Tag Archive for Upstander Preller

Pro Tips: Finding Inspiration at Home & Across the Street

Every once in a while I talk “writing process” in the hope that educators or readers might find it remotely interesting. I even include Pro Tips! Anyway, ahem, there’s two paragraphs in Upstander (Macmillan, Spring ’21), a sequel to Bystander, where I can directly trace my inspirations. One inspiration comes from artwork by my daughter, and the other is from my neighbor across the street. For our purposes, we’ll call him Bill LaDue.

In Upstander, Mary is struggling with a number of challenging issues. A minor arc is her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Ernesto. Of greater importance to the novel is her older brother’s substance use disorder, its impact on the family, as well as Mary’s shifting friendships at school.

Here’s the unedited scene, just two paragraphs that will appear in the middle of the book. I don’t think you’ll need additional setup:

On the day before her brother moved out, Mary sat in the backyard at a reclaimed picnic table that Ernesto had “rescued” from someone’s garbage pile. He did that a lot. Drove around in his pickup truck on garbage day, often returning with curbside items of questionable quality. A riding lawn mower that “only” needed a new fuel pump and starter switch; a boat that leaked; a set of ancient, rusted golf clubs; a battered ping pong table that lacked a net. He has a weakness for broken things, Mary mused. The thought sank down into her belly, like a small stone dropped into a well, and it made her appreciate Ernesto just a little more.

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it. An hour passed. Very quietly, Jonny sat down beside her. He wore pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was wet from the shower. Mary didn’t comment, but she felt surprised. He didn’t usually show much interest. Why was he here?

 

It’s important to me that even minor characters are, to the best of my ability, fully realized. It’s a source of pride, actually. Who was this Ernesto guy, dating Mary’s mother and spending time in her house? Finding the answer was deceptively simple: Make something up! After all, that’s what writers do. 

I looked across the street at my neighbor’s house, the fabulous LaDues: Bill, Erin, and Charlie. Bill is a good man, a friend, funny and kind. And he has a thing for curbside “garbage.” He’s constantly pulling over for discarded curbside items, seeing value where the original owners did not, and hauling the derelict items home. Bill’s pals gently tease him about this affliction. The boat that doesn’t float, the four riding lawn mowers all in some state of disrepair, and so on. Just today, Bill posted this on social media:

He wrote, with more than a little self-awareness:

Cleaning out the camper. I kind of feel like I absolutely need each and everyone one of these things: 2 extra sets of golf clubs, 8 or 9 coolers, a bevy of beer brewing equipment never used, 2 ironing boards (Erin’s), cushions for a hanging chair (we no longer have the chair). Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.

 

So that’s Bill. And now, because Bill lives across the street from me, that’s Ernesto, too. And as Mary comes to understand it: He has a weakness for broken things.

Yeah, that’s the key to whole character. It’s all you really need to know about Ernesto. I love him for that quality. Ernesto sees the potential, the upside, in everything and everyone. It made Mary appreciate Ernesto just a little more. And it’s something I admire about my neighbor Bill, too; he’s a romantic at heart, an old softy, bless his soul.

Mary, like my own daughter, Maggie, likes making things. She draws and paints and sews and creates. When it came time to describe one of Mary’s paintings, since that’s what she was doing in this scene, I thought of one that Maggie made last winter, which now hangs in her bedroom:

 

I guess I didn’t have to “make something up” after all!

Funny how that works.

So that’s today’s Pro Tip, young writers. Take a look around, be a sponge, soak it all up. As my neighbor Bill attests, “Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.”

Maybe writers are junk collectors, too.

 

Sisters Love Their Big Brothers: Where Ideas Come From

Authors who visit schools get asked it a lot: 

Where do ideas come from

We get asked it so often, in fact, that most of us come up with pat little answers, neat and tidy, that allow us to move on to another question. Any other question, please. 

It’s not that we’re jerks.

The problem with the question is that, well, yeah, there are a lot of problems. To truly answer would take all day and would likely entail far more excruciating detail than any listener would care to endure. You’d lose everybody in the room. When I think of young readers and delve into what they really want to know when they ask that question, I conclude in a few different ways: 1) They don’t super care, it’s just an easy question to ask; 2) They somehow believe there’s one magical idea — a eureka moment! — rather than a slow accumulation of thoughts, impressions, insights, moments; or 3) The inquirers suspect that maybe there’s a secret they don’t know about: they look at their own lives, they look at the amazing books they love, and they just don’t see how one thing could possibly add up to the other. How does the fabric of my ordinary life become something quite as marvelous as a published book? And if that’s the puzzle, I’m not sure I can conjure a decent answer.

