Survivors: Brent Hartinger on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Brent Hartinger.

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 (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?

Oh boy, this is such a great topic!

There’s so much discussion of getting published, but much less about staying that way, and making a living over the long-term. I also love that it’s a reoccurring feature, because I’ve loved reading what others have had to say on this topic, too.

First, I completely agree that maintaining a career is as much a challenge as getting published in the first place. And, weirdly, I think it boils down to control. Or, more specifically, the lack of it.

Nutshell? We writers don’t control how our projects are received. But I think that lack of control is something writers need to accept.

I’m a multi-hybrid author — part screenwriter, part traditional novelist, part self-publisher. And all these mediums and platforms allow different degrees of author input, and in all of them, the writer always has control over what he or she writes in the first place.

No one can force you to write anything. Even in screenwriting, you can leave a project you truly don’t agree with the direction it’s taking (or at least have your name taken off of it, if you still want to get paid).

So yeah, we have control in that respect.

But ultimately, no one can predict or control how a project will be received by the world. Art is literally an “art,” not a science. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: no one knows anything.

When it comes to books, even reviews and awards are not good predictors of sales or financial success,

I think this simple fact is what drives most writers crazy, and what burns so many people out.

Well, that and the unrelenting rejection, but the two things are related.

People want predictability, but it doesn’t exist in the arts.

In my own career, I’ve had projects that I thought were some of the best work I’ve ever done, and they didn’t sell well — a few times, they didn’t even sell to publishers! They never saw the light of day. Some probably weren’t as good as I thought, but I still think others were. Others were published, but just fell through the cracks.

Of course, I’ve also had a few hits, but those aren’t necessarily the projects I think are my best.

This is the story of almost every long-term author I know.

So when it comes to a long-term career, the lack of control really is the thing to be reckoned with. Successful debut novelists may not understand this, because they obviously think they’re work is good, and it was successful, so naturally the system must reward good work.

Sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So many things are as important, or more important, than the book itself: things like past sales, current trends, your relationship with industry insiders (or your editor and publisher’s relationship with industry insiders!).

It’s hard to overstate how important timing is to a project’s success. But since no one can predict the future, and because books take so damn long to produce, timing is something we writers have — you guess it! — almost no control over.

At best, we can hope to catch a wave, which is what I did with my first book, Geography Club (Harper, 2003). It was a big hit, and I remember thinking at the time, “Authors always complain about how hard it is to get attention for your book, but that’s not true. It’s easy!”

Woo boy! What I didn’t know then could fill a library.

Honestly, the more time I spend in this industry, the more real breakout success mostly seems like random chance to me.

That’s hard for some people to accept. It’s been hard for me to accept!

People don’t talk about this very much. The American ideal is that we’re in charge of our own destinies. We all control our own fates. If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded! And in almost every non-artistic field, I think this is true.

Not so much for us artists. And there’s definitely something to be said for just accepting this reality.

It’s kind of a “zen” thing. It can save you a lot of heartache.

But lest someone think I’m all depressed and hopeless, let me hasten to add I don’t think that means artists are powerless. We can’t control how our books are received, but we can still find control in other areas.

For me, that’s meant being nimble and adaptable as a writer. Whenever my novel-writing career flagged, I’d turn to writing screenplays. Once when I couldn’t seem to get a traditional publishing deal, I tried self-publishing (to pretty great success, I might add!).

I think the secret to my career is that I’ve diversified.

I dedicated myself to a life of writing fiction decades ago, and I have never wavered from that. But my career goals have never ever ever been about any “one” project, or genre, or medium.

I’m lucky that I actually enjoy writing so many different kinds of projects.

And when things got tough financially, I sometimes did half-steps over into writer-adjacent careers. I taught writing for a year (at your invitation, Cyn!), and even once co-founded a website that we ended up selling to Viacom (for some very big bucks, thank you very much). But don’t try this today.

As usual, it was all about timing.

Basically, I’ve tried to stay true to my career goals, even as I’ve stayed open to all kinds of possibilities.

I found control in other areas too, but I’ve obviously blathered on way too long on this, the very first question!

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

Regrets? Yeah, I’ve had a few.

I said before that we artists have to accept that we don’t have much, or any, control over how our projects are received. But I also said that doesn’t mean we’re completely powerless. Here are ways I had control over my writing career, but I didn’t know it until after it was too late.

If I had to do it over again, I’d stick to one genre for at least my first three books (and/or write under a pen name). Or I’d write a series! Geez, why didn’t I do that?

Anyway, I’d establish myself as a crystal clear brand.

Your brand is your single greatest marketing tool, and you’re probably an idiot if you squander it and blur it all to hell, as I have done repeatedly. This is an area where my eagerness to write in different genres has really hurt me, I think.

Second, I’ve let people treat me poorly. Agents and editors, I mean. It’s important not to be a diva — that might be even more of a career-killer than being a doormat, and I do see diva behavior among successful authors (although mostly it’s the middling-successful ones). But in my case, I’ve been much more likely to be the doormat than the diva.

I say now that if something feels off with an agent or editor, give it a year, maybe two. That’s a long time. If it still isn’t working out, there’s probably something fundamentally bad going on, so make a break.

Yeah, yeah, I know that it’s terrifying to leave an agent with no one else lined up. But just do it, okay?

A bad or unenthusiastic agent really is worse than no agent. I’ve signed nine screenwriting options in my life, and contracts for at least ten books, and exactly none of them were the result of an unenthusiastic agent. They were all either the result of a passionate advocate, or I basically hustled up the deals myself and brought them to my reps.

(Incidentally, I’ve never been happier with my representation than I am right now, Uwe Stender at TriadaUS.)

Anyway, as much as possible, surround yourself with people you’re passionate about, and who are passionate about you.

There’s one other mistake that I don’t think I’ve made, but I think a lot of writers do. For long-term success, it’s really, really important to learn the craft. But when I say learn the craft, I mean really learn the craft.

In the short run, quirkiness and gimmicks can totally get you a book deal. This is a creative industry, and all creative industries totally turn on gimmicks and quirks — and every now and then, some writers even take real risks and make actual artistic steps forward. This is literally how a lot of books and movies get attention for themselves, by feeling like something fresh and different. That’s how you break out, so naturally that’s what publishers have a keen eye for.

But gimmicks and quirks will only get you so far, especially after that first book.

Unless you can come up with another equally good gimmick, you’re eventually going to have to prove yourself as an actual writer. Because that’s what will sustain a career.

