Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Delicate Balance

Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief (#1) published in 1998. Sammy Keyes and the Kiss Goodbye (#18) published in 2014. The series spans sixteen real years of rapidly evolving technology, yet in Sammy's world only 21 months go by.

Any series writer will tell you - tech is a headache. You can't keep up with it or predict how long a current trend or innovation will be relevant. (Which, I suspect, is the reason we're seeing so many books set in eras prior to the tech explosion.)

Also, cell phones are the bane of a mystery writer's plotting. There is no longer a believable excuse for not taking the picture, not recording the conversation, not texting your location from the trunk of a bad guy's car. And having the cell phone break or die or get forgotten is desperate plotting. Cell phones take the fun and creative solutions out of contemporary mystery writing. Everything can be traced. And really, how exciting are texts? Not exactly the stuff page-turners are made of. 

I remember reading about Sue Grafton's decision to keep her alphabet series set in the 80's. She began that series in 1982, which is when the first book (A is for Alibi) takes place, and the entire series is dedicated to that decade's style and technology. This seems right for that series. It fits. 

I purposely didn't do that with Sammy Keyes. The readership window is so much smaller when writing for youth than it is when writing for adults, so even though Sammy grows up a month at a time from one book to the next, I never specified a year. I also did what I could to avoid describing things in a way that might date the stories too quickly. I wanted my readers to feel like Sammy's world was their world.

But tech can trip you up! For example, during the writing of the early books I remember the price of a pay phone was going up again. It had been rising steadily and was on its way to fifty cents per call. So when Sammy uses a pay phone, I thought I'd be smart and have her insert "coins" instead of a specific amount. I wasn't imagining a time just a few short years later when pay phones would be nearly obsolete.

Also, as time ticked along behind the creation of the series, I adapted as I went. I worked at being subtle, introducing new tech and modernization casually. I wanted the book to feel relevant in the year it was released. Fortunately (!) Sammy lives in an old highrise full of old people; a place with shoddy maintenance and inattentive management. Also, Sammy's grandmother is on a fixed income, and Sammy has all sorts of legitimate excuses for not have access to technology.

Outside the highrise, though, tech happened. And with the opportunity to revisit the text while the books were getting an updated look, I weighed the pros and cons of making some subtle changes so that new readers (yes, a new generation of readers) wouldn't be thrown by things they'd never heard of.

After much discussion at home and some with Nancy (my editor), I decided to dip into the pages of Hotel Thief--the oldest title--and see how difficult (or, even, possible) gentle updating would be.

I will take a little sidetrack to share that I have never read a Sammy after it was published. I've read each and every one dozens of times during the revision process prior to publication, but once they became real books, I just didn't want to. Mostly that was because I knew I couldn't read them for pleasure. I would always be finding places I should have done or worded or said something differently.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I revisited Hotel Thief after nearly twenty years.

But you know what?

It's good!

And I was so relieved to feel that way about it!

You know what else?

To my surprise, it didn't take much tweaking.

So to finally end last week's cliffhanger, yes, I did it. I went through the pages, subtly excised, carefully added, but didn't change one single thing that didn't meet my reasons for what I was doing.

Not changing optional things was actually hard. There were places I wanted to pull out filler phrases ("Now"s and such). And there were places where the switch in tense could have been done better. Lots of places. But I didn't touch them. Not any of them.

Encouraged, I went on and revisited Skeleton Man and Sisters of Mercy - the other titles set for re-release in May. In the end, each title had only about ten pages where little changes had been made - surprisingly little! But some of those changes took me hours to finesse, because I had to keep the line (or, sometimes, character) count the same. If I cut or added too much it might pull (or push) the length of the paragraph, which would then affect the page breaks--something I had to avoid.

When I'd completed the manuscripts, I made copies of the changed pages and sent them off to Nancy, certain that this was the right course of action.

And then I got some bad news. As it turned out, the older titles were on film. Changes might be impossible. Here's the news, directly from Nancy: It’s ironic that the earliest books will have the most tech things to change but the corrections will be the hardest to make because the printing technology has changed… .  It would be easy to make changes to the final books in the series because they’re all digital files, but on those we probably have the fewest corrections… 

At this point I was seriously invested so I did a little (well, yes, more than a little) pleading. This didn't fall on deaf ears because Nancy was invested, too. After all, she's been the one and only editor of all 18 books and she's the one shepherding the reissue through this whole arduous process.

And the good news is, they have found a printer who is able to do the changes. To celebrate, Nancy sent me Runaway Elf (#4) to work on, and the next 4 titles arrived in a box yesterday. So you know what I'll be doing for the next many weeks!

