Archive for Bystander

Fan Mail Wednesday #203: In Which Kate Is Late . . . for My Birthday!

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Here comes Fan Mail Wednesday and a letter from Kate, who was late for a very important date.

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I replied:

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your kind and very well-written letter.

Before we get into the meat of your missive, let me assure you that it is never too late to wish me a happy birthday. Or, for that matter, to send an expensive birthday present. In fact, here at jamespreller.com, it is our policy to accept birthday presents up to 120 days after the deadline. If you go beyond that date, not to fear, your gift will be considered a pre-birthday gift in advance of the real one.

Just wanted to make that clear: STILL ACCEPTING GIFTS!

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Okay, back to business:

It’s hard to understand the motivations behind bullying. In general, I view people as basically “good,” and that most school-age bullying is a result of poor choices made for a variety of reasons: insecurity, anger, a desire for popularity, whatever. I don’t like to label anyone as a “bully.” Bullying is a verb, a behavior; not a noun, or a person. I have a gut reaction against labeling in general, putting complex people into little boxes. We play many roles in our daily lives: teammate, daughter, friend, students, baby-sitter, etc. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” For that reason, I don’t like to say that anyone is just a bully, because they are so much more than that, usually simultaneously.

One of the things I discovered in my research was counter-intuitive (which means, btw, “the opposite of what we might expect”). I learned that people who are bullied will often turn around to bully someone else. At first, I thought that was strange. Wouldn’t they know how it felt? Wouldn’t they be the last ones to inflict that same harm on someone else? But it turns out that the “target-bully” is fairly common dynamic. You are bullied here, so over there you turn around and bully someone else. In one area, you don’t have control over the situation — a horrible, helpless feeling — but in the next, you do gain that upper hand. Also, what does anyone do with all that anger and resentment bottled up inside? Where does it go? So the target returns home and picks on the kid down the street. Or the boy who has a rough time at home goes into school and turns the tables on someone else. Life is so complicated, we simply don’t know what others are going through. That’s why I’m reluctant to judge.

I’m glad you seem to have “gotten” the ending. I didn’t attempt to answer every question. The story is a slice of life, a moment in time. What happens next? That’s up to you to think about and debate, if you wish.

My best,

James Preller

10991132_10205999019274119_6618454603022716888_nP.S. It’s really, really cold outside. I just came back from walking my dog — and I was wearing snow shoes!

 

 

School Visits: Thank You, Virginia!

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“It was such a great day for us

that I wish he could go to every single middle school!”

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I received a kind note in the mail yesterday regarding a few school visits I made to Virginia back in October. It included the article below, where my new shirt (that I’m still not sure about) figured prominently.

Of course, I’ve done many school visits over the past 20 years. By the end of most visits, I feel like I’ve become friends with that librarian or PTA organizer — and later, of course, there’s rarely any more contact. Gone but not forgotten. The librarian who sent this note, Chris, made such a huge effort to make this trip happen for me, and for the students in her school. She simply would not be denied. I owe her so much. In the headline I wrote “Thank you, Virginia!” But what I really mean is: Thank you, Chris!

School visits are an important part of my career. They help pay the bills, most certainly. They also get me out into the world, where I meet teachers and students and, hopefully, help make a small difference in every school I visit. It’s an honor and I don’t take the privilege lightly.

Here’s the note:

Jimmy,

Here is the article about your visit to Poquoson Middle School.  It was published in the VAASL Voice, our state librarians’ magazine, and was distributed to about 1300 librarians across the state.

Your author visit has been a real highlight of our school year!

Thanks again,

Chris

And now, the article:

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Fan Mail Wednesday #202: More Questions About the Ending of “Bystander”

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This one comes via a terrific teacher I met on a school visit a year or two ago . . .

Hello, 

I am sitting with a student right now who just told me that “Bystander” is the first book that he has ever enjoyed reading. He finished it up and asked for another book by “that author.” Just wanted to give you the positive feedback! 
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Also, my students are wondering:
1) Is “Bystander” is based on a true story. 
2) Did you consider writing a different ending? 
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Cheers,
Rachel 
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I replied:
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Rachel,
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Sorry it took me a while to get back to you — and I’m even more sorry that I seem to begin every missive these days with an apology. 
 
