Max Elliot Anderson
That’s an interesting question. How did a guy like me ever think he should start writing for kids? After all, I grew up hating to read. This was further complicated since my father published over 70 books during his lifetime and until recently, I never read any of them. He wrote a couple of kids’ series but those didn’t turn my head either. No, I was more interested in doing than reading about it. Still, in a family of seven children, I’m the only one who despised reading.
Along with my friends, we roamed the vast, wooded countryside of Wolf Lake, Michigan, on our bikes or on foot, depending on the current adventure. My oldest brother, on the other hand, could seldom be found without an open book. And it infuriated me how he walked around like he knew everything there was to know in the world. When we took a family camping trip across the country and back – yes, we really did do that with all of us crammed into a station wagon and one tent – my brother made sure to read up on all the places we’d visit along the way. Then he took special delight in spewing facts about our next stop. It made me furious. So, when his cowboy hat blew off his head, and plummeted out of sight to the bottom of The Grand Canyon, I couldn’t help thinking, “Ha! Shoulda read about those wind gusts around the canyon. Then you’d still have your hat.”
In addition to my father’s many books, he also wrote the scripts, directed actors, and produced dramatic films in a small studio close to our house. With every possible opportunity, I used to walk over there and sit in the shadows to watch as the actors rehearsed lines, practiced their movements on the set, and checked their makeup. During these times at the studio, I learned about dialog, timing, humor, characters, setting, and other details that went into creating a great film.
There were often opportunities for me to actually be in the background as an extra in a number of scenes. Then came my “big break.” My dad asked, “Max, how would you like to do a little acting in an entire sequence?”
Not knowing any better I shrugged and said, “Sure.”
The scene took place at night. A teenage guy had been drinking, borrowed a friend’s Corvette, and tore out of the parking lot. Then, there I was riding my bike along a lonely road in the dark.
“Don’t worry,” my dad had told me, “everything will be just fine. All you have to do is listen to what I tell you.”
That night I was struck and “killed” on a deserted stretch of gravel. But, since the film was shot in black and white, all the blood that poured from my ear, nose, and mouth came from a chocolate syrup bottle.
I learned never to eat any food from the set. We called it stunt food. The crew did terrible things to some of that food in order to make it look good on camera. One I particularly remember was ice cream. That was actually mashed potatoes. The reason was, under the hot lights, real ice cream melts in minutes.
As a direct result of these early impressions of the film business, I knew this was the work I wanted to do for the rest of my life. When I reached high school, I spent my summers actually working on films. Way up on the catwalk, adjusting lights for the next shot, I watched the activities below.
After shooting ended, the editing process began. Here I saw how each scene was meticulously cut together until it looked just right. Sound effects and music were added last. Next we’d watch the edited material over and over again, making small changes. When the final print came back from the lab, it was time to show our new film to real audiences. It always amazed me to see how people laughed or cried at what happened up on the screen.
These impressions stayed with me through college, a couple of years of military service, and later I applied them in additional film, video, and television commercial productions. Every facet of the production process would play a crucial part when I turned to writing action-adventure and mystery books for middle grade readers. But this didn’t begin until I turned 55. I’m 71 now, and writing for kids has opened up a whole new outlet of creative expression.
For me, writing one of these exciting books is much like producing a film. A writer has to juggle characters, setting, plot, and story flow. When I first started writing, and someone asked me what I was writing about, it wasn’t uncommon for me to say, “The film I’m writing is…” Of course I had to correct myself and change that from film to book. But each book truly seemed like a movie, in my head, as it was going together.
As I’m writing a new action-adventure or mystery, I play mood appropriate music in the background. At times, all I have to do is close my eyes and watch what the characters do in the scene; much like I did during the production of a dramatic film. This is a key factor that helps me keep action and dialog as real as possible.
During my filming days, it didn’t seem fair that a writer could dream up all sorts of calamity and action for the screen, write it down on paper, and expect the crew to bring his dreams to life. This was especially true when scenes called for cold weather, a driving rain storm, extreme heat, or hurricane-force winds.
I remember thinking, “How come the writer gets to stay warm and dry in an office while we were stuck out here shooting in the snow or all night long?”
Now, I am able to do the same thing. Anything I could see in my head, and put down on paper, was possible.
Being a visual person, and with an extensive background in the visual arts, I’m applying principles, from experience, in an attempt to reach readers who may struggle with reading today. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger, nearly forcing the reader to move on, even when they don’t want to.
A mother recently emailed me to report that her very reluctant reading son had just burst into the room, slammed one of my books on the coffee table and complained, “I know what that guy’s trying to do.”
“What?” she asked.
“He’s trying to make me read the next chapter.” He flipped to the last page of the chapter he’d just finished and read her the closing line. “See what I mean?” he complained.
Then she said he spun around, stormed out of the room and did exactly that. “I’ve never seen this happen with him before,” she said.
So, hopefully I’m making a small difference in the lives of young readers. Something they often report is reading one of my books is like being in an exciting or scary movie. Hummm…wonder how that happened?