Rx for Writers


"Writing Wild and Wonderful Nonfiction" with Larry Pringle

Thursday, February 6, 2003

Mel is Mel Boring, moderator of this chat with Laurence Pringle and web editor of the ICL site.

Larry is Laurence Pringle, a writer of nonfiction par excellence! Larry’s one-hundredth book has just been published, WHALES! STRANGE AND WONDERFUL, by Boyds Mills Press. His other 99 books cover animals like a zoo, from A to Z. Larry is also an author of four picture books, including one published by Walker & Company and another by Boyds Mills Press. More than 50 of Pringle’s books have received awards from the National Science Teachers Association. Yet Larry has said he came close to giving up ever writing another book after his very first nonfiction manuscript was rejected eight times. Now, many of Larry’s books have been selected to be placed on honor lists. BATS! STRANGE AND WONDERFUL was one of Booklist’s Top Ten Science Books for Youth, received the Parent’s Choice Award, and was one of the School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year--all in one year, 2000.

Question shows the questions people asked of Larry Pringle during the interview.


Mel: A WARM WELCOME to you ALL to the ICL Chat Room, where we have a very special guest, Larry Pringle. He is INDEED "a guru of nonfiction"--as a book reviewer recently called him. And not only has he written and published nonfiction, but also fiction--and even picture books. His HUNDREDTH book just came out, WHALES! STRANGE AND WONDERFUL. There is no better children's writer to tell us what a WONDERFUL, yet STRANGE, experience writing for children is. Larry, good friend and teacher of mine by your books, WELCOME here tonight!

Larry: Hello, Mel and everyone else!

Mel: Larry, do you remember the very first piece of writing you ever did?

Larry: Well, I remember the first piece published, and, oddly enough it was the first piece submitted. None of that rejection stuff for me. But seriously, I wrote a few paragraphs for a reader's page of a magazine called Open Road for Boys. They accepted it and paid me $5.00. It seemed like a nice amount for a 16-year-old. It was about crow behavior I had observed, which I also explained. Years later I learned that my explanation was totally wrong. You might want to read page 32 of my book, Crows! Strange and Wonderful for the correct information.

Mel: Did you have ANY inkling as a teenager, that you would someday be a professional writer?

Larry: No hint. I loved to read. All writers love to read but not all readers become writers.

Mel: I recall reading that after you wrote your FIRST book in 1966, you thought "Even if this is published I will NEVER try to write another book!" What made you feel that way after your first book?

Larry: Writing, for me, is very hard work. It has become somewhat easier, but that first project--the longest thing I had ever attempted--was a kind of torture.

Mel: How could it be that you've just been called "one of America's top nonfiction writers for children," and yet, about 40 years ago now, you NEVER wanted to write another book?

Larry: Please don't age me so fast; it was 35 years ago! It was an ordeal, like tough homework after a regular job, putting little kids to bed, etc.

Mel: Ha! All we children's writers age faster than children, don't we? (-:} You must have had your feelings changed since that first book in 1966. Since you now have your 100th book published, what in particular changed your feelings about writing books?

Larry: Nice reviews came, for one thing, royalty checks came in (because of a small advance), and I enjoyed the wonders of "having written" instead of being confronted with trying to write. I also experienced some of the other pleasures of being published.

Question: After many rejections, I find it hard to go on writing. How do you deal with rejection?

Larry: Well, one question is how many rejections; another is, what is the quality of the turndowns. Many writers learn that there can be very encouraging rejections, offering hope, hints for revision, etc.

Question: Larry, what age or ages of children do you write for?

Larry: In recent years, more for Kindergarten through 4th or 5th grade. I used to do more young adult nonfiction but the market for that seems to have evaporated, somewhat.

Mel: What are the reasons why the YA market has evaporated so severely?

Larry: I can only speculate; you need an editor in the chat room. It may have something to do with so many kids turning to TV screens and computer screens instead of books at an early age.

Mel: Thanks, and we're going to have Harold Underdown in the chat room in May. I'm sure he'll be a good editor person to ask that question of. Here's a question related to the one about ages you write for, Larry.

Question: Do you like writing short books, rather than longer ones?

Larry: "Like" varies. Writing a short book for very young kids is always satisfying because it is SHORT. On the other hand, writing a long manuscript about the Lewis and Clark expedition was a wonderful experience because I enjoyed the research so much.

Mel: How many words or pages can very young children tolerate in nonfiction?

Larry: I have no direct experience; this question is for your librarian guest! But 32-page nonfiction is being gobbled up out there. I might add that the widespread state tests have stimulated a demand for nonfiction for the early grades.

