Cynsations

Survivors: Dian Curtis Regan on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Dian Curtis Regan.

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 sold my first novel on my 35th birthday. I was in a library, meeting with my writers’ group. One member smuggled in a birthday cake. On top of the cake, in icing, she’d written my name and the title of a manuscript I was working on:

Dian: Almost a Star.

My agent and I had been playing telephone tag, which was a thing in those days. I slipped away from the meeting to call and heard the fabulous news. How awesome to learn about one’s first book sale while in a library.

I returned to my writers’ group, jubilant. My friend picked up the tube of icing, leaned over my birthday cake, and crossed out the word “Almost.”

That first sale definitely opened a door. I sold a second YA novel on proposal. The third, fourth, and fifth novels sold as soon as I submitted them.

Wow, I thought. So this is how publishing works. A continuous upward climb! All I have to do is hustle to keep up with deadlines.

I moved from YA to middle grade, then chapter books, picture books, board books, and anthology stories. Although I never proposed writing a series, many of my books turned into one.

Life was good. I loved what I was doing. Then came speaking requests, teaching workshops, and signings. Now I needed to work eight days a week. Seriously.

If the above makes it sound as if there were no “bumps in the road,” there were: I changed agents, moved twice to different states, and I got rejections.

Yet my career trajectory kept moving upward. Books came out every year. Often multiple titles. In the span of three years, seventeen books were published.

Unfortunately, “extreme publishing” took a toll on my health. At one point, I asked my agent if she would kindly stop selling my work. I was kidding, of course, but after a dozen years of insane intensity, I needed a break.

Well, the break arrived. Thrust upon me, actually. My husband was transferred to South America. Certainly, this would be a respite from speaking at schools and conferences, just because of logistics. Plus, the thought of a secluded writing retreat overlooking the Caribbean sounded too good to be true.

Yes, the speaking gigs stopped. And yes, I continued to write. However, it was too good to be true. Distractions continued–just different distractions than I anticipated: the electricity went out almost every day, rendering my desktop computer useless. Constant safety alerts sent my adrenal system into overdrive. Plus, it was necessary to think in the metric system, think in foreign currency, and translate Fahrenheit into Celsius.

I needed to learn how to get around, understand what people were saying to me, and try to make myself understood. In other words, the fantasy of a tropical writing retreat was more dream than reality, and my productivity suffered.

Upon returning to the U.S.A., I discovered that the market for young readers had taken a sharp left turn. Harry Potter (by J.K. Rowling (1997)) was all the rage. I ripped up my teaching guidelines for middle-grade word count because Harry proved that loyal readers would follow along way past the standard 100 to 200 pages.

When I submitted a new book, one of my publishers actually said, “Oh, we don’t publish those kind of books anymore.”

Excuse me? You mean the kind I was writing that were selling a gazillion copies?

Oh, okay. I’ll just go a different direction. When the proverbial writing is on the wall, you do go a different direction–if you want to continue publishing.

So, I settled into a new normal in a new state, writing new books, and life was good again.

Then came something more than a bump in the road. More like a brick wall, obliterating life as I knew it in one short phone call from a coroner. My husband of 31 years was gone.

I stopped writing. One has to have the heart for it, and my heart had been devastated.

Now I had only one thing on my mind: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

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

I’d like to think—if I had it to do over—I would have bucked up and gotten back to work sooner.

The big lesson: if you step out of the game, the game whooshes on past without you. But my next two years were consumed with clearing out one life and house, moving home, and starting over.

Yet all it took was a new book sale–which turned into a three-book deal–to remind me who I am and what I do. I call these titles my “back-in-the-saddle books.” Hey, I’m not done yet.

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

The market I broke in on is definitely not today’s market. The need for diverse books has always been a need, and now we’re watching the movement grow and change the face of children’s literature in a positive way. These are not my books to write, but I can be a cheerleader.

In reference to the evolving business, if you’re lucky enough to do multiple books with the same editor, they know what you’re capable of and therefore will hang in there with you on a book that may need more work.

But when you don’t have history with an editor, they’ll be quicker to say, “No” to a manuscript which has potential simply because they don’t know what you’re capable of.

Also, anyone who’s attended ALA or BookExpo in recent years will notice that, beyond the major publishers, are many new publishers of children’s books.

In much the same way that Netflix, Amazon, HBO, STARZ, etc. have opened the door for new TV shows and movies, giving writers and actors greater opportunity, new publishers like Creston Books, Black Rabbit Books, Cameron Kids, Two Lions, and others are doing the same for children’s book authors and illustrators.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

The advice I would give my beginner self: Nothing stays the same. Never trust an upward trajectory. There will be bumps along the road, and some will be mountains.

Self-care is important. I learned that working eight days a week has diminishing returns. Taking time off for movie night, or to walk the local nature park with my husband used to feel like an interruption to my work. But it’s not. It’s about the quality of one’s life. And after that person is gone, you’ll wish you’d taken more walks together.

Also, it’s okay to say “No” every now and then. I’ve turned down speaking requests and offers to write books for various series.

One more piece of advice to my beginner self: Beware: a new fad is on the horizon, coming soon. It’s called “social media.” Please use in moderation.

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

I credit my first book sale with the fact that I read stacks of YA novels in preparation for writing one.

This is the advice I’d give today. It’s so important to read recently-published books so you can see what’s in demand–from publishers and buyers–and figure out where you can fit your own unique voice into the mix.

Also:

  1. Join SCBWI.
  2. Be relentless.
  3. Stay aware and informed.
  4. Trust the process, trust the process, trust the process.
  5. Find an awesome writers’ group, daring enough to smuggle a birthday cake into a library.

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.

9 thoughts on “Survivors: Dian Curtis Regan on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

  1. Hey, Dian! Waving to you (and to Cyn!). All these years I've known you and I didn't know about the cake in the library. Your publishing (and life-)story is inspirational. Thanks for sharing it. xoxo Debbie

  2. You are a trooper, Dian! I agree that there will be bumps in the road, and trends or industry needs may no longer match what you write. So you have to decide if you will be flexible or not.

  3. >>I'd like to think—if I had it to do over—I would have bucked up and gotten back to work sooner….<<

    Hugs. I think it's important also, as a survival tactic, to be KIND to yourself. While there are certainly periods when you can buckle up and lean in hard, there are other periods when you just can't, because you're human, and that's okay. I also wonder whether these periods of apparently not-writing are necessary, not only to heal after difficult life times, but in order to grow artistically. A relentless pace will probably succeed at one point in your artistic life, but in all of them? I wonder. xoxox

  4. Your story is a beautiful inspiring story to all writers, of and for any age. Thanks for working hard, persisting, and knowing when to take a break and just be with yourself and those you love!

  5. Dian continues onward because her storytelling strength is a part of her as well as her tender heart. It is hard to think about the days when she grieved, but during her healing time, I believe she also rose again because of her ability to create.
    And she is an inspiration and enabler for other writers. For example, every year, she plots an overnight session for a group of writers in her 'castle'. In preparation for the event, she plans a theme and tucks small things into hidden places to add the fun and surprise.
    Ah ha! That isn't any different than the way she plots a story. There is always intrigue, fun, heart, and surprise.
    Just sit down with a child and read one of the Space Boy stories and you will agree.

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