Archive for June 29, 2010

Essential Reading: “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

I realize not everyone receives The New York Times. Or if you’re like me, sometimes you don’t get around to reading it thoroughly. So I refer readers to this long, thoughtful, well-researched article from June 27, 2010. It explores the growing phenomenon of cyberbullying, it’s impact on middle school students, and the overall helplessness of school officials to address it fully. The writer, Jan Hoffman, does an excellent job in painting a devastating portrait of how texting and social network sites have changed the landscape of bullying in today’s world.

It’s not easy being a kid today.

For the full article, click here: “Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray.” Here’s the opening few paragraphs of the lengthy article:

The girl’s parents, wild with outrage and fear, showed the principal the text messages: a dozen shocking, sexually explicit threats, sent to their daughter the previous Saturday night from the cellphone of a 12-year-old boy. Both children were sixth graders at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J.

Punish him, insisted the parents.

“I said, ‘This occurred out of school, on a weekend,’ ” recalled the principal, Tony Orsini. “We can’t discipline him.”

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Later in the same article, a guidance counselor describes one aspect of middle school misery:

Meredith Wearley, Benjamin Franklin’s seventh-grade guidance counselor, was overwhelmed this spring by dramas created on the Web: The text spats that zapped new best friendships; secrets told in confidence, then broadcast on Facebook; bullied girls and boys, retaliating online.

“In seventh grade, the girls are trying to figure out where they fit in,” Mrs. Wearley said. “They have found friends but they keep regrouping. And the technology makes it harder for them to understand what’s a real friendship.”

Because students prefer to use their phones for texting rather than talking, Mrs. Wearley added, they often miss cues about tone of voice. Misunderstandings proliferate: a crass joke can read as a withering attack; did that text have a buried subtext?

The girls come into her office, depressed, weeping, astonished, betrayed.

“A girl will get mad because her friend was friends with another girl,” Mrs. Wearley said.

They show Mrs. Wearley reams of texts, the nastiness accelerating precipitously. “I’ve had to bring down five girls to my office to sort things out,” she said. “It’s middle school.”

Recently, between classes, several eighth-grade girls from Benjamin Franklin reflected about their cyberdramas:

“We had so many fights in seventh grade,” one girl said. “None of them were face-to-face. We were too afraid. Besides, it’s easier to say ‘sorry’ over a text.”

Another concurred. “It’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control,” she said. “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

Summer Hours: Less Blogging, More Slogging

I plan to slow the pace of my blogging this summer — and I’ll try not to feel guilty about it. I’ve learned that there’s generally a downturn in readership in July and August, so it’s silly for me to knock myself out. Usually I try to come up with new content 3-5 times a week. This summer, I won’t be as prolific. At the same time, two new books come out in July, Justin Fisher Declares War! and A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade. So it’s not like I’ll disappear completely.

Thanks for stopping by, I really do appreciate it. Please continue to check back, but above all else . . . have a great summer!

Cue the Inspiration: “Home” by the Foo Fighters

My son, Gavin, who recently turned eleven — or as Maggie said, holding up ten fingers, “now he’s off both hands!” — found this song and I immediately loved it. An unexpected track from Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. The tone of melancholy yearning struck me as perfectly right for the main character, Jude Fox, in my upcoming young adult novel, tentatively titled, Jude, Adrift. It’s a song he’d like, I’m sure of it, and somehow listening to it draws me closer to him. When I focused on the lyrics, I was struck at how some lines seamlessly fit with the story. Cool when that happens.

Slowly I’ve been assembling a soundtrack for the book, songs that might play in the imaginary movie. This would surely be one of them:

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Wish I were with you
I couldn’t stay
Every direction
Leads me away
Pray for tomorrow
But for today

All I want is to be home

Stand in the mirror
You look the same
Just lookin’ for shelter
From cold and the pain
Someone to cover
Safe from the rain

All I want is to be home

Echoes and silence

Patience and grace
All of these moments
I’ll never replace
No fear of my heart
Absence of faith

All I want is to be home
Ooh

All I want is to be home

People I’ve loved
I have no regrets
Some I remember
Some I forget
Some of them living
Some of them dead

All I want is to be home

One Downside to Raising an 11-Year-Old Boy

Adam Sandler movies.

