I’m thrilled to welcome author Bruce Hale back to the Mixed-Up Files. He’s one of the funniest and most entertaining people I’ve ever met. He’s been busy since his last Mixed-Up Files interview. Today, we’re celebrating the launch of Playing With Fire, the first book in his newest series, School for S.P.I.E.S.
Juvenile delinquent and budding pyromaniac Max Segredo belongs in juvie hall. At least, that’s what his most recent foster family would tell you. Instead, Max ends up on the doorstep of Merry Sunshine Orphanage-their very heavily guarded doorstep. As he begins to acclimate to his new home, Max learns a few things straightaway: first, cracking a Caesar Cipher isn’t as hard as it seems; second, never sass your instructor if she’s also holding throwing knives; and third, he may not be an orphan after all.
I love Playing With Fire! How did you come up with the idea for your School for S.P.I.E.S. series?
PLAYING WITH FIRE represents the coming-together of several ideas and loves. First, ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved spy stories. James Bond, Get Smart, The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible — all these and more inspired me to want to write a spy story myself.
Second, I had a yoga teacher in Hawaii who was like the ultimate drill sergeant — crusty on the outside, but big-hearted underneath. She spoke in a kind of hybrid of Japanese and broken English, and she was such a character, I wanted to put her in a book someday. And third, I had an odd what-if thought: What if an orphanage was actually a covert school for spies?
When all these influences came together, I hit upon the title “Shanghai Annie’s School for Spies (and Merry Sunshine Orphanage).” For a long time, all I had was the title (which changed), but eventually I developed that germ of an idea into the book it is today, with my old yoga teacher in the Hantai Annie role.
The spy school feels so authentic. How did you learn so much about spy techniques?
Sadly, college didn’t teach me any of what spies call tradecraft. (An education, wasted!) Instead, I learned it all — lock picking, code breaking, surveillance — through interviews and reading. I read lock-picking articles online (while wondering if the FBI was tracking my reading habits). I interviewed a computer guy about hacking. In fact, I even took a kickboxing class to help me with the martial arts stuff. I tell you, if they ever offered a spy summer camp for adults, I’d take it in a heartbeat. That stuff is fun!
Once you get a book published, is it easier to get offers for future books?
Yes and no. Yes, in that they know you can deliver, so all else being equal, they’re inclined to trust your abilities. No, in that it always depends on the quality of the book you’re submitting and whether it fits their list. To my occasional exasperation, publishers will still pass on one of my stories if they feel it’s not right for them.
What are some of the pros and cons of writing a series?
First off, I love reading series, so it’s a joy to write the kind of books I like to read. Series give you the chance to deeply explore the world and characters you’ve created, and to build a relationship with your readers, which will carry over into other books you write.
On the down side, series can be challenging. You have to strike a balance between familiarity and freshness — introducing new elements and characters while preserving enough of what readers loved in the previous books. Also (if you’re lucky and your series lasts long enough), you may find you’ve cycled through all your ideas and are having a hard time coming up with plots you haven’t used already.
Bruce Coville once said that series books are training-wheel books, helping kids learn to read more confidently. I’m honored to be producing these kinds of books for young readers.
How do you develop characters strong enough for an entire series?
Main characters need a number of key elements to make them series-worthy. First, they must be likeable, even if they’re an anti-hero. Second, they must have some quality that makes them stand out (Harry Potter’s wizarding abilities, Katniss’s archery skills and loyalty, Chet Gecko’s punning, etc.). Third, they must have a certain optimism and drive that keeps them moving forward. And fourth (just to keep this list short), they must be active. Passive characters can’t sustain a series. When asked to move the plot forward, they just say, “Eh, maybe later.”
Can you share a writing exercise for series or humor?
Here’s a fun one for humor: Experiment with the triple play. A triple play is a list of three words or things, in which the first two are expected and the third is a surprise. That surprise creates the humor. For example: in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted say that Beethoven’s favorite works include Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. The first two items set up an expectation, which is subverted by the third. Like, “Tall, dark, and loathsome.”
Have fun experimenting, and remember comedy writing’s Rule of Nine: For every ten jokes you come up with, nine will suck! But that tenth one will be a gem.
Want a chance to win one of two signed copies of Bruce Hale’s School for S.P.I.E.S.: Playing with Fire? Click on the Rafflecopter widget below, and you’ll see seven quick and easy ways to enter! The winners will be announced on Tuesday, July 23. Good luck!
Thank you so much for visiting the Mixed-Up Files, and for your generous giveaway, Bruce!
The second book in Bruce’s School for S.P.I.E.S. series is called Thicker than Water, and is scheduled for June 2014. While waiting for the next spy book, you can check out some of the other humorous series Bruce has written. Bruce has sixteen books in his Chet Gecko series, and four books in his Underwhere series. He recently released his new picture book, Clark the Shark, the first of seven in that series. Clark the Shark – Dare to Share! will be out in January 2014.
You can find out more about Bruce Hale on his main website, his School for S.P.I.E.S. site, his writing tips website, or on Twitter. Here’s a link to Bruce’s Chet Gecko activity guide. You can view a message from Agent X: School for S.P.I.E.S., and watch the below video of Bruce Hale reading an exciting scene from Playing with Fire.
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.