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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?
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.
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.
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.