Day 3 of my author, agent, editor and a librarian interview series continues.
Today’s guest is author Alan Gratz.
Alan was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the 1982 World’s Fair. After a carefree but humid childhood, Alan attended the University of Tennessee, where he earned a College Scholars degree with a specialization in creative writing, and, later, a Master’s degree in English education. He now lives with his wife Wendi and his daughter Jo in the high country of Western North Carolina, where he enjoys playing games, eating pizza, and, perhaps not too surprisingly, reading books.
Q: When did you first start writing?
AG: I began writing when I was very young. I was already writing stories in 1st and 2nd grades, and I wrote my first “book,” a non-fiction guide called “Real Kids Don’t Eat Spinach” when I was in the fifth grade. I continued to write creatively in middles school, then focused on journalism in high school, and went back to creative writing in college, where I earned a specialized degree in creative writing from the University of Tennessee. I’ve been writing kids books professionally since my first sale in 2003.
Q: How long did it take to write your first book?
AG: Samurai Shortstop took about nine months for me to write before it was in shape to submit it. After that, I spent another year editing it before it was in shape to be published! So all told, a year and nine months.
Q: How has success affected your writing?
Well, it has helped and hurt. I no longer have the luxury to take as much time as I want to finish a project. But the flip-side is that I have publishers eager to get new books from me and excited about promoting them! And with greater excitement comes greater expectations, which as a creative person can sometimes be debilitating.
Q: What do you enjoy most about Trivia night?
AG: Ha. Yes, my wife and I run our local trivia night at the Pizza Shop in Spruce Pine, NC. We used to do it once a week, but we both became too busy with our personal and business lives to keep that up! So now we have a trivia night once a month. We write up a total of 70 questions each week, spread across five rounds. My favorite thing by far is hosting–I love getting up in front of a crowd and laughing and playing games. If I weren’t a writer, I think I would most like to be a game show host. 🙂
Q: Do you get nervous at school visits?
AG: I used to. I used to be so nervous before the first presentation of the day that I would forget to breathe, and about five minutes in I would literally run out of breath, and have to stop and take deep breaths to resume. Which was awkward. But now I don’t get nervous like that. Part of it is confidence and repetition. I know what I’m doing, and I’m sure now that I’m going to be a hit if I just relax and do what I know. Another part of it–and this is kind of silly–is that I later purposefully built into my talk a place where I tell a story that has someone stop and take a deep breath. Which I do as a part of telling the story. So even if I’ve reverted to being nervous, I know I have a non-awkward place in my talk to stop, take a deep breath, and then continue. 🙂
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
AG: All over the place, really. I read a lot of books, watch a lot of TV and movies, and read comics and magazines. Every time I read or see a story, I tend to think, “What would I have done with that idea?” Usually that takes me to a very different place–often unrecognizable from the original–and those ideas are really useful. I find that idea generation comes naturally if you’re naturally curious about lots of things. I’m learning something new every day–Seriously. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s true in my case–and I can almost always see a way to spin what I’ve learned into a story. It’s figuring out which of those ideas is most worth pursuing that is the real challenge, not coming up with ideas. I have a few lifetimes’ worth of ideas, but only one lifetime to write.
Q: What a rookie mistake did you make that makes you cringe when you see other aspiring authors do the same thing?
AG: When I first got The Call–that is, when an editor first called me to say she wanted to buy my book–I said yes right there on the phone. Why wouldn’t I? It’s what I had been working so hard and so long for! But then when it came time to look for an agent (I sold my first book unagented, through the slush pile) all the agents said, “Did you say yes on the phone?” and I had to confess that I had. By saying yes, I had handcuffed any potential agent from negotiating on the advance and the royalty terms (the things my editor offered on the phone) because she knew I would settle for those. Lesson learned–but unfortunately it’s a lesson you only need to use once! Saying yes to a pretty low advance started me low on the totem pole, and it’s taken me a long time to climb higher. Think of it like any other job–whatever your salary is, that’s where your raises begin when it comes time to re-up your contract. If I had started higher, I would be earning more per contract by now. Most people get agents first these days, and I would recommend that. Thirteen years ago, there weren’t nearly so many kids book agents as there are now. Times have changed a lot. But it’s still a good lesson to just say to any offer, “I’m very excited about the offer. Let me take a few days to think about it and I’ll get back to you.” Then you go in the bathroom and throw up because you didn’t say yes to the thing you’ve always wanted. But seriously, to make you an offer, an editor has gone through other readers, her senior editors, her publisher, sales and marketing–this is not an offer made lightly. She will wait for you to get back to her. Nothing happens fast in publishing anyway.