No matter how funny your quips or beautiful your prose, after a book or two, it will start to seem like you’re repeating yourself.

I’ve always been fascinated by plot and structure. It’s why I was originally drawn to screenwriting.

I’m not always sure critics and award committees care very much about plot and structure, but I think readers and audiences do. So learn it, along with voice, and theme, and characterization. And learn how to take criticism and revise.

I think I can tell a pretty good story. You know, with a coherent theme, and a beginning, a middle, and an ending that is somehow both unexpected and satisfying?

Books and movies like this aren’t as common as you’d think. But I do think story still matters, at least a little.

Anyway, I’d like to think the fact that I can tell one is part of the reason why I’m still selling books and screenplays after twenty years.

And while you’re at it, learn discipline. I know there are mercurial types that manage to create and sustain long careers in the arts despite being unable to keep to a schedule or deadline. More power to ’em!

But I think my own writing life has been made much easier by being disciplined and self -motivated. I’ve never missed a deadline, and never will. Everyone says I’m a good reviser. I’d like to think editors and agents appreciate all this.

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?

Oh, the increased diversity, obviously. It’s so fantastic, and so overdue. Like everyone, I’m worried it’s a “trend” not a “change,” but it’s started to feel more like a sea change these past few years.

I guess I was sort of a pioneer in LGBT YA fiction (back in the early ’00s, when I caught that first wave), and it blows my mind how diverse that sub-genre has become.

With all the bullcrap I went through, I would not have predicted it.

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

Relax. Realize the experience with your first book will be a predictor of absolutely nothing, that every book is different, and you can’t control almost any of it, but that’s okay because it’ll all probably work out in the end.

No single thing is as important as you think it is at the time, and that’s true of everything from bad reviews to major awards.

Oh, and GoodReads! Please ignore that completely. It’s for readers, not writers, and it doesn’t matter anyway. The same goes for all those “best of” lists that the YA world loves so much.

Basically, try not to panic so much.

But it probably wouldn’t matter if I had given that advice to myself, because being published is so weird, so completely bizarre, that there’s no way to prepare for it. It’s like trying to prepare for parenthood. Or sex. Or death.

You can’t know it, or understand it, until you do it. (And now I’m being pretentious, aren’t I?)

I guess I would say this though: If you’re lucky enough to find real success, try really, really hard to enjoy it as much as possible. Because it might not happen again for a while.

Oh! And absolutely don’t compare your book or your degree of success to other authors. That is absolutely the worst trap you can possibly fall into. No matter what your level, there will always be someone more successful, more lauded, so you’re completely doomed to always feel bad about yourself, to feel like the world isn’t “fair.”

I said before that artistic success is mostly random?

Well, the downside to that is that it’s mostly random. But the upside is that eventually you’ll have your time in the spotlight.

Probably.

At least if you follow my other advice about trying to relax and be zen, not being a diva, learning the craft, and surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about you and your work.

It also helps to have something to say. I hope that goes without saying. Ha!

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

Well, it sounds funny at a time when everyone is talking about opening YA up to college-age characters, but I kinda wish the genre would focus more on actual teen readers. I get that a lot of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings love YA, and I’m always happy when anyone is passionate about my books or the genre I write in. Plus, it’s cool that a genre I like is culturally relevant.

But if I’m honest, it feels like a lot of authors are already basically writing twentysomething characters, and just calling it YA. They say things like, “Teens are really sophisticated these days!” Which is true, but isn’t really the point.

The issues teens face are different than the issues twentysomethings face, and the sensibility is different too. It sometimes feels like twentysomething readers have overwhelmed the genre. It’s a little like how female authors of gay male romance have turned gay fiction into something different than fiction for and about gay men.
But that’s definitely a longer discussion.

Anyway, that’s my wish. That more YA authors would pay more attention to actual teen readers, and less to twentysomething book bloggers.

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

My goal has always been to support myself as a writer of fiction, and I’ve managed to do that for twenty years now. I’m really proud of that fact. I’ve even had mortgages!

I also love that I’ve developed a passionate following, even if it may not be massive. I really do have the world’s best fans.

But I confess that before I die, I’d love one huge, splashy, unqualified, culturally relevant break-out success. Is that selfish?

Anyway, in the meantime, my husband and I sold our house, and now we’re traveling the world for several years.

We started in Seattle, and we’re in Miami now until May when we’re moving to London for the summer and fall. After that, we’re not sure, but New Zealand, Thailand, and Costa Rica are all on the table to live in eventually.

Which I actually think is relevant to this whole discussion about finding lasting success in a writing career. Here’s the real secret. Work your hardest, do your damnedest, learn from your mistakes, and never give up.

But then? Accept that after that, some things really are ultimately out of your control. And then go out and live your best possible life, trying as hard as possible to be happy.

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.

Survivors: Martine Leavitt on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Martine Leavitt.

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 (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 had to think for a minute when I read the word career. Had I really had a career in writing? And if it wasn’t a career, what was it?

Certainly, it was something much more demanding, insistent and darker than a hobby. It had elements of an addiction, though it had no physiological symptoms. It might have come close to a calling, though one is leery of blaming everything on God.

It has seemed to me that career had the connotation of something slightly more refined that a job – newspaper delivery, for example, is a job, but it wouldn’t be a career because it doesn’t pay that well and doesn’t seem to offer a whole lot in the way of advancement.

Per hour, my writing has probably paid me about the same as a newspaper delivery person. And it hasn’t offered much in the way of promotions. Maybe my writing was a job?

So I looked it up, and it appears that a career is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life.” So, yes, that would be me. If you count the beginning of my career from the publication of my first book, I’ve been in the business for 26 years.

I suppose that is rather a commitment.

The thing is, I made choices at every juncture of my life that narrowed my options until the saying became true for me: I’m a writer because I can’t do anything else.

When I became a single parent of six children and had no education beyond high school, I enrolled in university. I could be practical and study nursing, or I could study English literature. Literature won out. After completing my undergrad degree, I could choose to attend law school, or I could get an MFA in writing. The MFA won out. After graduating, I could work as an editor for a technology company and make a very good salary, or I could teach college, and make… well, good memories. College won out.

If I’ve been hanging on by my financial fingernails, I’ve nobody to blame but myself.

One could say, “What a miracle to have always done what you loved! No matter you were paid less than a newspaper delivery person! You have taken joy in every minute of your work as a storyteller and teacher! Yes, you gambled on the big advance that never came, but oh well!”

One could say that. One often has.

But that is a rather big “oh well.” I think any young writer reading this should be made aware.