I submit to you: Bulletproof, Big Daddy, Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Anger Management, Click, 50 First Dates, Chuck & Larry, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and whatever else he’s inflicted on innocent, misguided viewers.

Ick, ick, ick.

I think he’s the worst, but most eleven-year-old boys love him. It’s a great divide. I went through it with my oldest boy, and somehow we’ll survive this stage with Gavin, too. It won’t be pretty. I’ll try to look away.

An aside: You know how many, many children’s book authors claim to have “never grown up.” I read that all the time in interviews, hear it in comments. They say things like, “I’m still an eleven-year-old at heart!”

Oh dear Lord.

That’s so not me. The Sandler movies would kill me.

Coach Preller . . . and a Deleted Scene from “Six Innings”

Baseball has been central to my life for as long as I can remember. These days, it’s primarily as a coach, since I’ve become too busy to play on my men’s hardball team.

Let me give you a quick update:

* On Saturday, my Little League team, RC Dairy, lost a devastating semi-final playoff game by the score of 9-7. We had ended the season in 1st place, with a 12-4 record, but in baseball anything can happen in a single-elimination format — and anything did.

I was very disappointed; it took me a day and a half to get over it. Seriously. I couldn’t get that loss out of my head. I loved that team and wanted them to play in a Championship Game, to feel that excitement, have that lifetime memory. I also understood that most kids never get that opportunity. Eight years ago I coached my oldest son’s team, Blue Sky Music, to a championship victory. It would have been nice to do it again, on the same field, with a different child. Maybe I’m still not completely over it.

* The next day, Sunday, Father’s Day, my Travel Team played a doubleheader about fifteen minutes north of Saratoga Springs, an hour’s drive. This team plays on Sundays only, and again it was the end of our regular season. We won both, 11-4 and, in extra innings, 12-11. Gavin had a great day, a couple of big hits, a beautiful sacrifice bunt, pitched three solid innings, and scored the winning run in game two. A close play at the plate, safe, game over! Awesome. A great way to spend Father’s Day.

* Meanwhile, today is the first day of practice for our District 13, ten-year-old All-Stars. That will go hot and heavy until July 13th — unless we come out on top, in which case we’ll move on to Regionals. (I can imagine a dozen parents, thinking of camps and vacation plans, crossing their fingers and hoping . . . not.)

As you likely know, I wrote the book Six Innings about the boys who play in a championship Little League game. It was a book I was highly qualified to write. I know the game, and I know those players (an aside: at this level it is extremely rare to see a girl on the field; softball has swallowed them up).

In revising Six Innings, I cut about 10,000 words. Most of it was back story, character sketches, small moments off the field. We decided that my initial format was too confusing for the reader, bouncing back and forth from game action to character pieces tended to undercut the drama of the game itself. So I cut it to the bone. Painful but necessary. I’ve blogged about this before, and previously shared four deleted scenes: here, and here, and here, and here.

Below, here’s a fifth deleted scene, this time with the focus entirely on two fathers. That’s another lesson learned; there’s not a kid in sight, generally a no-no for children’s books. In short, I needed to write the scene, I needed to know it, but it didn’t have to go into the book. That’s the iceberg theory of writing. Nevertheless, don’t get me wrong: I like this scene a lot, there’s truth in it, and it was something I wanted to explore, how the game helped keep a fractured family connected. Here goes:

CASPER LIONNI

Brrriiiiing!

Jeff Reid groaned, hit the mute button. “Hello,” he spoke into the phone.

“Is this Jeff?”

“Speaking.”

“Jeff, hello. This is Casper Lionni,” he paused, “Alex’s father.”

“Yes, Casper,” Jeff replied. “How can I help you?”

“I understand that you’ve got Alex on your Little League team this coming season,” Mr. Lionni said.

“Yes, I do. We’re eager to get started.”

There was a brief pause on the phone. Casper Lionni continued haltingly. “I was wondering if, perhaps, you could use an assistant,” he began. “However, I confess that I don’t know much about baseball.”

