Not long ago, I received an email from a young woman (the daughter of a high school friend), asking me for insight on the writing process. She wanted to know about the “soft skills” it takes to be a writer. In other words, beyond being good at writing, what other attributes must one have to be able to actually do it as a profession.
It was fun (and instructive) question to try and dissect this thing that I usually do without much thought. I had a few important insights and thought I might as well share them with other young (or not so young) writers who might be out there wondering how to get started.
Without further ado, here are the “soft skills” required for me to do my job as a writer.
persistence (and patience) – Writing is something that you learn how to do little by little, over an extremely long period of time. Although you can certainly improve by taking writing classes or read books about writing, the best way to get better as a writer is to write. And write and write and write. Everyone starts out as a terrible writer (just think what awful writers babies are), but anyone who sticks with it gets better. And those who stick with it through frustration and failure are the ones who get a lot better. Robbi and I are always saying how glad we are that we chose professions that we can keep doing and continuing to get better at throughout our entire lives. If we were professional basketball players, we would already be retired because our knees would no longer work properly. Instead, if feels as if we’re just getting started. The bottom line here is that learning to write well takes a really long time. But the more you write, the faster the learning process will be. Without patience and persistence, it’s pretty much impossible to be a great writer. Because it’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work.
observation – Whether your story is about the Roman Empire or a family of green bunnies, it won’t be interesting unless it’s actually about real things that happen to actual people. Their hopes and fears and struggles and joys. And the only way to write things that people will care about reading is to pay close attention to what people actually say and do, how they feel and react in a given situation. So much of what happens to people happens below the surface and is only visible in barely perceptible ways. So you have to look and listen carefully to figure out how people work. Which is to say, writers must be good observers and good listeners.
empathy – Beyond figuring out how people work by studying them closely, writers have to do a little extra magic, taking that knowledge and understanding and using it to see and live the world through their characters’ eyes. Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you can’t, at some level, identify with your characters, it’s hard to tell their stories in interesting and authentic ways. Which means that you have to crawl inside the hearts of your villains as well as those of your heroes. You have to open yourself up to a broad range of human experience. You have to be willing to acknowledge the complexity inside yourself. Which many people are not willing to do.
curiosity – The thing that makes one willing do be persistent and observant is an innate curiosity about the world and how it works. You have to be really interested in people and what they think and what they do and WHY they think what they think and do what they do or you probably won’t do the hard work it takes to learn how to write about these things in believable, compelling ways. One of the best ways to sate your curiosity is to read. Not only will you be exposed to people and situations and ideas and happenings that you couldn’t possibly experience in person, but you will learn how great writers perform their craft. Want to be a writer? Read and read and read. Write and write and write.
willingness to accept criticism – I wish there were a single word for this, but if there is, I can’t think of it. The bottom line is, writers don’t work alone. They collaborate with editors (professional or otherwise) to take their ideas and drafts and make them better. No writer EVER sat down and wrote something perfect in one try. That is not how it works. Writers write something, and it is riddled with mistakes (not just spelling and grammatical errors but other kinds of problems, whether with the story or the logic or the characters). Editors read the draft and give feedback, pointing out places where the story isn’t working or where the dialogue is not believable or where the writer has missed an opportunity to add emotional depth to a given exchange. The process of revision proceeds as a conversation between the writer and the editor and it often takes just as much work and time (if not more work and time) than creating the first draft did. Writers have to be willing to accept that they cannot create the best version of their book or blog post or magazine article on their own. And the better they are at listening to constructive criticism without taking it personally, the better their final work will be. I think of my editor as a true partner in the process of writing my books. She always makes them so much better than they would have been had I been working on my own.
And there you have it. I’d welcome any thoughts you have on this list. Especially if you can think of any I forgot.
I wrote my first book when I was 12. It was terrible, but I was 12. I spent the next six years writing horrible poetry. When I was 18, someone politely suggested I might try a different genre. So I wrote stories. Weirdo stories that made people laugh and left them confused. But I kept writing because that’s what one does.
When I was 30, I felt ready to write a book, a big fat novel full of importance and truth. So I applied to six of the finest MFA programs in fiction—and got rejected by seven of them (I received rejection letters from the University of Minnesota on consecutive Mondays).
As plan B, Robbi and I decided to create our own books with my words and her pictures. I’d never had so much fun. We did this for a decade, constructing them by hand on our dining room table, learning and inventing and making connections that led to opportunities.
Today, at 42, I’m getting the chance to publish my big fat novel. It isn’t the book I dreamed of writing twelve years ago. It’s so much better than that one would have been. It’s about an impetuous ten-year old girl in search of a new best friend and a missing owl, and it is full of truth. It is important. This book, illustrated by Robbi, is exactly what I’m supposed to be writing. And it is a perfect example of a success that could not have been built without a foundation of failure.
