Revising Leah

August 30, 2008

Trying a Different Revising Strategy (Progress Report #7)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:28 pm
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I’ve moved on to the fourth cycle of revision. I never did finish reading the entire text out loud like I planned for the third cycle, in part because I kept getting sidetracked by the poorly written narration that I was finding. For instance, a week or two ago, when I read out loud the chapter in which Leah meets Megan, I found that the scene just wasn’t doing it for me. The plan for the scene was fine, but I just wasn’t executing it very well in the text that I had written.

So I’m taking a different tack this time. Up to this point, I’ve been trying to revise at a normal reading pace. That is, I read the text as though I were simply reading for pleasure. When I came across a sentence or a word that needed to be fixed, then I’d either stop and fix it or, if I couldn’t think of a good way to fix it, I’d highlight it and come back to it later.

But because I kept finding so many trouble spots, I’ve decided to slow things down in this new cycle. I’ve been reading just one chapter a day, and what I try to do is read that chapter twice before I move on to the next one. This gives me a chance to read the chapter, take a break and think about it for a while, and then come back to it. This strategy isn’t necessarily a better way to revise, but it is a different tactic that allows me to approach my text in a different way. Reading at a normal pace and covering two or three chapters a day, as I tended to do in the earlier cycles, helped me see the big picture of novel, while reading one chapter and then reading it again let’s me pay more attention to the details of the text.

This new tactic has resulted in a LOT of changes to the narration. I’ve been rephrasing and rewriting much of the transitional narration between plot points and I’ve rethought and revised much of the descriptive detail. The result is that scenes like the one where Leah meets Megan now sound much better when I read them.

August 27, 2008

Have You Googled Your Characters Lately?

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 9:23 pm
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If you are writing a story and have characters with both first and last names, it can be very interesting to Google them and see what results you get. Try not just the standard Google search, but the Google Image Search too. I tried my two main characters, Leah Nells and David Parks.

“Leah Nells” turned up absolutely nothing — other than posts from this blog. :-) There is a “Leah Nell” (no -s) but no one, at least no one that Google knows about, shares the same name as my character. Leah Nells truly is alone.

“David Parks,” however, is a different story. Google found a lot of people with that name, including politicians, soldiers, singers, and a fellow with an IMDB credit.

I rather like the idea that Leah doesn’t share her name with anyone else, but David Parks does. It just seems to reinforce Leah’s isolation and David’s popularity.

August 26, 2008

Leah’s Class Schedule

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 6:16 pm
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Because time is such an important part of the novel, I thought it would be a good idea, for my own purposes, if I spelled out exactly what Leah’s schedule is and identify precisely when she is in each of her classes. A lot of the details about Leah’s high school are generic: the day starts at 8:00 and ends at 3:00, for example.

The novel Leah is set in the same fictional universe as The Spring, so the time schedule below applies to both of my novels. It amazes me that I never needed to create such a schedule when I was preparing The Spring for publication last year. I did have to keep track of what courses my characters in The Spring were taking, but I didn’t need to know when they were in class.

So here it is — it wasn’t easy putting this together:

Leah M. Nells – 9th Grade – Everyman High School*

800-910 1st period (Biology)**
910-915***
915-1010 2nd period (Algebra)
1010-1015
1015-1110 3rd period (Phys. Ed.)
1110-1115
1115-1200 Lunch
1200-1205
1205-100 4th period (Consumer Econ.)
100-105
105-200 5th period (English)
200-205
205-300 6th period (World History)

* – Not the real name, although I do like the sound of it. I never do say, in either novel, what the name of the high school really is.

** – The first period is fifteen minutes longer than the other classes because it is also the period assigned for morning announcements.

*** – Five minute passing periods. Hurry!

The 6-class schedule is something I borrowed from my own high school experience. I know that nowadays it isn’t uncommon for high school schedules to have 7 or 8 classes in a day, or sometimes they only have 4 classes in a day if they are on a block schedule.

This post has been edited for precision.

