Today I’d like to welcome children’s author, Henry L. Herz, to Ink Drop Interviews.
IDI – I’d like to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to join me here today. I’ll get the nuisance question out of the way first because readers usually want to know, but as writers, we are asked it so many times that answering it is somewhat perfunctory. Where do you get your story ideas?
HLH – Inspiration is a fickle muse; she arrives unpredictably. Sometimes an idea will pop into my head unbidden. For example, could you apply Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to book characters? Yes. Yes, you can. I did it for The Lord of the Rings at http://lotrproject.com/sixdegrees/. Other times, I leave myself open to serendipity. For example, I met an artist looking to collaborate. That led me down the path to doing Little Red Cuttlefish. Sometimes the world drops a book idea in your lap. For example, I was doing a school visit, and one kid was wearing sneakers. One sneaker was fine, and the other was completely shredded. I made a mental note that The Kid with Exploding Sneakers would make a fun story. Sometimes I’ll riff off of something I read. For example, I read a Mental Floss (great magazine) article about animal defense mechanisms. That led me to come up with a sci-fi early chapter book about an alien boy who gets lost while hiking, and meets all sorts of interesting creatures.
IDI – That sounds like the type of thing my son liked to read when he was young. When did you have your Eureka moment? Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
HLH – I can’t say even now that I was born to be a writer. What I discovered after writing my first book, a children’s fantasy titled Nimpentoad, is that I love flexing my creativity muscle. Writing fantasy and science fiction for kids is tons of fun, and gives my head a good workout. It’s also been a pleasure to discover how helpful and collaborative other children’s book authors and illustrators can be. Experiencing freedom of self-expression and being part of a literary community has been very gratifying.
IDI – Young kids are your target audience. Why does your writing target that demographic?
HLH – I write fantasy and science fiction specifically because (a) I love to do so, and (b) I think those genres are particularly powerful ways to spark a child’s imagination and plant the seed for a lifelong love of reading. I still remember to this day escaping into the magical world of Where the Wild Things Are. And if I’m doing my job as a writer, the books will have a secondary appeal to the little kid inside all adult readers. I still love picture books, and so should you! Check out Journey by Aaron Becker to see what I mean.
IDI – Truth told, I have young grandchildren, so I do love picture books! What are you working on now? Can we get a peek to wet our appetites?
HLH – My first three books were Indie-published. I’m pleased to report that I’m in negotiations right now with a traditional publisher for my fractured fairy tale Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes. I’m very excited about the prospect of transitioning to traditional publishing. I have a couple of other picture books for which I’m seeking literary representation: Little Red Cuttlefish (an aquatic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood) and Dinosaur Pirates (dinosaurs = good, pirates = good, Dinosaur Pirates = awesome). I’ve also tried my hand at writing (yes, writing) some wordless picture books. Given that my illustrations skills could easily be mistaken for those of a 2nd grader, that’s more an exercise in writing craft than anything else. Most recently, I recently submitted a non-fiction picture book about animal defense mechanisms to a traditional publisher.
IDI – Time for a silly question. (Some) writers have been known to be ‘eccentric’, from keeping rotting apples in a desk drawer to only being able to write while wearing fuzzy pink slippers. Do you have any quirks or superstitions that have become as integral to good writing as plot and character?
HLH – Rotting apples? Fuzzy pink slippers? Move along, now. Nothing to see here, ahem. Move along.
IDI – I’ve heard argument for each side (and writing children’s books might differ), but when writing, do you outline or sketch the entire book before you feel comfortable enough to begin your draft or do you prefer to fly by the seat of your jockeys?
HLH – It is definitely a stylistic choice. Anyone who knows me personally can tell you I’m a very analytical person. So, it should come as no surprise that I’m a plotter, not a seat-of-the-pantser. Writing is hard work. Fun, but effortful. So, I don’t want to overwrite. I prefer to outline my plot to ensure everything that needs to happen happens (and no more), and in the right order. Outlines lead to storyboards, and storyboards lead to words on the page. Remember too, young children’s books have VERY constraining word counts. Picture books, for example, are typically 500 words or less. That’s not much room in which to develop a character and convey a compelling story arc. Every word counts.
IDI – Pen and paper or computer and Word? The bustle of Barnes and Noble or the quiet of your study? Alone or within a writing group? Tell us, what is your most productive/inspiring setting?
HLH – I am definitely a computer-based writer. The ability to type faster than I write, combined with the ability to cut and paste electronically, make this a no-brainer for me. That said, it is handy to carry a piece of paper (or a smart phone) with you at all times to jot down the occasional inspirational idea that floats by.
When I’m in the zone, concentrating on writing, then it doesn’t really matter where I am. That said, I prefer working from home for the convenience. I don’t have to drive anywhere or worry about whether there is a comfortable workspace available. Plus, staying at home has a smaller carbon footprint!
IDI – Online cafés or writers groups (aside from social networking). Do you belong to any and if so, help or harm?
HLH – On the one hand, there are writers and illustrators I’ve only “met” online, and they’ve been fabulously helpful and collaborative. On the other hand, you build stronger trust and relationships meeting in person. So, while I’m active (as @Nimpentoad) on Twitter, Facebook, etc., I also value participation in face-to-face critique groups. I belong to two. Note that a bad critique group is worse than no critique group, because they are taking up your time, potentially giving you unhelpful advice, and possibly crushing your morale. A good critique group helps you grow as an author and keeps you energized. They point out flaws, but also offer suggestions about how to resolve them. How do you know if a critique group is good for you? You have to give it a test drive.
