Archive for February 28, 2013

One Reason Why I Titled the Book “Bystander”

Fan Mail #166: Lessons Learned, Messages Sent (and a Complaint about The Berenstain Bears)

Here’s one I had to think about a little bit, then pause, and reconsider, and pause again.

Dear Mr.Preller:

We are 7th graders at _______ Middle School. We have recently read your book Bystander, and have learned some valuable lessons about bullying. We wanted to thank you for enlightening us in this serious topic. This was a great book, and here are the lessons we learned.

The first is not to judge a book by its cover. An example of this is how Griffin seemed nice, but then turned out to be the bully. Another is how David seemed to be nice, but then led Eric into a trap. This just proves that you shouldn’t judge people before you know them.

We also learned that everyone is different and that sometimes it is perfectly fine to be different. You have showed us that it’s ok to express ourselves because you are you and that is all anyone could ask for. This is a good book to read if you need advice about bullying or having troubles with bullying. We hope you are writing more books about this serious topic and are inspiring more people to stand up to bullying.


Chloe and Luke

I replied:

Dear Luke and Chloe:

Thanks for reading Bystander and also for taking the time to share your thoughts. It’s interesting when I send a book out into the world — I never know what the world will bounce back. As a writer, I never thought of myself as “teaching lessons” in my books, at least dogmatically, and I’d hate to reduce any novel to just “lessons learned.” At the same time, I would contend that it’s impossible to tell a story without sending a series of signals, values, messages.

I used to hate the Berenstain Bears books. Do you remember those? So popular. Each book set out to teach us something important! It got on my nerves pretty fast. And later on, as I had my own children, I began to intensely dislike how Papa Berenstain was such an unrelenting nit-wit. The big dumb dad, lacking in all thought. Sigh.

So while the stories might have set out to teach a valuable lesson, i.e., “Be nice to grandma!”, the unwritten message was often, “Dad’s kind of a dope. Insensitive, careless, clumsy. You know how fathers are.”

While my book, Bystander, does directly address the dynamic of bullying, what I hope shines through is the importance for readers like you to think for yourselves. To listen to your own heart, the good information that comes from your gut, rather than following the crowd. I never intended to hand a list of easy lessons to readers, and, frankly, I think most readers are loathe to pick up a book to learn “valuable lessons.”

While writing it, I was very much inspired by thrillers. I really wanted to give readers a quick, fast-paced, lively reading experience. A good read! I love literature, I love STORY — I love great television shows and movies, too — because they allow us to intimately visit with human beings we’d likely never encounter in our regular lives. By reading, we see new places, experience different points of view, and walk around in a different pair of shoes. In some books, we’re afforded a glimpse into how a variety of folks might feel at any given time. Rarely is another person 100% right or 100% wrong. It’s not black or white; we mostly come in shades of gray.

Stories help us build empathy, understanding, awareness, and tolerance.

In the end, the book closed, you guys will take away from it what you will. I don’t think there are lessons that you should or shouldn’t learn. Bullying is enormously complex, mostly because people are all so complicated. We are never ONE THING in life. As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We are loving and tender and careless and cruel — all before we’ve even sat down to munch on our morning bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats!

Thanks for your great letter, and for prodding me into these thoughts. Stand up, speak out, and above all, be kind.


SCARY TALES #2: The Rough Cover Becomes the Final

A few months back I posted the rough cover for SCARY TALES #2: I Scream, You Scream.

Today I received a lo-res file of the final cover.

In cases like this, I’m not just an author, I’m a fan of the process. I enjoy looking at the subtle variations, the minor shifts in design and emphasis, how we get from Point A to Point B. Most of what we see here I imagine as a result of the art director’s tweaks and refinements, combined with a talented illustrator, Italy’s Iacopo Bruno, getting down to the real work.

I’m a kid in 2nd, 3rd, maybe 4th grade? Yes, I’ll check out that book!

I’ve said elsewhere that as an author I’ve come to think of the book cover as “theirs,” meaning: the publisher’s. They want to sell the book just as badly as I do, and have a ton more expertise. I don’t really have much say in it, so don’t take the blame and can’t accept the credit. The primary job of the cover is to get a potential reader to pick up the book. Cut through the clutter. But not to cheat in doing it, not to promise something that the book can’t deliver. A cover should reflect the book’s best qualities and somehow, magically, arouse a reader’s curiosity.

This is a great cover, in my opinion. I just hope the author didn’t screw up the insides.

OVERHEARD: “Burrrrrp. Oh, yeah.”

That would be my daughter, Maggie, as she leaves the room.

Like a jet plane with a trail of exhaust.

