As writers, we are often told to write about what you know. That is what today's author did. He took his family's genetic trait and turned it into an amusing story to delight young readers.
Of all the genres you could write, what drew you to writing for children?Whenever someone asks me this question, I always think of the Stephen King response to why he writes horror. “The writer doesn’t choose the material; the material chooses them.” When the writing bug first hit me, I walked directly to the children’s room at my local library and never looked back.
What inspired you to write the first book?
I’ll tell you what inspired me to write my first published book, SUPER SCHNOZ AND THE GATES OF SMELL—my childhood love of superhero comics and the fact that I was born into a family of humongous honkers! Seriously, the Urey family reunion looks like a twelve-step support group for people with big noses.
When did you actually start writing your first book? I started writing my first book when I was around twenty-five, the day after I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC. It only took me twenty years to sell a book!
How long did it take to write your first draft?
It takes me about a month to write the first draft of a SUPER SCHNOZ adventure. The SCHNOZ books run around 22,000 to 25,000 words.
Prior to writing these children’s books, what was your publishing and writing background?
I had absolutely no background in publishing. When I graduated from high school, my goal was to be an actor. I spent three miserable semesters at my local state university and then moved to NYC. I spent ten years in the city working as an actor, script reader, and theatre reviewer.
Are you active in any writer critique groups?
I’m not active now, but I have been very active in the past. For somebody just starting out, I think critique groups are very positive. My wife and agent serve as my first and second readers of a new book.
You are published by a traditional publisher. How many submissions did you make before it was accepted there?
Do you really want to know? I don’t want to depress any of the aspiring writers who read your blog, but l submitted for many years with literally hundreds of rejections. The quote goes: A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. So true!
What kept you going despite all those rejections?
The thing that kept me going was faith, confidence, and a deep knowing that someday my time would come. I knew I was a good writer with a unique voice and sense of humor. The right editor/agent combo just had to see it. That finally came first with an agent signing me, and then the wonderful Kristin Ostby (now at Penguin) reading SUPER SCHNOZ and loving it.
Also, a couple unique experiences happened to me when I was just starting out. I lived and worked in New York City for many years and became friends with a children’s librarian named Roxanne Hsu Feldman. She later went on to sit on the Newbery Medal Committee. Also, one day I popped into a sushi restaurant on Park Avenue South for lunch and struck up a conversation with an older man. He turned out to be legendary children’s book editor Richard Jackson. I figured those things were signs from the universe telling me to keep on typing away.
Did you keep polishing it?
No, I didn't keep polishing it. I wrote a couple drafts and then moved on to something else. My advice to writers trying to break in is don't spend all of your time working on one book. The reason is that if an editor or agent likes you, they want to read more of what you have written. They want to invest in you for a career, not just one book. Also, you become a better writer by writing, not constantly rewriting the same thing repeatedly.
Did Whitman buy your books together?
Before Albert Whitman bought the first SUPER SCHNOZ book, they had me write up ideas for three or four more. So, although I originally only signed a contract for one book initially, they always intended to make SUPER SCHNOZ a series.
Do you have an agent?
Yes. The amazing Jill Corcoran of the Jill Corcoran Literary Agency.
Yes. The amazing Jill Corcoran of the Jill Corcoran Literary Agency.
Love your illustrator. Do you think he captured your idea? Did you have any input in the design of the cover?
Ethan Long (ALA Geisel Award winner and Emmy nominated animator) captured SUPER SCHNOZ perfectly! Keith Frawley illustrated the second book in Ethan's style and did an amazing job as well. Honestly, I didn't have any input on the look of the book. I'm just the writer, after all! The editorial team picks the illustrator and decides what the book will look like. I suppose if SUPER SCHNOZ reaches CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS levels then I will have more of a say in how the book looks, but the folks at Albert Whitman did a great job and I wouldn't change a thing.
Do you think you will ever try the indie publishing route?
I don’t have any plans to right now, but who knows what the future holds. When I first started writing for kids, the internet was still in its infancy and self-publishing was not an option.
What type of promotions does your publisher do on your behalf?
The biggest thing my publisher—Albert Whitman—did was send me to BEA in NYC for a book signing this spring! What an amazing experience! I shared an escalator ride with Kate DiCamillo, chatted about books with Jon Scieszka, and watched Jeff Kinney sign hundreds of books and pose for even more photos!
What are some of the promotions that you’ve done that have been the most successful?
I’ve done Blog Tours, radio interviews, and book signings in Maine where I live. The most successful thing for my first book was that it got a STARRED REVIEW from Kirkus. I think that brought the series to the attention of a lot of teachers, librarians, and booksellers.
What has frustrated you the most in putting these books together?
I had no frustrations. I was so thrilled to sell a book series; I would have worked on my edits standing in the center of Monument Square in downtown Portland, Maine in my Scooby Doo underwear.
What has pleasantly surprised you in the process?
The most pleasant thing is that I get to work with awesome editors. Writers need editors like a baby needs a caregiver. Good ones nurture your book and improve it immensely. I think this is the biggest mistake of self-published authors—they don’t use the services of a reputable editor-for-hire to help shape their books.
What do you know now about publishing you wish you had known sooner?
That it’s a business just like anything else. Publishers love to put out great books, but they also need their books to be profitable. I used to freak out whenever I saw “celebrity picture books” and “novels” from people like Rush Limbaugh displayed front and center at Barnes and Noble. But when those celebrity books make tons of cash for the publisher, they are more likely to take a chance on a great book by an unknown author.
Would you recommend your publisher to others?
Albert Whitman publishes the SCHNOZ books. They are an awesome independent publisher based in Chicago. I think they have been around for eighty plus and put out all the Boxcar Children books.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write children’s stories?
Write, write, write, read, read, read, and don’t submit anything until you’ve written at least two novels or ten picture book manuscripts. (You just aren’t good enough yet until you’ve put in the BIC—Butt in Chair—time.)
What is the writing best advice you’ve been given?
I first started out trying to write gritty YA novels. When that wasn’t working, a friend advised me to switch things up and write something weird and funny. That advice turned into SUPER SCHNOZ and it became my first published book. Moral: Don’t be afraid to abandon a style that’s not working for you and try something different.
What other books do you have planned or are currently in process?
I have just completed the third book in the SUPER SCHNOZ series (SUPER SCHNOZ AND THE SECRET OF STRANGE) and emailed it off to my editor. I’m also just about to finish an upper middle grade techno-thriller that my agent and I are excited to submit.