Debut Author Interview: W.H. Beck, Author of the Middle Grade Novel MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT

It’s time for another fantastic debut author interview, where I sit down with a writer and we discuss how they came to find their literary agent and get their book published. These interviews can explain what they wished they knew at the beginning at their journey.

W.H. Beck is an elementary school librarian by day and a children’s author by night (well, actually, very early mornings). She reads and writes in Wisconsin, where she shares her home and books with a husband, two sons, and a sneaky dog. Her first novel is MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT (Sept. 2012, Houghton Mifflin, illustrated by Brian Lies), a humorous middle grade mystery starring classroom pets at midnight. Connect with WH Beck on Twitter. Kirkus called the book, “A rip-roaring tale; even rodent haters will have to like Malcolm,” and Publishers Weekly said “Escapades, humor, and romance weave together in this madcap elementary school adventure … A first-rate debut.”

(What does a literary agent want to see when they Google you?)


wh-beck-writer-author     malcolm-at-midnight-novel



What is the book’s genre/category?

Funny middle grade animal fantasy mystery novel. [Sorry, it’s kind of cross genre. Feel free to pick one or two].

Please describe what the story/book is about.

Malcolm at Midnight is a humorous middle grade mystery starring classroom pets at midnight.

Where do you write from?

I live in northwestern Wisconsin, not too far from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Also close to many lakes and rivers, where much of my time is spent.

Briefly, what led up to this book?

I wrote nonfiction for kids. I have a regional biography, Dr. Kate: Angel on Snowshoes, and a 12-book animal/habitat series with Lerner called Follow That Food Chain. I also have several “practice” novels in a drawer.

(Headed to a conference? Learn how to approach an agent.)

What was the time frame for writing this book?

Well, I began Malcolm when my youngest son was in first grade. He was obsessed with pets, so I used his bedtime to try out ideas on him. But eventually, after reading over and over again that no one wanted talking animal stories (and mine had footnotes!), I set Malcolm aside. Then, months later, I started getting calls from a number I didn’t recognize, and I realized I had never heard about an SCBWI Work-in-Progress grant I had applied for. Well, it turned out that Malcolm was a runner-up. That vote of confidence was the push I needed to pull it back out and finish it. It sold a little while later and was published two years after that. My son is now in fifth grade—so to him, it feels like I’ve been working on it for most of his life.

How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?

My wonderful agent is Linda Pratt of Wernick & Pratt Agency. She and I connected when I was querying agents for Malcolm. She works with a few writers I know, so she was high on my list of potential agents. I followed her submission guidelines, sent her my information and chapters, and luckily, she liked what she read. We still haven’t met in person yet, but hopefully, this summer we will.

For what it’s worth, I cannot imagine negotiating the publishing world without an agent. I know people do it, but for me, the thought of doing all that legwork is daunting. I’d much rather be writing.



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What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

Probably my biggest learning experience was working with an illustrator. When Houghton Mifflin made an offer on Malcolm, my editor told me that Brian Lies was interested in illustrating it. I was beyond thrilled—I love illustrated novels and I love Brian’s work. Going into it, I knew that authors and illustrators didn’t usually communicate while working on a book, but I didn’t realize how surreal it would be to have someone else—whom I had never met!—take my words and ideas and turn them into images. And it was eerie how well Brian’s illustrations matched the pictures in my head.

Another surprise was how invested readers were in the characters I had made up. I’ve fielded many worried emails about what exactly happened to Snip the cat at the end of the story. So much so, that I may have to explore that idea a little more someday…

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I think just keeping at it. As I said before, Malcolm was not my first novel. Instead of thinking of those others as failures or wastes of time, I very much value them as instruction and practice that I needed to eventually succeed.

One other thing that kept me writing through rejection is that I also work full-time as a school librarian. It’s a job I love just as much as writing. But having a steady source of income (and insurance and savings for retirement!) means I can write purely because I want to, which has much less pressure than writing because I need to.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

Well, the flip side to having that steady, full-time job is that my writing time is so limited! I wish I had more faith in my story instincts and did less waffling and dilly-dallying and just got my stories out there faster. But I’m starting to learn that maybe that’s my process. I’m a dilly-dallier.

(Find more agents who represent middle grade fiction.)

Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing to build a platform and gain readership?

Well, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but most days I’m not thinking about a platform. I’m simply hoping for a few minutes to get some new sentences written down. In fact, most days, I feel woefully inactive on blogging and networking and tweeting. However, having said that, I DO feel fortunate that my day job has a lot of overlap with the audience for which I’m writing. Not only do I know kids, but I’m also familiar with schools and libraries and other gatekeepers that will bring my book to more readers. So whenever possible, I try to focus my efforts on things where I can wear both hats—like library conferences, Skype classroom visits on my lunch hours, teaching writing workshops in the summers, and making sure my books are teacher-friendly, with discussion guides and other goodies.

Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?

It’s cliché, but READ. A lot. Anything, but especially current stuff in the genre you write. Find out what’s selling—and why kids like it. Figure out what you like and why you like it. Then write something new.

(Of course, I’m a school librarian, so I spend most of my day suggesting people read more. It’s possible that I’m getting my messages mixed up. ☺)

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

Hmmm. Well, for as much as I tell people to read, I’m a huge book-abandoner. I stop reading books all the time. First page, last chapter—if it’s not holding my interest, I ditch it. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, necessarily; sometimes it’s just my mood. I figure that my “want to read” list is so long—so why waste time with something I’m not loving?

Not coincidentally, this makes me a terrible book club participant.

Favorite movie?

Oh, so many! For the sheer number of times I’ve seen it and still enjoy it, I’d probably have to go with The Princess Bride. I’d love to write a book someday that has the humor and heart and timelessness of that movie.


What’s next?

Well, middle grade fiction is where my heart is, so I’m currently dilly-dallying on another novel. However, I can’t seem to let the nonfiction go. Sometimes those weird-but-true stories just call out to be told!


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