Caroline Bock-BEFORE MY EYES
FISH SELL... was originally published earlier this year by the wonderful Washington Independent Review of Books...but I've been thinking a lot these hot summer days of my Pop and of his unorthodox real-world advice so I'm reprinting and sharing it here...
Beyond the Book
On seeing the
trade paperback of my book for the first time
By Caroline Bock
The cover of Before My
Eyes hasn’t changed, but the feel of it has. Grittier. I expect it to smell
I flip to the back first, as if the ending may somehow have
On the last page is an advertisement for another novel, LIE,
and I see that I wrote that, too.
I actually never forgot that I wrote LIE, my first novel.
Though sometimes it feels like I never published anything (except that poem I wrote
in third grade) — that someone else wrote all those words over all those years.
I can still remember that first poem. My father stared at it
and its “tall, towering trees” published in the school’s mimeographed newspaper.
“Toots, we got a writer in the family,” he said with his
kind of praise, expansive and vague. It took me a minute to know that he was imagining
me older, not 8 years old. Until that moment, I hadn’t particularly wanted to be
If my father were looking over Before My Eyes, he’d ask the sale price first ($9.99), and then how
many I expected to sell (a lot, maybe). And then he might ask: “Why don’t I
bring the book down to Thunderbird?” He’d sell a few for me at his flea-market table
in Florida where he sold souvenir T-shirts to Canadian tourists.
“I can’t promise you how many books I’d move, toots. I’m the
guy known for the fish T-shirts, not books. Did you ever think of slapping a
picture of a shark on any of your novels? Fish sell, toots.”
You’ll notice that there is always a mother, damaged or dead,
in my novels. I’m working on writing a mother into my next book, but I may have
to kill her off. My father raised me, and I have trouble with mothers.
I have never seen a shark or written about one. Before My Eyes is about paranoid
schizophrenia, gun violence, and the teen psyche at the end of a long, hot
summer. It is largely set at the beach, but there aren’t any fish.
Some people glance at Before
My Eyes and ask, “What age is this for?” because it is marketed as a YA
novel. I wrote it with teen characters surrounded by adults who don’t see what
is happening before their eyes. I think adults should read it first.
If you read Before My
Eyes, you’ll immediately glean that it starts near the end and moves
backward. The world is different if you think you know the answers, but you
I see the world moving forward and backward at the same
time, roots overlapping one another, the trees from my first poem. I see myself
writing in notebooks at 8 years old and today. My father is gone, dead now, but
here with me, looking over my shoulder, talking about fish.
“Fish sell, toots.”
trade-paperback version of Caroline Bock’s Before My Eyes is now available wherever books are sold.
For more about the author go to www.carolinebock.com.
Wham! Write A Story!!
(a story about a story for adults as well as kids)
Wham! Will writes. Ka-zooom!! And our hero flies off. The end.
He adds a half dozen exclamation points to his ‘Wham’!!!!!! and three more to
“I’m done,” he
says in a very loud voice. “I’ve written the greatest story ever!”
But Lara, his best friend, doesn’t agree. His story isn’t
done. It hasn’t even begun.
“Yes, it is! See I wrote ‘the end.’"
“You don’t have a beginning,” says Lara. “Where’s the ‘Once
upon a time’ or ‘it was a dark and stormy night?’”
“I have “Wham!' With an exclamation point.”
“Okay, you can start with wham! But something has to happen next. You
have to introduce the setting or the characters. Then something has to happen to the characters. Also, you’re
using a lot of exclamation points!!!”
“Exclamation points look like soldiers, and I like them. But what’s
the setting? Why do I need that?”
“Where the story takes place. The setting is also about when it
takes place. For example, does it take place now? Or in the past? Or in the
“I want it to take place here, Lara. On the page.”
“You have to take it off the page. Bring it into reader’s
mind. My mind.”
“Then, how about at school?”
“What kind of school? You have to be specific. The more details in a story, the
better the story. An elementary school? A big school? The world’s biggest
“The world’s most gigantic elementary school. A billion and
twenty-nine kids go there.”
“I’m glad I don’t go there.”
“It’s my setting,” says Will.
Lara stretched across the white sheet of paper, her
character aching to go someplace. To do something or to want something—the
story needed a plot.
