Advice to a Young Writer

Not long ago, I received an email from a young woman (the daughter of a high school friend), asking me for insight on the writing process. It was fun (and  instructive) to take a few minutes to reflect on what it takes to do what I do. I figured that, since I took the time to gather these thoughts, I might as well share them with other young (or not so young) writers who might be out there wondering how to get started. Without further ado, here is my exchange with Margo: —– Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, I am doing a research project about Marco Polo at school. For our projects, we are supposed to reach out to an adult in the same professional field as our notable. Marco Polo was also an author, so I found you to be great candidates. The assignment is to ask you about what “soft skills” your job requires. Soft skills are attributes needed to be successful in your career. These skills are more aimed towards things that make a good leader, like participation or focus, not handwriting or geometry. What skills do writers need for every day work? Thanks you for your help. Sincerely, Margo T., 6th grade —– Hello, Margo, I have enjoyed the opportunity to think about the soft skills that make it possible for me to do my job as a writer. Here’s what I came up with. persistence (and patience) – Writing is something that you learn how to do little by little, over an extremely long period of time. Although you can certainly improve by taking writing classes...
Covers Uncovered

Covers Uncovered

One of the most exciting and vexing and challenging and time-consuming parts of making a book is coming up with the cover, because no matter how many times we’re cautioned not to judge a book by it, the cover is that first impression we can never shake. And so a whole lot of people work very hard to make sure it is a good one. The process usually begins with our art director Natalie saying to Robbi, “Take a stab at some cover ideas,” which always makes Robbi feel wiggly because as much as she muddles her way through our various in-house design needs, she is NOT a designer and does not play one on television. Nevertheless, Robbi dutifully creates a few thumbnails and sends them along. To which Natalie responds something along the lines of. “Great! Let’s see that one with the big owl in a little more detail and maybe also that one with the three kids and the owl, but maybe with a little more excitement happening above the title.” Robbi is extremely excited at this point, because the one with the big owl is her favorite. And so she draws and draws and sends two sketches to Natalie. One with a little more detail.      One with a little more excitement. At this point, Natalie and Erin take the more fully developed sketches to the team of people at Macmillan whose specialty is covers. They have important conversations to which we are not invited so as to protect our tender feelings from the grim realities of the rough and tumble world of selling books. After the meeting, Natalie writes and says something...
Gratitude

Gratitude

One of the great pleasures of publishing a book is the chance to plant a dedication in the front, to express the gratitude you feel to the people whose contributions made that book possible, through help or inspiration, and oftentimes both. We dedicated Babies Ruin Everything to our kids and Everywhere, Wonder to our parents. For The Real McCoys, we wanted to acknowledge those who paved our path from making books by hand on our dining room table to publishing a hardcover novel with one of the world’s biggest publishing houses. Jesse Post (now proprietor of the fabulous Postmark Books) worked at Disney when he stopped by our table and bought a copy of our mix-and-match book After Everafter during an indie press show many years ago. A few years later, he took it to a production meeting at Little Brown, where he gave it to Erin Stein, who then hired us to write and illustrate a mix-and-match book about Spider Man, Thor, and friends. Erin, whose contributions to our story merit a post (or novel) of their own, is the publisher at Imprint (a part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), and the editor of The Real McCoys. Bridget Watson Payne, an editor at the estimable Chronicle Books, rolled the dice on two unknown creators and acquired our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories, giving it an editorial refresh and honoring it with the Chronicle name. We loved working with Bridget. She is smart, honest, and hilarious (and recently, an author in her own right). So when we were looking for an agent a few years ago, we charged Bridget with helping...
Robbi’s Guide to Nocturnal Productivity

Robbi’s Guide to Nocturnal Productivity

Robbi is a raccoon. By which I mean, she comes alive when the sun sets and kicks into full gear when the most of us are ready to climb into bed. Her natural creative sweet spot is 10:00pm -2:00am. We’ve known this for a long time, but in the interest of spending time with her family by being awake during roughly the same hours, Robbi has behaved less like a raccoon and more like a prairie dog for most of the past decade. Except during stretches of intense creative production that demand nothing but her best and most efficient creative output. We find ourselves in such a stretch. The books in The Real McCoys series are long (336 pages) and illustration-heavy (roughly 1,000 individual drawings in each book). The number of hours required to illustrate each is patently absurd, and the only way Robbi can manage the feat is to abandon normalcy and work through the night. Every night. Here’s what her desk looks like right around 3:00am. I am wired like a boring old human being conditioned to mirror the path of the sun. Which means I completely decompensate as 8:00pm rolls around.  I’ve always marveled at Robbi’s nocturnal prowess, wondering how she manages it. I woke this morning with the answer. In the dead of night, Robbi decided to document her current method for keeping the Sandman at bay. I present it for you here. Lest you decide the time has come to create 1,000 illustrations: Recommendations for your next all-nighter (by Robbi): 1. V8 + Energy Drink: I don’t know what’s in this stuff but it seems to be...
Please! (And thank you.)

Please! (And thank you.)

Hello, friends. Our first heavily illustrated, beautifully printed, funny and heart-warming whodunnit of a kid novel The Real McCoys comes out in two short weeks. Robbi and I are extremely excited but are also trying to do whatever we can to help this book we love find its way in the world. From talking with other authors and people in publishing, it sounds like strong preorders can do a lot to help a book get noticed, shelved, shared, etc. OUR REQUEST TO YOU: if you were planning on buying this book anyway, doing so now instead of after it comes out would be a huge help to us. And, even if you are currently kidless, consider picking up a copy or two for birthday or holiday gifts. (Crazily, it can be had for just $10.33.) I’ve included links to various online retailers below, but you can also preorder from your local bookstore. Apologies for the overt ask, but in this case, if you are willing to give this book a loving nudge, we would be extremely grateful. Your support means the world to us. [For your calculations, the sweet spot is grades 3-7, but it would also be perfect for parents to read with younger kids—and I wrote it to be funny to all but the most humorless adults]. Places you can buy it online: IndieBound  Barnes & Noble Target...