Every time Bruce Hale’s newsletter arrives in my inbox (you can sign up on his site’s contact page), I am reminded anew that the man is one of our business’s top writing workhorses. He’s such a pro––and also a world-class example of a writer who thinks and works OUTSIDE THE BOX. So I decided to finally ask him for an interview, and he graciously agreed. Enjoy, and be inspired!
JE: What prompted you to try writing for kids, Bruce, and why did you think you might be well suited to that?
BH: My childhood best friend told me that when I was in fourth grade, I mentioned that I wanted to be a children’s author when I grew up. Of course, I’d forgotten all about that by the time I hit puberty and discovered girls and theater. You know how that goes. Years later, I was relocating from Japan to Hawaii with the vague notion of making my living as a cartoonist, when the idea of being an author came back to me. At that point, I’d done some freelance writing as well, so in total hubris, I figured, “Hey, I can write and draw; I bet I could make a terrific picture book.”
It proved to be much harder than it looks, as I’m sure your readers know. Discouraged, I abandoned the idea for a couple of years. But then, when a friend and I started a side business selling stuffed-toy geckos, I thought perhaps I should create a children’s picture book to accompany our toy. And voila, my first self-published book, The Legend of the Laughing Gecko, was born.
JE: And not only did you write and illustrate that one, you turned it into a series. At the time, did you expect to continue that practice?
BH: Absolutely. I saw myself as a cartoonist who could write, so of course I’d be illustrating all my own books. But turns out it’s a lot of work doing self-publishing, so I started sending out picture book manuscripts to Mainland publishers. Thus began my 8 1/2 years of collecting rejection letters.
JE: 8 1/2 years! Love that determination.
BH: At the time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I hadn’t seriously studied children’s books since I was a kid, and had gotten lucky with my self-published books. Honestly, I had a lot of heart but not much technique. Plus, I’d completely forgotten about novels, or maybe felt like I didn’t have the writing chops to tackle one.
Thank God for SCBWI. Through the organization, not only did I meet my agent, but I learned so much about the craft of writing and illustrating for kids — enough to finally get published nationally, and with a novel, no less.
JE: Which was the first of your books to “hit it big” and make you feel like you’d finally arrived?
BH: The first book of mine to hit it big was the first Chet Gecko Mystery, The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse. I began hearing from readers in other states (a big deal!) and after the third book in the series (Farewell, My Lunchbag) came out, Harcourt sent me on an actual book tour. I felt like I’d arrived, big-time. And on top of that, SCBWI actually invited me to speak at a conference. I figured it would be bon-bons by the pool for me from then on.
JE: For sure! You seem gifted at coming up with book ideas with irresistible hooks: animal detectives, classroom pets with humorous real-kid issues, a school for spy kids, mysteries set in Monstertown, and more. But, even more amazing to me, you have multiple projects going concurrently. PLUS, you write a newsletter, give back to the writing community in numerous ways, and are an in-demand speaker. Oh, and you sometimes sing with a band!
BH: I’m blessed with an active imagination, and I just keep writing down those ideas as they come. One idea, for Big Bad Baby, came to me when I was doing a drawing demo during an author visit. Another one, Playing With Fire, occurred after a yoga class. You never know when ideas will show up, so it helps to stay alert.
JE: Looking at these two covers side by side, I have to make a Captain Obvious comment: Your range is astounding.
BH: I think it’s a plus that I write for different ages, as some of my ideas are best rendered as picture books, some as chapter books or early readers, and some as full-blown novels. I’ve found that if you fiddle with it enough, the story idea will show you its preferred form.
JE: I’m guessing MANY of the rest of us writers often throw up our hands before we get to the point at which the idea shows us its preferred form.
BH: The secret to having many projects going at once is: I have a short attention span. Seriously, just like a six-year-old. After a little while of working on something, I tend to get restless and want to move on to something else. I’ve learned from experience that doing two novels at once is crazy-making, so I tend to switch back and forth between picture books, early readers, and novels. Before Covid, I traveled a lot for my author visits, so that also helped to break things up and keep my brain fresh.
JE: Clearly, compartmentalizing is another of your skills. Got any how-to advice/tips on that to inspire the rest of us?
BH: Here are a couple of tips. First, I use the Pomodoro Technique. It sounds like a method of betting on horses, but it’s actually a way of managing your time. I set a timer for 25 minutes and work on a single project without distractions until the dinger goes off. After a five-minute break, I either return to that project or start something new. (However, if I’m drafting a novel, I usually keep returning to that for a few hours.)
JE: Intriguing. 25 minutes doesn’t seem at all intimidating.
BH: Second, I’ve found it helpful to create a list of things I’d like to accomplish each day. I spend some time working on one, then get up and stretch, walk around, or eat a chocolate chip cookie. After that break, I work a little bit on a different task. That way, I can move the ball forward a little bit on several projects at a time.
JE: I, too, am a big fan of the daily must-do list. I also have a white board on the wall beside my computer with monthly project goals. Breaking work into chunks works for me, even though I sometimes wish I could speed up the actual writing. What Bruce Hale projects can we look forward to next?
BH: Switched came out earlier this year, a novel inspired by my dog, and the Super Santa picture book arrived in September.
BH: My next novel comes out in early April. It’s called Super Troop, and it’s the tale of a summer camp gone horribly, hilariously wrong. Then, in June, we’ll have Clark the Shark: Friends Forever, an I-Can-Read book with some social-emotional learning woven into it. I’ve also got a couple of picture books making the rounds of publishers, so rest assured there are other tales on the way!
Good to know! Thanks, Bruce, for taking the time to chat with me. Readers, you can learn more about Bruce and his many, many books here on his website. He just led a fabulous online SCBWI workshop on pumping up your PowerPoints. If you missed it and you’re a member, go watch!
Thanks for reading, everybody!