YA/Children’s book author says it all
Scott McCormick is a best-selling and widely acclaimed children’s and YA book author. His diverse output includes graphic novels (the popular Mr. Pants series), fantasy books (The Dragon Squisher and its upcoming sequel), and several Audible Originals, including the Rivals a series of humorous historical audiobooks and a soon-to-be-published novel titled Mutual assured ownership).
Micah Solomon, Senior Contributor, Forbes: How do you spend a typical day? If there is is a typical day?
Scott McCormick: I write every day. The hours I write change, but basically when I’m not driving my kids or getting everyone ready for the day, I write. And when I’m not writing, I’m often thinking on writing. It certainly doesn’t make me the most exciting person, but it does the job.
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 a few copies independently and shared them around. The reaction to Mr. Pants was surprising: “Oh my God, this is amazing. Can I have a copy for my niece? So, we were pretty confident that we had found something great; I figured we’d land an agent and a publishing deal in no time.
Well, not so much.
Finding an agent is difficult. And the query process to find one is daunting, time-consuming, and reviews aren’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 ended and we hit it off immediately. From there, he helped us fine-tune our IP address, and when he was convinced it was ready for prime time, he made a phone call and sold it practically day to day.
So my advice to all up-and-coming writers: join a writers’ organization and attend their regional or national conferences. It’s a great way to meet other writers and maybe your future agent.
Solomon: Like most of us, I guess you didn’t become an independent wordpreneur (it’s mine, feel free to use it) all at once. Are you used to having a day job? Any idea on the transition? Something to watch out for?
McCormick: My first serious job was in public relations, which meant writing a lot of press releases. It wasn’t the kind of writing I aspired to, 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 of their catalogs, website copy, and advertisements, and basically everything else. This job was great training because it forced me to find new ways to be creative about the most boring things you can imagine.
This job also gave me great training in writing on a deadline. As a result, I love writing on a deadline and actively hate not having one. I used to tell my colleagues to always give me a tight deadline and lie to me if the project didn’t have one. Don’t ever tell me there’s no rush. It just means you’ll never get it. But if you tell me you need it Tuesday, you’ll get it Tuesday, no matter how long.
It was when I still had this job that I published Mr. Pants: Time to go, and things finally started happening for me in terms of achieving my creative goals. But of course you don’t publish a book and suddenly quit your day job. You need to master the nuts and bolts of business, like paying bills, forecasting cash flow, and having a good mix of income sources. So, in order to become a full-time author, I started Storybook Editing, where I offered editing and ghostwriting services for freelance authors. It 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 the transition, I wouldn’t go full time until you’ve had two good years of income, or unless you have a great support system. Publishing is a strange profession. It takes a long time to get a book from the contract stage to the shelves, which means it can take a year or two before you’re fully paid for your work. So unless you have a significant other on a steady paycheck (my wife is a superhero), year-to-year fluctuations can be tough until you get over the bump.
Solomon: Do you believe in “flow”? Do you feel like you have moments where you write?
McCormick: I experience the flow state, but not as often as I would like. It’s the greatest feeling in the world when the characters start talking on their own. When I’m in this state, I don’t write until I take dictation. As I’ve mentioned before, deadlines – especially freaking out about missing a deadline – will get me into this state without fail. If I don’t have a deadline, it can be difficult to enter this state.
Solomon: What are some of your creative triumphs?
My first book Rivals (Rivals! The enemies who changed the world) was the number one bestseller on Audible for about a month and continues to sell very well. The third book in the Rivals series, Pirates! The scoundrels who shook the world, is my favorite so far, although I’m very excited to hear book four: Spies! Sneaks, Snoops and saboteurs who shaped the world, coming out in the spring of 2022.
i am very proud of The Dragon Squisher, a humorous fantasy novel for YA, especially since I self-published it. The reception was astonishing, arousing even the interest of Hollywood. (If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, The Dragon Squisher will suit you perfectly.)
And even though it came out almost a decade ago, I still get fan mail for my Mr. Pants series, which I co-created with super talented illustrator RH Lazzell. The kids dressed up as our characters for Halloween and sent me their own Mr. Pants stories. I even hear parents say they found their children reading my books under their covers, long after bedtime. This is the kind of fan mail you dream of getting, so it warms my heart every time.
Solomon: What are you dying to try that you haven’t done yet?
McCormick: I’ve always wanted to sell a screenplay. I put that ambition aside for a few years while I pursued children’s books, but this year alone I finished a screenplay that sparked a lot of interest. So let’s cross our fingers.
Solomon: Do you have any tips for overcoming writer’s block?
McCormick: Most professional authors will tell you that they never suffer from writer’s block. Well, that’s fine for them, but as someone who’s in pain, I’ve developed a few tricks over the years that generally help me.
First: go for a walk. And sure, it’s the most boring ride in the world, where you can’t care where you’re going and where you’re not going to be distracted by other people or beautiful views. You need to get up, step away from the computer, get your blood pumping, and let your mind wander. Don’t walk your dog. Don’t listen to podcasts or music unless you use them to disconnect from the world. (I like to listen to Miles Davis’ fusion records because they’re high energy and there’s an almost total lack of melody to distract me.) Get up and go. Sometimes it only takes a few dozen steps before the problem is solved.
If you’re still stuck, try writing a random scene with your characters in the most unlikely setting possible. Write a space opera? Have your characters go bowling. Write a novel ? Have your characters play laser tag. Ask your villain and your hero to go to the supermarket or play Twister. You’ll be amazed at how this exercise can give you a ton of new ideas for this project, help you better understand your characters, or even give you an idea for a new book. Most importantly, this exercise will allow you to have fun writing again, which is the most important thing.
Solomon: Any other advice for other writers?
As trite as it sounds, my best advice is to not give up and keep trying and testing new things. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and over the years I’ve tried to write everything but a cookbook. I tried poetry, songs, journalism, sketch comedy. . . you name it. It never occurred to me to try children’s books until I had kids myself, and even after trying it, it took me a few more years to find my voice. . And even after publishing my first books, I still had ups and downs. But I kept learning and I kept trying new approaches to writing, and today I’m a full-time writer, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.