Archive for Bullying

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #233: In Which an 8th Grader Offers Some Writing Advice, i.e., “I don’t want to be rude or anything . . .”

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Meet Rebecca. She’s everything I love about middle schoolers — the intellectual curiosity, the spirit, that sense of becoming — and more:
 
​Good afternoon Mr. Preller,
Hi. I don’t necessarily know about you and your books much; I wouldn’t really call myself a dedicated reader to you in particular because, to be 9780312547967perfectly honest with you, I picked up ‘Bystander’ a few days ago and am just now getting into it. So far, it is a really good book that I believe is addressing a great topic. Your books, like it explains on your blog, is written for grade schoolers to middle schoolers. I am currently in 8th grade [ed note: school and town deleted] in Missouri. I’m well aware that this may so far seem that I’m trying to get you to come to my school or something or other, but I’m really not. I just wanted to say, I love how you are writing these books for children of all ages with such serious topics. It’s really great that a man like you is spreading the word through a book that is going around so quickly to such a widespread audience. Blah, blah, blah, I know you must get this a lot.
 
Me, being an aspiring author, I just wanted to give more of what I might think have/will impact the book or future books you write. I understand you are an actual author who I am currently emailing my 8th grade opinions to, and I know that you probably may never read this, but it doesn’t hurt to try. If you’re planning on writing any more books, which I hope you are, you could put more in the first person. I, personally, think ‘Bystander’ would be better as a first person novel. With the whole bullying topic of the book, you would get more out of Eric, the main character, as if the book were in his perspective. Don’t get me wrong I’m not dishing the book, but showing grade schoolers that there’s more than just the third person writing they have always been seeing could increase their tastes in reading and help them develop a future of late nights finishing lovely books, like yours.
 
I’m well aware that you can’t change a book that you’ve written already, but maybe for the future?
 
Keep on Rocking,
Rebecca 
 
P.S. I am so super sorry about how this may seem. I don’t want to be rude or anything; that is not the purpose of this email. You are a great author and I wish to become someone like you in my future. Don’t ever change without your own permission. Thanks.
I wrote back:
 
Rebecca,
 
Thanks for this most awesome of emails. Believe me, I don’t get emails like yours all that often. You’re an original. And by the way, I’ve actually never — weirdly — been to Missouri. So I’m open to an invitation.
 
THE FALL explores similar themes as BYSTANDER, but shifts to a first-person POV. Readers might enjoy comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of those choices in perspective.

THE FALL explores similar themes as BYSTANDER, but shifts to a first-person POV. Readers might enjoy comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of those choices in perspective.

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.

 
For Bystander, though I wrote it in third person, I decided to hug very close to Eric’s point of view (a limited omnipresence, if you will); I didn’t go for a full omniscient POV, bouncing around inside a variety of skulls. On the other hand, I recently had an idea for a book that would be told from multiple perspectives. A lot of characters at the same event. So to me, the way we decide to tell the story is a revelation of the story itself. At the same time, you could tell that story from third- or first-person perspectives. Decisions, decisions. 
 
Illustration from SWAMP MONSTER by Iacopo Bruno.

Illustration from SWAMP MONSTER by Iacopo Bruno.

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?

 
I didn’t write a sequel to Bystander, but I did write a companion book that explores many of the same themes and ideas, titled The Fall. It is written in the first person, with the concept being that it is entirely told from the perspective of a boy writing in his journal. Booklist reviewed it, “A rare glimpse into the mind of a bully . . . . Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.
 
Keep reading like a writer.  Books are truly the best education for anyone who wishes to write. Read widely, read deeply, read often. And yes, thank you for reading my book.
 
James Preller
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And so Rebecca replied:
 
Mr. Preller,
 
Hi again! I honestly did not expect you to reply so quickly, let alone at all. And I would love to thank you for answering my question, even reading this email is an extraordinary honour. I love the way you worded this to explain why you decided to write your book this way, I mean, you are a well known author.
 
A quick plug for my new book, THE COURAGE TEST. It's a literary road trip along the Lewis & Clark Trail and, yes, there's a bear, both metaphoric and literal.

A quick plug for my new book, THE COURAGE TEST. It’s a literary road trip along the Lewis & Clark Trail and, yes, there’s a bear, both metaphoric and literal.

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.

 
As for your other book, ‘ The Fall’, I would love to get my hands on it. The way you handle this topic is absolutely phenomenal.  You wrote ‘Bystander’ so well that I will surely enjoy reading way more of your delightful books. Thank you, once again, sir and I’ll have to work on that invitation.
 
Yours Truly,
Rebecca
 
(By the way: I could not believe it in class today when I powered up my laptop, accessed gmail, and saw your name pop up. I freaked out in class, turning into a mad woman, full of hysteria, tears rolling down my cheeks. I was so gosh darn excited to read whatever it was you took the time to write. You are truly inspirational!)
 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #220: “If You Don’t Like It, Write Better”

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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 . . .

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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 . . .”

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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.

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

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.