Where do ideas come from, anyway

Well, I’m currently proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset version of my next book, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. To be clear, I’m looking at the words as they will appear in the final, printed book. It’s pretty much my last, best chance to make corrections and changes that won’t represent a giant hassle or extra expense to the publisher. In other words, if I change “swigged” to “gulped” nobody will get mad at me. 

So I’m reading the book again. Very carefully. It is about Mary, a middle school girl who played a small but crucial role in Bystander. Everyone has a story and I kept wondering about Mary’s. So I made something up. Her older brother suffers from a substance use problem. It’s about the challenges Mary faces in her crumbling home and at school with her friends and fellow students (the beginning of her friendship with Griffin, what really went on with bullying Chantel, and of course Eric, etc). But where’d that core idea come from? For starters, there’s the opioid crisis that’s been going on all around us, destroying lives and ruining families, sometimes devastating entire communities. For the moment, we’ve been preoccupied with more immediate horrors, but that doesn’t mean other problems have gone away. Ideas are all around us, as my pat answer goes. Not only that, but I think I have something to contribute to this particular conversation. The thing that every writer needs, something to say.

But I also have a specific experience in mind. I am driving my teenage daughter and two of her female friends somewhere. I listen to them talk (for some reason, they aren’t glued to their phones in this memory; lo, there’s an actual conversation!). It turns out that each of these three young woman, all fierce athletes, have something in common. They each have an older brother close in age. And without realizing it, they take turns swapping stories about these brothers — how one is on the spectrum, how another plays guitar and sings, how another is just super fun and a great friend. They laugh about the stupid things these brothers do. During that drive, one simple observation beamed into my skull: These girls absolutely and profoundly loved their older brothers. 

They looked up to them, too — with admiration, affection, pride, even a kind of awe. Maybe that’s youth, maybe that’s just the way some girls are, maybe life will get in the way over time. No matter. Because at that moment, I came away with something certain in my heart. Brothers are important and beloved.

Years passed. In a completely unrelated manner, I began to think about, for the first time, writing a sequel to Bystander, a notion I’d rejected for almost a decade. Suddenly, the time felt right. The idea was there.

I’d focus on Mary and her brother.

At least a shard of it can be traced back to that day in the car, zipping along, listening to three girls chatter about how freaking much they loved their brothers. Then I added some elements that would make that love more difficult, more painful, almost impossible.

So that’s where that idea came from. You don’t always have to travel to exotic places to find ’em.

 

 

NOTE: I have recently very much enjoyed doing book-specific Zoom visits with a Q & A format. Could be Jigsaw Jones, All Welcome Here, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, Scary Tales, The Fall, Bystander, whatever feels right for your classroom. Contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can discuss it.

 

UPSTANDER: Six Books That Helped Me Write a Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Writing a novel usually begins for me with reading. Here are six books that I’ve read, in addition to other research, to help me write my current work-in-progress.

     

               

Again, it’s like falling down a well. I could keep reading endlessly, blow deadlines year after year; the more I learn, the more there is to know. For this topic, it is truly a deep, dark well. A heartbreaking place I found hard to climb out of.

Then as a writers, at a certain point, we need to push that aside — take what we need for the story, for the characters, and start writing.

When I wrote Bystander, I came away with the feeling that I could tell a hundred different bully-themed stories. Each one different, with countless variations and permutations. You can’t say everything there is to be said; you have to make choices. Decide that this is the story I’m going to tell, and every word in it must serve that particular story. But I am always haunted by the fear of getting something wrong, or missing a critical insight, a layer of perception. I want to do a good job. 

For this book, I have a seventh-grade character whose older brother is dealing with substance use problems. He’s not the main character, but his struggles have a profound impact on the middle school-age girl, Mary, who is the featured character of the book. 

Mary O’Malley first appeared in my book Bystander. This is a prequel/sequel to that story in that it takes place along a similar time-frame — before, during, and after the events first explored in Bystander. There’s some overlap, a few of the same scenes are revisited from a new perspective, but on the whole this story stands on its own.

Working title: Upstander.

You heard it here first.

Everyone has a story. 

Any luck, look for it in 2021.