I wrote a crazy story in 1995 about superhero kids, mad scientists, and a garbageman who becomes the absolute and uncontested ruler of the world. It wasn’t a very good story. You wouldn’t want to read it, unless it were completely rewritten, and maybe even not then. A couple years later, a friend said to me, “Hey, a bunch of us are taking our old Superguy stories, projecting them twenty years into the future, and writing about what happens next. Want to join us?” When I thought about it, the whole story fell into place. Twenty years later, Sal the Garbageman has seven children. The last three are triplets. The last of the triplets has purple hair. The middle triplet has vanished mysteriously, a mad scientist has shown up, there are three mysterious penguins named Spots, Stripes, and Solids, and you’ll just have to read The Penguins of Doom to find out the rest.
Not at all! That’s why this book was so much fun to write. Septina is a “style over substance” kind of person while I’m more “substance over style” like her brother, Quinn. And I’m more intellectual, like Quinn. And I’m a bit more of a realist, again, like Quinn. But there are many ways in which I’m not like Quinn, either.
Here’s one thing I have in common with Septina: I liked to draw doodles in the margins of my school papers like she does. Although mine were mostly tank battles, spaceship battles, and geometric shape battles.
Everyone who likes penguins. Everyone who likes to laugh. Everyone who enjoys music, hates homework, and wants to develop magical powers. Pretty much…everyone. The book is meant for readers from age 9 and up. I gave a copy to my wife’s grandfather for his 90th birthday and he raved about it, so that’s age 9 up to age 90 at least.
My ideal reader is smart, has a wicked sense of humor, and enjoys sharing. He or she reaches the end of a book and immediately thinks of two or three friends who also absolutely positively must read it right away. And these friends will do so because they know the ideal reader has such great taste in books.
Septina’s father is a garbageman, so I subscribed to a sanitation workers’ listserv and learned a whole lot about the tips, tricks, and machinery involved. I also had to research the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the CB lingo that truckers use, some rock start biographies, and a whole bunch of other very random facts. I don’t think I used even a tenth of it made it into the book. Oh, and there’s skateboarding in the story, so I ended up playing a lot of Tony Hawk’s video games.
The basic story remained pretty much the same. The penguins were in the first draft, and Dr. Fignizzi, and Septina’s missing sister, and all of Septina’s personality and fabulous purple hair. The one difference I can think of is that Quinn was originally a girl, but I changed that because the story needed more boys.
The Penguins of Doom is set in Conwell, Massachusetts. It’s a fictional city based on my hometown but named after a building at my old law school. My criminal law professor used to set exam questions in the fictional city of Conwell, and I always thought it would be fun to set a book in Conwell if I ever had the chance.
O.W. Holmes Middle School is based on the junior high school I attended when I was the same age as Septina and Quinn. The apartment building they live in is based on one that was on my paper route, where I had to climb up and down five sets of stairs each morning to drop copies of the Boston Globe on every welcome mat.
Okay, now this is kind of funny… My first novel-length story with a real ending was a superhero spoof about a garbageman who becomes the absolute and uncontested ruler of the world. I spent the next ten years, off and on, trying to turn that story into a publishable book. If only I’d realized sooner that the story’s main problem was its lack of penguins, I could have had it published ten years ago!
My books are never done, ever, ever, ever. The Penguins of Doom was written and rewritten over a period of years, accepted for publication, edited, edited again, extensively copyedited, and it still wasn’t done. I still come up with new ideas and wish that all copies of the book could be recalled so I could scribble a new joke in the margins. I’ve had to learn how to submit books knowing that they’re not done, because otherwise they wouldn’t get submitted at all.
I sold my first book without an agent. It can be done. I just had to research the publishers and their submission guidelines, and keep track of the editors as they changed companies and job titles. I made a database to track multiple submissions. For me, the entire process took about seven years, but everyone is different. I also handled the contract negotiation without an agent. It helps that I’m an attorney with access to a law library and training in subsidiary rights and copyright reversion. Otherwise it might have been a good idea to either sign up with an agent or consult an attorney. For me the advantage of having an agent is that it gives me more time to write. My agent also provides marketing advice and editorial review to make the book proposals as good as they can be before an editor sees them.
Actually, I did have a dream editor in mind for The Penguins of Doom. She was one of the editors I met at a writing conference where she spoke about her background, tastes, and preferences to a room filled with eager children’s book authors. Some of the books this editor had worked on were kind of wacky, like mine, and she had the crazy energy of somebody who might really appreciate a book about penguins, magic numbers, and math teachers. In fact, this editor reminded me a lot of Septina, which was cool but also kind of scary. She still reminded me of Septina when I got her rejection letter a few months later. It was just the kind of letter Septina herself might have written, if she’d been an editor instead of a fictional seventh-grader. It was another editor, a couple years later, who pulled my book out of the slush pile and made her entire publishing house fall in love with it. So really, you just never know.
It was actually very informal. I’d done some web design work for Blooming Tree Press, so my first query was tacked onto the bottom of an email about migrating to a new ISP. The email was something like, “…and the new server infrastructure will allow double-throughput and increased bandwidth. By the way, I’ve got this funny middle grade novel–shall I send it to you?” I wouldn’t recommend this approach to anyone else. Even if you get a green light to submit, the book is still considered an “unsolicited manuscript” and will be handled with tongs and rubber gloves. The note I sent with the manuscript said something like, “Here’s the manuscript I told you about. I printed it in a weird handwriting font intermixed with doodles because that’s how the main character would have written it.” I also wouldn’t recommend this approach. One day, a couple months later, I was chatting with a friend who asked about my writing and whether I had anything submitted anywhere. I told her that I had something out to Blooming Tree Press. By coincidence, she’d just taken an editorial job there and was able to snag my manuscript out of the slush pile and show it to all the right people. So the message that really got the book sold was an IM to a friend.
I received “the call” at 70 miles per hour between Boston and Philadelphia during a thunderstorm at night. I don’t normally answer the phone while driving, but there’s not much choice when a publisher’s name comes up in the caller ID. While I was talking, I pulled the car off I-84 and into the first driveway I could find, which turned out to be the parking lot of a pizzeria. The first person to know that I was being published was my wife, sitting next to me and hearing my end of the conversation, something like this: “Sure… That’s great… Yes, I’d love to have the book published by Blooming Tree. Merchandising rights? Well, that sounds good. Hey, what about little penguin dolls filled with jellybeans? They could be kinda like beanie babies but refillable! Yeah, okay, I’ll think of something else…” The next people to know were the staff and diners in the pizzeria, when I went in to make an announcement because I just had to tell SOMEBODY. Then I called my parents, and my wife’s parents, and my friends, and my wife’s friends, and then the phone ran out of batteries.
I added 15,000 words to a 25,000-word book in my first revision. Then I cut 15,000 words in my second revision. Then I wrote a new ending. Then I wrote a new opening. No, I wouldn’t say that’s a wholly unreasonable amount of revision.
I had lots of wacky ideas. There’s a part in The Penguins of Doom where the main character, Septina Nash, is replaced by a robot double. So I was going to build a robot, a SeptinaBot, that would chat to people and tell them about the book. I got an old AI program core and tinkered with it until it believed that it was a robot sent back in time from the future, captured by the CIA, and made to do middle school math problems. But then the stupid thing crashed on me and lost all its specialized programming! I have a website and a blog. And I started a group of first-time 2007 authors who could all get excited and promote each other’s books. It was a fun year, watching all those books come out!
How can I add my own question to this page?
On the right side of this site is an “Ask the Author” box where you can direct your questions to me, or you can go directly to my page on Formspring. The best questions will be added to my website.