Archive for June, 2015

Countdown to IDK: Blurbalicious

June 26, 2015

(Sorry about the title–I couldn’t help myself.)

The jury is still out over whether a glowing comment from a fellow author can help boost sales of your latest book.  My best-selling book ever (The Middle of Somewhere) didn’t come with any italicized quotes on the front or back cover.  But at least they don’t hurt, and they can sure give an author a shot of self-confidence just before the reviews start coming out.  So I’m very appreciative of blurbs recently received, and of the generous authors who took the time to read the book and say something nice about it.

Like Cheryl Harness, one of my favorite all-time go-to authors for history.  She’s better known as a topHarness illustrator, but underappreciated (I think) for her wordsmithing.  Cheryl Harness Histories, published by National Geographic and terminated too soon, offer young readers a look at some significant human beings in the American past by taking in the whole context of their time.  Myles Standish is one of my favorites, reviewed here.

So, what did she say about I Don’t Know How the Story Ends?  This:

J. B. Cheaney masterfully combines a family’s pathos in wartime, a vivid sense of old Hollywood (including appearances by the era’s superstars), PLUS  a suspenseful, creative adventure through an entirely new kind of storytelling: MOVING PICTURES!

* * * * * * * * * * * *

CushmanThen there’s Karen Cushman, practically a dean (in my view) of children’s historical fiction, whose Catherine, Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice wowed Newbery committees some years back.  They’re still wowing readers today (even one who wants to make a movie of Catherine, and has the clout and the ability to do so).  So it’s a real treat, as well as an honor, to get a friendly nod from her:

 

I Don’t Know How the Story Ends will grab you by your shirt and drop you right into the early days of Hollywood and movie making.  Peopled with delightful characters who find that real life is not just like the movies, this is a funny, insightful, and touching celebration of friendship and family, the imagination, and the power of the movies.

My humble thanks, ladies.  We share a love of history and I’m proud to be on the same page.

Countdown to IDK: First Words

June 19, 2015

What grabs you about a book, from the first page?  Some readers like getting right into the action, as in

  • Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.  (Tom Clancy, Patriot Games)
  • Renowned curator Jacques Suaniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code)
  • None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Middle of Somewhere)

Some want to identify immediately with a character:

  • Call me Ishmael.  (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • I am an invisible man.  (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
  • I didn’t mean to do it.  I just got carried away.  (J. B. Cheaney, My Friend the Enemy)

Other readers like a strong sense of place or time; they want to setting to descend on them like a mist.  For example

  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.  An English boy of any learning whatever knows that.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Playmaker)

Other readers are looking for a jolt of mystery or suspense:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  (Louis Sacher, Holes)
  • One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War, and the next minute he was gone.  (Michael Grant, Gone)
  • Last night’s weather forecast predicted rain.  This isn’t rain.   (J. B. Cheaney, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous)

And others like a shot of emotional adrenaline:

  • What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? (Eric Segal, Love Story)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  (Nora Zeal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “Stop! Halt! You’ll kill each other!  (J. B. Cheaney, The True Prince)

(Look at me swanning around on the same page with all these great authors!)

Every author knows that first lines can make the difference between a reader reading or a reader refusing (though most readers will stick around at least for a paragraph).  But more than that: a first line can set the tone for the whole story.  Of course you want to engage the reader with some sense of the action to follow.  Of course you want to surprise and mystify.  The question is how.

For my soon-to-be-published novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, I decided to go for voice.  That’s the indefinable quality that makes one person’s style different from another’s.  When you read Call me Ishmael next to You don’t know me without you have read a book called Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter, you know you are in for a sojourn within two very distinct personalities.

I decided to try for that.  Meet Isobel Ransom, the narrator and cover girl of I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks, Oct. 2015):

* * * * * * * * * * * *

      The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

It wasn’t all my fault.  She pushed me before I pushed her—figuratively, I mean.

She’d picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day.  While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book—Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite—I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: “AhhhhWOOOO!”

I turned around.  “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she’d somehow pulled down from our parents’ bedroom window.  “AWOOO!  I’m the ghost of the battlefield.  No—I’m Daddy’s lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and . . . Quit it, Isobel!”