August 25, 2008

The First Day of School

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:04 pm
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I’ve been working on chapter three which, along with chapter four, describes Leah’s first day of high school. I kind of dread the chapter because every time I read it, I feel a nervous tingle, as if I am living vicariously another person’s first day of school. It’s a really weird feeling, and it isn’t what I was trying to do when I first wrote it. I did want to show how nervous Leah is on this day, but I wasn’t trying to necessarily evoke a sense of anxiety from the reader.

One of the things that makes writing or revising a work of creative writing difficult for me is the fact that I work in relative isolation. Just because my writing has an emotional impact on me doesn’t mean that it will have that same or a similar impact on anyone else. I’m curious, then, to know whether the effect it has on me is experienced by anyone else.

To that end, I’ve posted the latest draft of chapter three

HERE

If you, Dear Reader (who have perhaps come upon this blog by accident), would care to read through it and let me know in the comments if it inspired any sort of sense of nervousness in you (or not), I’d be very interested to hear about it.

August 24, 2008

The Lost Chapters

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:46 pm
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Today I eliminated one of my chapters (chapter seven) by merging it with the previous chapter. The chapter was only three pages long, which is extremely short since most of the chapters in the novel average around nine or ten pages. There really wasn’t any reason for those three pages to be set apart in their own chapter like that since the chapter was really just a continuation of the subject of the previous chapter (Leah’s book report for English class). Merging the chapter with the previous one was pretty painless and didn’t require too much editing. I now have 25 chapters.

One thing that has been somewhat annoying for me is how I keep creating and cutting chapters. I don’t even want to mention chapter numbers in this blog anymore because I know that somewhere down the line I’ll make another change and I’ll have to renumber the chapters. What is chapter ten this week might have been chapter nine last week, and next week it will probably be chapter nine again.

It’s a little frustrating for me because I like to assign specific scenes to specific chapter numbers in my imagination. It helps me think about where scenes are located in the big picture, and it helps me find them when I need to search for a scene in the story. I wish I could say I knew which chapter contains Leah’s trip to the used book store, for example, but right now I have no idea. For me, that’s a little unsettling.

August 23, 2008

Magazines and Mountains

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:18 am
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I’m not really a magazine reader, but yesterday, a well-known magazine fell into my lap by chance, and as I flipped through it I found that it included a long excerpt from a recently published novel. As I read a little bit of the excerpt, my editing instincts kicked in and everywhere I looked I found things that, if I were the author, I would want to rewrite. The dialogue was uninteresting and uninspired, some sentences were convoluted, and the author had apparently fallen in love with her thesaurus because she tended to choose the weirdest, most inappropriate adjectives possible.

I don’t want to trash the author’s writing too much (I seem to recall something about rocks and glass houses), so suffice it to say I didn’t think the writing was very good. It’s not the first time I’ve been disappointed with popular fiction. Most of what I read for fun is classic literature (English major stuff) so when I read popular fiction — or even my own work — I’m frequently disappointed because it doesn’t live up to what I read in, say, Kafka or Woolf or Beckett.

But in the case of the excerpt from this magazine, it made me feel a little better about my own writing, because while there are still a lot of problems in Leah that I need to fix, I can at least say that my writing is better than this author’s work that I was reading. If that story could get published and find an audience, why can’t mine?

I’ve needed to feel better about my writing because lately I’ve been disappointed. The problem, as best I can describe it, is that I have a lot of really good scenes (like what I’ve written about in the “Things I Like” posts) surrounded by stretches of not-so-good narration. These scenes that I’m proud of are like mountaintops, but in order to get from one mountain to the next, I have to descend and pass through these valleys of unimpressive writing. I’ve been stuggling with these valleys since I began this revising project. A lot of cutting and deleting that I did in the first cycle of revision was an attempt to clear away some of this material, but much remains that I can’t cut because it contributes to the plot. My task is to try to improve this material as much as I can. In this cycle of revision, I’ve found a lot of these valleys remain in the text, so I have a lot of work still ahead of me.

