Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID AUTHOR
I was born on an Air Force base in Maryland and grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. My father was a disciplined military man. He did two tours in Vietnam then worked as an analyst at the Pentagon. But in his private time he collected comic books—and fostered a real love of them in me.
Influenced by my dad, I went to Villanova University on a military scholarship with the intention of eventually joining the U.S. Air Force. While there, I created a comic strip called Igdoof about a socially maladjusted freshman and was able to get it into the school’s newspaper. I had found my calling—and at the same time I realized I wasn’t suited for the military. I was born to be a cartoonist. I dropped out of Villanova after a year and transferred to the University of Maryland.
It felt like a regressive step at the time because I was losing my full ride to college and going home with my tail between my legs, but I found that Maryland was the perfect school for me. They had a daily newspaper (which was somewhat rare in colleges) with a readership of between 30,000 and 50,000 students, and after a couple of failed attempts, I was able to get Igdoof into it. It was a great place to cut my teeth and develop my cartooning abilities. I thought that I would be able to take it right into the grown-up world of syndicated newspapers, however I was realistic enough to know I needed a backup plan to pay the bills and decided to pursue a degree in computer science. But I soon discovered that my cartoons took priority over everything else. I knew that just one professor would read any term paper I wrote, whereas my next Igdoof cartoon would be read by tens of thousands of people. Three and a half years into my computer science degree, I was close to being kicked out of the program.
During school breaks, I interned at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). When it became apparent that I wasn’t going to make it in the computer science department, I decided to switch my major to criminal justice and set my sights on becoming an ATF agent.
Right when I was about to graduate, the siege and destruction of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, occurred. The ATF was heavily involved. Four ATF officers were killed and sixteen were wounded. As a result, they had a hiring freeze. Forced to go in a totally different direction, I got a job doing graphics and headline writing for a paper in Massachusetts, then moved on to a medical software company, and eventually landed as a games designer at FunBrain, a website offering educational games for children.
All the while, I continued to pursue my newspaper-cartooning career. I would spend between six and nine months putting together a submission packet and then send it out to all the syndicates—only to get really tough, terse rejection letters back. This went on for a few years and it was very soul sucking. It’s hard to send your best work out there and get no encouragement whatsoever. I even read a book on how to get syndicated and tried to learn from that, but to no avail. I finally came to terms with the fact that it was a waste of time to keep sending out submissions. My illustrations just weren’t professional grade—my skill level had topped out at that of a middle school kid, and I knew it. Accepting this fact was tough but at the same time very liberating. It’s what eventually allowed me to have my big moment.
I realized that if I drew like a kid I should embrace it and stop trying to draw like an adult—and also that because newspapers wouldn’t accept my work I had to find another medium that would. At the time, I was keeping a journal filled with sketches. I decided to try writing a fictional story in that format. It would be a book written in handwriting from a kid’s perspective with cartoon drawings interspersed throughout.
I came up with the title Diary of a Wimpy Kid right away. It seemed a little provocative, which I hoped would serve to grab people’s attention. In my mind, it would be a book for adults that reminded them of what it was like to be a kid. I felt as if this was going to be my opus, my one good idea, so I didn’t impose any deadline on myself to finish it—but, quite frankly, I thought I’d be done in a month or two.
At first, I was writing too quickly, and a lot of the material I came up with wasn’t very funny. I decided that before I started writing the actual book I would come up with seventy-seven “idea pages” in a sketchbook. From those, I would then include only the best ones. It ended up taking me four years to fill up my seventy-seven idea pages. It took another four years after that before I even finished the first draft. I kept working and reworking my jokes and characters. It ended up being about eight years between the time I conceived of the project and when I finally had something in hand that I actually wanted to show anyone.
There were a few things that kept me going and allowed me to be patient during those eight years: In the fifth grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Norton who was probably in her seventies. She was a stout, matronly kind of woman. Not the kind of person you would think might inspire a young boy, but she was very instrumental in my development as a writer and artist. For years I had been drawing pictures, showing them to relatives and friends, and getting nothing but praise. One day in school I was drawing a picture of a woman and began to run out of room at the bottom of the page—so I shortened her legs so her feet would fit. Mrs. Norton took a look at my drawing and, recognizing that I had talent, challenged me to do better. She chided me for not planning things out and for sort of cheating at the end and trying to get away with it. I’ll never forget that. It was a lesson on the importance of planning ahead, but more significant, it was a lesson in embracing excellence and not accepting praise for something that I knew wasn’t great. Mrs. Norton taught me that it’s better to not put anything out there than to put something out that’s mediocre.
There was also the billboard that I used to drive by on my way to work every day. On it was the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Well done is better than well said.” Don’t even ask me who paid to have it put up, but I felt as if it were speaking right to me. People often broadcast their goals then get embarrassed if they are unable to deliver. When you announce your intentions, you become trapped by them. Adding social pressure to your situation gives you less flexibility. I knew I was working on something special and protected myself by telling only a very few people about it. Also, since I was so used to rejection, I was pretty much expecting it once I submitted my material. As long as I continued working on the project, I could hold on to the fantasy that it might actually be published one day. As a result, part of me wasn’t in any real rush to finish up quickly and shop my book around.
In 2004 FunBrain was looking for something to put on their site that would entice users to return regularly during the long summer holidays. I showed my boss some of my Wimpy Kid work, and we began posting it in the form of short daily diary entries. The work soon had an audience of millions.
