Career Achievers: David Lubar on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Revising in a Nazareth, PA; learn more about David Lubar

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Considering that I started trying to build a writing career when I was fresh out of college in 1976, sold my first short story in 1978, and didn’t sell a book until 1995, I think canyons and armed fortresses might be a more appropriate metaphor than bumps.

I guess “don’t give up” would be a pretty obvious lesson gleaned from that chronology.

One key to my success and longevity is that I married a woman who is far more tolerant of my quirks than I deserve, and was not afraid of the bumpy ride that comes with the freelance life.

(Craft note: I’ve written a dozen different versions of this sentence, and none sounds right. If this were for a book, I’d spend another half hour on it. But I’m trying to use my time more wisely, so I’m going to let it stand as is and essentially appear in public with food stains on my shirt.)

(Craft tip: If you can’t fix something, point it out.)

(Style tip: Avoid excessive parentheticals.)

She knows that when I’m staring out the window, I’m hard at work. As testimony to her awesomeness, if I show up at any meeting or conference without her, the first question I get is “Where’s Joelle?”

I’m tolerated. She’s loved.

As for aspects of my success that I can actually take credit for, I think the work ethic I was thrust into when I was programming video games, starting back in the 1980s, made a difference. A sixteen-hour day was fairly normal, as was a seven-day work week. (I don’t recommend this.)

So, working on a manuscript for eight hours feels like a half day. Though now that I’m settling into my sixties, I’m actually trying to work authentic half days once in a while. (Somebody has to sweep the neighborhood streets clear of Pokémon, for the sake of the children.)

I think my other advantage is that I love humor in almost all its forms, and this spills into my writing. I want to make people laugh. I want to delight my readers with wordplay, unexpected connections, and the prose equivalent of Rube Goldberg machines, where actions and events generate explosive endings.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would have invested a lot of time finding the right agent. I would have toned down my leanings toward quirkiness and tried to reach a broader market. I think I could have done that without sacrificing my artistic integrity. Though artistic integrity can be one of those things you clutch out of habit, especially when you are young.

Maybe a purer answer was that I should have been less stubborn, at times, when dealing with editorial suggestions. Though I don’t regret the times when I walked away from a deal to preserve my vision for a book. (I think I just contradicted myself.)

Honestly, as much fun as it is to try to revise the past, I think if I did things differently, I would have just shifted to a new set of triumphs and tragedies.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The top things that come to mind are eBooks, the consolidation of publishing houses, and the transition of YA from an age-market category to everybody’s hobby.

Honestly, there are times when I can talk (or write) at length about my thoughts on any topic. But right now, I don’t seem to have any insights or deep thoughts.

And, even more honestly, my insights about such things aren’t necessarily all that astute or interesting.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

If I were talking to me, I’d probably say, “Don’t get too frantic about using social media for promotion. You suck at it. Seriously. Use it for fun, if you must, but if you really want to spread the word, hit the road, do school visits, wangle invitations to school media and reading conferences.”

And, to repeat advice Bruce Coville gave me more than 20 years ago when I asked about the best way to promote my book, “Write another book.”

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

As crucial as literacy is, and as much as reading shapes the citizens of tomorrow, I wish everyone would take a step back once in a while, draw a deep breath, and remind themselves that at the core of all of this there should be pleasure, joy, delight, amusement, and even a bit of humble realization that we are both wizards and fools.

David with fellow Tor author/Pokémon player Alan Gratz

We create things that have never been, but we do it in a universe a billion times larger than we can even imagine.

On balance with that, as minuscule as we are, when we make a moment, a day, or a school year better for a young reader, or give an educator a tool to reach a student who thinks she hates reading, we loom larger than we can ever know.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I’m really having a struggle coming up with the perfect words for my tombstone. I’m pretty sure that will outlast anything else I write, unless vandals do a bit of revision by means of sledge hammers. I’ve come close to finding what I want.

I had one killer epitaph that popped into my mind while I was doing something else. It was perfect. But I neglected to write it down, and it escaped. I think there’s still time to work on it, but this is one deadline that’s definitely written in stone.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.