Posts Tagged ‘middle-grade fiction’

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.)

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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.

 

 

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:

SHELLY GUADALUPE ALVAREZ!

(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

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

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

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

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.

___________________________________________

To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?

Igor

Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

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

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

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

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

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

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)

Character Qualities – I

May 21, 2015

In my school talks, I often ask the kids what type of stories they like: lots of action, or interesting characters?  Most authors tend to write either plot-driven or character-driven stories, though they may rightly strive for pleasing balance of each.  I’m a character-driven writer.  The story doesn’t really start moving until I know the characters well enough to let them take over the story (even though they don’t, really—the author is always in charge!).  Getting to know them takes time, but one exercise I’ve found helpful is

The Interview

That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit everybody down and ask them a set of  questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  To answer these questions, I have to use what I’ve already decided about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward.  Something always turns up that surprises me!

During a visit this week with fifth-graders at Daniel Wright Junior High, I asked which interview they’d like to read from Somebody in This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.   Several characters got votes, but the majority went to

CHARLES BENDER THOMPSON

Bender

(You didn’t know that was his full name, did you?  He’s very honored to be picked.  Not to mention very surprised.)

Thank you, Daniel Wright fifth-graders, for choosing my first posted interview!

What’s your favorite color?

Puke.  (Stupid question)

What do you think is your strongest quality?

Survival, baby.

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

What’s to improve?

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

Oh, come on.  Everybody knows that.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

What friends?

Okay, if I had any, they would say I’m darkly humorous, deeply mysterious and a kick-butt Call of Duty player.  I know that’s more than three words.  I can count.

What do others not understand about you?

Everything!  That’s the story of my life, man: tragically misunderstood.

Okay, if you insist . . .

Everybody assumes I hate my brother.  Or at least that I resent my brother.  Only I don’t.  Resent, maybe a little.  But I definitely don’t hate him.  The truth is, I’m proud of him.  Who wouldn’t be?  And there was a time, I’m told, when he was proud of me.  My mom says he’d always wanted a little brother, and when I finally showed up it was like every Christmas and birthday present rolled up in one.  He was eight then.  Mom says he was the best big brother any kid could ever hope for (like, big surprise).  She was working part-time at the real estate office, and Dad had just accepted the claims-adjuster job, so they were busy.  Thorn was like Dad, junior.  He did everything—feeding, changing, burping—once he even got up at night to walk the floor with me when I was sick (Mom says).  He did all his other stuff, too: top grades, sports, and all, but when he was at home he was all mine.  I’d cry for him when he wasn’t around, and go into paradoxes (is that the word?  Doesn’t look right) of joy when he showed up, because he’d piggy-back me all over the neighborhood and read to me and push me on the swings and stuff.  It’s not just Mom who says so.  We moved to Hidden Acres when I was two, and all the neighbors tell me (and tell me and tell me) that they’d never seen a big brother like Thorn.  I wish I could remember.  But I guess, in some way I do.

Because I don’t hate him.  I love him, probably more than anybody.  And I guess he loves me too but he outgrew me.

He made me laugh, he made me mad.  And sometimes—oh man, I’ve never said this to anybody—he comes close to making me cry.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll either be hiking through Tibet or working on a shrimp boat out of Louisiana.  What other options are there? Legal, I mean.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was probably one I can’t remember.

What’s your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is fear itself!

No seriously, my greatest fear is probably finding out who I really am.  I’ve been coasting along as anti-Thorn but that’s not necessarily me.  My grandma—the one who traveled, and died a couple years ago—she was the only one in my family who didn’t look at me through my big brother, and I kinda think that if she’d lived longer she might have had a clue.  It might’ve helped, you know?  A little positive reinforcement.  I’ll find out sooner or later.  But what if I don’t like me?

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

Here lies Thorn Thompson’s brother.

Good thing I’m not dying tomorrow, huh?

Who’s your favorite character in fiction?  If you could ask them these questions (or any others you think might be interesting), what would they say?