In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of www.cynthialeitichsmith.com, I asked some established authors–folks I’d featured early on–a few questions about what they’ve learned over the past decade.
A decade ago, I had yet to land my first children’s book contract for The Sea Chest (Dial, 2002). I had put in three years of study, experimentation, and development of my knowledge, voice, and style. I’d tried my hand at picture books, easy readers, a transitional novel (“chapter book”), and an older novel. I’d worked with a variety of authors in critique group settings and with one author, in particular, in a mentor relationship.
Ten years later, I’ve just published my eighth picture book, The Library Doors, illustrated by the amazing Nadine Bernard Westcott (UpstartBooks, 2008) and have six more under contract with Upstart, Dial, and McElderry.
I believe that I am a successful picture book author because I’ve continued to study my craft. I regularly read new picture books as they are published and pay attention to what my colleagues are doing in their work—and what I might learn from their work.
As my body of work has grown, I have continued to try new things and to experiment with new types of stories which has allowed me to grow in my craft.
— The Sea Chest is a quiet and lyrical story that employs a frame structure, which was difficult to accomplish so early in my development as an author. In fact, I think it would still be a challenge to me now!
— In my companion books, Dawdle Duckling (Dial, 2003) and Ready or Not, Dawdle Duckling (Dial 2005), I learned how to carry character traits forward and to consider how those traits drive plot in two different stories.
— Little Loon and Papa (Dial, 2004) explores my own childhood fears, but required me to go beyond the personal to the universal as I paid careful attention to plot structure in successful “pattern of three” books.
— My character-driven Mrs. Skorupski series has allowed me to create a main character who is a thinly disguised version of myself as a school library media specialist: Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us ANYTHING! (UpstartBooks, 2006), Fire Up with Reading (UpstartBooks, 2007), and The Great Dewey Hunt (UpstartBooks, 2009) while searching for universal experiences that would appeal to all readers (and all librarians who would share the stories with children).
— My first rhymed picture book, R is for Research (UpstartBooks, 2008) was published last spring. While I’d tried my hand several times at rhyme, this is the first time that I was successful enough for publication. Rhyming is incredibly difficult and places such restrictions on the text!
— In The Library Doors (UpstartBooks, 2008), I experimented with song adaptation, also a first for me. In some ways, it was a pleasure to have the pre-established structure of the song (in this case, “Wheels on the Bus”). But in other ways, it was a huge challenge to design the text in a way that satisfied the rhyme and meter of the original while making use of the concepts I wanted to include in the new (library) setting.
Through the writing and revision of all of these books, I’ve learned so much about the range of my own voice as a picture book author. My strength continues to be in language and character development. Plot is still, and has always been, the most difficult aspect of writing for me, and so I continue to work on it, read about it, think about it, and face down my plot demons with each new manuscript.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about the writing/artistic life?
Oh, how I wish I were well endowed with an understanding of how to build an intellectually challenging, artistically and commercially successful, and peaceful writing life—which is my goal!
I do think I have the first two nailed, as my life as a full-time writer and speaker certainly excites my intellect and has proven to be successful in the terms I have set out (and each writer’s terms are different, of course, when measuring artistic and commercial success).
But the cost of the first two is a big compromise of the third aspect—a peaceful life. I have yet to come to terms with that, so I can’t say that I’ve learned the one, true lesson I am most in pursuit of.
What I have learned is that it requires most of a writer’s time to effectively write, speak, market, and promote her work. There are no forty-hour work weeks. There are no regular hours. There are few vacations and few down times (taking a half an hour for lunch most days is an undue luxury).
As a result, many authors find it necessary to have a day-job (unless, of course, they have the gift of a “day-spouse”!), but for those of us who choose to live only the writing life, the demands are enormous and balance (the key to a truly peaceful existence) is a far off glimmer.
It will be interesting to see whether I’ve resolved the dilemma when the next decade has gone by and we celebrate twenty years of Children’s and YA Literature Resources!
By the way, I invite any authors or illustrators reading this response to e-mail me with your wisdom if you’ve found the key to that final goal of mine.
What I knew when I started and what I still know today is that publishing, like most other human endeavors, is about relationships.
There’s the relationship between the author and the editor, between the author and the publishing house, between the author and the illustrator, between the author and the reader, between the author and the marketplace. And each relationship is essential to the success of the author’s writing life.
I am a person who tends relationships as some of my most successful gardening friends tend their flowers and vegetables.
I believe in connections between people as the tiny inner mechanism that makes the Earth spin on its axis, the planets revolve around the sun, the galaxies mind their places in the universe.
It is all—always—about relationships for me, in life and in publishing. The children’s publishing community is a world in itself, a world I am so happy to be a part of, and I tend the relationships I have in this world with great care and concern.
Read a Cynsations interview with Toni.