This one comes from Seattle, via a terrific tutor who went the extra yard for her student . . .
This one comes from Seattle, via a terrific tutor who went the extra yard for her student . . .
One mission of this blog is to pull back the curtain to share, cough-cough, some insight into my writing process. So I thought I’d gather up some images and talk about the making of my upcoming book in the “Scary Tales” series, Swamp Monster (Macmillan, July 7, 2015).
Curiously, any description of “how” a book is written is as much “story” as the book itself. And by that I mean, of dubious veracity. Who can accurately recount where ideas come from? And in what order? Like writing the book itself, any description of origins mostly feels like I’m making it up as I go along.
Swamp Monster is the 6th book in the series. Each story is different, a new setting with new characters, yet each one promises a “Scary Tales” experience. What attracted me to this over-arching structure, inspired by the old “Twilight Zone” TV series, was the width of possibility. The stories could be quite different, not at all narrow or typical. After writing a few that were quite conceptual — I Scream, You Scream and Nightmareland, in particular — I settled on simpler, more traditional thrills in the most recent stories: The One-Eyed Doll and Swamp Monster.
That is, I began by thinking about the scary thing.
Somehow the idea of a Swamp Monster appealed to me. In no small part because of the setting. A swamp! As I was largely unfamiliar with swamp life in particular, I had to do some research. I read about the fauna and flora of typical swamps, and soon settled in my mind that this story could take place somewhere in Southeast Texas. I found and saved random images that fed my imagination, such as these:
Okay, so that felt pretty creepy to me. To up the ick factor, and to help explain the mutant monster, I opted for the toxic swamp gambit. The book begins:
The Dirge Chemical Plant had been dumping toxic sludge into the swamp for the past twenty-five years.
A few paragraphs down:
DRIP, DROP, SLURK. It leaked into the streams and waterways, into ponds and lakes. Poison soaked into the ground.
What about the creatures of that environment? The fish and birds and snakes and gators? The animals that drank the water daily? That swam amidst the burbling toxins? Well, most died off. But some adapted. Mutated. Learned how to feed off the toxic waste. Those creatures grew stronger, bigger, tougher.
More dangerous, too.
The pollution was the worst out on the Dead River, which ebbed into Dismal Swamp like a last, dying gasp. Hardly anybody lived out there. Nobody important. Some poor folks, mostly. And that’s where our story begins — with two boys, Lance and Chance LaRue. On this day, they were knee-deep in the foul, nasty water, swiping at mosquitoes, searching for frogs.
That was their first mistake.
Before the plot kicks into full gear, I introduce readers to the twins. Describe them and swiftly set them on the path to danger.
Character meets Setting:
The muddy path skirted the edge of the swampy water. Fortified by peanut butter sandwiches — no jelly to be found at home — the boys felt strong and adventurous. They went deeper into the woods than usual. The trees thickened around them, with names like black willow and water hickory. Long limbs hung low. Spanish moss dangled from the branches like exotic drapes. Snakes slithered. Water rats lay still and watched though small, red eyes. Once in a while, a bird called. Not a song so much as a warning.
STAY AWAY, GAWK, STAY AWAY!
My original idea was basic. I was particularly intent for this story to create a strong plot-line running through the book. A direct plot like an engine on a track, no meanderings. So the boys find an egg and bring it home. Plot begins in earnest. I soon realized that the egg would not be enough. Sure, it would hatch and Lance and Chance would discover that they were soon proud parents of a little monster.
But where was the horror in that?
Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watchful in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.
That night, the boys are awakened to sound of tap-tap-tapping from inside the egg. They watch in awe as the creature hatches.
“That ain’t no turtle,” Chance said.
“Nope,” Lance agreed. “Look at those claws, those teeth. I’ve never seen nothing like it before. What do you think it is, Chance?”
“I sure don’t know,” the oldest boy replied. “But I’ll tell you what. I don’t ever want to meet the chicken that laid that egg.”
At that moment, the newborn raised itself to full height, about six inches. With an angry hiss, the creature opened its mouth wide like a boa. A blood-red neck frill rattled open. SPLAT, SPLATTER! The creature spat black gobs of goo against the side of the pail.
“Whoa, it’s a monster,” Lance whispered in a soft, appreciative voice. “Our very own swamp monster.”
