Thursday, November 27, 2008


It was the fall of 1964 and The Beatles were “taking America by storm” (a popular and ridiculously overused phrase at the time) with hit after hit. To you, they were okay, but not nearly as cool as when Doug’s parents bought him a brand new bright yellow go-kart with a two-cycle Clinton engine, drum brakes, and a centrifugal force clutch.

You’d never seen anything so beautiful. Or so fast. Doug took the kart over to the school parking lot. That engine whined like a chain saw (the Clinton company did indeed make chain saws), and when Doug took off he shot past you with bugling eyes and a look of frozen fear on his face.

It had to be the coolest thing ever. That night at dinner you asked your father if you could get a go-kart, too. “Sure,” he said. “If you can pay for it.”

You shoveled driveways all winter and, by the spring, had saved less than a quarter of what you would have needed to buy a kart like Doug’s. It seemed hopeless, but then, in the Pennysaver, you found an ad for a homemade kart that looked like it had been welded together out of spare pipe. It had two rear band brakes, and no engine. Worst of all, it was the color of cream of broccoli.

“You sure you want it?” Dad asked, clearly dubious, when he took you to see it. But you were sure (And why not? You couldn’t afford anything better).
(That's you, shoveling.)

You guess Dad felt bad for you after that, because he said you could have the Briggs and Stratton engine from your old lawn mower. You unbolted the engine from the lawnmower, drilled new holes in the engine plate on the go-kart, and mounted it.

Then you went to the store to buy a centrifugal force clutch, only to discover that you couldn’t afford one. But you could afford a sprocket and a chain. All you’d have to do was jump start the kart.

Your short driveway slanted down to the street. After making sure there were no cars coming, you crouched beside the kart like a bobsled driver and pushed. The engine caught and roared. The kart shot out of your hands, sailed down the driveway, across the street, crashed into the curb, and died.

In time you learned to push and jump on before the kart got away. You would ride up and down the narrow street in front of your house, lugging the engine on each tight turn, and knowing if you hit the brakes too hard she’d stall.

Jumpstarting is hard on an engine. The spark plug often got fouled and had to be cleaned. You fiddled constantly with the carburetor, and often burned yourself on the muffler. Cables snapped and had to be replaced. Brake bands wore out and had to be replaced. The drive tire went bald and had to be replaced. You did it all yourself.

(A home-made kart of similar vintage to yours).
While every kid around begged Doug to let them drive his kart,
you cannot remember anyone ever asking to drive yours. You don’t doubt that they regarded your broccoli-green machine as a joke and an eyesore. And yet, you can’t recall being particularly bothered or jealous.

You’re sure you spent far more time fixing the kart than driving it. At its best, it never went a third as fast as Doug’s. It would be too neat and easy to end this story by saying that Doug got bored with his kart, or never appreciated it. The truth is, you have no idea how he felt about his kart, or what he eventually did with it. All you know is you loved every second you spent with yours.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Help, I'm Trapped!

For whacky fun, there’s nothing better than writing for the Scholastic book clubs (except when you’re having battles with them,* which is not fun). Until recently** the clubs generally wanted one of two types of books from you: either funny books for boys, or funny books about school (most recently, funny books about school and pets ie, the Tardy Boys).

As best as you can recollect, this all began with Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body. It was either 1992 or early 1993, your dalliance with soap operas was over, and you’d recently started working with The World’s Best Disappearing Literary Agent. One day the WBDLA sent you word that the Scholastic Arrow Club was looking for a funny middle-grade book (grades 3-6 ish) about school. You seem to have the impression that this mandate had gone out to numerous agents and authors. The race was on.

You’d recently met your daughter’s rather peculiar science teacher and it occurred to you that it might be amusing if you wrote a story in which he switched bodies with a student.*** You called the WBDLA and suggested the title Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body. The WBDLA immediately called your Scholastic editor. The editor’s assistant said that your editor was, at that very moment, in a meeting with the other book club editors deciding on the fall’s books. The WBDLA instructed the assistant to go into the meeting and whisper the title of your book into your editor’s ear.

An hour later you had a deal to write the book.

Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body was one of those books that just spilled out. You can’t recall now whether you even wrote an outline first. The main character, Jake Sherman, got his first name from the son of one of your friends, and his last name from one of your neighbors. The one question in your mind was how Jake would switch bodies with his peculiar science teacher, Mr. Dirksen.

The choices were: 1) Magic potion 2) A spell cast by some witch-like being 3) A machine.

