Survivors: 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
for Cynsations

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.

Guest Post: David Lubar on The Name of the Prose

Tor, 2016

By David Lubar
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I love it when people ask the title of my new book. I get to say, “Character, Driven.”

Then, if they nod knowingly, I add, “Character, comma, Driven.”

If they smile at that, I add, “It’s a plot-driven novel.”

I feel it’s a clever title. But a title has to be more than clever. It also has to be a good. It has a marketing job to do.

With 35 books or so to my credit, and close to 300 published short stories, I’ve created a lot of titles. Some were good. Some weren’t.

My first novel, published back in 1999, was about kids with special powers. The working title was “Psi School.” I wanted something better.

Back then, I often watched “Double Dare” on Nickelodeon with my daughter. At the end of the show, host Mark Summers would ask if anyone in the audience had a hidden talent.

One day, as he said that, I realized Hidden Talents was a perfect title for my novel. This was back in the days when we didn’t instantly and constantly search the Internet for information.

Starscape, 2003
Starscape, 2004

It wasn’t until the book came out that I searched for it in online stores and discovered there was a Jayne Ann Krentz novel by the same name.

That’s when I learned my first rule: Try to make the title unique.

Even having a similar title can be a problem. I was aware that Wendelin von Draanen had written Flipped (Knopf, 2001) before I called a novel of mine Flip. (I couldn’t resist. The title fit the story so well.) I didn’t think it would be a problem.

I also didn’t think we’d ever be on the same panel at a conference. To this day, I still run into people who confuse the two books.

I didn’t have that problem with Dunk, which was about a boy who wants to work as a clown in a dunk tank. I checked. There wasn’t a previous book with that title. But the title presented another problem. I’ve met people who never picked up the book because they thought it was about basketball.

I guess there might have been people who picked it up for that very reason. Inevitably, some of them would be disappointed. My second rule: Avoid confusing potential readers.

Graphia, 2004
Dutton, 2005

A title has to work with a broad population. My novel, “Flux Sucks,” was renamed at the last minute, out of fear that “sucks” might keep it off the shelves in some communities. The hastily created new title seems to be a good one. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie works well, I believe, because it is intriguing, and it can have multiple meanings.

I think the same holds true for Character, Driven. My main character, Cliff, is both driven to succeed in life and love, and driven by his friends because he lacks a car of his own.

The title also hints at the metafictional nature of the narrative.

I think my most successful title, in terms of marketability, caused a different sort of problem for me. The story collection, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales (Starscape, 2003)(excerpt), inspired such brilliant cover art from illustrator Bill Mayer that I decided the next collection also needed a Weenie title story. It was a smart move.

There are now seven Weenies collections, with an eighth coming in September. But it is a mixed blessing. Some people don’t take the books seriously, for that very reason. I’ve seen them referred to as “garbage books” by one blogger, who I suspect never looked beyond the cover, and a friend told of hearing a parent tell a child who’d snatched up a copy at a book fair to “pick a real book.”

Happily, the millions of copies in print remind me that, all in all, it was a good decision to run with the Weenies. (Not to mention the endless jokes I get to make when authors gather.)

Darby Creek, 2006

I have a chapter book about a boy who is cursed to speak in puns. The title, Punished!, actually came to me first, inspiring the book. (I also wrote a sequel, Numbed!, where the same characters lose their math skills. That, too, began with the title.)

I never tire of saying to kids who select that book at a school signing, “I’m glad you got Punished!”

I feel it’s an excellent title. But I made a mistake when I went for emphasis. Some online book sellers aren’t set up to search for an exclamation point. So neither Punished! nor Punished will produce that book.

If you search for the keywords Punished and Lubar, you’ll find the book, and some alarming bondage photos (just kidding), but the truth is that people are often better at remembering titles than authors. So a title should be both memorable and searchable.

Speaking of which, I foolishly called an ebook of mine, built from stories that were deemed too problematic for the Weenies collections, Zero Tolerance Meets the Alien Death Ray and Other (Mostly) Inappropriate Stories. I suspect that many of the kids who heard me talk about it forgot the title by the time they got home. If not sooner.

