For my "summer fun" this year, I treated myself to a self-directed weekend-long writing retreat offered by SCBWI-Illinois. I used my time at Words by the Lake to revise the latest draft of my young adult historical novel set in eighteenth-century Italy. While there, I had the pleasure of catching up with my former student, Allan Woodrow. Seeing him reminded me that I wanted to interview him to celebrate the release of his humorous middle-grade novel The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless (HarperCollins). Here's a hint of the book's plot: Zachary would do anything to join the Society Of Utterly Rotten, Beastly And Loathsome Lawbreaking Scoundrels, the world's most horrible gang of super villains. So when Zachary hears SOURBALLS is looking for someone to join their nefarious gang, he jumps at the chance. Bwa-ha-ha!
If you read Esther's post about the First Time Authors' Panel at this year's Printers Row Lit Festival, you already know a little about Allan. And here's a bit more from the bio he sent me:
Growing up, Allan Woodrow was cursed with a boring, happy, and loving family, giving him nothing interesting to write about. He resented it for years. Allan eventually harnessed his feelings into his new children’s series, The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless (HarperCollins, ages 7-12) about the world’s most evil kid. Allan is also an advertising writer and Creative Director, and has written for TV and the stage. He currently works at the Chicago Tribune. Learn more at his website, and be sure to also check out his blog.
Following the interview, you'll find instructions for how to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless. And for a good laugh, be sure to watch the book trailer at the end of this post.
Allan, you were a student in my one-day workshop, “Introduction to Writing for Children and Teens,” back in 2008 (or was it 2009?) What inspired you to sign up for that class? Do you recall any specific ways the class helped you?
The class was in February or March 2009 and Zachary Ruthless didn’t exist yet, not even as a germ. I decided I wanted to try to write a children’s book (but no idea what the book would be), only a month or two earlier. I was trying to write while also gathering as much information as I could about the process, the industry, and looking for inspiration anywhere I could. It was the first class I took in kid lit writing. I remember absorbing a lot of the basic info, in terms of word length and structure and format, and so on. I still have all the handouts.
In your interview on Cynsations, you talk about your unusually quick route to publication. Can you share a bit about how you landed your agent? You’d already done several revisions of your manuscript before you began querying. Did your agent or editor ask for more revisions?
Yes, I did all sorts of revisions before I sent it out to the world. Some revisions took a couple of days; some were more severe. My first draft, however, has almost nothing in common with the finished manuscript, except maybe a small handful of jokes and the names of the two main characters.
Even with so many revisions, when I decided to find an agent, I wanted an editorial agent. Since it was my first book, and I didn’t have a lot of industry knowledge, I looked for someone who could give it a critical eye and make my manuscript even better. When I made my list of initial agents, that was one of the requirements.
I ended up with quite a long list – about 60 agents. I picked five to send to first; somewhat randomly, to be honest, but figuring it would be just the first group of many. Fortunately, I received an offer from that initial query and, after a phone call and an offer I was hooked. Regarding edits, I did one more draft with my agent, and then another draft with my editor. Both processes went fairly easily, although my editor’s revisions had more dramatic changes, such as adding a major character who didn’t exist before then, which changed the beginning and ending. However, despite that fairly significant change, I had only that one editorial revision. She loved it and then it was just very minor copyediting (which I guess counts as a revision, but only sort of).
On Cynsations, you also explain that you didn’t have a story idea when you first resolved to write and publish a children’s book. Can you tell us a bit more about the daily writing routine you established: How did you decide what to write about each day? What kinds of things did you write before hitting on the idea for Zachary Ruthless?
I’ve read – and can verify from my own experience – that writing works best when 1. Done every day and 2. Done at the same time every day. They are somewhat related, because ideally you block off a set writing time and keep to it. If it moves around, it’s harder to make it predictable, takes too long to ‘get in the mood’ and becomes easier to blow off. I did not blow off days; I made it a priority. I had/have a full time job, so I put aside the only time I knew I had: after the kids went to bed. They were young, so bedtime was a convenient 8:30. My writing time was exactly one hour, 8:45-9:45 (now, it’s a different time, and ranges from 60-120 minutes/day, but still a predictable time slot).
I was inspired by the Dan Gutman “My Weird School” series, by its humor mostly, and the first thing I wrote was roughly based on a true experience when I was in 1st grade but had a similar bent to his books: a school story written first person centered around a trouble-making boy who didn’t love school. I have girls, so my next book was with girl main characters. But I wasn’t writing for publication yet. I vowed that I would write for at least one year before I submitted anything. I was merely writing to get better. I started Zachary Ruthless a few months after I started writing. Even with only writing an hour a day I got a lot done.
When you finally did come up with Zachary Ruthless, did you envision it as a series from the beginning? Did you create an overall plot plan for the series?
While I wrote the first book I knew the character could be a recurring character with many more books, and as I was finishing it I “saw” a much longer 12-13 book story arc that I was excited about, but kept to myself. My agent wanted to sell it as a series, so she asked me if I had any ideas to expand it — I did! — and she requested a synopsis of the next three books. Nothing was written down, but it was relatively simple for me to jot down those book ideas based on the bigger concept I had (I actually jotted down the next 12 books although I only shared those next three). My story arc has changed, actually, but I do have ideas for the next 8 books should anyone want to see them/should I be lucky enough to have anyone ask me to pursue them. And the story arc is less tight than it was; I could expand or shrink it. At least, I know where all my characters are headed, regardless of how long it takes them to get there (if ever).