If you are like me, you may one day come to a point, 26 years into a respected career, and face up to the fact that you weren’t able to help your children get their educations, that they may be paying off student loan debt well into their forties. You will be adept at the little prayer one offers to the car gods, asking that the old gal makes it one more day. You will watch “House Hunters” and realize you will never know the peculiar and life-changing joy that seems to come with a new kitchen makeover.

You may one day realize your friends are all looking at retirement, and there shall be no retirement for you. You will work until you drop into the grave.

It’s only fair to warn you.

On the other hand, what a way to go.

Some writers make so much money they don’t have to care what anybody thinks about their stories.

Some writers made so little money they don’t have to care what anybody thinks about their stories.

I have been among the latter. I have had the freedom to write the stories I wanted, the stories that felt like truth. That is not to say that I disparage a good review – Lord knows they have been my consolation.

But I have had the privilege of writing what I needed to write, saying what I needed to say, playing my brains out, and putting whatever graffiti I wanted on the wall of the universe.

My work is witness. That is the only success I can truly say I own, but I own it with my whole soul.

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

If I had been more self-promoting, I would have sold more books. On the other hand, if I’d been busy doing that, I may not have been at my writing notebook one quiet morning when the most important revelation of the book came.

The truth is, some writers do the world a favor by not foisting themselves on their reading public. Some writers do better to just stay home and shut up, let the work speak for itself.

Well, thank goodness we can’t go back in time and change the past, fix all the bad stuff that happens to us…. It would be like extreme plastic surgery of the soul, erasing all the mistakes we made, avoiding all the pain and disappointment… we’d become infantile, without moral fibre, without capacity for compassion or judgment… they’d have to build institutions for the care of those who had no self-context…

It might become trendy to have a life without alterations… of course, that would drain some of the tragedy out of things… I’ll stop now.

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?

Yoko Ono, 2007; photo by Aleksandr Plyushchev

I saw an interview with Yoko Ono once. She was asked, “To what do you attribute the extraordinary success of The Beatles?”

People have written doctoral theses about the success and phenomenon that was The Beatles, so I was intrigued to think what she might say.

She answered simply, “They wrote good songs.” Ultimately, that’s what it comes to: they wrote good songs.

In the field and body of literature, trends will come and go. Long ago it used to be that kidlit was considered a sneaky way to indoctrinate children. We eventually became appalled by such an approach. But now I worry that we are creeping once again toward an ideology in which books for young people are expected to teach correct cultural practice.

Kids don’t care much about the field and body of literature. They don’t want to be manipulated. In the end, for them, it’s all about a good story. An honest story.

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

Sometimes put your pen down and close your eyes and practice radical empathy. Be that character, that homeless boy, that teenaged prostitute, that schizophrenic boy.

Inhabit their bodies, know their souls.

Then open your eyes and respect your reader.

Give your young readers a multiverse to dream in.

What would I tell my beginner self?

Just tell a good story. If you do, even a non-existent retirement plan isn’t going to bother you for long.


Cynsational Notes 

Announcing Martine Leavitt’s New Official Author Website! See her thoughts on writing fantasy, novels in verse, voice, grammar, theme, metaphor and finding time to write.

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.

Survivors: Barry Lyga on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Barry Lyga.

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 (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?

When you first invited me to be a part of this amazing series, I warned you that my schedule meant I would have to come late in the process. The problem with that, of course, is that the folks who’ve come before me have made so many powerful points with such clarity and perspicacity that I fear I have nothing worth contributing.

Fortunately, that’s never stopped me from running my mouth anyway.

I wish I knew how I’ve made it this far. I mean, I have my suspicions and some ideas, but nothing confirmed. It’s not the sort of conversation you can have with people like editors and publishers without sounding like you’re fishing for a compliment. “Hey, why do you think I’m so long-lived? Feel free to use words like ‘genius,’ ‘compelling,’ and ‘devastatingly handsome’ in your response.”

I think that it comes down a few things, though.

First of all, I have an agent who is an absolute pit bull when it comes to my career. It takes a lot to make her give up on a project of mine.

We just recently made a deal to have one of my books turned into a movie in Korean — that deal took three years of her life and many, many midnight conference calls to Seoul. I would have given up somewhere in the first year. She never did.

She’s also willing to hang on for the ride when I decide to go from, say, literary coming-of-age fiction to superhero novels. It doesn’t faze her and she’s fine with it. She’s never tried to cram me into a box or constrain my writing.

Before I signed with her (13 years ago!), I said to her, “I may not always write this kind of book. Are you okay with that?” and she responded, “If you write it, I’ll sell it.”

She’s been as good as her word all these years. So my takeaway there is: agents matter. A lot.

Then there’s the writing itself. I’m not the greatest writer in the world, but I’m good enough that publishers seem interested in seeing what I can do for them. I’ve been given opportunities to try new things because Publisher X or Y looks at my work and thinks, “Hey, I wonder what he could do if we gave him some slack in the rope?”

And there’s me. I’m not the easiest person to work with, but I have a couple of things going for me: first, I’m a really fast writer. That’s a reputation that has, I believe, helped me immensely, especially for certain projects that require fast turnarounds.

Second, I think the things I tend to raise a stink over are things that publishers find it easy to either surrender on or work around.

Finally, at the risk of sounding immodest, I tend to turn in first drafts that don’t need a huge amount of revision. I don’t think I’ve ever gone beyond two rounds of revision and often only need one.

This makes it easier to work with me and means less stress for the publisher…which can compensate a lot for lackluster sales or my persnickety attention to details that no one else cares about.

And lastly, this: In a 12-year career, I’ve missed exactly one deadline. And even then, it was only by a week.

You add this all up and I think publishers look at me and think, “We know the book will come in on time, in decent shape, and it will sell a certain base level. Sometimes, he gets lucky and knocks one out of the park, but at the very least, his work usually gets good reviews.”

And in publishing, a wildly inconsistent industry where it’s anyone’s guess how a book will sell or how readers will react to it, that means a lot.

I’m not a sure thing, but I’m a relatively safe gamble. I’m a known quantity. And I’m professional AF.

As to bumps… Sometimes it feels like this business is all bumps, but that’s okay— smooth roads are boring. Truly, every single book I’ve published has had some kind of drama attached to it.

My very first book was supposed to get a great review by a well-known media personality in a highly regarded newspaper (how’s that for being cagey?).

It was dropped because it turns out the personality and I had a mildly personal connection that made him feel uncomfortable reviewing the book. That same book was supposed to get end-cap exposure at a major retail chain, but the person who issued the command to do so left the company…and the replacement never saw the memo.

