Mark Maciejewski writes funny but smart middle-grade fiction. He lives in Seattle with his family.
Mark Maciejewski’s stories will make you snort into your latte. He’s a very funny man, but his debut, I AM FARTACUS, is much more than just cliched boy-gags; it is about friendship and turning your life around by being brave.
In his day job, Mark manages the Pacific North-West and Alaska for a steel company. As a writer he’s a member of PNWA and SCBWI and an amazing critiquing group called “The Paper Cuts”.
When and how did you start writing?
I started writing in about fourth grade. It was one of the only things I ever did in school that didn’t feel like total drudgery. I loved being able to completely make stuff up and have teachers actually be happy about it.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
There are two. When my fourth grade teacher read THE HOBBIT aloud in class I was mesmerized. It was the first time I remember being immersed in a totally different world and I didn’t want to leave The Shire. The second was MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN. Part of me still yearns to live in a hollowed out tree in the middle of the woods.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I’d written other books before, but I started writing I AM FARTACUS shortly after I joined my critique group. The accountability of meeting every week really motivated me to hammer out the first draft. We are each allowed to bring one chapter a week, so it took me about six months to write a twenty-four chapter draft. Some pretty heavy stuff happened in my personal life shortly before writing Fartacus. It easily could have derailed my writing, but I pushed on and the real life experiences really helped me connect with my characters on a deeper level.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
I submitted to agents pretty steadily for about a year after I finished my first draft. Every rejection over that time was part of the learning process. The next summer I Am Fartacus won a writing contest. Winning the contest gave me the chance to meet several agents and form friendships with them, which really demystified the process. I’d heard Sarah speak at a conference and spoken to her briefly, but I didn’t have the confidence to query her early on. Ironically, after I sent her my query I received multiple offers from other agents. The night before I had to decide who I was going to sign with, Sarah replied to my query with a full request. I told her I’d send it, but I had to give the other agents my decision in less than 18 hours. She read it that night, and signed me the next day. If I were to distill my experience down into usable advice, it would be this: Cultivate relationships with agents at conferences. When your manuscript is ready, do your research. Figure out which ones are the right fit for you, and then submit. Above all, don’t be desperate. When you connect with the right agent, the rest will take care of itself.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
I do most of my writing at night and on the weekends. Sunday is my most productive day, because it’s the day I can clear my schedule and focus. We have a room in our house we call The Library. It has a fireplace and comfortable chairs. It’s the quietest room in the house, so I spend most of my time in there. I will sometimes write in bed, or at a coffee shop if I can’t ignore all the activity at home. The most important things when it’s time to write are a lack of distractions, and a bottomless cup of coffee.
As far as organizing my time with kids and a busy home life, I simply have to lock myself away and ignore the world when it’s time to write. Usually that means letting everyone know I will be unavailable all day Sunday so I can really knock out the scenes I’ve been plotting in my head all week.
I’ve always thought that inspiration and writing is a “chicken and the egg” scenario. I do my best writing when I’m inspired, but I get inspired when I’m writing. For me, one cannot exist without the other. I’ve tried to sit around and think up a great idea to get me fired up to write, but in the end the only thing that lights the fire is when I actually sit down and put one word after another.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Join SCBWI; This is where children’s writers get started (I can’t emphasize this enough). Go to conferences and intensives. Hang out with writers. Get into a good critique group with other writers on a similar trajectory to your own. THIS IS A BIG ONE: learn to take critique and use it to improve your writing. Read everything you can get your hands on, especially in your genre/age range. Don’t try to be the next Whomever, just write the books, stories, poems that you want to read.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you've developed as an author?
The simplest one is learning to show rather than tell. Anyone can tell you a character sat in front of a campfire, but good writing lets you smell the smoke, hear the crackle of the flames, and taste the s’mores. (Yes, I’m in the library right enjoying the snap and hiss of the flames devouring a well-seasoned piece of firewood.)
The next one is something I learned from the amazing Sarah Davies: Use precise language, avoid abstractions. No “she had that look on her face.” Instead, show us that “Her face pinched into a point like a pair of needle nose pliers.” When a reader has to figure out what we meant by an imprecise phrase it takes their attention away from the story.
Learn to accept critique, and embrace the dreaded revision. I know it isn’t as fun as writing the story, but revision is where good books become great books.
Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? Which fictional character do you wish you'd invented?
Dang, how big is the table? I’d have to invite Shakespeare, of course. Neil Gaiman, because Sandman is probably the greatest comic of all time, not to mention the fact that his body of work consists of one timeless classic after another. Tom Robbins, because he writes the best opening lines, and his similes are amazing. They’re like...I don’t even know. Stephen King, because I’ve read every word he’s ever written. Mark Twain, because he simultaneously invented and perfected the middle grade novel. Jane Austen, because I want to see how funny she is in real life. I also think it would be fun to seat Mrs. Austen and Mr. Twain adjacent to each other. I believe the ensuing insult battle would be the most entertaining thing I’ve ever seen. Finally, Chuck Palahniuk, because I want someone there with a more darkly vulgar sense of humor than my own.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
I wish I’d invented Batman. Oh, wait. Did you say fictional...?