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."

Oh no, The Writer's Market. -dies- My friends and I wrote a story (although not a very good one), and we decided to get it published. We looked through pages of online directories, about three editions of Writer's Market (and the one for children's books), and found NOTHING. I guess you need an agent or something, but supposedly those are even harder to find than publishers.

submitted by Alice W., age 14, Earth
(July 18, 2008 - 6:32 pm)

Hi, Alice W.!

I will say this, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart! Don't ever get discouraged, and whatever you do, don't give up--no matter how impossible or unfriendly the market looks. I've had exactly that same experience: I remember looking through Writer's Market and thinking, "I'll never get published! It's impossible to get published!"

Alice, it's not impossible! If you're meant to be a writer--if you're writing good stories, and that's what you want to do more than anything, and if you put your heart and dedication and love into it--then your writing will find a home in print. I truly believe that. But you can't give up just because it seems hard. It is often hard! But you can deal with hard, right? You can overcome it!

You say the story you and your friends wrote was "not a very good one"? Well, I haven't read it, so I can only take your words at face value. If what you say is true, then yes, that's why you didn't find a market. There aren't any editors out there looking for "not very good" stories! [smile] You have to write good stories--really good ones--and you can do that with time, experience, and not-giving-up. You didn't waste your time by writing that "not very good" story--you learned from it. If you know now that it wasn't very good, you understand more about writing than you did back then. You can write a better story today. And because of what you write today, you'll be writing even better stories tomorrow. It's a skill you build.

Agents are very helpful when you're trying to sell a novel. (But I sold my first novel with no agent.) And for selling short stories, you don't need an agent at all. In fact, agents don't deal with short stories. Even if you had an agent, you'd still have to sell your short stories by yourself.

It helps if you know some markets well. If you regularly read a certain magazine, you'll know what kinds of stories it publishes, and then when you have a great idea for a story, you may be able to shape that idea to be just right for that magazine. That's how I started writing for Cricket.

But even more importantly, write the stories you really want to write without even worrying about the market or selling the stories. If you've got great stories, sooner or later you'll find the market(s) for them.

I'm serious: if you're determined to be a writer, don't give up. The road may be long, and it may be rough--but it's worth it. Write on, Alice!

submitted by Fred D., Japan
(July 25, 2008 - 1:07 pm)

I went through a brief giving-up period, but that was boring and depressing, and I really want to write, so I decided (again) that I would just muddle through the bad patches, and then life would be wonderful. Well, the bad patches are still bad, and they still seem to take up most of the writing, but hey! at least I'm writing something. My problem is that all my plots have already been done, or are too messy to deal with, or something. Like that idea I had the other day, which I then realized was almost exactly the same as Cornelia Funke's Inkheart. Or The Makepeace War, which had dozens of complications and no solutions. And that won't do.

But I do keep trying, and that's what counts, right?

As for the not-very-good story, we're rewriting it and it's already much better.

As for short stories, I really don't like them much. They're so very...short. I can't make myself care about the characters, or if I do, then it's over and I get depressed. I wish I could write something as large and wonderful as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Now that is a good book. That is what I aspire to.

And now I must go make pasta sauce. ¡Adios!

submitted by Alice W., age 14, Earth
(July 28, 2008 - 6:14 pm)

Hi again, Alice!

"The bad patches are still bad," you say. Yes, I hear you: writing may be the most rewarding work in the world, but it is also the hardest. I'm curious: what, for you, are the "bad patches"? What's hardest about writing? Maybe if we look straight at that, we can figure out how to make it not so bad.

You said, "I really want to write." That's everything. If you really want to write, you will, and you'll find what you should be writing.

"All my plots have already been done." In a sense, yes, that's true. In one sense, all the plots in the world have already been done. Think about it. Just as we humans expect something from our music, we also expect certain things from our stories. We want X and Y and Z to happen. When those things happen, we enjoy crying the tears, laughing the laughs, and feeling the victory, and we come away satisfied. Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, the Japanese writer Fujiwara no Teika advised his students: "Don't strain for originality." Don't strain, and don't worry. There are not so many plots in the world, but characters are infinite, just like people--every person is unique. Because your characters are different from any other characters ever created (even in the smallest ways), their stories will turn out a little bit different.