I hope I chose wisely this time. As a title, Character, Driven is memorable (I hope), searchable (I tested the comma, and found no problems), and confusing only in a fun and ironic sort of way.

Is it a good title? I think so. But that’s really a question for the marketplace to decide. And that would be you. So let me know what you think. Or just smile and nod knowingly if we ever cross paths.

Author Interview: David Lubar on True Talents

David Lubar on David Lubar: “I write novels and short stories for anyone with a sense of humor or a sense of wonder. My hobbies include procrastination, complaining, and voting for myself on teen-choice book lists.”

You last spoke to Cynsations in 2005 about your YA novel, Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (Dutton, 2005). Could you fill us in on your writing life since that time?

I’ve spent the last two years working ceaselessly on developing a neuro-linguist method for responding to interview question with answers that will be so captivating and charming that they will inspire everyone who reads them to immediately buy multiple copies of all my books. (Psssst. Hey you. You need True Talents (Starscape, 2007).) Where was I? Oh, yeah… Beyond that, my writing life involves far more writing than it did when last we spoke. Back then, I was on the road way too much. I’ve stopped doing school visits for a while. I now have much more time to write, and a deeper appreciation of the finer aspects of poverty.

Congratulations on the publication of True Talents (Starscape, 2007)! It’s a sequel to Hidden Talents (Tor, 1999)(Starscape, 2007), so let’s start there! Could you tell us about Hidden Talents, and why you wanted to continue the story?

Hidden Talents, at its heart, is about the way that society is so quick to cast off kids and to slap labels on them. With Edgeview Alternative School, I created a place where the kids, the teachers, and even the building itself is a cast off. But these kids have been badly mislabled. And that’s where the magic shows up. The kids aren’t behavior problems. Instead, they have these amazing, unrecognized gifts.

I honestly didn’t have any plans to continue the story. But there was a demand for a sequel, both from readers, and from my publisher. Kids wanted to know what happened next. My publisher wanted to build on the momentum and success of the first book.

For True Talents, what was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The spark didn’t happen until somewhere near the middle of the timeline. I started writing the book in July, 2003, and finished the first draft that October. It took up with the same narrator, Martin Anderson, as he was about to start high school. I kept working on it through October of 2004. I normally don’t take that long with a book, but two things were working against me. I was traveling constantly, and I didn’t like the way the book turned out. Meanwhile, my editor left Tor.

After talking with my new editor, I decided to start from scratch. I put aside the book I’d written, and began a new one focusing on a different character–Eddie “Trash” Thalmayer. The spark came when I thought about someone waking up from a drugged stupor in a research lab. When the first book ended, the guys still had a secret they were trying to keep from the world. Now, the secret was out. I had a first draft three months later. But it still didn’t go into copy editing until last July.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenge was psychological. Hidden Talents is still growing in popularity. There was no way I was going to sully it with a crappy sequel. I think that’s why I dragged my feet for so long.

As for literary challenges, I wanted immediacy, but I also wanted to show what had happened to all of the guys from the first book. I decided to combine a first-person narrative from the main character with third-person sections from the other characters. I’ve always loved the whole “Roshomon” aspect of showing a story through more than one set of eyes. Since the book switches viewpoints so much, I put a lot of time into arranging these sections in a way I hoped wouldn’t feel awkward to the reader.

I also took a big risk with the opening. Eddie is emerging from a drugged stupor. He’s hallucinating, and his mind is wandering. The scene doesn’t immediately make sense. That’s a big risk, and I’m still worried I’ll lose a few potential readers, but it seems to have worked out. Besides, how can you resist a book that opens with: “The gorilla who clung to the ceiling was wearing a Princeton T-shirt”?

How long have you been writing with an eye toward publication?

