Henry Herz intimidates me.
He’s written and sold ten children’s books, along with numerous short stories, and he’s one of the few writers Jonathan Maberry trusts to run the Writers Coffeehouse when he can’t host it himself.
Did I mention he frequently runs panels for Comic-Con and WonderCon? And that he edited an anthology that includes stories from Peter S Beagle, Jane Yolen, and Jim Butcher?
Thankfully, he’s as friendly and approachable as he is super-organized (more on that later). He recently spent some time with me over Zoom to talk about his writing process, children’s book publishing, and his dive into the world of middle-grade novels.
What is your writing process like for a picture book? With something that short, does pantsing vs plotting come into play?
I’m a plotter by nature, and because of my background in industrial engineering, I don’t like wasting time. For me, being a plotter is more efficient than being a pantser because I don’t write myself into corners.
But it’s an artistic endeavor, and it may be that someone who loves to be a pantser can’t plot. They would actually be slower, so every writer must discover what works best for them.
For a picture book, there’s usually 13 to 14 two-page spreads, so I’ll just do an outline to show what I want to have on each of these spreads. Then I can look at everything and go, “Okay, do I have rising tension? Do I establish the problem in the first one or two spreads? Do I have a resolution about three-quarters of the way through?” And that’s easy to check. Then I can draft each of the pages and go from there.
With a picture book, you could easily get away with pantsing, because the word count is so low. And picture books typically go through a lot more revisions than a novel.
Well, how many passes are you going to make through a novel, realistically?
Three or four. Maybe.
Yeah, exactly. I have picture books that have gone through 25 revisions, but that just means me making a pass and making changes and tightening things up, or me soliciting feedback from critique group members and integrating the feedback that I think is constructive.
How does your writing process change for a short story or novel vs a picture book?
So I’m organized in both cases, but I’m a lot more organized for the novel or the short story, because it’s a bigger word count. I just feel like I’d be flailing if I pantsed a novel. I would be very likely to write myself into corners or spend too much time in one area.
I found a resource that I really like. It’s called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, by Jess Brody. There was originally a book by Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!, which analyzed how movies are structured, and Jessica Brody took the same idea and applied it to novels.
So her book gives you a template, a starting point, which was invaluable to me, since I’ve only written one novel. I used her structure for that novel and about half-a-dozen short stories in the 3,000 to 6,000 word range.
It guarantees you have the arc that you want. The character development is still obviously up to you, but it helps with the pacing and the arcs.
There’s also a great resource for character development, the book that Jonathan Maberry always touts, which is the Writing the Breakout Novel Handbook, by Donald Maass. There’s a bunch of questions in there that help you understand your own characters.
In my idealized process for writing a novel, I start with a rough idea of the story just in my head through inspiration, but then I flesh out the characters using the Donald Maass workbook, and then I come up with an overview and story beats from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel.
And that helps chunk it down, because I’m a picture book writer used to writing 500-word books. The first novel, the first and only novel I’ve written, is a 30,000-word middle-grade novel. 30,000 words is intimidating to somebody who’s only written 500. If you’re an adult novelist, you’re like, “Pfft. I do 100,000 words all the time. It’s no big deal.” But for me, it was a lot.
So staring at a blank document that I know will have to contain 30,000 words is pretty intimidating. But if I use the Save the Cat template, then the writing is broken down into anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand word chunks, and that makes it much easier. “Okay, I know how to write that. I don’t know how to write the whole thing, but I know how to write this little piece.”
Like the parable about how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
What does your novel outline look like?
Jess Brody breaks the novel up into about 15 beats.
Beats like “The Opening Image”, “The Theme Stated”, “The Set Up”, and then there’s “The Catalyst”. Then you break into Act II.
So having a couple of sentences about each of these beats, it gets me far enough to start writing.
So you had all the beats mapped out first? Or did you map out a beat, write it up, then map out the next beat, etc?
I map out all the beats up front, before I start writing.
