Author & Artist's Corner: Author

Frederic S. Durbin

Frederic S. Durbin was born in rural Taylorville, Illinois. Throughout childhood, he was active in getting muddy, lost, and injured--as well as in creative and interpretive literary performances, writing, puppetry, vocal and instrumental music, and filmmaking.

He attended Concordia College (now University) in River Forest, Illinois, where he majored in classical languages. At Concordia, he served as chapel cantor and sacristan, worked as an international resident assistant, and edited the creative writing section of the college newspaper. He spent his college summers helping with vacation Bible schools in remote Cree and Ojibwe villages in northern Ontario, Canada. He graduated summa cum laude and traveled to Japan as a part of the Overseas Volunteer Youth Ministry program of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Fred has lived in Japan since 1988, where he teaches courses in writing and English conversation at Niigata University. He is a frequent speaker on the joys and practical aspects of fiction writing.

"I can't tell you what an honor it is to have my story appear in a magazine that has been a part of my life for 36 years," Fred says.

"I'm of the first generation of children that grew up with Cricket, so I've always felt very close to the magazine. My mom was a teacher, writer, and elementary school librarian, and she got me a charter subscription to Cricket when I was in first grade. I remember receiving the first-ever issue, Volume 1 Number 1, in September 1973. (I suppose I shouldn't brag about that, age-wise!) My friend in the same class was absolutely convinced that he had the very first copy of Cricket ever to be printed because it said 'Number 1' on the cover! Even when I showed him the 'Number 1' on my copy, he was unwilling to believe that all the copies said that! I have the entire collection of Crickets, from that issue onward.

One of my favorite aspects of writing is being able to speak with readers. So I am absolutely delighted to respond to any questions or comments from kids reading Cricket today."

My teacher made us watch a newer version of Ben-Hur. It was interesting in some parts.

submitted by Miranda C.
(December 27, 2008 - 10:24 pm)

Hi! I really love this story, partly because I'm an absolute fantasy nut. Do you like fantasy too? Well, I guess you must, since that's what you're writing. Do you write other things as well? How about novels? I'm desperate for something new to read; I'm always running out. Do you have trouble meeting deadlines? I know I would. I'm such a procrastinator. Most of the time I end up finishing my homework the morning it's due! I should probably shut up now, so I don't swamp you with my random questions and comments. Also, that way I can go back to haunting the mailbox for the next issue of Cricket. See ya! (Well, not actually, but you know what I mean.)

submitted by Kathy F.
(June 24, 2008 - 12:17 pm)

Hi, Kathy!


Thank you very much! I'm delighted that you really love this story! I'm always happy to meet another "absolute fantasy nut"--I'm one, too! Most of what I write is fantasy, though it's not always in a long-ago setting. Sometimes the characters are modern people from our world . . . but almost always, something "fantastical" happens to them! What can I say, I'm an absolute fantasy nut--I'm sure you understand!


I have one novel out there called Dragonfly. The main character is also a girl about Cymbril's age. As Hallowe'en draws near, she begins to hear strange noises coming from the basement. Soon, she discovers that the basement has been tunneled into from below--and is now the entrance to a strange underground world where it's always Hallowe'en night! The girl can't resist going down there to investigate, and she has many adventures in the land of Harvest Moon.


I'm glad you're such an avid reader! I know what you mean. I have a sweatshirt with this sentence written across the front: "So many books, so little time."


I'm a procrastinator, too, for things that I don't want to do (like homework). Right now I'm proofreading part of a Japanese grammar dictionary that I'm supposed to be done with by the end of June, but I've put it off until the last few days. Eek! But with writing deadlines, I actually like them when an editor gives me one. It helps me to know someone is waiting for my story. It inspires me to keep working on it and to make it the best I can make it.


Usually, though, fiction writers don't have many deadlines. (I guess they do if they're writing books in a series.) With a story such as "The Star Shard," though, it all has to be finished before the first part appears in Cricket. I'm not scrambling to write a new part each month!


