Archive for Upstander

Great News: UPSTANDER Named a Junior Library Guild Selection!

Great news! I’m pleased to share that my upcoming book, UPSTANDER (Macmillan, May 11), has been named a Junior Library Guild Selection. It is a fine distinction and, remarkably, my fourth novel to receive that “gold standard” of excellence (joining BYSTANDER, THE COURAGE TEST, and BLOOD MOUNTAIN).

Educators can request a PDF of the book via NetGalley. I’m not actually sure how that works. And by “not actually sure” I mean: I have no earthly idea!

 

Thanks. I’m eager to share more about this book, a sequel/prequel to BYSTANDER that stands alone to tell Mary’s story. 

 

FREE Pro Tip #46: About Those Chapter Titles

Horror of horrors, it dawned on me that I’ve been neglecting my obligation as a Big Deal in Children’s Publishing (cough, cough) to hand out FREE WRITING TIPS.

Please forgive the lapse. I realize that you come here for the swag.

I was thinking about chapter titles while in the shower yesterday. It’s a funny thing about showers — it’s where I get my best thinking done. I’ve heard that’s true for others, too. Maybe because it’s the one place where we turn off the social media, the relentless stream of feeds and shiny objects, and for a few minutes tune into our own watery thoughts?

Maybe we should all take more showers.

Or, I guess, sit in quietude as a regular practice.

Anyway . . .

Without really thinking about it all that much, I’ve used a variety of approaches for chapter titles in my books. Pro tip: If you want to be really cool (and who doesn’t?), don’t use titles for your chapters at all! Just number them: 1, 2, 3, etc. This says to the reader, yawn, I couldn’t be bothered. What’s cooler than indifference? I did that in my YA, Before You Go. Very sophisticated. If you want to win A Major Award, this is the recommended technique. (However, it did not work for Before You Go — not even close.)

But isn’t the untitled chapter just a big ripoff? You pay good money for a book, shouldn’t it include complimentary chapter titles for the price, like the warm, freshly baked cookies they give away in the lobby of DoubleTree hotels?

My book The Courage Test is fancy because we spell out (!) the numerals: CHAPTER TWO: THE RIVER OF TIME.

No extra charge.

There’s one device I’ve always gotten a kick out of, which was a convention in 17th- and 18th-century works: the extended title/subtitle that sums up the chapter’s main events. For example, um, let’s see: “In Which Our Hero’s Boat Capsizes — He Fights Off a Deadly Shark Attack — And Becomes Stranded on an Uninhabited Desert Island!

Bonus points if the chapter title, in italic, begins with the words, “In which . . .

While I have not gone that far (yet!), Justin Fisher Declares War! makes liberal use of longer titles. For example: CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Tied Up with Duct Tape and Stuffed into a Broom Closet.

The other thing about the titles in that book is that they all reflect actual dialogue (!) contained in the chapter. For example, CHAPTER EIGHT: Did We Just See One of the Teachers Doing the Funky Chicken?

Somebody actually says that. 

For Jigsaw Jones, my chapter titles are straight forward, falling well within accepted conventions. Easily 93% of all published books use this boring approach, the bland two or three-word summary. Randomly pulling Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space off the shelf, there’s “Room 201” and “Our Solar System” and “The Stakeout” and so on.

Of course, it’s always a Big Plus if you can title a chapter using a reference to pop culture, particularly song lyrics. That’s a pretty standard trick which signals to the reader that the author is “with it” and effortlessly cool in an insidery sort of way. YA is riddled with it. So Chapter 8 is, “A Little Help from My Friends.” Mom or Dad, blearily reading aloud, might get a kick out of that (and I often try to throw ’em a bone). 

Here’s an idea: It might be awesome if an entire book went all-in on that concept, you know what I mean? Every chapter title featuring a snippet of David Bowie lyrics:

 

Chapter 1: We Can Be Heroes

Chapter 2: Hey Babe, You’re Hair’s Alright

Chapter 3: Turn and Face the Strange

Chapter 4: Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

And so on and so forth.

Like most writers, I generally adopt the summary technique in my books. It’s quick, clear, and does the job without any fuss. A lot of times good writing just wants to get out of the way. For my “Scary Tales” books, I seem to have gone with short, dramatic, nearly breathless chapter titles: “The Hunt,” “Full Dark,” “The Chase,” “Captured,” etc.

Who knows? Surely not me!


My upcoming novel, Upstander (May, 2021), is a stand-alone story, but it is also a prequel/sequel to Bystander, featuring the same characters.

For reasons I cannot defend on grammatical grounds, for Bystander I titled every chapter using just one word, lower case, in brackets:

 

1

[ketchup]

2

[pretty]

 

and so on.

