Career Achievers: Stephanie Greene on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Stephanie Greene.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I sent my first manuscript to ten editors (the big houses were open to unsolicited submissions back in 1993), nine of whom rejected it. Fortunately for me, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion discovered it in the slush pile. (I don’t think publishers have those anymore.)

As I remember it, Dinah said she liked it very much but … so I went about revising it. I may have revised it twice before she accepted it.

I was extremely lucky in ending up with Dinah. She was, and still is, a tough, but brilliant, editor who asked the perfect questions that led me to the solutions to whatever areas she felt needed work. She rarely told me what to do or change; she merely asked questions and sometimes made comments.

Her attention to detail was meticulous. I’ll always remember her writing, “’Private’ is not a place” in the margin where I’d written “Can I talk to you in private?” I never forgot it. Or made the same mistake again.

So I started out having to live up to the best, and that’s been the way I’ve gone on. I’ve had good/tough editors who made me revise as many times as it took. They made me a better, tighter writer. I was extremely fortunate in being able to find ideas everywhere: newspapers, photographs, overheard conversations, things witnessed, paintings – you name it.

I also think I had a sort of innate sense about plot structure because I was a ravenous reader as a child and had absorbed the way plots are structured. At least, that’s the way it felt to me when I started to write.

The worst time in my career came shortly after my middle grade novel The Lucky Ones (Greenwillow) was published in the fall of 2008. It came out the same month as Lehman Brothers fell and the Great Recession began.

TLO, as we called it, was remaindered in six months, when HarperCollins was getting rid of inventory as fast as Wall Street was shedding stock brokers.

That one broke my heart for a while. It set me back. The book was important to me and it didn’t feel as if it had been given a fighting chance. (They also remaindered a Christmas book of mine after only one Christmas.)

I guess those books count as my bumps.

The road still isn’t necessarily smooth. Last year, my agent told me that a picture book biography I had written and re-written time and again still wasn’t good enough to send around, so I shelved it. That was discouraging.

At the same time, a nonfiction picture book my agent submitted to several editors without success was eventually turned down by an editor who I greatly admire. He gave me the classiest rejection I’ve ever received by saying, “While I like this enormously, I don’t love it enough to publish it.”

I had to respect that.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Interesting question. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. I don’t think I could have. I wrote every day in a disciplined way and revised and revised, when needed.

I might have tried harder to develop a knack for writing from plot, however. I tend to write from character, and while that has worked well for me, I’m now trying to write a mystery, and that’s very plot-directed.

I’m heartened however, to have discovered in a new biography about Agatha Christie, the best of the best, the statement that “… plot, for Agatha, meant distillation of character. It did not exist in a vacuum. It was the people who interested her, always.”

It had always been the people who interested me, too.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The increase in the number of people trying to write for children has been astonishing. It led to the large publishing houses eventually closing their doors to un-agented material, for one thing, which, in turn, led to the proliferation of self-publishing.

More and more small presses have opened door for writers, which is great. Writers still have to run a publishing gauntlet to be accepted by them; having to survive that process makes for strong writers and better books.

Another change is the fact that editors have become so overwhelmed, they have less time to edit and expect to see manuscripts in near-publishable shape. More and more, agents, too, want their clients’ manuscripts to be near-perfect.

To my mind, this has led to an unfortunate economic inequality in the industry: writers who can afford to hire book doctors and whole novel critiques by freelance editors have a leg-up over those who can’t.

Overall, it seems to have become a more knee-jerk, reactionary industry than it was when I started. If a series or a novel is a hit, there are immediately dozens more like it. More and more writers I know are writing for hire. It’s a reality: publishers need them and writers need the income.

The most positive change is the call for books and authors from other cultures. I love the multi-faceted country we’ve become, and see so many children from different countries on school visits. I believe in the right of all children to see themselves in books.

Could you talk to us about how you choose each future project, what goes into your creativity- and career-building strategy?

I hate to admit it, but my career-building strategy over twenty-plus years has been pretty un-scientific. I started out writing the books I wanted to write.

The first book I sold was an Owen Foote book, which I sold to Clarion (1996-2004). I was so excited about the little boy I’d created that I immediately told Dinah Stevenson I had a second book about Owen.