Thank you, University of Minnesota, for sending me on this path less traveled. And thanks to the people who have been my teachers and guides: Jim Shepard, Erin Stein, Robbi Behr, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, Robin Rice, Clifford Lull, Bernice Thieblot, Matthew Westbrook—and so many others along the way. Because one learns writing by living each day in the company of good books and interesting people.
Happy book birthday, The Real McCoys. Thanks for all the adventures you’ve shown me so far. I can’t wait to watch you grow.
One of the most exciting and vexing and challenging and time-consuming parts of making a book is coming up with the cover, because no matter how many times we’re cautioned not to judge a book by it, the cover is that first impression we can never shake. And so a whole lot of people work very hard to make sure it is a good one.
The process usually begins with our art director Natalie saying to Robbi, “Take a stab at some cover ideas,” which always makes Robbi feel wiggly because as much as she muddles her way through our various in-house design needs, she is NOT a designer and does not play one on television. Nevertheless, Robbi dutifully creates a few thumbnails and sends them along.
To which Natalie responds something along the lines of. “Great! Let’s see that one with the big owl in a little more detail and maybe also that one with the three kids and the owl, but maybe with a little more excitement happening above the title.”
Robbi is extremely excited at this point, because the one with the big owl is her favorite.
And so she draws and draws and sends two sketches to Natalie.
One with a little more detail.
One with a little more excitement.
At this point, Natalie and Erin take the more fully developed sketches to the team of people at Macmillan whose specialty is covers. They have important conversations to which we are not invited so as to protect our tender feelings from the grim realities of the rough and tumble world of selling books.
After the meeting, Natalie writes and says something along the lines of, “That excitement you added above the title was great, but how about having Moxie as a central figure, with the other characters sort of surrounding her like a frame. And be sure to put Milton in there somewhere, too.”
To which Robbi responds with this.
To which Natalie responds, “Thanks! I’ll share this with the Mysterious Cover Committee, but in the mean time, please see what Moxie and Milton would look like in color.”
Which makes sense, because of course the cover will be in full color but to this point, Moxie and Milton have been living in a black and white world.
So Robbi does this, and we all go ooh! and ahh! Because who doesn’t like color?
To which Natalie says, “Great on the color, but as you revise the sketch, keep Moxie in the middle, get Milton out from under her foot (that’s just mean!), keep the upper excitement, create a band of human characters in the middle and another band of non-human characters along the bottom. And separate the bands with color breaks. Sound good?!”
To which Robbi responds by tearing out just a few of her hairs before turning back to proverbial (and literal) drawing board coming up with the following.
We loved how Milton was on a stepladder (accentuating his trademark shortness), and how he is actively involved with adjusting the “s” in “McCoys,” (accentuating his trademark fastidiousness and also introducing the reader to the interaction of image and language that is to be found throughout the book).
Robbi and I were very excited about this cover. We thought it was perfect. We sent it to Natalie.
To which Natalie replies, “YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK, but let’s make the colors less depressing and get rid of that extremely creepy bug in the lower left and make your names a bit bigger, forgodsake.”
Because Natalie has powers, she turned the basic elements of Robbi’s sketch into the following.
Natalie also sent us the drawing below, which shows how the bands of color might extend onto the back. Robbi was pleased to see the return of the big owl, which, if you don’t remember, Robbi really liked.
At this point, Natalie and Erin took the cover to the Top Secret Committee of Monumental Cover Design Decision Making, and reported back that, “No, no, no. This is all wrong.”
At which point, Natalie changed into her ninja outfit and chopped down an entire bamboo thicket with one hand while using the other hand to blow up the previous cover concept and coming up with this entirely new one.
To which we said, “Oh yes. This is JUST RIGHT. We love it. You must be an actual designer who also plays one on television.”
To which Natalie responds by sending us a bunch of enthusiastic-yet-inscrutable emojis which make us laugh. It is her way. We love her for it.
In the weeks that follow, we make a bunch of minor adjustments to the above sketch, adding this and subtracting that, improving the color and adding a band with our names at the bottom.
Eventually, the real live book arrives in the mail and we cry a little (me) and swoon a little (Robbi). It’s so beautiful we can barely stand it. The fact that our names are on the cover of this beautiful book hardly makes sense. But there they are.
Matthew Swanson & Robbi Behr
We turn it over and have a look at the back.
Maybe Robbi didn’t get her big owl, but we LOVE how the back turned out. It’s a little taste of Moxie and Milton, how they talk, how they relate, the funny faces they make.
