Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writing the Spooky Series - Interview with Dan Greenburg

Many of you, like myself, may be thinking about writing or are writing a middle grade series of frightful tales. You work late into the witching hour placing your protagonist in dark realms battling pus-bag zombies or zapping alien school teachers from Europa (Jupiter's moon for the astronomy impaired). If this is you, and you haven't read Dan Greenburg's Secrets of Dripping Fang series, then put down that blood-inked quill and pick up a few copies.

Dan has written over 72 books, that have been translated into 23 languages. He writes four series of children's books: Secrets of Dripping Fang, Weird Planet, Maximum Boy, and The Zack Files. He’s written extensively for the movies, for TV, and for the Broadway stage. He was generous enough to take time to speak with me about his awesome spook-fest; The Secrets of Dripping Fang.

I feel that Dripping Fang is a love letter to monster movies and classic giant bug movies like THEM! Are you a fan of monster movies? Do they inspire your work?

DAN GREENBURG: Yes, I was partially inspired by monster movies, but more by the story of Hansel and Gretel. When I go to schools to talk to kids, which I do on a regular basis, I always ask what they look for in a book.

The three words I hear the most are "Funny," "Scary" and "Gross." Even girls like gross. I decided to do my version of Hansel and Gretel, but make it funny, a lot scarier, and gross.

I’m sure you know this already Dan, but - you nailed it!

Okay, so, what is your favorite monster movie?

DG: Alien.

Peeps, if you haven’t seen Alien, stop reading, rent it, and come back to finish reading this interview during daylight. You've been warned.

When you wrote the first book of the Dripping Fang series did you know that it would be a series?

DG: Yes, I sold it as a series.

When writing a series, do you map out several books ahead or do they evolve as you write?

DG: I only map out one book at a time. I'm as surprised as everybody else what happens in the next one.

I know you based/named the Zack Files after your son. Are the Shluffmuffin twins based on any one you know?

DG: No, they're entirely made up -- a wildly optimistic girl and a wildly pessimistic boy.

Many writers never meet the illustrators of their books. And some times the illustrations don't quite capture the essence of the book. Scott Fisher, however, really brings the characters to life in these books. Were you pleased to see them for the first time? Have you met Scott?

DG: I have never met any illustrator of any of my books, but I had an uncharacteristically huge part in selecting Scott. I happen to be an artist myself, with a masters degree in design. I told my publishers I wanted someone who was a fantastic draftsman with a great color sense who could do illustrations that were both scary and funny. They showed me some portfolios, including Scott's and I said this is the guy. He's brilliant, even better than I expected!

Check out Scott's website here:

Creepy stories and tales of things that go bump in the night seem to attract people of all ages. Why do you think these tales appeal to the younger audience?

DG: All I know is they tell me they love scary stories. I'm not sure why.

Let me tell you Dan, growing up I loved scary stories and monster movies. I think there is a certain level of excitement being able to read and watch these hideous creeps stalk around in the dark while you are sitting in the safety of your own room. Until you turn out the lights of course…

I think it's important that people know Secrets of Dripping Fang has a lot of great humor throughout the books. How important is it to these kinds of stories?

DG: As I said, humor is one of the three things they (children) look for. Also, I'm primarily a humorist, so it's very important to me.

Do you have a writing ritual that helps you get the creative juices flowing?

DG: I prime the pump by reading something I've written in that style. I start writing after midnight and go till maybe 4:00 or 5:00 a.m., the hour of the wolf. Sometimes I scare myself.

Whatever you’re doing, it works. Trust me.

Dripping Fang has been a big inspiration to me while working on my own MG scare fest. What advice can you give to those of us that want to write a series like this?

DG: Don't tell us what your characters are like, Show us. Give the reader an experience by describing the action through as many senses as possible.

Can we expect any more Dripping Fang books? Please, please...

