How to Become a Writer

An expert on humor by way of writing and illustration, Shevi Arnold specializes in the young adult literary genre: specifically, fantasy and science fiction for kids and teens. Her appealing, diverse CV has seen stints as a cartoon magazine editor, cartoonist, and a consumer columnist. Our interview with Ms. Arnold encompasses sterling advice for anyone who aspires to a career in literature, illustration, or the arts at large. 

Your Web presence immediately catches and maintains our attention. (Students: Visit her site, shevi.blogspot.com, asap!) How has social media impacted your career?

I’m glad you like my blog. Thanks! Where writers and illustrators were once alone, social media gives us a way to connect. I found my critique group through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators boards. I have over 2,000 friends on Facebook, and most of them are writers, illustrators, or other publishing professionals. Twitter lets me chat with writers, illustrators, editors, and agents. Blogging helps me connect with readers, as well as other writers, and I can connect with writers, illustrators, agents and editors through their blogs. GoodReads and LibraryThing help me connect with readers too. All that shared information, as well as the support I get from my friends and fans online, has helped me so much.

Can you recall the moment when you decided to commit to fiction writing and illustration professionally? 

I was an editorial cartoonist and a newspaper illustrator between 1987 and 1994. I’ve always loved political cartoons, and when I saw the opportunity to submit my cartoons to one of the editors at the paper where I worked as a layout artist, I took it. Several columns needed regular illustrations, so I was offered that job too. It was a great time in my life. I went on to edit a comics magazine, work as an arts and entertainment writer, and write a consumer column, which I also illustrated.

Then in 1998, my son was diagnosed with autism, and that changed everything. In 2001, my husband and I decided to move to New Jersey, which has some of the best schools for autistic children. It was the best thing we could do for our son, but unfortunately it meant quitting our jobs.

By the end of the year, it was clear I wouldn’t be able to work as a freelance magazine writer. Because of an anthrax scare in September 2001, magazines weren’t opening their mail. The self-addressed stamped envelopes I had included in the query letters I had sent never returned. My husband asked me what I wanted to do. Writing and illustrating were the only jobs I had ever had. I thought about it a while. And then I told my husband I wanted to write a novel.

There was this story that had been playing in my head since I was 16 or 17. That turned into “Toren the Teller’s Tale.” I’ve written six other novels since. I’ve also written 40 picture books, and I’ve illustrated a few of them.

Life as a writer or illustrator can be vexing at times. What are the unique hurdles someone faces with such a career? In contrast, what are the advantages also unique to the profession?

I think one of the biggest challenges of being a novelist is how long the process takes. It takes the average traditionally published novelist 10 years from the time he or she decides to write a book to the day it’s finally available for sale. That’s ten years spent writing, editing, studying the craft, submitting the manuscript to publishers, working with an editor and a publishing house to make it the best book that it can be, and a lot of waiting. Writers can easily self-publish now. If you wanted to, you could write a book this week and have it available for sale as a Kindle e-book a week later. But I think all that hard work is worth it. It helps turn you into a better writer, and it helps turn your book into a better book.

Both writers and illustrators have to be able to motivate themselves. No one is going to force you to finish that book or that illustration (at least not until you’re under contract), so you have to force yourself. I’ve found my newspaper experience invaluable with this, because it got me used to working with deadlines and word counts. If I tell myself I need to have 2,000 words written by the end of the day, I will have 2,000 words written by the end of the day.

The main advantage of being a writer or an illustrator is that it’s a joy. I love writing and illustrating. I call it “dreaming on paper.” I love being able to work in my pajamas. I love creating people and entire worlds. I even love editing. It feels good to know that my work is getting better each time I sit down to edit it.  And I love hearing from someone who was moved to laughter or tears (or both) because of one of my stories, someone who simply could not put my book down.

For our students’ benefit, could you outline a typical day-in-the-life as a YA writer?

There’s really no such thing as a typical day, but I’ll give you an idea of what one of my editing days and one of my illustrating days is like. I like to separate my work so that I’m focused on just one thing a day. Writing takes up the entire month of November, which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I spend most of my working days editing, illustrating, and designing.

After breakfast, I sit down at my dining room table with my laptop open in front of me, just like it is now. My current work-in-progress is already open, and so is a file I call “Notes.” I look for the comment in my story that reads “Got up to here.” I delete that, and I start reading the story. I read each paragraph slowly and out loud. I need to pay attention to spelling, punctuation, and typos.  Sometimes I’ll write a comment to remind myself of something else I want to pay particular attention to. For example, in my current W.I.P. I want to raise the stakes more, so I wrote a comment to remind myself of that. I’ll make corrections and changes as I go, reading them over several times to make sure they don’t have mistakes. Occasionally, I’ll write several versions of the same scene, so I can choose the one that works best. I like to put the version I’m less happy with in the comments section, although I know some writers keep a separate file for scenes they’ve cut. I’ll also jot down important information about the characters, setting, or other elements of the story in my notes file, because I want those to remain consistent.