Mel: That's a very helpful tip--thanks, Larry! WOW, 32 pages DOES seem short! What length was your Lewis and Clark book?

Larry: Dog of Discovery: A Newfoundland's Adventures with Lewis and Clark is, I think, 152 pages.

Mel: A question about that first book now again, jamielee wants to know if you had to do a lot of publicity for your early book.

Larry: I did no publicity. By most measures I never do publicity. For many books I provide publishers with names and addresses of special markets, for example, museums or perhaps obscure periodicals that would find the book interesting.

Question: How many of your book TITLES were yours, and how many were suggested by your editors?

Larry: Good question. With about two hours time on this question alone, I could give you sound numbers on that. I would say that roughly 70 percent or more were what I submitted, or slight changes in that. In most cases I agreed with the changes; they were improvements. Only in a few cases did I feel the best title had been replaced.

Mel: The same person would like to know if you think a title like "Turtle Shells and Weasel Tails" is a title that would catch children’s imagination?

Larry: Catch attention is what the aim is. That title catches mine, but I'm a nature nut. There is no hint about whether it is fiction or nonfiction. A subtitle would help. A clear subtitle lets you get away with a mysterious, funny, dramatic, or even a gross-but-alluring title.

Mel: Did your An Extraordinary Life have a subtitle, Larry?

Larry: Good example, Mel. That title could be about your mother, or Michael Jordan, or a saguaro cactus. The title actually had a subtitle. The whole title was: An Extraordinary Life: The Story of a Monarch Butterfly.

Mel: That book was a kind of "milestone" in your career in nonfiction, wasn't it--how was it a milestone?

Larry: It was my 77th book, and the first time I tried nonfiction with a strong story. It is accurate, the monarch doesn't chat with pigs, etc., but you care about her, follow her life, and feel sad when her life is about over. The book won the '98 Orbis Pictus Award from the National Council of Teachers of English, which means, in their judgement, it was the best children's nonfiction published in '97.

Mel: CONGRATULATIONS, Larry! Did you chose to do a female monarch instead of a male because the "she" had more potential for the "story"?

Larry: No, it had to do with the generations carrying on. She was to be an egg-layer, if she lived long enough. A guy monarch didn't seem that significant!

Mel: I know that editors avoid SUBJECTIVENESS like the flu in nonfiction. How did you ever avoid it in An Extraordinary Life?

Larry: By that, do you mean anthropomorphism--assigning human qualities to animals?

Mel: Yes.

Larry: I have always tried to avoid it, but was a bit careless in that book. One reviewer pointed out a borderline situation or two. Through hindsight, I could have avoided those with very small editing changes.

Mel: By the way, I think An Extraordinary Life is VERY objective, yet at the same time has an intriguing "story" line.

Question: What was the hardest part for you in learning to write for children, Larry?

Larry: Great question. I'll probably think of an excellent answer at 1 a.m. For me, the biggest hurdle was learning to write clear English, whether for adults or children. After that, when I did write for children, there was a period of keeping the target readers in mind, remembering to explain tough words, and not write down to the children. Perhaps I should add that I am STILL learning to write.

Mel: Larry, you said you don't do publicity, "by most measures." chantz wants to know what you DO do to promote your books.

Larry: I may have mentioned letting publishers know about certain periodicals that should get review copies, and also about niche markets that might be interested in a particular book. Sadly, most publishers are poor performers at exploiting niche markets. I generally don't seek book-signing gigs in bookstores, unless they are local. It does not make economic sense to travel long and far for such situations.

Mel: What do you mean by a "niche market"?

Larry: For An Extraordinary Life, for instance, about a monarch, niche markets would be all of the museums and other sites where people can walk among live butterflies. These places all have book and gift shops. Try as I did, the publisher of that book did a poor job of having such places carry that title.

Mel: Did you take any EXTRAORDINARY trips to research An Extraordinary Life, Larry?

Larry: Yes, though not until I had completed writing the book. I joined the artist, Bob Marstall, and others, for a trip to Mexico one January to visit a monarch over-wintering site. There were also more local jaunts, in the field with monarch experts in Massachustts, for example.

Mel: How did the Mexico monach butterfly trip come about?

Larry: The trip to Mexico happened because the artist loves to work from his own photos, and felt he had to go there. I was happy to join him!

Mel: Tell us--most of whom will probably never see those "Monarch Trees" in Mexico-- what did they look like?

Larry: Oyamal firs are tall evergreens. In a monarch colony they appear to be covered with dead leaves. Then you get close enough to see that the masses of brown, orange, etc. are thousands of monarchs. Some are in flight, getting water, but most just rest, sometimes flapping their wings. On a still day it sounds like there is a wind; that is just the sound of all those monarch wings!

