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?
My first response to that question was . . . how can I talk about bumps? I have been so darned lucky! In 1976, the first novel I ever attempted to write was published, and in the more than forty years that have followed I’ve seen 100 more books into the light.
And yet, of course, there have been bumps.
I’ll talk about just one, though, the one I’ve found most important to overcome in order to “defy the odds.” That bump is isolation. Complete and utter isolation.
When I made the decision to take this writing habit seriously, to attempt actually to produce something publishable, I was a young mother and clergy wife living in Hannibal, Missouri.
In our society in that period—the 60s and 70s, a time of stay-at-home moms almost completely without support systems—motherhood was profoundly isolating.
Being a clergy wife then, when clergy wives were seen as their more important husband’s unpaid assistants, deepened the isolation and gave it a fish-bowl quality.
And living in Hannibal . . . well. I’ll say only that during the years I lived there I was aware of a Mark Twain roofing company and had tried Mark Twain fried chicken, but I knew no one else who was attempting to do the writing thing Mark Twain had made the town famous for. For that matter, I knew no other adult who had the smallest interest in children’s books.
What did I do with that isolation?
First, I found the Hannibal Public Library. I went back and forth and back and forth bringing home armloads of books. My children were young, so I was already filled to the brim with the picture books of the time, but I knew nothing of contemporary novels for young people. The novels of my own youth had come from my mother’s childhood home, most of them written in the nineteenth century.
At the library I encountered a shelf labeled Newbery. The Newbery Award had been around for a long time, of course, but I had never heard of it. The elementary school I attended didn’t even have a library of its own, and, of course, the English professors at the colleges where I studied never spoke of children’s literature. But I figured somebody liked these books, so I took some home . . . and I fell in love.
Not with the award—I still didn’t know what the Newbery Medal meant—but with the books those award committees had chosen.
I fell in love with what a children’s book can be, with the deep honesty those books demonstrated. I needed that kind of honesty to tell my stories, and I needed to know such honesty could be received before I could put my first words down on paper.
The second thing I did with that isolation was eventually to move to a larger, more literary community, Minneapolis/St. Paul. (Actually, my husband was called to a church there, and the children and I were part of the package, so that was another piece of luck.)
There I actually began to meet other writers, and equally important, I found opportunities to teach writing. I set out to teach other aspiring writers even though I had yet to be published myself except in the most minor ways.
Teaching broke through my isolation. At last writing wasn’t just some odd activity I did in a hidden corner of my house; it was something I could talk about with other adults. Teaching legitimized my own writing by bringing in family income, too. Money made my efforts serious, real, especially—and this is what mattered most—in my own mind.
Defining, again and again, what makes a manuscript work, explaining point of view and voice and story trajectory, examining the field I was entering and bringing my findings back to my students, I taught myself to write. I taught myself to write by writing, of course, but my process was energized, amplified, augmented by my teaching. In defining for others what makes a manuscript work, I learned how to make my own manuscripts work.
My teaching was part time—I have always been a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes—and after fifteen years of intense work on the writing side of the equation, I had published five novels.
Combining my teaching and writing income I had in all those years never come close to earning an income that would support me, but I left my marriage anyway, desperate to keep my writing front and center. I left with $2,000 in my pocket and not a clue where the next penny was coming from.
It was a bit like leaping out of the fourteenth floor of a burning building.
That was also the moment, completely coincidentally, that my novel On My Honor (Clarion, 1986) received the Newbery Honor award. (Both the timing and the fact of that award represent another enormous piece of luck.)
Receiving a Newbery Honor brought increased writing income for a time and also more opportunities to earn money by lecturing around the country. But always I continued to teach, because I needed the connection to other writers that teaching brought me.
I taught in many different adult-education venues in the Twin Cities, including the University of Minnesota and The Loft Literary Center, and spent my final teaching years in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts as one of the founders and the first Faculty Chair of their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
The teaching saved me. It made my career possible. It brought me out of my isolation. It gave me soulmates.
Few of the people close to me have ever understood or appreciated this compulsion that is writing, even after that writing began to show results. I empathize with them. It must be hard for non-writers to live with us.
My partner will sometimes say to me with just a touch of exasperation in her voice when we are riding in the car or sitting outside on the deck, “Are you writing?” But my students and my fellow teachers share my world without explanation or apology.
Of course, teaching isn’t something that comes naturally to every writer. I taught literature and composition both in college and high school before I turned to teaching writing to adults. But learning comes naturally to all of us, and in front of the class or in it, much the same is accomplished.
A chance to discover others who are on the same journey, to analyze the process, to evaluate others’ work and carry that evaluation back to our own. It’s the best way I know out of the isolation in which all writers exist while still serving our writing. Isolation is a part of our journey. Few of us could produce without it. But when the isolation grows too deep, it’s difficult to keep our bearings.
|Marion speaks with students at LoonSong.
I’ve retired from formal teaching through VCFA, but these days I have a once-a-year opportunity to return to the company of other writers and to the stimulation of teaching. It’s a writers’ retreat called LoonSong that meets on the shore of a pristine lake in the wilderness of northern Minnesota.
The retreat was created by National Book Award finalist and VCFA graduate, Debby Dahl Edwardson, and joining it each September is part of what keeps me “defying the odds.” LoonSong keeps me fresh and energized and connected.
My advice, find your own LoonSong or try ours or seek out an MFA program or a writers’ group or teach a class yourself. Isolation is a writer’s greatest hazard.
Bumps are less bumpy when navigated in company.
If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?
One thing. I would have found an agent, the right agent, and stayed with him or her.
