ndividually, Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver both have impressive resumes. Winkler as an actor, director and producer and Oliver as the co-founder of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a producer, television writer and author. When they combined their talents to co-author the New York Times Bestselling series, Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Underachiever, the results were amazing.
Winkler received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1970 and is best known for his role as Fonzie on the sitcom Happy Days. In addition, he acted in other television shows and movies including Arrested Development, Waterboy, and The Practice. He also directed and produced MacGyver in the 1980’s and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in the late 1990’s. Winkler has a passion for children and in 1990 helped form the Children’s Action Network, which uses the power of the entertainment community to increase awareness about children’s issues and to make them a top priority in everyday life.
Oliver graduated from UCLA and UC Berkeley with a degree in English. After an unsuccessful semester as a high school teacher, she got a job writing educational books for children. She and her writing partner, Steve Mooser, wanted to learn more about writing for children, but had a hard time finding resources and conferences. So together they formed SCBWI, which now has over 22,000 members. Oliver eventually went on to work for television as a Vice President of Universal Studios for eleven years, where she wrote and produced shows such as Harry and the Hendersons. She now has her own production company where she writes and produces television shows for families. Plus, she is a children’s author of the Almost Identical series and the book, Little Poems for Tiny Ears.
In early 2000, Winkler’s agent suggested he write children’s books. He didn’t feel he had enough experience to do that so he introduced Winkler to Oliver. The two hit it off and began collaborating on a book series based on Winkler’s childhood and his challenges with dyslexia. The Hank Zipzer books were born and are now a best-selling series.
WOW: Once you two knew you wanted to work together, what were the steps you took to getting a publisher?
Henry: The first thing we did was Lin, as always, sat at the computer and I walked around her office. We figured out a book proposal together, which I never heard of before, but Lin was very familiar with. We hammered out who Hank was, what his life was like, where he lived (which was easy because it was the apartment I grew up in) and we created friends for Hank. We put together the book proposal and when Lin was satisfied we had done it the way it should be done, we sent it to the agent at ICM, Esther Newburg. She handles clients like Thomas Friedman, Bill Clinton and everyone else you can imagine.
Lin: She was the head of the literary department at ICM.
Henry: She said, “I don’t do children’s books.”
And I said to her, “There’s always a first time. I think you should look at this.”
She sent it out to five publishers. Three said no, one said maybe and Penguin Putnam said yes. And they came back with a contract for four books.
Lin: That was eleven years ago and since then, there are now eighteen Hank Zipzer, the World’s Great Underachiever books.
Henry: They are for third, fourth, and fifth graders.
Lin: Those Hank Zipzer books have sold about 4 million copies. We got a lot of letters from kids wanting to know what Hank was like before he got diagnosed. Because early on in the series he gets diagnosed with having dyslexia. So we created Here’s Hank, which is the younger Hank. They are true chapter books with illustrations and about 10,000 words in length.
Henry: We are working on Chapter 8 of the seventh novel of that series right now. The fourth one that came out was on the New York Time’s Bestseller list for series.
Lin: It’s called Fake Snakes and Weird Wizards. It’s a story about Hanks annoying little sister who loves reptiles. She wants to have a birthday party with a reptile show and the family can’t afford it. Hank volunteers to step forward as the West Side Magician and produce a reptile. Things go very much wrong at the birthday party.
By the way, making the best seller list as a series is a big deal because it’s exclusively big movie titles like Harry Potter, Divergent, Maze Runner, so it was great for a chapter book to infiltrate that series list.
So, in the ensuing 10 years since we started, we have written 18 of the Hank Zipzer novels, we’ve completed 6 1/2 Here’s Hank and there are four more in our contract. Then we also did another 4 book series called Ghost Buddy that we did with Scholastic.
Henry: I’m going to brag again. We were on the bestseller list last week and that was the 2nd time. The first time was a few years ago with Hank Zipzer, the older novels. We were on the list at #9 and number #8.
“We are writing for second graders. You have to be aware of their attention span and providing enough action to move the story along. But enough depth to understand how your characters feel.”
WOW: Henry, was there anything that surprised you about the process of writing a book?
Henry: How many rules I didn’t know. And how many rules Lin did know. I learned everything from Lin. All the rules about going in the same door and leaving the same door you came in on every little rule that is part of the literary process I learned from Lin.
WOW: Are there one or two rules that stand out?
Lin: I think the thing that Henry struggles with most is narrative point of view. We are writing in the first person. You can only write about things that Hank is seeing or experiencing. Henry will say, “Let’s go in the next room and see what the mom is doing.” Well, we can’t be there unless Hank is there. I think this is tricky for all writers. That’s why so much is written in 3rd person or omniscient 3rd person, because you want to be able to move around. But what we traded off for that was the intimacy of the first person voice.
Henry: The personality of Hank gets to come out.
