The Secret of My Success - An Interview With Children's Writer L D Harkrader
Interview by Suzanne Lieurance
Is there some secret for success as a children's writer? Inquiring minds (i.e., yours and mine) want to know, so I interviewed L.D. Harkrader whose first middle grade novel, Airball: My Life in Briefs, was recently released by Roaring Brook Press.
Harkrader doesn't seem to have any real secrets, but she does offer some insights into the writing process and a look at what an author needs to do to promote a book once it is published.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your writing background. What kinds of things did you write along the way to publication of your new middle grade novel, Airball: My Life in Briefs?
A: I've been writing seriously for thirteen or fourteen years. My first short story, "Prunella Thigpin," was published in Guideposts for Kids in 1994. Since then I've published over 200 short stories, poems, and articles in magazines and anthologies, as well as eight nonfiction books and three ghostwritten novels in the Animorphs series.
Q: How long did it take you to write Airball? What was the most difficult part of the writing process for you?
A: I started Airball in 1998, and it was published in 2005, which adds up to seven years. I'm a slow writer, it's true, but in my defense, I also wrote seven nonfiction books and three Animorphs books during that time! The most difficult part of writing the novel, besides all the stopping and starting between other projects, was maintaining confidence that I could actually finish it. First drafts are always the hardest part of any writing for me. I second-guess every word, sentence, comma, keystroke I make, which is something all the how-to-write experts tell you not to do, but something I can't seem to avoid. On top of that, I knew that this story walked a thin line between reality and fantasy, and I worried that I wouldn't be able to make it enough of either to be believable.
Q: Many writers stress the importance of a regular, daily writing schedule. Is that how you work? Why or why not?
A: Well, I certainly get more written when I maintain a regular, daily writing schedule. Unfortunately, it's not always possible. I also have to be the mom and chauffeur for my kids, as well as my son the sports addict's main cheering section. I'm a substitute teacher one or two days per week and also take on other writing and design projects occasionally just to pay the bills, so my time is not always (and sometimes not ever) my own. Plus there's that whole procrastination/avoidance problem I battle constantly. But work on my fiction definitely suffers when I don't write every day.
Q: What kinds of promotional activities has your publisher expected you to do to promote Airball? Have you found it helpful or necessary to do other promotional activities in addition to the ones the publisher sets up?
A: Roaring Brook has been great at promoting Airball. Their publicist has set up local booksignings and radio and newspaper interviews for me, which are things I probably wouldn't have been able to do (at least not as successfully) without them. My publisher also sent out review copies so that Airball has been reviewed in all the major children's book review sources, of course, and they also sent reviewers and book buyers a calendar that includes excerpts of all the books, including mine, they're publishing this year.
On my own I've done a couple school visits and spoken at local writers' conferences. I sent copies of Airball to local reviewers and to the director of the Kansas Center for the Book, an organization affiliated with the state library that promotes Kansas books and authors. I've talked to local independent bookstores, such as The Raven in Lawrence, to let them know about the local appeal of my book. Approaching bookstore owners face-to-face took courage for this not-always-recovering shy person, but turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things I've done.
When Airball came out, I overwhelmed myself for a few days trying to think of all the ways I could or should promote it. I realized I could spend an awful lot of money and time on promotion, and much of it could be ineffective. I decided the smartest thing I could do for my career and for Airball was to do local promotion that only made sense for me, rather than my publisher, to do and concentrate on finishing the next book.
Q: You have an agent, but do you think it's absolutely necessary for today's children's writer to have an agent? Why or why not?
A: I think it's more important today for a children's writer to have an agent than it was even ten years ago. It's still possible for children's writers to be published without an agent, but more and more houses are closing their doors to unagented manuscripts, and it's difficult for a writer to figure out which editors are open to which kinds of stories. Plus, selling the manuscript is only the first step. An agent then negotiates the contract, retains and markets sub rights, and generally looks out for the writer's interests.
Q: What advice do you have for beginning children's writers who want to publish a MG novel?
A: First of all, read MG novels. They've changed a lot since most writers were middle graders themselves. Then start and keep going. The first draft won't be perfect, no matter how much you try to make it that way, so be completely open to changing what you've written for the better.
Q: Could you share your best writing tip?
A: My best writing tip is to remember that a story is a journey, one that will change your main character forever.
For more helpful tips for writers, visit http://www.workingwriterscoach.com and sign up for the mailing list. When you do, you'll receive a free ebook for writers, plus every weekday morning you'll get The Morning Nudge, a few words to motivate and inspire you to get a little writing done.
Visit the National Writing for Children Center at http://www.writingforchildrencenter.com and find out how you can learn to write for kids. Suzanne Lieurance is a fulltime freelance writer, children's author, and founder and director of the National Writing for Children Center.