See ya back at the Thunder Rake next issue!

submitted by Fred Durbin, Japan
(June 24, 2008 - 2:57 pm)

Hey, I'm back! Sorry it took me so long to get online again.

Yay! I love to meet other people who adore fantasy. For the most part, all of my friends can't stand it. It's so sad!

Ooh! I'm going to library today, so I'll see if I can find your book. I can't wait to read it. It sounds really cool!

I can see how having deadlines for writing would be nice, but I still bet I wouldn't be able to keep up. I'd be too busy reading other people's books! And if I had to have a new bit out each month... Well, I'm just glad you don't have to. The mere thought of it makes me shudder.

How do you manage to finish stuff? Whenever I'm just writing for fun, before I'm very far along in the story, I get some other new, fabulous idea that I just have to go write. So nothing ever gets done. The only stories I've ever finished were for school. (Not that we get much of a chance to write stories. At least, not ones I want to write. We always get these awful nonfiction prompts. I hate nonfiction.)

Also, if I ever do finish something... How do you find someone who will read it impartially? (Without sending it to a publisher, because I know I'm not even close to being good enough for that.) I mean, my friends and family would all just say it's good, even if it was uber-bad. I need someone who knows what they're talking about and will tell it like it is.

I know this is probably a really common question, but how do you find ways to begin stories? It's hard to find things that will get the reader's attention, and I don't really know what ways work. I've looked at the beginnings of some of the books I read, but... I'm still clueless.

Continuing in the same vein with another super common question, how on earth do you come up with titles? It's almost completely impossible for me. I can never come up with decent ones.

Thanks for reading through all of this ridiculously long message. I can't wait to see the your answers to my questions.

By the way... I love the new 'Star Shard' chapter.

submitted by Kathy F., The Library!
(July 7, 2008 - 12:23 pm)

Hi, Kathy!

I know what you mean. Some of my friends and family members don't appreciate fantasy, either--even the people who love to read. Some people just "get" it, and others don't. I'm like you: I love it when when I meet another fantasy fan!

You talked about how you'd be so busy reading other people's books that you wouldn't be able to keep up with deadlines. Ha, ha! I hear you on that. But that's good. As writers, reading and reading and reading is essential for us. It's like the food that keeps us alive!

Finishing stuff. . . . Well, that is a tough question, especially when you have tons of great ideas. It's a matter of developing discipline, I guess. For me, seeing something finished is a great reward. I want other people to read my stories, and I know they really can't appreciate them until they have endings, so that keeps me working on the stories until they're finished. That's where it helps to have a writing notebook. When you get your exciting new ideas, write them down in the notebook so you won't forget them. Then you can go back and work on your current story until it's done.

But another important thing to remember is that, especially when you're a very young writer, it's natural to start a whole lot more stories than you ever finish. When I was the age of most Cricket readers, I was always starting stories (usually very similar to whatever book or movie I loved at the time), and I'd get about two or ten pages into them, then go on to something else. You learn from everything you write. Oh, and I'd strongly encourage you to save all those story beginnings. Keep them in your "writing suitcase" or "writing box" in your closet. You'll have a wonderful time re-reading them at various times in life. And who knows?--some of them may be ideas you'll want to use when you are working seriously on getting a story published!

H'mm. Well, non-fiction isn't all that bad! But I agree--it seems like we have to write a lot more of it for school, when what we want to be writing is fiction!

You're absolutely right: eventually, you'll want to find impartial readers for your writing. Family and friends are wonderful! I still let them read what I write, and their responses encourage me. But yes, most people who care about us will also like our writing by extension. I know there are on-line writers' groups; there are writers' conferences and workshops where you can find impartial critics (and make more friends!). Also, as you go through life, you'll probably make friends with other writers (or readers) who are willing and able to give you an unbiased opinion. I think one key is to bounce your story off three or four readers, at least. If, say, three people all have the same question about part of your story, it's probably a question you should take seriously.

