I’m just going to put this here.
The wounds we inflict on our soul.
That phrase kills me every time.
I’m just going to put this here.
The wounds we inflict on our soul.
That phrase kills me every time.
I recently turned 56. That’s 8 in dog years, or time you start thinking about getting a new puppy. You know, to ease the transition. It’s disconcerting to discover that I’ve been getting a little weirder over the years. A tad stranger. Or maybe that’s just the liberation of time, of caring less what might be misconstrued, of feeling free to speak my (scattered) mind. It might be a good thing, writing-wise. Anyway, I sometimes feel a little sorry for the poor kid who sends me a beautiful letter and receives whatever I might dash back. When it comes to answering fan mail, I’m not a machine. There’s no brilliant strategy here. I just start typing and try to keep it real. For better and for, I’m sure, worse.
Here’s the opening of Johanna’s two-page letter, followed by my reply:
< snip >
Thank you for your well-written (typed!) letter.
While reading it, I found that I admired you quite a bit. Not because you liked my book. I’m not that shallow. But because your words revealed a pensive, inquisitive, open mind. An admirable brain & spirit!
I don’t know. I’m fumbling. What am I trying to say?
I’ll never forget when a friend in college said to me, in a casual, offhanded sort of way, “Oh, I learned that question yesterday.”
It struck me as funny. The idea of learning a question. Aren’t we supposed to learn answers? Figure stuff out? Know things? And now I think . . . well, yes and no. A big part of life is learning the questions. And one of the biggest is, What do I do with time here on Earth? How should I spend my days? How do I treat others? What does it mean?
I don’t think a book, or an author, or anyone else can provide us with the answers. We find those inside ourselves. We discover, we learn, we grow. And it all begins with the search -– the seeking, the quest! –- the quest/ions –- the inner desire to think and learn. You’ve got that, I could instantly sense it, and that’s a great quality to have. It’ll take you far.
Anyway, I’m sorry; feeling weirdly philosophical today. Maybe it was the tone of your letter. You seem to be the kind of person who enjoys that sort of conversation.
Oh, hey, not to turn this into a commercial, but you might also very much like my book, The Fall, which touches on some of these same themes but goes to a darker place. Check it out at your school or town library. Or hey, go buy it in paperback for $6.99 and line my pockets with gold.
I really appreciate your (deep!) thoughts, thanks.
You strike an almost apologetic tone at the end, so let me start there: Don’t be silly! Express away! As a reader, your opinion is always valid. And as an aspiring writer, you bring a writer’s perspective to that opinion. In this case, you could be right — and you certainly aren’t wrong. The question of first person compared to third person comes up for every book. There are strengths and limitations to each approach. I’ve written books from both perspectives, though I don’t think I often analyze it too deeply. It’s more of a feeling, I guess. Some books seem right from the first-person perspective — you hear it coming from a very specific voice — and you want that character front and center all the way through. In other books, well, not so much. For some books, I’ve even tried it both ways in early drafts, exploring the differences. There are certain freedoms in a third-person narrative that are not available in the first person. And also, I’ll confess, I come across so many YA novels that are written in the first person that I get very, very tired of it. The writing in a first-person book, depending upon that character, tends to be looser, more informal, the way people really talk. As an extension, that perspective limits the syntax available to language that character would believably use. With first person, there are places you can’t go.
In a scary story I recently wrote for younger readers, I needed the third person to pull it off. I wanted to write about my human characters, but later I wanted to go deep into the swamp and reveal more of the swamp monster. Part of the suspense in the story is that, for a time, only the reader realizes there’s a monster in the woods. To the three children in the book, well, they are just walking deeper into the woods. They don’t know what they are getting into — but the reader does. You see the difference there?
Third person is an art which some people can’t wrap their stories around correctly to get such personality from the characters without blatantly spelling it out. You have that talent. Sticking close to Eric’s point of view, like you do, provides the third person flare while contributing glimpses of first person to the story. I am only human though and, personally, think, still, that first person may have been a better choice, but, as you said, there are reasons why you decided this for your story. It was a calling of sorts. For example, if you were to use a first person POV for this book (or any piece of writing really) you would have less ‘tag’ lines, as I call them, to describe who was talking. Especially the main character. Having less use of words ties you down as writer and limits, as you said, how you can write your story.
