Tag Archive for writing Bystander

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #171: Ten Questions and Answers (Mostly About My Book, BYSTANDER)

Okay, I’m reaching my arm deep into the giant barrel of letters I keep here in my office . . . I’m swirling my hand around . . . and what’s this? . . . an email from Virginia!
How’d that get in here?
Thanks so much for coming to our school today. The students were very excited, and as an English Teacher let me personally thank you for writing a book (BYSTANDER) that interested 7th graders. Many a day, the students wanted to continue past the points I stopped to know what was coming next. All students were able to participate in discussions. On that note, my students had some questions I’m hoping you can answer when you have a moment. Thanks again.
1. When was your first book published and how old were you?
2. How long did SIX INNINGS take to write?
3. What had been your favorite book and why?
4. Is there going to be a movie for BYSTANDER?
5. What advice would you give to young writers?
6. What made you decide to be an author?
7. How long did BYSTANDER take to write?
8. Was Eric’s dad really in the crowd at the end or was that wishful thinking?
9. What is the premise of your next book?
10. Who was Eric based upon?
I replied:
1. I published my first book in 1986. I was 25 years old. It was titled MAXX TRAX: AVALANCHE RESCUE! It sold more than one million copies. I signed a bad, flat-fee contract and earned only $3,000 from the book. No royalties. I’m not bitter! That was 27 years ago. Water under the bridge. I’ve forgotten all about it! Really!!!
2. Hard to remember, but probably about 3 months to reach a finished first draft. Revision was tough on that one, because I had to cut 10,000 words. I guess I wandered down a lot of side paths and needed to get back on the main road, or what I think of as the “through-line” in the narrative. The early draft had too many digressions, I needed to stick closer to the game.
3. I never think in terms of favorites, but I really do love the character of Jigsaw Jones.
4. There are no plans for a movie, but — ca-ching! — that sure would be awesome.
5. Writers come in all shapes and sizes. Everybody has stories that no one else can tell. You need to read a lot — and read, at times, slowly, critically, with the mind of a writer. Rather than getting totally caught up in the story, try to become aware of the writer behind the words, the choices, the decisions, the words and their effects. Also, obviously: Spend time writing.
6. The dream took shape in college. Growing up, I wasn’t one of those kids who loved going to library.
7. I researched BYSTANDER for a couple of months, visiting schools, talking to experts, reading widely. The writing, which took four months, grew out of that.
8. That’s wishful thinking. Look at the words on the page. “All the while quietly hoping — in that place of the heart where words sputter and dissolve, were secret dreams are born and scarcely admitted . . .”
9. The book I’m writing now returns to some of the themes in BYSTANDER, but is sympathetic to “the bully.” For me, I don’t like to label young people as any one thing, especially as a “bully.” Bullying is a behavior, not a thing. It can’t possibly define a person. I’m looking at it from that perspective.
10. Eric is not based on anyone in particular. I see him as witness, observer. He’s new in town, so the reader meets the characters in school at the same time as Eric.
Thanks, I loved visiting Virginia and I hope to make it back again someday soon. I didn’t get to eat in every restaurant in Richmond on the last trip.

Bystander: Chapter 2 (and some thoughts on adverbs)

Click here in case you missed Chapter 1 a couple of weeks back — that is, I mean, if you want to. And don’t worry, there are 34 Chapters in the book; I’m not going to give away the entire thing.

One note about craft: I made it my mission to eliminate adverbs, particularly where it concerned dialogue. It’s interesting to me how that rigor affected tone, helped give it a  lean directness. It even affected the chapter titles, which are all one word in length: ketchup, school, slander, friend, shiner, locker, threat, etc. The narrator doesn’t often explain what characters are thinking, doesn’t intrude. There it is, this is what they are doing; good dialogue delivers the meaning without ornamentation. Let the reader figure out the whys and wherefores. Removing adverbs also forces you to demand more of your verbs; it forces you, I think, to write better. When it comes to dialogue, I favor “said” in most cases. Again, that conscious choice is about invisibility — the writer getting out of the way. So when Eric thinks at the end of the chapter, No choice at all, he doesn’t think it “immediately” or “sadly” or “angrily” or “remorsefully” or “suddenly.” He just thinks it.

