Jones”  . . .

The Lively Arts Series at Suffolk County Community College will present Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Class Clown in the Van Nostrand Theatre on the Michael J. Grant Campus in Brentwood on Sunday, October 5, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Athena Lorenzo has been slimed and she doesn’t think it’s very funny. Someone in Ms. Gleason’s class is playing practical jokes. Theodore “Jigsaw” Jones claims to be the very first detective in the whole school. It’s up to Jigsaw and his friend Mila to investigate the sliming and track down the class clown. Brimming with music and charm, this show is perfect for students in grades 1-4.

General Admission is $8.00; senior citizens and SCCC faculty pay $7.00. SCCC students with current I.D. are entitled to one FREE ticket. For more information, please call the Van Nostrand Box Office at 631-851-6589 or visitwww.sunysuffolk.edu/spotlight.

For more background, here’s a link to an old post written after I attended the show back in 2010. I actually thought it was pretty entertaining and heartfelt. Thumbs up. Both of ‘em!

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24. PUBLISHING 101 . . . Plus The New Scary Tales Website (w/ Free Stuff)

An an author, let me tell you, it’s an amazing feeling to know that your publisher is working hard to try to sell your books.

Maybe that sounds basic, right?

Aren’t they all? Don’t they always?

Well, no. As in, ha-ha, no, no, no, no-no, NO.

The industry formula for book marketing begins with this equation:

Publish more books than you can promote.

At that point, publishers will select a few to aggressively market. Another group of titles will also be promoted, but on a much smaller scale. And then some books, maybe even most books, will receive only the standard promotional efforts. It exists. Come and get it.

Like Mom ringing the dinner bell.

At that point, publishers follow a read-and-react strategy, like an NFL linebacker deciphering a play. Drop back in coverage, pick up a receiver; or step into the line to plug a hole against the run. In the case of publishing, it’s reacting to word-of-mouth, initial sales, reviews, award buzz, and so on.

In essence, they throw a bunch on books into the world. If the world smiles, then a secondary promotional effort marches forward. If the world shrugs, indifferent, well, that poor lamb is on its own. And often fated to go out-of-print unless something unexpected happens.

And sometimes, yes, the unexpected happens. Oprah descends or whatever. Great books usually find a way. Good ones, not as much.

Now some folks say, “Hey, that’s crazy. If that’s the case, they should publish fewer books.”

Well, that’s tricky. Do we really want fewer books, fewer authors? And can anyone securely predict which books will be cherished, and which ignored? At least if a book is published — which requires a tremendous amount of work and resources — that book gets a chance in the world, like a tadpole in the pond. A great many wonderful books will never be great sellers, and therefore will never benefit for a big marketing push. Should those books not be published?

It’s a complicated business and I don’t pretend to be smarter than the folks running it.

In my life as an author, first published in 1986, my books have never really been actively marketed. But now with SCARY TALES, I’m fortunate to benefit from actual promotional efforts on behalf of the books.

It’s awesome. I feel grateful. My toes are crossed.

Today I learned there’s even a new website. Where? Don’t be frightened. Just . . . click here.

So far, there’s a video to see. Activities to download. An excerpt to read. Cool art to gander. I’ve even heard rumors of scary pencils — a possibility too terrifying to ponder.

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25. The 1st Annual Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival: October 5th . . . That’s Soon!

Come to the Bell Middle School in Chappaqua, NY and celebrate reading with some of the area’s most fabulous authors (and I’m crashing the party!).

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This particular festival has risen from the ashes of the great, departed Sunnyside Book Festival in Tarrytown, which I dearly loved.

Here’s to new beginnings. If you are around, please stop by and say hello.

As always, great weather is personally guaranteed.

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