Tag Archive for Liz Szabla

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #220: “If You Don’t Like It, Write Better”

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While — sure! of course! — I always enjoy receiving a big, old, 8 1/2″ x 11″ envelope filled with student letters, I admit to mixed feelings. Yes, I’m grateful and honored. Yet I can’t help but recognize that this was the product of an assignment. Some letters can seem rote, and I get it. However, I recently received a particularly wonderful batch, 23 letters in all, filled with insights & curiosity & ridiculously kind words. Here’s the teacher’s cover letter and my response to the class . . .

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I replied at length:

Dear Ms. Becker & Students,

Thank you for that impressive package of letters. I’ve received similar packages before, but yours was particularly outstanding for the overall quality of the letters. They struck me as authentic, rather than, say, written by a bored kid going through the motions.

And, hey, if you were a bored kid going through the motions, good job, you sure fooled me!

I’m sorry to say that I simply don’t have the time to respond to your letters in the manner that you deserve. I apologize for my one-size-fits-all reply.

Several of you asked about a sequel, and I didn’t plan on one while writing the book. I was satisfied with the ending, leaving the future for these characters up to the reader. People ask what happens to them –- and that’s a nice compliment to give a writer – but the honest answer is that I don’t know. Or more to the point, I never got around to making up those stories. Books have to end somewhere, or else I’d be writing about Mary’s grandchildren.

Even so, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”

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Jessica asked if anyone helped me with the story: Yes, my editor, Liz Szabla, was particularly important with this book. Mostly her help was in the form of conversations. We talked about the ideas, our own experiences, things we’ve seen and felt. She didn’t really inject herself into the writing of the book -– she left that up to me – but she was a great sounding board. In life, it’s essential to have that person who says to you, “I believe in you. Go for it.” For this book, for me, that person was Liz.

Philip asked if I have “a secondary job in case book writing fall through.” That kind of made me laugh, while giving me a minor heart attack. Do you know something I don’t know? Philip even included a bonus scene, where I could glimpse a future adventure for Eric. I liked it; nice work. BTW, Philip, to answer your question: No, I don’t. And some days it scares me silly. No kidding.

Some asked about Eric’s father and how he might figure in the book’s ending, or, I should say, an alternative ending for the book. If you go to my blog and search, “My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER,” you’ll get the background story about Eric’s father. It’s not a tale with a happy ending, I’m sorry to say.

Many of you said really, really kind things to me. I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. In particular, Alyssa, thank you! Paige and Grace and Katelyn and Toby, you guys, too. The truth is, this can be a hard business sometimes. It’s not easy to make a living. It’s not easy to be rejected, or suffer poor sales, or watch a good book go out of print. I am often filled with doubts and uncertainties. There are times, especially recently, when I feel like a failure. Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as “moderately talented.” Nothing great, you know? Oh well. But this is what I do, what I love, and I have to keep working at it. I have a Post-It note on my computer that reads: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WRITE BETTER.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

I just wrote a book about a father and a son traveling along the Lewis & Clark trail. It’s a genre-bending blend of nonfiction and fiction, a story of family, a wilderness adventure –- whitewater rapids, an encounter with a bear –- and, I hope, a quest for the real America. The book, titled THE COURAGE TEST, should be out in 2016. After that, I wrote a pretty wild story that’s set in the not-too-distant future. And, yes, there are zombies in it –- but it’s not their fault! I’m also trying to write haikus, making a small study of them, because I’ve got the seed of an idea. They are not as easy as they look!

The next idea is always the flame that burns the brightest, that keeps creative people moving forward -– making paintings, performing in plays, practicing the guitar, telling stories. We all have to find the thing that makes us happy. And if you are lucky enough to find it, then hold on tight.

Thank you –- each one of you – but I’ve got to get to work! I’m sorry again for not writing to you individually. Thanks for understanding.

James Preller

 

An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final

Chris Sheban is a talented artist who has illustrated the covers to some books that you might know and love — all without fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

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I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.

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JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
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CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
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JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
JP: How big are these sketches?
CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
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JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?

JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
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JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.

CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.

CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.

 

JP: At this point, you turn to color.

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CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
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CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
 
CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
 
CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
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CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
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CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).
 
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Incoming: Revisions!

I got a big package in the mail yesterday . . .

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This bit, four real books, finally published, represents a final payoff. It’s done, it exists. There’s also something a little, I don’t know, deflating about it. An ending. Now it will go out into the world, probably to be largely ignored. That might sound a touch maudlin, or even self-pitying, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the business these days. So many books don’t make it, even the good ones. It can be disheartening. And, yes, scary.

Hey, check out my new shirt . . .

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Cool, right? I love it.