 

Upstander picks up that same strategy, subtly connecting the two books:

 

1

[gravel]

2

[triangle]

 

You get the idea.

Wait, you might ask, “Where’s my free pro tip? I’ve traveled all this distance and there’s no free tip?”

Easy there, trust me.

PRO TIP #46: Whatever strategy you employ for your chapter titles, they should be consistent within the world of that book. Each book should have its own logic, its own internal rules and strategies, and that should be reflected in the chapter titles. Or, of course, not!

CONFESSION: I took about 15 minutes with my shelves, leafing through various classic and quasi-popular children’s books. I hoped to find creative examples of chapter titles. It was a huge bust and I got bored after a while, though I did notice that funny books tended to have funny chapter titles (but not always). I did rediscover Half Magic, the 1954 classic by Edward Eager. His book has 8 chapters:

  1. How It Began
  2. What Happened to Their Mother
  3. What Happened to Mark
  4. What Happened to Katherine
  5. What Happened to Martha
  6. What Happened to Jane
  7. How It Ended
  8. How It Began Again

Pretty righteous, I think. Old Eager went the extra yard.

How about you? Can you think of any good examples? 

 

A Conversation About Book Covers with Illustrator Deborah Lee, A Rising New Voice in Children’s Books

 

Back in the halcyon days of school visits, I’d often get questions about my book covers. People tend to assume that the author sits back in a stuffed leather chair, calling the shots. That’s far from the truth — I only sit on cinder blocks! My shorthand answer is that as an author, I’m responsible for the interior of the book. Every single page. But the cover? That’s the publisher’s. They’ve invested money in the book, talked to sales representatives, editors, designers, artists, bean counters, and endured actual meetings. Seriously. They go into windowless rooms and hammer it out. They want to sell the book, too.


What I mean to say is that the process is mostly out of my purview. Take for example my upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, 2021). One day my editor, Liz Szabla, sent me a file and said, more or less, “Here’s the cover, hope you like it.”

And you know what? I did, a lot. I found out the name of the illustrator, Deborah Lee, and wrote to thank her. Deborah was willing to answer some of my questions. Here she is now (I know, I’m excited, too).

 

First off, who are you? Could you give us some quick background? How did you get into illustrating book covers?

Hey! I’m a Korean-American freelance illustrator who works primarily in the publishing and editorial industries. And to be honest, I’ve only started working independently this year—before, I was working at LinkedIn and Lyft as a designer and illustrator for a year and a half while juggling freelance illustration. I was a designer for a while because I didn’t pick up my current profession as a career choice until my senior year of college. (Unfortunately, the university, which is strongest in engineering, has no resources in illustration, so I was pretty much on my own for that.) It was my final semester when I had some presentable work ready to show, and the stars aligned when my current literary agent found me through social media, which began my career in publishing. The rest is history!

So this is all new. How exciting. Where do you live?

I live in Oakland, CA, which is across the bay from San Francisco. But next spring we’re moving back to Pittsburgh, where my partner and I graduated from college. We miss having seasons and cheaper rent.

So let me see if I’ve got this right. One day you get offered a book cover job for something called, Upstander? They tell you how much money you’ll make and you say, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it anyway.”

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Ha, it’s pretty much the story of my career.

HOWEVER, I do love drawing book covers! They’re some of my favorite kinds of projects—the sketch ideas come by much more easily since there’s already a clear narrative in place. A lot of my quick freelance assignments tend to look for illustrations about very abstract concepts and current events.

I understand that, as fate would have it, you were already familiar with my Jigsaw Jones books.

Yes!! It’s been a long time, but my brother and I borrowed most, if not all of the books from the library when we were growing up. I’m sure we had some of the boxed sets too!

That’s pretty cool. Obviously you were an amazing kid. Back to the cover. Do you work from a designer’s concept?

The designer, Mike Burroughs, gave me some pointers in regard to symbolism (eye and speech bubble emoji) and mood (loneliness, tension) but luckily, I still had creative freedom! Mike was also looking for something more conceptual and less narrative-based, but reading the book helped anyway so I could take notes on any key scenes that could inform the cover as well. Also it helped me understand Mary’s (the protagonist) conflict enough to depict her facial expression as appropriately as I could. There’s a lot going on in her life.

Do you try to deliver a variety of approaches?

Definitely! I remember intentionally keeping one sketch without the emoji that Mike was looking for, just in case. I also varied the amount of literal vs conceptual elements in each one. But over all, telling different stories with each concept shows the design team that I’m flexible, and not super stuck on just one idea.