While — sure! of course! — I always enjoy receiving a big, old, 8 1/2″ x 11″ envelope filled with student letters, I admit to mixed feelings. Yes, I’m grateful and honored. Yet I can’t help but recognize that this was the product of an assignment. Some letters can seem rote, and I get it. However, I recently received a particularly wonderful batch, 23 letters in all, filled with insights & curiosity & ridiculously kind words. Here’s the teacher’s cover letter and my response to the class . . .
I replied at length:
Dear Ms. Becker & Students,
Thank you for that impressive package of letters. I’ve received similar packages before, but yours was particularly outstanding for the overall quality of the letters. They struck me as authentic, rather than, say, written by a bored kid going through the motions.
And, hey, if you were a bored kid going through the motions, good job, you sure fooled me!
I’m sorry to say that I simply don’t have the time to respond to your letters in the manner that you deserve. I apologize for my one-size-fits-all reply.
Several of you asked about a sequel, and I didn’t plan on one while writing the book. I was satisfied with the ending, leaving the future for these characters up to the reader. People ask what happens to them –- and that’s a nice compliment to give a writer – but the honest answer is that I don’t know. Or more to the point, I never got around to making up those stories. Books have to end somewhere, or else I’d be writing about Mary’s grandchildren.
Even so, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”
Jessica asked if anyone helped me with the story: Yes, my editor, Liz Szabla, was particularly important with this book. Mostly her help was in the form of conversations. We talked about the ideas, our own experiences, things we’ve seen and felt. She didn’t really inject herself into the writing of the book -– she left that up to me – but she was a great sounding board. In life, it’s essential to have that person who says to you, “I believe in you. Go for it.” For this book, for me, that person was Liz.
Philip asked if I have “a secondary job in case book writing fall through.” That kind of made me laugh, while giving me a minor heart attack. Do you know something I don’t know? Philip even included a bonus scene, where I could glimpse a future adventure for Eric. I liked it; nice work. BTW, Philip, to answer your question: No, I don’t. And some days it scares me silly. No kidding.
Some asked about Eric’s father and how he might figure in the book’s ending, or, I should say, an alternative ending for the book. If you go to my blog and search, “My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER,” you’ll get the background story about Eric’s father. It’s not a tale with a happy ending, I’m sorry to say.
Many of you said really, really kind things to me. I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. In particular, Alyssa, thank you! Paige and Grace and Katelyn and Toby, you guys, too. The truth is, this can be a hard business sometimes. It’s not easy to make a living. It’s not easy to be rejected, or suffer poor sales, or watch a good book go out of print. I am often filled with doubts and uncertainties. There are times, especially recently, when I feel like a failure. Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as “moderately talented.” Nothing great, you know? Oh well. But this is what I do, what I love, and I have to keep working at it. I have a Post-It note on my computer that reads: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WRITE BETTER.” That’s what I’m trying to do.
I just wrote a book about a father and a son traveling along the Lewis & Clark trail. It’s a genre-bending blend of nonfiction and fiction, a story of family, a wilderness adventure –- whitewater rapids, an encounter with a bear –- and, I hope, a quest for the real America. The book, titled THE COURAGE TEST, should be out in 2016. After that, I wrote a pretty wild story that’s set in the not-too-distant future. And, yes, there are zombies in it –- but it’s not their fault! I’m also trying to write haikus, making a small study of them, because I’ve got the seed of an idea. They are not as easy as they look!
The next idea is always the flame that burns the brightest, that keeps creative people moving forward -– making paintings, performing in plays, practicing the guitar, telling stories. We all have to find the thing that makes us happy. And if you are lucky enough to find it, then hold on tight.
Thank you –- each one of you – but I’ve got to get to work! I’m sorry again for not writing to you individually. Thanks for understanding.