And, in full disclosure, Robbi did get a little owl. The nice thing about a dust jacket is that it sneaks around the corners of the covers so that the Committee of People Who Write Compelling Dustjacket Copy have a place to put their carefully crafted words.
And, to be utterly comprehensive, here is the back flap, where the Person Who Describes the Salient Facts of Author and Illustrator Lives (that would be I) gets to have his say.
We love every inch of every panel of these covers. We love the design. We love the colors. We love the texture. We love the kind testimonials from people who know what they are talking about.
We just plain love this book. And hope that you will, too.
The Real McCoys won’t be published for another week or so, but some lucky kids got an early peek by winning a giveaway sponsored by Macmillan and Goodreads. One such kid is Madeleine Cox, who read the book and felt compelled to weigh in.
Without further ado, we hand the mic to Madeleine:
The Real McCoys is the best fourth grade mystery book! It is super funny. It made me laugh so much! My favorite character was Moxie because she is a fourth grade detective and there are not many of them. This also makes me want to read Moxie, Maude, and Milton’s other cases and the Annabelle Adams series. I loved the pictures because they went along really well with the words. This is a cool book!
-Madeleine Cox, Age 10, Decatur, GA
One of the great pleasures of publishing a book is the chance to plant a dedication in the front, to express the gratitude you feel to the people whose contributions made that book possible, through help or inspiration, and oftentimes both. We dedicated Babies Ruin Everything to our kids and Everywhere, Wonder to our parents. For The Real McCoys, we wanted to acknowledge those who paved our path from making books by hand on our dining room table to publishing a hardcover novel with one of the world’s biggest publishing houses.
Jesse Post (now proprietor of the fabulous Postmark Books) worked at Disney when he stopped by our table and bought a copy of our mix-and-match book After Everafter during an indie press show many years ago. A few years later, he took it to a production meeting at Little Brown, where he gave it to Erin Stein, who then hired us to write and illustrate a mix-and-match book about Spider Man, Thor, and friends. Erin, whose contributions to our story merit a post (or novel) of their own, is the publisher at Imprint (a part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), and the editor of The Real McCoys.
Bridget Watson Payne, an editor at the estimable Chronicle Books, rolled the dice on two unknown creators and acquired our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories, giving it an editorial refresh and honoring it with the Chronicle name. We loved working with Bridget. She is smart, honest, and hilarious (and recently, an author in her own right). So when we were looking for an agent a few years ago, we charged Bridget with helping us find the agent version of herself. Meredith Kaffel Simonoff was first on Bridget’s list of recommendations. We emailed with Meredith. We met in person. We fell in love. Within a year, we had signed five book contracts, including The Real McCoys books 1 and 2.
This business is no solitary venture. The author and illustrator are just one part of a vast web of smart, talented people who work their tails off to make books happen. We have been lucky to work with (and count as friends) some of the very best of them.
Robbi (she who illustrates The Real McCoys series) is a raccoon.
By which I mean, she comes alive when the sun sets and kicks into full gear when the most of us are ready to climb into bed. Her natural creative sweet spot is 10:00pm -2:00am. We’ve known this for a long time, but in the interest of spending time with her family by being awake during roughly the same hours, Robbi has behaved less like a raccoon and more like a prairie dog for most of the past decade. Except during stretches of intense creative production that demand nothing but her best and most efficient creative output.
We find ourselves in such a stretch.
The books in The Real McCoys series are long (336 pages) and illustration-heavy (roughly 1,000 individual drawings in each book). The number of hours required to illustrate each is patently absurd, and the only way Robbi can manage the feat is to abandon normalcy and work through the night. Every night.
I am wired like a boring old human being conditioned to mirror the path of the sun. Which means I completely decompensate as 8:00pm rolls around. I’ve always marveled at Robbi’s nocturnal prowess, wondering how she manages it. I woke this morning with the answer. In the dead of night, Robbi decided to document her current method for keeping the Sandman at bay. I present it for you here. Lest you decide the time has come to create 1,000 illustrations:
Recommendations for your next all-nighter:
1. V8 + Energy Drink:
I don’t know what’s in this stuff but it seems to be working better than multiple cans of Coke and piles of Almond Joys. It gives the impression of being healthy by saying it has a serving of vegetables and fruits in it along with B-vitamins. Added bonus: very cool packaging design. All four flavors are delicious but don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out. A steady dose of energy without the crash.