DG: The publishers haven't ordered any more than eight. If all your readers deluged the publishers with requests for more, perhaps they could change the publishers' minds.

They can start the deluge here: HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 222 BERKELEY STREET, BOSTON, MA 02116.

Pick up those quills again people and get writing. We want more SoDF!

What do you think is the biggest mistake first time writers make when writing for children?

DG: They don't write from a kid's point of view, and they don't read enough kids' books first. I was guilty of both of these when I started.

I also work in television and have found that some of the stories that I've written as scripts would make a much better book. Did you write The Zack Files as a TV show first and then a book? Or did the show evolve from the books? How did it come about?

DG: The Zack Files was a book series first. I'll tell you how it started. When my son Zack was 10 (He just turned 25 and is now a very fine journalist and author), he and I and my mother, Leah, who was then 88, were playing ball in the backyard. She didn't know a thing about baseball.

We gave her a bat, which she had never held before, and Zack pitched her a ball. She hit it hard on the first attempt. That gave me an idea: what if Zack's grandma, Leah, who was 88 years old and didn't know a thing about baseball, was the greatest homerun hitter who ever lived. What if he takes her to a Chicago White Sox game and after the game he takes her over to the manager, tells him his grandma is the greatest homerun hitter ever, and begs him to get a pitcher to throw her a ball.

To humor him, the manager asks a pitcher to throw her a ball. She hits it out of the park. Repeatedly. They hate the idea of hiring an 88-year-old grandma, but they can't afford not to, and she gets them into the payoffs. I wrote it up and sent it to many publishers. They all said this is the funniest thing I've ever read; let me tell you why we aren't buying it. Everybody had a different reason. One hated baseball. One loved baseball but had 27 baseball books.

Everybody had a reason. I pretty much gave up. Then an editor at Grosset & Dunlap called me. She said this is the funniest thing I've ever read, let me tell you why I'm not going to buy it, and I forgot what her reason was, but she said how would you like to write a series with these characters, but not about baseball? I said sure. She said what could it be about? I said the supernatural. She said you got it.

It took me till book #24 in the series to convince her to run "My Grandma, Major League Slugger." When I speak at schools, sometimes I say, remember a few years ago when the Chicago White Sox won the World Series? They say YES, I say, do you remember seeing a very old lady on the bench dressed in a White Sox uniform? Some of them actually tell me they do. Kids have wonderful imaginations.

Wow, there you have it. Persistence is key! Never give up on the idea that haunts you daily. You never know where it can lead. 

Can you give us a teaser about any of your new work?

DG: I'm working on a chapter book series and two Y.A. novels, but I can't tell you anything about  them because I first have to see if they work.

Dan, I want to thank you for taking time to stop by and speak with me. Your advice was wonderful and invaluable. I look forward to many more books crafted from your pen. 

I don't know about you, but I'm inspired to start bringing a few mumbling, hobbling, gut bags of the dead to life.
Don't turn out the lights... they're right behind you.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Strange Case of Yoda Awesomeness

Let’s face it; being a Star Wars fan is exhausting. It seems like we are bombarded daily by new toys, replicas of lightsabers, clothing and shoe lines, and even a toaster that will imprint the face of Darth Vader on some buttery goodness. Buy it here:

Being a part of the Rebel Alliance means that you could spend all of our hard earned dollars on everything that Uncle George slings at us, but then we would have a house full of goodies in blister packs that no one could breath upon or stare at for too long.

However, there is something that I can highly recommend that you spend some of those slave wage dollars on and that is Tom Angleberger’s new book – The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Check out the site here:


If you are a Star Wars fan, then you need to read this book (if you haven’t already). If you suffer from being one of the few that are not aware of the Star Wars universe or the amazing Yoda, this is your chance to get in on something uber cool.

I could blabber on for hours about how Star Wars changed my life, and if and when the government decides to recruit people to be Jedi’s I will be the first in line, but I digress. Let’s talk to Tom about his book (known in my world as a face melter – which is a really good thing).