Mel: EXCELLENT and SPECIFIC description! No wonder you are an acclaimed nonfiction writer!

Larry: I just had some good coffee, that’s all! If I was trying to come up with a good first sentence of an article or book, this wouild not be so easy.

Mel: You are MODEST, friend! Here's a question from a former student of mine, Gwen Hooks, submitted earlier in the week: "I submitted a nonfiction manuscript about tapirs to several publishers. The comment most often mentioned was: no interest in that animal. Do you think there is a market for lesser known animals? Would early elementary students want to read about such an animal?"

Larry: Tapirs do seem rather borderline to me--that is, rather obscure and not in the exciting animal category. Of course some kids would be interested, but publishers always want to sell as many books as possible. If you wanted to pick just one not-well-known animal, the Tasmanian Devil would be a better choice, for obvious reasons.

Mel: Would a book about the tapir be what you referred to as a "niche book"?

Larry: I referred to niche markets, not books. But I suppose niche books would fit in niche markets. But the niche market for a tapir book would be mighty small, I guess, maybe zoos that have tapirs on display?

Question: Are shorter books easier to write than longer books?

Larry: Oh, no. Possibly just "easy" to write, rather than "easier." There is no denying, I think, that it is easier to write four manuscript pages that become a 32-page picture book than it is to write a manuscript of 100-plus pages. For that reason only, when I get a fiction picture book manuscript accepted, it feels like finding money in the street. However, that still does not mean the writing is easy, for me.

Question: Through your years of publishing, have you had mostly the same publisher, or many publishers?

Larry: Off and on through the years there have been many publishers interested in the kind of books I write. Anyone who is able to get more than two books accepted a year needs at least two publishers because a single publisher will usually just publish one of your books in the spring, another in the fall, and delay others you write. Then editors move around, you stick with the old house, but are lured into a contract with that editor at his or her new house. In one two-and-a-half year period, I received contracts with three different, new publishers because this one editor kept moving! That was crazy. Nowadays, with the shrinkage in the industry, such hopping around probably couldn't happen.

Question: Why would a publisher not publish more than one book by an author at a time?

Larry: The reasoning seems to be there should be only one from an author in, say, the spring catalog. Or else there would be competition between two titles by the same author. Harold Underdown, a coming guest in this chat room in May, may shed some light on this matter.

Mel: VERY helpful info, Larry Pringle, thanks! Today I received an e-mail from Pat McCarthy, whom we have interviewed here, and who couldn't be here tonight, and I wanted to pass it on to Larry, because it tells one reason for his success: "Would you tell Larry I REALLY hate to miss this tomorrow night, but I have a meeting out of town and I'm responsible for the program. I'd love to be there for his chat, but I'll read the transcript Friday.--Pat McCarthy" Pat told me that it was Larry Pringle who first and lastingly encouraged her to submit her OWN first book!

Larry: Hi, to Pat. We met at Chautauqua, at the Highlights Writers' Conference, and have stayed in touch. She is doing very well, getting book after book published.

Question: Would it be out of line to ask what size the advances and royalties on your books have been?

Larry: I would have to rush to my office to check very old records, but my guess would be my earliest advance was about $2000 or $3000, which was for a book I wrote long ago, called Listen to the Crows, and which I loved and which never sold well enough to earn back its advance--so no other income came from its publication!

Mel: That sounds very familiar to me, Larry!

Larry: The most money received, I'm not sure of. Do you mean total earnings, or advance? Right now my animal encyclopedia, with Scholastic, is selling like crazy and producing royalty checks of the sort I rarely experience.

Mel: Larry, maybe I could clarify chantz's question about money, some. Right now, do you know what is a LOW and a HIGH figure for the ADVANCE a nonfiction book writer might expect?

Larry: There are publishers out there, I'm told, that give astonishingly low advances--a few hundred dollars. These days the lowest advances I receive are about $5,000. the highest are in the teens-thousands.

Mel: And what about the ROYALTY, what is a HIGH and LOW, and what does royalty really mean, anyway?

Larry: This could be a whole separate two-hour chat matter.

Mel: Give us the two-minute version! (-:}

Larry: The first question is, the royalty is a certain percent of WHAT? An author's income can vary a lot, depending on whether you are getting a percentage of retail price, or some discounted wholesale price. With most mainstream publishers, authors get 10 % of retail price, except in the very common situation when a book is heavily illustrated, and then the writer and artist share that 10%. So the writer gets less than a dollar, for instance, when a book sells for $18. Many contracts call for the royalty rate to rise if sales climb into the many thousands. Alas, for many titles, the sales seldom reach that escalator-clause level.