Q: What is your writing routine? Do you feel guilty if you stray from the routine?
I don’t have a set routine for writing, like getting X number of words written every day. When I’m in the research phase, I spend my days reading books and taking notes. When I’m in the outling phase, I take as long as I need in a given day to get the story beats right. When I’m in first draft mode, I like to write at least a chapter every day, but some days in there I don’t write at all. It’s good to take a mental health day every once in a while. I do feel bad when I’m not working on a book period–no research, outlining, writing, editing, etc. Like, I get cranky and angry and I don’t sleep well and I start to feel physically bad. I *need* to be working on something all the time, I think, which certainly helps motivate me. When you’re your own boss, you have to be the carrot, the stick, AND the mule.
Q: Will you see Star Trek Beyond opening weekend? Will you carry a spork into the theater?
AG: Yes! My family are planning on seeing Star Trek Beyond on the Friday of opening weekend! I’m a fan of all the incarnations of Star Trek, and I like a lot of what they have done with the reboot films. I didn’t love Into Darkness, but it was better than some of the other misses in the franchise. No, I will not carry a spork into the theater, and no, I will not be in costume–I grew out of my TNG uniform tunic many years ago. That reminds me–I should make a new one! I’ve actually thought about cosplaying as the evil Spock from “Mirror, Mirror.” That or a Ghostbusters costume or an MST3K jumpsuit may be my next cosplay project…
Q: How many drafts do you typically write before submitting to your critique partner, agent or publisher?
Now that I have a few books under my belt with my editors and agent, I generally write a first draft, have my wife read it and give me notes, and then I reread it and address her notes and my own notes I wrote myself as I did the first draft. If I see something I should have done in a first draft, I don’t go back and fix it–I always want to be moving forward in a draft, not looking back. Each new day is new writing, not reworking old words. That comes later. My first job is to finish the first draft. After I’ve reworked the book, I’m usually ready to send it to my agent, if it’s unsold, or to my editor if it’s a project I sold on proposal, which I’m doing more of now. I write very clean first drafts though–I outline for a month before writing, so I have the story beats down cold. I don’t write to find the story, as some do, so my plotting is already pretty tight the first time around.
Q: What word did you delete the most from the last draft you revised?
AG: “Then” can often go, in favor of splitting up longer sentences into two. I always try to get rid of “suddenly” as much as I can too, and just make the event happen suddenly on the page without having to say it.
Q: How do you keep self-motivated?
AG: I like to eat pizza and buy books, which cost money, so that helps push me. 🙂 I’m only half-kidding–writing is now my job, my career, and I don’t get paid unless I write. So I write. But I chose this career because I love to tell stories. And I want to tell as many of them as I can. I have never been a one-idea/one-book guy. I knew if I ever got my foot in the door I could keep going as long as people kept buying things from me, and that’s what I’ve done. I also have a healthy fear of death (call it the ultimate FOMO), and I think part of my drive to write a book (or two!) a year is my desperation to get as much work out there as possible before I’m gone to preserve my legacy.
Q: Do you ever write long hand?
I *love* to write long hand, but it’s slow–and hurts when I write all day long. I have to type most everything now, from research notes to drafts. But I do like to outline by hand, on note cards that I post on my big wall in my office. That’s how I get my writing by hand fix. 🙂
Q: How do you cope with reviews?
Oof. Well, reviews can be really debilitating when they’re bad. And I fixate on the bad ones. Code of Honor has a bunch of four and five star reviews on Amazon right now, but I’ve read the single one-star review over and over again. Poor reviews on Amazon and Goodreads aren’t near as bad as bad professional reviews though. Those really burn, because someone was paid to set you on fire, AND those reviews get pride of place in professional journals and online retailers. And there’s nothing you can do about a bad review–nothing you SHOULD do, anyway. You should definitely NOT respond to any bad review with a defense of your book, or worse, an attack on the reviewer. You just have to let them go. But when I see them, I read them. I don’t know how I could not.
Q: What kind of relationship do you have with your agent?
I’m represented by Holly Root of Waxman Leavell, and I’m very happy with her. She not only works to sell and support my current projects, but helps me think about my future career path as well. Ultimately, all you can ask is that an agent be your second biggest advocate in the world (after yourself) and she’s definitely that. Well, perhaps my third biggest advocate, after my wife. 🙂
- total side note: I saw Star Trek opening day and it is FANTASTIC! -HRH