August 20, 2008

Things I Like #2: Leah’s Report Revisited

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 2:29 pm
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[ATTENTION GOOGLE SEARCHERS: Welcome! This is a blog about a young adult novel titled Leah which I am revising with the intent of republishing sometime in 2009. If you’ve found this page while searching for information about Egypt or the Egyptian pharaohs, you will find a short essay on that topic in the passage below. While the information in Leah’s report is, to the best of my knowledge, factually accurate, this blog entry really isn’t the best source of information if you are writing an essay or researching a report. Google isn’t the best way to find information for school either. What you might try is visiting the Wikipedia pages for “Ancient Egypt” or “Pharaoh” and then scroll to the end of the page until you find the section titled “Sources and External Links.” There, you’ll find a list of websites which should offer good information for you to use. Don’t forget to acknowledge your sources in your essay!]

One of the things that I’m happiest about in the new draft of the novel is what I did in the scene where Leah and her partners present their history reports. In the 1996 draft, I encapsulated Leah’s entire report in a short paragraph. This time around, I wrote a report for her and let her read it to her class. Public speaking is terrifying for most people, but it is especially terrifying for someone like Leah:

It was now Leah’s turn, but first she waited for David to introduce her. “And next,” David said, “Leah Nells will tell us about some of the major pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Leah?”

On weakening knees, Leah took a small step forward and held up her report so she could read from it. Her fingers trembled but she tried to hold them steady so she could read the page. She took a breath and said, “I am going to talk about the Egyptian Pharaohs.” She realized that her voice was barely more than a whisper, so she cleared her throat and tried to speak up. “The pharaohs were the kings of Egypt and they ruled in families called dynasties. The pharaohs were not the only — were not only the political rulers of Egypt, but they were also the religious rulers as well. Were — they were treated like gods by their people and it was believed that when they died they went to live with their gods in the afterlife. Most pharaohs were men, but there were some women who were pharaohs too.” There was a sound of rustling in the classroom. In spite of her attempt to speak up, Leah’s voice could only be heard by those students sitting in desks close to the front of the class. Mr. Simmons, leaning against his own desk several feet away, stood up and took a step closer so he could hear what she was saying.

Leah didn’t notice any of this, though, because all of her attention was focused on the paper she was holding. She continued: “Three of the most famous pharaohs were Ramesses the Second, Tu-Tuten-Tutenkhamun, and Cleopatra. Ramesses the Second, also known as Ramesses the Great, was Egypt’s most famous and powerful pharaoh. He was the pharaoh for sixty-six years and he is the pharaoh who Moses fled from in the Bible. He . . . constructed a lot of famous buildings and monuments that still stand today.”

Behind her, Heather and Melanie were trying hard not to laugh. They could hear the nervousness in their partner’s voice, and they could see that the class was having trouble hearing her. The two girls stole glances at each other  and smiled but otherwise they controlled themselves. “Tuten-Tutenkhamun, also known as King Tut, wasn’t really that important, but we know a lot about him because his tomb was discovered in 1922 with the mummy . . . and other objects still inside. Some people say that his tomb was cursed because a lot of people who helped discovered it died mysteriously. He became the pharaoh when he was only eight years old and he died when he was only eighteen. He might have been murdered, but no one knows for sure.”

Until now, Leah hadn’t dared to take her eyes off of her report, but from her perspective, she felt like she had been reading this report forever, and she was curious to know how her audience was responding to it. She paused and took a quick glance at her classmates. She mostly saw a lot of bored faces. A few people in the back, having given up on trying to hear what she was saying, had put their heads down on their desks and weren’t even pretending to pay attention. She knew she was almost finished, but she made a concerted effort to try to read slowly, so that she could fill her time. “Cleopatra was not the first female pharaoh to rule Egypt but she is the most famous. She became pharaoh when she was only seventeen. She fell in love with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. When she — she died when she was bit by a snake. She was trying to commit suicide.”

