Archive for The Fall

Fan Mail Wednesday #242: Letter from a Father Who Reads to His Teenage Daughter Every Night

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Today’s “Fan Mail Wednesday” is a little unusual. It’s a note from Ed, my teammate on the “Whiz Kids,” an old men’s hardball team. To date, he remains the only catcher who believes in my change-up.

 

Mighty Preller at the Bat.

Mighty Preller at the Bat.

 

Jim,
I hope you’re having a great off season. My daughter and I have a reading streak. My wife saw an article in the NYT about a father who read out loud to his daughter every night from grade 4 to her freshman year in college for at least 10 minutes. Kelsey and I decided to take on the challenge when she was in third grade. She is now a freshman at AAG . We have not missed a night. It the most special thing between us. We have read all kinds of books. We both get to make picks so I picked The Fall.


9781250090546.IN01It is a great book. As we read it I expected Kelsey to have strong opinions about Sam and Morgan and the actions of the other kids. Each night as we read the book she was very quiet and just went to sleep.


This all changed when Sam bought the jewelry for Morgan and dropped it off the tower. When I looked up Kelsey was crying. She had never done that before. At this point all her feelings about Sam and Morgan tumbled out. We had a great talk. She loved the book.

I know at times writing must be hard as you wonder who will read your book and how will it impact the reader. At our house The Fall was a perfect game. ED

 

I replied:

Ed,
Sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to respond. It’s hard to know what to say except for thank you for those kind words. It’s the nicest gift you can give a writer: 1) reading the book, and 2) saying something nice about it.
 
I remember reading about the young woman who read with her father that you referred to in your note. I think I might even have blogged about it, years ago. It’s amazing that you and your daughter have managed that same feat. I’m blessed to have (sort of) shared that experience with you, through my book.
The article was published in March 2010, written by Michael Winerip, titled "Father and Daughter Bond By Years of Reading." The daughter, Alice Ozma, eventually wrote a book about it, THE READING PROMISE: MY FATHER, AND THE BOOKS WE SHARED.

The article was published in March 2010, written by Michael Winerip, titled “Father and Daughter Bond By Years of Reading.” The daughter, Alice Ozma, eventually wrote a book about it, THE READING PROMISE: MY FATHER, AND THE BOOKS WE SHARED.

 
Thanks again,  Ed. I was moved by your letter. And I look forward to another season of baseball.
 
My best,
 
JP

GOOD NEWS: “The Fall” listed as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers at the ALA Midwinter Meeting

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Yesterday YALSA — the Young Adult Library Services Association — presented a list at the ALA Midwinter Meeting of “quick picks” that their committee believes hold special appeal for reluctant readers. I was heartened and encouraged to see The Fall make that list. Though my book is intended for middle schoolers and above, and is not strictly categorized as Young Adult, the book’s short chapters, serious subject matter, and accessible format make it suitable for Young Adult readership.

According to the YALSA website:

The Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list identifies titles aimed at encouraging reading among teens who dislike to read for any reason. 

“Our committee is very happy with the titles we selected this year,” said Chair, Dorcas Wong. “Reluctant readers will be treated to a diverse selection of intriguing nonfiction, wild adventures, twisty mysteries, and thoughtful realistic stories. We look forward to sharing these books with teens.”

I’m grateful to the committee for the honor, and for their efforts in trying to get good books into the hands of the hard-to-reach reader. Happy to play a small supporting role in that good cause. Thank you.

Click here to see the full list of books and authors.

I’m so glad to be invited to the party.

Um . . .

There’s going to be a party, right?

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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!

A Writer’s Dilemma: The Challenge w/ Cell Phones

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Let’s start by looking at this clip below. The illustrated video, created by Steve Cutts for Moby’s new song, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” is dark and disturbing. You can even watch it with the sound off, since my interest is almost entirely with the story told by the visuals.

 

 

Wow, right? A bleak look at cell phone addiction. Or maybe it’s just a slightly exaggerated look at our world?

Contemporary cell phone culture presents unique challenges to any children’s book writer. Not the phones themselves, of course, but the way in which so much of contemporary teen life is spent on those phones. A quick Google search reveals reports that claim young adults will take more than 25,000 selfies during their lifetimes. More than 93 million selfies are taken each day; and so on and so on. You get the picture.