In these days when most writers work through an agent because access is difficult if not impossible without one, the emphasis is not on agent-or-no-agent but rather on what makes the right agent.
I started out with an agent, a woman so long established in the field that I never met anyone who remembered a time before she was a fixture. She placed my early novels with a publisher who remained my publisher for many years and did little more for me.
I left her after two incidents. One, my editor said to me one day, “You know, Marion, A. has never done anything for you.”
Curious, I talked to an unagented writer publishing with the same house and discovered that she had been offered an escalation clause and I had not. Presumably my editor expected an agent to ask. Mine hadn’t.
The second, while I was still with that agent, I spent a couple of years working on an adult novel. She presented it to an editor at Random House who expressed interest but wasn’t yet ready to make an offer.
The editor had suggestions, though, and I revised. When we presented the novel again, however, the editor said, “Frankly, I liked the first version better.”
I lost faith, told my agent I was going back to children’s books, and did.
Later, too much later for me to be able to resurrect my energy for the adult novel, my agent made a comment to a friend who reported it to me. She said, “It’s too bad Marion put that novel aside. It would have been an important book.”
But she never said it to me!
I want two things from an agent: knowledge of what a reasonable contract should cover and complete and unflinching honesty.
I worked without an agent for many years after that. In fact, when discussions came up at Vermont College of Fine Arts, about agent or no agent, I always argued on the no-agent side. It’s hard enough to earn a living writing without having 15% skimmed off the top.
I have, in fact, over the years encouraged some of my friends to leave their agents, not because I didn’t think they should have one but because they complained so often about their agents’ failure to communicate.
And that is my third and perhaps my greatest requirement for an agent, communication.
I refuse to share my royalties with someone who pretends in between royalty checks that I don’t exist.
Why then did I decide, more than thirty years and many book sales later, that I needed an agent? And why do I regret not finding him or someone like him sooner?
The first and most obvious and probably least important reason is that my brain goes soft when I read contracts. Especially when the elements of contracts surrounding e-books were in flux I got overwhelmed. And I wanted not to have to think about it.
But there were more important factors, and these are the reasons for my regret.
In my early publishing years, things were pretty simple. You began with a certain house, and that was your publisher. Your first editor pretty much owned you and decided what kind of work you could publish. If you took a manuscript to another house, you were a whore.
My first editor told me, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer,” and therefore through those early years I could not be a picture book writer.
Eventually, rules changed, though, and I found access on my own to different publishers, large and small, and I began to sell different kinds of work. Board books, picture books, fiction and non-fiction early readers, non-fiction books on writing, novels. I found many open doors.
Why an agent, then?
Because one day I walked through one of those doors to an editor I had a good working relationship with and handed her a manuscript I loved. It was a serious literary story, a story about mortality, in fact. It was the first thing I wrote after my son’s death.
This editor’s list, however, was not meant to be serious and literary, and the book came out titled and jacketed to look light, even frivolous. Not only did the book miss its mark, but I received furious letters from teachers and librarians who had used the book as a read aloud, presuming it was just something fun. I knew they had a right to their fury (though I wondered at their not reading the book themselves before deciding to read it to their kids). I also knew I was not serving my work well.
Once I did sign on with an agent again, I discovered not only that having an objective eye on decisions about where a manuscript should go is a good thing but that there are a great many editors out there I had never met, a great many doors I wouldn’t have found on my own.
Had I had a good agent throughout my career, some things would have been different. Maybe they would have been important things, maybe just a better decision here or there. But I am grateful these days to have another mind, another perspective to support my own.
My agent, by the way, is Rubin Pfeffer and he is a dream. He spent many years on the editorial and administrative side of publishing. He knows the field and the people in it inside out and is known and respected in return.
He is always honest.
And he communicates!
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 most obvious change is that publishing has finally opened its doors to diversity, and long may that door stand open. The changes have been too slow to come, but now that they are coming I can’t imagine publishers/book sellers/writers/teachers ever backtracking on our commitment to producing and supporting books for the world as it is, not the world we once chose to acknowledge.
White writers are inevitably feeling the squeeze of that shift. We’re accustomed to the dance floor being ours alone. But while the transition is sometimes a difficult one for everyone, we are heading toward a good place. No, a great place.
I feel blessed to have been in this field long enough to witness such a profound awakening!
There is another shift, though, one that impacts all of us, though I seldom hear it mentioned. The number of books being published every year has grown exponentially.
In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind (Clarion), was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults. (Or what was being called YA in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)
In 2015, 15,032 children’s and YA books were published. That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.
Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.
And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Amazon.com. Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.
All seeking buyers.
In this market, fine books emerge every day only to slip into oblivion. With so many more books being published, I presume it is growing easier to bring our books into the light of day, but it is definitely getting more difficult to get them noticed once they are out there.
What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?
|Cynthia Leitich Smith & Marion Dane Bauer.
Ah . . . advice to the self. I wonder if I would have taken it.
Relax more. Don’t quit working, but take more breaks.
Laugh more. Truth can sometimes be told better with laughter.
Exercise a whole lot more. Don’t take your strength and mobility for granted. (This from someone about to enter her ninth decade.)
What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?
Just more wonderful, thoughtful, funny, entertaining, sad, truthful books. Write them. Read them. Love them. Share them.
As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?
Every now and then I read an obit in the Authors Guild Bulletin that says, “He was writing a few hours before he died.”
That’s the way I want to go. Writing and reading every single day until it’s time to say good bye!
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.
Marion Dane Bauer is a co-founder of LoonSong.
LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.
Faculty include children’s-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event.
See more on the faculty. Peek:
“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations.
“An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life.”
LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location. Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty.
“…a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course.”
Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available (thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge).