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.
From Girl on a Train to Robert Frost...I recently wrote a few haiku reviews... a great exercise in writing. Some are reactions to what I read, others are refractions of characters (i.e. the pool cleaner in Gatsby is in my imagination, not the novel's pages). Here goes...
For The Girl on a Train…
WOMAN ON A METRO
On a metro car:
See or hear nothing, feel less.
Days of driving rain.
For The Buried Giant…
No past, no future—
misted memories, but all
For The Great Gatsby…
THE POOL CLEANER
I cleaned the swim pool—
after cops fished Gatsby out—
more work, no more pay.
For The Collected Poems of Robert Frost…
A LOST WRITER
I don’t know these woods—
what crossroad to travel now—
lead me there, poet.
Have you ever tried a haiku review?
—Caroline Bock is the author of the critically acclaimed
young adult novels: BEFORE MY EYES (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) and LIE (St.
Martin’s Press, 2011).
I write primarily fiction; however, I love poetry and since these are the final days of National Poetry Month, I am going to share with you notes from a fabulous writer's conference I attended, BOOKS ALIVE, sponsored by the Washington Independent Review of Books, an incisive online writing and book review community. This weekend, they honored poet and poetry advocate extraordinaire Grace Cavalieri with their first Lifetime Achievement Award. Upon accepting the award, she gave her top four reasons why poetry still matters (and I may be paraphrasing her, as I quickly took these notes):
-Poetry slows down time. You read slowly and you write slowly
-Poetry preserves the beloved
-Poetry makes us notice the world more
-We are more fully alive when we read and write poetry
This makes me want to write poetry, my secret writing, and to me that is the world.
Does poetry matter to you?
Three quick ideas for spring cleaning—for your writing.
Experiment with point of view.
up a first person story to a third person
a story from a minor character’s point view
3) look at a picture sideways (see above) and describe what you see.
Two wise quotes on the current state of young adult fiction from the April 10, 2015 New York Times article with tastemaker editor Julie Strauss-Gabel :
1) “You go through vampires, you go through dystopian, you go
through contemporary, you go through fantasy,” Ms. Strauss-Gabel said. “The
last thing you want is an author saying, ‘That’s what’s selling right now, so
that’s what I’m going to write.’ That’s the point at which a trend gets icky.”
2) “We’re in an era where the
definition of a young adult book is completely up for grabs, and people are
willing to reinvent it,” she said. “There’s no one saying, ‘You can’t do this
in a book for children.’ ”
Best of 2014 and Looking Forward to 2015...
Best new place: Pittsburgh, one night visit included the
Carnegie Science Center and the Duquesne Incline. Looking forward to second
Pittsburgh trip in 2015.
Best New Thing About My Writing: Having BEFORE MY EYES
published in February by St. Martin’s Press… and returning to writing scripts
for television and film. Looking forward to diving into flash fiction, a new
novel and scriptwriting in 2015! Best favorite new bookstore: Politics and Prose in D.C.
(best 1-day class taken there with Leslie Pietrzyk)
Most unexpectedly best political movie of 2015 streamed on
Google Play: The Interview; going beyond the sophomoric bits of sex and drugs
and comic book action, this movie had a lot to say about the inherent evils of
dictatorial regimes (mass starvation, concentration camps) and how the media in
their countries and around the world props up the lies of these regimes.
Best new version of classic musical, which my nine- year old
daughter also loved: Annie.
Best movies about the inescapable human condition: Theory of
Everything, The Imitation Game, and Boyhood.
Best New Exercise: Rookie Yoga.
Best TV Show: House of Cards, best new TV series: Madame
Secretary, and for summer watching with above nine-year old: The Strain. Looking ahead: TV series I
can’t wait for new season for in January (and no spoilers please from the Brits in the crowd!!) Downton
Most unusual thing I did in 2014, and one of the best: Late-night
party at burlesque bar in DC to celebrate friend’s birthday!
Best, best new thing… that all my family is healthy! Looking
ahead in 2015 to a new year of inspiration, writing, books, movies, and friends
CLAIMING A METAPHOR
If there were one metaphor she’d use
for herself, it would be that of something fractured beyond any repair, or
shattered. But broken is more accurate. Jagged. Something to be thrown away,
something to worry about the garbage men getting hurt handling. —Caroline Bock, original flash fiction, December 2014
At this time of year, I look inward even
more than other times. And while on the whole this was a
pretty good year, I still forged this metaphor about myself, or at least,
my literary self. What metaphor would you shape for yourself? Does it differ by
season? Does it sing in one and cry in another?