2. Sweetzels Ginger Snaps:
I did not realize how effective the actual act of chewing can be against falling asleep, especially when it feels like you are chewing little dollops of granite. (There is a reason Almond Joys are more effective than Mounds.) This particular brand of ginger snaps is not only brain-rattlingly crunchy, they also have a nice sharp ginger bite (“made with real ginger”!) When Matthew couldn’t find this brand, he purchased a different brand, which got soggy by 4am and had no gingery bite (and were much more sugary tasting). I gave him exact directions on where these could be found at the store, so don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out of these too.
I have three podcasts I am slowly burning through.
a. Lovett or Leave It :
Features hilarious former speechwriter for Obama who also happened to graduate from my alma mater with a math degree seven years after I graduated from there with an English degree. Which is to say, even writers don’t waste their time with English degrees. Also hosted by other Obama insiders. Funny, smart, engaging, but probably only if you’re a lefty.
b. Pod Save America :
This basically has the same line-up as Lovett or Leave It and is equally smart and entertaining but with fewer silly games. Slightly more wonky but still goes down quite well with ginger snaps.
I happen to know Heather Mizeur, who ran for governor a few years back. She started this podcast to get conscience and “soul” back into politics. Earnest as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks but refreshing to hear people working for change without cynicism and with a great deal of hope. Loved her chat with firebrand Barbara Mikulski and great to hear her talk across the aisle with Gov. Hogan. Looking forward to more, there’s only three episodes so far.
I’m not late to this game! I swear! You all might be totally over this by now, but I gotta say when it’s late and you’re feeling done, crank up some Yorktown and get the f–k back up again.
If your all-nighters do not involve Photoshop, then they will not be nearly as fun. Highly recommended.
And there you have it. Perhaps now that this intelligence has been shared, scores of 336 page, 1,000 illustration middle grade novels will spread like wildfire across this great land. But somehow I doubt it. Something tells me that Robbi is able and willing to stay up all night and thrive not because of the above list of worthy diversions and delights.
It’s because she is a raccoon.
Hello, friends. Our first heavily illustrated, beautifully printed, funny and heart-warming whodunnit of a kid novel The Real McCoys comes out in two short weeks. We are extremely excited but are also trying to do whatever we can to help this book we love find its way in the world. From talking with other authors and people in publishing, it sounds like strong preorders can do a lot to help a book get noticed, shelved, shared, etc.
OUR REQUEST TO YOU: if you were planning on buying this book anyway, doing so now instead of after it comes out would be a huge help to us. And, even if you are currently kidless, consider picking up a copy or two for birthday or holiday gifts. (Crazily, it can be had for just $10.33.)
I’ve included links to various online retailers below, but you can also preorder from your local bookstore. Apologies for the overt ask, but in this case, if you are willing to give this book a loving nudge, we would be extremely grateful. Your support means the world to us.
[For your calculations, the sweet spot is grades 3-7, but it would also be perfect for parents to read with younger kids—and I wrote it to be funny to all but the most humorless adults].
I was wondering how did you come up with the idea to write The Real McCoys? And when you started writing it did you know who was going to be the villain?
So nice to hear from you. And thank you for your question. I like it, in part, because I didn’t immediately know the answer, and in the process of figuring it out, I learned something about myself.
The truth is, I had no idea that The Real McCoys was going to be The Real McCoys when I started. I started by sitting down at my desk one morning and writing out a few paragraphs about a puckish little boy named Herman and his quiet-but-observant little sister Maddie—narrated by a wise-and-all-knowing narrator. I had always loved the wise-and-all-knowing narrative voice in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate events books, and wanted to try and do something like it. I thought this book would be called “As Herman Sees it.”
ADVICE: Don’t try to write like your favorite author. Because 1) you will probably not be able to pull it off, 2) even if you pull it off, it won’t be original, and 3) you should always write like YOU.
I wrote a few paragraphs and realized I wasn’t able to pull it off. But instead of giving up on Herman, I ditched the wise-and-all-knowing narrator, told the story through the main character’s perspective instead, changed Maddie to Maggie, and (at the advice of my agent), made Maggie the puckish main character/narrator, and made her little brother Herman the quiet-but-observant sidekick.
And then I was able to write like me. Which is to say, I was able to write the story of a headstrong, enthusiastic, over-confident ten-year-old girl who believes herself to be an ace detective and who cares for nothing more than ensuring justice for all citizens of Tiddlywhump (even those who happen to be named Dublinger).
As for whether I knew who the villain was going to be when I started writing, I did not. I don’t know how it works for other people who write mysteries, but because I had never written one before, coming up with the mechanics of the owl theft itself was the most challenging part of writing this book. To pull it off, I came up with the crime and list of possible suspects and then followed Moxie (though her name was still Maggie at the time) through the process of trying to figure things out. At each step, I tried to solve the crime right along with her, until, at long last, all of the suspects had been eliminated but one. Once we got to the end, and figured out who had stolen the owl, I went back and planted a few hints and clues that would help the reader do their own sleuthing as they read (or re-read the book).