“Neither do I!” Jeff joked. “I appreciate the offer, Casper, really. But I’ve been coaching with Andy Van Zant for the past couple of years, so we’re pretty set in that department.”

“I understand.”

Jeff could hear the disappointment in Casper’s voice.

“You see, er,” Casper continued, “as you may know, my wife, Lauren, and I, have recently separated –”

“Yes, I heard that,” Jeff admitted. “Small town.”

“I only see Alex on Wednesday nights and alternate weekends,” Casper said.

Jeff nodded, said nothing. Before giving it more thought, he blurted, “Do you know how to keep a scorebook?”

“A scorebook?” Casper repeated. “I’m sure I don’t even know what that is.”

“You can learn,” Jeff answered. “It’s pretty straightforward. You could come to the games and help out that way. Would that suit you?”

“What? Are you saying that — ?”

“We’d love to have you,” Jeff replied.

“Thank you,” Casper said. “This means a lot to me. You have no idea.”

The two men spoke for a few more minutes. The conversation confirmed three things in Jeff’s mind. Casper Lionni was a good guy, he really didn’t know anything about baseball, and he missed his son, terribly.

Jeff Reid hung up the phone, turned the sound back on for the spring training ballgame. The Red Sox just scored a run, a lefty was warming in the Yankee bullpen. He thought, Oh boy, here comes another season.

Fan Mail Wednesday #90-91 (Friday Edition)

I received two similar emails, so I’m going to post both and give one reply to avoid repetition:

Letter #90:

Dear Mr. Preller,

I love your book Bystander. My teacher read it to my class for a read aloud. It was very well written. I could really relate to it since I have been bullied. I understand what it feels likes to not have anyone stand up for you. I strongly suggest you should write a sequel from the different characters points of view. I love reading and writing! Do you have any good writing tips for me? I would love to hear back from you!

Yours Truly,
Marissa

Letter #91:

Hi, I’m Jake. I’m a 5th grader. I have read Six Innings and Along Came
Spider
.  They were both very good. We read Bystander for a read
aloud in school. That was fantastic. Do you have any new books coming
out. Also do you have any tips for me as a writer?

My reply:

Marissa & Jake,

I hope you don’t mind sharing the same response, but this seemed faster and easier for me. And that’s what we’re all about here at jamespreller.com: me, Me, ME!

(Sorry, I got excited.)

Thanks for reading my books. Marissa, when I began to dig into the research on bullying — and part of that research was about memory, looking back and really thinking about what I’d seen and experienced in my own life; that is: heart work — I realized that I could write a 100 different stories, from 100 different perspectives. Ultimately a writer has to make choices. I tried to tell one story the best that I could. But you are totally right: There’s a lot more there to be explored, more stories to be told.

Jake, I have a follow-up book to Along Came Spider coming out in August, called Justin Fisher Declares War! It’s set in the same school, and some characters recur (Spider, Trey, Ava, Ms. Lobel in minor roles), but the focus shifts to a different classroom and new characters. Honestly, it’s a light, quick, easy read — hopefully funny — and it concludes with a school Talent Show, something I’ve wanted to write about for some time. And yes, there is barf. I’m currently finishing my first true “Young Adult” novel, featuring 16-year-old characters. It’s been the best writing experience ever, I’ve learned so much, and will come out in Fall 2011. Still pondering the title.

Both of you asked about “tips” for writers. As much as I enjoy talking about writing, or at least illuminating my own writing process, I’m always hesitant to break it down into rules and quick tips. We’re all different, and all of us need to find our own way. That said, I have written about my experiences as a writer — some of the things I’ve learned along the way — in various blog posts. Here’s a few of them:

* The Reading Feeds the Writing (about how one writer reads with pen in hand)

* Writing from Memory to Realistic Fiction

* Asking “What If” Questions

* Rules for Writing (from other authors)

* Rereading The Elements of Style (notes on a classic book)

If you are really interested, just click on “the writing process” under CATEGORIES in the right sidebar column. There’s lots to explore at your leisure, and it was all written with young writers like you in mind. It’s all about transparency here at jamespreller.com and BP Petroleum. I don’t possess any magic knowledge, there are no great secrets, but I am willing to share my own fumbling, idealistic efforts at writing the best I can.

