Begin with Knowing

A successful writing career begins with knowing.

I’m not talking about knowing the market–What’s in? What’s out? What are the taboos? Where are the holes I might fill?—though knowing the market is certainly useful.

What I’m talking about and what is far more important for a successful writing career is knowing ourselves.

Not knowing in negative western psychological terms, the kind that concentrate on naming dysfunction:  “I’m a narcissist with a touch of megalomania.”  We need access to our own deepest energy.  We need an understanding of its origins.  Because that’s where our strongest stories lie, that place where our longing lives, our struggles, our unrequited loves, our grief.

That’s the place our fiction come from, of course.  We all know that.  But it’s where our best nonfiction lies, too.  The topics we can explore most successfully will be the ones that touch into our own energy.  They are the information we seek for our own understanding, the facts we gather and retell to sooth our souls.

This is true not only with the complex stories we gather for adults and for older children.  It is true even for the topics we choose for the very young.  For my first non-fiction books for young readers I proposed a series on weather.  Wind, Clouds, Snow, Rain. clouds

I didn’t come up with the topic because I had done my research and discovered that I could find many books on weather for older children but none for the very young.  I did do that research and found that to be the case, and I used that information when I proposed the series to the publisher.  That wasn’t, however, my reason for coming to the topic.  I stumbled upon the idea of writing a series about weather simply because I, a true Midwesterner, live in constantly changing weather.  And I love every manifestation of that change.  Seventy-five degrees and sunny day after day after day doesn’t represent the Good Life for me.

My Good Life is waking in the night to a thunder storm, watching fog wisp from the autumn valleys, stepping into the pristine silence of the first snow fall.  So when I turned to researching clouds and wind, snow and rain I was immediately enchanted.  The learning was fun.  The writing was fun.  And the small books that emerged captured a bit of my soul..

The results of my passion for weather turned into a series that has proven to have legs.  The first books came out in 2003, and they have done well enough that the publisher recently reissued them with redesigned covers.  And then asked for two more titles, Rainbow and Sun.

That’s the way passion works.  If I love my topic, truly love it, my chances of making my readers care about what I have written rise exponentially.

Of course, my love of a topic doesn’t guarantee that the manuscripts I create will sell, either to a publisher or to the public once they reach the marketplace.  But if I love what I’m learning, what I’m relaying, editors and readers are much more apt to love it, too.

Because love shows.

Credit: psymily |

Credit: psymily |


Credit: DarrenHester |

Credit: DarrenHester |

A person will worship something–have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts–but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.

                                                                                                            Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Hand to Hold


Credit: Carlson |

Credit: Carlson |

Two weeks ago I talked about why I decided so late in my career to begin working with a literary agent.  I went to an agent seeking someone who had knowledge about and access to a wider range of editors than I had yet been exposed to.  And once we were underway I discovered, too, how beneficial it was to have the oversight of someone who cared, not just about this individual book, but about my career.  Someone insightful enough to be a sounding board for decisions about where to direct my energy for my next project.  Honest enough to say, “Let’s not show this one around.”  Knowledgeable enough to be able to sort the occasional blips that come up with contracts, old and new.

I resisted working with an agent for most of my career, but the world of publishing has changed in forty years.  “To agent or not to agent” isn’t much of a point of discussion any longer, because today’s publishers rarely read unagented manuscripts.

So the question becomes more one of figuring out which agent is right for you.

Here are my, admittedly idiosyncratic, criteria:

Above all else, will this agent communicate with youWhen you ask a reasonable question will you get an answer in a reasonable time?  I can’t count the number of friends I’ve encouraged to separate from their agents because those agents went silent for long periods, even when important matters were at stake.  How do you know about responsiveness before you commit yourself?  Simple.  Ask someone who works with the agent you are considering.  If possible, ask someone who isn’t a big cheese, someone on a level similar to yours.

Is this agent functioning more as an early editor than as a purveyor of your work?  I don’t mean she should be without judgment.  Judgment is part of what you pay for.  But if she is climbing in with all four feet and really editing, then either you are sending work too early or she is in the wrong vocation.  A deep rewrite to please your agent may not please your editor.

Do editors know and respect this agent?  Does he know—truly know—the editors?  Is he courteous and respectful in all his negotiations?  Does he ask for more than is reasonable?  (Don’t fall into the trap of assuming more is always better.  I have seen promising authors’ careers sidetracked by starting off with a too-big advance that didn’t earn out.)

Does she belong to the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.?  To belong to the AAR an agent must meet certain criteria, proof of a minimal level of experience in the industry, for instance.  Members of the AAR also cannot charge reading fees, which is crucial.  A literary agent charging reading fees is earning a living from reading fees, not from selling your books.

Remember, anyone, anywhere can decide to call himself a literary agent.  Before going with any agent, check credentials and find out who his clients are and talk to some of them.  Ask those clients what their agent really does for them.  Then listen carefully. Writers’ conferences are excellent places to find out about other writers’ agents. When I was ready to begin my search, that’s where I went to gather information.

All these standards are important, but there is something I haven’t mentioned that is equally important to a career that thrives on self-confidence or falters on the lack of it.

When I was researching the question of an agent for myself, I spoke to another established writer about his agent of many years.  “What does she do for you?” I asked.  He gave me an enthusiastic list of what I considered to be hand-holding activities.  And I was not convinced.  I went away saying to myself, “I have friends who will do all that for me.  And I don’t have to share my royalties with them.”

In my relatively short years of working with my agent, however, I have learned to value the status he has among editors and publishers, his responsiveness, his business acumen, his literary sensibility. All things I knew I was looking for when I sought him out.

But what I didn’t know I was looking for and what I have also found is someone who accompanies me on this sometimes tangled journey through publishing.  When my confidence falters, and it does from time to time despite forty years, despite one hundred books, my friends might want to help, but the truth is they don’t know how.

Having my agent’s very special hand to hold keeps me moving forward.

One of the Great Surprises

Credit: can131 |

Credit: can131 |

One of the great surprises is that humans come to full consciousness precisely by their own contradictions, and making friends with their own mistakes and failings.  People who had had no inner struggles are invariably both superficial and uninteresting.

Fr. Richard Rohr


Credit: 5demayo |

Credit: 5demayo |

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame

-W.H. Auden