I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book.  She smacked me back, so I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet.  The next moment she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.

The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen.  Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap.  Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure.  Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber.  But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.

“Isobel,” my mother said accusingly.

“I’m sorry!  But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father’s ghost, and we know that Father’s alive and well, but I can’t stand it when she . . .” Et cetera.  And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn’t her fault.  She was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.

Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush.  But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.

“That does it,” Mother said at last.  “I’ve had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters.  We’re going to California for the summer.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So the adventure begins .  .

postcard

Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!

myfriendtheenemy

Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.

MFTE.pb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

 

My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:

hollywood

“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:

hollywood2

Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)

Book-Burning and Guilty Consciences

June 10, 2015

I burned a book once.

True confessions: it was an ARC I got at a library or booksellers convention, and I didn’t like it.  Usually I don’t burn books I don’t like—that conjures up all kinds of Nazified images, like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  But it was winter, and we had a fire in the wood stove, and I was so irritated with the contents (don’t even remember what the book was now) that I bent its innocent spine and tossed a section at a time into the flames!  I’m not bragging, because I still feel a little guilty.  What is it about books that seem so not-for-burning?

Maybe it’s their humanity.  Humans are sometimes described as embodied souls–not quite accurately, I think–but if that’s so, books are embodied minds.  Every human artefact is in some way an embodiment of the mind, and we do burn old houses and letters and discontinued uniforms and items no longer useful (otherwise known as trash). Books are more personal, though: they don’t just say something about the writer, they also testify to the reader.  When displayed proudly on a shelf they declare our admiration–or pretention, if we haven’t actually read them.  When stuck in a briefcase or hidden under a sweater they assert our guilty pleasure.  When blazing in a bonfire they express our contempt.

Some thoughts, stories, premises, and exploitations are contemptible, and I wouldn’t have a big problem with a bonfire made of Hustler magazines.  When the Ephesian converts brought their occult books and magic scrolls “and burned them in the sight of all” (Acts 19:19), they meant to demonstrate the worthlessness of superstition against the power of the Holy Spirit.  Book-burning is a statement—or least it seems like it should be.  Remember the scene in The Day After Tomorrow where the survivors of an apocalypse are burning books in the library just to keep warm?  That was a statement in itself: Look how and how quickly a civilization can fall.   (I couldn’t find a video clip on youtube, but that scene has its own piece of soundtrack, appropriately mournful.)

Each volume, whether it’s Karl Marx or J. K. Rowling or Pope Benedict or Louis L’Amour or E. L. James stamped on the spine, represents some little facet of humanity, whether noble or trashy.  All together, they represent one huge facet of humanity, perhaps the most definitive one: the ability to communicate in words, across continents and down the years.  Even if it was written to formula by a nameless hack in a basement apartment, each book is a little voice crying out—articulately.

Voices from the flames give me the creeps.

I tend to hold on to books the way hoarders hold on to old tools, old clothes, pieces of string: I might need those particular words someday.  But limited space demands culling every now and then, especially since I now get unsolicited copies for possible review. So . . . what to do with unwanted books?  Not just the unsolicited ones, but the ones you now realize you’ll never get around to reading, the ones you’ve outgrown, the ones that were gifts from Aunt Marge who totally doesn’t get you?

  1. That’s what library sales are for, and once I’ve dropped off the two-three boxes I accumulate every year I try not to think about what happens to the books that don’t sell.  Not my problem.
  2. Some trendy couples use books as decorating items.  If you google “Creative Uses for Old Books,” or similar key words, you’ll get pages and pages of ideas: knickknack shelves, furniture, desk accessories, clocks, paper roses.  A few years ago a very creative lady I know make these as giveaways for all the authors attending the Warrensburg Children’s Literature Festival:

JC book

(Those little voices may have cried out when the saber saw cut into them, but I don’t care–I’m keeping mine forever!)

  1. And did you know there’s a whole creative field of book sculpture?  I love these—a striking blend of thought and deed, word and form, spirit and flesh.  The artist said, “Let there be . . .” and it was so.

book-sculpture

My admiration for books-as-art doesn’t change the fact that most of us can’t do this for all their unwanted titles.  It’s an understated secret that publishers submit their unsold copies to the pulping machine.  I shiver at the thought—some of MY books have met that fate–but at least those unappreciated pages can be reincarnated to new pages.  And life goes on . . .