On a side note, I recently finished a book for a different publisher where a copyeditor kept trying to insert adverbs into the final revise. And I kept hitting delete, delete, delete. Don’t get me wrong. The copyeditor helped in many ways, suggesting improvements throughout. I’m grateful for the help. But adverbs in dialogue? Almost always the answer is no, no, no.



THEY CAME SOON AFTER, AS ERIC HAD GUESSED they might. Four of them on bicycles. Three boys and a girl.

Eric was alone on the court, standing at the foul line. He dribbled twice, caught the ball in both hands, feeling for the lines of the ball with his fingertips. Foul-shooting was a ritual, a practiced set of precise patterns. He took a deep breath, blew the air out, bent his knees, eyes fixed on the rim. Elbow up and out, wrist flicked. The ball shivered through the mesh. Perfect.

The hunters came from around the far side of the big brick building. They weren’t pedaling hard, didn’t seem in any big hurry. They were talking and laughing as they rode, glancing around, the trail gone cold. Eric retrieved the ball and stepped back to the foul line. He glanced behind him, in the direction where the ketchup-boy had fled. There was no sign of the boy; he had vanished like a ghost among the tombstones. That left just Eric. And now the bike-riders were headed his way, four sailboats fixed on a distant shore, tacking this way and that in zigs and zags, but surely aimed toward the boy on the court in red basketball shorts, white new kicks, and a sleeveless tee.

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

The other three stayed on their bicycles and slowly circled the perimeter of the court, riding behind Eric and then back around and around, the noose of their circle drawing tighter each time. They, too, said nothing, as if content to wait for instructions.

Eric wondered if something bad was about to happen. And he wondered, too, if there might be anything he could do to avoid it. A part of him watched the scene unfold as if he wasn’t in the middle of it, as if it was in a movie or something, as if he watched from an overhead camera, the cyclists circling like vultures around a carcass.

“You didn’t see anybody come by here, did you?” the boy asked.

“Looks like a French fry,” a skinny, hatchet-faced boy added. He laughed, and the third boy joined in. Eric glanced at them, avoiding eye contact, then turned to look directly back at the leader, the one who had asked the question.

“I’ve been shooting around,” Eric explained with a shrug. “I didn’t really –-“

“Nobody, huh,” the brown-haired boy said, sliding off his bike and dropping it carelessly to the ground. He didn’t look that big or that strong, but he moved with an easy confidence. There was toughness there, a hardness beneath the long lashes and full lips. The boy held out his hands, clapped once. Said, “Let’s see that ball, huh.”

Eric didn’t hesitate. He made a sharp bounce pass to the boy. “Sure, here,” he said, as if there was nothing he wanted more than to hand over his ball to this stranger.

The other two boys deposited their bikes on the grass. The girl –- with a high, round forehead and straight blond hair parted in the middle –- remained seated on her bike, wrists dangling over the handlebars, silently watching.

“You new around here?” the boy asked. He dribbled the ball a little awkwardly, his skills unrefined.

Eric nodded. Yes, he was new. Eric sensed that he’d have to be careful; this encounter could go either way. It could turn out okay, or go very bad. Threat hung in the air, though no one had said or done anything wrong. It was just a feeling Eric got. A knot in his stomach.

The boy turned to the hoop and took a shot that clanged off the metal backboard and bounced away. He grinned and shrugged, eyes smiling. “I’m not really one of those basketball guys,” he explained. “My name’s Griffin. Most everybody calls me Griff.”

“I’m Eric.”

Griffin gestured toward the school building. “You gonna go to school here? What grade you in?”

“Yeah,” Eric answered. “Seventh.”

“Lucky you.”

One of the other boys, the heavy, raw-knuckled one, snorted, “You any good at homework? We could use somebody to do our homework.”