 

 

Finally, the publisher selects one and says, “Perfect! This is exactly it! We just want you to change a few things . . .”

That did happen! At first I made Mary look a little too young, which wasn’t that difficult to fix. I also had the speech bubble display some indistinct text, which was replaced by the blurb that’s seen in the final deliverable. Thankfully this was a very straightforward project—Mike was really easy to work with!

“The final deliverable.” It’s that kind of insider lingo that keeps a Nation of Readers coming back to James Preller Dot Com! I have to tell you, Deborah, I’ve shared our cover on Facebook and your work has received so many compliments. People seem to really to be intrigued by the cover. There’s a sense of mystery to it that, I hope, will draw readers into the story. That is: Thank you!

And thank *you*!!! I’m so glad it resonated with everyone—especially with how little the cover reveals about the story.

So what else are you up to? Have you done other covers? Do you hope to illustrate your own books? Hang in fine museums? What’s next? 

Whew, so since 2018 I’ve been working on my debut authored/illustrated graphic memoir called In Limbo with First Second/Macmillan. It’s the most daunting and laborious project I’ve ever been took on—I treat that project alone like a day job and a half.

Oh, my goodness. That looks incredible. Just a staggering amount of work. I want it now. 

All-in-all, it’s a rewarding process and I can’t wait to see it in full by Spring 2022.

Could you tell us more about it?

In Limbo covers my time during high school as a severely depressed and abused teenager with an identity crisis as one of the only Asian-American kids in my year. It’s dark—so much so that my editor at First Second/Macmillan had to remind me constantly to put in lighter scenes in the beginning stages of the draft! While I’m not complete with the final pages yet, I can already say that this book has taught me not only the graphic novel process, but also it brought a ton of insight about myself. Basically the longest therapy session ever. I’m very grateful to have been given this chance.

Sounds like a story you had to tell. I’ll be looking for it.

And while I work through that one, I’m illustrating another graphic novel (authored by Tina Cho) for Harper Collins called The Other Side of Tomorrow, which is publishing around 2023. I’m very lucky to be working on these projects—and for now I’m most looking forward to having physical copies of both books in my hands!

Yes, that’s a beautiful moment in the life of a creator. The first time holding it in your hands, the satisfaction of, “I made this.”

As for covers, I have done one other before this for a middle-grade book called Invisible Boy. That one was tricky—it talks a whole lot about child trafficking, so I had to be careful with how I depicted that. And again, one of my favorite kinds of projects. Crossing my fingers for more of these!

 

 

Well, Deborah, it’s been a pleasure to get to meet you. Such an exciting time in your career, just as you are lifting off into the stratosphere. I’m absolutely positive that we’ll be hearing a lot more from you in the future. I’m glad all those Jigsaw Jones books did you some good. I wish you the best of luck — and thanks, again, for our book cover. It will always connect us, and for that I’m very glad.

Haha, thank you so so much!! (I’ll be needing it!)

UPSTANDER Flap Copy, Full Cover

In order to read the actual cover image, you’ll likely need to click on it and fiddle around with it — unless you have bionic eyes. In which case, congratulations, that must be awesome.

I thought my editor, Liz, did a great job with the flap copy:

Mary O’Malley’s only brother, Jonny, is fading away before her eyes, losing a battle to drugs and addiction. Mary’s mother, too, has become absent and distracted. It’s like living in a house of ghosts, and Mary doesn’t know where to turn.

It seems the only person who might understand is Griffen Connolly. Mary had thought Griff was too cool, too popular, for her. But now he wants to hang out with her—and listen. Can she trust him?

Meanwhile at school, things are only getting more complicated. When two girls Mary thought were her friends decide to slam another girl online, Mary tries to look the other way. She needs to call on her inner strength—and the kindness of a new student— to survive a fractured family, bullying in school, and friends who might not be what they seem.

Copyediting Process: The Final, Final, Final Edits

The only thing that matters is the final book

in the reader’s hands.

Nobody cares how you got there.

If it was on time or three years late.

If the first draft sucked.

If the edits were massive or minor.

Nobody reads a crappy book and thinks,

‘Yeah, but wow, he really nailed the deadlines!'”

 

I have not been as all-in with ye olde blog as I used to be when I began it back in May of 2008. Part of that has to do with the general trend away from blog readership to shorter, faster, dopier forms of social media (I am not on InstaGram or Twitter; only Facebook). 

But I remind myself of this blog’s central mission: To pull back the curtain on one writer’s career and process, which I still hope is a worthwhile endeavor. 

To that end: Below, please find an exact copy of my “final, final, final” corrections for my upcoming middle-grade book, Upstander, as emailed to my editor, Liz Szabla. This is the last chance to get things right. 

