Tag Archive for Sequel to Bystander

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? 

 

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.

A Letter to Educators, Summer Hours, & Zoom Thoughts

In the best of times, my creativity ebbs and flows. This past month, I’ve found it difficult to put a post together. Part of that is my own distracted, short-circuited mind; another aspect is a nagging sense that few people care anyway. I guess a lot of writers feel that way from time to time, though my case has been acute of late. Strangely, I’ve still been actively writing manuscripts. Good ones, too, I think. But I am a little disheartened about my place the industry; I’m just not confident that my recent stories will see the light of day. What’s a writer to do? A strange place to find myself after spending the past 35 years in the children’s book world. On the positive side, I completed a prequel/sequel to my middle grade novel Bystander, titled Upstander, which should come out sometime next year. No cover yet, still waiting to see what that will look like.

So if you are here now, reading this — thanks for that. I hope to never take you for granted. 

SUMMER HOURS

I generally cut back on ye olde blog posts in the summer, since a lot of my traffic seems to revolve around the school year. I’ll still post when I’m moved to do so, or if something spectacular comes up, though for the most time it’ll be quiet. But before we all pitch tents in our backyards, I wanted to share with you a publicity letter I wrote to “select” educators who expressed interest in my new book, All Welcome Here, illustrated by the legendary Mary GrandPre. 

ALL WELCOME HERE: A LETTER TO EDUCATORS

Dear Educator,

As an author who has worked in children’s books for more than half my life, I’ve visited hundreds of schools across the country. I always come away with a good feeling in my heart, not only because of the students, who are amazing, but also because of the vibrancy and intimacy of the classroom. I’m moved by the good work that people like you are doing, day after day, year after year, sometimes under extremely challenging circumstances. Online learning anyone?

Teachers can be counted on to open their hearts and their classrooms to every child who comes through that door. All those values we hold close to our core -– empathy, inclusion, kindness, community –- become a living reality in your classroom. This is the great promise of the American Experiment played out before our eyes. It truly works, you’ve seen it, and it’s beautiful.

I was inspired to write All Welcome Here early in 2016. The world as I knew it felt fractured and divided. Today, four years later, it seems all but shattered. But together we’re picking up the pieces, working to cobble together a better, brighter, more loving and ethical land of the free.

Please think of this book as my thank you for that great effort. I know you work hard to foster those values in your school community. Hopefully this book, so gorgeously illustrated by Mary GrandPre, will serve as a springboard for positive conversations between you and your students. Also, I hope that you find it to be entertaining, and funny, and joyful. Jon-Kim spilling his crayons, Chloe’s laughter, and the way a shy girl tentatively makes a new friend. Even the shaving cream behind Principal K’s ear. This book is my tribute to those everyday moments that happen in your school lives, day after day, year after year. Thank you for your valuable work.

Be safe, stay healthy, and good luck!

James Preller

 

ZOOM VISITS

I’ve enjoyed several Zoom and Google Meets Visits over the past few weeks. Some have been particularly meaningful, I think, making me a true convert to the value and impact of a properly structured Zoom Visit.

To me, the key figure in an online visit is the teacher. It is the teacher who inspires, who prepares, who builds anticipation, and who actively moderates (thank you, “mute button!”) an online visit. A Zoom Visit with one class can be a profoundly (and surprisingly) intimate experience. It is very much like stepping into a classroom for a loose, easy-going conversation between students and author.

And guess what? In normal times, that never happens. There’s no time for a visiting author to move from classroom to classroom; instead, we present to entire grades or multiple grades: hundreds of students at one time. That’s awesome and powerful, too. But a Zoom Visit can be inspirational in its own unique way. A standard in-person presentation is a broadcast with a short Q & A tagged on at the end; a Zoom Visit is more interactive, featuring more of a direct one-on-one connection.

I recently heard from an enthusiastic teacher on Long Island who wrote to me after a visit with her class. She said:

“I had to share some more feedback I have received from parents . . . you truly have influenced many of my students. I realize the technology was a bit of a pain, but the outcomes are so worth it! I cannot thank you enough for your time and inspiring words!!”

She included some follow-up emails from parents:  

“Danny was so jazzed up after this he wants our whole family to write a book. He has assigned us all jobs to do and he is the author. I never would’ve thought that he’d be so into this. Thank you again. I haven’t seen him this excited about something in a while.”

Here’s another:

“Super inspirational!!! And so so patient. Like when they asked the author similar questions he just patiently answered! It’s inspiring us (at home) to maybe build a mini library!”

Illustration by R.W. Alley from THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE.

Note: I believe I talked about my love of Little Free Libraries, which I featured in Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space. Pretty cool if a family reads my book and turns around to build one of their own. That’s the literacy connection, how books bring us together and help build communities.

My point here is not to toot my own horn (though, obviously, I’m doing that), but to express again that I AM SOLD ON ZOOM VISITS.

I think we’ve still got to figure out the money — it has to be very affordable, but at the same time “more than free.” We can individualize visits, or even create recurring visits, around concrete themes. For example: haiku poems. We could talk about them, share them, learn together. Or writing mysteries. Last week I enjoyed a visit with a Texas librarian that centered around dialogue. 

In short, I think it’s more productive to think of a Zoom Visit not as “the James Preller show” but more of a unique way to bring an author into your classroom to directly connect with and inspire your students. 

Feel free to write to me at jamespreller@aol.com to discuss it. I’m open and flexible and eager to meet your students.

THANKS AGAIN FOR STOPPING BY!

 

-Z

 

UPSTANDER: Six Books That Helped Me Write a Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Writing a novel usually begins for me with reading. Here are six books that I’ve read, in addition to other research, to help me write my current work-in-progress.

     

               

Again, it’s like falling down a well. I could keep reading endlessly, blow deadlines year after year; the more I learn, the more there is to know. For this topic, it is truly a deep, dark well. A heartbreaking place I found hard to climb out of.

Then as a writers, at a certain point, we need to push that aside — take what we need for the story, for the characters, and start writing.

When I wrote Bystander, I came away with the feeling that I could tell a hundred different bully-themed stories. Each one different, with countless variations and permutations. You can’t say everything there is to be said; you have to make choices. Decide that this is the story I’m going to tell, and every word in it must serve that particular story. But I am always haunted by the fear of getting something wrong, or missing a critical insight, a layer of perception. I want to do a good job. 

For this book, I have a seventh-grade character whose older brother is dealing with substance use problems. He’s not the main character, but his struggles have a profound impact on the middle school-age girl, Mary, who is the featured character of the book. 

Mary O’Malley first appeared in my book Bystander. This is a prequel/sequel to that story in that it takes place along a similar time-frame — before, during, and after the events first explored in Bystander. There’s some overlap, a few of the same scenes are revisited from a new perspective, but on the whole this story stands on its own.

Working title: Upstander.

You heard it here first.

Everyone has a story. 

Any luck, look for it in 2021.