I have a book called 20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias. It's good. Other writing teachers say there are only 10 plots in the world, or only 5. The point is, there are not so many. The key is what you do with those plots: how you breathe new life into them with your characters and your vivid details.

The most extreme opinion I've heard about plots is this: There are only 2 plots in the world, and every single story uses one or the other, or a combination of the two. Can you guess what the Two Plots are?

1. A Stranger Comes to Town

2. Someone Goes on a Trip

It's fun to take stories you know and see if that idea is true. Are your favorite stories an example of one of those plots, or both? Or do you disagree with that opinion? Anyway, I think you get what I'm saying. Your story will be original because it's you who are telling it, and you're not like any other writer who has ever lived. You have your own experiences, your own way of seeing the world. Your stories are told through the "Alice lens." (^u^) And that's great!

I'm like you: I'm a long-form writer. I like reading short stories, but I love novels more, and what I write is usually quite long.

I'll have to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell! Several friends have recommended it! It's good that you have such a book as a level to strive for. Carry on, and never give up!


submitted by Fred D., Japan
(July 31, 2008 - 12:37 pm)

The bad patches...I dunno. It just seems forced. And bland. I look at my work and I think, "This is pointless." But I still think that's because I haven't gotten very far for a very long time. The furthest I ever got was forty pages in Word, and then I couldn't think of how to continue or what I would do when I got to the end. I had landed my characters in a deep, dark dungeon during a spurt of inspiration, and then I didn't know how to get them out. Or maybe I did get them out (I think I did...) but I didn't know how to continue, anyway. And it's quite possible that I could have come up with something if I had tried, but I was plunged into a completely new environment (school) and before I figured it out, my house burnt and my computer melted. The destruction of my years of work was the most liberating thing I have ever felt.

On the bright side, I realized what I need to do. I've been trying to write novels with short-story plots, and it won't work. Novels have multiple conflicts, and short stories have only one or two. So I need lots of conflicts...

RE: 2 plots: I think that that's too vague and I can think of several books offhand that don't center around that. JS&MN has trips and strangers (mostly trips), but neither of those are the center. Wise Child has a trip, but that doesn't figure majorly into it either. I suppose one could say it had a stranger (except that she wasn't). Hmm. My arguments aren't working very well. -thinks-

HA! Lord of the Flies! No trips OR strangers! -thinks some more- That's all I can think of, but I still think those plots are too vague. After all, one can stick trips and strangers in every story and will never be thought of as unoriginal if they do it well. My trouble is that I've read so much, there are ideas in my head that seem original until I realize how much they resembles some book or another that I read a few years ago.

Speaking of semi-plagiarist plots, Fire Bringer, by David Clement-Davies, is pretty much exactly the same as Watership Down by Richard Adams, except that the former has deer instead of rabbits and the author threw in a prophecy for good measure.  

submitted by Alice W., age 14, Elsewhere
(August 2, 2008 - 2:38 am)

Hi again, Alice!

Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. It's harder to find new messages when they're in the middle of this long scroll of letters. But I did find yours now and really enjoyed hearing from you again!

I really applaud you for not getting discouraged by the adversity of losing your home, your computer, and all your writing work to a fire. The fact that you felt "liberated" by the need to start over with a clean slate shows a real strength of character and largeness of spirit. Bravo for you! I read that the writer Maxine Hong Kingston went through the same thing, losing an entire novel manuscript in a house fire. And T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) left his entire manuscript, complete with irreplaceable photos, letters, and primary source materials, in a train station and never saw them again! His friends encouraged him to reconstruct the book from memory, and it became his famous The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. So, yes--the spirit of never-giving-up is what it takes.

Very true: novels are bigger creatures than short stories. Those extra pages require the writer to put more depth in -- as you said, more conflict, more richness of detail, more development.