Ultimately, I don’t feel comfortable playing the role of expert, handing out a nifty cheat-sheet of tips. The obvious suggestions remain true: Read, read, and read some more. Value your own perspective, your individuality; no one else can be you, can offer up your unique observations, thoughts, and feelings. As a writer, that’s what you’ve got above all the others: Nobody else can be you. Treasure those things in your life that formed you, that in-formed you; your family, your life experiences, your secret dreams and feelings.

Like I said before, writing is heart work. And that’s where it begins.

I’ve come to view dialogue as the single most important part of writing. Maybe that’s overstatement, but work with me here, guys. In some ways, it’s the easiest to try — everybody talks! — and yet the hardest thing to get right. Dialogue crosses all genres, whether you are interested in writing about wizards or warrior rats or realistic fiction. There are always characters, and we always meet them best when they open their mouths.

So that’s my other advice: shut up and listen. Eavesdrop. Jot down notes, little phrases you hear. Listen to how people talk. Really talk. Also — and this is tricky — step back and listen to yourself. What comes out of your mouth? What do you say when you see a friend? How do you greet each other in the hallway? What’s actually said at the dinner table? Take notes in a little memo pad, even just a snatch of conversation. Later, you can add description, set the scene, write about the interior (a character’s inner thoughts and feelings) as well as the exterior (the outside world, the cup on the table).

Story is a natural outgrowth of character. Or, wait, another way: Story is character revealed. Begin with character. Add conflict. Stir.

Thanks.

JP

P.S. Oh, hey, by the way: Try this “Instant Story Recipe” from the englishbanana.com just for fun! Plug in the words and it writes the story for you! Uh-oh. I just realized that soon some computer is going to put me out of a job! Oh, wait. I have one thing a computer can never possess.

The Reading Feeds the Writing

I read with a pen in my hand. Mark up the pages, underline passages, use check marks and asterisks, write in the margins. It’s one of the things that makes me uneasy with library books, because I lose that activity, that physical engagement with the text.

One of the things I’ve learned about book reviews, and conversations about books, is that we all read differently. I’m a slow, attentive reader, conscious always of the writer. I love sentences more than plot, closely observed details over dramatic twists and turns. When I encounter readers, especially on the blogs, who somehow seem to ingest books, one after the other after the other, I’m amazed by the pure quantity of reading. I am also, I must admit, a little distrustful. When a reader goes from book to book to book in rapid-fire fashion, isn’t that similar to watching a movie, then another movie, then another movie? How do they keep it in their heads? Doesn’t yesterday’s movie get pushed out too soon? Where’s the reflection? The after-pause? To me, the best part of reading — the part that sticks — is all the stuff that happens when you are not actually reading.

I love those books (and films) that come back to me days later, lingering in the mind. We’ve all said it, “I was thinking about that movie we saw last week.” The best ones adhere to you, but my sense is that you’ve got to leave room for that to happen. How can that essential critical experience be possible when there’s always the next thing pressing to the front of our consciousness?

Anyway, that’s preamble. I’ve recently been getting a similar question from readers: “Can you give me any writing tips?Oy. I’ve never been real comfortable with that, though I do have my ideas and convictions. I guess I don’t like the mountaintop perch. Everyone has to find his or her own way.

But in an effort to respond seriously, to point to one thing about writing, I decided to scan a few pages from three recent books I’ve read and enjoyed. Because the reading feeds the writing. And if a book isn’t useful to me in that way, I’m generally not all that interested in reading the book. A writer has got to eat.

The first scan is from The Gathering by Anne Enright. It won the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Told in the first person, it offers a wounded woman’s singular perspective. And on every page, Enright crafts sentences that blow me away. She can flat out write.

This passage floored me. I especially liked the unexpectedness of that opening phrase, “There is something wonderful about death.”