Finding beginnings. . . . That can be hard, too, but it's best not to worry too much about it. Just relax, write the story (even if you don't know how to begin it), and sometimes the perfect way to start it will spring into your mind much later in the project. (The same goes for the title!) It's very, very, VERY common for writers to go back and rewrite the beginnings of their stories and books after they've written the whole thing. So don't feel that you can't start until you've got the "perfect beginning." Just write the story, and wait for the beginning to show up in your mind! But you're right to study the beginnings of books and stories you admire.

And always keep an open mind. Learn to "listen" for titles and beginnings. I'm always hearing something in daily life and saying, "That would make a great title!" J.R.R. Tolkien was grading his students' papers when he suddenly thought of the first line of The Hobbit. On a blank space on one of the tests, he wrote, "In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit." (Often, a good beginning raises a lot of questions--look at how curious Tolkien's beginning makes us! What is a Hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground? What's it like inside that hole?--which Tolkien answers in the very next few sentences!)

So, for titles, for beginnings, and for writing ideas in general, keep that notebook to jot things in! Always be looking and listening. The world around us is full of words and characters and ideas, and they're always threatening to spiral together into a new story. If you are there when the words and ideas start coming together, you can grab hold of the story and write it! And keep on writing. That's the best way to learn how to write!

Thank you again! I'm so happy that you like "The Star Shard"!


submitted by Fred D., Japan
(July 12, 2008 - 12:40 am)

Hey, guess who's back!

About finishing things... I try to save the new ideas for later, never really works. I start getting bored with my current idea and the new seems cooler and cooler all the time. Sooner or later my resolve breaks and it's "hello, new story; bye bye, old story". Not really very promising at all, is it?

I'll try to find some online writing groups, but I dunno if I'll have any luck. I'd probably feel a little awkward joining one without knowing anyone. (Though, of course, it would be better if I didn't know anyone, because then I wouldn't have to worry about people being biased.) I probably don't have to worry about it for a while, because I don't finish anything. (Unless there are groups that have you show things in installments. That would probably be better for me because then there would be someone waiting for me to read the next part, which would motivate me to write more quickly. Probably. On the other hand, that means if I did ditch the story, there would people who would be majorly annoyed with me. But, there, that would be motivation! So.) Until then, I will continue writing mostly for myself, because no one else usually ever reads it. (Because all they ever tell me is "it's good, it's good!", which isn't much use, you know?)

Yeah... I guess I should just start the stories any old which way, and then go back and fix it later. It's still annoying, though, because when I go back and read the thing through I always dessperately want to change the beginning, but I can't ever think of a better one. I'm sure I'll get better with practice, though. 

And titles... Usually I don't even try to think of one till I'm fairly deep in, but I do like to have them. It makes talking about them easier.

New question. I'm never sure how long to make chapters, so a lot of the time I don't have chapters at all. (Like Terry Pratchett. Have you ever read anything by him? If you haven't, you totally should. He is absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, the best author in the world. I love him.) On the other hand, chapters make it a lot easier to set goals. Like, "today I'm going to write another chapter", or whatever. It also makes organization easier. (Though, if you don't have chapters you still, of course, have breaks, but chapters are a lot clearer.) I'm never sure how long to make them, though. Too short chapters are really annoying when you're reading them, but if you're chapters are super long, what's the point in having them in the first place? So, in general, about how many words would you say would be good for a chapter?

I have a lot of trouble coming up with plots. When I get ideas, they're always for the setting-and-how-the-main-character-fits-into-it aspect of things. I can't ever figure out what's actually going to happen. The action, that is. I know that's not really a question, and even if it was it would be really hard to answer, but if you have any advice I would be extremely grateful. It's hard to write a story if you don't know what's going to happen. (That's probably part of the reason I never get very far.)

Gotta go back to writing now, so toots!

P.S. You live in Japan?! That is so awesome! I've always wanted to go there.

P.P.S. I looked for your book at the library, but they didn't have it. I'll try the bookstore, but I don't go there nearly as often, so it might take a while for me to get my hands on a copy.

submitted by Kathy F., Somewhere Over
(July 21, 2008 - 3:40 pm)

Hi, Kathy!

