YA / Children’s Book Author Tells All

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Scott McCormick is a successful and acclaimed children’s book and YA author. His diverse output includes graphic novels (the acclaimed Mr. Pants series), fantasy books (The Dragon Squisher and its upcoming sequel), and several Audible Originals, including the Rivals series of humorous history audiobooks and a soon-to-be-published novel called Mutually Assured Detention).

Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes: How do you spend a typical day? If there is a typical day?

Scott McCormick: I write every day. The hours I write change, but basically, when I’m not chauffeuring my kids or getting everyone ready for the day, I’m writing. And when I’m not writing, I’m often thinking about writing. This certainly doesn’t make me the most exciting person to be around, but it gets the job done.

Solomon: How did you get your first book published?

McCormick: When my illustrator (RH Lazzell) and I finished our first Mr. Pants story, we printed up some copies independently and shared them around. The reaction to Mr. Pants was startling: “Oh my God, this is amazing. Can I have a copy for my niece? ” So, we were pretty confident we had hit on something great; I figured we’d land an agent and a publishing deal in no time.

Well, not so much.

Finding an agent is tough. And the querying process to find one is daunting, time consuming, and the feedback isn’t usually very helpful. My luck changed when I went to the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in New York. There I attended a panel hosted by an agent I had never heard of before, but the moment he started talking I realized he would understand Mr. Pants. I approached him after his panel was over and we hit it off immediately. From there, he helped us fine-tune our IP and, when he was convinced it was ready to prime time, he made one phone call and sold it practically overnight.

So, my advice to any up-and-coming writers out there: join a writer’s organization and attend their regional or national conferences. It’s a great way to meet other writers and possibly your future agent.

Solomon: Like most of us, I expect you didn’t emerge as an independent wordpreneur (that’s mine; feel free to use it) all at once. Did you used to have a day job? Any insight on transitioning? Anything to watch out for?

McCormick: My first serious job was in public relations, which meant writing a lot of press releases. This was not the kind of writing I was aspiring towards, but it paid the bills. Then I worked for a manufacturing company where I worked my way up from writing newsletters to eventually becoming their senior copywriter. In that role, I wrote all their catalogs and website copy and ads — and basically everything else. That job was excellent training because it forced me to find new ways to be creative about the most boring things you can imagine.

That job also gave me excellent training for writing on a deadline. As a result, I love writing on a deadline and actively dislike not having one. I used to tell my colleagues to always give me a tight deadline and to lie to me if the project didn’t have one. Never tell me there’s no rush. That just means you won’t ever get it. But if you tell me you need it Tuesday, you’ll have it Tuesday, no matter how long it is.

It was when I still had that job that I published Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time, and things finally started happening for me in terms of achieving my creative goals. But of course, you don’t publish one book and suddenly quit your day job. You need to master the nuts and bolts of business, such as paying your bills, projecting for cash flow, and having a good mix of income sources. So, in order to transition to being a full-time author, I launched Storybook Editing, where I offered editing and ghostwriting services for independent authors. This not only helped me pay my bills, but because I was finally immersed in publishing, I was able to hone my own craft.

As for transitioning, I wouldn’t go full time until you’ve had a good two years’ worth of earnings, or unless you have a great support system. Publishing is a weird business. It takes a long time to get a book from the contract stage to the bookshelves, which means it can be a year or two before you get fully paid for your work. So unless you have a significant other with a steady paycheck (my wife is a superhero), the yearly fluctuations can be tough until you get over the hump.

Solomon: Do you believe in “flow”? Do you feel you have moments of when you’re writing?

McCormick: I do experience the flow state, though not nearly as often as I’d like. It’s the greatest feeling in the world when the characters start talking on their own. When I’m in that state I’m not writing so much as taking dictation. As I mentioned before, deadlines — specifically panicking about missing a deadline — will get me into that state without fail. If I don’t have a deadline, it can be hard to get into that state.

Solomon: What are some of your creative triumphs?

My first Rivals book (Rivals! Frenemies Who Changed the World) was the number-one bestseller on Audible for about a month and still continues to sell very well. The third book in the Rivals series, Pirates! Scoundrels Who Shook the World, is my favorite of the so far, though I’m very excited to hear book four: Spies! Sneaks, Snoops, and Saboteurs Who Shaped the World, which is coming out Spring of 2022.

I’m very proud of The Dragon Squisher, a humorous YA fantasy novel, especially since I self-published it. The reception to that has been astounding, even garnering interest from Hollywood. (If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, The Dragon Squisher will be right up your alley.)

And even though it came out almost ten years ago, I still get fan mail for my Mr. Pants series, which I co-created with the super-talented illustrator RH Lazzell. Kids have dressed up as our characters for Halloween and sent me their own Mr. Pants stories. I even hear from parents who say they’ve found their kids reading my books under their covers, well past their bedtime. That’s the kind of fan mail you dream about getting, so it warms my heart every time.

Solomon: What are you dying to try that you haven’t yet?

McCormick: I have always wanted to sell a screenplay. I put that ambition on hold for a few years while I pursued children’s books, but just this year I completed a script that has been getting some serious interest. So, fingers crossed.

Solomon: Do you have any advice for getting over writer’s block?

McCormick: Most professional authors will tell you they never suffer from writer’s block. Well, that’s nice for them, but as someone who does suffer, I have worked out a few tricks over the years that usually help me.

First one: go for a walk. And make sure it’s the most boring walk in the world, where you can pay no attention to where you’re going and where you’re not going to be distracted by other people or beautiful vistas. You need to stand up, step away from the computer, get your blood pumping, and let your mind wander. Don’t take your dog for a walk. Don’t listen to podcasts or music unless you are using it to tune out the world. (I like to listen to Miles Davis’ fusion records because they’re high energy and there’s an almost complete lack of melody to distract me.) Just get up and go. Sometimes it only takes a few dozen steps before I’ve solved the problem.

If you’re still stuck, try writing a random scene with your characters set in the most unlikely setting possible. Writing a space opera? Have your characters go bowling. Writing a romance? Have your characters play laser tag. Have your villain and hero go to the supermarket, or play Twister. You’ll be amazed at how this exercise can give you a ton of new ideas about this project, help you understand your characters better, or even give you an idea for a new book. Most importantly, this exercise will get you to have fun writing again, which is the most important thing.

Solomon: Any other advice for other writers?

As trite as this may be, my best advice is to not give up and to keep trying and testing out new things. I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer, and over the years I have tried my hand at writing everything except a cookbook. I’ve tried poetry, songs, journalism, sketch comedy. . . you name it. It never occurred to me to try children’s books until I had kids of my own, and even after trying my hand at it, it still took me a few years until I found my voice. And even after publishing my first books, I still had my ups and downs. But I kept going and learning and I kept trying new approaches to writing, and today I am a full-time author, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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