Lin: Henry and I debate these issues day in and day out. We very much collaborate. There is a lot of give and take in the conversation about what we agree on. The other thing that comes up often is the pacing of the story. Henry loves the tale, and I love to move on. I am always saying this is getting a little slow, this is getting a little boring. He keeps saying, “Oh, but this is so funny and so interesting.” We do a lot of negotiation on how long a scene should go, what to dramatized and what to skip over.
Henry: Sometimes my actor self starts to feel like, oh my gosh, the jeopardy and oh my gosh the emotion. We can’t move until we know how he feels about the women yelling at him. I need to know how he is feeling. I need to know that he can’t use the blender until he figures out how to plug it in because he doesn’t know where the plug is. He’s worried. And actually, that was a real conversation. This kind of thing comes up almost every day.
Lin: It’s one of the hardest things about writing; deciding what to leave in and what to take out. Especially when you are writing for young kids. We are writing for second graders. You have to be aware of their attention span and providing enough action to move the story along. But enough depth to understand how your characters feel. That’s a balance. We are collaborating, so we need two people to agree on it. It’s hard enough to agree with yourself on it.
“I’m telling you without fail, when we come up with story, we either sit there like bumps on a log and nothing spurs up or it’s so dynamic that it is electric.”
WOW: Can you explain your writing process?
Lin: Because we know we are writing a series, we don’t have to go through a lot of character development. We now know our cast of characters. The first thing we do is come up with a premise that is meaningful. Not just a good story premise, but one that resonates in terms of saying something to kids. Whether it is about friendship or honesty or not judging people. We go through many premises until we land on one that we feel is rich enough to carry the theme we want express.
Henry: We know right away when it is rich enough because as soon as we say what the premise could be, we say, oh my god, then this could happen... oh yeah and that could happen and she could come over here and meet this person and he could lose his homework. I’m telling you without fail, when we come up with story, we either sit there like bumps on a log and nothing spurs up or it’s so dynamic that it is electric.
Lin: I think that’s true.
Henry: It is true, it happens every time.
Lin: Then after the premise we do an outline where we do the beats for the story. The outline is subject to change. We start to feel where it begins and where it ends and where the turning point is. Then we allow ourselves enough leeway to go back in and change that if the pacing requires it.
Henry: This is really important. We have an airtight outline. We know exactly where this is going to go and as we start writing the book, honest to God, the book has a life of its own. All of a sudden at chapter five it takes a left turn and there goes the outline and here comes the story. We end up in a place we did not consider. It’s shocking how organic the process is.
Lin: We do the outline so we have a road map. If the road map changes and we decide to go to Wisconsin instead of Washington, then we’ll go there. But we don’t’ start out with just winging it. Particularly with the younger books; they are short. You can’t wander through the story. They have to be very targeted.
Then we send the outline to the publisher and get their feedback. After that, the next thing we do is decide on a title. We are really big believers in titles. Especially for children’s books. They are not reading a review in the New York Times. They are making a decision because the book is at a book fair or they are at a store with their parents looking at books. They make a decision based on something that appeals to them in the title. We try to have titles that are distinctive, maybe funny and maybe enticing.
“We have three seconds. The kid picks a book up off the shelf looks at it, reads the title and either it goes in the basket or it goes back on the shelf.”
Henry: Lin is stickler for titles. She told me we have three seconds. The kid picks a book up off the shelf looks at it, reads the title and either it goes in the basket or it goes back on the shelf. So we work on those titles, sometimes for days.
Lin: We love it because when we go and speak at schools, and we say a title of a book, it gets a laugh. We did a Hank Zipzer book called The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down. Kids are going to want to read that. One of our new Here’s Hank books is called, A Short Tale About a Long Dog. It really matters to us that the title intrigues kids and makes them laugh.
Then once we have the title, the premise and what we want to say to kids and the outline, then we write. We write in my office. I am at the computer because Henry is kind of allergic to them. Given that we both came out of television writing and television production, this process is very familiar to us. Television sit-com writing happens when you do a draft on your own, but then you really refine the script in a room together with other writers.
We write for about 2-2 1/2 hours. But we are very focused on it for that time. On the little books we try to do a chapter in that time. For the longer books it might take 3-4 days to do a chapter. We have draft usually in about 3 months. Then we each take it home separately and red it over for rhythm and style and punch up the jokes and words that don’t resonate.
Then that first draft goes to our editor. We get back their reactions, revisions and notes, which we discuss ad nauseam. One of us is more resilient to the notes than the other one. I look forward to the editorial notes, especially since they can point out where we are not clear on something.
Then we do the revisions, which takes a couple of weeks. Usually we work well enough with our editors now that only one revision is required and sometimes there is a third take which is a polish. Then we are done with the official writing part. Sometime we talk with the illustrator.
Henry: That I found really, really important. The illustrator for the young books, for Here’s Hank, is really terrific. I think the covers are just edible. They are colorful and fun and just really wonderful. Something I could never do in a million years. We called him up in England and talked him through emotionally the character and they changed from his first concept to what it is now drastically different because we took the time to tell him anecdotes about my real life, about Hank, how we see him and how hard things are for him. I think every author should do that.
