About Books & Writing
Do you have a writing routine?
When I visited a school, a boy asked, “Mr. Clements, is writing your whole life?” And the answer is, quite simply, no. Sometimes writing and the surrounding responsibilities of that career would try to become a person's whole life. Writing is hard, solitary work—work that is not usually helped along by continual interruptions. But the fact is, I am many other things before I am a writer. I am a son; I am a brother; I am a husband and a father; I am a church member; I am a neighbor and a citizen. And then somewhere along the way and in the midst of that life, I am also a writer. I would not be the writer I am without these so-called “interruptions.”
So my writing routine isn’t very routine. I try to write every day, especially when I’m in the middle of a novel. But I find that even if I can’t actually walk through the garage and shut myself up in the office where I write, I can still work, because the biggest part of writing is thinking—and I can do that anywhere at any time. I always keep paper and pencil handy, and lately I’ve come to rely on the recorder on my phone to help me capture ideas when they come trotting along.
What are your favorite books?
There are some “superbooks” that are always at the top of almost any list, books that belong in categories of their own—books like the Bible; books like the complete plays and poems of William Shakespeare; books like Homer’s Odyssey. So there’s a fine start to a favorites list.
Then we move down the scale into Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, really, all the writing of Mark Twain, fiction and non-fiction alike. Then it’s on to Dickens and Yeats and Wordsworth—after all, I studied English literature! Then there’s The Call of the Wild, Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, and a host of other novels–wonderful literature, world literature.
One of my favorite books, and truly one of the best novels ever written for kids or grownups, is Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. It’s one of those great works of art that can be read every five years throughout a person’s lifetime, and it will become better and richer with every reading.
Among picture books, one favorite is The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown, with pictures by Garth Williams.
How did you become an author?
How many books have you written?
If a book is defined "as any words published between covers with my name on the front and then sold for actual money," then that number is more than 90. At least a dozen of those books were never available for sale in bookstores, but were used in schools as enrichment for reading and social studies programs. I also wrote a number of stories that were made into all sorts of specialty products--like coloring books and counting books with dolls attached--and then sold only in Target stores for a limited period of time. I've shown all my different books on this website because each one is part of my own story as a writer.
Have you written any books in other languages?
I have written all my books in the English language. When a publisher in another country thinks that the kids and parents and teachers in that country would enjoy a book of mine, that publisher must hire a skilled person who can read my story in English and then translate it into Italian or Japanese or Spanish and so on. Even though many of my books are available in other languages, I write only in English.
How do you come up with the idea for a new book?
I have proven again and again that there is "story potential" in the life that is streaming all around us every day. Most of my story ideas have grown from things that have happened in my own life, or from situations or events that have happened in the lives of others. I do believe that there is such a thing as "thinking like a writer," and I eventually figured out that I've been thinking that way most of my life--even many years before I ever began to work at writing.
How long does it take to write a book?
Some books need more time than others. If I get a good idea for a picture book, sometimes the story can be finished in a week or two--occasionally even in one long writing session. But a novel always takes far longer, which makes sense, because a novel is usually telling a more complicated story with more characters than you would find in most picture books. Once I get an idea for a novel, it usually takes at least a year of messing around before I am ready to send a first draft to an editor at a publishing company.
What are some of your hobbies?
I play the guitar and write songs. I like to ride my mountain bike. I like to hike and camp, though I wouldn’t call myself a hiker or a camper—or a mountain biker, for that matter. In the winter, I’ve been known to clamp fiberglass boards to my feet and then try to stay alive on snowy slopes. I am a continual putterer, and my workshop is a happy clutter of well-used tools. I love to read, but must now read less than ever in order to keep my own writing on track.
I haven’t meant to, but I have collected a lot of pens (called frindles by some). I don’t keep them for display purposes, or because they may be rare or valuable, but rather because I enjoy using them. I love to doodle and draw and simply make marks with ink on paper. It’s something I never tire of.
My favorite thing in all the world is simply to walk with my wife—it doesn’t matter where, or for how long. The company is everything.
What are your favorite foods?
Favorite foods include pizza, steak, boiled Maine lobster, farmstand corn-on-the-cob, homemade blueberry pie after we've picked the wild berries ourselves, and lightly salted tomatoes still warm from the sun.
What is your favorite color?
Blue is one of my favorite colors--ocean, lake, sky, my wife's eyes--it's hard to go wrong with blue.
Do you collect anything?
I mentioned that I have a lot of pens/frindles. I've also gathered quite a few hammers over the past ten years or so--one of the few tools which never comes with an instruction booklet. I recently got interested in buttons, which, like all the other ordinary objects on earth, have an interesting history. And it's not a coincidence that I've written a novel about a buttons fad that starts up at a school and begins to spin out of control. That book should be in bookstores in January of 2019.
Have you ever wanted to be something other than a writer?
I didn't really set out to become a writer, not on purpose. I've always loved reading great stories, and that love of good writing gradually led me to try to make my own words behave as I wanted them to. After college and graduate school I did become a teacher, and I did it on purpose. I love teaching because it is one of those jobs which lets a person remain dedicated to one clear and very good idea for a whole career. It turns out that writing for children is another career like that: I get to remain dedicated to some very high ideals for an entire lifetime. And so far, it's very satisfying!
For Writers and Aspiring Authors
Do you have any advice for someone who'd like to become a writer?
The best advice I’ve ever given to a young writer is this: Read. Read all the good books you can get your hands on. Learn what good writing sounds like and feels like, pay attention to the way that good writing makes you feel and think. And then take it to the next level and try to discover the elements the writer is using. Remember that everything that happens in a book happens on purpose. The words did not just land on the page that way by chance. As you read a book, you are looking at thousands and thousands of decisions someone made, and if you begin to think like a writer, you may be able to discover why a particular sentence was written in that particular way.
How do you think like a writer?
Thinking like a writer means paying close attention to just about everything--people, conversations, relationships, events, news, science, technology, nature, animals--the whole fascinating shebang! And if you pay close attention, there are stories all around you. Finding those stories might be simple, once you get used to looking for them. But the process of making stories come to life and finding just the right words to capture them? Not so simple. And therefore thinking like a writer also means a willingness to do the hard work it is going to take to create something worthwhile--which is true no matter what you choose to do in this world!
What have you struggled with as a writer?
Sometimes when world events seem particularly troubled, I have to work especially hard to find stories that are hopeful. Immediately after the destruction of the World Trade Center Towers was an especially hard time--and certainly not just for me! And there have been no shortage of challenging and awful events, both before and after that. Like all the people here in America and everyone else all around the world, I have to get up every day and work to do my own small part to make something good happen. One wonderful thing about writing a book? If I can do a good job, that book lasts and lasts, and it may go on to brighten a day for literally millions of kids and teachers I may never meet--perhaps even long after my own writing work has ended. And THAT is something worth struggling for!