Questions:
 
1) No, not a true story, but always elements of truth — and my real life — seem to seep into every story I write. The characters are completely made up, composites of things I’ve read and seen and imagined. For me the heart of story is always about character, character, character.
 
97803125479672) Yes, I did conceive of a different ending. To backtrack, I fully understand that the ending in the book — the one I picked — is anti-climactic. It also offends our human sense of fairness; in books & movies & in real life, we tend to prefer for the bad guy to learn his lesson or, even better, to get taken down by some form of justice. Eaten by a dragon, preferably. That kind of ending is (almost) always the most satisfying. It’s a time when, in movie theaters, we stand up and cheer. A story is, of course, artifice. A construct, a false thing conceived in pursuit of “truth,” if you will. But in this case, I really strived to stay true to life as I knew it, thus: the ending of the book. I rejected the phony ending, even when I knew that many readers might prefer it.
 
That said, sure, I played around with a different idea. The seeds of it are still in the book. Griffin has been stealing from parked cars; the police strongly suspect him; and Eric has discussed this — in the vaguest of terms — with a police officer. The ending I conjured was for Eric to somehow be involved in setting up Griffin’s fall. Griffin gets snagged by the cops and justice is served. Everybody stand up and cheer!
 
As you know, I did not write that ending, mostly because I didn’t believe it. Though, again, the seeds are there. I ultimately rejected Eric’s role in that kind of setup, but the story does suggest that Griffin is clearly on the wrong path. Trouble waits ahead unless Griffin turns things around. There’s also the possibility that I still have a degree of sympathy for Griffin, despite everything. I just didn’t have the heart to see him walk off in handcuffs. If that’s the come, it will happen later in his life.
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I should also add that I never considered the standard bully ending, where he learns his lesson and everybody hugs at the end.
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Thanks for your positive feedback and for keeping my book in your classroom library.
 
JP
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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Tyranny of Silence

When I was working on Bystander (Fall, 2009), a book that centers on bullying, I kept running across different quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. He would often express the same idea in subtle variations. In essence, Dr. King issued an indictment against the tyranny of silence, reminding us all of our responsibility to speak up. King believed in the common good. He had an abiding faith in his fellow man. If only we would all stand up and be heard, then justice and democracy and human kindness would surely prevail over cruelty and prejudice.

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That’s partly why I named the book, Bystander. Not bully. Not victim. I wanted the focus to be on the overwhelming majority of us who stand by as mute witness; and how we are, therefore, complicit in acts of cruelty, our silence a form of tacit agreement. For responsibility is nothing if not an “ability” to “respond.” That’s where we find hope for real change. In our voices.

Here’s a few relevant quotes from Dr. King:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.”

This brief, one-minute clip is from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech. He knew what was coming, he knew.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #197: Emily, Age 11, Writes an Alternative Ending to BYSTANDER

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I get a lot of great letters from readers, but this one is particularly awesome because it’s from a future author . . . who maybe already writes better than me. Rats!

 

Hello Mr. Preller,

9780312547967My name is Emily _____, age 11, and I wish to be an author someday. I read your story Bystander and loved it!  Although I didn’t like how the story ended between Eric and Griffin. I was expecting some sort of face off between them but it never happened. So, I wrote my own ending to the story. I go to school in Portland. I handed in the story into my teacher for her advice and she made a note that said (and i quote):

Emily,

There are so many great qualities in this story — wow!

  • really suspenseful and exciting
  • great phrasing description
  • believable plot

You should send this to author to read — really he will appreciate it i’m sure.

Anyway, so i decided to send it to you! here it is:

How Bystander should have ended…

It was November. A couple months have passed since Griffin and Eric interacted with one another. Griffin and his new crew ruled the halls of the school. Eric wished that if he imagined it enough Griffin would leave, but when you enter reality, it’s not something you can expect to happen.

Day by day, the boys exchange dirty looks with one another… until Eric decided to tell the  “Griffin crew,” who was boss.

“Ok, Griffin, I am going to tell you this, and I’m only going to say this once…” Eric said grabbing Griffin by the shirt.

“We need to settle this like men,” Eric spoke with rage.

“On the basketball court. If I win, you stop bullying people forever. But if you win, then I leave the school…forever.”

Griffin almost laughed.