Who knows what might have happened with that book if one or both of those things had happened?

And yet… And yet that book did really well! For a little while there, it was outselling Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005). (The one and only time in my life I can say I outsold John!)

The biggest bumps come from within, though, which sounded pithy when I first typed it, but looks oddly medical now.

Anyway, the second-guessing and stressing and constant internal battles over whether or not to push your publisher on this or that are the worst. They outweigh any external bumps in the road because they’re under your control and yet that doesn’t make them less potent — it makes them more potent.

You make your decision and then you realize that you can’t take it back and you’ll never really, truly know if it was the right decision, and you only have yourself to blame.

I was raised Catholic. Can you tell?

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

There’s a temptation to say “Nothing.” After all, even my mistakes led to my present situation, which — while not what I expected or planned for — is pretty damn good. And even though I can identify certain moments in retrospect where I wince at my past self, who’s to say that “fixing” those moments wouldn’t somehow backfire and put me in a worse situation than the one I’m currently in?

Still, let’s respect the question and think on this. Truthfully, I think the biggest thing I would do differently is this: I would have either not written my third book — Hero Type (HMH Books, 2009) — or I would have written it very differently.

It’s not that it’s a bad book and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that after Boy Toy (HMH Books, 2007), I had a certain reputation and there were certain expectations.

Boy Toy sold horribly. I have to be sure to mention that — it just absolutely tanked in the market. But it got a lot of critical attention and I didn’t know that it had tanked until a year later, when I got my first royalty statement.

So, I had this rep as the guy who wrote a very ballsy book about male victims of molestation, a graphic, unsparing account. And I followed it up with a political treatise, which is not what people wanted or expected.

The problem was that I was very much in a mode of thinking that went like this: If I do what people expect, then I’m falling into a trap in which I have to care more about what the reader wants than what I want. And that means that I end up in this very special hell in which I’m trying to second-guess not just readers, but the readers of a year or two hence, when the book I’m writing will come out.

So I decided to “teach” readers to expect the unexpected from me. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have made that third book so radically different from the second.

I might also have not been quite so prolific. Don’t get me wrong — I love my books and I’m glad I wrote them.

But one time I was bemoaning that no one seemed to be excited about my new book and my wife said, “You had a new book out nine months ago, too. You never went away, so people don’t get the chance to miss you.”

There’s a truth to that. If you have books coming out constantly, well, familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it sometimes midwives apathy.

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? 

I think YA is in the process of changing from marketing category-cum-genre into a political movement. I can’t think of another example of this sort of transmogrification in the art-space and I’m very curious to see where it leads.

That’s right now, though. Over the past dozen years, I’ve watched as YA went from “no one’s watching — let’s have fun!” to “Everyone is watching. Let’s do whatever it takes to make lots of money.”

It’s very weird. My first publisher went to great pains to tell me that she didn’t care what my book sold when it came out — she cared about what it would sell over ten or twenty years. She wanted something with that sort of longevity.

I think publishers still want that kind of longevity, but they want a big opening weekend, too. They want a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s very different than how it used to be.

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


Find a level of social media engagement that is sustainable for you in the long term.

It’s easy to get caught up in the relative fame of social media in the beginning and to spend way too much time on it…which then sets people up with the expectation that this is how you will always be on social media.

But the fact of the matter is that social media is like anything else, where you get bored or you drift away for a little while, which inevitably disappoints people.

Also: Come up with a plan for a newsletter that is, again, sustainable in the long-term. I’ve launched and relaunched mine something like four times.

I haven’t figured out the formula yet for timeliness and interest combined with what I’m capable of doing on a regular basis.

Lastly: Enjoy this! This is your dream come true (in part, at least), to launch a publishing career.

There are a million disappointments coming your way, but try to bat them aside and enjoy the many, many thrilling and unexpected surprises that will surface as well.

It’s easy to get distracted by the business stuff, and I’m not saying to ignore that — you do so at your peril! — but make time to sit back and bask in the fact that, yes, this is happening!

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

Great books. Diverse books. Books that challenge. An industry that finds a way to support smaller titles that may not ever sell in the millions, but deserve a bigger audience than what they have.

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

Little, Brown, 2017

Is it crass to say “More sales?” Probably. But at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Not merely from a gross money standpoint, but rather from the perspective of proving to publishers that it’s okay to keep taking a risk with me.

Yeah, every book sold is money in my pocket, but more importantly it says, “Hey, keep publishing this guy!”

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to keep publishing books.

I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me — they’re going to be really boring if I can’t tell people stories.

Oh, and a good night’s sleep. That would be awesome.

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.

Survivors: K.L. Going on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about K.L. Going.

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?

For me, it has been all about adaptation. Allowing myself to write in a broad array of genres has helped me to remain active as a writer.

This was definitely something I needed to give myself mental permission to do since the “formula” for success (if there is one!) is to write a series, or at the very least, produce the same sort of book so your readers know what to expect and you can build a strong, core audience. You can then create a marketing brand that sells you and your work. But that was never going to be me, and at a certain point I needed to let go of that ideal.

My biggest hurdle was adapting to parenthood, which completely changed not only the amount of time available for my writing, but also the quality of that time. Once I had my son, I no longer had long, quiet stretches of time, but rather short bursts.

Writing picture books is a long-term process (sometimes I work on a picture book for years), but each individual work session can be shorter. Writing novels takes me longer to get into the mind-set and to reach the point where I can write new material.

When Ashton was young, I was reading picture books aloud to him, so I was immersed in that world, but I stopped having time to read full-length novels. The realities of my life changes meant that I was ready to make a shift in what I was producing.

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

I was working on Pieces of Why (Kathy Dawson Books, 2015) when I got pregnant. I didn’t push myself to finish it before my son was born because I had very unrealistic expectations about how soon I’d get back to writing.

I had no idea the ways that being a mom would change the course of my life!

If I could go back, I would have pushed myself harder during that pre-baby time period because it was a really long while before I felt ready to write again.

For writers, our primary tool is our brain and for my brain to work at its best, I need to be well-rested, focused, and immersed in the alternate world I’m creating.

Once my son was born, well-rested went out the window, focus was a thing of the past, and I didn’t want to leave the world I lived in because I was so damn happy with my amazing little baby!

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?

