Even though Bruce Hale has written and illustrated almost thirty “seriously funny” and enormously popular books for young readers, he still feels those butterflies of uncertainty flutter in his stomach whenever he begins a new project.
“I’m not immune to that feeling of doubt every time I start a book,” says Hale, whose award-winning Chet Gecko Mystery series (for ages 8-12) has been described as a cross between Raymond Chandler and the Marx Brothers.
“I look at the task and say, ‘Can I really pull this off? I have no idea how to do this.’” But then, he admits, “always, partway through the first draft, things start to flow and the writing becomes more enjoyable.”
As a writer, Hale has discovered that persistence is more important than talent, and that a good sense of humor helps him persist when he hits a rough spot in a draft. Indeed, he finds inspiration from Jerry Greenfield, one of the creators of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
If you’ve read any of Hale’s books, you know just how important a role humor plays in his work. Part of being funny, explains Hale, is being willing to take risks. “There’s the risk of offending, as well as the risk of falling flat on your face. And no risk is greater (or joke funnier) than telling the truth. In life, that’s where a lot of my favorite humor comes from — telling truths that everyone is thinking, but no one is saying.”
The key is being willing to take the risk. “Unless you risk, you’ll never know,” says Hale. “My philosophy is, give the joke a shot; you can always revise it later.”
Another thing about writing funny, he suggests, is that it’s all about revision. “Dave Barry, one of my favorite humorists, says he spends hours searching for exactly the right word, and phrasing his sentences in exactly the right way. That’s what it takes to write humor — lots and lots of revision.”
Hale spends a good amount of his time offering Skype writing workshops, as well as traveling around the country visiting schools, libraries, and conferences to talk about his books. When he’s home working on a book, he often starts out his day with exercise and answering his e-mail, waiting until after lunch to start writing, and then working until dinner.
“Usually 4–5 hours at the computer is enough for me,” Hale says. “I write in my home office, and I like to have plenty of water nearby, plus the occasional treat to reward myself when a writing session goes well. Chocolate chip cookies are especially useful for this purpose.”
The many hours that he’s spent in his office have added up over the years to an amazing array of titles. Hale has mastered the “art of the wacky” in his picture books about a surfing gecko (Moki the Gecko, for pre-k – 8) and in his fractured fairy tales (Snoring Beauty), and he has combined his skills as a writer and illustrator to create the books in his Underwhere series, which are half-comics, half-novels, while he continues work on a series called School for S.P.I.E.S., which he describes as “kind of a mash-up of Oliver Twist and James Bond.”
Hale’s the first to admit that his success at writing for children didn’t happen overnight. It took him many years to learn what makes a good book. “I wish I'd known how to write the authentic stuff, the stuff that really comes from my passions -- rather than what I thought would make a cute children's book. It took me years to learn that lesson.”
Recently, Hale was kind enough to take a break from his many works-in-progress to share his thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
Hale: Just like when I swim in the ocean, I like to ease into a day of writing rather than doing a cold plunge. I generally start by doing a quick-and-dirty edit of the previous day's work -- just enough to get my head back into the story, but not enough to get bogged down in minutia.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Hale: For shorter pieces, my momentum keeps me afloat. I can power through a picture book draft pretty quickly, then do another version of it in short order. For longer work, discipline is what sustains me. Knowing myself to be a creature of habit, I create a routine and stick to it as much as possible. Same chair, same time, same preparation ritual. I also work to an egg timer -- 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off -- and that helps me establish a rhythm. And just as with swimming, it generally takes me a few days to "get my stroke back" and get into the flow.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Hale: I find it best not to swim in a dry spell -- no water. ; ) Actually, dry spells are just plain challenging, and I haven't found any helpful methods to survive them, other than just gutting it out and being as gentle with myself as possible. I try to stay focused on my end result, and often that brings me through in the end.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Hale: In swimming, for me the hardest part is always the first 5-7 minutes. I'm not warmed up, my breathing hasn't found its rhythm, and I feel awkward in the water. That passes if I stick with it. In writing, the hardest part for me is always putting together the plot. If I'm not working from a place of pure inspiration (as I'm often not), it involves asking endless questions and lots of thinking through implications of character actions. But once I get past that and into the first draft, things go swimmingly (assuming I've plotted properly).
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Hale: Here the swimming metaphor falls apart and dissolves in the water. (Sorry to disappoint.) When things get rough, as they did for this most recent book in the middle of last year, I do the following: curse, complain, put the work aside for awhile, revise, seek new inspiration, revise, ask writer friends to read and critique it, revise, ask my agent what he thinks, revise, and of course, revise. When I'm swimming and this happens, I either push through it or get out of the water.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Hale: I love that sensation, twenty minutes or so into a swim, when my body is warm, my breathing is relaxed, and I'm going with the flow like a dolphin in the waves. I also like the feeling of having swum -- that hyper-oxygenated, post-exercise high. In writing, this occurs at times during the first draft, when the characters almost seem to be speaking through me, I can visualize the story happening around me, and I can't wait for the next day's writing session.
And of course, I also love that feeling of having finished a story, even if I know there's editing to come. There's nothing in the world quite like the feeling of typing "the end" and saying to yourself, "Now that's a pretty darned good story."
For more information about Bruce Hale, visit his website: http://www.brucehale.com/index.htm
And if you want some invaluable tips on writing, take a look at his advice to writers: http://www.brucehalewritingtips.com
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