All this time, David had been listening carefully. Since it was his responsibility to transition between and introduce each new speaker in the group, he was trying to listen for the end of Leah’s speech. Leah was speaking so softly that it was difficult for him to follow her. He hadn’t heard her practice when they were at his house last Sunday, so he wasn’t sure when she was going to stop. “When a pharaoh died, he or she was buried with all of their belongings. Sometimes they were buried in pyramids and sometimes they were buried underground. The pharaohs believed they became gods after they died. When they buried — when they were buried — they were buried as mummies. They were buried with food and gold and even some of their servants and workers were buried with them. The pharaohs were a very important part of Egyptian society.”

She was finished. She dropped her arms and looked up at the class. She felt dizzy and out of breath. Her heart was still racing, but at least she knew her report was over-and that realization offered her a sense of relief.

What I like about the passage is that I don’t simply drop a report into the text of the story and leave it at that, but instead I tried to weave the report into the narration. The other students’ reaction to Leah’s report, and her struggle to read it, are obviously a lot more interesting than the report itself.  I’ve also tried to capture the way she struggles to read; she sometimes stutters or misreads some of her own words. I think there’s some irony in the way that she has worried so much about reading her report to the class, but when the time comes to read it, she speaks so softly that many of her classmates can’t hear what she is saying.

August 16, 2008

Forever Fourteen (Time, Part 2)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:29 pm
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In the second chapter of Leah, I introduce the theme of time. Leah Nells is obsessed with the passage of time, and her obsession is manifested in the form of the books she reads and the bookcase in which she stores them:

. . . Against the fourth wall of the room was a bookcase that Mr. Nells bought for her a year and a half ago to store Leah’s ever-growing collection of books. It was made out of wood and had four shelves. Two of the shelves were filled completely, and a third was only partially filled.

The bookcase was Leah’s favorite part of her room. Sometimes, instead of reading, she would just sit on the floor and stare at the books. It might not have had much significance for anyone else who saw it, but for Leah the bookcase served as a kind of record of her life with each book representing a particular span of time. Leah kept the books arranged in the order in which she had read them so that they served as a sort of calendar, marking the passage of time for the last two or three years. Leah measured her life in pages instead of hours, in chapters instead of days, and in volumes instead of months. The empty space on the third and fourth shelves of her bookcase represented the future, the unknown, the unread books that were to come. The clock on Leah’s desk kept one form of time, and Leah’s books kept a different one.

For Leah, the future is something to be dreaded, something to fear and worry about. In the present, she’s safe: she can still hide from the world in her bedroom and indulge her introverted personality. But the beginning of high school also marks the beginning of the final stage of the long, slow climb towards adulthood, and the older she gets, the closer she will come to the moment when she will have to confront and overcome her shyness. It’s something she doesn’t want to face. For her, the idea of making friends, getting a part-time job, or going away to college seems like an impossible task. She just doesn’t know how to do it.

In the story, Leah’s dread for the future manifests itself in a very significant way when she joins David Parks’ group for the history project. Here, the future that she fears has been assigned a specific date: November 24 (by the novel’s calendar). On that day, two terrible things will happen: she’ll have to stand in front of her class and present her report on the Egyptian pharaohs, and the day will mark the end of her time with David, for whom she has a crush. She tries to embrace the present and savor every fleeting minute that she spends in David’s presence, but there is the constant pressure of the future racing towards her. She’s always aware that time is running out.

For Leah’s parents, the future represents everything that it represents for Leah: adulthood, responsibilities, an end to her shyness. But for them, it is the present which is miserable and the future contains all their hopes for their daughter. Tomorrow she’ll make a friend. Next month she’ll get over her shyness. A year from now she’ll finally be a normal teenager. They can’t wait for the future to arrive, and this difference in what the future means is a point of conflict between the girl and her parents.