The burp was bad enough. Well, I don’t really think so. I sort of like that Maggie enjoys a good burp. She’s like a guy that way. It does, however, drive Lisa a little crazy. As far as I can tell, my wife does not release gas of any kind, ever. At least not publicly. No farts, no burps.

One day, I’m sure, she’s just going to float off into the sky like a helium balloon.

So, okay, Maggie burped. It happens. But it was what came next that’s so wonderfully my daughter. “Oh yeah,” she said, taking pleasure and satisfaction in the good belch.

Lisa looked me like it was my fault, shook her head. So I called after Maggie with something like, “Say ‘Excuse me,’ please.” Just to let Lisa know that I was on the ball and I was keeping standards sky high. But Maggie was gone, off the grab another late-night bowl of cereal (she eats constantly).

I have to admit it. I like that my sixth-grade daughter burps. But let’s keep it between us.

Oh, one more thing. Another little habit of Maggie’s, which I attribute to middle school awkwardness, is she now sabotages every photograph we try to take. She’s lovely and beautiful and we have tons of great pictures. But not from the past year.

First, here’s some sweet ones. I have to confess, I’m home working today while Lisa and the kids are off for a couple days, skiing and having fun. I miss them.

Nowadays, alas, this is what we get. A nice father-daughter shot, ruined by . . . the face.

Writers: Stop Whining, Please

I have to get something off my chest.

A writer I know posted on Facebook that he’d just completed another novel. He described the process of writing just one book as “painful” and “basically torture.”

He compared it to childbirth. That’s the kind of pain he experiences.

Then a bunch of other authors chimed in about how their books were — wait for it — like their children.

And I have to say this, because it struck a nerve in me: I don’t find any of this remotely true. In fact, I find it embarrassing. Lacking in perspective. And, okay, I’ll say it: pretentious.

Torture? Really?

Why do it then? Go drive a bus, work as a nurse, become a clerk in a crowded office.

Is the job really so hard? Making up stories? I’m typing this from my office, sitting on a soft chair, listening to music. That’s where I work. Not in a coal mine. Not at Walmart for minimum wage. Not in the hills of Afghanistan. I’m sitting at home, typing.

I’m lucky as hell. And every day — every single day — I know that’s true. There are thousands of good, talented people who would LOVE to earn a living this way. Writing a book? People dream about getting published, wish for it, strive for it.

We have no right to complain. None.

Torture? Get a grip.

Of course, my attitude is not popular and I’m usually smart enough to keep my mouth shut. I just bite my tongue and taste the warm blood in my mouth. I think to myself about my three living, breathing children — how amazing they are, the surprising things to do, their complicated feelings and incredible potential — and I have to say that not one of my books is remotely like my children. It’s just a tired, dead cliche that gets used over and over (and over, and over) again, by folks who professionally are supposed to reach for higher than the standard cliche.

Oh well.

Another writer I know recently complained on Facebook about how hard it is to name characters. She probably wanted sympathy. It can be lonely writing a book. You can be filled with doubt, uncertainty. It’s not always easy.

Oh, the agony, the torture. This is so hard I might have to go upstairs to make a cup of tea and gaze out the window for an hour. Just to calm down. Maybe eat a snack. Sally, Jack, Tim? Mitali, Miranda, Scott? The pain, the pain!

I know I can’t say any of this without insulting a bunch of authors, many of them accomplished, award-winning writers. Perhaps my own meager work hasn’t been torturous enough? My wife is a midwife. She works so hard. Lisa gets calls through the night, labors with patients for hours, goes sleepless for 36-hour stretches. These are life and death situations, sometimes involving the deepest sorrows.

“Honey, get the water board, I’m ready to revise!”

Poor me! This awful burden of talent I’m forced to carry!

While I was stewing these past couple of days, feeling alienated and repulsed, I came across a blog post by one of my favorite current writers, Joe Posnanski. He reposted an old entry about his greatest day in sportswriting. You should click here, it’s a pretty terrific piece.

Be warned though, Joe tends to blog at length, as if he’s having too much fun to stop. Toward the end of this enjoyable story, he makes a little turn and — eureka, there it was — the exact words I needed to find. Somebody on this planet, a writer I respect, coming at this issue from a shared perspective. It’s why we read, you know. Sometimes writers can articulate something that strikes us as exactly right, hard and shining and true. A real thing.

Joe Posnanski wrote:

“People often ask me how I handle writer’s block — well knock on wood, thank my lucky stars, I’ve never had it. My thought about writer’s block is basically that my Dad worked in a factory almost his whole life, and he never had ‘factory block.’ Sometimes the words don’t come as easily as others, but you do what you have to do.”

That is, you go to work.

And you don’t complain about it. Or whine in public. Or compare it to freaking torture. You try to remember that you are extraordinarily fortunate to have this great gift of a career. We get paid to write books.

Be grateful. And shut up.