I'll leave you with this graphic of the titles with their page count (and total pages for the series), to drive home that yes, this is a lot of work, and yes, it would have been much easier to just leave the text alone.

So if you're a purist and disagree with my touching the text, I hope you'll be reassured by the examples I've included. Changes are being done with the lightest touch, and with the sole purpose of keeping Sammy and her feisty, funny ways infiltrating the hearts of readers, (and spreading girl power!) for years to come.

Thanks, as always, for making time to visit. Looking forward to seeing you in the comments! 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Rebranding - Ins & Outs

Last week I shared the new outsides of the Sammy Keyes series. This week we look inside.

There's a lot that goes into the interior design of a book. A lot more than you might think. There are decisions regarding font, point size, margins, chapter headings, as well as little style touches.

In the case of the Sammy Keyes series, the interior style is pretty basic. Each of the 18 books begins with the word Prologue, followed by an enlarged point size and offset first sentence. These, as well as each chapter heading, are set in the same font that's used on the book covers: Expose. 

There are bits of art from the cover design inserted sparsely throughout the book--usually to accentuate the beginning or end of a chapter--but the rest of each volume is simply text. 

Those design choices resulted in an integrated look for the hardcovers. When the paperback covers started getting different artwork the designers bridged the looks by continuing to use the Expose font on the covers. Expose was the "Sammy Keyes font."

So the interior chapter headings and opening sentences still made sense, but once they moved away from the original art, the bits of art that echoed the hardcover jackets did not. Readers who'd only seen the paperbacks wouldn't understand the odd squares of different art, so why weren't they removed?

I asked, but the answer was kind of vague, and it didn't seem that crucial, so I just let it go.

But as the series progressed, some of the inserted squares of art in the interiors of new hardcover editions looked murky. Some were almost unrecognizable as art. 

I was told they just weren't printing clearly on the paper that was now being used. That situation coupled with the weirdness of having the squares in the paperback pages led to the logical decision to stop adding them to the interior pages in upcoming titles. That is why, from Wedding Crasher (book 13) on, the bits of art no longer appeared past the Prologue page. 

(The new font is hand lettered.) 
This all relates to the new look in that the new paperback covers do not use Expose. After much discussion about the pros and cons, the design team decided they wanted to rebrand the whole series with a completely fresh look. 

And yet, when I mentioned updating the interiors so that all the old art bits were removed and the chapter headings and opening lines were no longer in Expose, I got some worrisome news: They maybe, probably, couldn't do that.


Nancy (my editor) explained that the first books in the series were originated long enough ago that there were no digital files; the pages were on actual film, like negatives, and so it would be cost-prohibitive (and way too much work) to regenerate the books digitally. 

She gave me a little glimmer of hope, though, saying they would approach a different printer to see if there was any way around the situation.

This maybe-probably-not impacted more than just the style of the interior. It threw a monkey wrench into a decision I've been agonizing over for a couple of years: Should I take this opportunity to gently address text that might make the series seem dated? If interior changes were impossible, that option was off the table.

Fans of the series will recognize how important a decision to-tweak or not-to-tweak the text is. It has been truly agonizing! And I do plan to tell you all about it, but sharing that decision and the rationale behind it will make this post much too long. 

Also, it's an ongoing, evolving situation. 

So I'm afraid I'm leaving you with...

A cliffhanger! 

Sorry, no peeking ahead possible. The story will continue next week. (And I will finish, but bring your flashlight - it may be a long night.)

Until then, thank you for stopping by. See you in the comments!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

New Look for Sammy Keyes!

I am so excited for this week's post! Finally, finally, finally, I have new Sammy Keyes art to show you.

But first! From last weekend's post...our drawing winner is....Ashli B. from Ohio! (Congratulations on your Charmin' good luck. Your box of Lincoln Jones goodies will ship out on Monday.) 

(Did y'all, uh, snicker about the "Charmin' good luck"? No? Well, go read Lincoln Jones--it's magically delicious!)

Okay, okay. I feel like I tapped the mic, read last week's minutes, got sidetracked, and lost my grip. 

But what else is new, right?

Wendelin! FOCUS! 

Right, right! Sorry! I'm just excited!! And honestly, I don't know where to begin. Some of you have been reading this blog since I first started soliciting your input regarding new Sammy Keyes artwork, and you have probably wondered, what the heck ever happened with that? Well, it's a huge thing, redoing the art of 18 books! And in the end, it's a business decision. Do sales--past and future--warrant an investment in new art? And, if so, what is the purpose for the investment, and how will the new art serve that purpose? 

It's not unusual for books to get a "refreshed" look periodically, and having multiple looks across the life of a series is pretty normal. I've been told that Sammy having the same art/artist for all 18 hardcovers was very unusual.