IDI – In your opinion, what are the biggest misconceptions new authors have about the publishing industry?
HLH – First, that writing a picture book is “easy, because it’s only 500 words.” Second, some new authors view Indie-publishing as the fall-back position to take if no traditional publishers show interest. Traditional and Indie-publishing are both valid paths, but they are dramatically different. They both offer advantages and disadvantages. I think it is critically important for new authors to understand all the work involved in Indie-publishing BEFORE they embark on that journey. Indie authors are not just authors, they are also publishers. Yes, you get all the control, all the profits, and make all the decisions. But you are also responsible for EVERY aspect of designing, publishing, promoting, and distributing your book. If you’re not already famous, promoting your book is an unending Sisyphusean task. Would you rather be spending your time writing or promoting books?
IDI – What advice would you give to new/unpublished authors?
HLH – Read in your genre. If you have time, read outside your genre. 2. Write. Then write some more. You’re strengthening a muscle, so you have to exercise it. 3. Find a nurturing critique group. Join a professional association. I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; it is excellent. 4. Kill your darlings. What you think is a great plot is not a great plot if no one else gets it. Be willing to incorporate constructive criticism. 5. Be thick-skinned. It doesn’t matter how well you write. Your work will be criticized by critique groups, readers, and reviewers. You will be rejected by literary agents and editors. View every “no” as a “not yet.” View it as an opportunity to improve your craft. 6. Be patient. Getting recognized for your work can take a long time. Traditional publishers are overworked and move slowly. If you want to be traditionally published, you must move at their pace. 7. Be professional. Remember that your blog posts, Facebook posts, and Tweets are visible to agents and editors. It is in your best interest to convey a professional image. Save the political or religious beliefs for your face-to-face interactions. Never badmouth people, especially authors, reviewers, agents, or editors.
IDI – Favorite author, and why?
HLH – As a dyed in the wool fantasy geek, I am required by State and Federal regulations to respond: J.R.R. Tolkien, for The Lord of the Rings. His work combined a masterful command of language, richly textured world-building (including inventing multiple languages and thousands of years of back story), and an achingly beautiful story about good versus evil. I’ve read it so many times, I can recognize the scene if someone reads me a single sentence. Go ahead, try me. I’m like a Middle Earth Rain Man.
IDI – What are some of your favorite quotes?
HLH – C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for his Narnia fantasy series, but he also wrote some profoundly insightful pieces on spirituality.
“People often think of morality as a kind of bargain in which G-d says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And, taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with G-d, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with G-d, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.” “Love (or charity) for our neighbors is quite a different thing from liking or affection. We ‘like’ or are ‘fond of’ some people, and not of others. It is important to understand that this natural ‘liking’ is neither a sin nor a virtue, any more than your likes and dislikes in food are a sin or a virtue. It is just a fact. But, of course, what we do about it is either sinful or virtuous. But though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings. Some people are ‘cold’ by temperament; that may be a misfortune for them, but it is no more a sin than having a bad digestion is a sin; and it does not cut them out from the chance, or excuse them from the duty, of learning charity. The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” IDI – Give us a brief overview of your books and where we can learn more.
HLH – More information about my books is at www.henryherz.com. I also interview children’s, fantasy, and sci-fi authors there. My three beautifully illustrated (not by me, obviously) books are: Nimpentoad (early chapter book) – The clever little Nimpentoad leads his fellow Niblings through the perilous Grunwald Forest, overcoming obstacles and encountering strange creatures along the way. Twignibble (easy reader) – Twignibble is a very smart and mechanically adept sloth, with animal friends all over the world. When he learns that his friends are in danger from pollution and poaching, he builds a helicopter to visit them. Twignibble helps each friend by making them a special gadget. How the Rhino Got His Skin (picture book) – This is a picture book retelling of the classic Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, with language updated for today’s young readers.
IDI – I’m always fascinated by fellow writers who pen in a genre other than what I consider my comfort zone. Thank you for being my guest today, Henry, and best wishes for continued success.
A quick word to my readers. I write this blog for YOU. Each and every one of you. Like everyone these days, writers are busy and don’t have a lot of time to read about fellow authors. They read advice blogs, but when it comes to reading interviews about other authors, especially Indie authors, there are so many authors and not enough time. So, each time I sit down to type out another interview, I do it with my readers in mind, after all, if it weren’t for the readers and the fans of Indie authors, none of us would have a job. Having said that, I’d like to ask you all a favor. Nothing big, not even time consuming, but a favor just the same. When you finish here, if your kids aren’t screaming your name or your boss isn’t making his way toward your desk with a frown on his face (smile), please take a minute to visit Henry’s website, or my website, or your favorite author’s Amazon site and leave a few words. Jot down what you think of them, or me, or our work. Not only do we thrive on it (Seriously), but your comments have something to do with the algorithms and how our sites are ranked and found on the search engines. I’m certainly not the one to explain the inner workings of the internet, but I know that your comments, reviews, follows, feedback, and basically any interactions are worth their weight in gold. If we each give a helping nudge to the person standing next to us, everyone benefits. Thank you!