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In that regard, cell phones must be considered central to any telling of realistic fiction. It’s where so much of their lives are played out. But, confession: that’s not the version of life I’m personally interested in exploring. Maybe this reveals me for what I am — an old guy who grew up in a time before cell phones and personal computers. Their world is not my world. Maybe it’s beyond me. And yet I’m typing this on a laptop with an Apple phone at my side.

None of this was an issue for Mark Twain or Zora Neale Hurston.

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How do writers of children’s literature deal with phones? How do we tell contemporary stories? One way, of course, would be to embrace the phone fully. Make it a central character — that’s where the drama plays out, so dive right in. That’s a legitimate approach, but feels gimmicky. I also suspect that technique would quickly become dated.
In my books, I’ve dealt with phones in a number of ways.
Here are a few:

* I recently wrote a new Jigsaw Jones, The Case from Outer Space. The characters are in second grade, so cell phones are not an issue. Nice!

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* In my “Scary Tales” series, phones present a different sort of challenge. The phone makes the world less scary. I don’t want a kid who is trapped in a cave to be able to pick up her phone and call 911. And the inverse is especially true — any sense of isolation, of disconnectedness, raises their discomfort. In I Scream, You Scream, the phones are confiscated before a thrill ride (no photos). Other times, the Wi-Fi is mysteriously down (Good Night, Zombie). I’m often trying to get the phone out of the way.

img_1992* In The Fall, a book that deals, in part, with teenage cyber-bullying, there’s no way to pretend that phones don’t exist. My characters send and receive texts, and “cell life” is inherent in the story. Interestingly, while the phones enhance our ability to connect electronically, they can also limit our real-time connections. Here’s a moment in the story when Sam recounts his second meeting with Morgan. They are both walking their dogs off-leash behind the middle school. They talk a little bit, thanks to the dogs. And then, this:

I stared at my phone, scrolled.

Morgan pulled her cell out of a coat pocket.

We stood there in awkward proximity, alone on a field, playing games with our phones. Silence drifted over us like clouds.

I pocked the cell.

“Bye,” I said.

I don’t remember if she answered me, but Morgan called to Max, “See ya, boy!”

* For The Courage Test, a father and son go on a long camping trip together. It would have been perfectly valid for them to lose a signal at different points in the story (and they do). But I still had the problem — if you can call it that — of a kid with his phone. Rather than ignore it completely, I wrote a scene where they are driving along in Montana. William is playing a game on his phone, not, to his father’s mind, fully appreciative of the landscape. They argue about the phone. The argument escalates.

He holds out his hand, gesturing for the phone.

Now, this next part is funny.

Hilarious, almost.

And it’s also incredibly, fabulously stupid, because I can be such an idiot sometimes. My father has pushed me into a corner. We are in the middle of nowhere. Wi-Fi is spotty at best. Back home, at Puckett Field, there’s an All-Star practice tonight — a practice that I’m missing, for a team I can’t play on, because my ex-dad wants to haul me across the universe. 

My right index finger pressed the button on the armrest. The window slides noiselessly down and I immediately feel it, the wind and whoosh of summer heat.

I turn and can’t resist, so with a flick of my wrist I pitch my phone out the window. 

Problem solved.

* In Before You Go, possibly my only true YA, Jude has a phone and uses it. But at the same time, I mostly write around it — to a point that might present a picture that’s somewhat untrue to life as it is currently lived. Again, it’s hard to move a story along if people are constantly staring at Youtube videos and Snapchat. Or maybe you can? But yuck.

* Picture books, where characters can be talking pigs or pogo-sticking hyenas, offer another way for a writer to sidestep phone culture. Just create an alternative world and write for very young children. Though lately I’ve seen a few picture books where kids are dealing with parents who won’t stop looking at their phones.

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* Write Historical Fiction. Set stories in a time before cell phones. The same is true for dystopian novels and science fiction. “Electricity’s out, folks, you’re going to have to talk among yourselves!” Maybe that’s why we see so much of it these days?

I share these musings not because I have the answers, but because I think it’s an issue which confronts contemporary writers. Phones are awfully tedious, and people staring at phones — while super realistic: just look around! — is even worse.

What do you think? Can you think of books that dealt with phones in an innovative or effective way? In our efforts to be realistic, do we need to incorporate more phone-drama in our books? Thoughts?

The idea of writing that Civil War story never looked so good.

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!)