You decided to let students choose. For the next few weeks, whenever you visited a school, you told students the idea for the book and asked them which mechanism for switching bodies they’d prefer. The majority seemed to favor a machine.

And thus was born the Dirksen Intelligence Transfer System (DITS for short). Followed soon thereafter by the more portable Mini-DITS.

Ironically, even though there are 17 Help! I’m Trapped in … books, all with the same basic cast of characters, the books are not considered a series*. Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body was conceived as a one-off (a stand-alone book as opposed to a series). For the next book, your editor suggested you do a “Ground Hog Day” for students. You decided to make the story about a student who has to do the first day of school over and over until he gets it right (Just as Bill Murray does Ground Hog Day over and over until he gets it ”right.”). You wrote the book and were casting about for a title when you thought of Help! I’m Trapped in The First Day of School.

One day sometime later, your editor called and asked what else a boy could switch bodies with. Back in those days, Mac used to lie at your feet under your desk while you wrote. You looked down at Mac, and then said into the phone, “How about Help! I’m Trapped in a Dog’s Body?”

Your editor suggested the title have something to do with school. Mac was a recent obedience school drop-out****, so you suggested Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School. While the first two books in the Help! I’m Trapped in Not-A-Series did well, Obedience School was the one that knocked the ball out of the park (mostly thanks to one of the funniest covers ever).

*see Tardy Boys

** Recently you wrote some mildly scary stories, the Nighttime series, for beginning readers.

*** For about ten minutes you thought you’d come up with something completely new. Then you remembered Freaky Friday.

**** You took Mac to obedience school twice. Not only was he impossible to train, but during the second class he decided to do his business on the floor in the middle of class. You cleaned up the mess and did not return.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


One day a few years ago, your editor at Simon Pulse asked if you would write a series about drifting. At the time you had no idea what drifting was, but as soon as you learned that it is a competitive form of driving that involves controlling a car that has lost traction, you were thrilled that she’d asked.

The idea of living vicariously in a racing car driver’s body was just as attractive as living vicariously in a good surfer’s body.

You were taught to drive when you were twelve years old. It was 1962, the United States was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and within inches of getting into a nuclear war with Russia. Your father decided that if there was to be a war, it would be crucial for you to know how to drive. He took you to the parking lot at the Country Club (it was a country club called the Country Club. Imaginative, huh?) in his MG TF-1500, put a phone book on the seat so that you could see over the dashboard, and taught you to use a stick shift.

It wasn’t until many years later that you began to wonder where exactly he thought you’d go if the bombs did indeed fall. You lived on Long Island. At one end with New York City, which was sure to be completely demolished and rife with life-threatening radioactivity. At the other end of Long Island was the Atlantic Ocean (you were pretty sure that the MG, while great fun to drive, was not designed to float).

The Country Club parking lot was composed of loose gravel and so from the very beginning you were aware of the possibilities for a moving car to lose traction and slide. While it was your father’s intention to teach how not to do this, you secretly enjoyed seeing what happened when you did.

Once you had your license, you took great pleasure in what was then known as power-slides*—going fast and then turning the wheel just sharply enough to break traction and “slide” (skid) sideways through a turn. You performed some power slides on dry roads, but many more on snow or ice, and, now and then, by accident in the spring, on the sand leftover from the winter (before municipalities began to spread salt on icy roads, they often used sand). On several occasions you wound up on someone’s lawn, but never, luckily, wrapped around a tree.

Part of the fun of writing about drifting was learning about its fictional origins on mountainous roads in Japan, and reading the manga series Initial D, in which a young man, Takumi Fujiwara (coincidentally, also 12 when he first begins to drive), teaches himself to drift while dilvering tofu for his father. Currently, most drifting occurrs in the fictional realm of video games, although there is a small contingent of young men and women in this country, and in Japan, who do indeed drift real cars in parking lots and race tracks, and, to a lesser degree, illegaly on the streets.

Your days of power slides are thankfully over, but you have retained your interest in cars, and have a particular fondness for old automobiles, as well as some new German and Italian models.

The only car you ever really dreamed of owning was the 1956 Bentley S-1. It remains one of the most beautifully designed (and hand-built) cars you’ve ever seen. A close runner up might be the 1968 Mercedes 280-SL.

Wait! What about all those gorgeous Ferraris? And the Rolls Phantom 2s from the 1930s. And let’s not forget the Stutz Bearcat. And the old Land Rovers, and the original Toyota land cruiser? And how can you not include Porches? And … Oh, well, forget it. Too many memorable cars to name.