Only somebody as ridiculously organized as me would pay attention to this, but Save the Cat Writes a Novel suggests roughly what percentage of the word count should be in each beat. Obviously, you fiddle with it. But that really helps me.
For example, The Opening Image, I think, is 1%. It’s just an opening image, right? So if I have a 30,000-word novel, then I know, “Okay, I have about 300 words to play with.” Now, they’re not strict limits, but it tells me what I’m aiming at. There is a big difference between writing 300 and 3,000 words.
I find it helps with the pacing, to make sure that things are happening at the right times, and that there are head-fakes, that you’re moving in a direction and something shifts. You’re building tension, and then you ramp it up even more. It’s just helpful. I know Jonathan [Maberry] has done this so many times that it’s instinct for him, but since this is my first novel, it was really helpful to have a tool.
How do you go about building a scene in your head? Do you think cinematically, or…?
Let’s take Stephen King’s novel, Carrie.
So if I was writing Carrie, and I’m doing the opening scene, how do I want to set the stage? Would I want to have Carrie in her room levitating something, or would I want to have Carrie in the high school locker room getting picked on by the other girls?
But once I made that decision, then I would envision the scene in my head. “Okay, what’s going on? Who’s going to say what?” Make sure that the dialogue and the action is consistent with what the characters want.
In the end, these are stories about characters, so you always have to make sure that you’re being true to those characters.
I probably pants that more in that I have a general idea of what the character’s like, but I let the character’s voice emerge as I’m writing as opposed to having it all worked out ahead of time.
I can think, “Okay, this character is smart but a little self-centered, has a good sense of humor, mouths off in class when they shouldn’t.” And then having those rough guidelines, then I can let the character’s personality take shape, let it flesh out as I’m writing.
Do you use beta readers? Or maybe a critique group?
I’m a member of a group here locally that I like. It’s some experienced writers, and we do 3,500 words a week that we share and critique. I got through my novel in nine sessions, nine weeks, which feels slow to me as a picture book writer, but I know as a novelist that’s pretty fast to get detailed feedback from multiple people on your novel.
Do you all email out your selection to each other?
So this group uses Dropbox to pass out the pieces and then to give feedback. But then we were meeting face-to-face on a weekly basis until coronavirus, and now we’re doing it all through Dropbox. Just sharing marked up versions of the manuscripts.
No Zoom meetings where you read aloud something and critique it?
No, that would take too long also to read aloud. 3,500 words times five people, that’d be a long meeting.
Oh, it’s 3,500 each for each person, so each week you’re reading 15,000 words or more?
Yeah, but it’s a lot easier to read and critique somebody else’s stuff than to write 15,000 words.
Fair enough. To get back to the critiquing real quick, how hard is it for you to switch between the draft brain and the editing brain?
Oh, for my own stuff? Very easy, very easy, because I draft until I have a complete draft, so I’m not context-switching on a daily basis. I’m drafting, drafting, drafting, drafting until I have a draft completed, and then I switch to revision mode.
Some people edit as they draft. I’m guilty of that too. But I try to discourage myself because it is important to get that first draft out.
But with short stories, I allow myself to edit as I go. That also means that when I’m done, the first draft is tight.
The last three I short stories I wrote, I was ready to submit after version two. One revision pass, and I was ready to go, because I had been editing them as I typed them in. So they were close to finished in the first draft. Then it’s just a matter of polishing.
When you get feedback from your critique group, do you always make the changes they suggest?
It’s a good question, and the answer depends on context. Sometimes I just get, “Hey, this isn’t working,” and sometimes I get, “Hey, this isn’t working. Have you thought about this?”
And I will consider what they say, but I’m not feeling bound to do it. My choices are reject it completely, do nothing, accept it as is, or accept that there’s a problem, but fix it a different way. Any of those are possible. It just depends on the situation.
I don’t feel constrained by a critiquer’s proposed solution, but I’m happy to hear it. The suggestion might be really good, or it might prompt me to go, “That’s a good point, although that won’t work because of something the reader isn’t aware of,” but it gets my brain spinning. “Okay, yeah. I do need to address that, and I know how to do that. I’ve got to go back a couple of chapters and plant something so that I foreshadow that.”