The hatchet-faced boy laughed. His large front teeth protruded slightly, and his black hair was limp and ragged. Eric instinctively disliked him. Weasel, he thought.

Griffin smiled at Eric. “Don’t pay any attention to these guys,” he said. “They think they’re funny. Anything for a laugh, right, Cody?”

The ugly one, all beaked nose and buckteeth, blew a bubble and let it burst. “Good times,” he chirped. “Good times.”

“I feel sorry for you,” Griffin said to Eric. “You move here — and all we’ve been trying to do is figure out how to break out of this place!”

Griffin had a way about him, a certain kind of natural leadership that Eric respected. Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning. Eric felt almost envious; Griffin seemed to possess a quality he lacked, a presence.

“So, tell us,” Griffin continued, commanding the court. “Why did you move here?”

“Well, it wasn’t my idea,” Eric confessed. “My parents . . . sort of . . .”

He trailed off. Better keep that part to himself.

“You don’t talk a lot, do you,” Griff noted.

Eric tilted his head, shrugged, embarrassed.

“He’s a shy boy!” the big one squealed.

“Shut up, Drew P.,” Griff said. “Get me that ball, will ya?”

And Drew P. got him the ball.

“Droopy, Droo-pee,” Cody chimed in a mocking, singsong voice.

“Get a life,” Droopy snapped back.

Griffin shook his head, as if the dialogue disappointed him. He explained to Eric, “His name is Drew Peterson. The other day we started calling him ‘Droop’ and ‘Droopy.’ Get it: Drew P.” Griffin smiled. “I don’t think he’s crazy about it.”

Eric didn’t respond, just listened and nodded.

Griffin weighed the ball in one hand. “You mind if we keep this?”


“The ball, Eric,” Griffin said. “You don’t mind if I keep it for a while, do you? As a souvenir?”

“Yep, yep, yep!” Cody chirped.

Eric started to answer. “I, um –-“

“Um . . . what?” Griffin interrupted, his face a mask now, hard to read. “You think maybe you have a choice?”

The two other boys moved a little closer to Eric, one on each side. They seemed to grow in stature. A little taller, a little fiercer, the way a dog looks when its hackles are raised.

Eric did the math. Three against one, not counting the girl. She wasn’t doing anything, just standing by, watching.

No, no choice, Eric thought. No choice at all.


Excerpted from Bystander by James Preller. Copyright © 2009 by James Preller. Published in 2009 by Feiwel and Friends. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

What Is a Smile If Not a Baring of Teeth?

The end of summer? Oh, let’s call it the beginning of autumn.

I’m excited to embrace the daily routine, my kids at school while I quietly hum along downstairs. We break out the sweaters, play soccer and baseball, rake leaves, build fires in the backyard, clean the gutters one last time, throw an extra blanket on the bed.

Blog-wise, I’m eager to get going on a lot of projects. I want to start talking about Bystander in earnest, background stories and such. That begins today, below. Honestly, I have notes for dozens of potential topics. I want to attempt a series of posts on “How to Plot a Mystery,” since so many teachers seem to work on that in the classroom. I’ve found some amazing videos to share, want to talk about books I’ve recently read (The Grapes of Wrath, In Fed We Trust, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?, Columbine, Swordfishtrombones, The Hunter, etc.), so many things to discuss!

Anyway, a cyberpage has turned. I’m energized and enthusiastic. I’m finishing a manuscript this week and starting another immediately.

Let’s talk about smiles . . .

I began my work on the book that would become Bystander by hanging out in the local library with a composition notebook. At the top of the first page of that notebook I see that I copied a line from Michael Connelly’s  Echo Park: “What is the bad guy up to?” I was excited. After writing 30-plus Jigsaw Jones mysteries for younger readers, I finally had a bad guy. It wasn’t going to be all benign misunderstandings and well-intentioned foul-ups; here, I had a character with potential for real darkness.

I see that I was reading Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, by Jonathan Kellerman. A powerful, disturbing book that looks at antisocial youth, from aggressive bullies to cold-hearted killers.