May this season bring us all peace— and a few metaphors to
(P.S. … and now
for our holiday commercial message: If you are wishing for a new e-reader this
season, consider a BEFORE MY EYES download. My new YA adult novel is available as an ebook for
every device!!) ...Caroline
I recently attended two readings with eight debut or fairly new authors. It's an honor to read, and to attend a reading, and frankly, an opportunity. At these readings, I learned a few things of what to do and what not to do:
-Prepare a short introduction for yourself.Don't rely on the good-hearted soul to introduce you in the manner or with the detail you may want to be introduced.
-If you are reading with other authors, have a plan.Who will go first? What will each of you read? How long will each of you read? For the audience the reading is a night out, a learning experience, and for you: A chance to sell your books. You are putting on a show, and the audience expects on some level to be entertained in exchange for considering your book.
-Test, test, test any audiovisual equipment before the reading. Test the sound with the idea that you will have a full room and it will need to be loud. Bring speakers if possible. Have a back up plan if the electronics fail. And don't get flustered if the electronics fail— just move on. People are here to see you, to hear you talk about your book, not to view the book trailer you spent a lot of money on (or, if you are lucky, your publisher spent a lot of money on).
-Now the reading. PRACTICE WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO READ in front of friends and relatives. Read slowly. Pause at the end of the sentence. Pause at the end of the paragraph and look up at your audience. Read with drama. Choose a dramatic section, preferably the opening. BRING A COPY OF YOUR BOOK (I'm always surprised when writers don't and then use a new brand-new copy from the sell pile, sometimes making it harder to sell that copy). Mark up your reading copy as you would a speech— underline key words or phrases. Make note to yourself to slow down and breathe—— in the margins or at ends of the paragraph. Don't apologize at the end of your reading about what you just read or how you read it. Now it's over. Just close the book and look up at your audience.
-Be prepared to answer basic questions from the audience such as:
-Did you always want to write?
-What writers or books inspired you as a child?
-What kind of research do you do on your book?
-Make sure you thank the audience, no matter how big, no matter how small, for attending. Remind them that the PRINT books are for sale...and signed editions are certainly
Dear fellow writers, I wish you much success with your books—and your readings.
First some thoughts on
“Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so
that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him,
something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give to his
girlfriend. Plot exists so the character can discover himself (and in the
process reveal to the reader) what he, the character is really like: plot
forces the character to choice and action, transforms him from a static
construct to a lifelike human being making choices or reaping the rewards. And theme
exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the
character’s main problem is.” (On
Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, p. 54)
On the ‘”accuracy of
the writer’s eye”
“….whether you’re writing about people or dragons, your
personal observation of how things happen in the world – how character reveals
itself can turn a dead scene into a vital one…. Good advice might be: Write as
if you were a movie camera. Get exactly what is there. All human beings see
with astonishing accuracy, not that they can write it down…. Getting it down
precisely is all that is meant by ‘the accuracy of the writer’s eye.’ Getting
down what the writer really cares about – setting down what the writer himself
notices, as opposed to what any fool might notice – is all that is meant by the
originality of the writer’s eye. Every human being has original vision….” (p. 71, Gardner).
Pixar story artist
Emma Coats tweeted a series of “story basics” here are her highlights on
#1 You admire a character for trying more than for their
-- Simplify. Focus. Combine character. Hop over detours.
You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
-- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw
the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
-- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might
seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
-- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great;
coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
--What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the
character. What happens if
they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
--If you were your character, in this situation, how would
you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
1) Take a simple act, say unbuttoning a shirt, pulling on a
sock, pouring a cup of coffee or milk, and write it in slow motion, that is,
give it two hundred words. Don’t automatically lapse into hyperbole (and thereby
the comic), but think of the effect: make it matter-of-fact, sinister, gross,
full of touch, feel, sight, and smell.
Discuss how the manner in which the character performs the
act shapes his character.
2) Write two hundred words on a character entering a space
(a car, a classroom, a kitchen, a backyard, etc). Inventory all the sense of
the space as she moves toward the one thing that she desperately wants in that
space. Take your time and describe in detail what the character sees, hears,
smells, senses and knows—and doesn’t know—about the surroundings.
Discuss how the character’s perceptions or point of view,
and motivation or want, shapes this character.
from Ron Carlson Writes A Story by
I've written two novels with multiple points of view... if you haven't read them yet, consider BEFORE MY EYES and LIE.
FLASH FICTION: "Read On" -- You'll ruin your eyes, she said, like your mother, and god knows you have her eyes. She had to wear glasses.Cat's eyeglasses.She'd never wear those glasses around the boys. And here my Nana offered up another one of her sayings—about boys and girls and glasses, which went up there with the lecture on your body is a temple. The book, a library book, cradled in my arms. You'll ruin your eyes, she continued. With books. With reading. And look at me, no man likes a girl smarter than him. Look at me. Put down that book.
------- Anybody who knows me, knows that I didn't book down that book or any other. Read on!
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....