“Okay, so you have the setting. Who’s in the story? Who’s
this story about? Is there a main character—other than us— that does something?
That propels all the action and stuff forward.”
“What happens next? That’s the plot. You have to ask
yourself what happens to your characters?”
Will underlines with his newly sharpened yellow pencil a
line where he says that his superhero flies off to fight the evil alien mutants,
right before ‘the end.’
“Let’s back up. Is that your main character? A superhero? Not me?”
“I don’t write books about girls.”
“Today you will, or I’m leaving.”
“I guess I could add you but only as a secondary character.”
“Forget it then. This story ends now.”
“No, wait!!! Lara!!! You can be a main character too.”
“A superhero too?”
“Yes, a superhero, too.”
“What’s my name in the story?”
“Can’t you just be Lara?”
“What’s the other superhero’s name?”
“He has a name,” said Will, clutching his pencil even
“You didn’t include it.”
“But I know the name.”
“And I only know what you write on the page, Will, and what
I read. So what’s his name? What does he look like? What is he thinking? Seeing? Touching? Feeling? Use all of your senses to describe him—and me.”
Will put his pencil down on the lined notebook paper.
“That’s okay. You are going to have to edit and revise this
story—every writer does that. But hey, tell me, what does this other hero want?
What do I want?”
“I don’t know. I never know what you want, Lara!”
“I want to save the world, of course. Ka—zooom!! Don’t all
heroes want to save the world?”
Will snatches up his pencil and scribbles that down: save
the world. Ka—zooom!!.
“What obstacles do we face? What decisions do we make? All this
tumult is about something called: Plot. We have to have stuff happen to us.
Challenges. What helps us or stops us from doing our job or getting what we
want or, in this story, saving the world? Start at the beginning, again. You
can do this. You can write your own heroes, Will.”
“Can I use exclamation points?”
“Maybe just one or two,” said Lara laughing with Will, and
with that Lara ka-zoomed off the page.
“Wham!” dashed off Will, beginning his story, again....
"Before My Eyes, by Caroline Bock, takes the reader through the last few days of summer from the perspectives of three narrators: two teens and a mentally-ill young adult. Bock skillfully weaves together the topics of schizophrenia, gun violence, family issues, and typical adolescent angst while at the same time providing a compelling story. Though the reader gets a glimpse of the book’s climax in the first few pages, the end plays out in an unexpected way when unlikely heroes emerge. As a retired Professor of Education, I believe Before My Eyes would be an excellent book for an 11th or 12th-grade English class, and since it provides a realistic portrayal of schizophrenia, it might even be a good choice for an AP Psychology class. Whatever one’s reason for choosing this book, the reader will not be disappointed."—Edmund Sass, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus of Education This summer, I "met" Dr. Sass through the world of social media. He runs a website, Educational Resources and Lessons Plans, and I emailed him about my new novel, Before My Eyes. He was driving through the small town of Bock, Minnesota, population 106, (a town I someday plan to visit!) when he received my email. And so it goes that we he read my brief note, and he agreed to review a copy of Before My Eyes.
I am amazed how we find ourselves connected to one another—and grateful.
Many people have asked me about a book club "Reading Guide" for BEFORE MY EYES, my new young adult for teens age 14 above--and adults of all ages (St. Martin's Press, 2014). BEFORE MY EYES is the kind of novel--about three fragile teens, mental illness, gun violence--that does delve deeply into complex characters and situations, provokes debate, and charges up opinions.I hope this is a helpful guide...
Towards the end of the novel, Claire’s mother, says: “We are
all fragile,” in trying to come to terms with the gun violence her daughter has
just witnessed. How are these characters “fragile?” Which one of the main
characters: Claire or Max or Barkley do you empathize with the most? The least?
There are several key secondary teen characters in the
novel—Jackson, Samantha, Peter and Trish—how do these characters help shape the
story? What insights do these characters give you about Claire or Max or
What does Claire’s relationship with her younger sister,
Izzy, tell you about her character? Do you know someone like Claire, who is the
primary caregiver for her siblings? How does this kind of responsibility impact
a teen’s life?
Claire writes poetry about the major events in her life.
What did you think of her poetry? Do you write poetry or songs? If Claire
wasn’t a poet but a songwriter, what would be her song? What would be Max’s song? Barkley’s?