Can you tell me why you wanted to write Origami Yoda?

Tom Angleberger: At first I just thought it would be a neat idea. Then I thought it would be a neat idea that other people might want to read. Much of the book just poured out.

Can you tell me a little bit about your first draft writing process? Do you jam through or rewrite along the way?

TA: Both I guess. When I have the grain of an idea, I usually let it ferment in my brain for a long time. Then I jam through, cutting and pasting, backtracking and tweaking, finding and replacing along the way. But then I may get stopped for a while until things ferment some more.

Origami Yoda has that feeling of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, do people mention that comparison? Was this a particular style you wanted to go with when you started the book?

TA: A lot of people mention it and that's a-ok with me! I think Wimpy Kid is awesome! However, I have never actually read it. I'm purposefully avoiding it so that it doesn't interfere with my own process. In many ways this book is similar to my first book, The Qwikpick Adventure Society. It also had bad drawings, instructions and a mix of text and handwriting. But instead of Yoda it had a "poop fountain," which may explain its failure to catch on. But I think Wimpy Kid definitely helped pave the way for O.Y., the doodled-on look and all that.

I love to hear stories from life that may have been inspiration to put into a writer's book. Can you tell me about the kids in the book and if they were based on anyone you knew growing up?

TA: When I first started writing Dwight, I may have thought he was based on someone else. But I identify with him more and more, especially as I have begun to understand my own Asperger's traits. He can't filter out the crazy stuff. Whatever pops into his head, he does it, with no thought about how stupid he's going to look. That was me in middle school -- and maybe still. It is the same thing with Harvey, in many ways; he represents my middle school dark side. He wants people to like him so bad and yet he becomes the book's villain, mostly because he can't shut up. So many of the people in the book are real in some way or another. One of the characters, Caroline, is based on my wife and her school troubles. Quavondo, the Cheeto Hog, is based on a real kid I saw at the zoo once. Even Mr. GoodCleanFun and his monkey, Soapy, are based on a motivational speaker and his puppet who used to come to our school.

For those of us wanting to write middle grade stories, what is the word length of the book? How many pages was the manuscript when you turned it in? Did you overwrite and have to scale back or did your editor ask you to add more?

TA: I've looked at my old files. I think the length of the manuscript when I either showed it to my agent or editor was 15,600 words. The published book is about 19,100 words. So you can see that it was greatly expanded as well as thoroughly revised. Where did the extra 3,500 words come from? Well, I'm not sure about all of them, but some of that comes from an idea I had less than a year ago. We were just getting into the revisions and the news came that John Hughes had died. I decided I wanted the ending to be a real John Hughes movie moment. This required only a small change at the end, but an entire new chapter earlier in the book to set it up.

I'm a huge SW fan, Tom, and when I saw this book I flew out of my chair and jammed to the bookstore to get it. Let me tell you that I love the book. With that said, what was the general reaction to the book from Star Wars fans, and those who aren't SW fans?

TA: Thank you very much for that! I'm a huge fan myself. The book is about fans. And I hope that fans will like it, partly for the Star Wars stuff and partly because they may see themselves in the characters. The strongest reaction has been from Polish fans. A Polish Star Wars forum went a little nuts when they heard about the book. One guy called it blasphemy and others seemed to think it was the end of Star Wars, as we know it. Thanks to the forum's editors, I was able to have a response translated into Polish, just to let them know it wasn't THAT kind of book. It's lots of love for Star Wars.

You have some wonderful inside references that the die-hard Star Wars fans would know. Like naming the school after Ralph McQuarrie. The number on the bus. Can you tell those reading who are not SW junkies who is Ralph, and what he means to you?

