Survivors: Carolyn Crimi on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Carolyn Crimi.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My kneejerk reaction to that question is, “What success?”

So I suppose one way I’ve managed to stay in the game is redefining what that word means and how important it is to me.

Sometimes success means writing the next page, or figuring out a sticky plot problem, or exploring a new genre.

Those are the successes that get you through your tough days. Because there will be tough days, I know that now.

While I’ve won some nice awards, I consider the acceptance of my first novel (Weird Little Robots (Candlewick, 2019)) my biggest success simply because I honestly thought I couldn’t do it.

It was incredibly challenging, but I amazed myself by actually completing and then selling the dang thing. I’m still gobsmacked.

I was able to do that by telling myself that even if this novel was never accepted, writing it was worth it. As a picture book author, I found the idea of spending so much time on a longer project daunting. But what if I just did it for the joy of writing and completing a novel? Of really throwing myself into a project for…fun?

5/14, “Edge of Tomorrow”

I put all thoughts of selling it aside and dived in with my whole heart. It was exhilarating, nerve-wracking, gut wrenching, and absolutely the highlight of my career.

I also have a motto, which I’m embarrassed to say I heard from Tom Cruise (yup!): “Keep your head down and do the work.”

If that means leaving Facebook for a while, do it. There will always be people more successful than you are. Big deal.

Just keep your head down and do the work.

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

I’d have a book signing party for my first book. I felt funny and shy about doing that way back in 1995, but I now realize I’ll never have a first book published ever again!

Overall, I’d celebrate more and agonize less.

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?

Picture books are much, much, shorter than they used to be when I started out. Back in the ’90s, you could get away with a 900 word picture book. Nowadays they’re usually about 500 words or less.

I’m often asked to trim something down so much that I’m left with a manuscript that’s mostly dialogue.

While I love splashy, gorgeously illustrated picture books, I also love and appreciate lyrical language. And yes,I know that the reader will understand a lot of what’s going on the through the pictures, but a few well-chosen words that are fun to say can only add value.

I’m a bit tired of snark. It’s so easy to do, and seems to have been done to death lately. In this political climate, I’d like to see a little less snark and a little more kindness.

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

Save some money from your advance and hire a publicist. They are not cheap but they’re worth it. I plan on using one for Weird Little Robots, my first novel that’s coming out with Candlewick in 2019. (And yes, I will be throwing myself a huge party!)

Like most writers, I dislike marketing and promoting intensely. I’d much rather spend my time writing my next book.

Also? Know that there will be many ups and downs in this career. If you manage to climb back up after being in a writing funk, remember how you did it so that you can do it again. Because you will be in a funk again. And again.

Know that it happens to everyone and that the people who stick with it are the ones who have strategies for pulling themselves out of that muck.

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

Courage to write the story they’re aching to write.

Courage to try a new genre.

Courage to write about what scares them.

And joy!

There’s nothing like that fizzy feeling you get after a good writing day. I would send gallons of that feeling to all my friends if I could.

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

I’d also like a healthy dose of courage to keep going in this topsy-turvy publishing environment.

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.


Guest Post: Carmela A. Martino on Pulling a Novel From the Drawer & Playing By Heart

By Carmela A. Martino

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If I’d known how long and difficult the path to publication would be for my new young adult novel, Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing, 2017), I might never have started down this road. The journey began when I set out to write a picture book biography of a little-known 18th-century female mathematician.

Long before entering the Vermont College MFA program, I’d been a computer programmer, and my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science. Yet I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history.

Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was fluent in seven languages, some say by age eleven. Later, she wrote the first math textbook that covered everything from basic arithmetic to the new-at-that-time science of calculus. The textbook brought her acclaim throughout Europe.

Intrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. 
After Candlewick published my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola in 2005, I submitted the biography to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Agnesi’s life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. 
She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. The Agnesi sisters both struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.

I took my editor’s advice and began writing a historical romance based on the Agnesi sisters. Researching not only their lives but the culture of Milan in the 1700s was rather daunting. 

I finally finished a rough draft in January 2009. 
The story was from the younger sister’s point of view. Having changed the family name to Salvini, my original title was “The Second Salvini Sister.” After numerous revisions, I finally sent a polished manuscript to my Candlewick editor in September 2011. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 SCBWI Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to Playing by Heart.

The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.

The contest success meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel.

The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her religious devotion and service to the poor, I thought a Catholic publisher might be interested. 

As it turned out, not all the publishers were Catholic, but none were a good fit for the biography. However, Vinspire Publishing was there accepting pitches for YA fiction. With nothing to lose, I pulled Playing by Heart out of the drawer.

Dawn Carrington, Vinspire’s editor-in-chief, liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Less than three months later, Dawn emailed to say she wanted to publish the manuscript!

Before signing a contract, I did my due diligence regarding the publisher. 

Vinspire is a small press based in South Carolina. They publish only paperback and ebook editions and they typically don’t pay an advance. They are not a Catholic publisher, but, as it says on their website: “. . . we are a family-friendly publisher, we do not allow extreme violence, any profanity, drug use or references to drug use, smoking, or the use of alcohol by minors, or sensuality or sex in our books.” 
After weighing the pros and cons of working with a small press, I signed the contract.

My experience with Vinspire led me to pitch the article “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” that will appear in the 2018 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books).

For the article, I interviewed three award-winning authors who share their advice and experiences working with small presses. Two of them are fellow VCFA alums Laura Atkins and Nancy Bo Flood.

When I held a copy of Playing by Heart for the first time, it really didn’t matter that it was published by a small press.

The book was beautiful.

That’s when I decided it had been worth the journey after all.

Cynsational Notes
See an interview with Carmela’s editor, Dawn Carrington, at Teaching Authors.
Carmela Martino’s middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick, 2005) was her creative thesis for the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. The novel went on to be named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.”

After the novel went out of print, she reissued a new edition with a revised cover and a Discussion Questions section. The new edition recently received a Catholic Press Association Book Award in the “Children’s Books” category.

She founded TeachingAuthors, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers, with several fellow Vermont College alums. She has taught writing classes at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL since 1998. Her current co-bloggers include alums Mary Ann Rodman, JoAnn Early Macken, and Bobbi Miller
Carmela’s credits for young readers also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM). She will have two articles in the 2018 CWIM: “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better” and an interview with bestselling author Carolyn Crimi, a member of Carmela’s Vermont College class.