Well, about the "There are only two plots in the world" -- "Someone Goes on a Trip" can be a figurative journey: someone grows up, learns something, gains experience, a relationship develops (or breaks down), etc. I would argue that Lord of the Flies is an example of Someone Goes on a Trip. The boys "journey" to a new place -- the deserted island -- and even more, they travel into the dark depths of the human spirit. But, yes, saying such things as this can be too vague. We might just as easily say that there's only one plot in the world: Someone Does Something. But that's so vague it's completely useless. So you're right. Anything taken to the extreme is not good.


submitted by Fred D., Japan
(August 15, 2008 - 10:27 am)


I am an absolute fantasy nut and am currently working on my first novel. I notice that you have lots of unique names in your story, like Fey, Sidhe, Urrmsh, Loric, etc. Can you give me any suggestions on how to develop my own languages and names like that!


Jeremy P. (S. P. Gale, if I ever get published.)

submitted by Jeremy P.
(June 25, 2008 - 3:53 pm)

Hi, Jeremy!

It's great to hear that you're working on a fantasy novel! I love hearing from a fellow "fantasy nut," especially one who writes! I can think of at least three suggestions regarding your question about languages and names:


1. Read a lot! The more you read, the more you'll know about many things, and about people in different times and places. You can borrow names from the distant past or from other countries--sometimes they're perfect for a fantasy story. (And they sound like real names, because they are!)


2. Study foreign languages. If you know English and even one other language, you'll become more sensitive to how words work and how they sound. You probably know that J.R.R. Tolkien created his two Elvish languages long before he wrote most of his stories. So you're right to be thinking about languages from square one! Tolkien was fascinated with other languages from the time he was a kid. Again, this will help you to invent your own words that sound and work like real words, because you'll have experience in learning other real, not-English words.


3. Keep a printed, paper dictionary within reach in the place where you write. Electronic and on-line dictionaries are convenient, but the problem with them is that they take us right to the word we're looking for--and nowhere else! I have three big, fat, ordinary dictionaries at my desk (two American and one British)--and one dictionary of mythology. I look up words a lot, either to check the spelling (if I'm writing) or to check the meaning (if I'm reading). And when I do that, I have to pass a lot of other words on the way. Almost always, some word or other jumps out at me, and it's just the perfect name for a character or place--either as-is or with a slight change made.


Just a couple examples from "The Star Shard": Do you know the old story Pinocchio? In it, there's a character named Stromboli who is a lot like Rombol. "Stromboli" is the name of a fiery mountain in Italy, and I'm sure the writer of Pinocchio was thinking of that when the character got his name. Anyway, I lifted the middle out of Stromboli and got Rombol. With those two big round O's, the name has a strong sound; and it also sounds like "rumble."


When I started writing the story, I thought Wiltwain was going to be a meaner character. His name came from "wilt," because a cruel overseer's gaze might make a person "wilt" like a flower in fear; and "wain" is an old word for "wagon," which seemed an appropriate name for someone who works on the Thunder Rake, an enormous wagon. As I got to know Wiltwain, I found out he wasn't as mean as I'd first thought. He rose above his name!


And one more thing about the value of reading: I didn't make up "Fey" and "Sidhe," as you probably know. They're both real words for magical beings such as elves and fairies.


Anyway, this has been a long answer, but it's really worth thinking a lot about names and languages, because those are some of my favorite parts of fantasy stories--and I'll bet yours, too!

submitted by Fred Durbin, Japan
(June 26, 2008 - 11:30 am)

"Sidhe" comes from Ireland... I remember Sidhe being mentioned in a book that took place in Ireland, I think they might be some sort of demon or something.


P.S. I got the new Cricket just this morning and the first thing I read was "The Star Shard"! How many parts will there be to it?


P.P.S. Have you already written the whole story before any of it goes into the magazine or do you write it piece by piece?

submitted by Shannon
(June 27, 2008 - 10:01 am)

Hi, Shannon!


You're quite right: "Sidhe" comes from Ireland. As I understand it, the word means much the same thing as our modern English words "fairy" or "elf." (I know, though, that those words mean vastly different things to different people! The Elves in The Lord of the Rings, for example, are completely different from our popular image of Santa Claus's elves. And they're different again from Loric and his people.)


