Archive for Bystander

Fan Mail Wednesday #244: New Thoughts on a Sequel to “Bystander”

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Here’s a letter with a familiar request, but it’s written in such a way that I’m forced to rethink my standard answer. Maybe Rowan is right. Maybe there should be a sequel to Bystander.

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Hello. My name is Rowan and I am a 7th grader at ______ Middle School. Our school recently read Bystander for our Community Read, and I LOVED it! I have read some of your fan mail on your website, and have noticed that many people have requested a sequel. Although this might not have been your original intent, I know that many people would enjoy it. I was very saddened to find out that there wasn’t a sequel, because I would really love to know more about the characters. Mary and Cody in particular. The way the book ended just left you wanting more. Even if you are not interested in a second Bystander, I would love it if you would reply with possible ideas for the second book. Thank you for your time.
 –
Sincerely,
Rowan
 
I replied:
 

Rowan,

Thanks for your email.

I appreciate your thoughts on a sequel. And you are right. Though a sequel wasn’t my original intent, maybe it is something I should consider more seriously.

My bias against sequels is that so many seem like a crass money grab, where the only motivation is to cash in on the popularity of the original. There’s got to be a better reason than that. Writing a book is a huge commitment, a lot of time & energy goes into it, you more or less live with the thing for months, and I need a deeper reason to sustain that kind of “all in” focus.

Though, hey, don’t get me wrong. Money is important, I have bills just like everybody else (and two more kids to get through college). I’m not above money — or donations if you’ve got any to spare!

Anyway, okay, I will sincerely give it more thought. I think you are perceptive, in that I slammed that door shut without ever seriously giving the idea a serious chance.

I used to answer that if I did go back to a sequel, I’d want to tell it from the bully’s POV (point of view). Because I don’t like slapping that label on anybody. We all wear many hats, “I contain multitudes,” as 9781250090546.IN01Walt Whitman said. Nobody is just a bully, just a target. So I felt there was potential for a story there, bringing out the complex dimensions in a seemingly shallow, unlikable character.

However, I feel like I did that in The Fall, which I hope you’ll take a look at. In some respects, I see it as a companion book to Bystander, or at least a complementary read. I take the so-called bully’s POV, and the story is revealed entirely through his journal entries.

But back to Bystander: You are right — again! — about Mary. I think her story is under-developed. Much of what happens with her is off-stage, as the expression goes. We hear about it, but don’t witness it. At the time, I chose to hone close to Eric and his perceptions. I’m also glad to hear you mention Cody. In fact, I believe that Mary and Cody are the two characters who change the most over the course of the book; you can see their growth; in that respect, they are the most interesting. As readers, it’s always good to look for that, the areas of change and transformation. Cody surprised me. When I started the book, I didn’t intend for him to go off in that direction.

I will say that I don’t mind it when readers half-complain that the ending to a book left them “wanting more.” It sure beats the alternative! I like movies that keep me thinking days and weeks and months after I see them. Good stories should trouble our minds that way. You want the story to live on in the mind of the reader/viewer. If it all gets wrapped up too completely, like a seal box, there’s no room for rumination.

It’s best to leave some windows open.

I promise to open my heart to the idea of a sequel. If you have ideas, I’m all ears. I pay $6 — American cash money! — for any truly amazing idea. After royalties, of course.

a-shocked-chickenThought: Maybe there’s a degree of fear involved in all this? Maybe I’m just chicken? I wrote a good book that people seem to like. I don’t want to mess that up.

I wonder if my publisher would want one? We’ve never seriously discussed it.

My best,

James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #243: From Johanna in CT

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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:

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< snip >

 

I replied:

Dear Johanna,

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.”

41m-cvcfcxl-_sx337_bo1204203200_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.

James Preller

 

WRITING PROCESS: About that Epigraph

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An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote  many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.

That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:

 

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Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”

 

I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .

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For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.

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In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

My book was about just such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.

I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:

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What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”

 

and . . .

 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,

“Anthem”

 

For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!

Six Critical Life Messages That Every Child Should Hear, by Barbara Coloroso

 

UPDATE: I originally posted this in April of 2010, as a tribute to the influence I felt from Barbara Coloroso while writing the book Bystander. In these troubling times, I felt it was time to remember her wise words, which she delivers in 90 seconds.

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In previous blog entries, I praised this book by Barbara Coloroso . . .

. . . a title that has informed, enlightened, and guided my own work as a writer, coach, and father.

She’s awesome, that’s all there is to it.

I came across this short video this morning. In less than 90 seconds, Barbara delivers a message that every teacher and parent needs to hear and remember — so that the children in our world hear those same things from us.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

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!)