Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Can you forgive the bully? A guest post by author Patty Blount

There’s a t-shirt popular among writers that says, “Writers block: when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.” (Note to self: buy t-shirt.) It’s a well-accepted fact that writers are probably the only group of people who DON’T panic when they hear voices in their minds.

At any given time, there are about half a dozen characters who are jabbering away in my head and will not shut up until I write them out.  To date, Dan, the main character from SEND (coming August, 2012 from Sourcebooks Fire), was the hardest character for me to exorcise for a couple of reasons. First, he was male and I’d never written a male lead before, especially not from the first person POV. Second, he was obviously NOT a hero – he’d done a terrible thing and even though he was paying for it, his crime hit a bit too close to home for me.

Dan started talking to me after some real-life angst converged with a day job directive I got just before I came down with a cold.  It started back in 2004 when my oldest son was in sixth grade. He’d hit puberty early and was already shaving. He suffered from bad acne, wore glasses and braces, and stood a foot taller than his classmates. They all thought it was great fun to torment him over his differences.  It went on from September until April when my son finally blurted out he no longer wanted to live.  Ironically, I am writing this post the night before my son’s twentieth birthday. Every birthday he’s had – and ever will have – celebrates not just his birth, but his triumph. (There are lasting scars, even with the help we obtained from his teacher, the principal, and therapist.)  I am convinced that had Facebook and Twitter existed back then, I would be telling you a very different story today.

I was working on a contemporary romantic trilogy at the time and had just finished book 1 in the series. I started book 2, but had to shelve it so I could focus on Dan, whose voice was suddenly speaking louder than all the others in my mind. I knew only the barest of facts – that he was once a bully.  When my new boss challenged me to incorporate social media into my work, I remember blinking and asking, “What’s a twitter?”  I did the research and learned not only how people use social networks, but also how they abuse them.  And the voice in my head said, “I did that.”

I wrote a few test chapters and one day, while I was home sick with a bad cold, I caught some daytime talk show I usually never watch. The focus was ‘sexting’ – a crime popular with teenagers who had absolutely no clue they were breaking any laws.  And that’s where it got really interesting… turns out, there WERE no laws to address abuse of the Internet, and cell phone network (though many laws have since been enacted) so some teens were convicted of distributing child pornography and listed on the national sex offense registry. This so profoundly frightened me, I IMMEDIATELY sat both of my sons down when they got home from school that day, and set forth the laws for proper cell phone use.  I drowned another cold capsule and stretched out for a nap and that’s when Dan told me what he’d done.

“I clicked Send,” he whispered. “How was I supposed to know that picture would go viral? How was I supposed to know Georgie would kill himself?” (Georgie was changed to “Liam” in the published version.)   

When one of the teens profiled on the talk show explained how he had to move away because people think he’s a violent rapist after they learn he’s on the sex offense registry, Dan scoffed and said he’d moved four times and even had to change his name.  “Tough to live, knowing what I did.” He told me.

That’s when I grabbed a notebook and started brainstorming. Living with guilt became my theme. How would a kid deal with that kind of remorse?  What about his parents? His friends?  What kind of man would he grow up to be?

The result of all that brainstorming was the first draft of SEND, in which main character Daniel Clements is a mid-twenties motivational speaker, who lives out of hotel rooms between speaking engagements. He talks to high school and middle school students about his experiences in juvenile detention and on the sex offense registry and eventually meets a pretty guidance counselor who turns out to be his victim’s sister.

In early 2010, a former literary agent pointed out a fatal flaw. “You’ve got what is essentially a teenage problem in a story built around adult characters.”

Uh oh.

So I rewrote the whole book – this time, with Dan back in his teens starting over in one of the four new towns he’d moved to. (In the published version, I changed Dan’s name to Ellison after my editor pointed out that Clements was uncomfortably close to Clementi, the name of the Rutgers student who leaped from the George Washington Bridge.)  

When I started writing this story, it was pure fiction. In the years that have passed, my plot has sadly become a headline that repeats with disturbing regularity. Still, I wonder how many of these bullies are truly murderous and how many are like Dan – just dumb kids who did something they can’t undo, can’t take back, can’t make right?  I wanted that part of Dan – the guilty part, the remorseful part – to come through.

It was a challenging project…  After all my family had been through, I wanted to hate Dan. He was a bully, after all, and easy to blame for my son’s issues. I didn’t want to write him and I damn well didn’t want to like him. But even after all the torture I’ve heaped on him in this story, I couldn’t help doing either. In the end, I forgave Dan.

I’m not, however, ready to forgive my son’s tormentors.

Would you?  Would you be able to forgive your bully, or the bully who nearly drove your child to suicide?
About Patty Blount
Native New Yorker Patty Blount writes instruction guides by day and novels by night. On a dare by her oldest son, Patty wrote her first novel in an ice rink during his hockey practice. Though never published, Penalty Killer was the subject of so many seventh grade book reports, the English teacher requested a copy and later returned it, covered in red ink. Powered by a serious chocolate obsession, Patty is always looking for great story ideas. Her boss suggested she learn about social media so Patty began researching Twitter, LinkedIn, and other networks, and had bad dreams about pictures going viral. She wrote her debut novel, Send, when she woke up. (Okay, not really.)
Patty lives on Long Island with her family, a fish, and lots of books.

About Send: Keeping his secret is making him crazy... revealing it could get him killed. Look for "Send", a young adult novel coming in August 1, 2012 from Sourcebooks, Inc.
It only took one click.

Read more TLT posts about bullying, including a booklist and a look at 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher here.

6 comments:

  1. Your book sounds amazing! As a teacher and mom, your story sounds all too familiar of what is really going on amongst tweens and teens today.

    I've taught school in both physical and virtual classrooms, and this is a real issue with both! Students don't always realize how cruel and devastating a negative tweet or posting about someone else can be. They also underestimate the impact it has when spread via social media.

    I think it's wonderful that you've written a book addressing this issue! I plan on sharing this with my own kids and students to help illuminate this issue.

    I very much look forward to reading your book! :)

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    1. Thanks, Catheryn. I hope your kids and students enjoy it.

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  2. Nope. When it comes to my children and their safety, I'm not very forgiving at all, I'm afraid.

    Can't wait to read your book!

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  3. I find myself feeling the same way, Linda.

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  4. Wow, this sounds like a very powerful book. And it rings even more because of the truth that we see in the news. I'm definitely adding Send to my to-read list and I hope more will, too. It sounds like a book that NEEDS to be read.

    To answer your question, while I haven't really forgiven all of my bullies, I have let go of the pain and sway most of them had over my emotions. There is one that I am not sure I will ever forgive, but that's my burden to bear.

    Thank you for your post, and I'm eager to read your book. :)

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  5. Thanks for sharing your family's story, Patty. I'm so sorry your son had to live through that horrible experience, but thank goodness he reached out for help. Unfortunately, bullying is all too common. I dealt with painful shyness as a child, and as an imaginative future fiction-writer, I was an easy target for social bullying.

    Today, cyberbullying takes the pain and humiliation to a whole new level. Kids aren't mature enough to realize the consequences of their actions, yet they have access to technology giving them power to ruin another person's reputation or esteem.

    As I told you two summers ago when I first heard you read this story in our writing group, this book is going to resonate with teens. It will fly off the shelves! So happy for you, and grateful for your message. If it saves one life, all your toil will have been worth it.

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