How to stay enthusiastic about your work

Gordon Korman published his first novel at 14 and has written dozens more. Here’s how he keeps the creative flame lit, decade after decade

Author Gordon Korman

Author Gordon Korman. (Owen Kassimir)

Four decades and 88 children’s novels into his career, author Gordon Korman has learned how to keep his work fresh, exciting and fun—both for his young readers and for himself. Here’s how he does it:

“From my perspective, being a writer is probably not one of the harder jobs to keep myself motivated to do. It’s creative, and I’m my own boss—there are a lot of really good things about it. Generally speaking, I write at least two books a year, and I’ve always done well with them. But I’ve never written a book that has become such an enormous hit that I suddenly have $15 million in the bank. This has always been a job. The imperative to keep on working has always been a practical one.

“When I was 14 years old, right after my first book [the 1978 classic This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!] came out, a school in Toronto called and asked me to talk to its Grade 4 class. I’ve been making regular appearances at schools ever since. I meet a lot of kids, and I get to see how they respond to what I’ve written—what gets a big laugh, what gets an introspective chuckle—and sense what their response might be to future projects. It gives me an idea of where my audience is and how they’re changing. I get a lot of energy from that.

“It’s good to know and study your audience, but it’s important not to be too literal in terms of what you learn from them. You might see kids in the neighbourhood are into skateboards, and think, Well, I have to write a skateboarding book now. You don’t want to overdo that kind of thinking; it can be restrictive.

“In terms of output, it’s great to be in a groove and good at what you do, but I feel I’m doing my best work when I’m a little outside my comfort zone. I’m always more productive when I’m a little afraid I’m not capable of doing what I’m trying to do. For example, I’d written all these humorous books, including the Bruno and Boots series, but in the early 2000s I switched to writing adventure trilogies. There were some challenges in that: I was moving from comedy to suspense and adventure, from writing from experience and imagination to research-heavy topics, and from writing stand-alone novels to telling one story through three books. But that series was very successful, and it was a great shift for me, creatively, because I was at kind of a stale point.

“Finally, if you can bring other people into your process as much as possible, that’s what’s going to really make it fun and keep it fresh. A lot of the best variety in my career has come from getting suggestions from editors and from collaborating with people—authors and others—on different projects. An example is [multi-author adventure series] The 39 Clues, for which I wrote the second book. I started that story in a place I couldn’t have gotten to on my own, because someone else had written the one before it. I loved that. At every point in my career that I’ve had a chance to co-opt a little bit of someone else’s creative process, it’s always been great for me. It trains me to think beyond my usual confines. When you’re trapped in the world of your own mind, that’s when things get stale.”