In the 1996 draft of Leah, I constantly made note in the narrative of what time it was. I would write that it was 8:15 or noon or 2:57 or whatever. The reason for inserting these details really had almost nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with calling the reader’s attention to this theme of time. As I started revising, I decided to cut most of those little mentions of the time out of the text because most of them just seemed superfluous to me. I felt like I was bludgeoning the reader with the theme instead of trusting that the reader will be able to figure out what I’m doing. I was showing a lack of respect for the reader — never a good idea. Despite these deletions, there are still a few occasions in the text when I do focus on the clock. One example is in chapter 3, before Leah’s first day of high school. She’s nervous about the big day, and in her anxiety she has decided that she needs to leave her house at a specific time, so she’s constantly watching the clock and worrying about the passage of each minute. In a scene like that, I need to call attention to the minutes as they pass, but elsewhere, if it isn’t necessary for me to do that to help the story, then I don’t.

There’s a scene in my other novel, The Spring, in which one of the characters wishes that he could take the moment that he is experiencing and freeze it — in other words, make the moment last forever. In a sense, that is what happens when one tells a story. A story can be retold again and again (and when it is written down, the story can be retold exactly the same way) and so the characters relive their moments of existence every time someone reads them on the page. Sometimes this can seem like something terrible, as when Leah must relive an instant of public speaking again and again, but she also experiences the last page of the novel over and over too. The physical form of the book in which she exists is both her hell and her heaven.

I wonder if it is this ability to manipulate time that attracts me to writing. Like Leah, I’ve always been somewhat obsessed about time, and I’m haunted by the knowledge of my own mortality. Some of my earliest acts of creative writing involved retelling (and fictionalizing) stories from my own personal experience. I’ve always been eager to capture and hold the moments of my life in writing. I guess that urge isn’t uncommon: lots of people take photographs of themselves and loved ones, for instance. I’ve always been uncomfortable with photographs, but I don’t feel uncomfortable with recording my experiences in words. The difference between a photograph and a story, however, is that (despite the advantages of digital photography) a picture is grounded in reality, in what really happened, while a story can be rewritten — it can be revised. Events can be altered and changed at will; happy endings are always possible; heartbreak can be turned into love; dark can be made light; mistakes can be corrected.

And while I am not Leah Nells, and the story of her life is not the story of my own, there is enough of myself (my ideas, my interests, my fears, my misanthropism) in this novel and in The Spring that when my physical self perishes, I’ll leave something behind that was the essence of me. As I live my life and pass through time, the stories are capable of achieving something approaching permanence — something that would be otherwise unattainable to me. I’ll grow old and die, but Leah Nells will be forever fourteen. She’ll escape that future that she fears.

August 14, 2008

Chicken or Egg? (Time, Part 1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 11:45 am
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(It’s been a few days since I posted last. As September approaches, I’ve had a lot of distractions which have kept me away from the novel, and since I’m trying to read the novel out loud, the moments are rare when I have a chance to sit down and read alone. Sometimes I’m working near other people, and I don’t want to sit there, by myself, seemingly talking to myself as I work. People think I’m strange enough as it is. Therefore, this cycle of revision has gone very slowly. I’ve been working for several days and I’m only up to chapter 12 [not even halfway through]. Hopefully, my pace will pick up again soon.)

One of the things that I need to do as a writer in order to keep track of the plot is establish a calendar of events. As I write, I take note of when events occur in relation to each other. It’s especially important when writing about school, because weekdays and weekends are completely different experiences. I can’t simply write, “and the next day . . . and the next day . . . and the next day . . .” because eventually I’ll bump up against a weekend (or a holiday) that I need to account for.

Time is a very important element in Leah, so I thought what I would do for the next couple of posts is write about time and how I use it in the novel. In my next post, I’ll describe how I use time thematically, but in this post I’ll discuss some of the nuts and bolts issues regarding how I deal with time when writing and revising my stories.

