Author Sheryl Scarborough On Writing for TV vs. Novels

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Today's guest  for the SAT is Sheryl Scarborough, an award-winning writer for children’s television, is the author of To Catch A Killer and To Right The Wrongs, a YA mystery series with Tor Teen. The appearance of a habitual Peeping Tom at her home when she was twelve, sparked an obsession with forensics. After each visit, Sheryl diligently photographed his footprints and collected the candy wrappers he left behind. Unfortunately, he was never caught. But the desire to use evidence to solve a great mystery was sparked inside Scarborough all the same. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives with her husband and writer-cats in Washington state, across the river from Portland, OR.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I am a “plotter.” Twenty years writing children’s TV made me so strong on plot that I almost can’t enjoy a book or movie with a weak, no-where plot. This is not to say a pantster can’t succeed with a strong plot, they definitely can. But, they will most likely spend more time in the rewriting process. 

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I have written a first draft in 10 weeks. That book simply poured out of me. Going back to that manuscript now, two years later, I see the flaws. And I will easily put in another 10 weeks fixing them. I know we’re all goal-oriented – tick, tock, write, finish, wash, rinse, repeat – but I don’t really think our writing can be quantified in time. It’s all about when it is a book? 

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

Demands often dictate multi-tasking and my brain simply LOVES to think about the exact thing I’m NOT working on at the moment. But generally, I love to stay with one project until it’s complete. 

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Only the first time? How about this…when I started writing for children’s television, I was on staff at an animation studio. On staff meant that I was expected (required) to write a certain number of scripts. We were paid a weekly salary, plus script bonuses. But the weekly salary was charged against the budget for script fees, similar to how an advance is charged against actual sales. I would be super enthusiastic about my latest assignment until I got home…and started thinking it through. That’s when the panic would set in and I would become convinced I couldn’t write this script as assigned. It wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get my head around the concept. And I would start coming up with ideas for how I could off-load this assignment and… um, still keep my job! In the course of that creative cluster, a miracle would happen and I would come up with the approach to writing the script. (Hallalullah!) The scary part, as I look back on it now, is that this fear cycle thing lasted for THREE YEARS! And, the reason this incident is so fresh in my mind is because I went through it all over again as I faced writing the sequel to To Catch A Killer. 

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I have no trunked books prior to To Catch A Killer. But that was because I was absolutely relentless in believing in it and trying to sell it. I do have two trunked books since I sold TCAK…though I’m reworking one now. 

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I have quit on many a story, but once an idea makes it to manuscript stage it’s pretty much go-time. That means I’ve thought it through and picked it apart enough that I’m pretty sure I can make it happen. There are only two reasons I would abandon a manuscript: 1. If I no longer cared about the story or 2. If I decided I couldn’t execute the idea. 

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is the fabulous Jessica Regal at Foundry + Media. Our hook up was somewhat non-traditional. I had signed on to Foundry with a different agent, who had been in publishing for a long time, but was new to agenting. She and I hit it off and she began submitting my book. Half way through the submission process, she received an offer she couldn’t refuse from her previous employer. It was great and fortunate news for her…devastating for me! I was in the middle of submission with some rejections! One of the partners at Foundry reached out to me and asked me not to panic. She knew they were bringing Jessica on board and she sent my MS to her. Jessica liked the concept enough to take it on even though there were rejections and we’ve been a formidable team ever since. 

How long did you query before landing your agent?  

My query process took almost a year – I had a list of 20 agents I was interested in and I queried nearly all of them before landing at Foundry. BUT… the actual first offer came from a face-to-face meeting at a conference. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Don’t give up. Just keep sending your work out. If you get the same comment 10 times, then go back and look at your writing with a more critical eye. Maybe you are missing something. Also, believe in yourself that you can do it. 

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

To see my name on a book…on the shelf…in a bookstore? It is indescribable. Surreal. And the best feeling ever. 

How much input do you have on cover art?

My editor asked for my thoughts on the cover, but what I ended up with wasn’t anything like I described or anticipated. But… I LOVE my covers. I think they do an excellent job of selling the books. I’m perfectly happy to let my publisher do what it does best. 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I don’t know that it was that much of a surprise, but the most important things I’ve learned is that this writing game is not a sprint. It’s a marathon! Pace is super important. Whenever I get flustered about what I need to be doing to further my career, I use my calming voice to tell myself that all I really need to do is write the next book. And to write it well. That’s all. 

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I have the complete social media collection and I’m just about as savvy and befuddled as everybody else. I use it, but try not to overdo it. First of all, I don’t have time to spend all day on social media and still get books written. 

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

If at any point in your writing career you think you have a platform…start building. The only way it could hurt is if you accidentally stick your foot in your mouth and post something unpopularly controversial. If you’ve got something to say and a group to say it to, I say go for it! 

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it can’t hurt, for sure. I know that my publisher did a lot of social media for my first book and my cover was everywhere. I’m sure that tremendously helped the sales.