Have all your picture books earned out?
No. Some of them have, some of them haven’t.
Oh. Is that hard to do for a picture book? I guess it depends on the level of advance.
Yes, it depends on the level of advance, and it also depends on how much effort the publisher puts in.
Because there’s an 80/20 rule that applies to a lot of things, and I think it also applies to how publishers market their books. I think 80% of their marketing budget gets focused on 20% of their books that they have a really good feeling about. These are their top authors, proven authors with good track records, who get the lion’s share of the marketing budget.
I’ve sold 10 picture books, but I am nowhere near the top of the field, not even close. I get a modest amount of help marketing-wise. They solicit professional reviews, and they put it on their website, and they do the things they do for everybody, but it’s not like they’re paying for me to go on a tour around the country.
I’d say the most critical thing is can they get your book in Barnes & Noble, because that’s the biggest chain.
And they can’t always do that. Just because a traditional publisher produces a book, it doesn’t mean Barnes & Noble will take it. They have finite space, and they’re going to pick the books they think will sell the best. It’s perfectly logical from a business perspective, but it sucks if you’re not a well-known author.
Do you have an agent?
I don’t have an agent currently, and I think the novel is a good opportunity for me to approach agents, because there’s a lot more picture book manuscripts floating around than novel manuscripts floating around in children’s literature, I think.
And if an agent likes my middle grade novel, then I can say, “By the way, I also have a number of picture book manuscripts.”
Some agents specialize in picture books. A lot of them skip them, because unless you’re at the top of the field, the advances for picture books are small, and the agency gets 15%. The agent gets less than that if they’re not the owner of the agency.
So imagine seven-and-a-half percent of a $4,000 dollar advance. That’s not a lot of money for a picture book agent. $300 isn’t going to pay the rent.
I’m hoping that this will increase my appeal because now I’m a dual threat, I can write picture books and I can write novels.
Do you have a list of agents already in mind for the middle-grade?
I have a list of agents who I like for picture books, and what I’ll probably do is go through that, because I want somebody who works for a reputable agency and somebody who’s interested in the same genres.
You have to align with what the agent is interested in reading, and I tend to write a lot of science fiction and fantasy.
So I will start with my list of picture book agents and go through them again, and go, “Okay, does this agent also represent middle-grade,” and if they do, then “do they like fantasy and sci-fi?”
How do you feel your background in process improvement engineering helps you with your writing?
It doesn’t help me with writing, but it helps me with my career in terms of being organized and being efficient about all the non-writing things that I have to do: submitting, soliciting an agent, and tracking when markets are open that you can submit to. And what you sent and whether you’ve heard back or not.
If you’re being active, you could easily just drown in all the data. If you don’t use a spreadsheet or something to manage it, you’ll just completely lose track of what you’re doing. I’m a pretty prolific writer, so I have to do that.
How do you keep track of it all?
For my picture books I have a spreadsheet. The columns represent the different manuscripts, and the rows are for the different publishers.
For each cell, there’s really two dates, when I submitted it and when I heard back, either a rejection or an acceptance.
So that’s a helpful thing to have, because then you know who’ve you sent to. I can put notes in there too, like if they rejected but they gave me some feedback, then I can stuff that in there as well.
And then I do something similar for my short stories, which are submitted to online magazines, print magazines, and anthologies.
Has your system evolved over time?
I didn’t used to have that spreadsheet. I used to just have the Evernote list, organized by market.
For example, I scroll down past Amazing Stories, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies to Clarkesworld. I can see that I submitted ABC to Clarkesworld on this date. It was declined or accepted on that date. So under each market, I list every one of the stories I’ve submitted. I may also list stories I’m planning to submit.
But many of these markets don’t accept multiple or simultaneous submissions. That makes it really hard to know at a glance “Can I submit there? Where else have I submitted that story?”