And right there on that first notebook page I started a list of potential “bully” characteristics. I wrote:

Smart, charismatic, charming, popular, superior, tortures animal?, trouble with police?, lights fires, COLD, raised by grandmother?, non-compliant, poor grades, not affected by discipline, causes fear, lucid, psychopathic?, free of angst, free of insecurities, (later, when caught, self-pity), preternaturally CALM.

I was in the first stages of character development — and for me, I’m at my best when character evolves into story, as opposed to plugging character into plot. That is: character first. With my focus exclusively on this “bad guy,” I even came up with a potential book title: Predator.

It became important to me that my main antagonist, Griffin Connelly, was divorced from the bully stereotypes we often see in books and movies. You know, the bully as gross coward, unlikeable lug, dim-witted brute, dirty, ugly, unpopular. It simply wasn’t realistic, and by turning bullies into  one-dimensional characters, we surrendered much of the complexity (and difficulty) of the topic (and story).

A quick plea: There’s a tendency to slot any topical book, such as this, into the bibliotherapy shelf. But Bystander is a story, a page-turner with thriller elements that a biased Jean Feiwel called, “Unputdownable.” It’s not a thesis paper. It’s a good, fast read. I hope boys find it.

Whew. I see that I’m letting this post get away from me, because I’m trying to talk about too much. So I’ll get specific:

I wanted Griffin Connelly to be  a great-looking kid, with charm and verbal dexterity and a great smile. He would be, in every sense of the word, attractive. All the surfaces would shine. The ugliness concealed.

His smile was one of the keys to his character. But what is  a smile if not a baring of teeth? The smile beams beatifically, but also represents a flashing of fangs. A threat. The wolfish grin. There’s menace under the surface.

Griffin Connelly was the kind of person who would smile at you while he stuck a knife in your back. And maybe, for pleasure, gave the blade a twist. The toothy smile was the mask he wore, this master of the mixed message.

Page 7, when Eric first meets Griffin:

The shaggy-haired boy in the lead pulled up right in the middle of the court, halfway between the foul line and the basket. He stayed on his bicycle seat, balanced on one leg, cool as a breeze. The boy looked at Eric. And Eric watched him look.

His hair fell around his eyes and below his ears, wavy and uncombed. He had soft features with thick lips and long eyelashes. The boy appeared to be around Eric’s age, maybe a year older, and looked, well, pretty. It was the word that leaped into Eric’s mind, and for no other reason than because it was true.

Some random examples now . . .

Page 11:

Words came easily to Griffin, his smile was bright and winning.

Page 18:

Griffin flashed a smile, that hundred-dollar smile he could turn on in an instant. He reached out his fist. “Are we cool, buddy

Page 50:

“Mrs. Chavez!” Griffin exclaimed, smiling cheerfully. “Please let me help you with that . . .”

Page 68:

There was no way Eric could tell Griffin Connelly that story. So he told bits and pieces and white lies. Eric wondered if Griffin sensed it, the whole truth, if somehow Griffin already knew, saw into Eric’s secret heart and smiled.

Page 78:

“You want to hang out, don’t you?” Griffin asked. He smiled, put an arm around Hallenback’s shoulder.

Page 130:

Griffin winked at Eric. Then gave that big Hollywood smile, and swept the hair from his eyes.

Page 130:

“What are you going to do? Punch me?” Griffin taunted, grinning.

Page 131:

“I’ll be seeing you around, Eric,” Griffin said. His smile was like a pure beam of distilled sunlight. His long lashes blinked, his cheeks pinkened. He wore a perfect mask of kindness and light.

Page 165:

Griffin smiled wide, folded his hands together, and said in a soft voice, “We’ll see about that.”

Page 186:

Griffin grinned through the insults.


Presented in this way, it may seem a little much. But  in the context of the story, I suspect it’s unnoticed. The accumulated effect, I hope, is creepiness. Here’s a guy you can’t trust. Every threat comes with a smile. White teeth gleaming in the sunlight, fangs bared.

“My Grandma, what big teeth you’ve got?”

Don’t let that smile fool you.