Lin Oliver on Books, Publishing and How to Write for Kids

We first became aware of Lin Oliver when we presented at the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference. We learned she had co-founded SCBWI, and we kept hearing what a wonderful writer, great businessperson and generous human she was. So now that she’s launched her new book series, The Fantastic Frame, we thought we would pick her brain about books, publishing, writers groups and how to get successfully published.

Lin Oliver author Lin Oliver, Danger Tiger Crossing jacket art

The Book Doctors: We often coach writers in marketing their work. As a writer, film producer and executive, when do you begin to think about marketing? When do you start thinking about the audience, who’s going to read and love this idea?

Lin Oliver: The traditional view of the author is that we’re somehow sequestered in a cabin by the lake expressing our deepest truths. There’s still that general view when you talk to publishers. The advice is, “Write your best book and the audience will come to you.” But that’s actually a very Ivory Tower kind of view. We’re all writing to express ourselves and also to reach an audience, so you have to think about who the audience is.

It helps me to imagine an actual classroom of kids or myself at that age. Because I’m writing for children, I do want to know in whose hands this is going to wind up. It’s almost a creative question, but it turns into marketing real fast. When I’m conceiving a book or series, it is important for me to know, “Who am I trying to reach?” I have very specific goals in mind.

TBD: Do you feel that being in the world of Hollywood and working very closely with combining image and word has helped you as an author?

LO: Oh, a 1,000%. My training was writing television. It’s not only combining images and words; it’s looking at pace. You can’t assume that your audience is staying with you, so you have to create a pace that is lively, moves along quickly, and has cliffhangers built in. I was writing television before people started binge-watching HBO and Netflix, so you had to actually bring people back after a commercial. You’re trained to keep a good pace going and to keep them wondering. The question is, “Well, then what happens?”

The other thing that came from television is dialogue. I had to learn how to write narrative when I started writing novels because I was trained in writing dialogue. A lot of great picture books have come from people who’ve worked in television or animation because they’ve been trained that the image tells the story as much as words.

TBD: We often hear, “My book really picks up after page 25.” What advice would you give to writers with this syndrome?

LO: My strategy is to write the first pages and then cut them all. Bruce Coville, who’s a wonderful children’s book writer, always refers to “literary throat clearing.” You spend the first few chapters gearing up. The rule that we all follow is to start as close to the action as possible. The old rule is to begin on the day it’s different. My rule is to begin most of the way through the day it’s different. We don’t have long with kids, only a few pages. They need to be engaged.

Exposition is a killer. You feel like your readers need all the information on everything, but they don’t. It’s so much more effective when it’s natural to the scene. If you look at movies, you don’t really know what’s going on during the first ten minutes. You’re not quite sure how it’s all going to fit together, but you’re willing to go with it because it’s exciting.

TBD: Lots of people who are trying to get their kids’ book published write books that are didactic in nature; they misunderstand what kids want to read and what publishers are looking for. They pitch their book by saying, “Here’s a lesson for all you kids to learn.”

LO: That never works. Anyone who’s ever been a parent knows there are two surefire ways to clear a room: one is try to teach them something weighty, and the other is to reminisce. Both of those are problems with beginning writers, and neither one is the right frame of mind. This isn’t about sentimentality and nostalgia, and it’s not about teaching a lesson. It’s about entertaining and telling a story.

Take, for example, the series I’m working on now, The Fantastic Frame. I love art history. It’s enriched my life in every possible way, and it’s not taught in schools. Part of my motivation was to introduce the idea that art is going to make you happy. It’s going to make you richer and deeper, and it’ll give you pleasure. That’s not really didactic, but it’s a value that I hold. And that, I think, is the difference. These stories are all adventures. The old lady next door has a frame that sucks you into a great painting. You have an adventure inside a Rousseau, a Seurat, or a Edward Hopper, but I’m not there to teach you about color theory, art history, or the role of Edward Hopper in American Realism. We’re inside the painting so you can feel what it’s like to be in shadow and in light. You’re learning things, but you’re having an adventure first. If it’s not exciting and edge-of-your-seat adventuresome, then it’s not going in there, regardless of how much it might have to do with art history.

Lin Oliver, Splat! Another Messy Sunday jacket art
There are so many writers who focus on craft, and they actually get pretty good. They can write a good dialogue scene, or they can structure a plot so it doesn’t sag in the middle, but first, they must have something to write about that they care about passionately. That’s what I see is missing from a lot of people who are polishing their writing. They lose the beating heart of it. What motivated you to spend this amount of time writing those words and learning to write those words? That’s not a didactic lesson, but it is a heartfelt something, a remnant of you that you want out in the world.

TBD: When we first published our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, ten years ago, we called it Putting Your Passion Into Print because we feel exactly like you do. You can write the most beautiful sentence, paragraph, chapter in the world, but if there’s not a passion underneath it, why bother? Readers, viewers, and human beings respond to passion. They just do. So what’s next for you?

LO: The Hank Zipzer books, which I write with Henry Winkler, are now a series on the BBC. Henry and I also wrote four books in the Ghost Buddy series, and Amazon optioned them and had us write a pilot. They didn’t buy it, so it goes in the list of developed but not produced. We’re just going back into that, getting the notes from 27 different people, the ‘German Markets’ or whatever. It’s really nice to sit at your screen and write something you think is going into the hands of the right people.

Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and writer-producer of television series and movies for children. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times best-selling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which has sold over 4 million copies and is a hit television series on the BBC. Their new chapter book series, Here’s Hank, is also a New York Times best-seller. She is also the author of the Who Shrunk Daniel Funk quartet, Sound Bender and The Shadow Mask, adventure/science fiction middle grade novels she coauthored with Theo Baker. Her collection of poetry, the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, is being followed with another poetry collection, Steppin’ Out: Playful Rhymes for Toddler Times. Her new chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame, debuted in April of this year from Grosset. Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI. Learn more at www.linoliver.com or follow Lin on Twitter (@linoliver).

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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About David Sterry

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, book editor, activist, and book doctor. His first memoir, Chicken, was an international bestseller, and has been translated into 10 languages. “As laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing, what more could you ask for?” – The Irish Times.

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