And with those words, the two boys stared at each other . . . and high-fived.
At this point, I introduce a new character to thicken the broth, and we meet the spectacular Rosalee Serena Ruiz.
If someone had to discover their secret, Rosalee was the best person for it. She could spit farther, burp louder, run faster, and snap thick branches across her knee. Rosalee was a girl all right, but the boys didn’t mind. In fact, they barely noticed.
I had decided by this point, actually before this point, that my little monster was not enough. Cool, but not quite terrifying.
I needed something more. An angry mother. So Rosalee prods the boys back into the deep swamp — she wants an egg of her own — and that’s how the mother catches their scent. She hides in the water.
To my surprise, I wrote scenes from her perspective.
With a subtle movement, she glides through the black water like a hawk riding the currents of the wind.
A thought troubled her mind.
Others were out there . . . Others had come to her home, her alone-place. She had sensed them, smelled them.
So she hid, as she always did.
She moved in the safe dark, the cool dark, and she grieved again for the egg that was gone. The child she never knew. That was her loss. And then, slowly, painfully — like a cloud that gathers itself in the stormy sky — a new question formed in her skull.
Was the egg stolen?
Had it been taken . . . by the Others?
Those faces in the woods?
She had glimpsed them.
Their ugly, round eyes.
Their skin like smooth stones.
New feelings began to stir inside the heart of the swamp creature.
Feelings of anger, of rage and revenge.
Her eyes opened, yellow in the black water.
Squilch, squilch, squilch.
Under cover of darkness, she follows them home.
An image came to me. The monster, wet and awkward on land, arriving at the LaRue’s house on the edge of Dismal Swamp.
Of the door opening, of her entering.
“Upstairs, quick!” Chance ordered. He grabbed the knife off the table.
The boys bounded up the stairs in threes. By the time they reached the landing — BOOM! CRUNCH! — the front door flew open, knocked off its hinges.
The swamp monster stepped into the house.
I can’t give away any more story here. You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest.
Illustrations by Iacopo Bruno, taken from the book SCARY TALES: SWAMP MONSTER, due in stores on July 7th.
I do not, typically, stalk myself.
I am not, usually, Googling myself.
But it has been known to happen.
Though less and less.
Curiously, new things do pop up.
Yesterday, seeking a jpeg book cover image of my newest SCARY TALES book, Good Night, Zombie, I came across this . . .
I learned that it was the Australian cover — or possibly the British cover? — to the book. Let’s look at the American version for reference . . .
Obviously, they’ve taken the circle logo and made it drippy, like paint splatter. From a design standpoint, I understand that. The strength of the circle is also its design flaw. It is abrupt, awkward, intrusive. The circle does not at all “work” with the other elements. Quite the opposite. The artist, the spectacular Iacopo Bruno, has to illustrate around the logo. It’s an obstacle and it prevents a lot of illustrative possibilities. Which, again, is its strength as a design element — the in-your-faceness of it. Blam, it’s right there. Try to not see it.
Green is the perfect color here, by the way. And the fourth book, Nightmareland, has to be red. It’s in the text. I was at a book fair in Chappaqua on Saturday and had the wonderful opportunity — as an author who normally sits in a windowless room — to watch young readers look at and choose between books #1 and #2 in the series (or, hey, pick up Bystander or Six Innings or slide past to the next table). They look at the yellow Home, Sweet Horror and the purple-ish, I Scream, You Scream. And it’s simply true that boys are turned off by certain colors. Or, okay, have decided preferences. The color to I Scream is something that some boys have to overcome, and the creepy dragon and freaky guy help.
The Australian cover also has an interesting tagline: “Scare Yourself Silly.”
I like it, I think, because in a subtle way they are signaling that maybe this isn’t the “deep gore” some adults might fear. It’s scary, for sure, in that heart-quickening way — anticipatory, suspenseful — but the reader will survive.
OTOH, what does the reader want?
The reader wants to be scared.
(Though perhaps not terrified. Everything is a matter of degrees, personal preferences.)
I’ve heard some parents say, “Will this give her nightmares? I don’t want her to have nightmares.”
And I always silently think: Well, good luck with that.