I think the biggest change is, of course, social media. Most writers, myself included, have a love/hate relationship to social media. On the one hand, it allows us a bit more control over our marketing, so even if we’re not one of the big name writers on a publishers list who can garner a lot of the publicity department’s time, we can still work on our own to get the word out about our books. On the other hand, marketing isn’t something many of us enjoy.

When I first started out, it was a big deal that I simply had a website. I had certain fun features I’d update periodically, but there was not any expectation that there would be new material every week or every few days. There was no Twitter or Instagram. It took very little of my mental energy.

(Beach Lane, 2017)

But over the years, social media venues have bred like rabbits and it’s hard not to get caught up in each new trail, not knowing which ones will pan out in the long run.

It’s too easy to spend all of your creative energy on coming up with clever or prolific posts instead of writing new books.

These days, there’s a much higher demand to do marketing well.

Also, feedback on your books comes instantly from many sources and it’s detailed. It feels personal.

In the past, there was a general sense of a book’s reception, but there wasn’t that kind of instant reaction from Joe Smith in Washington, D.C. who gave your book a certain number of stars.

General feedback is wonderful because it can help improve your writing skills for future books, but specific feedback can feel disproportionately important even when it shouldn’t really have any impact at all.

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

(Beach Lane, 2017)

Allow yourself more grace than you think you deserve.

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

Being a writer can be a scary career choice. You have no benefits, no job security, no retirement, and you pay your own taxes.

Not everyone can manage to pull that off long-term, and I fear that a lot of voices are silenced because of these realities.

People who don’t have enough money to sustain themselves get to roll the dice once (maybe twice) to see if your book makes it to that top echelon of the best-seller list, and if it does you’re set, but it’s a very small minority of writers who make it.

If your book doesn’t become a bestseller and you don’t have outside income, then you probably won’t choose to continue writing as a career.

There’s a lot of conversation within publishing about wanting to attract minority writers into the field, but very few of those conversations focus on the economic realities of being a writer because money tends to be a taboo subject. But I do think it plays a part in who can afford to continue publishing and who can’t.

It isn’t just skin-color that makes someone a minority voice. There are also economically marginalized people who could speak about very different ways of living within our country.

I don’t have any answers to these problems.

Is there a way to make writing and publishing into the kind of job that would offer long-term security?

Or will it always come down to who can afford to pay their own health care and invest in their own retirement, either because they are independently wealthy, have a spouse who can offer those economic benefits, or they hit it big?

I guess what I’d wish for in the future would be a health care system that works for everyone so we could take away one of the biggest roadblocks to self-employment.

That would be a great step forward.

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

I’ve been writing a screenplay adaptation of my picture book, Dog in Charge, which I’m really excited about. I hope it sells!

And there is also a Broadway version of Fat Kid Rules the World in the works.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed about both projects.

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.

Survivors: Arthur Slade on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Arthur Slade (here at a comic con).

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 (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?

It’s curious. I always envisioned the writer’s life as reaching a series of plateaus: First publication. First bestseller. First American book deal (I’m a Canadian). First International deal. And I believed that I would just keep climbing that imaginary literary ladder.

But as I look back on the last twenty years it’s really more of an up and down process.

My fourth book Dust (Wendy Lamb, 2003) brought me awards [including the Governor General’s Literary Award] and sales and an American deal (selling somewhere over 60,000 copies in the first few months). But my next book only sold half that amount. The follow up to that sold somewhere between the two.

I then penned a series called The Hunchback Assignments (Wendy Lamb, 2009 – 2012) and received a six figure deal and sold the rights to several countries. Success again!

But the last two books in that series didn’t sell as well as the first two, which meant the next time publishers looked at my work they’d take those sales numbers into account. And that meant not being able to find an American publisher.

So to replace that income, I concentrated on self-publishing my books that were out of print and original work (I have a fun self published series for YA/New Adult called Amber Fang: Librarian Assassin Vampire.. (Dava Enterprises, 2016) I’m really pleased with the reaction to it so far).

So that ladder I’d envisioned is more of a Snakes-and-Ladders type scenario. Or one of those video games where you step on a riser and go up. And on the next one you go down. And the next one drops you in a lava pit. Thankfully authors have nine lives!

I think my successful moments come because I’m willing to adapt, and not afraid of putting on a salesperson’s hat. That’s why I once rented a 1930s era movie theatre to launch my silent film era book Flickers (HarperCollins Canada, 2016). I sent a notice out to schools and packed the theatre with 500 kids. Every parent got a link to buy the book.

Or I’ll willingly throw myself at Kickstarter to produce a graphic novel. Or voice audiobook versions of my books. And I’ve spent far too many hours learning to understand Facebook/Bookbub/Amazon advertising and developing subscribers to my newsletter.

All of those efforts help to fill in the blanks when a book doesn’t do as well as I’d like it to.

And, of course, the most important thing is to create a book that I’d be happy to read myself. And proud of.

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

If I was wise, I’d only write in one genre and become known for that. I’m one of those odd writers who loves writing history novels, fantasy, science fiction, horror, realistic novels and even a bit of nonfiction. But each time I switched genres, a large portion of my audience didn’t follow me. I had to keep re-introducing myself (or my work, I should say) to readers.

Also, I’d have worked harder to save money. Not that I’m a big spender, but this is certainly an amazingly precarious industry in terms of income. When publishers only pay you every six months (or divide your advances into three or four payments, ugh!) then it is hard to plan.

With self-publishing, at least you get paid every month, but the difficulty is getting that amount to be a liveable amount.

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?

Ebooks are the obvious big change, though for middle grade and lower writers it had a much smaller impact (kids still read paper books!). It was a much bigger splash in the YA market.

What I like about them is that, with self-publishing, writers now have more choice and, arguably, more power. We can choose to step away from traditional publishers altogether. Or to become hybrid authors (like myself). That is not a choice we really had when I was starting out (not without a huge financial investment and a lot of hand selling of self-pubbed books).

The other change is that the market has become ever more numbers oriented. It’s always been that way, but it is much harder for the middle-of-the-road authors to be successful. Publishers just don’t have the financial patience to wait for a good author to write that next hit.

This is an advantage to newcomers because they do get a closer look (though partially because publishers know they can pay them less).

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

Look carefully at your genre and whether or not you can be successful with a traditional publisher or by self-publishing.

And, if you do sign a contract, make sure it’s a good one.

The rights we give up as authors can be “exploited” in so many ways—audiobooks, graphic novels, movies—that you really want to keep as many of your rights as possible.

And be sure that there are clear terms as to when the rights return to you.

We are in a glorious time where it is relatively easy to create audiobooks, special print-on-demand editions of our work, even T-shirts with our sayings on them.