This is from John Hart’s The Last Child:

This is probably more representative of what a page from a good book that I’ve read looks like. Again, I admired the subtlety of the final two lines, how the boy pushed memory aside by concentrating on specific details, “the man’s thick wrist, the clean, blunt nails.” It reminds me that every scene has its particulars, that as a writer imagining a scene I have to pay close attention.

The last example — and all of these are highly arbitrary, by the way, the result of taking three recent books and opening them to a random page — is from Colum McCann’s amazing (spectacular!) book, Let the Great World Spin:

Just a great piece of description expressed with a point of view. A man is about to walk into a hospital. I can see it. The comparison to the ash of a cigarette is brilliant, and that final sentence is funny, fresh. A hospital in need of a hospital. Definitely deserving of a check mark.

Overheard: “I really, really, really want a Chinese water dragon.”

Maggie is on a mission. She’s been leaving notes around the house, like this:

Due to technical difficulties, I can’t flip the scan so you can read it easily. It reads: “I love Chinese water Dragons! Maggie will take care of it very well.

She included an illustration. Hopefully it’s of a water dragon, and not a self-portrait. You can’t help but marvel at the intensity of her affection, the way a nine-year-old girl writes the word “love.”

Unfortunately, Chinese water dragons look like this . . .

. . . and supposedly need an enclosure, called a vivarium, that is, and I quote, “a min. of 6 ft long (side to side), 2-3 feet deep and 4-6 feet high to do it right.”

So it looks like we’re going to be having some hard conversations in the near future. Sigh.

This Week’s Greatest Thing Ever

I’m off to Baltimore, Camden Yards specifically, to see the Mets play the Orioles.

Every year I take a trip with my buddy from Queens. Always to see the Mets. We’ve been to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington D.C. Our big dream is San Francisco, but that can wait for a while. Last time I was in Baltimore I visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. You are supposed to leave a penny or a bottle of bourbon or something like that. Pretty sure I went with the penny.

NOTE: Found this on NPR, just to prove how a reasonable guy (me) can truly mess up his facts:

For decades, three roses and a bottle of cognac mysteriously appeared once a year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. Now a 92-year-old man claims it was all a promotional stunt aimed at preserving the Baltimore churchyard where Poe is buried. Sam Porpora, a former advertising executive, says either he or one of his tour guides would drop off the gifts every year on Poe’s birthday. Poe’s fans say only this and nothing more.

Actually, I still might be right about the penny. No time to look into it now, I’ve got a plane to catch!

In the meantime, please — oh, you must! — click on the video below, stick with it a little while, watch the drummer, and let the awesomeness flow over you. Around the 1:00 point should do it.

Funny, I own the same jacket.

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Patti Smith Commencement Speech: Direct from the Heart

I am a huge Patti Smith admirer, for many years now, but especially now after reading her fascinating memoir, Just Kids. A fabulous, uplifting book that could have been subtitled: “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman.” I’d love to hang out with her for an afternoon, or invite her to one of those miracle lunches when you can bring together a bunch of anybodys.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

She is a true deep-to-the-bone artist.

Patti Smith recently earned an honorary degree from Pratt College and gave a commencement speech, which you can see in full. I recommend that you watch it.

You can also read the full transcript here, at the Smoking Bop Gun.

The ten-minute talk is filled with great moments, here’s just one of them:

I think of this like Pinnochio, because Pinnochio went out into the world. He went on his road filled with good intentions, with a vision. He went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but he was pulled this way and that. He was distracted. He faltered. He made mistakes. But he kept on. Pinnochio in the end became himself because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.

We are all Pinnochio.

And do you know what I found after several decades of life? We are Pinnochio over and over again. We achieve our goal. We become a level of ourselves. And then we want to go further, and we make new mistakes, and we have new hardships. But we prevail. We are human. We are alive. We have blood.

For a punk rocker and a tough-minded bird, Patti still has a lovely vulnerability and sweetness to her, a purity of intent, as evidenced in this amazing clip when she sang “You Light Up My LIfe” on the TV show, “Kids Are People Too.” She always, always speaks directly from the heart.

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