P.S.--I'm excited that you like "The Star Shard" so much--thank you! I don't know how many parts there will be to it. The Cricket editors make the decisions about how to break the story into parts (though I think Cricket, Ladybug, and the others give them lots and lots of advice).


P.P.S.--The story was all written before it ever began appearing in the magazine.

submitted by Fred Durbin, Japan
(June 29, 2008 - 12:16 pm)

Sidhe actually means something like fairy people, but I don't remember what exactly what. The Irish also believed that if you ate the food of the fairies, you had to stay with them forever; sort of like in Greek myth, if you ate the food of the Underworld, you couldn't leave.

submitted by Emily
(June 30, 2008 - 12:40 pm)

Dear Jeremy,

I was reading your letter to Mr. Durbin and wanted to respond. I was reading an article on J.K. Rowling and it said that she found lots of her names on tombstones. Sorta creepy, but really cool!

submitted by Mayr
(June 29, 2008 - 3:32 pm)

And Hogwarts is a plant, I think!

submitted by Shannon, age 12
(July 14, 2008 - 8:07 pm)

Fantasy is always much more exciting than any other genre, it's my favorite of course. You don't really know what can happen because someone, or something, can do an usual thing. If some dragon suddenly swoops out of the sky to grab a unweary traveler, or a person all of a sudden can freeze time because of a magic watch, whatever it is, Fantasy is always exciting for me, and "The Star Shard" is definitely AWESOME! Well, at least so far it is, and I bet the rest of it will be even better.


A question, do you think stories are more exciting when they are told out loud, or if they are written down?


Another question, do the pictures of the characters in the magazine look the way you imagined them?


submitted by The Fool and others.
(June 25, 2008 - 3:53 pm)

Dear The Fool and Others,

Thank you! I'm really happy to know that you like "The Star Shard"! I agree with you. Fantasy is my favorite genre, too. The possibilities are endless. It takes us to astonishing places, and I love how it lets us explore the best (and sometimes worst) human qualities.


That's a wonderful question you ask about stories on paper vs. stories told aloud! I really don't think I can choose one over the other. They each have their strong points. Hearing a story aloud makes it very easy to focus and concentrate. We're swept into what is really a dramatic performance by the storyteller. That's how stories began, I guess, among the earliest people in the ancient world. (I once heard the writer Paul Darcy Boles say, about writers: "We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world." I think he meant that we're still doing, mostly on paper now, what those long, long-ago storytellers were doing around the flickering fire in the cave. Storytelling is a fundamental human activity that links us all, in every country, in every age of the world!)


Stories on paper have the advantage that we can go back and re-read parts whenever we want. Each part doesn't vanish as soon as it comes out. And also, when we read silently, we're doing all the interpretation ourselves. We can imagine things exactly as we want to.


So I wouldn't want to lose either kind of storytelling! You know, I think the best stories are written down as if they were being told aloud. Does that make sense to you? I was deeply impressed when I heard something from the Cricket editor who edited "The Star Shard": do you know that, when she edits, she reads everything aloud to herself? Everything! Every part of every story! She wants to make sure it all sounds okay to the ear. In some cases, we made changes to lines in this story where she found phrases that didn't sound right when read aloud. So...maybe it's hard to separate written stories from read-aloud stories!


As to the illustrated characters in "The Star Shard"--yes! I think the characters Ms. Fiegenschuh is painting look VERY much like how I imagined them, especially Cymbril and Loric! It's almost scary how "right" they look to me! Her Urrt is slightly different from how I imagined him, but I honestly think her version is better. I imagined Rombol to be a bigger, more solid, bear-like man, but I like her Rombol very much--and his clothes and cane are perfect! I'm really looking forward to seeing Wiltwain. In Part 2, I just love the family that are clustered around Loric in the marketplace. We can see their emotions so clearly. The two girls are very obviously sisters, and that's clearly their mother with them. That's brilliant illustrating!

submitted by Fred Durbin, Japan
(June 26, 2008 - 12:03 pm)