ES: Thanks for stopping by The Corner today, Jeff!
There are already an impressive number of articles and interviews of you out there, providing your thoughts on everything from how to get boys to read to your groundbreaking work with Ardsley Middle School to, of course, Everything Sean Rosen! (Readers who are interested in checking these out can find links at the bottom of this interview.)
In the interest of keeping it fresh, we’re going to take a new angle today. Since many of our readers here are authors, or teachers who are teaching writing skills, let’s focus on the craft of writing.
In Robert McKee’s STORY, a book on screenwriting, he points out it’s a terrific waste of money to have an actor knock on a door and have the person he’s expecting to see open the door. In other words, as moviegoers – and as readers – we thrive on the unexpected. Can you tell us about one or two particular scenes in the Rosen books that benefited from the revision process in terms of adding an unexpected twist?
JB: Surprises have always been part of my work, and luckily for me, they are more likely to come when I'm writing than when I'm revising. My characters spontaneously do or say something I had never even thought about, or else someone I wasn't expecting to see suddenly shows up.
In I REPRESENT SEAN ROSEN, after 13-year old Sean can't get a Hollywood agent or manager, he comes up with the idea of inventing a manager and getting him an email address. Before I started writing, I knew this was going to happen, but I didn't know anything else about Sean's manager. Sean comes up with a name while looking in his fridge for a snack - "Dan Welch", from Dannon yogurt and Welch's grape juice.
On seanrosen.com, Sean posts: "For all business questions, contact Dan Welch", with a link to the Dan Welch Management email address.
Sean comes home from school a few days later, and finds this:
Hey, Dan Welch!
Its me, Dan Welch. No, your not looking in the mirror. I'm another guy named Dan Welch. How do you like having our name? I like it fine. I've had it for 44 years now.
I came across you today when I was googling myself. You ever do that? I'm kinda addicted to it. Its mostly my ebay stuff that comes up, but there's a whole bunch of other Dan Welches out there. This was the first time I saw you.
I'm in business 6 years now. Collectibles. You name it, I got it. Check out my website: UNameItIGotIt.com Are you a collector? I got everything. Sports, beany babies, franklin mint, hummels, unicorns, barbys, everything. Tell me what your looking for and I'll get it for you.
Collectibles Dan Welch, who I didn't know about until Sean got this email, keeps popping up throughout the books, inserting himself into Sean's business.
When I was revising the first book, my editor (and publisher) Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins reminded me that in life, a lot of things happen that interrupt the rhythm of things. We get a text message or an email, and immediately, our minds go somewhere else. She thought that the book would benefit from more of those changes in rhythm, and I found that note very helpful.
Soon afterward, I was in the auditorium reading a chapter to 160 seventh graders, who seemed like they were totally caught up in it. Suddenly, a voice came on the loud speaker summoning one of the boys in the room to the principal's office. The seventh grade went crazy, and I had to wait until he left, wait until everyone stopped speculating about what he did, then go back a sentence or two.
It was a little annoying, but mostly funny. And I realized I could use it. At several key moments in Sean Rosen Is Not for Sale, Sean gets called to the principal's office. Then, in the climax of the book, he gets called away from the seventh grade class trip campfire. It's funny and suspenseful each time, but the last time is the best - a real game-changer for Sean and his Hollywood quest.
ES: So true!! As a teacher, I always feel like announcements come on at the worst time or that some kid gets whisked away for early dismissal right when things were getting hairy for him!
You mentioned in your interview with Dennis Abrams from PUBLISHING PERSPECTIVES that working in Hollywood and TV has sometimes been frustrating. However, are there any skills you believe transferred particularly well to the craft of writing for children?
JB: In screenwriting, you learn to tell stories efficiently for the mass public, ideally without sacrificing intelligence or emotional honesty. My style is naturally simple and clear, so despite the fact that Sean interacts with many adults (some of whom don't know he's a kid), and even though the ideas and situations in the books are quite complex, the language is always accessible. Or if it's not ("bidding war", "the big cheese", "deconstruct"), Sean has to look it up, and then you find out what it means, too. I've had a lot of parents and teachers tell me that their reluctant readers like Sean Rosen.
One thing that scared me about writing fiction was writing in third person. So I didn't. Sean Rosen narrates his story in the books, which is like writing a long monologue. The books also include transcripts of conversations Sean has or hears, and excerpts of movies and TV scripts that he writes, so I'm able to tell parts of the story in a format that's familiar to me, but possibly new to readers.
In the Sean Rosen books, characters and places are almost never physically described. This is a technique I developed writing my original plays and screenplays. You don't know which actors will be playing the roles, so you focus on personalities and the distinctive ways people speak, and you let the reader fill in the rest. Hardly anyone notices the absence of description in the Sean Rosen books, but I think it adds to the reading experience by making it a bit more interactive.
ES: That’s fascinating – what a different perspective on writing and the communication of a creative idea!
Sooo now the dreaded “R” word…Raymond Chandler said, “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” What is your revision process…and how do you survive it?
JB: When I'm writing, I try not to edit as I go. I force myself to keep moving forward, knowing I will come back and fiddle with it later. I write my first drafts by hand, then I usually begin the next day by typing up what I wrote. I do a little bit of revising as I type, though I save the written drafts, in case I want to check my original impulse, which I regularly do. I don't re-read and edit until I'm done, or stuck. Then I read what I have out loud, which is very helpful to me. Hearing it, even though it's me reading it, is the closest I can get to being inside a reader's head. I can tell if something is moving along the way it should or whether it's getting bogged down in words. I trained in journalism and film and video production, and I love the editing process.
ES: Interesting how so many folks in every corner of the industry – be they authors, editors, or agents, for picture books all the way up to novels, all recommend reading out loud as part of the revision process.
Lastly, a question in a slightly different vein: you (along with Mr. McIntosh and Ms. Brindise from Ardsley MS) gave a fabulous presentation at the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) conference this past November on the benefits of an extended partnership between author and school as opposed to a parachute (one-time) visit. In creating a kind of residency program with Ardsley, you have worked closely with teachers to help students blossom into their unique writing capabilities. Since many authors and schools may be unable to create similar programs in terms of its depth and scope, do you have any suggestions for some kind of a compromise between the ideal – what you do with Ardsley – and the current popular format of parachute visits?
JB: Thanks for the kind words. The program we do at Ardsley is incredibly ambitious - every student does in-depth research, develops a character, creates a story, and writes and performs it, all in a few weeks. It takes a giant commitment from the English faculty and from me.
Most of my other school visits are more typical one-day-only presentations, though this year I'll be experimenting with a hybrid. I'll work with teachers and/or school librarians to come up with a creative project that students can accomplish over the course of a week or so. I'll provide specific exercises and tips, and I may make a Skype appearance or two before the culminating day, when I come to the school and the students present what they've come up with.
I give them professional feedback publicly, so that everyone can see the standards by which I evaluate my own creative work, which is often different from what they learn from their teachers. I talk about what grabs me about their story, where I was confused, and where they lost me. Always in a positive way, of course.
ES: Well Ardsley is incredibly lucky to have you! Thanks for stopping by The Corner today, and good luck with your next adventures!
To go to Jeff’s website, click here. For teacher resources on the Sean Rosen books, click here.