“Really? And who would be on your team?” Griffin snickered. Eric’s face turned pale as sleet.

“I can find a team,” Eric trembled as he spoke.  A crowd of people came fast, swarming like bees. Everyone was there. Then Eric heard a voice he hadn’t heard in a while.

“I’ll be on his team!” shouted a voice. Everyone looked back to see David Hallenback standing, head held high.

“Ha-ha. Are you kidding?! Hallenback you can’t even do a push up!” Griffin teased. Eric knew he couldn’t be a bystander again.

“I’ve seen him do a pushup!” Eric lied. David’s cheeks got less red as if Eric’s words soaked up all the embarrassment.

“Well you can only have two people on your team… who would join?”

Then Griffin heard a voice that he recognized call out:

“I will,” It was Cody. Who knew someone so annoying could be so kind?

“Uhh, dude! You’re in my crew!” Griffin called out.

“I ditched you remember?” Cody said. He walked over to Eric and high fived him. It was then three on Griffin’s team and three on Eric’s team. Griffin was with, a new kid named Caiden, and tomboy named Piper. Eric was with David and Cody.

“I’m going to win this thing,” Griffin said.

“I beg to differ,” Eric smirked.

—–

It was the day of the game and everyone was there. Eric’s team started with the ball. By the time it was almost over, Eric was losing, 39 to 40. There was 8 seconds on the clock. Griffin’s team had the ball.

1280px-Basketball_through_hoopThen the horn blew. Griffin was heading towards the basket when Hallenback made a quick steal from Griffin and was heading towards the basket. 3 seconds, 2 seconds… then you could hear the most amazing sound in the world, the swoosh of the ball going into the net. Eric won. It was like Eric could walk on air.

“HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK!” everyone chanted. Griffin’s anger was boiling up more than dry ice in hot water. Let’s just say, sometime’s a fairytale can turn into reality.

Thank you for your time.

farewell,

Emily

My reply:

Dear Emily,

Thank you for sharing your alternative ending to Bystander. I’m really impressed. I feel like a stranger handed me a gift out of the blue. “For me? Thank you.”

You are such a good writer. Great action and suspense. It’s smart how your brought basketball back into the story, a tale of justice settled on the “court.” Best of all, I think, was your convincing use of dialogue. To me, believable dialogue is the key to writing compelling, fast-paced stories with lively characters. 

When I first started writing, I often got stuck writing long passages filled with interior thinking. Nobody every moved! You know what I mean? Those times when we’re trapped inside a character’s head. So he thinks and thinks and thinks, and shares with the reader lots of interior thoughts. But on the page, that can get boring very quickly. Nothing happens. It took me years to learn a lesson that you already instinctively know: get characters talking to each other, create conflict . . . and get out of the way! I guess it’s obvious, really. Good writing does both, it goes inside and outside. It’s important to get inside a character’s head, at least once in a while, but in terms of showing action — that is: showing, not telling — we need to give readers a clear picture of “the outside.” You do that masterfully.

The ending of Bystander has generated more comments than any other aspect of the book. When I wrote that final scene, I realized that it might not be satisfying in the conventional sense, especially to a reader with a sense of fairness. In stories and movies, we like to see the bad day get it in the end. But my ending was anti-climactic; I did not opt for the big dramatic finish (which you accomplished so well). I went the other direction. For me, I wrote the ending that I thought was most true to the world as I understood it, even if, well, it was not a storybook conclusion. But I hear you, Emily, and you are not wrong to feel the way you do. I just wanted you to know why I wrote the ending the way I did. I followed my own idea of true.

Thank you so much for your work. And thanks, too, for your fabulous teacher who suggested that you share it with me. I’m grateful to your both. Great job all around.

I’m sorry that it took me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I could sense your eagerness for a reply, but I’ve been deep into the final stages of a book — deadlines are tough, you know — and it’s been hard for me to address my growing (virtual) pile of letters. Plus, my mother-in-law has been visiting. And, well, maybe someday you’ll understand the difficulty of that particular distraction.

By the way, I have a companion book to Bystander coming out at the end of the summer, titled The Fall (Macmillan, 2015). It’s an entirely different story, all new characters, but in it I explore some of the same themes and issues found in Bystander. It’s probably a little bit darker, a little tougher. I’m really proud of it. As a writer, you probably how that feels.