We all have nightmares. I had a dream last night that two frail, pink-eyed, white rabbits were in my house and my cats were on the slaughter. It was a mess. I woke up. Life goes on. Maybe you had a nightmare about a missing Blackberry. And your kid is worried about the ropes course in P.E.
Nightmares are going to happen, with or without SCARY TALES. The wind in the trees. The lightning. The thunder.
I’ve visited schools and talked about bullying. Talked about, recently, the suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old girl I think about every single day. I’ve done this at grades 5-up. She haunts me, that girl. I’ll tell children about my oldest son’s experience with cancer. About how he was really sick for a long time. I’ve written about teenagers who drive cars into trees. And I’ve been asked to not discuss ghosts (not that I do, much, and only passingly). I’ve been asked — in two schools, same district — to not talk about SCARY TALES at all. (I declined that invitation, btw.) Because they are scared, too. Afraid of the parent who might complain, the headache they might endure, the freedoms they might have to defend.
I am sympathetic to a point. But personally, just being me here, I find real life to be a whole lot scarier than any story I can make up about ghosts or zombies or androids or freaky snowmen. You just close the book, put it away. Process it . . . however. Real life is something altogether different.
Also: I’m just trying to write the most entertaining stories possible. Lively, fast-paced, suspenseful, surprising, fun. Scary? Sure. But it’s not only that, or merely that.
At the same time, I heard from a librarian yesterday about how the students can’t wait to get their hands on these stories. About what a huge hit they are in the school. It’s such an interesting world, and a curious experience to find myself in the middle of it. Nobody ever complained about Jigsaw Jones or Hiccups for Elephant.
“Gasp-worthy scenes and chilling twists.”
It’s a long slog, this business of getting published, with many milestones along the way. The concept, the contract, the first draft, the editor’s notes, the first glimpse at the artwork, revision, and more revision, the advance reader’s copy, and so on. It takes a while, the result of contributions from many good people.
Before there’s even a finished book, comes the first review.
Well, I guess there’s no turning back now.
May 20, 2013, issue of Publishers Weekly.Home Sweet HorrorJames Preller, illus. by Iacopo Bruno. Feiwel and Friends, $14.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-250-01887-8Preller (the Jigsaw Jones mysteries) serves up gasp-worthy scenes and chilling twists in this illustrated chapter book that launches the Scary Tales series. Suspense builds gradually: when eight-year-old Liam, his widowed father, and older sister, Kelly, arrive at their ominous-looking new home, he sees a flicker of light from an upstairs window; the next morning, he hears floorboards groaning, radiators hissing, and someone moaning. Preller raises the stakes as Liam, investigating a clanging noise in the basement, falls through a stair and feels “a thin, skeletal grip” on his dangling leg; later, Kelly and a friend attempt to summon Bloody Mary—a bit too successfully. Sound effects reproduced in large type amplify Liam’s fear, and Bruno’s heavily inked, etching-like pictures intensify the story’s spookiness. In contrast to the scary bits, Preller also gives the story a tender emotional undercurrent: the family is still aching from the death of the siblings’ mother, who may still be looking out for her family. Just enough chills to keep burgeoning readers flipping pages. I Scream, You Scream pubs simultaneously. Ages 7–10. Agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. (July)–
A few months back I posted the rough cover for SCARY TALES #2: I Scream, You Scream.
Today I received a lo-res file of the final cover.
In cases like this, I’m not just an author, I’m a fan of the process. I enjoy looking at the subtle variations, the minor shifts in design and emphasis, how we get from Point A to Point B. Most of what we see here I imagine as a result of the art director’s tweaks and refinements, combined with a talented illustrator, Italy’s Iacopo Bruno, getting down to the real work.
I’m a kid in 2nd, 3rd, maybe 4th grade? Yes, I’ll check out that book!
I’ve said elsewhere that as an author I’ve come to think of the book cover as “theirs,” meaning: the publisher’s. They want to sell the book just as badly as I do, and have a ton more expertise. I don’t really have much say in it, so don’t take the blame and can’t accept the credit. The primary job of the cover is to get a potential reader to pick up the book. Cut through the clutter. But not to cheat in doing it, not to promise something that the book can’t deliver. A cover should reflect the book’s best qualities and somehow, magically, arouse a reader’s curiosity.
This is a great cover, in my opinion. I just hope the author didn’t screw up the insides.