TA: Well, as far as I understand it... Ralph McQuarrie -- who is responsible for many of the Star Wars characters, costumes and sets we know and love -- was the artist who drew the first picture of Yoda. Other artists and SFX folks helped make Yoda, too, and of course Frank Oz brought him to life and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the words. I tried to name everyone I could in the acknowledgements of the book. But I felt like McQuarrie was the perfect name for my middle school.

You've said in other interviews that Lucas was pretty helpful and open to your work. Is there any advice for those of us that might want to write a story like Origami Yoda and what we might want to avoid?

TA: Well, Lucasfilm was very helpful and open. I don't know that Lucas has ever heard of the book. (Though, of course, I dream about him reading it and approving.) As far as what to do or do not ... I really know nothing more than the next guy. I just got lucky!

What inspires you when writing? Music, images, or?

TA: I don't like to listen to music or anything. I like silence. But it's hard to come by. I've actually written at a library computer while the person at my elbow did everything in their power to distract me.

Are you working on a new book that you can share any of the stories with us?

TA: My next book is called... deep breath ... Horton Halfpott or the Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or the Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset.

Let me just interrupt for a moment. This is a wonderful title!! I love it… ok, carry on..

TA: It's about a crazy English castle ruled with an iron fist by the large-wigged and tightly corseted M'Lady Luggertuck. But as the book opens, M'Lady Luggertuck decides to have her corset loosened. The Loosening sets off a string of unprecedented and increasingly outrageous marvels some of which spell Certain Doom for lowly kitchen boy, Horton Halfpott. But he's a plucky fellow and so are his pals, the Snooping Stableboys.

I don’t know about you, but I am chomping at the bit to the read this one. This sounds awesome.

And of course, for the fellow geeks out there:

Favorite Star Wars movie?

TA: I've never been able to decide between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. I love them both so much.

Favorite Star Wars character? Why?

TA: Would it be too geeky for me to subdivide this question?

Never, Tom, please go on… I wave the geek flag for you!

Favorite major character: Yoda.

Favorite minor character: Nien Nunb, because of his crazy laugh after blowing up the Death Star with Lando.

Favorite bad guy: Grand Moff Tarkin, because of this "What? Retreat in our moment of triumph?"

Favorite ship: Millennium Falcon. I got to see the model at the Smithsonian. I know a million other people did, too, but still it was an unforgettable moment for me.

Tom, thank you so much for speaking with me and sharing some wonderful insight to your book. I will be reading Yoda again and working on my Origami skills for sure. If you want to make your own Origami Yoda, you can find instructions in the back of Tom's book and you can check out this video:

Until next time, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The ART of Creativity

I read an article awhile back about how artwork could help people in hospitals recover faster. You can read the posting here:

I thought about how I would rather see great art hanging up than looking at drab white walls all day. Art is inspiring and can take you places in your imagination that you never may have dreamed of. Instead of focusing on being in a bed for days or weeks on end, you can look upon the walls and drift off to another world.

Those other worlds inspire my writing and enhance my creativity. They push me to think beyond the cliche and dull.

Creativity isn't an exact science. There isn't a secret key that unlocks the senses. I believe the sense are evoked by imagery and sounds. Ever listen to a rock song and come up with a story? Or listen to movie scores and dream of a scenario that could happen to you? I do that all the time. I wonder what Nikola Telsa listened to, or looked at for inspiration?

Every time I attend a writer meeting, comic con, book signing, you name it - there is always that one question to the writer. "Where do you get your ideas from?"

Stephen King responds - "I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it's seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question 'What if?' 'What if' is always the key question."

My mind is a spiderweb. I see things and trap them in there for later use. Sometimes those images keep me up at night. Dreaming of other worlds. Chomping at the bit to get to the keyboard and write it all down.  I am the spider and the ideas are my fly.

What inspires you? Where do YOU get your ideas from?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I love comic books and novels. For me the mash-up of the two is a dream come true. It's a format that I would like to shape my middle grade books into. So I started looking at some of the books out there that mash it up. It turns out that there are not many... yet.

