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 apologize in advance, because this is a big question and I have a lot to say. This isn’t a topic that can be reduced to a few pithy lines—at least, not yet, and not by me.
I don’t know that I have advice, exactly. I have experience to share, though.
I published my first YA novel in 1994. I just now in 2017 published my tenth novel, and I feel like I’m halfway through the career I plan and hope to have. Yes, I want a 50 year career.
During the first half, I’ve watched many other writers’ careers grow and change. I’ve also watched many writers’ careers disappear. The disappeared are usually good writers and sometimes their books were great. Some were lauded and won prizes. Some were on bestseller lists. Some got startlingly large advances. Some had publishers who were ecstatic about them; sent them on tours; poured marketing money upon them. But none of those “wins” were necessarily predictive of a long career.
With shocking, terrifying speed, one year’s darling could become “Who?”
This was true even when a writer’s craft got better and better over time . . . sometimes the audience simply would not follow; sometimes the publisher found newer fish to fry. Whatever.
Often there was no rational explanation. Things change.
There’s a computer programming class I took in college, in a bizarre coding language called APL that required you to think in multiple dimensions.
The professor said to us, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. Only one of the three of you will still be here by the end of this course.” (I wasn’t, by the way. I didn’t care enough about APL to fight, to learn.)
My point is that being a writer with a long career requires you to develop multi-dimensional thinking and planning and—both inside your soul and outside in the world—to fight for it.
When I look at the writers who are still here, those with a ten-year career or better, I find them to be determined and adaptive and persistent and lucky—by which I mean both that they’ve had some genuine random luck, but also that they have figured out how to make their own luck when things didn’t go their way.
(An aside about genuine random luck—I believe that if you stick with it, some luck with find you. It probably won’t be the luck you expected and it won’t arrive when you expected or for the book you expected—but it’ll show up. Sometime. Eventually.)
Moving on to discuss what I mean by fighting.
|Nancy at her day job.
I believe you need to have a good financial plan for living. Different people come up with different solutions. I’ve kept a day job this whole time (as a technical writer at a software company), which gives me financial flexibility and choice; it means that money from publishing does not rule me or constrain my choices.
(My corporate overlord does rule me, but that is the choice I have made and I did it with my eyes open. Some people couldn’t stand to do this. For me, it’s easy.)
I do not see many successful long-term writers who aren’t pragmatic about money. If they didn’t start out that way, they become that way, simply because multiple years at it either teaches you to adapt, or wears you out. “Do what you love, and the money will follow” turns out to be—at best—incomplete advice. Long-term writers figure out–sometimes kicking and screaming and unhappy about it—how to make it work financially.
I have found that the only stable thing in the writer’s life is your desire to tell stories. Beyond that, you have to take responsibility for yourself and for your choices if you are to survive.
Often, you have to make choices when you’re blind to their ultimate impact, because you will be affected later by random and uncontrollable factors that change the results of your choices.
Your publisher fails or is acquired. Your editor leaves to have a baby and never comes back. Your husband loses his steady job with the health insurance. You have to get a new agent. Family illness means you can’t write for a while. The list of things you can’t foresee goes on and on. Among them are delightful things too, by the way. Life, again.
But even though there’s a lot you can’t foresee, but there are yet some things you can take action on—and you need to be in charge of those things.
Mostly, your control is about your own self. I believe that a writer has to face the facts about who she is—about the kind of work she does, about her process, about her reception in the world, about the ways in which she grows her craft, about what makes her happy in life, about her financial reality, about her family situation, about what she’s willing to stand up for and fight for, and about what is not worth fighting about.
She must understand the structure of her own self and work with it—similarly to the way you’d work to write a sonnet within the limitations of its defined form. You cannot be who you are not. You must make the very best of who you are.
My husband Jim McCoy, who’s a life coach, calls this “Playing the You game.”
Who am I, creatively? I write one book at a time, slowly, sometimes painfully, and only with regard to what story is pulling at me—which is usually something that is thematically personal.
I always struggle to find time (yes, my day job cuts me here), mental space, and faith to write and revise, over the three-to-four years that each book takes. A salesperson at my publisher told me recently that she liked that I “never borrowed from myself” from one book to the next. I had never thought of this before, and while I think it’s true, I must add that I see there has been a cost to this approach, in an industry where many publishers and readers are eager to see a new book from an author in a few months, not a few years.
But still, this is who I am. My creative rhythm isn’t in synch with the market, and neither is my compulsion to write individual rather than series books.
(I just mentioned that my day job cuts me in terms of time. But it saves me, too, because I don’t have to finish a book too soon in order to receive a check.)
In terms of managing a bumpy career, I have to say: What long-term career is not bumpy? None.
That said, in mine, I have had an extraordinarily spectacular piece of luck: my editor, Lauri Hornik. She was an assistant editor at Houghton Mifflin when she bought my first novel. She has published every book since, and she is now President and Publisher at Dial.
Lauri is creative, smart, and sane; I trust her taste and her heart and her advice and her leadership. She kept me over the years, and I have kept her. This means that her presence has softened the bumps. Sometimes my books have sold well for her, and sometimes they have not. Sometimes my books have gotten raves from the critics; sometimes they have gotten pans.
I haven’t had to walk this path alone.
