Where do you get your ideas?
Travel is my favorite source. Traveling in Denmark led to my
book about Hans Christian Andersen and his paper cuttings. Traveling
in France led to my Highlights article (Oct. 1996) on Berthe Morisot, the
only Frenchwoman who was an Impressionist artist. Traveling and living
on the East Coast led to my book about the Great Molasses Flood in Boston.
Reading newspapers, magazines, books and the Internet also gives
me lots of ideas. Watching people, eavesdropping on conversations,
listening to other people's stories, volunteering at school and in the
library-all of it gives me ideas. Doing research on certain subjects
often leads to more ideas for new projects.
However, as a wise publisher once said, it's not where you get the
ideas that counts-it's what you do with them! Just do something!!
If I want to be a writer, what should I do?
First, ask yourself what kind of writer. We all have our preferences.
Do you want to write fiction or nonfiction? For newspapers or magazines?
Short stories or books? For adults or teenagers or children?
figure out what kind of writing you want to do, then go to the library
and read about writers who have done the kind you're interested in doing.
You can learn a lot from someone's story of how they got launched and how
they succeeded in their field.
It is also important to read the type of writing that you want to
write-mystery, sports, travel articles, whatever-then you know what's been
published and how you can be different.
Take a writing class at school or a community college or in an extension
program. Classes are a great reality check. You get the teacher's
feedback but also twenty other people's opinions, which is very helpful.
The sooner you share your work and learn to accept suggestions, the sooner
you'll be able to improve your writing and learn to work with an editor.
Take an editing class. That's where I started because
I figured that I should know what the editor would do to my stuff before
I sent it out, so I could improve it ahead of time and get rid of the obvious
Finally, JUST WRITE! Like any other skill (and writing definitely
takes skill, being as much craft as art), practice makes perfect.
The more you write-in a journal, essays, letters, articles, stories-the
better you'll be at it.
What are your favorite books?
Growing up, I loved Harriet the Spy, Rascal, Little Women, Mary Poppins,
Nancy Drew mysteries, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlotte's Web, the Henry Huggins
books, To Catch a Spy, A Lantern in Her Hand, and The Witch of Blackbird
I went back to reading children's books because I knew I wanted to write
them. That's when I discovered and loved The Phantom Tollbooth, There's
a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, The Whipping Boy, the wonderful picture
book, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox and The Tub
People by Pam Conrad and so many more.
What's the best part about being a writer?
The three best things about being a writer are:
(1) No commute or dressing up.
I stay home and lose myself in other worlds,
other times, among all sorts of characters. It's great to work at
the kitchen table or in my office, barefoot, wearing my sweat pants and
(2) The variety.
I can write about ANYTHING that interests
me, nonfiction or fiction, for any age group and any length: articles,
essays, picture books, novels.
(3) The independence and freedom.
I can write about anything, anywhere, at
anytime that fits into my and my family's schedule. Writing is the
ultimate flexible career. I've written at all hours of the day or
night and everywhere: doctor's offices, parks, playgrounds, basketball
practices, airports, restaurants, on planes, trains, and in automobiles.
What are the three worst things about being a
(1) The uncertainty.
You never know if what you write is something
that will strike a chord in an editor making her love it enough to publish
it, and then whether readers will buy it.
(2) The lack of steady income and benefits.
Writers never know for sure when they'll
be paid next or how much it will be. Freelance writers are not on
staff, so they don't get a steady paycheck. Most writers' income
depends on selling manuscripts, receiving royalties twice a year, and/or
speaking at schools, conferences and book conventions. Writers don't
have typical benefits like a 401K or health insurance or paid vacation.
That's why many writers have a day job, a steady source of income and employment
until their writing career takes off and can support them.
(3) The need for self-discipline (and
not minding being indoors a lot).
Writing takes tons of self-discipline because
you're free to do whatever you want without a boss to tell you to get to
work. Writers must make themselves sit down to write for hours.
It's the only way that projects will ever get finished.
Once I get going,
the time flies as long as the writing is going well. It crawls when
it's not. Often I get lost in my writing and whole days of beautiful
weather go by and I've been indoors for most of it. It's not until
I go outside to walk our dog, Maverick, or coach my son's soccer team or
hike down the hill to pick up the boys from school that I realize it was
another beautiful day and I missed it. Then again, if I lived in
Seattle or Buffalo, I'd feel a lot less guilty. San Diego takes more
discipline to stay at your desk because it's so nice outside so much of
When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
It didn't dawn on me until my senior year in high school, and
even then, I told no one. To me, it sounded pompous to say I wanted
to be a writer if I hadn't been published, so I decided to say nothing
of my dream until I sold something.
Unfortunately, by keeping it to myself, no one could cheer me on
until I'd already proven myself, but that's okay. They couldn't try
to discourage me from trying either.
How much money do you make?
It all depends on who you are, what you write and how much people
like your work. For every writer, it's different. But most
first-time writers struggle to get published and are not paid much.
The industry standard for children's books is an advance of
$8,000-10,000 for a picture book, half going to the author and half to
the illustrator. That is a one-time fee. The advance is paid
upfront, when the manuscript is finalized and ready for printing.
The advance cannot be taken away from the writer even if only two copies
of the book sell. That is why large advances are popular. Advances for
first novels are less, from $3,000-5,000, and go to the author alone, since
there is no illustrator.
Publishers get their money back from selling the book and taking
the profits as well as hanging onto the author's royalty on each book until
the advance is paid off. If the author has a 5% royalty, then that
could be $.75 per book. Royalties are added up and deducted from
the $5,000 advance.
Once the advance
is paid off, then the author (and illustrator, if there is one) begin to
receive royalty checks for as long as the book is in print. So the
goal of most writers and illustrators is to have lots of great books in
print for a long, long time. If they keep receiving royalty checks,
that helps finance the writing of their new books.