I was collecting rejection slips back when I was in high school. I got serious about publication when I got out of college 1976. I made my first fiction sale in 1978. So I’m far closer to my expiration date than many of the current novelists.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love writing dialogue, especially when my characters’ personalities begin to emerge. I’ll have this kid who’s little more than a lump of clay, and he’ll say something that suddenly defines a part of him. Often, my supporting characters will take over. I’m really fond of Ellis from Flip (Starscape, 2004), and Malcolm from Dunk (Clarion, 2002)(excerpt). I’m really bad with tools, and less than marginal with a drawing pencil, so I find it extremely rewarding that I can build things out of words.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I’d love to skip the delay that happens before I get feedback. I wish people could take in a novel like a painting and respond immediately.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I love they way I’m treated. Tor, especially, makes me feel like I stumbled into someone else’s dream. They take me places, promote my books, and just treat me wonderfully. I love going out to dinner with my publisher because she has incredibly good taste in wine. And I love hearing from people who felt my books made a difference, because I didn’t set out to change the world. I set out to entertain people. It’s nice to know that my work has positive side effects.

As for things I abhor, I dislike not winning major awards, because I am pathetically needy and drink validation the way a vampire drinks blood.

How has the business changed over time, for worse and better?

It’s tough for me to judge that, since my own relationship to the industry had changed over time. When I started, I was unknown. Then I became a rumor. Now, I’m vaguely familiar. The only constant change I’ve noticed is that more and more of the editors are the same age as my daughter.

If you could go back in time to your beginning author self, what would you tell him?

Buy Berkshire Hathaway. Stay off the Internet.

Cynsational News, Links, and Return

Congratulations to the winners of the 2006 Cybils! I’d like to send out a special cheer to previously featured winners: author Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long for An Egg Is Quiet (Chronicle)(author and illustrator interview); author-illustrator Melanie Watt for Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can); and David Levithan (along with his co-author Rachel Cohn) for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Knopf)(author interview). I’d also like to say thanks to all the amazing volunteers behind this wonderful new award program. This is an amazing effort. Please do know that it is appreciated!

Don’t miss this super cool video interview with author David Lubar as he talks to Expanded Books about his forthcoming True Talents (StarScape, March 2007)(excerpt). Visit here, and read a related recommendation by Greg.

Interview with Kimberly Duncan-Mooney by Jenna Glatzer from Absolute Write. Kimberly is the US editor of Barefoot Books, a small publisher established in 1993 with offices in Cambridge, Mass.; and England.

“An Unsafe Bridge” by Peter T. Chattaway from Christianity Today. Author Katherine Paterson chimes in on the film version of “Bridge to Terabithia.”

Submit to the 11th Carnival of Children’s Literature, sponsored by Big A, little a.

Picture Books: Plan, Polish, and Publish by Dori Chaconas. Read interviews with Dori on On A Wintry Morning (Viking, 2000) and One Little Mouse (Viking, 2002) from my web site.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast #6: Kelly Herold at Big A little a: an interview with one of my favorite bloggers.

Thanks to Greg at Greg LSBlog for inviting me to be a guest blogger this past week. The featured authors and illustrators from those posts will be highlighted once more here so that no one misses hearing about their wonderful books. This will result in some short-term repetition; however, I’ll be sure to also include new news as we’re catching up.

Huge thanks to all who’ve supported my guest blogging (during tech woes) and the launch of my new YA novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), including: Book Moot; Laura Bowers; Julia Durango; Alex Flinn; Carrie Jones; Cynthia Lord; Liz Garton Scanlon; Laurie Stolarz; Three Silly Chicks; Lara Zeises; April Lurie, Jo Whittemore; Shaken & Stirred; Colleen Cook; Mitali Perkins; Varian Johnson; Chris Barton; Kellye Carter Crocker; Jody Feldman; Debbi Michiko Florence; Varian Johnson; Jo Knowles; Uma Krishnaswami; Carolyn Lehman; David Lubar; Kerry Madden; Mary E. Pearson; Laura Ruby; Tanya Lee Stone; Anastasia Suen; Don Tate; Kim Winters; Sara Zarr.

Where Do Media Tie-ins Come From? with Laurie Calkhoven from the Institute of Children’s Literature.