Finally, you didn’t ask, but I feel like I need to clear up the mystery of how Maggie and Herman came to be Moxie and Milton.
Our editor Erin agreed to publish the book (and its sequel) after reading a draft in which the main characters were named Maggie and Herman. But she didn’t feel like those names were quite right. In publishing, names are VERY IMPORTANT, and she asked us to TRUST HER, and try VERY HARD to come up with more interesting ones.
At first I was not pleased at the thought of changing the names. The characters and I had become very good friends at that point, and the thought of calling them anything else was about as pleasant as the thought of using someone else’s toothbrush (as Moxie might say). But one of the characters in an early draft of the book was named Mrs. Moxie, and Robbi pointed out that Moxie was a nice-sounding name. And I had to agree. Especially because Maggie had so much moxie. Once Moxie had her name, I wanted her brother to have a name that sounded good standing next to it. I also wanted it to be a formal sort of name to match his formal behavior. I created a list of possibilities, and Milton rose to the top. I just liked how they sounded together. In part because of the alliteration, which is just a fancy way of saying that they start with the same letter.
It took a while, but I eventually stopped thinking of Moxie and Milton as Herman and Maggie, though my kids, who heard the original draft of the book at bedtime a few years ago, still sometimes refer to them that way.
Maybe sometime in the future, I’ll tell you how Moxie and Milton got their last name.
Thank you so much for writing. And for giving me a chance to remember these old stories. As crazy as it sounds, I started working on this project three years ago! Books sure do take a long time to get born.
Please give my best to your entire family, and thanks again for the question!
PS – According to spellcheck, I originally spelled 11 words wrong when I wrote this response. Which is to say, the ability to write a book and the ability to spell words correctly must come from different parts of your brain.
Matthew Swanson here. I’m the author of The Real McCoys series, which recounts the adventures of an indomitable ten-year-old named Moxie and her complement of a little brother Milton.
I started writing the first book suddenly one day, chasing down a voice that had popped into my head. I shared the early draft with our agent Meredith, and she made a few excellent suggestions (not the least of which was that Moxie should be girl (in that early draft, she’d been a boy named Herman).
I wrote and wrote, and a story emerged, the tale of a sister/brother problem solving team named Maggie and Herman. Meredith pitched the book to an editor named Erin (who was already publishing a few of our picture books), and Erin said yes. There was tremendous hooting from the Barn (Robbi [my wife and the book’s illustrator] and I work and live in the hayloft of an old barn). Erin liked the book very much. But she was not sold on the names Maggie and Herman.
And so we thought and thought. Eventually, the name Moxie came to mind. Robbi thinks it was her mind, and I think it was mine. We may never solve that mystery, but a love of alliteration led us to round out the pairing by convincing Herman to change his name to Milton.
But what is Moxie? Beyond a word that means “force of character, determination, or nerve”?
Moxie is a soft drink that originated in 1876 as a patent medicine known as Moxie Nerve Food. I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting, but the thing I didn’t know until I did a little research was that the adjective “moxie” derives from the beverage and not the other way around. Apparently, the marketing campaign was so successful that it made people want to drink a beverage of unquestionable bitterness. And so successful that it became synonymous with vitality and pluck.
I mean, look at this guy. Have you ever seen such moxie?
In book 1 of The Real McCoys, our heroine Moxie explains her name by telling us that her mom bought her dad a bottle of Moxie on their very first date, wanting to make sure he liked the taste because it was “just like her, a perfect blend of bitter and sweet.”
The author in me liked the sound of Moxie and I liked the backstory, but because Moxie is bottled only in New Hampshire and not terribly well-known in the Mid-Atlantic, the consumer of beverages in me had never actually TASTED it.
But last year when were were in Decatur, Georgia for the Decatur Book Festival, we found a novelty shop that offered hundreds of varieties of soda, one of which, was Moxie.
We bought a bottle. I took a sip.
I tasted the bitter. I tasted the sweet. I contemplated the complex happenings in my mouth.
The conclusion: I would drink Moxie again. Maybe not every day. But sometimes. When I want to embrace the power of contradiction. Or maybe when I have a cold that will not seem to lift.
Robbi had a different take.
Which is to say, I’m glad that I’m not Moxie’s mom. And I’m glad that Robbi isn’t Moxie’s dad.
Though in a way, we certainly are her parents.