The first draft of Leah, which I wrote out by hand in a notebook some thirteen years ago, includes a “calendar page”. Here, I scribbled out a calendar, circling and making note of the dates of important events in the novel. This calendar is something that I referred to frequently as I wrote that first draft, and I’ve referred to it a few times during this revising project. One thing that I haven’t been sure about is whether that calendar is still relevant. I’ve mentioned before how I imagine Leah and my other novel, The Spring, as constituting two stories set in the same fictional universe. Leah takes place during ninth grade and The Spring is set three and a half years later during twelfth grade. Since both novels occupy different points on the same time line, their calendars must also match.

When writing and revising The Spring, I also kept a detailed calendar of the events in that novel. The Spring is bit more compact, in terms of time, than Leah. The Spring takes place over a period of only 26 days while Leah lasts a little more than three months. Since I published The Spring last winter, I’ve decided to let the calendar of The Spring anchor the calendars of the other two novels in the trilogy. (It’s actually sort of a chicken-and-egg dilemma with respect to which novel came first. Technically, The Spring was written first, about three years before I wrote the first draft of Leah, but I published Leah first back in the 1990s. But since I’ve disavowed that edition of Leah, the publication of The Spring a few months ago represents a new start — a reboot — of the series. It’s all very confusing!)

So using The Spring as the anchor, and keeping a perpetual calendar handy, I’ve counted back three and a half years and found — to my amazement (and convenience) — that the calendar I created for Leah thirteen years ago fits perfectly with the calendar of The Spring. I don’t know if that is just a lucky coincidence, or if, at some point in my revising work on The Spring, I brought that story’s calendar in line with the calendar of Leah. Revising The Spring was a long, on again-off again process that lasted several years. I know that I didn’t get the idea of placing the two stories in the same fictional universe until after I wrote and published the first edition of Leah, so sometime in the late 1990s, when I first started revising The Spring for possible publication, I must have revised the calendar of The Spring to bring it in line with Leah. I don’t remember doing that, but it sounds like something I would do. Whatever, as of right now, I have a definite calendar set for the story. Leah begins on Saturday, August 22 and ends on Monday, November 30. (I should do something to celebrate August 22 next week — maybe go to a garage sale. ;))

In what year is the story set? That’s something that I don’t ever answer. While I pay careful attention to the days and months in which the stories are set, I’ve resisted assigning a specific year to either Leah or The Spring just because I think that if I do that, then I’m setting the story in the past, and I want it to seem as contemporary as possible for as long as possible. Of course, there are cultural artifacts mentioned in the stories, like cell phones, mp3 players, the Internet, and — perhaps — gasoline powered internal combustion engines which place the stories sometime in the early 21st century, but I don’t want to get any more specific than that.

Something else that I ought to do soon, which I’ve never done before (not even for The Spring) is figure out exactly what the time schedule is for the fictional high school where both stories are set. I’ve established that Leah’s school day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. — a generic school schedule. She has six classes during the day — three classes before lunch and three after (and in chapter four of the book I list what her classes are), but what I haven’t done is identify exactly how long the periods last and when the bells ring. I need to do this for Leah’s history class, at least, since time, with respect to that class, becomes very important in a couple of the chapters.

I consider the treatment of time and its relationship to the plot to be one of the most crucial elements when structuring and organizing a story. Paying attention to those little details can only enhance the illusion of realism. I’ve seen stories (movies and TV shows more so than novels) where time lines were handled sloppily and it definitely takes me out of my enjoyment of a story if I have to try to figure out what is happening when. So it’s important that I get the calendar right for my novel. In the next post, I show you just how important time really is for Leah Nells.

August 9, 2008

Things I Like #1

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 8:26 pm
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Because most of the narrative of Leah occurs from the main character’s point of view, whenever another character crashes into Leah’s sometimes insular world, the effect — at least for me — can be a bit jarring. Leah’s isolation from her classmates doesn’t just make her interactions with her classmates awkward and uncomfortable, but a lot of her fellow students think she’s weird, and this leaves her exposed as a potential target for bullies. As I’m rewriting Leah, I’m also sketching out some rough drafts for my next novel, and as I’ve hinted in a previous post, I’m going to let Leah make a very, very brief “cameo” appearance in the new story. The next novel is set about a year and a half after the events of Leah, and the glimpse that we get of her in that new context is perhaps a little disturbing. It suggests that the teasing and bullying that Leah experiences from time to time in this novel might actually get worse for her.