Here's a post from back in 2014, where I was trying to get a bead on the direction the art should take once the series was complete. The dilemma with Sammy Keyes is that she doesn't fit neatly into "Middle Grade" (8-12 yrs) or "Young Adult" (12 yrs & up, but more realistically, 14 yrs & up). Sammy is edgy, funny, irreverent, and not obsessed with boys. And she deals with stuff like meth labs, buried bodies, gangs, and seriously scary adults. 

I personally wanted the new art to move in a more realistically rendered direction (as proposed in that linked post). And, because her name can confuse the uninitiated, I wanted the new art to make clear that Sammy is a girl. 

So for a good year I gathered input from booksellers and kids at schools and people here and online. One of the crucial questions I posed was, where do you think Sammy should be shelved? YA, or MG? It makes a huge difference in bookstores and in schools. 

The data was pretty evenly divided...which reflects the situation with middle school itself: it's that transitional ground between childhood and near adulthood.

Here's what finally came down as the reality of current trends: Realistic covers are for YA books, and although Sammys are read by a wide range of ages, the books belong on shelves accessible to kids younger than 14. 

Realistic was out.

I was bummed.

And then I was shown some preliminary sketches done by New Zealand artist Craig Phillips.

And I got a whole lot less bummed in a hurry.

The new look still had humor, but there was also an edginess to it. And a girl! I know we all have our own picture of what Sammy looks like, and that was the goal. We wanted readers to picture her their way. 

So after all this time, seeing Sammy on these covers is a little strange. And it may not match the Sammy you see in your head, but give it time. I hope you can adjust and learn to like this new art as much as I do. 

A couple of other quick things: 

One of the many questions I asked when collecting data was...should the books be numbered? Again, the answers were evenly divided. Readers edged toward yes, but booksellers edged toward no. And really, although it's best to read the series in order, I wrote them so you don't have to. So if the title you have in front of you is, say, Hollywood Mummy, don't think you have to find the previous five books before you read it. Open it up, get on that bus to Hollywood, and go!

So, again, the team at Random House concluded: No numbers.

Only this time I countered with an idea that originated in the comments of this blog: 

Hide the numbers in the art. 

And guess what, guys? That's exactly what they're doing! Some of the numbers are easy to spot, some are a little more challenging. (I've seen art for the first 8 books but I can only share 3 at this time.) I think hidden numbers are super fun, and I just love that the idea originated here. (Yes, okay, go find them. Then come back and read the rest of the post.)

The other thing that I'm crazy nutso happy about is the spines. There's a piece of art (to remain unnamed) that will span the width of the series. When you have the (secretly numbered) books on the shelf, spines out in the proper order, an image is created behind the spines' titles and text. It's like putting together a puzzle. Very appropriate for Sammy Keyes! I'm including the full span art of Hotel Thief so you can see its spine and get a taste for it.

There's a ton more to share, but this is probably enough for one post. But I promise to be back next weekend with more!

Meanwhile, thanks so much for checking in, (And for those of you who have been waiting years for this post, thank you for your patience and steadfast loyalty.) I will leave you with a compilation of the first three Sammy paperback covers over time, from the original puzzle-piece art (which was only out in paperback for a short time), to the realistic interim art (lasted about 8 books, after which it was replaced by) the "cartoony" art (which was available up to but not including the very last book), to the upcoming art (to be released beginning May 2nd).

So...what do you think? I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts. See you in the comments!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Story Time!

Story time!

While other college friends would go bar hopping on weekends, my friend Mary Lou and I would go dessert hopping. We’d stop by a restaurant, order a single dessert, split it, walk to the next place, order another dessert…you get the idea. Maybe it was all the sugar, or maybe it was just that we tend to make each other laugh hysterically, but by the end of our tour d’esserts, I'm sure people who saw us staggering down the street laughing thought we were on something stronger than sugar.

This same friend and I would also entertain ourselves by playing a card game called (very appropriately) Nerds.

I don’t remember the rules, exactly, but it’s as physical a card game as there is - at least it is the way we played it.

It involved two decks and was something akin to solitaire, but you could put your cards on the other person’s field. We would fly through our decks, flipping through cards, arms jetting across the table, laughing hysterically. The goal was to unload all your cards (your entire deck). The first player to do that and shout "NERDS!" won.

Our roommates hated Nerds.

Or us nerds playing it, more likely.

Whatever. Cool people have their own code of conduct. I’m sure it makes them happy.

But not as happy as playing Nerds!