I'm not talking about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid style of book that has pencil sketches through out. Don't get me wrong, I love DOWK books, but I'm talking about some serious multi-panel eye candy plastered between face melting prose.

I stumbled across a book called The Doppleganger Chronicles.

The book was written by G. P. TAYLOR who is the author of the best-selling novels Shadowmancer (a #1 New York Times bestseller that has been translated into twenty languages) and Wormwood. Before taking up writing full-time, he was an Anglican minister in the village of Cloughton, North Yorkshire. He also coined the term Illustra-Novella (Illustrated Novel). Will this term catch on? Yet to be determined I guess. I still like Graphic Novel, it's graphic and it's a novel. Simple.

Synopsis: Book One - The First Escape
At Isambard Dunstan’s School for Wayward Children, life is trouble for 14-year-old identical twins Sadie and Saskia Dopple and their friend, former thief Erik Morrisey Ganger. But what starts out as a perfectly normal day of food fights, rioting classmates, fires, and (yawn) threats of expulsion goes suddenly and horribly wrong when a mysterious, wealthy woman appears at the school and adopts Saskia . . . without her sister. On her own in a mansion full of dark secrets, Saskia stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens her very life. Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to find her, Sadie and Erik escape from the orphanage with a gang of enemies in hot pursuit. Faced with madmen, wild dogs, treasure seekers, and an otherworldly visitor with a secret message, the trio must decided who to trust - and what to believe - if they are to survive long enough to find each other again.


This all got me thinking that many of us literary prose-slingers may not know the format for comic book writing and if you have an interest in writing the art/word mash-up then we should give a sample of how you write in comic manuscript style. 

I borrowed this sample below from Barry Lyga's article on Writing Comic Books - posted on Writing (find it here: )

SCRIPT SAMPLE (from Andromeda Press's Battlestar Galactica comic book)
PAGE 1: This page is divided into five panels, with the fifth panel taking up the entire bottom half of the page and the first four arranged however works best on the top half.

Panel 1: We see Muffit from above, at an angle that makes it seem as though we must be an adult human looking down on him. He is sprawled out on the floor of Boxey's room, but at this point, all we can see is him, in semi-darkness, alone.

BOXEY (off-panel): --have to say goodnight to Muffit!
APOLLO (off-panel): You're already tucked in...
Panel 2: We're close in on Boxey's bed now. Apollo is gently pushing Boxey back into a laying position, as his son tries to sit up in bed. Clearly, Apollo is fighting the age-old foe of all parents: That one more excuse kids have to stay up past their bedtime.

APOLLO: He doesn't need you to say goodnight to him.
BOXEY: But he gets lonely without me!
APOLLO: No, he--
APOLLO: I mean, he's right over there. He, uh, he knows where you are.

If you look at the Doppleganger panels above you can now use the script reference from Battlestar to see that the action is written in the PANEL description and the DIALOGUE (which usually appears in bubbles) is written per character.
From reading Doppleganger Chronicles you see there are great points in the story where it flips into comic book style. A prime example would be to convert on a piece of action that really lends itself to illustration. 
Dialogue driven by action works well for this style. Inner dialogue is used in comic books (like The Batman) but if you are not using action in the scene, keep your dialogue in prose format. Who wants to look at pictures of dialogue scenes. Boring! 

If you are interested in this style, pick up some comic books and do the research. Look at the panels and write out the action and dialogue. This pushes you to think more like an illustrator when describing what the scene looks like. Look at the economy of the comic book writing. There isn't a lot of flowery prose to describe the action. Get to the point. The illustrator will do the rest.

One book that I've found to be a wonderful guide to writing in comic book style is The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Denny O'Neil. Check it out here:
There are many books out there on writing comic books and many different ways to write scripts, but I find this one to be an industry standard and very helpful to the emerging writing. IF you're interested in writing this type of book or want more reading references hit me up. I'd love to hear from you.