In this book, though, the most explicit scene of bullying occurs after Leah has already suffered a significant disappointment in her English class. After English, she goes on to world history where she tries to cheer herself up by reading a page or two out of her latest book before class starts, but she’s interrupted:

She had a few minutes of free time available to her so she opened her backpack and removed her new book, 5087 Trivia Questions & Answers. She opened the book to page 49 and began reading where she left off at the end of lunch. She didn’t expect to read very far, maybe only one or two pages, but that didn’t matter. At times like this, reading offered the kind of escape which she needed. She read her book and ignored her the other students as they filed into class. Shortly before the bell rang, she sensed a shadow looming over her, and she heard a husky voice ask, “What are you reading?”

Startled, Leah looked up and found a boy named Kyle standing over her. He was a tall, slightly overweight, aggressive guy who was destined to become a varsity football player in his later years of high school. Leah didn’t like him. He was loud, rude, and intimidating, but what she didn’t understand was why he was standing here beside her when his desk was on the other side of the room.

Leah, still shocked by Kyle’s intrusion, hadn’t answered the boy’s question, and her silence was starting to annoy him.  Kyle pried the book out of the girl’s hands and read the title himself. “5087 Trivia Questions & Answers,” he declared, loudly, so that anyone in the classroom who might be watching could hear him. “What’s this for? Are you trying out for a game show or something?” He laughed and added, “If you do, you’ll have to talk, you know. You can’t just stand there and not say anything.” Still holding the book, he turned around. “Hey Jake!” he shouted across the room to another boy. “Jake! Look at this!” Kyle wanted to show the book to his friend, but the boy named Jake was engaged in a serious conversation with a couple of giggling girls and so Kyle was the last thing on his mind. Meanwhile, Leah was beginning to feel embarrassed as Kyle was determined to make her the center of attention, even though he wasn’t having much success. She wanted to stop him and get her book back, but she didn’t know what to do. Kyle was a lot bigger than she was, and if he was determined to keep the book away from her, he could. She looked in vain for Mr. Simmons, but he was nowhere to be found. She felt helpless.

Frustrated by his failure to attract Jake’s attention, Kyle turned to Leah again. He saw the alarm and desperation on the girl’s face and teased, “What? Do you really want this book back?”

“Give it back to her, Kyle,” said the voice of a boy sitting in a desk somewhere behind Leah.

Kyle, thinking he had finally found an audience, turned in the direction of the voice and said, “Hey, David, check out this book! This girl thinks she’s gonna be on a game show or something.” He opened the book to a random page and asked, “Hey, can you answer this? ‘What did the philosopher Soccerts drink when he committed suicide?'”

“You’re an idiot,” the voice laughed. “It’s pronounced ‘Socrates,’ not ‘Soccerts’. Simmons talked about him just last week. Weren’t you paying attention?”

Kyle stared at the book in his hands. “Oh,” he said flatly. A few of Leah’s classmates, who were now-at last-paying attention to Kyle, started laughing.

“Now give her back her book,” the voice commanded.

Kyle hesitated for a moment, but then he handed the book to Leah without saying another word. He left her desk and returned to the other side of the room just as the bell rang and Mr. Simmons, who had missed the scene, entered the class, and, unaware of what had just occurred, asked everyone to take a seat so he could call roll. Leah turned around to face the voice who freed her book from Kyle’s grasp. In the row to her right, sitting two seats back, was the boy named David . . .

This, of course, also marks the first appearance of David in the novel. Leah’s moment of humiliation turns into the start of something more exciting. But for me, what I like most in this scene is Kyle’s bullying of Leah and what that suggests about her character’s life at school outside the narrative bounds of the story.

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