And lastly, most exciting of all, came the editorial revisions for my upcoming book, THE FALL, a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I try to enter the process of revisions with an open mind and an open heart. I trust my editor, Liz Szabla, and endeavor to deeply consider all of her comments, thoughts, suggestions. This is a new opportunity for me to try to make this book better than ever. That involves, sometimes, letting go of old ideas, favorite sentences. It means stepping back — to truly re/vise, to see again — and, well, take another whack at it.

In a moment, the sound you’ll hear will be that of a writer rolling up his sleeves.

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Sneak Peak: Cover for SCARY TALES #5, “The One-Eyed Doll”

When I think of the five books I’ve written so far for the “Scary Tales” Series — currently working on #6 now — I sometimes consider their relative “fear factor.”

I have been open about my debt to Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” Many people mistakenly think of TZ as a horror series. It was not, almost never. The stories were strange and always came with a twist. I’d call them intellectually ticklish. What I’ve tried to do with ST is capture some of that strangeness while still delivering the goosebumps.

This upcoming one, The One-Eyed Doll (September 2014), might be the scariest, creepiest of all. I’d put Home Sweet Horror in second place in terms of traditionally “scary,” Good Night, Zombie in third, with Nightmareland fourth. The least scary, but possibly most surprising, more in the thriller mode, is I Scream, You Scream. Of course, we all react differently. Some folks are afraid of spiders, others jump on chairs at the sight of mice.

When I started this series, I had big ambitions. I imagined — this is true — a painter working on a large canvas. I told my editor, “I don’t know if people will really see what I have in mind until I’ve done 20 titles, a color here, a splash there, because I want this to cross genre, move the “Horror” into Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Realistic and even Historical Fiction. I am most eager to do some Sci-Fi with this series, because in space they can’t hear you scream. But that’ll have to wait for now.

Here’s the new cover. I am so grateful for the opportunity given to me by Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla to write these books. Don’t they look great? Aren’t I lucky? And what do you think of Iacopo Bruno’s latest cover? I love it!

“Home Sweet Horror” Wins 2013 Cybil Award in Early Chapter Books Category

Okay, you might be asking: “What’s a Cybil Award?”

The Cybils are awarded by bloggers for the year’s best children’s and young adult titles. The Cybils have been in existence since, oddly enough, the year 1843. No, wait. Check that: Since 2006. According to the website, their primary purpose is to:

“Reward the children’s and young adult authors (and illustrators, let’s not forget them) whose books combine the highest literary merit and ‘kid appeal.’ What’s that mean? If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussel sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious.”

I did not expect to win this award, in part because I did not even realize that my book, the first in a series of “Scary Tales,” had been among the finalists. In truth, “winning” anything like this is always dubious. But it is an honor to be listed among other finalists, to be part of that conversation of some of the better books of that year. I’m quite sure that my book is no better than the others listed in this category. So here they are, readers take note:

Dragonbreath #9: The Case of the Toxic Mutants, by Ursula Vernon

Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, by Claudia Mills

Lulu and the Dog from the Sea, by Hilary McKay

The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems, by Lauren Myracle

Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat, by Anna Branford

Home Sweet Horror (Scary Tales #1), by James Preller

The Cybils website described my book this way:

Liam Finn and his sister just moved into the old Cropsey house. Their father has transplanted his family from Hopeville to Upstate New York. Liam and Kelley are both opposed to the move, but since the death of their mother eighteen months earlier, the family is struggling to survive. Upon moving into the house, Liam begins to hear strange noises and even receives a threatening message in a mirror.  When Kelley’s friend, Mitali, comes for a visit and summons “Bloody Mary”, the tale quickly escalates to a spine-tingling conclusion.

Preller takes an urban myth and creates an enjoyable tale of horror that will appeal to the lower grade students. Bruno’s illustrations insert an appropriate amount of creepiness that adds to the ambiance of the tale. Younger readers will appreciate this scary tale without the graphic and gory details of older horror reads. This little page turner could become a campfire classic!

My thanks have already gone out to the judges, panelists, bloggers, volunteers, and organizers for this nice honor. I’m grateful and, yes, I especially like that “kid appeal” is seen in a positive light.

In addition, any positive acclaim for this series grows out of the fact that it has been well-published by my friends at Feiwel & Friends, particularly Liz Szabla and Jean Feiwel.  The illustrations by Iacopo Bruno are amazing.

And last, a special thank you to Jennifer Wharton, whoever you are!, for nominating my book. My appreciation. Jennifer, if somehow you find this, can I send you a signed copy by way of thanks? You can write to me with your address at Jamespreller@aol.com.

That’s right, AOL, because an elephant’s loyal one-hundred percent.

There are three other titles (so far) in the Scary Tales Series:

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