These days cars seem to fall into two categories for you – either they are works of design art and automotive history, or they are merely vehicles to get you from place to place. You have lost the desire to own any vehicle that you would have to worry about dinging, scratching, or being stolen. Most cars are pretty much like tubes of toothpaste. Use’em up and throw’em away.

Unless, of course, you could get your hands on a 1950s Bentley Corniche, or a classic 1950s ‘Vette, or a Jag XK-120 roadster, or …

*Power slides are a part of a drifting driver’s repertoire of moves.

Mr. Bill says, “I myself come from a long and distinguished line of land rovers.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Time Zone High

You once had the world’s best disappearing literary agent. She was funny and smart and came up with lots of great ideas for books. You would sit on the phone with her for hours and laugh. There was just one problem. Sometimes she would vanish. Months would go by and she wouldn’t answer phone calls, e-mails, letters, etc. You would speak to the other writers she represented and they wouldn’t have a clue where she was or what she was doing.

Gradually her others writers found more reliable agents, until the day came when you were the only one left. You couldn’t bear to leave her. It was during this time that you produced so many books – 36 in one two year period; mostly novelizations of movies -- that for her it was like representing a bunch of writers anyway.

But finally the day came when you, too, had to say good-bye. She still sends you a check now and then, and when she does you always write back to thank her and ask how she and her family are. She never replies.

During your heyday together, she once suggested you write a book with the title Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date. You loved the title so much that you did it. You had recently written a book called How I Changed My Life☺and you liked the characters and wanted to spend more time with them, so you brought many of them back to life for this book*.

Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date ☻ was published in hardcover and the publisher’s sales department soon began to report that many people thought the title was gross, disgusting, and inappropriate. Unfortunately, around that time there was a well-publicized incident in which a young woman actually did give birth in a school bathroom during her prom.

Your publisher asked you to come up with a new title for the paperback, and you chose How I Created My Perfect Prom Date. The paperback had just come out when Fox bought the movie rights. Fourteen months later the movie, Drive Me Crazy (a generic movie title if ever there was one), was released.**

Your publisher immediately published a movie tie-in book with the same title. Hence, in the space of less than four years, the book had three different titles - Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date, How I Created My Perfect Prom Date, and Drive Me Crazy.

*Some of the characters would show up for a third time in How I Spent My Last Night on Earth. Together, you call all three “How I…” novels the Time Zone High trilogy.

☺ The character of Jeff Branco in this book is based on your childhood friend Phillip. While Phillip never sold pizza out of the boys room at school, he did indeed scale a 15-foot-chain link fence topped with barbed wire in an attempt to break into a woman’s correctional facility on Long Island.

☻The idea for Wrong Way Ray came from the experience of an editor from the Middletown Times Herald-Record, who celebrated a promotion to a higher editorial position by getting so drunk that he drove nearly fifteen miles in the wrong direction on the New York Thruway before police were able to stop him.

** The premiere party for the movie was one of the first times you ever saw your daughter, then 15, dress up and wear makeup. The transformation from ponytail and sweat pants to blow-dried hair, short skirt, and spaghetti strap top was somewhat unsettling. And you weren’t the only one who noticed. Adrian Grenier (think Entourage***), the male lead in the movie, went so far as to suggest that she accompany him to “the party after the party” (wink, wink). She politely declined, explaining that she had school (Uh, like 9th grade, dude!) the next day. I give Mr. Grenier the benefit of the doubt and believe he did not realize how young she was (My daughter is almost 6 feet tall, and, when wearing makeup… Well, you know).

*** In the movie, Mr. Grenier played the role of Chase Hammond. In Entourage his character’s name is Vincent Chase. Coincidence?

Mr. Bill says, “This blog drives ME crazy!”

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Tardy Boys Not-A-Series

The Tardy Boys is not a series. The fifth book, IS THAT AN UNHAPPY LEPRECHAUN IN YOUR LUNCH? is supposed to come out next March, but it is still not a series. Nobody except you calls it the Tardy Boys not-a-series. In fact, nobody else calls it a series even though four books have been published and they all star the Tardy Boys.

This is not the first time you have written a not-a-series. You once wrote a 17-book not-a-series even though each book began with Help! I’m Trapped in… and the same characters appeared in each book.

When you asked your publisher why it wasn’t a series, you were told, “because it’s not numbered.”