I wish you a happy holiday, however you might celebrate this wintery season. As the band Devo said, “Merry Something To You!”

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #195: Ashley Wants Scary Books for Older Readers

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Here’s an email that resulted from a recent presentation I gave to grades 6-8 while down in Virginia:

Hello, Mr. Preller,

I go to Norfolk Collegiate and you visited my school just a few weeks ago. I never got to really ask you any questions, but yet I gave you book ideas. I’m the Freddy Krueger Girl and the Bloody Mary Girl, remember? I just wanted to ask you if you ever plan to write higher level Scary Tales Books. I remember you telling me about them and I wish you wrote some for beginning high school level or a bit higher since I’m in middle school, I still have a high reading level which narrows my selections from any interesting books like yours. Also I can’t wait for your Bystander sequel to come out and i’m looking forward to any new books in the works.

The Freddy Krueger Girl,

Ashley

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I replied,

Ashley! 

Thanks for your note. I very much enjoyed my brief visit to Norfolk Collegiate. That was grades 6-8, I believe.  Of course I remember you.  How many “Freddy Krueger Girls” do you think I meet? 
 
scooby_doo_1_110562I think writing a scary story for older readers would be great fun. In my current series, as you know, I try to be responsible to younger readers. I want to scare them, but I am not looking to traumatize anybody. I’m not seeking to drive 9-year-old readers into the sanitarium, locked up in a rubber room. So I mostly focus on entertainment, building suspense — the knot that twists and twists. I make sure that each story is safely resolved, and nobody gets hurt. At the same time, it’s not Scooby Doo — where the ghost is usually just a portly janitor dressed in a sheet — but it’s not truly horrifying, either. I try to straddle that middle zone of scary . . . but not too scary.
 
I sometimes joke on visits with elementary school students, “I’m sorry, but no one gets murdered in these stories. And I’m sad to inform you that there are no gory scenes with blood gushing out all over the place.”
They politely try to hide their disappointment.
 
All of which makes me think that it would be liberating to write a story for older readers like you where there were no rules. Where I could say, “Well, in fact, teenagers get murdered and there’s blood all over the place! It’s delightfully gory!”
 
Wouldn’t that be swell?
 
Thanks for your letter.
 
JP
 
P.S. Thanks for your interest in the quasi-companion book to Bystander, titled The Fall. It’s due out in August, 2015 — I think! As I said before, it’s not truly a sequel, but it does address many of the same themes from a different, slightly darker perspective. 

Poster In the School Lobby . . . and a Quick Memory of Craig Walker

Here’s a quick snap of a poster in the lobby of our local middle school:

 

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Since the time I wrote Bystander, I’ve been invited into many middle schools. Often the funds for my visits have come out of a school’s “anti-bullying” budget, or some similar cookie jar. After a series of sensational tragedies involving bullied children became public, various government agencies got involved. Legislation was passed, and many schools attempted to address the core issues.

They felt compelled to . . . do something. Or in the most cynical reading possible, administrators at least recognized the need to protect themselves from lawsuits. A kinder and generally more accurate take is that the extra attention, the extra funds, gave the good people in those schools the opportunity to do something meaningful, to make a difference in the lives of these young people. They care. Because I’ll tell you, I’ve met the best of these folks, I’ve spent time with them, and I am awed by the goodness in their hearts — their motivations and intentions. I’m honored to play a small role in their larger mission.

Witness the flowering of hundreds of bully-prevention programs throughout the land.

At the same time, yes, I know there are teachers who roll their eyes, check the clock, and wonder when they can get back to teaching. There’s a curriculum to be covered and, ultimately, tests to be given, results to be measured.

On the whole, not perfect, it’s a multi-faceted issue, and we’re all trying to figure it out. But a good process, I think.

I’ve seen that the more progressive schools have gradually moved on from that narrow (and sometimes too negative) focus to address the larger issues covered under the umbrella of “Character.” I’m glad about that.

Best of all, I am seeing a greater emphasis on kindness.

Wedding, Walker 2My old pal, Craig Walker, used to joke that everything you ever wanted to know about love was on the Supremes “Greatest Hits” LP. And by that he meant, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that anybody can possibly say on the topic. There will be no new revelations forthcoming. We’ve heard it all already, and so often that it comes out like a tired cliche. No, you can’t hurry love. And you do keep me hanging on.