So I’d suggest not aiming to make your money from one source (RE a publisher) but from several “trickle down” sources.

It will help your bottom line overall.



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

Arthur at a school visit.

Happiness and no writer’s block!

In an ideal world, I’d love all these fresh young writers and even the not-so-fresh writers (like me) to meet our financial and literary goals. And be able to put our feet up once in awhile and read each other’s work. Sounds glorious!


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

A yacht. Wait, what would I do with that on the prairie?

Actually, just a clear three or four hours a day, uninterrupted, to write. That would be heaven.

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.

Relaunching a Bestselling Series: Trying to Hit #1 from Arthur Slade. Peek:

“So Mission Clockwork won the title bout. It seems counter-intuitive to give up all the years of website mentions, reviews, etc that feature The Hunchback Assignments. But these would be new readers I was targeting about a series they’d never seen before.”

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

Learn more about Lisa Wheeler.

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 (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 think the biggest bump (aside from pre-publication days when I was gathering all my rejections) came during the recession.

I know I am not alone in this.

During that time, I had one editor retire and two leave for other houses. This made selling a manuscript even more difficult, and it seemed everything I wrote for about five years (except for the Dino-Sports series with CarolRhoda which continued throughout this time period) got rejected.

I was fortunate to have that series during that dry spell because it gave me deadlines and I still felt like a “real” writer.

I also took a writing job for Pearson. I wrote four short stories for use in our state testing program. These were pay-per-project, but I didn’t think twice about taking the job. The money was decent and it kept my brain occupied while also allowing me to be creative.



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

Hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it? I wish I hadn’t stressed so much. I wish I would’ve believed more in myself and my abilities.

I tend to turn inward when things go wrong and point fingers of blame at myself, my talent, etc.

In truth, looking back, lots of writers had trouble selling during this time. It was a market thing, combined with being orphaned at three publishing houses.

I should have listened to my agent who kept assuring me that things would turn around. He was right!

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?



I have seen picture books get shorter and flashier.

I used to tell the folks who participated in my Picture Book Boot Camps that they had to keep their word count at 1000 or less. Now I advise keeping it below 500.

I also think that social media has played a huge part in making some books very successful. People are celebrities now because they have an online presence.

Twenty years ago, the internet was a new world and I never foresaw how it would change our world.
I am uncomfortable with all the social media showy marketing stuff and actually have mini panic attacks when I try to sit in on workshops about this topic. It’s all so out of my comfort zone.


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

Hire someone to handle your social media.


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



As always, I wish them successful careers and many book sales.

I also hope that children’s books will continue to be made with real paper.

With Deb Aronson and Lisa Rose at Book Beat in Oak Park, MI.

I love that this medium allows families to take their eyes away from the screens, experience the feel and smell of real printed books, see art that isn’t backlit, slow down, ask questions, discuss story. . .oh, all things I recall from reading aloud to my kids when they were small.

Such a precious memory!

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

Like I tell the kids, I will continue to write books until my brain or body breaks down. I hope neither thing happens anytime soon.

I love my job!

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: Mari Mancusi on A Once and Future Book

Mari Mancusi pulls the sword from the stone.

By Mari Mancusi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Fourteen years ago, when I began my publishing journey, I was under the assumption that if you wrote it (and it was good) it would sell.

Sell to a New York publisher. Be stocked at bookstores. Be discovered by readers. Happily ever after, the end.

And it certainly seemed that way when my tween YA time travel novel, The Camelot Code, sold to Dutton/Penguin at auction in 2007. It was a sweet two-book deal and the editor was very excited about the project.

The gist was this: a teen King Arthur ends up in our world, Googles himself and finds out his true destiny, then decides he’d rather play football than pull the sword from the stone. And it’s up to our intrepid 21st century hero and heroine, Stu and Sophie, to fill in for the Once and Future King and get him back where he belongs, before history is changed forever.

All was going well, until, through a series of events, a change was made. The editor asked if I would do the second book in the contract first—as it seemed more “timely” – (and, of course, a time travel novel is supposedly timeless.) So I did—writing Gamer Girl (Dutton, 2008) instead. And when that was finished I went back to my precious Camelot Code, excited to finally finish it and get it out there at last.

But at that point, a year and a half after the original deal was made, the YA market had changed. Publishers had realized there were profits to be made on the so-called crossover audience (the adult readers) and YA started growing up—growing edgier and darker and deeper. And when my editor read my version of The Camelot Code, she realized she could not publish this book as it was and asked for a major revision.

Mari talks about reading, writing and presents her books to young readers.

To make matters worse, as I was revising, my editor moved houses. Then Dutton reorganized into a boutique publisher that put out only a few titles a year. Many of the current authors were sent to Dial to finish out their contracts.

Me and my ill-fitting book, however, were dumped.

“No problem!” I said at the time. “I’ll just sell it to someone else!”

Certainly a novel that sold at auction the first time would have some takers the second time around.

But I was wrong. No one wanted it. Everyone said, “It’s not quite middle grade, it’s not quite young adult. We don’t have a place for this book in our line.” This was a tween book—and there was no tween market out there anymore.

I refused to give up at first—scouring the internet for YA publishers I might not have heard of and forwarding them to my agent. To her credit, she was intrepid, sending out manuscript after manuscript, long after I’m sure she gave up on the book.

Mari and Avalon

But the rejections still came in. Each one a knife, twisting in my gut. The worst part, I think, was that I knew it was a good book. The problem was the market.

No one was buying light, funny, tween. They wanted the next Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008)). And I was not going to sell this book by sheer force of will.

I felt like a failure. I felt like I’d wasted years of my life. I lost faith in the publishing world, and I felt adrift in my career. If a book I felt so strongly about couldn’t sell, what made me think I could ever master this publishing thing?

Yes, in the meantime, I was selling other books to other publishers, but The Camelot Code remained a big Excalibur in my side.

Then one day my husband took me aside. He brushed away my tears and reminded me of all the good The Camelot Code had brought me. The original advance money had allowed me to move to New York City, a lifelong dream, and the place I met him. When the manuscript was rejected by my editor and I realized I wasn’t getting paid, I ended up moving in with him to save money, bringing us closer than ever.

And eventually, out of this cursed book, came the most precious blessing of all. My six-year-old daughter Avalon. Imagine—an entire human being—on this planet—all because of a publishing deal gone south. Of course I had to give her an Arthurian-inspired name, right?