I don’t know what the future holds. I have seen many good writers be “let go” by their publishers, and many good editors lose their jobs, and many other things happen in our industry, so I can’t take my partnership with Lauri for granted.
What I do know is that I will fight for it.
What does that mean? It means that I work to keep our lines of communication open; I will take an active role in discussing business matters directly with Lauri rather than stepping back to let my agent handle it, especially when the topic is sensitive (yes, money).
To further manage the bumps, I try to divide my creative soul from my business soul.
For that, another long-term relationship has been vital, with my agent, Ginger Knowlton. But I need my agent to handle business, not creative issues—and as I said below, I still keep my hand in on business issues. I am a person who needs whatever control I can get. I honor that need.
All of this makes me suddenly realize something: That my long-term career has been full of long-term relationships, period. This also means my long-term friendships with other writers who are on this same path of sustaining a writing life through the downs and ups. I work hard to keep up these relationships and to keep friendships alive.
Being a good friend and having good friends is important to me.
Lastly—and I’ve gone on a while, eh?—you asked about bumps to the heart. My heart is a road full of potholes and cement patches. But I work to remember the good things that have happened, the readers who have appreciated my stories and my own delight in them.
But I need to be careful. I have learned to keep my head down when I’m writing a book and also after I’ve published it, and to obey this rule above all: to love my book and to honor who I am and what I have achieved.
This means that I do not compare myself to others. For example—being truthful—I used to almost enjoy beating myself up with the specter of Laurie Halse Anderson. I would say to myself: “Laurie works harder than you! Laurie is more gifted than you! Etc.”
A few years ago, I confided in Laurie that I did this. She was horrified, and having that conversation helped heal me. I suddenly saw how wrong it was to use the avatar of another writer as a way to punish myself for my perceived shortcomings. Wrong and unfair, to me and to her. Her heart is as pockmarked as mine. She is not on some pedestal of achievement. She is a real person.
But as I think about my heart, what I come back to is how much I love creating stories, and how important I think stories are. Lots and lots of different stories.
There’s a sort of fable I tell myself. I imagine that a single reader has picked up one of my books for free at the city dump. The book has lost its cover and front matter, so that there’s no sign of my name anywhere. The reader reads the book. The reader loves the book—for a while, it’s her favorite and her friend. She never knows who I am, and I never know about her. And let’s suppose further that this is the only reader there ever is, for that book. Let’s say that nobody else ever liked it. But for this one reader, for whatever reason, this was the book.
In terms of my purpose in the world, this has to be enough.
And in terms of my inner creative life, the joy I get from persisting on my storytelling path, and my knowledge that I am honing my craft, has to be enough, too.
If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?
It’s not that I think I have made no mistakes. I believe I have. But I can’t see very clearly down any other paths I might have taken. Sometimes I do wonder about what would have happened if I’d quit my job and thrown myself emotionally at the job of making a living from writing, without a regular paycheck. Would I have found a way to write faster? Would I have taken on work-for-hire projects that would have surprised me by being delightful to work on? Would I have decided to be a teacher?
But when I think about that Nancy, she isn’t me. I say of myself, “I can’t let go of the side of the pool.” I am a conservative manager of my life. I have been playing the Nancy game as best I can.
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?
Many, many, many more books are published in the YA field now than previously. It used to be that perhaps there were twenty debut authors a season, tops. Now, there are dozens.
This means that in the world of traditional publishing, there are even more bodies by the side of the road than there used to be. There’s more competition. This means publishers expect more failures—they account for it upfront, and in most cases, they don’t care too much if it’s you. They move on.
But there is also more opportunity. One change I absolutely love is the rise of indie publishing. It’s wonderful to have the option of complete control over your work. I used to say: Nobody can ever stop me from writing. Now I can add: Nobody can ever stop me from publishing.
Even though traditional publishing works for me now, it gives me enormous pleasure to see the freedom that is possible if you are an indie writer. I notice especially how empowering this has been for romance writers.
The other big changes are how visible and accessible both writers and readers are today, with social media. Social media pressure can have huge impact on a writer’s career, for good and for ill.
Honestly, I don’t know how to judge this. I don’t have time in my life to participate in social media, and I don’t even know how to follow a conversation on Twitter. I see things I love happen out there sometimes, and I see things that make me quail. I don’t have any wise analysis about it, though. I just don’t know enough. Someone else will have much better analysis on this big issue.
What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?
I’m going back (predictably) to money. Work to get your financial house in order so that you can have a long career. Don’t indulge in magical thinking. Don’t decide that being an artist means you can be irresponsible about money.
Take care of yourself.
Use both sides of your brain.
Make lots of friends! And Nancy?
Get a little more exercise.
What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?
I wish for a publishing environment that gives writers less stress and less fear.
I wish for all to have sufficient time to write each book the way they want to write it, without feeling as rushed and as scared as I sense writers feel in the current climate.
But even as I write that wish, I suspect I’m thinking back to a time that never really was . . . that writers have always felt rushed and anxious. And that we always will.
As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?
To write each book slowly and carefully, until I am fully satisfied with it.
To grow my craft with each one, trying new things, loving the work.
To have Lauri publish them and have Ginger do the contracts.
To turn then to the next story.
To go on working alongside my writer friends, both the old ones like you, and the new ones that come into my life and delight me.
To always find the time and space somehow to write, even as the world outside does what it does, and even as my life changes as it does.
My home is where I am.
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.