Barkley, who is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia,
reaches out to Claire through a false persona on the internet. What does the
interaction of Claire and Barkley tell us about each character? Have you ever
questioned the identity of anyone you have met on line?
All summer, Max Cooper obsesses about a soccer goal kick
gone wide, which resulted in his team losing a big game. Have you ever tried to
in sports, in life, which missed its mark? How did it make you feel?
Max is also obsessing about a girl at the beach, Samantha.
Ultimately, he realizes that Samantha is not for him, but only after he looks beyond
her bikinis and flirtatiousness to Claire. What does this tell us about Max?
About Claire? Have you ever had to look beyond the obvious in a person?
The novel is set at a Long Island, New York beach and many
of the characters, including Max, Barkley, Peter, and Trish, work together at
the Snack Shack. How does this setting shape their relationships? Have you ever
worked at a summer job that you thought was the worse job ever?
If you were going to imagine a next chapter in the novel,
where would Claire, Max and Barkley be in their lives? In particular, what do you think happens
on the day after the novel ends, the Wednesday, to each one of them?
Why do you think the author titled this novel, Before My
Eyes? What is being seen and not seen? Are there things in your life that you
let parents and/or friends see and things that you hide? How does Max secretly
taking prescription drugs, or Claire talking to a stranger on the internet, or
Barkley suffering from mental illness highlight this theme of seeing and not
seeing? How or why is there a certain irony inherit in this title?
One of the main themes of the novel centers around the onset
of mental illness, in particular, paranoid schizophrenia on the behalf of
Barkley. What clues does the author give us that this character is suffering
from this disease? Does it make you more or less sympathetic toward Barkley?
Toward his parents?
In recent years there has been a number of violent incidents
with young men and guns against their communities. In fact, some of the scenes
in Before My Eyes are reflective of the 2011 tragedy in Tucson, Arizona where
Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others were shot and six people
killed by Jared Loughner, 22 years old,eventually diagnosed with paranoid
schizophrenia, and given a life sentence for his crimes. Does reading Before My
Eyes in light of those incidents, and other incidents of gun violence in American
society, shape your point of view on guns in America?
Thank you for reading BEFORE MY EYES...Caroline
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?That was the question radio host and interview extraordinaire Diane Rehm asked today on her WAMU/NPR radio show. I was at my desk, working, writing, and my third grade poem from Mrs. Murano's class, at George M. Davis Elementary School in New Rochelle, NY, popped into my head. As far as I remember, it is my first poem, and I wrote it at age eight. Impulsively, I tweeted it to her-- and she read it on the air! It's right near the top of the show. (click here for link) And here it is too:
In the woods
where there are
rigid, rustling leaves,
I stand there
I've gone on to write and publish more,including my new young adult novel,BEFORE MY EYES,(St.Martin's Press, 2014)which has one of the main characters, Claire, age 17, writing poetry, which is featured in the novel.
Do you remember your first poem?
My eight-year-old daughter lost another tooth this week, and she insisted that she still believed in the tooth fairy
. So the tooth fairy was contacted and replied with this note:
I believe in you…
And I’m glad you believe in me.
Stay forever young…
With love always,
Your Tooth Fairy
This note (and a few dollars) from the tooth fairy made a little girl very happy. Do you still believe?
Sometimes it's nice to know that simple things are still good things to believe in--like the tooth fairy.
P.S. If I had a fairy, it would be a book fairy, someone who waves a wand and encourages all to go read my new young adult novel, BEFORE MY EYES, which is NOT at all whimsical, but as much adult as much as young adult. Look for BEFORE MY EYES everywhere books/ebooks are sold. Read it with your mature teen (age 14 and above) or just read it.
My son, who is in middle-school, had to interview someone in the family on his or her profession, so after much debate he interviewed me, his mom, on her second-career adventure as a writer. I would highly recommend this as an exercise for any mother and son because it gave us a chance to talk about me rather than him, though in the process we talked about him too-- about how you get from middle school to anywhere else in this world, which I didn't realize seemed to him an improbable journey. We discussed his aspirations, his dreams, his desire to do big and good things in the world. But since this was an interview with me, here are the answers to the 20-questions he asked about my career -- from the answers you can imagine the questions, or not:
My mom is a writer.
responsibility is to write at least 5 days a week and to complete edits in the
time designated by her editor.