Publishing can be a brutal industry. But roses can still grow in the cracks in the pavement. And it’s important for authors to look at the big picture. To remember that sometimes it’s just timing or trends or an editor having a bad day—not a reflection of the quality of your book.

Sometimes good books just don’t fit the mold or the timing is wrong. And we can’t let that break us or cause us to lose faith in our work and ourselves.

And while not every publishing story has a happy ending (and that’s okay!)—I’m pleased to say The Camelot Code finally did end up with a full-on Disney happily ever after—from Disney itself!

A full ten years after its original sale to Dutton, Disney Hyperion scooped up The Camelot Code and a sequel, with my new editor helping me revamp the book to perfectly fit a middle grade audience at last.

This book of my heart—the book that changed my life in so many ways—the one I could never walk away from—the one that led to my beautiful daughter’s birth—will now be on store shelves and stocked in libraries around the country starting in October.

I have an amazing editor and it feels as if all my writer dreams have finally come true.

I think back to all the tears shed, the sleepless nights, the endless revisions—and kind of wish I could time travel myself. To let past-me know that it will all pay off in the end. (And even if it hadn’t, the journey would still be worth it.)

When I do school visits, I always tell the kids, the only secret to publication (or anything else worth doing) is perseverance. And after this experience? I truly believe it.

Cynsational Notes

Mari cosplays “Princess Rey”

Mari Mancusi always wanted a dragon as a pet.

Unfortunately the fire insurance premiums proved a bit too large and her house a bit too small–so she chose to write about them instead.

Today she works as an award-winning young adult author and freelance television producer, for which she has won two Emmys.

When not writing about fanciful creatures of myth and legend, Mari enjoys traveling, cosplay, snowboarding, watching cheesy (and scary) horror movies, and her favorite guilty pleasure—playing videogames.

A graduate of Boston University, she lives in Austin, Texas with her husband Jacob, daughter Avalon, and their two dogs.

Survivors: Cinda Williams Chima on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Cinda Williams Chima.

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 (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?

Although I’ve been writing since third grade, I didn’t publish my first novel until I was over fifty years old. Since then, I’ve published a book a year.

On the upside, finding success later in life means there’s less time to be a has-been. On the downside, I work with the knowledge that I will never live long enough to write all of the books that are in me. That fiendish whisper keeps me in my chair day after day. Countering that is the voice that says, Never let go of a book until it is the best it can be. The culmination of limited time and high standards can be exhaustion. At least now I have the good fortune to be able to write full-time.

Writing series books is both a blessing and a curse. It allows the space in which to tell big, many-layered stories with an ensemble cast. Real life isn’t a straight-forward, linear business, and neither are some stories. Once a reader gets on board, they are with you for the journey.

On the other hand, readers engage with the characters in a series, and don’t want to let go of them at the end. Whenever I begin a new series, it causes trauma and drama, especially if I happen to, say, kill off a beloved character.

Publishers and readers are wary of the slightest change in genre, too. The Heir Series (Hyperion) is contemporary fantasy, set in Ohio. The Seven Realms (Hyperion) and Shattered Realms (HarperTeen) series are high fantasy, set in the Seven Realms and the pirate kingdom of Carthis.

Even though it’s still fantasy, my publisher is nervous, wondering if readers will follow.

Some readers are all, I just got comfortable in Ohio, and now I have to deal with a whole new world, thieves’ slang, names with apostrophes, and so on? 

I never thought I’d be saying, “I know it’s not Ohio, but give it a chance!”

So each new series takes a while to gain traction.

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

I would be a fabulously successful writer at a much younger age. Seriously, I can’t say I should have started writing sooner. Third grade seems soon enough, and I started daydreaming even earlier than that.

It’s just that it never really occurred to me that I could make a living as a writer. I had nothing to go on. In a lifetime of reading, I never met an author until I was an author.

 It wasn’t as if I frittered away the time between seven and fifty, either. I worked my way through college three different times, in fields unrelated to writing, if such a thing exists.

I worked in advertising sales and copy editing, as a dietitian, a department head, a college professor. I never stopped writing–feature articles, personal essays, scientific papers—but little to no fiction, which was my first love.

I married, and birthed two sons, and raised them to love books.

I like to believe that living life makes you a better writer. Maybe so, but if I had to do it over again, I would focus on fiction sooner, and I would take more chances. I would have ignored some advice, and listened to some that I ignored. The problem is, at the time, you can never tell which is which.

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?

For me, the most important positive change is the growing inclusion of diverse voices among creators and in story.

Rules are being broken, and boundaries falling when it comes to the kinds of stories that can be told.

When I began writing The Warrior Heir (Hyperion, 2006), I intended it for teens, but I kept stumbling over “rules” for YA lit that I was breaking.

Writing is hard enough, right?

I finally decided to write the story that was in me and see where it fit. My agent shopped it to both YA and adult publishers, and it sold to Hyperion as YA.

I absolutely love writing for the teen audience, but I was frustrated by the condescension shown about what teens can “handle” on the page. Many teens are unprotected and unsheltered in real life, so why shelter them on the page?

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

This: The most important thing you can do for your writing career is to write the very best book you can. The best social media campaign ever won’t make a bad book a bestseller.

If you have to choose, spend the time on the writing.

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

I’m hoping that the gatekeepers who keep needed books from the marketplace and out of the hands of the readers who need them find something else to do.

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

More time.

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.

Survivors: David Lubar on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Revising in a Nazareth, PA; learn more about David Lubar

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 (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?

Considering that I started trying to build a writing career when I was fresh out of college in 1976, sold my first short story in 1978, and didn’t sell a book until 1995, I think canyons and armed fortresses might be a more appropriate metaphor than bumps.

I guess “don’t give up” would be a pretty obvious lesson gleaned from that chronology.

One key to my success and longevity is that I married a woman who is far more tolerant of my quirks than I deserve, and was not afraid of the bumpy ride that comes with the freelance life.

(Craft note: I’ve written a dozen different versions of this sentence, and none sounds right. If this were for a book, I’d spend another half hour on it. But I’m trying to use my time more wisely, so I’m going to let it stand as is and essentially appear in public with food stains on my shirt.)

(Craft tip: If you can’t fix something, point it out.)

(Style tip: Avoid excessive parentheticals.)

She knows that when I’m staring out the window, I’m hard at work. As testimony to her awesomeness, if I show up at any meeting or conference without her, the first question I get is “Where’s Joelle?”

I’m tolerated. She’s loved.

As for aspects of my success that I can actually take credit for, I think the work ethic I was thrust into when I was programming video games, starting back in the 1980s, made a difference. A sixteen-hour day was fairly normal, as was a seven-day work week. (I don’t recommend this.)

So, working on a manuscript for eight hours feels like a half day. Though now that I’m settling into my sixties, I’m actually trying to work authentic half days once in a while. (Somebody has to sweep the neighborhood streets clear of Pokémon, for the sake of the children.)

I think my other advantage is that I love humor in almost all its forms, and this spills into my writing. I want to make people laugh. I want to delight my readers with wordplay, unexpected connections, and the prose equivalent of Rube Goldberg machines, where actions and events generate explosive endings.

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

I would have invested a lot of time finding the right agent. I would have toned down my leanings toward quirkiness and tried to reach a broader market. I think I could have done that without sacrificing my artistic integrity. Though artistic integrity can be one of those things you clutch out of habit, especially when you are young.

Maybe a purer answer was that I should have been less stubborn, at times, when dealing with editorial suggestions. Though I don’t regret the times when I walked away from a deal to preserve my vision for a book. (I think I just contradicted myself.)

Honestly, as much fun as it is to try to revise the past, I think if I did things differently, I would have just shifted to a new set of triumphs and tragedies.

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 top things that come to mind are eBooks, the consolidation of publishing houses, and the transition of YA from an age-market category to everybody’s hobby.

Honestly, there are times when I can talk (or write) at length about my thoughts on any topic. But right now, I don’t seem to have any insights or deep thoughts.

And, even more honestly, my insights about such things aren’t necessarily all that astute or interesting.

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

If I were talking to me, I’d probably say, “Don’t get too frantic about using social media for promotion. You suck at it. Seriously. Use it for fun, if you must, but if you really want to spread the word, hit the road, do school visits, wangle invitations to school media and reading conferences.”

And, to repeat advice Bruce Coville gave me more than 20 years ago when I asked about the best way to promote my book, “Write another book.”

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



As crucial as literacy is, and as much as reading shapes the citizens of tomorrow, I wish everyone would take a step back once in a while, draw a deep breath, and remind themselves that at the core of all of this there should be pleasure, joy, delight, amusement, and even a bit of humble realization that we are both wizards and fools.

David with fellow Tor author/Pokémon player Alan Gratz

We create things that have never been, but we do it in a universe a billion times larger than we can even imagine.

On balance with that, as minuscule as we are, when we make a moment, a day, or a school year better for a young reader, or give an educator a tool to reach a student who thinks she hates reading, we loom larger than we can ever know.

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

I’m really having a struggle coming up with the perfect words for my tombstone. I’m pretty sure that will outlast anything else I write, unless vandals do a bit of revision by means of sledge hammers. I’ve come close to finding what I want.

I had one killer epitaph that popped into my mind while I was doing something else. It was perfect. But I neglected to write it down, and it escaped. I think there’s still time to work on it, but this is one deadline that’s definitely written in stone.

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.

Survivors: Jane Kurtz on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Jane Kurtz.

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?

It feels to me as if my publishing journey has been nothing but bumpy—and of course all the bumps and bangs and bruises have stabbed my writer’s heart over and over.

I started publishing at a time when smaller publishers were getting gobbled up by bigger publishers and editors were losing their jobs in consolidations. I long to have been part of a world where a long-time editor would work with and nurture a writer’s career.

One of my mantras has been Respect the Mountain. I’ve been nimble, kept my eyes open for opportunity, learned from other people around me, and cultivated my team.

What does that look like specifically?

One example: I broke into the New York publishing scene with retold folktale picture books connecting to my childhood in Ethiopia. When that door closed, I published some contemporary picture books connecting with Ethiopia.

When editors began to say to me, “We can’t seem to get any picture books set in Africa to sell,” I published picture books set in the U.S. but still connecting with Africa.

I also found ways to weave my Africa connections into other genres, editing a short story collection (Memories of Sun (Greenwillow, 2003)) with other people’s stories (including a mix of well-known and brand new authors) and publishing middle grade/YA novels like The Storyteller’s Beads (Gulliver, 1998), Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (American Girl, 2003) and recently Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017).

I began to volunteer my time to work with artistic volunteers (many of them kids) to create local language books for Ethiopia. Having a “multicultural” story at the heart of my real life went from being an asset to a liability in terms of publishing possibilities.

It didn’t matter. I’m stubborn. I stayed determined, even though parts of that journey hurt like crazy.

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

I would love to have caught on earlier that readers would actually be interested in and not scornful about my childhood in Ethiopia—because it would be great to have caught the folktale wave when it was hot (in the 1980s) and not at the tail end.

The big reason I missed the wave is that I was living in a small town in southern Colorado and checking books out of the library, not knowing how to look at what was on the cutting edge.

I tell people, when it comes to picture books especially, read what’s being published now.

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?

I think picture books have changed the most (for me) over my lifetime of publishing.

As I entered the field, picture books were getting longer and more sophisticated, being used more widely with readers older than the (then) conventional four-to-eight-year-old reader. Now they are short, snappy, really text-and-illustration interactive, and geared (for the most part) to three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

I’m determined not to whine about the changes even though I miss getting to use all those lovely words.

Nonfiction is soaring in picture books, which opens cool worlds. Also, I was always the funny kid in my family, and I’m getting to use my humor more.

Who would think that someone who started out by publishing Fire on the Mountain (E.B. Lewis’s first foray into picture book illustration—a lovely and elegant picture book)(Simon & Schuster, 1994) would now be getting ready to publish What Do They Do with All That Poo? illustrated by Allison Black (Beach Lane, 2018).


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

Don’t waste any time and longing thinking things are going to get any easier. You think that if you had published many books, your life would be easier. Probably not.

Celebrate your successes and cultivate a sense of “enough” and “arrived.” Keep reading. You’ll gather new craft skills throughout your whole life to keep going and growing as a writer.

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

Cate Berry, Jane and Margaret Mayo McGlynn singing at VCFA.

This has always been a generous and supportive and fun-loving community.

I wouldn’t have survived without my writers’ retreats and my author friends and the Vermont College of Fine Arts community—a smart, hardworking collection of writers serious about the craft of children’s and YA literature.

I want us to resist the inevitable fears of scarcity and look for ways to network and build each other up.

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

I’ve gotten to the stage where I no longer think about my literary legacy. I still want my books to do well in the world and find their readers. But I mostly want to have a creative life every day.

I want to keep writing and keep learning…oh…and getting to that stage where I feel “enough” and “arrived” would be beautiful.

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.