A couple of publishers had heard through the grapevine that I wanted my comic to become a book, checked it out online, and sent me preemptive rejection letters. It was like having the prettiest girl at school walk up to you to say that she didn’t want to go to prom with you before you even asked her. Although the material that was online at the time was about ninety percent similar to what ended up in the book, I continued to work on it for at least a year and a half after that.
One day in 2006 my boss told me that a comics convention, Comic Con, was coming up in New York and encouraged me to go there to look for talent for our website. He also suggested I use the opportunity to look for a publisher for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I went to Kinko’s, printed out a few sample packets containing about twenty pages of my book, and headed to the convention. Unfortunately, Comic Con had oversold tickets that year. I waited in line for hours but was turned away. I was about to go back home (I was living with my wife in Massachusetts at that point), but I had heard that Billy Joel was playing Madison Square Garden, and although the show was supposedly sold out, I decided to go to the box office and try my luck. They had one ticket left! I called my wife and asked her how she’d feel about my spending the night in the city and going to the concert (our finances were pretty tight at the time and the cost of a New York City hotel and a concert ticket was not inconsequential to us). She said, “Sure, go ahead and stay.” I did, then I decided to return to Comic Con the next morning and I was able to get in.
I walked up and down the aisles talking to different publishers, trying to get a feel for things. Most people were not interested in my work and others told me that a convention wasn’t the right forum for submissions. One editor mentioned that Abrams had recently turned a web comic called Mom’s Cancer into a book. I noted that and continued walking around the convention floor. On my very last aisle, I saw Mom’s Cancer in one of the booths and stopped in my tracks. An Abrams editor, Charlie Kochman, was standing in the booth, took notice of my interest, and wanted to sell me a book. I browsed through it and gladly gave him $12.95, figuring it was my entry fee to talk to him. What transpired from that point on was almost like a miracle. I asked Charlie if he would be willing to take a look at Diary of a Wimpy Kid and pulled out one of my packets. I don’t know if he actually read any of it, but he looked at the pages and said, “This is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s the reason we came here.” (It was Abrams’ first Comic Con too!) We exchanged information and parted ways. It was really exciting. I felt as if something momentous had just occurred. Charlie felt the same way. He said he photographed the moment in his mind because he knew this was going to be something really special.
Abrams held on to my submission for several months. I made it through one or two hurdles (the editorial board and the publication board liked my work) but there were some people at the company who weren’t so sure about it. Charlie kept me apprised of every development. I was very anxious and spent this whole waiting period experiencing insomnia (which I had never experienced before). Charlie eventually called and told me that Abrams wanted to make Diary of a Wimpy Kid into a series, but that it was going to be for kids. That part was really jarring. In my opinion, the enjoyment of my book was predicated on the capacity to recognize irony, which I felt was too sophisticated a concept for kids. I thought Abrams was overestimating kids’ ability to understand that style of humor. But within a short amount of time, I realized that my writing was more or less G-rated anyway and I convinced myself that it would work. As it turned out, I was underestimating kids—they do understand the book.
Knowing that I was going to be a published author was very exciting and scary at the same time. In April 2007 a print run of 15,000 Diary of a Wimpy Kid books was published. Its immediate success took everyone by surprise. I have now completed the first nine of what is supposed to be a ten-book series. There are currently more than 150 million Diary of a Wimpy Kid books in print and three of them have been made into movies.
I still write each book with an adult audience in mind. I am afraid that if I picture a child audience I’ll start to write down to them and moralize. I like to keep my books pretty much lesson free. I see them as joke delivery mechanisms. I’m a gag writer, and I’m just trying to keep kids entertained. If there is a lesson baked in, it’s that reading can be fun. If my books turn kids on to reading, I feel very proud of that.
I still work very slowly and deliberately. These days it takes me about nine months to create a book from start to finish. During crunch time, I work an average of about fifteen hours per day—for two months at a time. It’s very intense. Unfortunately, when it comes to writing, putting a lot of time in does not always guarantee that a quality product will come out. Sometimes I’ll sit for four hours at a time and not be able to come up with anything worthwhile. I’ll often fall asleep feeling depressed and frustrated. Inevitably, there are periods of time when I feel that the book I’m working on is, quality wise, several steps below the last one and I become filled with doubt and self-loathing. It’s always a real struggle, but I usually end up being pretty pleased with the result. The process takes care of the quality.
Despite having achieved some success, I still have my day job as the creative director of Poptropica, an educational gaming site for children that I conceived and set up for the company that owns FunBrain. My whole life has been about creating an audience. Through Poptropica, I reach about six million kids a month, and through Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I reach many, many more. Having this kind of audience is a privilege, and I want to make sure to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts because, logically speaking, I can’t stay on this track forever. Eventually, it will drop off in some fashion and I’m trying to prepare myself for that. I hope that I’ll find another ten-year project when it does.
You don’t need to have a huge new idea to be a success. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is about a regular boy in middle school. I think that the best and most humorous stories come from slice-of-life everyday experiences. This is why stand-up comedy works—because people talk about the humor of everyday life and the experiences we have in common. It’s also why the Judy Blume books that came out in the sixties and seventies are still relevant today. The characters are strong and the situations are relatable.
If you have an idea that you think is a winner, nurture it and take your time developing it. Anything worth having requires working hard. People want to jump into something and be a success right out of the gate, but becoming really good at anything that requires skill usually takes years. Whether you’re an athlete, a doctor, or a writer, you have to put in a lot of effort to become an expert in your chosen field. If you do, when your opportunity finally arises, you’ll be in a good position to take full advantage of it.