Archive for February 22, 2009

Old Photo

I found this old photo, taken with my sister Jean in a photo booth. It was, as you can see, before I got the hang of these things . . .

unlike today . . .

Bystander: Revising Galleys

I’ve been messing with the “second pass” galleys for Bystander (Fall, 2009). These last corrections are minor, twenty pages can go by untouched, and these last changes won’t be reflected in the ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) that go around to reviewers, etc.

So I warmed up my scanner — a new toy for me — and decided to give a blow-by-blow of a minor revision through four separate stages. Of course, there were many more stages of doubt and second-guessing (I mean: revision!) that happened before I sent the book out. To me, it’s an uncountable process.

Part of me thinks: No one cares, this is all too self-obsessed. But the other part of me loves process, the journey, and thinks that maybe somebody else does too. If  you think this is a worthwhile thing for me to do with this blog, let me know.

FROM THE FIRST DRAFT that went to Feiwel and Friends editor, Liz Szabla:

SECOND DRAFT. You’ll note two changes: 1) I felt that the prairie dog reference, though okay for a kid from South Dakota, was wrong for Eric, wrong for Long Island. I felt that he wouldn’t think to make that comparision. 2) I cleaned up that last sentence, he’s no longer “racing,” because that was the wrong word; there’s now the specific “gap in the fence”; and overall it’s just a little leaner and better, IMO.

FIRST-PASS GALLEYS. Here we see the manuscript set into type. I still disliked the sentence, “. . . those Meercats on TV.” Somewhere in there I changed it from “TV” to “Animal Planet,” went singular rather than plural. But a new concern entered, or more likely I began to listen to an old concern: Was the image too contemporary, ephemeral. Would it date the book? “Meerkat Manor” wasn’t going to last on TV forever. Maybe in five, ten years people won’t be as conscious of meerkats as they seem to be now. And like the prairie dog image, even a meerkat simile seemed too much of a reach. You’ll see below my hasty script, where I’m fooling around with more localized comparisons: “a rabbit in the field, hawks in the sky, snakes in the grass.” Searching for something that might work.

SECOND-PASS GALLEYS. I spoke with Liz on the phone. What you see below is the scribblings I made before I spoke with Liz, and then the result of that conversation. First, I was still hating that sentence: “He was nervous, like a meerkat on Animal Planet.” I tried to come up with some other images, and scribbled below: “and watchful, like a small animal in dangerous woods.” That wasn’t a proposed sentence so much as the kind of image I was grasping for, a frightened chipmunk sort of thing. Not working.

At that point, I solved it the way so many of these things are solved. Because often when a sentence gives you this much trouble, it’s a sign that maybe it should go away completely. I crossed it out and wrote “NO” on the side of the page. On the phone, Liz and I looked at it and agreed. We already saw he was “tensed,” saw that he was watchful. I didn’t need a simile; what I needed was to keep this boy on the run — because the bad guys are coming. We lose the distracting simile, which I never got right, and move on to the next sentence: “Then he took off without a word.” By cutting we didn’t actually lose anything; and we gained pace, forward movement.

FINAL NOTE: You may notice that I flip-flopped on that last line, “was long gone,” or the simpler alternate, “was gone.” Liz and I both thought about it, talked about it, that extra word “long,” and decided to reinstate it.

And that’s one glimpse into a late stage of the revision process.


This is a reference I’m not sure many will get, but it’s something that I had to put into the book. To me, no discussion of bullying, regardless of how seemingly benign the form, can take place without a recognition of Columbine as an extreme result. It’s always there, that vision of what could happen if good people — the bystanders — don’t act. The two shooters in that massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were originally victims of bullying. This is a common scenario, “the bullied bully,” widely recongized in the literature. So many targets go on to target someone else in a cycle of hurt and intimidation. Anyway, Harris and Klebold were once severely humiliated when they were splattered with ketchup packets. When I came across that while researching Bystander, I knew I wanted to use it  somehow — so my book opens immediately after it happens to another boy, and the book’s protaginst, Eric Hayes, sees him running, running. Because even though my book does not go the extremes of Columbine, it’s a haunting scenario that remains forever present, like a ghost in the room, a reminder and a lesson we dare not forget.

Fan Mail Wednesday #31

Bang a gong — it’s another Fan Mail Wednesday! Here’s a good example of what it’s like to get a letter from a mob . . .

Dear Mr. Preller,

We are kindergarten, first, second and third grade students at The Albany Academies in Albany, New York.  We enjoyed reading your book, The Case of the Stinky Science Project, during Book Clubs. As part of our assignment we came up with questions we would like to ask you about the book and being an author. We look forward to meeting you during the Academies Children’s Book Festival in April.

A few of our questions are:

* How does it feel to make a really good book? * Is making books fun? * How did you become an author? * Are you working on a book right now? * How many books have you written? * What is your favorite book you have written? * What gave you the idea for the Jigsaw Jones series? * How many Jigsaw Jones books have you written? * How did you come up with all your story ideas? * What is your favorite Jigsaw Jones book? * What is the latest book in the Jigsaw Jones series? * Have you ever made a volcano that was stinky? * Did you like science when you were little? * Have you written any other series? * What is your favorite book that you have read?

Thanks for your time!

Mrs. Epstein, Evan, Vishal, Jack, Nicholas, Hudson, Devan, and Douglas

Here’s my reply:

Dear Mrs. Epstein, boys, girls, hamsters:

Thanks for your note. My gosh, those are a LOT of questions, and I do have this inconvenient full-time job thingy, so I’ll pick a few to answer and hope that’s not too terribly disappointing.

How does it feel to make a really good book?

It’s a great feeling when it comes together and you think, “Yes, this is what I wanted to say, this is how I wanted to say it.” Not every book comes out that way. In fact, with me it’s usually parts of books, moments, chapters that are “really good.” But to do that for a whole entire book? I’m still trying.

Is making books fun?

No, I wouldn’t say it’s fun. A lot of different feelings go into the process, and not all of them are “happy-happy, let’s do the Dance of Joy.” I’m not complaining; I’m just saying.

How did you become an author?

I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. What’s strange is that a lot of folks who claim they want to be authors are unwilling to take that necessary step. It’s simple: Before you become an author, you must become . . . a writer.

Are you working on a book right now?

Yes. I’m pretty much always working on a book. I’m currently in the “I hate myself” stage of the writing process. I think this answer relates to a previous question about “fun.”

What is your favorite book you have written?

Six Innings. I love my new one, Bystander, coming out in Fall, 2009. It’s about bullying, set in a middle school. Very proud of that one. I like my new picture book, Mighty Casey, that’s due in March. It’s just a light-hearted, hopefully humorous look at Little League baseball at the youngest, purest level — with rhyming text, for extra buoyancy!

What is your favorite Jigsaw Jones book?

I tend to like certain moments in each book, rather than whole entire books from beginning to end. I really like the opening two chapters of Super Special #2: The Case of the Million-Dollar Mystery. But there are definitely a few that, to me, fall a little short of what I hoped they’d become. For example, in The Case of the Detective in Disguise, I tried to weave together two separate mysteries — but I think it was an experiment that failed. Yet as a writer, you learn with each failure, so in a way it was a successful experiment: I learned what didn’t work. Triumph!

Thanks for your time!


P.S. For more on the Children’s Book Festival at Albany Academies, the date is April 17; click like there’s no tomorrow right here for full details.

This Week’s Coolest Thing Ever

I got this in the mail the other day, the Korean translation of Six Innings.

For the curious, these “foreign rights” things just sort of happen on the publishing side of things; the author has nothing to do with it. So every time it’s like a little gift.

To double your surfing pleasure, here’s the German version of Jigsaw Jones, renamed “Puzzle Paul,” which includes full-color interior artwork.

2009 Notable Children’s Books: The Official List

The official list is out — and I’m still on it!


There are a lot of people to thank, and many of them signed this ball. Jean, Liz, Rich, Elizabeth F., Dave, Christine, Elizabeth U., Nicole, and Jessica: Thanks. Jean Feiwel came along and believed in me at a time when I needed exactly, precisely that. A cliche, but absolutely a dream come true: “Here’s a contract, now go write the best book you can.” Forever in her debt for that opportunity.