Mel: GOOD info, Larry, and VERY MUCH appreciated!

Question: Of the books you have WRITTEN, how many have been PUBLISHED?

Larry: Good question. All the nonfiction I've attempted has been published but I have a collection of fiction picture book manuscripts. All of them have been rejected a few times. Currently I'm not sending them out but I hope this year to find time to revise one or two of these stories and submit them. I'm not that good at writing fiction. The first three I wrote were each rejected a minimum of five or six times.

Mel: Larry, I'm embarrassed to say I haven't been able to get hold of a picture book you published about a cat. Can you tell us when and why a NONfiction writer came to write a picture book?

Larry: The book is Naming the Cat, published by Walker, and in many libraries it is also still alive as a paperback. I tried twice in my life to write fiction. Probably both times I tried because 1) it appears to be easy, and 2) the experience of reading such books to my own kids encouraged me to try, since kids enjoy such books so much. The first time I gave up quickly; I wrote a story I thought was subtle, about a kid trying to get his mom to quit smoking. This led me to go to a dictionary and look up a word used by editors who rejected it. the word was "didactic"--preachy. The second time I tried, about 10 years ago, I stuck with it longer, and finally got the first title, Jesse Builds a Road, accepted.

Question: Should you accept a lower advance sometimes?

Mel: I THINK this person means, Larry, in hopes that the royalties will be high in the long run.

Larry: If you can afford to get along with a small advance, that advance will be quickly paid off--if the book sells well--and fat royalty checks will begin to flow in. There have been times in my life--most of it--where I needed the biggest advance I could get; waiting for a royalty check a couple of years away was a luxury I could not afford. By the way, illustrators often get bigger advances than authors, though both usually have the same royalty rate. So I as the writer have enjoyed royalty income while the artist is still waiting for his/her advance to be earned.

Mel: Right on the money, Larry! A lady named Joy wrote in early this week to ask about octopus hugs, Larry. Is that a specialty you developed when writing about octopi?

Larry: I was a dad who roughhoused with his kids, and my book Octopus Hug is about such a dad. One night I just came up with idea of hugging a person with one arm, alternating arms, eight times. I suppose others have thought of it but I don't think I had read of it anywhere. I was visiting a school recently and a little girl asked me how to do it. I didn't ask for a volunteer but did demonstrate!

Mel: VERY UNIQUE huggy happiness!

Larry: Referring back to someone's question about title changes, my fourth picture book fiction title, Bear Hug, will soon be published. My original title was A Camping We Will Go. The editor suggested Bear Hug, a much better title because it is a follow-up to Octopus Hug.

Question: Where do you get your ideas for books, and how do you keep your writing going, Larry?

Larry: There's a river of ideas flowing past. The bigger challenges are convincing an editor that one particular idea is one he or she should publish--and then there's the writing challenge. As for keeping myself writing, I have this special INSPIRATION DRAWER in my desk. I open it up and there, beneath a checkbook, is the mortgage bill, the utility bills, etc. Very inspiring. Maybe I should add the college tuition bill!

Question: How has your writing time frame changed in the years since you began writing?

Larry: Oh, I've become more efficient, and not recently. After a decade or so of writing nonficiton for children, I got better at finding the anecdotes and other ingredients that would go into a book, managing to avoid over-researching (tempting though that is!). Also, it depends on the book. A nonfiction book about whales or sharks, etc. with only 1500 words in the manuscript might take a month or so of research. In contrast, reading the Lewis and Clark journals for another book took more than a year.

Mel: Larry, I could go on asking questions and listening to you talk about them all night--and I've gotten the feeling that other people here in the chat room could, too. But we've come to the end of a passed-by-like-lightning two hours, and we must let you go. I am VERY grateful to you for coming tonight, friend. And I'd like it very much if you would come BACK to our chat room someday.

Larry: Yes, I'd love to. I like this process, and hope some people were helped.

Mel: WE WERE helped, ALL of us--including me! Please return to our chat room two weeks from tonight, February 20, when Toni Buzzeo will be here to discuss writing for children with us, particularly picture books. I've been reading an absolutely captivating picture book, The Sea Chest, which was Toni's first picture book. Toni is not only a full-time children's writer, but also a full-time librarian, as well as full-time wife and mother. I am particularly eager to have her tell you her secret for cutting MONTHS off the time it takes to get into print. See you back here February 20--and THANKS for coming tonight, friends! And SPECIAL THANKS to you again, Larry, for sharing your vast experience in writing for children. We have learned so MUCH from you tonight! Goodnight everyone!


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