You had to rewrite the first book in the Tardy Boys not-a-series about 150,000 times. Every time you though the book was done, your publisher would read it and tell you all the things that were wrong with it. For instance, originally you wanted to call the main characters the Pardy Boys, but your publisher said no. Here is a VERY partial list of other things your publisher said no to:

1) Giving the Pardy Boys first names of Disc O. and Hart T., and calling their little brother Pajama
2) Using the words underpants, underwear, and orifice.
3) Solving the world-wide energy crisis by harnessing a fantastic new source of renewable energy known as COW BUTT METHANE GAS POWER (CBMGP) and introducing THE COW CAR, which runs on CBMGP.
4) Mentioning Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons.
5) Asking if the naked eye is indecent.
6) Placing the Magic Toilet Bowl inside the Mysterious Toilet Stall at The School With No Name and sending the Pardy Boys back in time whenever they pulled a sheet from the Phantom Toilet Stall Dispenser.
7) Having the Pardy Boys travel back to the Revolutionary War to meet Timmy Meeker, Sarah Bishop, Johnny Tremain, and Willy Freeman.
8) Having Johnny Tremain put down Timmy Meeker because Johnny’s book won the Newbery Medal while Timmy’s book only won a Newbery Honor, and having Timmy put down Sarah Bishop because her book only won something called the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
9) What Germans say when they mean no.
10) Having them all put down the Pardy Boys because their book was only a paperback original.
11) Having the Pardy Boys put down all the others because they were stuck using chamber pots.
12) Having the Pardy Boys explain to Capt. John Parker of the Minutemen that a surefire way to “kick some limey lobsterback butt” at the Battle of Lexington Green was to have the Minutemen hide behind rocks and trees.
13) Having the Pardy Boys realize that they couldn’t use the Magic Toilet to return to the present because they would have to wait 97 years until Dr. Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet.
14) Having the Pardy Boys meet your Russian girlfriend, Dr. Prada Nockoff, supermodel, brain surgeon, and director of research at the Harvard Center for the Study of Alien Abductees.

Mr. Bill says, “I’m surprised you didn’t mention your Russian tax accountant, Candice B. Writtenoff.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Best Creatures on Earth

Back in the early 1980s your first three books for young adults had done well and your agent was able to ratchet up your advances to levels you would not again see for nearly 25 years. But then you produced a slew of books -- some real clunkers included -- that didn’t sell well enough to merit the advances you were receiving.

Worried that your future as a writer was at stake, you worked extra hard to create a new batch of proposals for really cutting-edge, hard-hitting YAs that, you believed, were sure to be newsworthy advance re-earning award winners. Then you went to your editor’s office (not Ferdinand Monjo, who had sadly passed away) and pitched the books passionately. You provided your editor with extensive outlines and sample chapters. You described key scenes and plot points. You put everything you could think of offering into this effort.

After listening to your proposals, your editor sat back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling. He pressed the tips of his fingers together thoughtfully for several moments. Then he leaned forward, looked you straight in the eyes and said, “Todd, I think you should write some books about dogs.”

This marked the beginning of the end of your first adventure as a YA writer. Soon thereafter, you would chuck the whole book-writing business and spend two years in the literarily (is this really a word? Spell check seems to think so) rarified world of daytime television drama. Close to fifteen years would pass before you would see, or speak to, that editor again.

Shortly after that editorial meeting, your daughter was born. If her first words were not, “Can I have a dog?” then they followed soon. You were living in New York City and pets weren’t allowed in your building, so you gave her Gund dogs, and promised that you would get her a real dog as soon as you “moved to the country.”

One day a few years later you moved to the suburbs. An adorable pudgy little yellow lab, Mac, arrived shortly thereafter. Mac grew to be 75 pounds and taught you many things. He taught you never to leave food on any flat surface less than 5 feet off the ground. He taught you to get him an extra-long leash so that when he took off after squirrels he wouldn’t yank your shoulder out of its socket. He taught you that a large dog can eat a pound of dark chocolate and survive (barely). He taught you that when you’re a dog, love is never conditional.

You had never had a dog before Mac, but you now believe they are the best creatures on Earth (Even better than YOU, Mr. Bill). Since then, you have written 13 books about dogs (The 3-book Furry Mason Mysteries was not published in this country). You hope to soon write more books about dogs. Even better, you hope that someday soon you will have another dog.

Mr. Bill says, “Arf! Arf! Hey, maybe I’m a bull dog!”