I'm sorry this response is slow in coming. I was watching the beginning and end of this column for new letters, and I didn't realize new ones could crop up in the middle!

Your thinking all sounds pretty good. If you like to meet and know your fellow writers, you might consider starting your own writers' group! Do you have any friends/cousins/siblings/classmates who also like to write? I agree that it really helps if someone is waiting for your next chapter or story--it keeps you working! If you look around, there may also be a class in your area that you could take. Or how about going to talk with your language arts/English teacher at school? If you put your head together with a teacher's, you might figure out a way to start a writing group as an extracurricular activity at school--could be fun! I was in high school when my mom took me along with her to my first writers' conference, and I LOVED it! It was so exciting to be among all these other people who were living the writing life and talking about writing day and night! If you get a chance to go to a writers' conference or workshop, I TOTALLY recommend it!

Several of my friends have told me I should read Terry Pratchett. I've been dragging my feet, because in general I don't really like "humorous fantasy"--but from what people are telling me, Pratchett goes far beyond simple laughs. They say there's a lot of depth and substance to his writing, so I really should give him a try. Thank you!

Hmm.... I don't think there's any rule about the length of chapters, or even whether you should have them or not. (Another question I've often struggled with is whether chapters should have names, like they did in most old-time books, or whether they should just have numbers.) I have one friend who always shoots for chapters that are 20 pages long. It all depends on your style and the story you're telling. For me, I would say I prefer chapters to be a little shorter than that--say, about 10 pages. But I don't think the length is really that important. What's far more important is the flow of the scenes and what's happening. I always try to end my chapters right when something new, terrible, or unexpected happens. That helps to pull the reader right on into the next chapter.

About plots: if you've got a clear idea of "the-setting-and-how-the-main-character-fits-into-it," I'd say all you need to do is come up with the element of danger, threat, or change. Something happens in Chapter 1 that completely upsets the main character's world. Introduce that, and have the main character start dealing with the problem--and the plot will probably "write itself." It may be that the less you try to think about it, the better! Focus instead on your main character, on what s/he would do when confronted with this problem. That will keep your story focused and vivid. At every step, use your imagination. You are that character, there in the world you've created. What would you do? I suspect the plot will just _happen_ before you know it!

Yes, I live in Japan. It is interesting, and I like it a lot!

Thank you for trying to find my book _Dragonfly_! I'm pretty sure it won't be on the shelf at your bookstore any more. But you can order it on-line, either through Amazon or the original publisher, Arkham House.

Thanks again for writing! And good luck with your writing-writing!


submitted by Fred D., Japan
(July 25, 2008 - 12:41 pm)

Is "Star Shard" available in a book anywhere? I am completely in love with the story and very impatient for the next installment. Thanks for a great story!!

submitted by Monika
(June 24, 2008 - 1:49 pm)

Hi, Monika!


You're very welcome, and thank you for your kind words! About your question: here in Cricket, you're reading "The Star Shard" in its first-ever appearance. So right now, there's no other place to find it. However, this story (even though it's long) is just the first part of a whole book about Cymbril. That book isn't published yet. My agent is trying to find an interested publisher--so please help us out by keeping your fingers crossed. (You can uncross them when you need to use them!) Unless the title gets changed somewhere along the line, that book will be called The Witching Wild. It was written because one of the Cricket editors, when she first read "The Star Shard," suggested that I should try expanding it into a novel.


I know it's hard to wait. I can hardly wait for each issue, too, to see Ms. Fiegenschuh's beautiful illustrations. But thank you for waiting and for following the story. I'm very happy to know you like it!

submitted by Fred Durbin, Japan
(June 24, 2008 - 2:33 pm)

Hi Fred!