By this point, the editing process has already gone round and round, back and forth, up and down. Liz tends to concentrate on the macro, the big picture; a team of talented copyeditors bring it down to the micro level. In this book, for example, I had some troubling issues with tense. Somewhat embarrassing, since I pride myself on producing fairly clean manuscripts. We had to sort through that mess. Back and forth, back and forth. Finally, I got my last-last-last chance: speak now or forever hold your peace. We are in Microland. The nitty and the gritty.

Weariness sets in. A part of me doesn’t feel up for yet another painstaking read-through. So the task is to summon that energy, put myself in that space once more, and read once more with that critical eye. Hard because I thought I’d already done that several times before. At the same time, I don’t want to over-think things and foul up perfectly good work. 

Anyway, for this round, I mostly concentrated on deletions. Finding words I could cut, fussing with pronouns, one last search for any typos or repeated words. Minor stuff, and not a lot of it. For Upstander, I quietly waged war on commas, since I’m sometimes prone to an excess of pauses. By this round, however, that mission was more or less accomplished. All good except for the fact that I was hating on Chapter 6 [Ghosts]. It was too slow, too interior, too wordy, too much — and maybe too clever. So I took an axe to it, chopping away sentences, paragraphs, pages. Rare for me at this late stage, so I did it apologetically, knowing that I was giving the designers more hassles than they might have expected. Don’t get me wrong: I like this book a lot. Very proud, in particular, of the substance use disorder theme. There are things I wanted to say, with compassion and sensitivity, putting a face on the impact of this terrible disease. But Chapter 6 was bugging me.

Side Note #1. These edits, and an earlier round, are NOT represented in the Advance Reader’s Copies that are available in digital form at NetGalley. (Educators and reviewers may request a copy directly at NetGalley; contact me if you have any problems.) 

Side Note #2. Here is one absolute truth that I have learned across 35 years as a published author: The only thing that matters is the final book in the reader’s hands. Nobody cares how you got there. If the book was on time or three years late. If the first draft sucked. If the edits were massive or minor. Nobody reads a crappy book and thinks, “Yeah, but wow, he really nailed the deadlines!”

Is it perfect now? Ha, ha, ho. Heh-heh. That’s funny. Well, no; not perfect. But for now, all things considered, the best we could do. 

Here’s the note I sent to Liz, an author’s last attempt to get it right . . . 

 

UPSTANDER FINAL, FINAL, FINAL EDITS

10/2/20

16, Line 9: DELETE “a while of”

17, Line 2 : REPLACE “boys” with “Griff”

22, Line 20: DELETE “and tightened.”

26, Line 8. DELETE “, she said,. NOW READS: “Stop. Just stop.”

26, Line 9, REPLACE “She” with “Mary”

CHAPTER 6: Yuck.

LIZ SZABLA, Note: I just feel like this is a weak chapter and too long. It’s been a problem from the beginning. How about these cuts? At same time, I don’t want to create huge headaches for the designers. This is the only chapter where I do this to you guys.

27, Line 4-9: DELETE: “The same tug . . . zoning out.”

28, Lines 11-12: DELETE: “The real brother . . . for good.”

28-29, Line 17: DELETE Paragraph that begins, “Mary could tell.”

DELETE Next Paragraph that begins, “Ghosts are weird.”

29, Line 11: DELETE “At least . . . a shower.”

31, Line 23: DELETE “, Mary mused,”

32, Line 8-10: REVISE AS: “Their father’s death was harder on Jonny, though he never said much about it.”

41, Line 6: REPLACE “she” with “her mother”                 

73, Line 2: INSERT “old” between “his” and “friends”

121, Line 5: DELETE “for two weeks.”

122, Line 6: DELETE “two-week”

130-131: Line 21+: DELETE “Sometimes Mary felt . . . happening?” THEN REPLACE “She” with “Mary.” NOW READS: “. . . woods beyond. Mary longed for . . . .

151, Line 2: REPLACE “thin” with “insincere”

151, Line 14: DELETE “The deep freeze.”

152, Line 19: INSERT: “the day ended and” between “was glad when” and “the final bell”

157, Line 1: REPLACE “like” with “as if”

162, Line 5: REPLACE “usually” with “had”

166, Line 9-10: DELETE “, and after a pause finished”

174, Line 18 : REPLACE “He’s” with “He was”

227, Line 19: REPLACE “tomorrow” with “the next day.”

235, NOTE: After Line 16, place add BREAK SPACE – not sure what you call that, though we’ve done it a few times in book – so we can push handwritten note to top of page 236. Think it makes sense, the shift, and will look much better.