In her measured way, she said, “Let’s wait and see how the first book does.”

Happily, it did well enough for her to ask for five more Own books. The lucky part for me was that the chapter book genre was new. As one review said, “A welcome addition to a much-needed genre.” I had no idea that what I’d written was a chapter book.

I was also working on other books during that time. (I have always worked on several projects at the same time.) I wrote four books for Marshall Cavendish about Moose & Hildy (2000-2006), a moose and his best friend, a pig. Those were light-hearted and fun. I had no idea what genre they’d slot into when I wrote them.

Throughout my career, I’ve written what came to me, without thought for genre. That’s the way things used to work. When it reached a time where everyone was talking about what genre they were writing and I asked Dinah Stevenson what genre my first Sophie Hartley book (2005-2013) would be considered, she said, “Why don’t we just call it a ‘book’?” (That four-book series was eventually deemed middle grade.)
I still love that statement.

Today, the genre requirements have become so varied and vague, I always advise writers whose work I’m critiquing to just write the book and figure out the genre after. Too many times, I’ve critiqued a manuscript the writer declares is an early chapter book, say, but in which the protagonist is ten or eleven. Or talks like a fifth grader when he’s in the second grade. Simple mistakes people make because they’re either not familiar with the genre, or they’re trying too hard to fit their book into a genre where it doesn’t belong.

As for career-building, I’ve been remiss in attending to that, too. It’s much more of a recent phenomenon than it was when I started writing in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Even my agent didn’t press me to plan my career. She said, if you write it, I can sell it. (Those were the days …)

Now, much more career-building goes on, and even the need for branding or creation of a platform before a writer has sold their first book. I consider myself fortunate to have led much of my career in simpler times. Knowing myself, having to pay attention to all of those other things would have proved a tremendous distraction from the act of actual writing.

I still believe that writers need to write their book first, do the best job they can with it, and then worry about the rest. But that goes against the contemporary grain, I know.

Stephanie’s bulletin board of ideas.

You’re the author of a number of successful series. For many writers, that’s a dream. How did you come to be a series writer? What advice do
you have for up-and-comers interested in doing the same?

I never set out to write a series, but having written four, I’ve learned something about doing that along the way.

My first bit of advice would be to write one good book. Don’t start out with the idea of writing a series. Devote your energies to writing the best book you can.

There are different kinds of series, of course. If you have a character in mind who you believe will appeal to enough kids that they can successfully carry a series, develop that character to the best of your ability in the first book.

Three of my series have been character-driven. I first created a character who I liked. In every case, it was my editor who asked for more.

(There are countless character-driven series; read as many of them as you can, especially in the genre in which you want to write. Study them. Figure out what makes the character appealing to children.)

Another approach is to come up with a unique concept around which a series can be developed. The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne (Random House, 1992-) are a prime example. Not only do a brother and sister get carried to a different time period or country in a really cool way in every book, but they – and the reader – learn something about history.

If you have a concept, develop it in one book and see what happens.

Another approach is to develop a “hook.” That’s a feature about the character that can be repeated in subsequent books. Many series employ this device. The trick is to make it an intricate part of the story and not a superficial tag-on.

I inadvertently created my Princess Posey (G. Putnam’s Sons, 2010-2018) series of early chapter books because I gave the character in the first story – what was meant to be a stand-alone book – a hook: Posey’s pink tutu makes her feel brave. It was my editor’s decision the tutu concept could carry a series.

If the book you create is series-worthy, your agent and/or editor will most likely recognize it.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I wish them the discipline needed to revise and revise and revise until their book is as good as it should be.

I wish that they really do read the 1,000 books that authors at conference after conference, and most books about writing, tell them they need to read before they write. And that they not only read the books, but study them for what makes them work, and how the author did what he/she did.

(Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (HarperCollins, 2006) is a great book for writers.)

I wish them an endless flow of ideas and great joy in doing what they do.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I wish that I get to experience that incredible, breathless yes! Feeling I get when I know I’ve hit it right; that I’ve placed exactly the right words, in precisely the needed position, to create the effect I wanted. Writers know what I mean. There’s nothing like it.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

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