“It is just a fact; the parents come because I was the Fonz. But when they leave, they go, Oh my God, I am going to look at my child differently.”
WOW: You take serious topics like learning challenge and bullying and approach them with humor. Why do you take this approach?
Henry: We believe the way to a kid’s heart is through humor. We did not set out, in any such way or form, to write a self-help book. Oh isn’t that sad the poor kid has a learning problem. He just happens to be a really inventive child whose working on all cylinders, except he can’t spell and his math is beyond him. But his thinking process; his imagination is on fire.
When we go into schools and all of the kids are sitting there, 300-400 kids at a time, we say does anybody know what they are great at? There is not a hand that does not shoot up in the air. Every child knows what they are great at. We believe that is where the focus should be. Not everybody is going to be great at algebra or geometry. But they might be good at art, at running, at being a friend, at English, at writing. One kid said, “I am great at being me.”
There is more than one way to solve a problem. There is not really one way to figure it out. You can do it your way and if you get to where you want to be, then your way is brilliant. Children are not defined by school. It has nothing to do with their brilliance if they don’t do well in academic subjects.
We encourage the parents to come. It is just a fact; the parents come because I was the Fonz. They come because they know me from TV. But when they leave, they go, oh my God, I am going to look at my child differently. Oh my God I never considered that. My kid came home and said, ‘I just found the first book I’m going to read.’ When a child reads one, they say, hey that’s just like me. Libraries tell us that all time. Reluctant readers who they can’t get to read, read one and then read five as fast as they can.
WOW: Lin, what changes have you seen in the publishing industry and how does that affect writers today?
Lin: The publishing industry is in a huge state of flux. That has to do with the creation and popularity of self-publishing. When I first started, vanity publishing was really an ugly stepsister. You only published yourself if you were desperate or narcissistic or needed something to show your grandchildren. Now, it is a viable option for a lot of people in a lot of categories.
All of that makes a huge difference in democratizing the publishing industry. Publishing is available to many more people. They don’t have to get through gatekeepers. They can go directly out there. Whether it’s creating a blog or publishing your own novel or you own works of nonfiction, you can do it in electronic form you can do it in book form.
Suddenly, the industry is available to everyone. In many senses it’s a great thing and in many senses it is problematic. It puts everyone on an equal footing. Whether or not you’re a trained writer or whether or not your ideas have been vetted, there is no one between you and your reader with self-publishing. Part of the problem is that in tradition publishing there is a tremendous bottleneck. People who have things to say more often than not, can’t get through. On the other hand, maybe some of that is valid. Maybe they shouldn’t be getting through. I am not opposed to it, but I think caution needs to be considered. I think publishing companies provide a very significant vetting role in our society. That is the biggest change in publishing overall.
In children’s publishing that has had less of an effect. From what I have read and been told, electronic publishing in the children’s field is actually down and not up. Parents find it and then discover what they really want is a book in their kids hands. Sitting with an iPad at bedtime or having their child read from their iPad when they are putting themselves to sleep when they are older, is not necessarily the experience people are looking for. So, electronic publishing has not had as much an effect in the children’s field.
But what has had a tremendous impact is the enormous success of children and young adult genres. It used to be that people who published children’s books, it was a nice little business. And now what you will find is that the major publishing companies use their children’s book divisions to help support the adult publishing division. That’s come about by the huge growth in the YA market and in YA popularity and in the genre that people refer to as new adult. The line between a young adult book and an adult book is blurred a bit. As many people read A Fault in Their Stars in their 20s, as kids in their teens.
This plus the giant series successes like Harry Potter and the Rick Riordan books and the Wimpy Kids and Divergent and Maze Runners. These big series books have become a source for hit feature films and that helps drive the book industry too. One of the huge changes I’ve seen in children’s books is that they are not just part of the market, they often drive the market. Which is a very good thing.
“One of the huge changes I’ve seen in children’s books is that they are not just part of the market, they often drive the market.”
WOW: What advice do you have for writers wanting to write children’s books?
Henry: Here’s what I’ve learned. I did not know I could write a book. I did not know I could be part of a team that would write so many books. So, you sit in front of your computer or in front of your pad of paper and you spend five minutes a day and you write down whatever is in your mind. The biggest thing is do not edit until you are finished. Do not write and think, oh no, I shouldn’t write that because someone’s going to read it and think this or my mother’s going to be angry or my aunt is going to see herself. Write everything that is in your head, in your heart and then see what you’ve got at the end. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised.
(*Originally published in the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market ’16.)
Kerrie Flanagan is an author, presenter, and accomplished freelance writer with over twenty years of experience. She is the author of The Writer’s Digest Guide to Magazine Article Writing and the creator of Magazine Writing Blueprint. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications, including Writer’s Digest, Alaska Magazine, The Writer, FamilyFun, and six Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She is the author of eight books, all published under her label Hot Chocolate Press, in addition to a romantic comedy series written with a co-author under the name, C.K. Wiles.
(Photo: Suzette McIntyre)
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