This relates to the dessert hopping story in that a king-sized Snickers was involved. We would slice the candy bar into about eight pieces, and the winner of the hand—or scrimmage, as it were—would get to eat one slice. Shuffle, shuffle, switch decks, go! That slice is mine.

You may have noticed that Snickers make cameo appearances in my books. If one of my characters is having  a candy bar, it’s most likely going to be a Snickers. (Or a Reese’s, but the reason for that is a story for another day.) (Although I must digress here to insist that Resee’s are best eaten quartered.) (Like a pie.) (Really.) 

Snickers are my go-to candy bar in stories because, well, authors write what they know, right? But also, Snickers remind me of Friday nights in college with a really good friend. Snickers have the power to make me laugh.

Which is why in The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, Lincoln has a thing for Snickers. The candy bar makes more than just a cameo appearance. The "Tattletale Toilet" chapter is all about the hazards of sneakin’ a Snickers.

Hey, since it's story time, do you want an excerpt? Oh, how fun. Okay! 

Diving into "Tattletale Toilet"...(h-hm)...


The next morning, Ma sprung my cage. "Lincoln!" she called from the bathroom. "Why are there bits of Snickers wrappers swimmin' around the toilet?"

I was in the middle of a dream, trapped inside the corner market by a decrepit old man who was trying to tase me for sneaking Snickers to homeless folks. His Taser was slick and could shoot from a distance, but his aim was all shaky and he was shufflin' along like a zombie in short red socks, wearing a hospital gown that was gaping wide open in back. "Don't you know it'll kill 'em?" he was shouting as I dodged him. "Send 'em straight into a diabetic coma!"

"Lincoln!" Ma hollered again. "What's a Snickers wrapper doing in the toilet?"

I was glad to shake off the zombie in red socks, but now my mind was dodging around for another escape route. How could there be wrapper left in the toilet? I'd seen it go down! And I'd used the toilet since! Had some pieces stuck to the sides? Had they made their way back up stream? How could this be?

"You sure it's not somethin' else brown?" I called back.

"Lincoln Jones, I know the difference between somethin' else brown and a candy wrapper." Her head popped out of the bathroom. "And I'm guessin' no 'No' means you got some explainin' to do?"


Having just typed this, I realize that it doesn't convey at all why the Bank Street College of Education just gave the book an incredible award. From that excerpt, the book seems like it's light and silly and funny. Which it is in parts...but in other parts it's weighty. And heavy needs a counterbalance. Especially for kids. 

And what also hit me just now is that the "Tattletale Toilet" excerpt is just like taking a break from the serious things in life to play a game of Nerds. Mary Lou and I are actually very introspective people. We have serious philosophical discussions, and help each other focus on what's important in life. But we also cut loose and laugh. Because the heavy stuff by itself can be crushing. All of us need some version of Nerds, some fun escape to fortify us for when we face off with the weightier things in life.

But back to Snickers! Or, more precisely, the reason dessert-hopping and Snickers made an appearance in this post to begin with. I didn't lead with PRIZE! because, hey, if you're just here to win stuff, go away.

But for you, my faithful bloggettes or bloglodites (or…can I hear a chorus of blogonerds!?), I'm doing a Lincoln Jones giveaway. And because Lincoln loves them, a king-sized Snickers is being added to the box.

This one-winner giveaway will include: one (dare I say very cool) Lincoln Jones T-shirt (made and donated by one exquisitely nerdy librarian who, I’m positive, wants to remain anonymous), one autographed copy of The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, plus Listening Library's audio version of it (read by the wonderful JB Adkins), and one king-sized Snickers.

If you would like to enter the drawing—anyone in the USA is eligible—all you have to do is go to the Contact tab at my website and send me an email following these guidelines:

1) Put “Snickers!” in the subject line.
2)  In the body of the message include:
  • Your NAME
  • Preferred T-SHIRT SIZE. (There's a limited size selection, I will match as closely as possible.) 
The bonus is, I will stuff the box with other books because my excellent editor gave me the gift of prepaid (domestic-only) boxes for Christmas. (This may sound like an odd gift to you, but she knows how much I hate the hassle that is our local post office, so it's a great gift.)

Anyway,  I'm allowed to stuff in as much as I can in the box for no extra charge, so it'll be Lincoln Jones stuff plus a grab bag (or, you know, box) of other titles.

Get your entry in by Friday (2/10) and I’ll announce the winner right here next weekend.

That's it for this week. Next week I'm planning to do the Sammy Keyes new covers reveal. (I'm so excited to finally be able to share it with you!) 

Meanwhile, if you have some game or activity that you do with a friend that always makes you laugh, please share it with us in the comments. I'm sure we'd all love to hear (or, you know, snicker!).

Thanks for stopping by. See you in the comments!