Character Qualities – IV

June 3, 2015

One more to close out the school year!  Yesterday the sixth-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Kankakee, Illinois, voted on the character interview they’d most like to see, after Shelly, Bender, and Igor.  This time the vote went to

JAY THOMAS PASTERNAK III

Take it away, Jay!cartoon_0022

What’s your favorite color?

Blue and silver.  Go, Cowboys!

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

Setting a goal and sticking to it.

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Life’s pretty good right now; I’d be almost afraid to “improve” it.  Or me.

Okay, I guess there’s one thing.  I freak a little too easily.  It may not look like it, especially compared to Spencer, but like for instance.  When I started going nearsighted, I didn’t want to admit it.  It went on for a long time—even last year I started noticing, but I kept hoping it would get better on its own.  Nobody in my family wear glasses.  Peppy still has eyes like a hawk; he told me so.  He just uses reading glasses sometimes.  Even my dad.  So I didn’t mention it to anybody for a whole year, even when I started missing Poppy’s throws.  He brought it up himself: how’s your eyes lately?  It wasn’t until early this year that I had to say something, because I was writing the wrong assignment pages down from the smart board.  Just admitting it made it seem like the end of the world for a while.  I know that’s stupid, but it took some attitude adjustment.  All the time I was thinking I should be able to take it more in stride.  NFL players get injured all the time.  And I see it in the movies; star runner gets body-slammed, the doc says he’ll never be able to play again but he sucks it up and . . . Forget the sucking-up, I just don’t want anything like that to happen in the first place.  I have to be extra careful.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

That’s easy.  Without Poppy I never would’ve been able to develop my talent to this level, or get as much fun out of it.  My dad’s a good dad, but he’s just not into the whole pigskin thing.  I would have grown up watching the History Channel and not have a clue until I got to high school, maybe, about a whole big side of my life.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Happy, friendly, fun.

What do others not understand about you?

Whoa, dude.  I’m not sure what there is to understand.  I mean, I’m pretty much out there all the time, you know?

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years, I’ll be in the top ten contenders for the Heisman Trophy and talking to pro sports agents.  I’d really like for both Cowboys and Steelers to be bidding for me, but I’d settle for one or the other, plus at least one more club showing a strong interest.  Maybe an expansion team, like the Titans or Panthers.  I could live with that.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

I don’t know if I would pick a happy moment.  But a happy time would be winter.  You’d probably guess my favorite time of the year is the fall, but actually it’s between Christmas and Super Bowl, when the playoffs are going on.  On Monday and Sunday nights, I run across the commons after dinner—Mom always yells, “Is your homework done?” and I always say Yes.  It usually is.  Cold air freezing my ears as I sprint through the woods, dodging trees like they were defensive blocks, leap onto the patio like I’m clearing the goal posts, chest-bump the grill, knock on the glass door.  Geemaw slides it open, hot dry air rubs my face (they’re always arguing about where to set the thermostat).  She says, “Come on in out of the cold, Trey!  You want some spice tea?” I love her spice tea—she loads it up with extra sugar and Tang and puts in a cinnamon stick to stir it with.  Poppy won’t touch the stuff, calls it warm syrup.  He’s already set up in his Lay Z Boy with a can of beer and a bowl of Doritoes or popcorn, with the platform rocker pulled up for me.  That’s Geemaw’s chair, but she never watches the game so she doesn’t mind Poppy moving it as he puts it back.  Which he never does anymore, so I do it myself just before going home, so they’ll have one less thing to fight about.  The fighting doesn’t really bother me, since it doesn’t seem to bother them.  I’d just rather they wouldn’t, especially if it’s got anything to do with me.  Anyway, those few minutes before the game starts, when I’m stirring my spice tea with the cinnamon stick and we’re talking over our picks and he’s threatening to trounce me on the averages again, and we don’t kind what kind of surprises the game is going to have for us . . . I don’t remember being any happier than that.

What is your greatest fear?

Do we have to talk about fear again?  Okay: knees.  Then calves.  Then shoulders.  I just have to be careful.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Uh-uh.  I’m not going there.  No way.