You have a full-time job in advertising. Has your advertising writing influenced your children’s writing at all? Is it draining to write all day for work and then come home to write more? Have you been able to continue the daily writing routine that led to Zachary Ruthless?
I've wanted to write books forever, and always told myself I was too exhausted from writing all day to write after hours; it was an easy crutch. But the truth is, once I started actually doing it, it wasn’t draining. Mostly. Sure there are some days when I’m exhausted but I try to fight through them (I don’t always win), but those days are the exception not the rule.
They say most advertising should be written at a 3rd grade vocabulary, so I like to think I’ve been writing for my audience for years! Advertising is about creativity but also about revisions, and being concise. A TV commercial should be between 75-80 words depending on the visuals/concept, for example. So you learn to get to the point and not dance around things, and to cut copy when needed, which is helpful for any writing. Also, you present a script to your boss, who presents it to his boss, and then presents it to the advertising client, who then discusses it with his wife and his kids … you’re constantly revising, and much of the time you get 3rd hand feedback. You learn to read “between the lines,” not just react to every change but try to uncover WHY the change is being requested and come up with solutions that are true to your idea. It has helped a lot in making editorial revisions, or responding to critique group thoughts. If someone has a problem with something, it’s not his or her job to solve it; it’s mine and I’m able to step back and look at my work objectively to find the problem (sometimes its simple; sometimes not). Advertising also helps teach you that it’s a team effort. Advertising is about me writing, the sales team selling, the client accepting. Same thing with books. I’m the writer, but the editor is putting her time into it, the publisher is putting their money down. It’s teamwork. I’m definitely not a ‘my every word is sacred’ prima donna.
Advertising also helps you get a tough skin. I might have to write a dozen completely different TV scripts before one is bought, and I might get strong criticism or rejection from many. I’ve had my writing called “trite and banal” (once, years ago). You learn not to take it personally; so I’m a rejection expert – a good thing to be in this industry! Advertising is also about deadlines, and meeting them whether or not you’re in the mood to write, which, when I have such limited writing time, is a great trait. I don’t have the luxury of saying “I’ll relax now and write in an hour.” For me, it’s right then, or not until tomorrow. And “until tomorrow” is not acceptable to me. At least, usually.
Has your advertising background influenced your approach to promoting Zachary Ruthless? If so, how? Would you share a bit about some of your marketing activities for the book, such as creating the Evil Bad Guy website?
OK. Sure, you would think that as a life-time marketer and advertising agency writer I’d have a million great promotional ideas. Yep, you’d think that. The fact is, I think the best way to promote middle-grade books is with school visits and, with a full-time job, that’s difficult. I haven’t done many, although I’ve got a great presentation (should any teachers be reading this blog … hint, hint). Blogs (like right here!) are great, because I can do that on my own time. I thought it was important to have a web presence, so the illustrator of the books, Aaron Blecha, and I wrote and designed the book website, evilbadguystuff.com (that URL is an intrinsic part of Book 1); we add a new super villain of the month every month, to keep it fresh. I’m fortunate my publisher (HarperCollins) paired me not only with a great illustrator, but someone I’ve become friends with. My wife, a graphic designer, created my book marks. I have a blog and a personal website as another way for readers, or prospective readers, to find me. I have four books, at least, for Zachary Ruthless coming out. So I‘ve created these things not just for Book 1, but so that as people discover the books they can get more information, and as a way to stay top of mind between books coming out. I also created trailers for the book, and a YouTube page. And an Amazon author page. I guess, as an advertiser, I understand the value of having your name out there, somehow, in as many places as possible. All these things are somewhat easy because I can do it on my time (but NOT on my writing time. Writing time is for book writing and editing. It’s too easy to waste the time on other writing, and I try not to). I don’t want my book to fail and for me to think, “Oh, if only I tried that.”
That said, I haven’t done as much as I should. I’m constantly keeping my eyes open for new opportunities. I’ve yet to say no to any opportunity, but not that many opportunities have found me yet. I’m hoping more do. I’m still just starting my journey; I hope it is a long one. But I only have so many hours in the day to walk it. Sigh!
I, too, hope you have a long and successful writing journey, Allan. Thanks so much for sharing your Student Success Story with us today. And Readers, I hope you'll be inspired by Allan's discipline and dedication as you pursue your own writing goals.
Now, as promised, here are the instructions for entering our giveaway contest:
To enter our drawing for an autographed copy of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless, post a comment to today's blog post giving us your real name and your "personal super villain name alias." Bwa-ha-ha! Be sure to include an email address (formatted like: teachingauthors at gmail dot com) or a link to an email address. We're also announcing a new option for entering our giveaways: Instead of posting a comment, you can email your comment to teachingauthors at gmail dot com with "Contest" in the subject line. Entry Deadline is Wednesday, Aug. 3, 11 pm (CST). You must have a U.S. mailing address to win. The winner will be determined using the random number generator at Random.org, and announced on August 4.
You can watch the trailer for Zachary Ruthless below. And if you'd like to read more great interviews, head over to the Kidlitosphere roundup at Anastasia Suen's Chapter Book of the Day blog today. Readers there can enter to win a free one-hour college counseling session for their favorite high-schooler.
Good luck and Happy Writing!