For example, if I mention someone has brown eyes, I can’t make them blue later on. If I run into some detail I’m not sure about, I’ll research it. For example, my current W.I.P required me to look up a lot of information about theme-park accidents. I take a break for lunch, usually about noon, and then I continue working until dinner time, if I can. Once I’m in “the zone” I don’t like to stop. During the rest of the day, I’ll try to keep notes about any ideas I might have. Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea for a completely different book, but if I don’t write it down immediately, I’ll forget it. Writing these ideas down also frees my mind to focus on my current story.

What about your daily experiences as an illustrator?

I go through the story and look for images that can help tell it. Let’s say it’s a newspaper column, and the story is about places to buy books. I sketch some ideas on a blank sheet of paper. I sketch books, someone happily hugging a book, and books coming out of a computer. I put boxes around the thumbnail sketches I like the best to work out how I want to arrange the different elements within the dimensions I have to work with. I use my multifunction printer to enlarge the thumbnails, and then I trace the enlargements, making corrections as I do. Some elements might have to be closer together or farther apart. Some might have to be bigger or smaller. I go over the new pencil sketches with black ink, because ink is my favorite medium. (I usually use a black PITT brush pen or a black marker.)

I scan my illustrations into my computer, and then I color them in Corel PhotoPaint. I save each picture in PhotoPaint’s native format, and I also save it in the format that’s required for the particular project. If I’m working for someone, I email the illustrations to the right person, and I’m done unless that person asks for edits. Since I work fast, this entire process usually takes one to two hours per illustration. Very simple black-and-white illustrations can go a lot faster, and very complex illustrations, or illustrations that require a lot of research, can take a lot longer.

Which classes in college (or high school) have proven the most relevant to your job today?

I majored in English literature and theater studies, so it was all relevant. I learned how to analyze novels, plays, and more. I learned how to take them apart and figure out what makes them work and why. I also learned that it’s okay to not like something, even if it’s considered a classic. I think that helps me when it comes to editing. I can take my work apart and figure out where it’s not working and why. Knowing there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it. I also took courses in fine art, graphic design, and computer design, illustration, and animation. Naturally, those have helped me as an illustrator.

I guess if I had to pick just one course, it would be the one I took on play-writing. The professor loved my play and told me I should be a writer. It was also my first experience working with a critique group. One of the students trashed my play, but guess what? I survived.

What personality traits could help, or hinder, someone from success in professional writing and illustration?

Writers and illustrators have to be confident in their work and yet humble at the same time. You have to believe in your own voice to develop one that’s strong enough to stand out, yet you have to be open to criticism and making changes. You have to be able to separate yourself from your work. There’s a lot of rejection in this business, and you can’t take it personally. You have to be willing and able to listen to your editor or art director. You don’t have to listen to your critique group, but you do have to respect their opinions. You have to be willing to give up control of your work, and that can be difficult. But above all, you have to be self-motivated and willing to stick with it.

What are the common misconceptions of illustration and writing, both as art forms and careers, which you’d like to dispel?

People generally don’t realize how hard it is to get published, how long it takes, and how little writers and illustrators earn. The average traditionally published writer earns $5,000 from his first novel. Divide that by 10 years, and that’s like earning $500 a year. The average illustrator earns about $6,000 on a picture book that took him an entire year to illustrate. That’s like earning $3 an hour. We don’t do this because it’s easy, and we don’t do this to get rich. We do this because it’s who we are. We’re writers and illustrators, and we love it.

I think the biggest mistake that people make when they decide to become writers is they very often don’t realize how little of it is writing and how much of it is editing. The real work only starts once you’ve finished your first draft.

Some people believe that writing and illustration require talent that cannot be taught. What is the value, or detriment, of pursuing a formal education in these fields?

I think you learn the most about writing by writing, reading, and analyzing all kinds of stories. It’s not just novels. There’s so much to learn from movies and songs. Whatever the medium, stories are still stories. As for illustrating, I’ve seen great illustrators come out of art schools, but I’ve also seen those who were burned out by the time they finished.

Frankly, I think you can come to writing or illustrating from any field. I wouldn’t say that they require natural talent. It’s more about having a life-long passion for it. Charles Schulz, the creator of “Peanuts,” was one of the greatest cartoonists who ever lived, but he wasn’t a great artist, and he only learned how to draw by taking a correspondence course. Stephen Pastis, who writes and draws “Pearls Before Swine,” went to law school. The list of writers and illustrators who studied something other than writing and art in college is probably a lot longer than the list of those who did.