James Preller

 

Teachers: Passing Along This Conversation Starter About Bullying

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I Took the “Page 69 Test” for THE FALL

I was recently invited to take the “Page 69 Test” for my new novel, The Fall. Since I rarely get invited out, I put on my best slacks & my cleanest dirty shirt, and decided to give it a shot. The idea is simple. You turn to page 69 of your book and discuss how it is (or isn’t!) representative of the rest of the book. I was also asked if it would encourage a reader to keep reading. One would hope so.

Here’s the link to the site, which is part of the “Campaign for the American Reader” initiative, where you can find many other examples from a wide range of authors.

And here’s what I wrote:

12000905_679002038902805_5407176596026301396_oThe conceit for The Fall is that a boy, Sam, is writing in his journal. He’s reflecting upon the events of the past year, piecing together the narrative entry by entry, writing about events which led to the tragic death of his secret friend, Morgan. I write “secret” because that’s one of the book’s themes, one of identity, and of owning one’s own actions. The things we did and didn’t do. The footprint we make in the snow.

My editor at Macmillan, Liz Szabla, made the decision not to have the book over-designed; to my pleasure, the book is straight-forward. We didn’t jump through hoops to make it look like someone’s faux-journal. There is on some pages a fair amount of white space, and that’s the case in this instance.

On page 69, Sam basically fails to write. The page is nearly blank. He does write, “I need … I need … I need … something.” There’s a bit more, but that’s essentially it for page 69: It conveys, I hope, Sam’s struggle and failure to write. The idea is that he’s promised himself to try to write in that journal each day, focusing on Morgan, for at least fifteen minutes. Some days are better than others, and on this day nothing comes easily for Sam. This page, this emotion, directly follows upon the events and feelings of the previous pages, so my intention is for the reader to “get” why Sam can’t write that day. Will the reader be curious enough to keep reading? I sure hope so. Part of the book’s appeal is in the format, it’s loose and easy, and it zips along at a swift pace. Some pages include poems and snippets; others offer more traditional, expository narratives. He tells the story in a variety of ways. There’s no reason to stop reading. The craft is in the slow accumulation of detail, the sedimentary layering of thoughts and feelings, as readers slowly learn more about Sam’s role in Morgan’s life and death. The things he did and didn’t do. His footprint in the snow.

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For more reviews and information about The Fall, you can stomp on this link with both feet while shouting loudly, “Cowabunga!”

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #213: A Long, Thoughtful Letter from a Reader in the Republic of Korea

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It’s summer and I’ve put the blog into idle. Just puttering along, blowing white smoke, probably burning oil. Been neglecting everybody’s favorite feature, “Fan Mail Wednesday.” But I had to share this one from Dain, who wrote from Incheon in the Republic of Korea.

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Dain followed up with an email, worried if his letter had arrived. It did, and I’m sending my reply via snail mail next chance I can get to the post office. I would have done it sooner, except that it requires that I get out of my pajamas. In the meantime, here’s the electronic version.

First comes Dain, who writes with neat, precise handwriting, then my reply. That’s how it works here at James Preller Dot Com!

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I replied:

 

Dear Dain,

Thank you for a spectacular letter. I would give my right arm to have neat handwriting like yours. (You should know, of course, that I’m a lefty; I’m not that crazy.)

I appreciate your thoughtful reading of Bystander. I respected your admission: “I was a bully, a victim, and also a bystander.” I think that’s true for many of us, at least in brief flashes of our lives. I can certainly identify with the role of each character in the story. We are all flawed in some respects.

To answer your questions:

When it comes to Griffin’s punishment, I saw this as a closed system between the young people, so there wasn’t ever going to be a “punishment” from an authority figure. It is a story without justice. To me, that’s true to life. It doesn’t often come wrapped neatly in a bow.

By making Griffin’s father a violent person, I wanted to highlight the vicious cycle of violence. That while we must all be responsible for our own actions, research shows that there is a connection between the “target” and “bully.” Often when someone is a victim of violence in his or her life, that same person will turn around and bully someone else. At first, that infortmation didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t a victim be the last person to bully someone else? But thinking deeper, I thought: Of course, they are powerless in one area of life. And what are they going to do with all that hurt and anger? It has to spill out somewhere. So it began to make more sense. In the book, it is not an accident that on the day after Griffin is given a black eye by his father, he acts angry and cruel toward David. “Let’s play pretzel.”

Thinking about this topic, and researching it, I quickly realized that I could write a hundred different stories that approached bullying in different ways. No single story can provide a complete picture. For this one, my focus went to the bystander, the witness, because I think that best represents the majority of us -– and that’s where the ultimate power is, and therefore the hope for positive change.

Martin Luther King’s great quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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You might be interested to know that my new book, The Fall, coming out in September, approaches many of these same issues from the perspective of a boy who gets involved in cyber bullying with tragic results. The thing is, he’s a good kid who makes some bad choices. For me, as I wrote I discovered that the story was leading me to the importance of this character “owning” his actions, and ultimately to the essence of forgiveness. So, yes, I was nodding in agreement when you wrote in your letter about the importance of repentance.

Listen, Dain, thanks for patiently waiting several weeks for your reply. I very much enjoyed your letter -– all the way from Korea! -– and I wish you all the best.

Your friend,

A very impressed . . .

James Preller