She works in my house.
She works in an office crowded with papers,
books and notes. She does a lot of
research on the internet and in the library, and even, travels to locations she
is writing about in her work.
She loves to read. Sometimes she reads more than
one book at a time. I don’t know how she does this but she makes me go to the
library with her so I can testify to the fact that she read a lot.
believes that the more she writes the better she becomes as a writer.
There are no requirements for this job. However,
my mother has a B.S. in English and Communications, worked for twenty years in
cable television, and recently completed her Master of Fine Arts in Fiction
there is no special clothing.
she works 25-30 hours a week depending on deadlines. When she is finishing a
novel, she works all the time and forgets to make us dinner.
a year-round job.
men and women write.
can be done anywhere.
mother has a high satisfaction in her job.
because she’s self-employed.
17. She believes you need life experience to write fiction, a love of
novels, and a good command of grammar.
18. Yes, she wanted to write since third
19. She doesn’t particularly like
semi-colons. She calls them the bastards of grammar. She says it is okay for a
writer to use all kinds of words including “bastards” when writing.
20. No, she’s self-employed.
Interview conducted by Michael Bock
for a middle school class project.
I was feeling like I couldn’t write
– it doesn’t really
matter why – it was one of those days: sticky hot, rife with pollen and undone
dishes and dreams drifting, uncomfortably unattainable— so I picked up Ron Carlson Writes a Story
From the First Glimmer of An Idea to the Final Sentence
includes his entire short story: “The Govenor’s Ball” at the end). This slim
book is a mini-MFA semester with this head of the MFA program in fiction at the
University of California, Irvine. The biggest lesson: stay at your desk.
Keep writing. Stay twenty minutes more. And twenty after that. Finish.I loved this advice (of course I was reading not writing it). But I do believe that the hardest thing is to finish, to get the first draft done, to let the words out.
But there is more. Here are the top five writing insights that I culled from Ron Carlson Writes A Story
. I hope he writes many more.
“When people ask me the personal-experience question, my
response is that I write my personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or
not…Having a feeling for my materials means sending myself on each journey,
whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it involves the powerful act of
the imagination that good writing requires: empathy.”
“I’m constantly looking for things that are going to help me
find the next sentence, survive the story.”
“The most important thing a writer can do after completing a
sentence is to stay in the room. The writer is the person who stays in the
room.” (Carlson’s italics throughout, but I agree!)
“The single thing I say the most to writers of dialogue is
slow down. I actually don’t see much clunky dialogue, but I see a lot of scenes
that are too brisk., to summarily done…And in the process of writing dialogue,
remember: your characters can’t advance the story because they may not know it yet
. That is a reason to slow down, to listen,
“Our mission is to write the physical scene as closely as we
can, knowing that our intentions lie just beyond our knowing. Write, don’t
So we begin again. We turn toward autumn, toward possibility;
we return to writing.
This is flash fiction
- "Counting Backwards"
-- less than 750 words-- submitted to Akashic Books,an indie Brooklyn press, infamous publishers of "Go the F--k to Sleep," a parent's classic.
This short short was written after reading another writer's flash and feeling that flush of jealousy-- one of this writer's main motivators, though maybe one shouldn't admit that-- amid the swirling of loneliness, sadness and regret. Maybe one should say that deep thoughts and world disasters motivate me (what motivates you?) and leave it at that.
is a novel for the today’s student reader – bringing
with it a complex world view, of teenagers – and adults—making key,
life-changing decisions to tell the truth or lie about a hate crime. As
the author and as a someone with experience teaching English composition and literature at The City University of New York in Harlem,
completing my MFA in Fiction, I
have attempted to outline key questions, which are culled from the
Common Core standards for
English language instruction in New York for grades 8-12. This Common Core guide for LIE,
including summary of major themes, characters, and points of view, can be found at my website
In some cases,
I have added author's notes, which are hopefully insightful
and directional, but certainly not the
final word on the text I am sure
that there are close readers out there who will interpret the text in a
rigorous way than even the author.
I welcome hearing from you about
your classroom experience with LIE.Find out more about LIE
for the Common Core grades 8-12 at www.carolinebock.com.
I'm eager to hear about your experiences with LIE
in the classroom.