Do you know, if the book was to be published, when it would be published? I would definitely love to read it! Thank you!

submitted by Anonymous
(June 27, 2008 - 2:37 pm)

Thank you very much for your kind enthusiasm and for looking forward to the published book! No, I'm sorry, I have no way of knowing when it would be published. First an editor has to buy it. Then s/he may ask for some revisions, which I would do. When we agreed on those, the book would go into production--once it was typeset, I'd have to read the whole thing to check for mistakes. There's a lot that goes into making a book. I hope that within the next two to three years, The Witching Wild will become a book.


submitted by Fred S., age 42, Japan
(July 3, 2008 - 11:40 am)

Hello, I am a huuuge fan of your work on "The Star Shard." Any comments for those hoping to get published and keeping away from procrastination? 

~Interested and Fantasy-tastic

submitted by Interested
(June 24, 2008 - 8:06 pm)

Dear Interested and Fantasy-tastic,

(I like your signature, by the way!) Thank you so much for your kind words about "The Star Shard"! About how to get published: well, since you're reading Cricket, I know you're a reader. That's what you need to be first of all in order to be a writer. Writing springs very naturally from reading. People who love reading stories soon want to tell their own, and they know something about how stories work. Next, write! Think of yourself as a writer. Let people know it's what you love to do, and make up your mind that you're not going to give up. You have to earn your reputation as a writer: it's not enough to talk about writing or just to make plans for "someday." You have to write!


To avoid procrastination? Well, it helps to have a writing space where there are no distractions. You may want to set time goals for yourself, such as "I will finish my story by July 15th," or "I will finish the first draft of my novel this summer." Don't give up or feel bad if you miss the goal, but working toward it can be fun. Make writing a part of what you do regularly in life. (Musicians practice all the time, right? Well, writers need to be writing all the time to keep their skills sharpened and growing.)


Finally, it helps if you have someone who's waiting to read what you write. Having an audience is really motivating. Find an "audience" who will complain if you don't write the next chapter!


The bottom line is: just don't give up! Samuel Johnson wrote, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." Put work into your writing--it's really, really worth it!

submitted by Fred Durbin, Japan
(June 25, 2008 - 12:37 pm)

Thanks for the tips, I've never really thought about deadlines. If you are trying to get published, who should you send your work into for publishing? Another question (believe me, I have thousands more!) - do illustrations make a story more or less interesting? Thanks!

~Interested and Fantasy-Tastic

submitted by Interested
(June 30, 2008 - 8:11 pm)

Hi again, Interested and Fantasy-Tastic!

This a big question, and a good one! The simple answer is: You should send your story to the kind of publisher who will publish it. I know that doesn't sound helpful, but it's the basic truth. There are all kinds of publishers out there, and you can't send your story to just any of them, because publishers each publish a specific kind of story. (For example, you won't find an 800-page novel about four generations of a family published in Cricket, right?)

So, your job is to find the kind of publisher who publishes the kind of material you write. One of the best ways to do this is to write a story for a magazine that you've read a lot, so you know firsthand what they print. Or, say, if you like several fantasy novels published by the same publishing house, and you write a similar one, you can try them.

On the other hand, if you've written your story and you have no idea what publisher it might be right for, you can go to the library. You can find a reference book there called Literary Marketplace, or one called Writer's Market. (I used the first one to find a publisher for my novel Dragonfly.) These books come out in new editions every year or so, and they list hundreds of publishers and what kinds of stories those publishers want to buy.

And, of course, this is the age of the Internet. If you look around on-line, you can find the same sort of information. You're very right to ask this question, because you do need to send your work to the type of publisher who is looking for it. Yes--definitely pay attention to the guidelines publishers offer. There are also magazines in bookstores about the craft and business of writing. They list a lot of publishing markets, too!

About illustrations--well, I definitely think illustrations can make a story more interesting--that's certainly the case with "The Star Shard"! But in general, if you're the writer, you don't have to worry about the illustrations. The publisher finds and hires the artist. Now, if you are an artist yourself, that's a whole other matter! There are writers who also illustrate their books--Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and many others. (But if you're like me and can barely draw a stick figure, don't worry--you can stick to the writing!)


submitted by Fred D., Japan
(July 12, 2008 - 1:05 am)