220px-Supremes_Greatest_HitsWhen it comes to the bad behavior associated with bullying, we can ask those involved, “How would you like it?” “How would it make you feel?” And maybe we can say something about doing unto others. Or being kind. Or a dozen other fairly obvious things that remind us how to be a good (read: caring, compassionate, thoughtful) person in this world. We can also tell them, in clear language supported by real consequences, that bullying is unacceptable.

I do believe that it’s part of every school’s mission to reinforce these messages, every day, in a thousand small ways. I’m glad that sign is in our lobby. It’s a minor thing, sure, easy to dismiss or ignore, but it’s still a signal amidst the noise. A lighthouse visible from the stormy sea.

All and all, not a terrible question to ask ourselves before we act, speak, or post:

Is it kind?

Fan Mail Wednesday #189: Flowers from Canada!

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Here at James Preller Dot Com, we’ve never felt constrained by outmoded, tedious concepts such as, ahem, days of the week. Oh brother, please. It’s always Fan Mail Wednesday in our generous hearts!

Here’s a really kind note sent from Prince Edward Island in Canada, a land where even the bacon is Canadian!

Dear Mr. James Preller,

I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for the creation of your young adult novel Bystander.  Not only do I appreciate the sensitivity and humanity displayed within the text, but you also manage to infuse humor.  It might make you smile to know that my grade seven students honestly plead with me to share another chapter during our read aloud time.

9780312547967I was a bit apprehensive at first as I read about Eric’s life back in Ohio prior to the separation of his parents. I was nervous that students would become emotional charged or upset as Eric spoke of how is family had “fractured.” I was worried that this would trigger a sense of loss or sadness as this is such a common experience for many young people.  If anything, students connected to his disappointment and confusion during a tumultuous time.  I was pleasantly surprised to witness how students empathized with Eric and Rudy. We spoke about empathy and how we all handle stress and grief in different ways.

In closing, I just wish to say thank you once again.  You can never know how far your words may travel, but may you celebrate the fact that they have touched the hearts of students in my grade seven English class. Thank you for your time and if you ever find the time to reply, I know that my students would be positively thrilled.

Sincerely,

Stacy, Prince Edward Island, Canada

I replied:

Stacy,

My goodness, wow. The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.” That you don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying something nice to him, or about him.

I really appreciate receiving that good news. It was an exceptionally kind note of you to write. (Though I’m not entirely sure those two previous sentences were shining examples of “good” English, but, hey, let’s keep things loose for now.)

photo-19Yesterday I handed in the 2nd and final revision of my next hardcover (July, 2015), titled THE FALL. It’s not a sequel to BYSTANDER, and it might be one step tougher, but it does address many of the same ideas and themes as that previous book. After some group bullying behavior, there’s a tragic result. The story is told entirely from the point of view of one of the boys who engaged in those misguided acts of cruelty. Now he has to own it, what he did & didn’t do.

My best, and again, thank you!

JP

And Then There Were 5 (Plus a Few Words About an Upcoming Hardcover)

The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised — now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.

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I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.

As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.

The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:

Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”

(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)

It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.

Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!

 

Incoming: Revisions!

I got a big package in the mail yesterday . . .

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This bit, four real books, finally published, represents a final payoff. It’s done, it exists. There’s also something a little, I don’t know, deflating about it. An ending. Now it will go out into the world, probably to be largely ignored. That might sound a touch maudlin, or even self-pitying, and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the business these days. So many books don’t make it, even the good ones. It can be disheartening. And, yes, scary.

Hey, check out my new shirt . . .

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Cool, right? I love it.

And lastly, most exciting of all, came the editorial revisions for my upcoming book, THE FALL, a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I try to enter the process of revisions with an open mind and an open heart. I trust my editor, Liz Szabla, and endeavor to deeply consider all of her comments, thoughts, suggestions. This is a new opportunity for me to try to make this book better than ever. That involves, sometimes, letting go of old ideas, favorite sentences. It means stepping back — to truly re/vise, to see again — and, well, take another whack at it.

In a moment, the sound you’ll hear will be that of a writer rolling up his sleeves.

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