That’s when I built a short story spreadsheet, where each row is a story and each column is a market. That format makes it easy to see at a glance where I’ve submitted it, and where I might submit it. You can use color-coding to show which markets allow simultaneous submissions and which ones don’t.
I want to push my writing out into the world. There are some markets that will give you a fast response, within a few days. But most of them, it’s weeks or months. I think, “Okay, which one do I want to send to in what order, and if I send there, that means I can’t send it over to these other markets until I hear back.”
So it’s like a three-dimensional chess match. I’ve found that I needed the spreadsheet just to retain my sanity and get these stories out in as expeditious a manner as possible, get responses, and then if it’s a no, move on to the next market.
Field Trip to Earth
Why go for a middle-grade novel after having written and successfully published so many picture books?
I’ve been published more than once in the picture book market, but writing a middle-grade novel makes sense for a couple of reasons. First is career-wise, it’s better to be able to write in more than one market. But also, when you’re writing picture books, your vocabulary is tied behind your back. You’re writing for young readers, and are constrained by what words you can use and what concepts you can cover.
You also have to very carefully leave room for the illustrator, because picture books, at roughly 500 words, don’t give you word count to describe the scenes. You have to leave room for the illustrator to do a lot of the scene description.
Writing middle grade lets me use my full vocabulary and describe scenes and incorporate motivations that are too mature for a picture book. So writing for older markets supports both self-expression and career growth.
I chose middle-grade as opposed to young adult or adult, because I’m also being practical. I’ve written a number of picture books of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 words. I sold an early chapter book, which was 6,500 words, so that was a step up. But nothing longer than that.
I thought, “I don’t want to jump to a 100,000-word epic fantasy. That’s just a bridge too far. Middle-grade novels can be as short as 30,000 words.
I figured I would hone my novel writing chops by writing a shorter novel.
It’s also closer in tone to picture books than an adult novel would be.
So, what’s the novel about? What genre is it in?
The middle-grade novel is science fiction with a good dose of humor.
It’s called Field Trip to Earth, and it’s basically an alien middle school student finds herself in academic trouble, and she needs to take an unauthorized field trip to Earth to collect data for her school report.
Some of her friends go with her, and hijinks ensue.
That sounds great.
It’s been fun to write. Soon I expect to be done with my second full pass, and then at that point, I’m going to throw it out there and see if an agent wants it.
Have you gotten any feedback that made you completely rewrite part of it?
Partially. So in my sci-fi novel, the main character is a middle-school kid from Proxima Centauri.
And she realizes she needs to go to Earth. Now, she has attended driver’s ed, so she knows how to fly a spaceship, but she doesn’t own one.
In my original version, after school ends, she basically hijacks a school vehicle and flies it to Earth.
I got feedback from more than one person saying, “That’s a little too dark. It offers a behavior that’s not one parents would want to encourage in their kids.” I can’t pull off what Eoin Colfer did with Artemis Fowl.
So instead, she has a nemesis at school. Now, the nemesis is wealthy and has his own ship, so she enlists his cooperation into doing the trip.
Oh, that’s a neat solution
Another piece of feedback: In my early version, the two of them would have verbal sparring, and the nemesis was a different species and chubby.
I had my protagonist teasing him about his size and his eating habits. The feedback I got was, “Your protagonist is being kind of a bully there.”
Even though it was in reaction to the nemesis’ actions, my protagonist’s responses felt too mean and bullying. So I toned that down.
Those weren’t complete rewrites, but they definitely were significant changes to the character and for one plot element. But that’s the idea, right? I’m making it better.
Definitely. When making those changes, did you revise the outline first, and then the text?
No, because the structure is still solid. I don’t need to change the structure. The beats are the beats.
In the way that I am operating, following the Save the Cat! Writes a Novel structure, the beats come in a specific order, and the relative size of those beats is unchanged. I just go into the individual chapters and tweak what I need to tweak to make the desired changes.
I don’t have to rewrite the whole thing. I may have to insert pieces that I needed to set the stage in an earlier scene, but that’s it.